Burgundy’s 2012 Roller Coaster

roller coasterMuch has already been written about Burgundy’s wild and difficult 2012 growing season and much more is still to come. In a nutshell, three main factors shaped the harvest in the Cotes du Nuits:

1) Poor fruit set – Winter and early spring warmth got the vines going early, late frost damaged some, and then rain during June flowering beat up the fragile bunches and led to fewer grapes being formed, and many of those that did set were smaller and thicker skinned, delivering less juice than usual.

2) Summer heat and rain – Cloudy weather and lots of rain created rot and mildew pressure and then – just as many growers finished pulling leaves to get their grapes whatever dry air and sunshine might be found – a heat spike sunburned many grapes. Once these grapes were removed, the crop got smaller still.

3) A Saving September – Good weather at last prevented gray rot from setting in and allowed those grapes that had survived the season – as few and small as they were – to ripen skins, seeds and stems perfectly at relatively low sugar levels and with vibrant acids.

In the end, perfect grapes … but not many
As the grapes came into the wineries in mid- to late-September, the hardworking vigneron found themselves at once depressed and elated. Depressed because their cellars had 30-40% less wine in them than normal. Elated because the grapes they did harvest were in perfect conditions and the young wines showed fantastic promise and classic style.

Tasting young 2012 reds at Domaine Guillon in January 2013 left me excited at the promise of the vintage. And, as various Burgundy experts have weighed in, that optimism seems well justified. Here are few comments from Allen Meadows (aka Burghound) about the best 2012 Cotes du Nuits reds:

The 2012s are concentrated wines with ripe and moderately firm supporting tannins, good freshness and enough acidity to maintain the proper balance. One of the more endearing characteristics of the vintage is that it produced very high phenolic maturities yet the sugars were only average. This is important because often when a vintage has high phenolic maturities the accompanying alcohols are above 13% and often even 14%. In 2012 the average range is between 12% and 13% which contributes to the heightened senses of freshness and drinkability.

2012 produced many really lovely wines that should provide for delicious drinking early on yet be capable of amply rewarding mid-term cellaring… Moreover there is fine transparency to the wines such that the underlying terroir is very much on display.   

All-in-all, an excellent vintage, writes Meadows, but with one big problem: Price. 

[T]here really isn’t much not to like about the vintage other than the tiny yields and what will almost inevitably be the high prices that accompany small quantities. … The key challenges for us as consumers will be twofold: the first is simply to find them and the second will be paying for them as they will not, indeed cannot, be inexpensive.

In a vintage where many consumers and retailers face skyrocketing prices and slashed allocations, we (and you!) benefit from a long-term relationship with Burgundy’s Jean-Michel Guillon through his hardworking US importer, Olivier Daubresse. Our allocation of Jean-Michel’s top wines (arriving this fall) was outstanding, and both Jean-Michel and Olivier held price increases down to the minimum level possible – even though Jean-Michel has orders for at least twice as much wine as he has to sell.

You’ll taste all the glorious results of Jean-Michel Guillon’s 2012 Bourgogne Rouge from his ‘Les Gravier’ vineyard –  at much less than you’d expect from other winemakers.

A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

A ‘Primer’ on Barolo

Our recent offering of Vietti’s latest vintage of Castiglione, a 95 point blend of two single-vineyard Barolo, got us thinking about Barolo’s history, how it grew to be more like Burgundy, along with questions about aging and the 2010 vintage, so it seemed like a good time to offer a little ‘primer’ on the subject!

Vietti Estate

Vietti was a pioneer in developing ‘Cru’ Barolo.

Italy’s Burgundy? Barolo, like Burgundy, are vineyard-driven wines, mostly due to the work of Vietti. Italy’s Barolo region and its classic Nebbiolo grape have a lot in common with red Burgundy. While the structure and flavors differ, both Barolo and Burgundy are all about perfume and complexity.

The best wines start with a core of ripe primary red fruit and then add on layers of floral, earth, and spice complexity. And both get even more complex and compelling with age, becoming wines you linger over and sometimes just smell for minutes before you even take your first sip.

Today, at their best, both Burgundy and Barolo are vineyard-driven wines that producers offer in various levels of specificity. Most Barolo producers start their line-up with a straight Nebbiolo di Langhe (their Bourgogne) based on fruit from just outside the important Barolo villages or young vines from within. Next, Barolo Normale (like a Village Burgundy), often a blend of fruit from lesser vineyards within Barolo. Then, the single-Cru Barolo (a 1er Cru Burgundy) made from grapes grown entirely in a single vineyard recognized for quality over the years. Last – Barolo’s Grand Cru – one or two Riserva Barolos from the very best vineyards and with extra time in cellar.

