Something unusual happened outside Meursault during the 2018 harvest, a short exchange that tells you a lot about this historic Burgundian vintage.
A cellar rat from the Rhône Valley had been following a trailer for the last few kilometres, trying in vain to attract the attention of the driver. Pulling alongside him at a traffic light, he pointed back down the road.
“Your tailgate’s open and you’re losing part of your load,” he said. The driver nodded, smiled and pulled away, continuing to shed grapes onto the RN74.
Was this deliberate or just an oversight? Who knows. But such insouciance was not uncommon in 2018, a year that produced record quantities of white wine and large amounts of red wine, too. At 1,818,929 hectolitres, it was Burgundy’s largest crop.
After some of the hail- and frost-affected vintages of the past decade, 2018 came as a relief to many growers, especially in Chablis, which suffered worst in 2016 and 2017.
One producer there even joked: “I’d be out shopping for an Aston Martin if all vintages were like 2018.” Jean-Marc Roulot, of Domaine Guy Roulot, says, “It’s something that happens once in a generation. The last time I saw yields like this was in 1982.”
Such volumes caused logistical headaches. “Two more days of harvest and we would have run out of space,” remembers Christian Moreau of the Domaine Christian Moreau.
Others reported that distilleries, where producers are legally required to get rid of grapes that exceed permitted yields, stopped answering the phone.
The 2018 vintage was historic in other respects: heat and sunshine hours. Years that end in the figure eight often lack both in Burgundy, according to Ghislaine Barthod of the Domaine Ghislaine Barthod, but not this time.
In fact, 2018 was the warmest vintage since 2003 and one of the four hottest of the past century, with temperatures topping 40˚C in August.
I shall come back to the issue of climate change later. For now, let’s just say that the region is living through a period of dramatic change typified by the 2017, 2018 and 2019 vintages, an early-picked trio that takes its place alongside 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015.
In one significant respect, 2018 was very different from 2003 and indeed 2019: the early part of the growing season was wet. There were torrential downpours in November 2017 and March 2018 (March saw more than twice the average rainfall), which meant that the water table was high.
This was to prove a boon once what Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti calls the “Homeric struggle” of the vintage began in earnest. March may have been cool and damp, but April and May were warm and flowering was early, one week ahead of 2017’s. The north winds blew any remaining clouds away in June and most of the summer was sweltering, with two separate heatwaves.
The period between May and September had 30% less rain than usual and 290 more hours of sunshine. No wonder hydric stress was a problem in some vineyards, especially those on free-draining limestone soils.
Some rain fell in August and early September – Frédéric Lafarge, of Domaine Michel Lafarge, says it occurred at just the right moment in the Côte de Beaune – but it was the winter and spring rains that saved the vintage in Burgundy.
The vines drew deeply on the water that was in the ground, resisting the heat much better than in 2003. But it was still a very difficult year in the vineyard and cellar. Claudie Jobard of Domaine Claudie Jobard says it was “the most complicated harvest I’ve ever worked. I definitely added some grey hairs”.
Calling 2018 a “dream vintage” (as the Bourgogne Wine Board did) may be a piece of wishful thinking, but there’s no denying that, despite those grey hairs, the crop was healthy as well as abundant.
Deciding when to harvest is always an important decision in Burgundy, where the balance of the wines is notoriously and wonderfully delicate, but it was crucial in 2018. Getting the tipping point right between sugar and phenological ripeness, particularly in the reds, was very tricky. Pick too early and the wines could taste green. Pick too late and they collided with jamminess and power.
2018 was the latest in a series of climate change vintages that date back to 2003 or even earlier according to some studies, which set the start of the trend in 1988. Since then, harvests have started an average of 13 days earlier than they did in the preceding 600 years.
The traditional French summer holiday period, when almost everyone used to decamp to the coast on 1 August, is becoming a thing of history in wine regions, Burgundy included. Nowadays, vignerons go away in July or take winter sunshine breaks instead. For many, earlier picking is one way to deal with the new reality.
Dominique Lafon, of Domaine Comtes Lafon, started harvesting his Meursault Premier Cru Genevrières vineyard on 23 August, although he was beaten to the secateurs by Arnaud Ente, who kicked off on 19 August, courting the disapproval of locals who accused him of making the equivalent of sparkling wine base. That said, vintage dates varied widely, with Pierre Damoy of Domaine Pierre Damoy bringing up the rear on 21 September.
“I’m not scared of wines with 15% alcohol,” he says. Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey adds, “Twenty years ago, everyone started within four days of each other. Now it’s a question of style as well as tradition. Who’s wrong? Who’s right?” Who indeed? Sylvie Esmonin, of Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, says what works for her might not work for her neighbour. “The decision also depends on yields and how you farm your vineyards.”
This is one of the things that makes it difficult to generalise about the 2018 vintage. There are well-balanced wines with 14.5% alcohol and tart, poorly balanced ones with 12.5%, and plenty in between. The quality of the final liquid in the bottle depends on many factors.
