2018 – The times, are they a-changing?
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The one word we heard more than any other while tasting the 2018s was ‘solar’, meaning warm, hot, influenced by the sun. Whether the 2018 vintage goes down as an outlier or the new normal remains to be seen, but what we do know is it was the warmest year since 2003, with sustained temperatures above 30c for much of July and August. Comparisons with that previous ‘solar’ vintage are inevitable, but it is in the differences between the two years, specifically the availability of water, where we find the most enlightenment on the character of 2018 and its wines.
2018 began with a wet winter, which would prove vital as the season progressed and temperatures rose. The wet winter filled aquifers and soaked into the clay meaning the vineyards had water reserves and the vines, with their deep roots, didn’t experience the hydric stress of 2003; in turn this meant that ripening could continue uninterrupted. Under drought conditions vines can stop photosynthesising, which in turn stops the fruit from ripening and can lead to harsh, green tannins in the eventual wines. I would say that this was the major quality factor in 2018 and the most important condition that sets it apart from 2003. Although sugar levels were high, well managed vineyards were able to achieve good phenolic ripeness before the acidities dropped too drastically. Picking date, perhaps the single most important decision of a vigneron’s year, was more important than ever, a matter of two days could see a 1-2% rise in potential alcohol. Conversely, picking too early risks under ripe tannins in the wine. It is a fine balancing act and of course not everyone trod that wire.
The whites began to be picked at the end of August, with the reds the week after. Conditions at harvest remained hot; how to work with warm fruit, or how to cool that fruit, is something the Burgundians have had to learn about quickly. Yields were good, surprisingly so, the grapes contained more juice than many were expecting, and 2018 is the largest harvest for some time. Due to the heat the grapes had thick skins, so it was important to extract gently or run the risk of making overly tannic wines.
It is difficult to generalise about a year where such small margins of time and practice have had such big effects on the wines. It is undoubtably a heterogeneous vintage. At their best however the 2018 whites are ripe, textural wines which nevertheless have fresh acidity and saline minerality. They should be attractive young and most will be ready before the 2016s and 2017s. The reds are also ripe and relatively full bodied, but the best are well balanced and concentrated with brilliantly pure fruit and fine if firm tannins. Many of the village wines will show well early on, but the best 1er Cru and Grand Cru will need considerable time to shed their youthful structure and reveal their site and inner character.
After a mild winter bud break came early to the Cote d’Or and with it the risk of frost. Happily, the devastation of 2016 was largely avoided. Flowering was successful, and the more optimistic growers began to hope for a ‘normal’ harvest after years of low yields. Summer continued warm and dry. There was little disease pressure and, although rain was scarce, not much drought either outside of the younger vines. A few localised hailstorms affected some vineyards. As Pierre-Jean Roty said, it was a vintage that threatened problems but ultimately was trouble free. Conditions at harvest were good and settled so domaines could choose when to go. Yields were the best since 2009, a welcome change for many whose cellars had been underfilled for the best part of a decade.
The 2017 whites continue to impress. We have the wines from Domaine Buisson-Battault in the offer, Francois only sells once he has bottled, don’t miss them, they are fantastic. The 2017 reds are lighter and fresher than either of the two previous vintages, they have a cool fruit bite and poise which recalls 2014, although the 17s are richer. Comparisons to 2007 and 2000 have both been made and are fair. Although they won’t be as long lived as the preceding vintages, they will provide much pleasure relatively early and mature well over the medium term and beyond. As wise people know, Burgundy need not be rich or tannic to work its magic in bottle; I wonder if we will look back at 2017, with its elegant, classical style, as a fine vintage indeed.