‘Cru’ Barolo. Vietti and its long-time head Alfredo Currado were largely responsible for this modern-day Burgundy parallel. When he started making wine, virtually all Barolo was bottled as a blend of vineyards. Alfredo was one of the first producers to assert that Barolo vineyards have as much to say as their Burgundy counterparts, and the first to bottle a line of unblended, single-vineyard “Cru” Barolo.

Today, Vietti’s Barolo from Lazzarito, Brunate, Rocche, and Vilero routinely top critics ratings (Galloni awarded Vietti’s top 2010s ratings of 99 and 100 points!) and, unfortunately, sell at prices in line with the very best of Burgundy. Having established the single-cru principal, Alfredo was less sure what to do with the family’s smaller vineyard holdings in the outstanding Crus of Bussia, Ravera, Bricco del Fiasco, Fossati, and Ciabot Berton.” His success with single-vineyard wines convinced him that he didn’t want to make a “normale” Barolo, but his vineyards in these Crus were too small to be bottled on their own. Alfredo’s compromise was to introduce his “Barolo Castiglione” – a blend of his smaller Cru vineyards made to drink young and introduce customers to the “house style.”

Castiglione Moves Up! Alfredo’s son, Luca, was never comfortable seeing fruit from some of Barolo’s best and most famous vineyards end up in what was a delicious, but “easy” wine. So, starting in 1999, Luca began using only the very best Nebbiolo from the most successful of his smaller Cru holdings in Castiglione, with the rest of the fruit going into a value-priced Langhe Nebbiolo he called “Perbacco”.

It took Luca a few years to find the right approach for Castiglione, but in 2004, he seemed to figure it out. As Wine Advocate reported, “With this [the 2004] effort, the Castiglione bottling takes an important step in Currado’s plan to make this wine much closer in quality to his single-vineyard offerings.” And, a few vintages later, the Advocate said, “Barolo is never inexpensive, but the Castiglione is as good a wine as readers will find for the money.” We’ve been fans of Vietti, the Currado family, and – especially – Castiglione for years, and last year’s 2009 seemed to us to be the very best Castiglione yet. The 2010 is simply better. Here you’ll find all the ripe fruit and power we loved in the luscious 2009, but with more grace, purity and length. It’s a stunner, folks, one that you will struggle to keep your hands off of from the moment the first bottle crosses your threshold at home.

How Long Do I Wait? Barolo is one of those wines we talk about cellaring for years and enjoying for decades – but there’s no need to wait even a day to enjoy the very best of modern-day Barolo like Vietti’s 2010 Castiglione. In the old days, Barolo’s Nebbiolo grape was usually harvested with searing acidity and masses of tough, chewy, tannin that needed at least a decade of cellar time before delivering any pleasure at all. After some unfortunate experiments with manipulation in the winery – small oak barrels, roto-fermenters, cultured yeasts and more – the best Barolo growers now know that the secret to creating long-lived Nebbiolo wines that still deliver pleasure young is simple – grow ripe grapes.

As Antonio Galloni explains: “As structured as the 2010s are, these aren’t your father’s (or mother’s) Barolos. In other words, the wines won’t take decades to become approachable. Significant strides in viticulture and winemaking have made today’s young Barolos more approachable than they have ever been. For example, the 2008 Barolos, wines from another cool, late-maturing vintage, are surprisingly open today. Those wines may close down at some point in the future, but the days of needing to cellar Barolos for decades before they drink well is largely a thing of the past. The last vintage I can remember with truly forbidding youthful tannins is 1999.”

Fellow critic James Suckling agrees, especially in 2010. “‘Crowd pleaser’ is the way I like to describe it in view of most of the wines’ early drinkability. You can pull the cork and drink most of them, especially if you decant them an hour or two before serving.”

By all means, try to hold on to some of your 2010 Vietti Castiglione and let it develop the extra gear of aroma and complexity that only cellar aging can provide. But, if you’ve got a meal of richly flavored food – perhaps a roast with some mushroom risotto – pop a bottle of this and splash it in a decanter for a couple of hours and then dig in. You will not be disappointed!