When it comes to Burgundy, there are no easy answers about what makes a fine vintage. For example, try comparing the two most recently bottled vintages: the 2009 reflects a warm, sunny growing season; the 2008 is a product of cooler, wetter and cloudier weather. It would seem that 2009 is clearly the better year for reds, but some experts insist that 2008 has more “purity”. There is almost no controversy over the whites: 2008 seems by far the better vintage.

In the cavernous setting of Caves Madeleine, a restaurant and wine shop in Beaune, guests can savor tasty and affordable bistrot fare while enjoying fairly priced wines from all over the world, not just France. A top quality German Riesling? You can find it there. But of course the focus is Burgundy—the superb selection varies from expensive grand crus to more affordable Chablis and basic red Burgundy appellations.

Laurent Brelin, owner and sommelier, communicates his passion for wine, explaining wine and food pairings while succinctly describing how weather influences the character of particular vintages. During a dinner with several wine specialists at Caves Madeleine in June, we discussed why opinions can vary to such a large extent when it comes to Burgundy.

Brelin and some others in Burgundy believe that the cooler 2008 growing season suited the sensitive pinot noir grape better than the warmer and sunnier 2009. “The 2008 vintage communicates greater precision, more minerality,” says Brelin. Did very sunny weather in 2009 somewhat efface the subtle aromatics of the pinot noir? During my two recent visits to Burgundy, several vintners argued just that.

Frédéric Mugnier, of the renowned Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier in Chambolle-Musigny, claims that global warming in the last few years has assured enough ripening, and that the important question to ask is not whether grapes ripen, but how fast. For Mugnier, in 2008 the grapes matured more slowly, retaining greater freshness and aromatic complexity—“cool-climate pinot noir purity”. The 2009 wines, he says, are easier to understand, more obvious.

Tasting at Mugnier’s domain in June this year with Jürgen Steinke, a connoisseur who takes part in blind tastings with the Grand Jury Européen, I did prefer 2008 to 2009—in some specific cases. Take the Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Bonnes Mares Grand Cru 2008, an expensive wine, for example. It certainly seemed more balanced and less overly rich than some high-end 2009 wines tasted elsewhere, which seemed just a bit too ripe for their own good, lacking some nuance and freshness.

But before starting to think that all 2008 red Burgundies are better than 2009s, there are other factors to consider.

It’s often noted that grand cru terroirs tend to be the best placed and the most precocious, where grapes ripen more readily. With global warming boosting the ripening process across the board, grand cru vineyards may now run the risk of overkill in warmer, sunnier years like 2009. Conversely, some lesser vineyards with colder soils and less exposure to sun fared quite well in 2009, as I discovered. Some of the most basic 2009 Burgundy was downright friendly.

Overall, in fact, both Steinke and I were more impressed with the 2009 reds than with the 2008s, and we are not alone. Professional critics are also giving high ratings to 2009 red Burgundies, with reason. Many 2008 reds encountered in recent tastings had far too much acidity, especially those in the low- to mid-level price range. With aging, can the fruit outlast the acidity? The answer is far from clear. Many a wine lover has been stung buying high-acid vintages, wishfully thinking they would “come around”, and they never did.

Negative critics of 2009 wines sometimes compare the vintage with 2003, a torrid year that resulted in overly heavy wines. But 2009 was not extremely hot, just warm and sunny. And while the 2009 wines do not match the structure of the exceptional 2005 vintage, they can have sumptuous charm. Perhaps the 2009 is not as “intellectual” as the 2008, but it’s certainly far more immediately pleasing—and a pleasure that is not “Californian” in style either.

Many vintners also praise 2009. Jacques Lardière, winemaking director at Louis Jadot for almost 40 years, recalls tasting youthful versions of the great 1959 vintage, and says that 2009 echoes it, particularly in the Gevrey-Chambertin region. Philippe Prost, director at Bouchard Père & Fils, praised the “great state of health” of the grapes in 2009, and his own lineup was very impressive, from lovely, inexpensive Savigny-lès-Beaune and Monthelie to a top-notch Clos Vougeot.

At Domaine Taupenot-Merme in Morey-Saint-Denis and at Domaine Georges Mugneret-Gibourg in Vosne-Romanée, the 2009 reds I tasted ranged from very good to fabulous. I was able to buy just two bottles of Mugneret-Gibourg Echezeaux Grand Cru, because they did not have any more. But their basic Burgundy for €15 is utterly delicious.

Could it be that a need to sell 2008 reds is driving some pro-2008 rhetoric? Why can it be so hard to find red 2009s at reputable producers, while 2008s are more available? Recently I tried to buy Domaine François Lamarche Echezeaux 2009, a wine I tasted last December. The domain’s short reply: “All of that is reserved, but we have some 2008 if you like.”

As Burgundy fans engage in pitched debates comparing 2009 and 2008 reds, far less controversy exists about the whites. Too many white 2009s came across as somewhat jammy and thick. And even when they are more readily agreeable, they are not long-distance runners. The 2008s are just the opposite, very focused and streamlined, with freshness on the palate—sometimes even a bit too steely, because the acidity is so high.

Recommended from Recent Tastings

RED

EXPENSIVE:

Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru 2009

Louis Jadot Clos Saint-Jacques Gevrey-Chambertin 2009

Bouchard Père & Fils Clos Vougeot 2009

François Lamarche Echezeaux 2009

Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny Les Fuées 2009

Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 2009

Mugneret-Gibourg Vosne-Romanée 2009

Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Cras 2008

Louis Jadot Echezeaux 2009 Mugneret-Gibourg Echezeaux 2009

MEDIUM-PRICED:

Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Clos de la Maréchale 2009

Taupenot-Merme Morey-Saint-Denis 2009

Taupenot-Merme Chambolle-Musigny Villages 2009

Bouchard Père & Fils and Louis Jadot Pommard Les Rugiens 2009

BARGAINS:

Simon Bize Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Grands Liards 2009

Bouchard Père & Fils Monthelie 2009

Mugneret-Gibourg Bourgogne 2009

 

WHITE

EXPENSIVE:

Bouchard Père & Fils Chevalier-Montrachet 2008

Bouchard Père & Fils Corton-Charlemagne 2008

Paul Pernot Batard-Montrachet 2008

Jacques Prieur Chevalier-Montrachet 2009

MEDIUM-PRICED:

Simon Bize Savigny-lès-Beaune Aux Vergelesses 1er Cru 2008

Paul Pernot Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles 2009

BARGAINS:

Bouchard Père & Fils Meursault Les Clous 2008

Taupenot-Merme Saint-Romain 2009

Pierre Boisson Meursault Les Grands Charrons 2008

Jacques Prieur Beaune Champs-Pimont Blanc 1er cru 2009

 

Panos Kakaviatos writes regularly on wine. www.connectionstowine.com

For more about French wine & spirits: www. francetoday.com/life_and_style/wine_and_ spirits/

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of France Today

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