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2015 Burgundies: Superb for Both Colors...Don't Miss Them
By Michael Apstein
Mar 28, 2017
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After having tasted literally hundreds of barrel samples from négociants and small growers while on my annual pilgrimage to Burgundy in November, followed by a series of important importers’ tastings New York City earlier this year, (again, mostly barrel samples), it’s clear to me that the 2015 Burgundies are stunning. 

With her typical understatement and wry smile, Véronique Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, summed it up, “There’s no question it is a good vintage.”  I would go further--2015 is a great vintage for both the iconic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based wines. This is, moreover, the case in all of the subregions of Burgundy:  Chablis, Côte d’Or, Mâconnais, and Côte Chalonnaise--and is equally great for the Gamay grape, the staple of the Beaujolais region. The only downside is, as is frequently the case with Burgundy, the limited amount of wine and the prices.

Today, I will focus only on the 2015 reds, while saving my thoughts about the whites for a future column.

Though it’s trendy today to write only about small growers’ wines, I think it is critically important to taste the wines from the major négociants. Indeed, the table of the major négociants is the best place to begin tasting the wines of the new vintage.  This enables one to gain a sense of the vintage as a whole, with examples of reds and whites drawn from throughout Burgundy, giving broad overview, not merely the viewpoint of a grower whose plots might lie in only one or two villages.  It should also be pointed out that all the major négociants, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot and Maison Louis Latour, own substantial vineyards and are thus growers themselves.  Latour, for example, is the largest owner of Grand Cru vineyards in all of Burgundy, including the plums of Corton and Corton-Charlemagne. Additionally, and this is especially important for the 2015s, négociant wines are more widely available (which also helps explain why they are less trendy, especially among the sommelier crowd.)

Consumers could reasonably ask why I am assessing wines in barrel since I have a longstanding policy (set out in a column linked to below) of not reviewing individual barrel samples, which won’t even be bottled for months and will not be in the market for another year, when there are excellent wines from 2014--especially the stunning whites--that are already on retailers’ shelves?  It’s simple:  Shrinking supply and increasing demand means the time is right to buy “futures” to get the wines you want at a more reasonable price.

Yields in 2015 were low, making it the fifth consecutive short crop.  Demand for Burgundy continues to grow--the wines remain tremendously popular in the U.S. while being embraced more and more by consumers in Asia.  Producers and fellow writers to whom I spoke in Burgundy were effusive in their praise for the vintage.  (Granted, producers always love the vintage they have to sell, but the widespread enthusiasm and broad smiles regarding the 2015s was especially striking.)

With futures, the customer pays for the wine before having the opportunity to taste the finished product.  The risk is obvious--maybe you won’t like it--or worse, the retailer from whom you purchased the wines, fails to deliver what you’ve paid for upfront and disappears with the dough.  To minimize the risks, you should only purchase from producers whose wines you’ve liked in the past and only from reputable merchants with whom you’ve done business.  Ignore the hype from unknown retailers promoting their “newly discovered” grower.  Do trust retailers like Ian Halbert from Gordon’s in Boston, Joe Kluchinsky or Mark Wessels from MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., and David Netzer from The Wine House San Francisco, whose advice will rarely lead you astray.

Listen to recommendations from writers or retailers you trust, but remember:  No one has tasted the finished wines because, with rare exceptions, they have not yet been bottled.  Although all the great Burgundies are made from the one grape--Pinot Noir or Chardonnay--each barrel of wine, even from the same vineyard, is different for multiple reasons:  The age of the barrel differs (new oak or one-year old barrel); the juice in each barrel is different because of the variation even within a vineyard, and the evolution of the wine barrel to barrel is not uniform. Tasting the “same wine” from different barrels in a producer’s cellar shows the extraordinary range of flavors and textures and explains why producers blend the wine from all the barrels before bottling.  Tasting in Méo-Camuzet’s cellar, Jean Nicholas Méo emphasized that although we were tasting “representative” barrel samples, the final blend had not been made and the wines “by no means were ready.” 

The 2015 Burgundies are so alluring because the weather during the growing season was itself perfect:  Warm, sometimes hot, with rain only when it was needed, a little at the beginning of August and then again at the end of the month, according to Drouhin.  Critically, the harvest took place under ideal weather conditions--no rain to spoil the grapes. 

Anne Parent, one of the leading producers in Pommard, described the 2015 vintage as having “great energy,” and her wines confirmed that assessment.  She was amazed at the pristine condition of the grapes at harvest, discarding less than one percent of them at the sorting table.  The fruit was in such perfect condition that Parent opted, for the first time, to include a small percentage of stems (whole clusters) during fermentation, noting that the stems “add some interesting structure so that it is worth including them if you can be assured they are ripe.”  Echoing Parent, Frederick Weber, the winemaker at Bouchard Père et Fils, noted that, “There were healthy grapes; like 2005…nothing to sort.”  He described the tannins as silky and delicate, and was quick to add that at Bouchard they were careful not to over-extract during winemaking.

