Burgundy 2014 Vintage Report: The Holy Grêle




Any visitor to the Côte d’Or cannot fail to be captivated by their surrounds, to have their senses enlivened. The patchwork of vineyards that cover the golden slopes, the evocative names that are fêted the world over: Meursault, Musigny, Montrachet, mmm…

This is indeed a special place, rightly deserving of its recent recognition by UNESCO. However, even here, Mother Nature can be a cruel mistress. The same forces that bring us the conditions in which legends are made can also, in the space of mere minutes, make the difference between spectacular success and utter dejection.

In 2014, that the victims are, by and large, the same poor souls who have been most afflicted in the previous two vintages seems as crushingly unjust as the hailstones that pelted down on 28th June, sealing their fates for another year. However, incredibly, even in villages where the storm raged there are some remarkable achievements, for reasons which we will explore below. For those who did not feel nature’s fury, the conditions were relatively benign, even easy (perhaps too easy for some…) with the resultant open goal easily converted. As a result, there are many terrific 2014s - particularly in white - and it has once again been a fascinating process piecing the story together over these past twelve months.

The Growing Season

The winter months offered little by way of major events: mild, rainy and shorter than they might have been, given that warm temperatures in March had already encouraged the vine to bud by
its final week.

With a fine April bringing fresh, dry conditions and May seeing some genuine warmth, flowering was already underway in the third week of May, with mid-flower in the first week of June. At this stage, all the signs were pointing towards another early September harvest, perhaps even earlier.

A number of growers pointed out that in the more exposed vineyards, however, temperatures were often too warm which adversely affected the flowering. This aside, the general consensus was that the early months of 2014 constituted one of the most promising starts to a growing season for many years.

We made a visit to the region in late June 2014 and reveled in shirtsleeve weather. Smiles were broad, hopes were high. Then, not even 24 hours after our return to London, came the news of a severe hail storm that cut through the Côte from Puligny up to Savigny, with the brunt being borne by Meursault, Volnay, Pommard and Beaune yet again. Pictures circulated on social media of hailstones the size of golf balls, violent enough to smash windscreens and dent bonnets. Vineyards in the storm’s path had no chance.

Up in the Côte de Nuits, there were also reports of localized hail but nothing on the scale of their southern neighbours. The one saving grace was the timing. A hailstorm before véraison really will only affect quantity rather than quality. Had it arrived in late summer, or just moments before harvest as it would in Chablis in 2015, the juicy, softened fruit could have nothing to resist. In late June, the green bunches could be tended by growers, applying healing potions or simply removing the damaged material if beyond redemption. Thereafter, for those still with grapes and vines to tend, there was an unsettled beginning to July, with overcast, damp and rather cool conditions. This pattern continued into August and by now all thoughts of an August harvest had been properly dismissed.

Mid-month saw a high-pressure system install itself and with it, a complete change in conditions: bright, dry and sunny during the day and with a concentrating wind at night, bringing coolness and freshness - everything that you could wish for the optimal ripening of fruit. So it remained, right up until harvest, a late season that ensured a fine, healthy, rot-free crop although there were, as always, one or two little twists…

A Bug’s Life

You will hear great mention made of the drosophila suzukii, a fruitfly (sometimes called a vinegar fly) of Asian extraction which has been working its way through European vineyards in recent years.

Growers in central Europe, particularly Germany and Switzerland, have been severely affected and in 2014 its presence was widely noted in Burgundy. Fruit-flies are, of course, far from uncommon, but this new visitor is far more damaging, having the capacity to cut the skins of grapes and lay its eggs under the skin, immediately contaminating the berry and turning the juice to acetic acid. The warm conditions of mid to late August turned out to be the perfect environment for encouraging such activity. Vineyards nearest orchards and those near built-up areas, thus more sheltered from winds, were most affected and almost entirely in red fruit, it must be stressed.

How to combat this pest caused a variety of responses, from conventional sprays, to treatment with clay-based powders, to biological treatment such as introducing bacteria which would be a parasite for the fly itself. However, the most effective is of course rigorous selection and once again, it is therefore those growers that put in the hours and were prepared to make the financial sacrifice who have ensured that no tainted fruit reached the vat room.

The Harvest

The second week of September saw the first pickers out among the vines. Good conditions overhead and firm conditions underfoot made the process stress-free, although of course with much sadness for those with little or nothing to bring in after the hail.

Most Domaines were in full swing by the middle of the month and despite a shower on 18th September, the harvest was uninterrupted and mostly complete by the final week of the month when heavier rain duly arrived.

At Domaine Fourrier in Gevrey-Chambertin, Jean-Marie Fourrier described the harvest as “a joy”, saying that he was very happy with 2014, a year which has brought him normal yields like 2009. At Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée, volumes are also up compared to the three previous years and despite reporting frost, hail, bugs and burning, Michel Mallard declares himself “pretty happy”.

In the Côte de Beaune, there is more variance. Chassagne-Montrachet, which avoided the hail completely reports a good size crop, save for those vineyards reduced in yield at flowering. The story is similar in Puligny, although hail did hit the north side of the village. In Meursault through to Savigny, however, growers report yields ranging from normal through to total absence. There is no Pommard Grands Epenots at Domaine de Montille, for example, and only three barrels of Beaune Clos des Aigrots at Domaine Lafarge where normally they might expect fifteen.

