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The Joyful Restraint of 2011 Burgundy

By: Will Lyons

In many ways, today’s fine-wine lovers have never had it so good. Such has been the improvement in modern winemaking techniques, the adoption of measures to eliminate cork taint and the opening up of vast swaths of unexplored viticultural land, that we have been blessed with better-quality and more interesting wines than ever before. Yes, prices have risen and, in some cases, moved our favorites beyond reach, but more often than not, these have been replaced by new wines coming onto the market.

It was a point I suggested to an old friend, who worked briefly in the wine trade after studying viticulture at the University of California, Davis. No longer involved in wine, he says he is consistently surprised at the quality on offer compared with a decade ago: “It’s actually very hard to buy a bad bottle these days,” he says.

The trick is finding an interesting one, which brings us to perhaps the most interesting wine region of them all: Burgundy. Its 2011 vintage has just been previewed in a plethora of tastings held in London and is on sale now. I can’t think of any other fine-wine region in the world that continues to mesmerize and fascinate quite like Burgundy.

Its two principal grape varieties, Pinot Noir for red and Chardonnay for white—and the smattering of plantings of Gamay and Aligote—find an expression when planted in its network of villages in the Côte d’Or, inspiring not just the palate but the intellect, too.

In Burgundy, it is still possible to overpay for mediocre wine. Such is the complexity of the region that navigating its myriad villages and vineyards is akin to solving a cryptic crossword. Consumers often complain that its wines are inconsistent and too complex. Burgundians believe a wine’s character is derived principally from the plot of land the vine is planted on, which is graded by a classification system based on the vineyard, village and subdistrict. But a highly classified wine can be expensive and not very good. To compound the problem, Burgundy’s unpredictable weather means every year tastes slightly different. A good short cut is to pick your producer wisely.

It may be too much of a leap to say there are no bad vintages anymore, but certainly in Europe’s classic regions, modern winemaking has made a huge difference. British importer Caspar Bowes explains that many of today’s vintages are better described in terms of style rather than quality, arguing that those vintages that have been rated “great” in the past, such as 2009 and ’10, are merely those that have had the ripest fruit and the most power.

The 2011 vintage is a case in point. It may not have the power of the 2010 but what it lacks in density and weight, it certainly makes up for in charm.

Flowering was early in the spring of 2011, which meant that although the harvest date was early—in some vineyards the earliest since the end of the 19th century—the grapes enjoyed a long hang time on the vine. This allowed them to mature more slowly, helping ripen the tannins and fruit evenly.

The result is red wines that are strongly aromatic, possessing an attractive perfumed fruit and a delicate floral character. This is matched by a lacy elegance, smooth tannins and a bright acidity that gives them power and zing. In short, at this young stage, judging from the dozens of cask samples I sniffed and slurped my way through in London, the wines are a joy to taste.

The good news is that both the 2011 reds and whites have restrained alcohol, which gives the wines a unique freshness. Quality is even in both the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. For reds, the standout villages were Nuits-St.-Georges and Volnay. For whites, Pernand-Vergelesses continues to produce scintillating Chardonnay.

The bad news is that, as in 2010, the crop was very small; and it comes before 2012, which, due to uneven weather, was even tinier. Coupled with demand from European and U.S. collectors and increased interest from Asia, this will mean real pressure on prices.

As Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, proprietor of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, says, “Fill your cellars, as there will not be much wine in 2012.” To which I would add: don’t forget to stock up on 2010, a vintage where quality, particularly among the lesser village wines, is even throughout. Stock up before prices rise even further.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

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