Jan
19

High Expectations for 2015 Burgundy

By Stephen Quinn:

Many wines from the 2015 vintage in Burgundy in France have become available “en primeur” this month. The phrase translates in English as “first offering” and means wines can be purchased before they are bottled at the winery.

The main reason for buying “en primeur” is to secure difficult-to-find wines. Prices tend to be lower than when the wines appear on the market. When people buy en primeur they defer paying taxes and duties until the wine is delivered. Whites from 2015 will be shipped towards the middle of this year, and reds at the end of this year or early next year.

A major reason to buy en primeur is the fact that 2015 was a very good vintage compared with 2016. Yields in 2016 were much lower than in 2015, which means we can expect some scarcity when the en primeur campaign for 2016 starts in early 2018. For some people this could be a good reason to invest in 2015 rather than 2016.

But people should be aware this will probably mean higher prices because of the lower yields in 2015 relative to 2014. The 2015 vintage was on average about 30 per cent smaller than for 2014, and upwards of 40 per cent lower in parts of the Côte de Beaune affected by hail in previous years.

Tom Ottey, writing on the Fine & Rare blog, said: “Shallow supply caused by lower yields [in 2015], coupled with high critical acclaim and the threat of very little wine from the minuscule 2016 vintage, will inevitably drive demand and prices upwards.”

Guy Seddon is a buyer with the fine wines team at Corney & Barrow. This privately-owned company, founded in 1780, is one of the oldest independent wine merchants in the UK. Seddon is generally positive about the 2015 vintage, describing it as a “meeting of extremes” with the summer heat producing succulent and ripe fruit. The reds have high tannins because of the thickness of the grape skins, though these wines are supple and fresh. Red winemaking needed to be done with sensitivity, Seddon said.

High tannins occurred because berries were small with skins thick. Summer temperatures were the highest since 2003 and the weather in July the driest since 1949. High temperatures and drought stressed vines. The reaction of the vines was to focus on survival, with all energies going into the fruit because the seeds contain the blueprint for survival. Low water levels produced small berries with thick skins.

The 2015 vintage was in the “hallowed middle ground,” Seddon said, where the deities in Burgundy had allowed “both grape and terroir expression”.

“We have, above all else, balance. High but supple tannins and rich but juicy fruit in the reds. The whites are ripe but fresh, plump but taut.

“The only negative is the yield, which in many places is low again in 2015. Reasons for this include damage to the dormant buds during the previous season and some uneven fruit set caused by a warm June.” Seddon said 2015 looked ready to live up to his company’s high expectations for the reds “and to exceed our more tempered expectations for the whites”.

The 2016 vintage would probably be “tiny,” Seddon noted, and it was sensible to buy in 2015 because of the anticipated small volume from 2016. He also recommended buying Beaujolais wines from 2015 because they had “serious ageing potential”.

Warm weather in 2015 continued until mid September for most vineyards which meant that picking started in late August. In previous years picking began almost a month later. Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford wrote that sorting tables in the Côte d’Or were almost superfluous in 2015, “something which is unthinkable after most harvests,” he noted. “The bunches I looked at were tight, closely packed but strikingly healthy, with thick skins.”

Many areas of the Côte de Beaune such as Pommard, Volnay and Beaune itself have been devastated by hail in recent years and yields were down because the vines were still recovering from their battering. Yields in Volnay were up to 50 less than in 2014.

Steen Öhman, who writes the highly-regarded Winehog blog, described the 2015 vintage as “extraordinary” and recommends collecting the reds. “It’s certainly one of the best vintages in recent decades in my view. The whites are not quite up to same standard as the reds, but they do show better than expected and should not be overlooked, especially if one values the more generous and rich-styled white Burgundy. Great wines have been made including some truly legendary wines that will stand as some of the best wines made in my time.”

Probably the only negative was the fact that overly-ripe grapes produced some wines with alcohol levels of 14 per cent or higher, which can sometimes mask the expression of the natural beauty of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay at lesser-quality domaines. With the whites, wines harvested earlier tended to be fresher, so do consider the level of alcohol when buying.

Here are some of the best domaines noted at tastings at en primeur events this week. All are from the 2015 vintage: Domaine Jacques Prieur, especially his Beaune Premier Cru Les Greves; Domaine Francois Carillon, including the Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru Les Champs Gains; the Nuits-Saint-Georges premier cru from the biodynamic estate of Domaine de L’Arlot; Chateau de la Tour Clos Vougeot grand cru cuvee classique and grand cru vieilles vignes (old vines); and Domaine Rossignol-Trapet, another biodynamic estate, especially the Chambertin grand cru and Chapelle-Chambertin grand cru, plus the Gevrey-Chambertin vieilles vignes.