In The Cellar

Whether victims of hail or not, very few growers reported problems in the cellar. Clean, healthy fruit picked in fine conditions, where good sorting could be carried out as required, meant that fruit processing was largely straight-forward. Fermentations required little encouragement and natural alcohols in the 12 to 13 degree range meant that chaptalisation was only needed sparingly, if at all.

There was however, still a requirement for thought and sensitivity. In reds, with ripeness levels generally very satisfactory, winemakers were able to choose whether to include whole bunches or not, with most who favour the method electing to do so. At Domaine de Montille, Chef de Cave Brian Sieve noted the nice compact skins, which meant that he didn’t need to press too hard, allowing for a gentle, controlled extraction. Of those who prefer to destem, Jean-Marie Fourrier noted that his grapes carried a much higher level of pips than in other vintages and also asked for care in extraction.

In whites, acid levels were regular, with a nice natural balance between malic and tartaric acids and this sense of harmony was something to retain where possible. Malolactic fermentation was also well-behaved with all bar a handful of exceptions fully complete by the time of our autumn tastings. Indeed many wines had been finished for a number of months already, meaning that the wines were more developed than they might otherwise have been and therefore much easier to taste and assess. In particular, the white wines, which are arguably the lead story in 2014, have expressed their fruit with ease, with differences in terroir easy to find and no make-up required. These are classic beauties.

The Wines

Easy to taste; relaxed and accessible; no extremes, no hyperbole. These are the just a few of the key memories that we carried with us as we made our journey back from the cellars. If that all sounds very straight forward, a word of caution: there is variation from one Domaine to the next and once again, this is not a vintage to ‘buy blind’. If there is a common fault to be found, it is where complacency has crept in. Occasionally there is a little dilution where there really shouldn’t be, particularly in some corners of the Côte de Nuits where conditions were generally very favourable.

Whites

Many commentators have already sung the praises of the 2014 whites. I am not going to disagree but I would venture that the level of excellence rather depends what you look for. For some, great white Burgundy is all about longevity and the ability to reveal a multiplicity of characteristics over time. I don’t see 2014 as an extreme longkeeper.

The wines are, by and large so harmonious already, that an extended period to ‘knit together’ is not what is required. My recommendation would be to drink them at all stages of their life but at the very least to ensure that you enjoy their exquisite fruit. In Chablis, it is a very fine vintage. Yields were affected in the better vineyards because of the hot conditions at flowering simply because they are the first vineyards to flower and that coincided with some heat spikes.

Didier Seguir at William Fèvre remarked that “2014 giveswines with very precise expression of terroir” and reported a good summer with no botrytis. He compares the vintage to 2008 and 2010 which both carry similar levels of acidity and concentration. At Domaine Raveneau, the verdict was of a “nice, easy vintage” with fast fermentation, malolactic finished by Christmas and therefore lots of natural protection for the wines in the cellar. Sébastian Dampt drew parallels to 2010 and 2012 at the aromatic level and Benoît Droin agreed, seeing the same “classic Chablisien tones” as he found in 2010.

While Chablis and Chassagne have escaped the hail and have done particularly well, both Puligny and Meursault, as well as the second tier villages such as St Aubin, St Romain, Pernard-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune have all produced some very fine wines. A reluctant Eric Rémy at Domaine Leflaive admitted that 2014 was in a similar register to 2010, his favourite vintage of the century thus far while at Domaine de Montille the view was that the whites could be the “best in a lifetime”.

Reds

Characterising the reds in one sentence is much harder because of the variation between villages. One only has to compare the comments of, for example, Cécile Tremblay who talked of an “easy vintage in the vineyard” with those of the team at Domaine des Clos who described the year as “misery”, having lost 98% of their Beaune 1er Cru Les Avaux on 28th June, to understand how such opposing views are possible.

To give some stylistic pointers, at Domaine d’Eugénie, the good terroir definition is a notable feature. Michel Mallard opined that 2014 is a “pretty vintage that falls between 2013 and 2015” which is at the very least half-true. Another Michel (Lafarge) considers 2014 to be a “clean, energetic vintage - very good!” which reminds him of 1966, another apparently fresh, easy to taste vintage of high class. His son, Frédéric, felt that 1978 also deserved mention and in agreeing that perhaps the true answer was somewhere between the two, Frédéric found the perfect excuse to show us a truly memorable 1966 Beaune Grèves over dinner…

At Domaine de Vogüé, the ever-pensive François Millet sees 2014, 2011 and 2007 all in the same ‘springtime’ family. He finds the mixture of red and black fruits “welcoming” giving wines with “no fragility or superficiality”. Here the wines have real personality, depth and elegance with a lot of nuance and yet admirable inner strength.

In summary, I would encourage you to trust your favourites but also to try out a few new sources. Quality is to be found in every village and we have taken great care to select what we think were the most exciting wines that we came across. There is also quality at all levels and while there is approachability in this vintage that will allow pleasure even from grand appellations within the first decade, the best wines will undoubtedly cellar very well, just as was demonstrated by the 1966 Beaune Grèves at Lafarge. 

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