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Caution advised 2009 Burgundy vintage

on 18/02/11 at 9:03 am


There’s no doubting the quality of Burgundy’s 2009 red wines, but Mark Savage MW is concerned about the threat posed by speculators on the Côte d’Or.

With something like 27 trade tastings of the 2009 vintage taking place in London during a period of about 10 days in January, it looks as though Burgundy has now made its response to the annual Bordeaux bunfight that takes place at the time of the Union des Grands Crus tastings following each vintage.

The Bordelais have always shown more savoir-faire when it comes to the business of milking the market for all it is worth, while the Burgundians tend to concede that they are less efficient when it comes to being commerçants. Some of us might hope that they stayed that way. We should perhaps speculate about the wider implications of this growing momentum behind Burgundy and its best wines.

The normal laws of supply and demand might suggest that because there is so much less Burgundy produced than Bordeaux, it ought to be the more expensive of the two. With one or two notable exceptions, however, this is not the case. The reason is that if the supply of Burgundy is very much smaller, so also is the demand, since the market for good Burgundy has been largely limited to people who actually want to drink the stuff.

Meanwhile, the demand for Bordeaux is fuelled not only by consumers, but increasingly dominated, at least at the top end, by speculative investors who have no intention whatsoever, one suspects, of drinking their investment. This should mean that the Burgundy market is inherently more healthy, so those of us who would like it to stay that way will view with misgiving any sign of it becoming infected by the same speculative virus that now affects Bordeaux. The sort of feeding frenzy that hits the Gironde estuary on a seemingly annual basis in the spring following each new vintage may be starting to happen with Burgundy. This should be cause for at least some concern.

We already have an absurd situation with seemingly definitive judgements and scores being given to raw red Bordeaux wines that may or may not be representative of the production of each respective château in that year. The sight of as many as 6,000 tasters anaesthetizing their palates in a stampede to taste several hundred young wines in two or three days in March is not conducive to the creation of sound judgements. Burgundy has always been more patient, realising that a much clearer and more accurate assessment of its young wines will be possible after 12 months rather than six. Any pressure coming from cash flow managers to bring this timetable forward should be strongly resisted.

By the time this column is published, many rave reviews of the 2009 Burgundy vintage will have been in circulation. Though a sceptic by nature, I am not going to try and pick holes in its claims to excellence, at any rate with regard to the red wines. While some vintages are hard to read during their early years, and not infrequently underrated by impatient critics, 2009 seems most unlikely to provoke much controversy for this was an easy year for the vigneron to get right, and the wines are correspondingly easy to taste. In 2009 a grower would have to have been seriously incompetent or extremely unfortunate not to have been able to make good wine. The red wines show perfume, purity of flavour with precision, and their precocious charm is supported by perfect balance that augurs well for future development in bottle.

As regards the white wines, I would issue a caveat and exercise caution before swallowing any exaggerated claims, as many seem alarmingly forward, rather soft and spineless, albeit attractive enough to drink now. In a word, though, they lack energy. There may be a case for going back to look for more wines from 2008 instead. It should surely come as no surprise that a perfect vintage for red wines might be less than ideal for whites. The key as always lies in acidity. The sharpness that will give a nice edge to a white wine may cause a red wine to look a bit pinched, its bones more obvious than its flesh. Conversely, the roundness that makes the red wines appealing may when translated to the white wines result in a lack of backbone.

For the consumer, there may be a worthwhile parallel to draw between 2009 red Burgundy and 2000 or 2005 Bordeaux, both homogeneously successful vintages that produced excellent wines, giving satisfaction right down to the lower rungs of the appellation ladder. In some more difficult vintages, only the best terroirs may be really successful, but in easy years there are good pickings to be had from even the less favoured sites. This is great news for those with a modest budget or those who are looking for wines to drink, rather than labels to show off.

Burgundy 2009 looks like a vintage that will offer generous fruit at village appellation level, or even from basic Bourgogne Rouge from a reliable source. This is surely good news for many of us since it is pretty clear that the Grands Crus are not going to be given away. We must just hope that at least some of them remain within the buying power of people who actually want to drink them.

Mark Savage MW, from the February 2011 edition of the drinks business


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