The only potential downside is that since the weather at harvest was perfect, some growers waited, and waited, and waited to harvest, coaxing every last bit of ripeness out of the fruit.  Hence, some wound up with over-ripe grapes that translated into slightly jammy wines.  Pierre Bart, from the eponymous domaine in Marsannay, suggested that there will likely be two types of wines produced in 2015:  The ones whose grapes were picked at the right time, and others in which growers waited too long. The key, according to Megan McClune the newly installed managing director at Maison Jessiaume, was to pick a little early, forgoing the last bit of ripeness, but capturing the all important acidity to keep the wines lively and fresh. 

The team at Maison Louis Jadot, led by Frédéric Barnier, did just that. The proof is in the pudding too:  Jadot’s line-up of 2015 reds is magnificent, lively and fresh.  Tasting the same wine from different barrels in Jadot’s cellars reminded me of why it’s difficult to recommend a particular wine based on tasting from a single barrel.  But tasting barrel samples can indicate overall quality and style and whether particular villages or areas stood out.  Well, Jadot excelled in 2015, but it’s hard to claim that one village did better than another because their overall line-up of wines was stunning.  My advice:  Buy what you can afford.  Don’t overlook their wines from less hallowed terroirs, such as Maranges, Pernand-Vergelesses or Monthélie.

Louis Fabrice Latour, the head of Maison Louis Latour, commented--only half-jokingly--“2015 was the greatest vintage of my life.”  Indeed, Latour’s array of reds (all of which had been bottled) that I tasted in New York earlier this month supported his opinion.  The warm vintage complemented Latour’s racy, elegant style.  With not an over-ripe flavor to be found, the wines reflected their village and vineyard origins perfectly.  Beaune tasted like Beaune, while Vosne-Romanée tasted like Vosne-Romanée.  Latour’s village Vosne-Romanée was positively stunning (93, $87), more beguiling than most producers’ premier crus.  Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches, from their own parcel, which they’ve owned for over 100 years, was captivating, showing the splendor of premier cru from that village (95, $82).  Corton Grancey (97, $165), their flagship wine, with unbelievable length, elegance and complexity, was spellbinding.

At Maison Drouhin, Véronique’s broad smile revealed her real opinion of the vintage while we tasted.  She explained that they opted to harvest early, the beginning of September, to capture acidity and delicacy.  That decision paid off big time--Drouhin’s reds are lacey and elegant.

Though Drouhin’s reds, like many of the other 2015 reds are, by and large, charming and deceptively easy to taste now, the best ones, at the premier and grand cru level, have the requisite structure and balance to develop the alluring flavors for which Burgundy is known over the next decade or two.  I would plan on cellaring them for at least a decade and then revisit them to see how they are developing.  But even many of the reds with a “lesser” pedigree, such as Bourgogne Rouge or those from less well known villages, such as Marsannay or Monthélie, will benefit from a few years of bottle age--if you can keep your corkscrew away from them.

My advice to those with some experience with Burgundy is to rely on producers whose wines you’ve liked in the past--and then check with your banker.  But don’t let prices put you off from the 2015 Burgundies.  There are plenty of great Burgundies at more affordable prices.  If Bouchard’s top wines do not fit your financial profile, consider their less prestigious wines that still pack enormous enjoyment, such as their Monthélie or their Beaune du Château Premier Cru, which comes from 17 parcels they own in different premier cru parcels that are too small to vinify and commercialize individually.

Similarly, if $80+ for Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches is above your budget, try their Santenay (90, $32) or Mercurey (89, $27), wines from unheralded villages that offer great enjoyment.  In the same vein, if Parent’s show-stopping Pommard or Corton is out of your price range, opt for her wines from less prestigious appellations, such as her Ladoix or Bourgogne Rouge “Selection Pomone.”  She makes Selection Pomone, which includes grapes from vines located in Ladoix but that are, by law, too young for inclusion in wines from that appellation, only in top vintages. 

Alternatively, find wines from a producer, such as Domaine Jessiaume, whose quality has been transformed recently, but whose prices have yet to reflect it.

For newcomers to Burgundy, the 2015 vintage offers a fantastic opportunity to learn about the region’s allure. Pick one of the major négociants and start sampling a range of their wines, starting with the Bourgogne Rouge and working your way up the prestige ladder to a regional wine, such as Côte de Beaune Villages, and then to village wines, such as Santenay or Savigny-lès-Beaune. By sampling wines from the same producer, you’ll understand the Burgundians’ focus on terroir since the winemaking is basically the same and drink some delightful wines in the process.

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March 29, 2017

Email me your thoughts about Burgundy at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

To read a column indicating my reservations about rating wines based on barrel tastings, please see:
 http://winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_Against_Barrel_Tastings.cfm