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Burgundy Update: Tiny 2012 Yields Presage a Pricey Future
By Michael Apstein
Oct 16, 2012
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“The most expensive vintage ever,” was how Louis-Fabrice Latour, President of the prestigious Beaune-based négociant, Maison Louis Latour, and current head of the association of Burgundy négociants, described the 2012 vintage in Burgundy.  “Yields are down by 60% in many areas and we [négociants] are paying growers up to 30% more,” he explained.

Where’s the Wine?

Alex Gambal, the head of the eponymous small, quality-focused négociant, was shaking his head in amazement as he explained that some of his growers could supply him with only one-third of what they had delivered in 2011.  “There’s just no wine.”  And to make matters worse for Gambal, a large négociant inadvertently (or perhaps not…given the scramble for grapes) harvested 800 kilos of grapes intended for him.  Gambal, clearly angry and frustrated since the grapes were already in someone else’s winery, exclaimed, “Something like that has never happened in my 19 years in Beaune.”

Your eyes widen in amazement as you tour cellars.  Typically overflowing with barrels and tanks filled with fermenting wine at this time of the year, the cellars are half empty.  At Maison Louis Jadot, another one of Burgundy’s top producers, Frédéric Barnier, the chief winemaker taking the reins from legendary Jacques Lardière at the end of this vintage, showed me a map of their vats--compared with 2010 and 2011, half were empty despite the harvest being in full swing.

Mother Nature was Angry

Sounding like the proverbial Biblical plagues, the weather during the growing season created a “perfect storm” that explained the astonishingly low yields.  To start, a cold wet spring caused widespread millerandage, (a.k.a. “chickens and hens”) which results in a mix of large and small berries, many of which do not ripen, reducing the yield.  Three hailstorms during the summer defoliated the vines and injured what grapes were ripening.  Those grapes that were unscathed, now not shaded by leaves, burned when the temperature spiked abruptly the end of July.  The heat spike also forced vines to “shut down” temporarily.  As though nature had not wrought enough, a torrential downpour on September 26 dumped up to 3 inches of water onto the vineyards.  Gambal remarked somewhat philosophically, “Weather like this year reminds us that winemaking is still an agricultural endeavor.”

Fortunately, brilliantly sunny days followed the rain and everyone to whom I spoke remarked at the excellent condition of the grapes that came in.  “It was an easy harvest,” referring to the quality, not quantity, of the grapes, according to Denis Fetzmann, the chief winemaker at Maison Latour responsible for the Domaine Latour wines.  “Very few people were needed at the sorting table,” the place where diseased or rotten grapes are removed before fermentation, according to both Fetzmann and Gambal.

Low Yields

“The low yields saved the harvest,” according to Latour.  “If we had normal yields, it would have been a disaster.”  He believes that low yields increase the complexity of the wines.  “It’s the smallest harvest in almost 40 years, since 1978.”  Which, by the way, was a fabulous year for red Burgundy.

Olivier Leflaive, head of Maison Olivier Leflaive, a high quality négociant specializing in white wines and based in Puligny-Montrachet, said he would probably raise his prices a bit on the 2011s to keep price increases on the 2012s more manageable.  

Both Leflaive and Gambal agreed that this vintage, the third short one in a row, could present problems for some small, undercapitalized, producers.  Poor cash flow, always a problem in Burgundy where wine is held in the cellars for two years before being sold, could put small domains under.  “Those with little or no stock to use as collateral for a bridge loan may be forced to sell or lease (the typical lease runs 18 years) their vineyards,” explained Gambal.

What does this mean for consumers?  The low yields in 2012 are the basis for optimism among producers that some excellent red wines could be made. Indeed, Lardière, who has 42 years of wine making experience under his belt, thinks Jadot’s reds could be great.

The whites, which are usually easier to make than the reds, proved to be more difficult in 2012, according to both Latour and Lardière.  But Frédéric Drouhin, from the eponymous firm that has large holdings in Chablis, believes Chablis will make great wine, albeit not much of it, in 2012.  While it’s too early to know whether their optimism is justified, one thing is certain:  The wines will be expensive.

Current Buying Strategy

Burgundy lovers should jump on the remaining 2008s, 2009s, as well as the just arriving 2010s, which is a superb vintage for both reds and whites. 

But this being Burgundy, generalizations about vintages are filled with exceptions, so either taste before you buy or buy from those producers you trust. 

That said, in general, the 2010 reds are classically proportioned with firm, but not hard, tannins and should evolve beautifully.  With more minerality than fruit, the wines show great definition.  That is to say, Beaune tastes like Beaune and Volnay like Volnay.  The 2010 whites are equally attractive because of their vivacity and verve.

The 2009 reds, rapidly disappearing because of their exceptional quality, are still not extinct at the retail level.  They are voluptuously ripe without being overdone.  Any concern that they lacked sufficient structure to age has evaporated because they have firmed up since being in the bottle.  I still believe you can’t have too many 2009 red Burgundies in your cellar.  The ones from the less prestigious appellations, such as Bourgogne Rouge, Côte de Beaune-Villages, or Hautes Côtes de Nuits, offer particularly good value.  The 2009 white Burgundies are rich and ripe, emphasizing fruit more than minerality and are super for drinking right now. 

The 2008 reds are still languishing on many retailers’ shelves.  They were written off prematurely because of an austere character and high acidity.  However, just as the 2009 reds have taken on structure, many 2008 reds have taken on flesh since bottling and are developing into attractive wines with long term potential for development.  The 2008 whites are simply stunning, with riveting acidity amplifying their flavors.

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Questions or comments?  Email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com