Chablis made plenty of wine, most of it comparatively soft and forward, so in the north of Burgundy this is not, for the most part, a year for drinkers who like tautness, focus and minerality in their chardonnays.
Moving south, the Côte de Nuits is harder to classify. Southern Nuits-Saints-Georges was hit by hail, but otherwise the vintage was free of storms and made good quantities.
Mildew struck in Vosne-Romanée, Fixin, Marsannay and Nuits-Saints-Georges (again), but otherwise it was only the heat and dryness that caused problems. Gevrey-Chambertin coped best, but there are some impressive wines from Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny and Vosne-Romanée.
The Côte de Beaune had an easier time of the hot summer because of higher yields and rain in July and August. The top reds aren’t as sumptuous as the best examples from the Côte de Nuits, but there’s a freshness and vitality to the leading Volnays, Pommards and Beaunes. This is also one of the most appealing Corton vintages I can remember.
The whites, too, can be very good, partly because of crop levels but also earlier picking. Look out for wines from ‘lesser’ villages such as Ladoix, Saint-Romain, Saint-Aubin and Santenay, as well as the more famous trio of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
The Côte Chalonnaise is more of a mixed bag. Crops were the biggest they’d been since 2009 and in appellations where machine-picking is the norm, such as Montagny, bitterness is sometimes a problem. The Rully whites are generally a better bet, but it’s the reds from Mercurey and Givry that really stand out.
Overall, I preferred the whites from the neighbouring Mâconnais, especially those from Vergisson and Milly-Lamartine, where producers made the most of cooler sites. In both subregions, there are bargains to be had.
Does 2018 resemble another vintage? Cécile Tremblay, of Domaine Cécile Tremblay, says it’s unique. “People compare it to 2003, but I started in 2003 and that didn’t help me because there’s much more wine in 2018 and more malic acid in the grapes.”
As we’ve seen, 2018 was an early harvest, like 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2015 and 2017. Others mentioned 1929, 1947, 1959 and 1990 as points of comparison, or the big crops of 1973 and 1982.
But the answer is that 2018 is sui generis: a mix of 2003, 2009 and 2015 perhaps, or as Christophe Perrot-Minot, of Domaine Perrot- Minot, put it, “an XXL 2005”.
Generalising about the style of the wines is no easier. This is a vintage when, even more than usual, it pays to know your grower or négociant as well as your terroirs.
In short, it’s a year that produced something for every type of palate. If you like full-bodied chardonnays and pinot noirs, you can find them very easily. Wines with 14% alcohol are almost commonplace, with some at 16% or more. Look a little harder and, provided you seek out the earlier pickers, you can find bright, crisp, refreshing ones too.
The wines are generally better balanced than I had feared before I spent a month in the region tasting from barrel and bottle. Several producers echoed my feelings.
For Guillaume Tardy of the Domaine Jan Tardy, “The wines have lost their impression of heat as they’ve aged. I didn’t expect them to be this good.” Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier agrees: “There’s a lightness and vibrancy that I didn’t see in the grapes.”
Overall, the challenge of 2018 was indeed to preserve freshness. Many people tailored their harvest reception, fermentation, extraction and ageing techniques accordingly.
To take two examples, pigéages (punch-downs) were minimised or avoided by many as being too intrusive, in favour of gentler pump overs, while whole bunches, which increase pH levels but add structure to red wines, were more popular than ever.
It’s also true that Burgundians are getting used to hot, dry, early vintages and are adapting the way they grow and vinify their grapes.
“2003 in particular vaccinated us against what happened in 2018,” says Nicolas Groffier of Domaine Robert Groffier. “We didn’t make the same mistakes twice.”
The high yields of the vintage also helped to mitigate the effect of the heat, especially where the whites were concerned. “If we’d had a tiny chardonnay crop,” one grower in Chassagne-Montrachet told me, “like we did in 2003, we would have produced syrup.”
There are certainly some fat and heavy wines on the market, but in a region where people are still terrified of premature oxidation, the size of the vintage, which produced grapes with less sugar and more acidity, was a godsend.
Adding tartaric acid was way more common than people are prepared to admit and some producers blocked or partially blocked malolactic fermentations, too. The best whites, in other words, are surprisingly tasty, although I prefer the overall quality and zip of the 2017s and especially the 2014s.
The red wines are every bit as mixed and arguably even more so, as yields were lower than for the whites. There was also very little summer rain in the Côte de Nuits, where most of the famous names are located.
Pinot noir generally suffers more in hot vintages than chardonnay and that was certainly the case in some instances in 2018.
Watch out for faults such as volatile acidity, excessive alcohol and Brett in particular. Pinot also struggles once yields exceed 45 hectolitres per hectare, again unlike chardonnay.
And yet when the 2018 reds are good, they are very good indeed. Two things to remember: soils with a high percentage of clay often coped better with the torrid conditions, as did old vines, which generally managed to preserve acidity in the resulting grapes.
Other techniques were important too, not least sorting tables to pick out raisined berries, cooler fermentations and the use of less new wood for ageing.
