2018 White Burgundies – why all the fuss?

I am a great fan of the Burgundy whites and so should you be, in what is looking to be a great vintage for Chardonnay.

As we dive headlong into the en primeur 2018 campaign for burgundy and as the numerous Pinotphiles focus their attention on securing the allocation of their favourite red wines, I thought it was time to shine a well deserved spotlight on the whites from the 2018 vintage which aren’t to be missed either, but somehow seem to play second fiddle to the reds when they deserve their own platform, so I’m setting the record straight.


I am a great fan of the Burgundy whites and so should you be, in what is looking to be a great vintage for Chardonnay. You may well hear this be said quite a bit about the 2018 vintage being the year for whites to shine and so I thought it would be a good idea to dig down a little deeper as to what makes for a very good vintage and a mediocre vintage.
 
Firstly, we need to quickly go back to some wine basics. Chardonnay is a beloved grape variety by both growers and drinkers. For the growers it is revered as it a very adaptable grape to many climates and soil types, it also has a great affinity with oak which can be used to further craft and mould the end product: the wine.  For drinkers it offers a range of styles, price points and offers a huge variety.
 
The different styles that Chardonnay can achieve are predominately due to climate and winemaking philosophies. To gain a little more clarity, we can split the Chardonnay wines made in cool climates versus warm climates and also old world versus new world. In simple terms, Chardonnay grown in cool climate regions are typically lighter-bodied, lighter in alcohol; defined by delicate green fruit flavours such as green apple and citrus with crisp acidity. They also have the potential to age for several years.
 
Whereas, Chardonnay grown in warm climate regions are typically fuller bodied with higher alcohol; defined by opulent ripe fruit flavours such as ripe peach and pineapple with soft mellow acidity.
 
Burgundy being a cool climate region, it produces an array of wines coming in many guises; From minerally, unoaked Chablis to the grand and complex, dry whites of Meursault, Chassagne and Puligny-Montrachet in the Côte de Beaune. It is often said that Burgundy is the birthplace of Chardonnay and some say it is its spiritual home! That may be taking it a little far, but most wine historians agree that the grape was first used to make wine by Cistercian monks in the Burgundy, sometime around 1330, and took its name from the village of Chardonnay which just happens to be in …. you guessed it, Burgundy!
 
So, what has made the 2018 such an good vintage for the Chardonnay grapes in Burgundy? The answer lies in the growing season of 2018 but also of the previous years. Keeping it simple the vines need a cold winter with good rainfall, followed by a cool spring moving to a warm but not hot summer, followed by a dry and warm autumn. This combination provides the perfect environment for the various steps in the vines growth of vegetation and grapes, creating an end product; the grapes, that has the right balance of sugars, water and acidity to allow the winemakers to work their magic.
 
If we look quickly in the previous vintages of 2016 – there was severe frost and hailstorms which destroyed vines and heavily reduced yields (Chablis lost 50%!) with the resulting wines being of good quality,  but not of greatness. Then the 2017 vintage saw the scimitar of frost strike the region again (with Chablis taking another clattering) followed by cooler than usual nights in the summer giving higher than usual acidity wines but of better quality in overall terms than then 2016 vintage. So the Burgundy region as a whole was in need of a vintage where things went right and excellent whites were made by everyone and along came 2018.
 
The weather for the 2018 vintage on paper doesn’t make great reading – It was the hottest vintage in Burgundy since 2003, as well as one of the driest ever, with 55% of the average annual precipitation over the last 30 years. The saving grace to the vintage was that the rainfall fell predominantly in the spring even up to June before the temperatures climbed; as such the vines had the water reserves in the soil to cope with the heat. With judicious vine management of both the vegetation and the grape bunches, the winegrowers were able to harvest excellent quality fruit and in bountiful amounts (many growers harvesting their largest volumes since 2009), a great relief to many, non-more so that the growers of Chablis!
 
So what does that leave us with in 2018? Our master, wine guru, Tom Harrow gives a quick round up as he was lucky enough to spend a week tasting them back in November.
Whites are generally rich and deep fruited, and the better wines, especially from sites with older vines and good water retention, have sufficient structure and length to balance their weight and generosity. Generally they don’t have quite the same definition and tension as 2017 or 2014 but there is more phenolic maturation than 2015, more charm and balance than 2016 (and more bottles!), and they will present very attractive mid-term drinking at least. Philippe Colin points out that high yields (50-60hl/ha) are good for Chardonnay, enabling greater varietal and regional typicity and avoiding excessive concentration in hot years. Certainly the top whites are exceptional and will ride out the vintage !
There really is something for everybody this year as we have been especially rigorous in our choice of whites for 2018, avoiding chunky, broad-shouldered efforts and focusing on a brilliant, much narrower selection of stars that will mature beautifully and be ready to drink before the 2014’s and 2017’s.
 
We have over 30 whites on offer from the 2018 vintage; here are a few of my favourites from “need a nice white for Wednesday night level” to “oh my goodness this is exceptional!” level…….  We can start small with a few brilliant entry level wines from some star performers.
 

Domaine de Montille Bourgogne Blanc, 2018 £102 / 6
Brian Sieve is the winemaker at Domaine de Montille, who Nathan and Tom have this year given the ultimate vote of confidence in taking care of our members’ Hospices de Beaune Barrels (full story here). The Chardonnay here ages in 600 litre big old oak barrels, with lots of lees stirring, giving superb texture to the perfectly ripe fruit from some excellent sites, including a parcel of declassified Montagny. A slice of excellence at a very affordable price!

Domaine Philippe Colin Bourgogne Blanc, 2018 £75 / 6
Made using fruit from two separate parcels, expertly blended for balance: one at altitude in St. Aubin for minerality and freshness, the other in Chassagne that provides power and richness, all aged in large old oak tonneau. A real Chardonnay wizard!

Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis 1er Cru 'Les Vaillons', 2018 £105/6
Edouard Delaunay oversees this historic estate with former ties to Domaine de la Romanée Conti. As a bit of an outlying village over to the western edge of the Cote de Beaune, Saint Romain is a prime location for whites in warmer years due to its added elevation - you get so much quality for your money in 2018.

Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis Grand Cru 'Les Vaudesirs', 2018 £216 / 6
Domaine Long-Depaquit benefits from sustainable viticulture by limiting yields and keeping interventions to a minimum with the aim of producing authentic, mineral and elegant wines. At the heart of the Grand Cru area, the Vaudesirs valley is a textbook example of the geology and history of the Chablis appellation.

Philippe Colin: Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru 'Maltroie' 2018 £276/6
Philippe makes just five barrels from this famous vineyard, with its high clay percentage which always seems to translate in to opulence and depth, although in 2018 this was pleasingly lighter on its feet than expected.

Domaine Ballot-Millot Meursault 1er Cru 'Perrières' 2018 £450/6
From one of our favourite lieu dit sites in the Cote de Beaune, the parcel, with its heavier metallic soil, is just above Genevrieres 1er cru, and as Philippe notes can often outperform cru Meursaults. Not cheap and will require some time in the cellar but fortune (and flavour) favours the patient.
 
Author: Charlie Goblet d’Alviella, our Grand Crew Club Manager.
Want to hear more? You can reach out to Charlie on charlie@honestgrapes.co.uk .