The 2008 Burgundies are like the athletic sister of the prom queen.
All over France, wineries are hailing 2009 as a great vintage, and the drums are pounding for '09 Burgundy as well.
And no wonder, with months of warm, dry weather across the country last year. Bordeaux vintners are calling 2009 the vintage of the decade, possibly one of the all-time classics, and that has an impact even in Pinot/Chardonnay land.
"We're all waiting to see the '09 Bordeaux prices, and it will certainly have an impact on how we sell '09s," Louis Fabrice Latour said in March.
In comparison, 2008 was considered a challenging vintage, plagued by hail in winter and cold, rainy weather the first two weeks of September, before God came to Burgundy’s rescue with a warm, sunny end of September.
I chose the athletic analogy for a reason: '08 Burgundies are lean, compared to the voluptuous '09s. But with Burgundy – especially white Burgundy – is that a bad thing?
Most, but not all, red winemakers in Burgundy prefer the '09s. But I just tasted hundreds of 2008 Burgundies in March at the every-other-year Les Grands Jours event, and I want to tell you a few things about '08 white Burgundies:
1) They're rippling with acidity that makes them fresh-tasting short-term, and gives them great aging potential.
2) They're going to suffer in the marketplace because the reputation of a vintage is established by the red wines, and '08 Burgundy reds aren't as accessible.
3) Moreover, collectors are going to skip over '08 Burgundies, both red and white, in pursuit of the '09s, which should keep '08 prices reasonable.
"I think (2008) is a great vintage," says Lorraine Senard-Pereira, winemaker for Domaine Comte Senard. "The problem is, it's like 2004 and 2005. A lot of people think about the 2005, so 2004 is completely ignored. A lot of my customers say to me, 'I'll wait for the 2009s.' I tell them they should try the 2008s, but they tell me they want to wait."
The Comte Senard Corton Grand Cru Monopole blanc 2008 was one of my favorite wines, and typical of what you can expect from this vintage. The aroma is all earth and minerality, but on the palate there's strong, vibrant lime fruit with plenty of that stony quality that makes white Burgundy so beguiling, and some earthiness on the long finish.
Over time the acidity will keep the wines from getting flabby. The '09s, from a warmer year, should be fleshier right away, but probably won't last as long.
That said, I'm going to write something heretical about white Burgundy that may influence your judgment about whether you want to pay attention to anything else I have to say:
I like it young.
That's right, I said it. I'm a cradle robber of white Burgundy.
And it works for me at all quality levels – not just village-level wines. Even the great Burgundy whites show their stuff early.
I was fortunate enough to go to a 40-bottle blind tasting of only Grand Cru wines, where we knew the vintage and vineyard but not the producer. This would be a dead giveaway in most parts of the world, but not in Burgundy. Clos Vougeot, for example, is one big walled vineyard with more than 50 producers working in it, some with only a row or two of vines. There's not much point in being organic in a situation like that, but I digress.
Most of the wines were '08s, but some '02s from the same Grand Cru vineyards were mixed in to show us what these wines are capable of becoming.
These were some very well-respected wines: Maison Laroche, for example, provided Les Blanchots Grand Cru Chablis from both 2002 and 2008. The '08, only bottled recently, would be welcome on my table right now: It's fuller-bodied for Chablis, with rich lemon fruit, but also has nice minerality and an earthy finish. The '02 had all that earthiness but had lost the fruit, and for me fruit is part of the charm. (Yes, I know, I'm an American.)
The knock on the '08 whites before the vintage was bottled was that they were going to be teeth-achingly acidic because of the cool, rainy first half of early September. That may have been true when the first writers tasted barrel and tank samples last year, but the wines have settled down – and, surprisingly, rounded out – nicely.
Jean-Marc Roulot of Domaine Roulot – one of the leading vignerons in Meursault – said that some growers who panicked and picked early in '08 will face acidity that is possibly too high. This may have led to malolactic fermentation being used in some wineries where it wasn't normally. I know Burgundy takes inspiration from no one, but this is also what Rias Baixas growers did with their own highly acidic '08s, to very good effect.
"2008 is a vintage that people will have to be introduced to," said Larry Dennen, wine buyer for Encore Imports. "The '08s for the United States have been difficult to understand. I think we haven't yet seen good evaluations of the '08s. But the '08 whites are better than the '09s. They'll be more lively."
A key is what you want out of wine. I like whites racy and not fat, so I like those athletic '08s.
You may be wondering, is this also true about the reds? Time will tell, but here's what Pommard and Volnay producer Nicolas Rossignol has to say:
"I don't like '09. For me '08 is definitely better. Why is everybody talking about '09? Because it was good all over France. (In '09 Burgundy) You haven't got the cooked fruit of '03, but there is a similar problem. The level of development of '09 is ahead. When you're going to open it in five or six years, the level of development is going to be much different."
Will the prom queen keep her beauty? Let's reconvene at the 10-year anniversary and find out.