Warmer, earlier vintages tend to favour lesser sites, which can struggle to ripen grapes in late, wet years. And that’s the case in 2018.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent Premiers and Grands Crus reds and whites, most notably from cooler vineyards at higher altitudes closer to the Hautes Côtes. But this is also a vintage in which it makes sense to trade down, not up, as long as you choose the right wines. Regional, generic and village appellations are a source of considerable pleasure.
How good are the 2018s? The answer is much better than many of us feared, but not as good as some excitable wine merchants have claimed. This is an above average to very good vintage with patches of excellence and some real nadirs.
I don’t think the wines will be particularly long-lived – we’ll be drinking them long before the 2015s and, I suspect, the still-in-barrel 2019s – but that’s not necessarily a problem.
At their best, their appeal centres on immediacy and fruit weight. And yet the reds are more serious than the 2017s and may well surprise us in bottle, ageing with grace and flavour. The 2018s, both reds and whites, will certainly mature better than the 2003s have.
And the prices? Ludicrous at the top end, but with plenty of volume in the market, there are some bargains. The US market is difficult at the moment because of tariffs and the future of Brexit Britain is uncertain for French exporters. This might well benefit Burgundy lovers in Australia. But even if it does, I still don’t think you should be in any hurry to buy.
As that trailer driving grower in Meursault was all too well aware, there’s no shortage of wine in 2018.
Top 25 Chablis Producers
➼ Domaine Billaud-Simon
➼ Domaine Bernard Defaix
➼ Domaine Christian Moreau
➼ Domaine des Malandes
➼ Domaine François Raveneau
➼ Domaine Gilbert Picq
➼ Domaine Guillaume Vrignaud
➼ Domaine Jean Collet
➼ Domaine Jean Dauvissat
➼ Domaine Jean-Claude Bessin
➼ Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard
➼ Domaine Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin
➼ Domaine Laroche
➼ Domaine Long-Depaquit
➼ Domaine Louis Michel
➼ Domaine Oudin
➼ Domaine Pinson
➼ Domaine Sébastien Dampt
➼ Domaine Servin
➼ Domaine Vincent Dauvissat
➼ Domaine William Fèvre
➼ Jean-Marc Brocard
➼ La Chablisienne
➼ Patrick Piuze
➼ Samuel Billaud
Top 25 Côte D’or White Wine Producers
➼ Domaine Arnaud Ente
➼ Domaine Ballot-Millot
➼ Domaine Coche-Dury
➼ Domaine Darviot-Perrin
➼ Domaine de la Vougeraie
➼ Domaine de Montille
➼ Domaine des Comtes Lafon
➼ Domaine Jacques Prieur
➼ Domaine Jean-Claude Ramonet
➼ Domaine Faiveley
➼ Domaine Fernand et Laurent Pillot
➼ Domaine François Mikulski
➼ Domaine Jacques Carillon
➼ Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard
➼ Domaine Leflaive
➼ Domaine Marc Morey
➼ Domaine Martelet de Chérisey
➼ Domaine Michel Niellon
➼ Domaine Olivier Leflaive
➼ Domaine Paul Pillot
➼ Domaine Roulot
➼ Domaine Yves Boyer-Martenot
➼ Etienne Sauzet
➼ Joseph Drouhin
➼ Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey
Top 25 Côte D’or Red Wine Producers
➼ Domaine Arlaud
➼ Domaine Armand Rousseau
➼ Domaine Cécile Tremblay
➼ Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé
➼ Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
➼ Domaine Denis Bachelet
➼ Domaine Denis Mortet
➼ Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair
➼ Domaine Dujac
➼ Domaine Dugat-Py
➼ Domaine Duroché
➼ Domaine Fourrier
➼ Domaine Georges Roumier
➼ Domaine Ghislaine Barthod
➼ Domaine Henri Gouges
➼ Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat
➼ Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier
➼ Domaine Jean Grivot
➼ Domaine Leroy
➼ Domaine Marquis d’Angerville
➼ Domaine Méo-Camuzet
➼ Domaine Robert Groffier
➼ Domaine Sylvain Cathiard
➼ Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair
➼ Domaine Taupenot-Merme
Top 25 Mâconnais Producers
➼ Bret Brothers
➼ Château de Beauregard
➼ Château de Fuissé
➼ Château des Quarts
➼ Château des Rontets
➼ Clos des Vignes du Maynes
➼ Domaine Cheveau
➼ Domaine Christophe Cordier
➼ Domaine Cornin
➼ Domaine du Clos des Rocs
➼ Domaine Daniel et Julien Barraud
➼ Domaine de la Bongran
➼ Domaine de la Sarazinière
➼ Domaine Ferret
➼ Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau
➼ Domaine Guillemot
➼ Domaine Jacques Saumaize
➼ Domaine Marcel Couturier
➼ Domaine Nicolas Maillet
➼ Domaine Pierre Vessigaud
➼ Domaine Robert-Denogent
➼ Domaine Sainte Barbe
➼ Domaine Saumaize-Michelin
➼ Domaine Sophie Cinier
➼ Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon