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Observations on Burgundy’s 2018 vintage

In some ways the monks have never left Burgundy. They no longer wear robes or cloaks, but jeans and gillet vert. On summer mornings you see them in the vines amongst the locals and the workers who come from afar, observing and guiding. During the harvest they gather foreign interns like sheep in a flock, bringing them into their wine chapels where they hunch in ritual rows to sort the good from the bad. The flock’s reward is a hot meal, some wine, a convivial mood and a dry bed. Each year a new church is erected with grapes and wine and the workers feel blessed for merely having been able to make a contribution. And as the vines return to winter the others come – they arrive to hear the word of god direct from the priests.

The sermons are delivered underground, in dark cellars with soft lighting. Knowledge falls from their lips in a flow of whispers. Much of it is familiar and it brings the preacher closer to the listener. Always there are new observations, ideas and insights courtesy of the growing season, the climate, the harvest. Knowledge that can be taken away and shared again elsewhere. There is almost nothing they can’t answer and when they don’t there is a calm shrug, as if all will be revealed when the time is right. They are never too excited about great vintages, and never too despondent about poor ones. We love them because we sense their ikigai, and longingly hope that it will be shared like the precious wines they pour from barrel, so that we may take a small piece of it back home.

I’m not a religious man but I could be in Burgundy. There I am humbled by their mastery, the nuance and the incredible complexity and detail. Each time I return I listen harder, remember a little more and learn a little new. Recently I was there to taste the 2018s and the monks had a lot to say. The year was sunny, warm and dry and hotter than 2003 but there the comparison ends – 2003 was defined by extreme heat in July and August resulting in unevenly ripened grapes. The long, consistently warm growing season in 2018 has resulted in better balanced wines but with almost no malic acid in the whites and an abundance of ripe, sweet tannins in the reds. Of recent vintages 2009 is perhaps the best comparison.

Yields on the whites were prodigious in places and this may in fact have saved the crop from ripening in the peak of summer. At their worst the whites are juicy, a fraction under-ripe and dilute, at their surprising best are laden with flavours of stone-fruit and dried flowers and a long deliciously tannic structure. Absent is the creamy texture of malolactic fermentation. The lack of acidity instead reveals a richness of extract that transparently reflects the site and the soil. Overall the whites are pleasant, textural and certainly different. I’d be looking at the cooler villages for drinking - St Romain, St Aubin and Pernand-Vergelesses and some of the more eclectic whites in the villages of the Côte de Nuit.

It will be fascinating to see how the reds will be received in different international markets. As a solar vintage the reds are certainly ripe – plenty will be over 14% and some easily up to 15% alcohol even if the final label will tell a different tale. Instinctively I think they’ll be loved in North America but not necessarily by purists. Growers are finally blessed with volume and the US feels like a natural market to target (amazingly the new tariffs on French wine in the US is for wines UNDER 14.1% abv), while Hong Kong is surely rattled. The use of whole bunch is more popular, presenting a double pH challenge as whole bunches and riper grapes both propel pH higher. The most surprising feature of the reds is how at higher quality levels the clarity of village, site and terroir has come through so strongly in 2018 – something we take as axiomatic in cool vintages but accepted wisdom dismisses in warm ones. Pommard demonstrates fabulous tannin, Chambolle is perfectly perfumed, Nuits-St-Georges is delightfully stern and mineral while Vosne-Romaneé appears to be majestically reclining on its throne. As usual.

I always leave Burgundy feeling inspired if not by religion then by wisdom. One of the wisest men once said, ‘Hobbits really are amazing – you can know all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you’. Gandalf may not have been speaking of Burgundy but he could have been. Perhaps next year I’ll pack my robes and imagine Burgundy as a village in Lord of the Rings.