On February 15th of 2011, I arrived at the La Paulee de New York, one of the great Burgundy events in the U.S. Some of the best producers in the region were standing behind folding tables draped in soon to be wine stained white cloths. In order to properly calibrate my palate, I had drunk nothing but Burgundy for the previous three days and felt confident that I was bringing my ‘A’ game to the tasting. However, my enthusiasm was slightly dampened by the vintage that was to be featured. La Paulee rotates annually between the west coast and NYC. Perhaps it is just bad luck, but the most hyped vintages always seem to be shown in San Francisco. This year, the much criticized 2008s were to be poured. Although an excellent year for white wines, the harvest had been difficult on the pinot noir grapes. The reds were unattractive when young and the critics had been harsh in their early assessments. To make matters worse, the following harvest had produced terrific red wines. Of course, the much acclaimed 2009s would have to wait until next year’s show in the City by the Bay.
I walked into the main room, grabbed a glass and headed for the nearest table. Some of the great white wine producers in Burgundy were present and wines were terrific. Full-bodied and packed with minerality, the whites were impressive for both their intensity and complexity. I assumed that I had just tasted the best wines of the day as I moved onto the reds. First up, a modest producer from Gevrey Chambertin named Rousseau. After the first couple wines, I stopped to check that the correct bottles were being poured. The hard 2008s that I remembered tasting from barrel did not resemble the wonderful red wines that I had just swirled and spit. ‘Powerful, intense, great structure, classic,’ were descriptors I wrote down. Of course, I had started with a ‘blue chip’ winery, but the results were consistent at nearly every table. The 2008 reds were wonderful.
Looking back at the harvest, it is difficult to see how the wines had turned out to be so good. The summer of 2008 had been rainy and full of gloom in the region. Rot had spread through the vineyards and the growers struggled to limit its impact. All signs were that 2008 would be a disaster, but, luckily, the weather dramatically improved just before the harvest. Strong winds swept through the vines, concentrating the grapes. The harvest stretched into October as some growers gambled that the good weather would hold and their fruit would continue to ripen. Fortunately, the sun continued to shine through the harvest and the vintage was salvaged. Despite the good luck, it was expected that the vintage would produce below average wines. Many of the grapes were unhealthy and severe sorting was required to ensure a quality harvest. The wines had high levels of malic acidity and took an extended amount of time to complete their fermentations. In many cellars, the 2009s finished their malo-lactic fermentations before the 2008s. During this period, the wines were and difficult to judge from barrel. Importers and critics reported that the wines were hard and lacked charm. To make matters worse, 2009 turned out to be a near perfect harvest and the young wines were generating great buzz. 2008 quickly became a vintage that no one wanted, but many reluctantly agreed to buy the wines in order to secure an allocation of 2009.
After pushing my palette to the limit, I walked out into blaring sun and headed toward an espresso bar for a badly need jolt of energy. The espresso was strong, which is what was required at the moment. I had the dazed feel of man who just tasted and spit almost 100 wines. In addition to being slightly drunk, I was thoroughly confused. I had expected the white wines to be excellent, but the reds had greatly exceeded my expectations. I finished the espresso and thought back on my visit to Burgundy when I tasted the 2008s from barrel. Myself and the critics had misjudged the wines. The general dismissal of the 2008 harvest illustrates an important lesson. In Burgundy, perhaps more than any other wine region, the quality of a vintage is never set in stone.