Thursday, August 26, 2010

2004 Burgundy Red Wine - How Bad is it?

It is commonly said that 2004 is the worst recent vintage for red wine in Burgundy. The weather was not good - lots of rain and a lot of rot. But that in itself is probably not the biggest problem with the 2004's. As Bill Nanson of Burgundy Report first wrote about, ladybugs were all over the vineyards in 2004. I heard that they were released to combat some or other aphid, but I cannot substantiate that claim. In any case, when ladybugs are trying to attract a mate or are under duress, they release a chemical of a class called methoxy-pyrazines. This chemical can cause off aromas in wine that are often described as green. But not in the unripe sense, in otherwise ripe wines, it is a vegetal, raw cedar, seaweedy, unpleasant aroma and taste. Anyway, the ladybugs, and if not the bugs then the chemicals they released, ended up mixed in with the grapes as they fermented. Not in every wine, obviously, but in some - perhaps as many as 30% of total red wines were affected.

I bought some 2004 wines. I was feeling rather pessimistic about their potential until a few months ago when Peter Wasserman told me that the wines are improving, losing the smell. I decided that I wanted to explore the 2004's - are they really as bad as they're supposed to be? So I got together with a group of Burgundy loving friends who all dug deeply into their cellars and we drank a load of wine - top producers, from villages to Grand Cru.

Here are the wines we drank, in the order that we drank them with our dinner:

Jean-Marc Morey Beaune 1er Cru Grèves.
François Gaunoux Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens.
JF Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny.
Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny.
Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin.
Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Cherbaudes.
Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin Vieille Vignes.
Robert Chevillon Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Chaignots.
Mugneret-Gibourg Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Chaignots.
Sylvain Cathiard Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Aux Murgers.
Robert Chevillon Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Pruliers.
Robert Chevillon Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Saint-Georges.
Hudelot-Noëllat Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaumonts.
Hudelot-Noëllat Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots.
Hudelot-Noëllat Vosne-Romanée Grand Cru Romanée St. Vivant.
Jean Tardy Echezeaux Vieille Vignes.

I have no tasting notes to share with you because I didn't take any, but you can read Keith Levenberg's notes here. I want to share some thoughts, though.

People generally agreed that the wines showed better than expected. There were a few that I would call excellent wines, wines that lived up to their potential in a difficult vintage. At the same time, people said that they wouldn't run to the stores to buy them. There were some delicious wines that seemed to me to be in perfect place for drinking. The Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin, for example - I thought it was great. I liked its clarity and purity, its clean and very pretty fruit. I thought it showcased Fourrier's sheer and elegant style. I also thought Morey's Beaune Grèves was in a good spot for immediate drinking. And although the oak was more prominent than I might like, I thought that Mugnier's Chambolle was a lovely wine.

And the thing is, some of the others at the table experienced those wines completely differently. I didn't hear anything negative about the Fourrier wine, but I did hear some say that the Beaune was too oaky, and that the Mugnier wine was clunky, that they preferred the Barthod Chambolle. Hmmm, I found the Barthod wine to be essentially undrinkable. The roasted seaweed and vegetal aromas were just too much for me. But others liked the wine, and I love the fact that this whole thing is complicated enough so that a group of people sharing the same bottles could have such a diverse take on them.

Some of the wines showed the off aromas and flavors that 2004 is accused of. I found the Barthod Chambolle to be the greatest offender, but the two Chaignots and Hudelot-Noëllat's Beaumonts also showed green to me. I thought the Pommard was affected too, but others disagreed, saying that it was just the odd expression of minerality in a good young Pommard Rugiens. I was not convinced. Until I drank the leftovers on day three and the wine was absolutely lovely - crushed stones and flowers, with no traces of green. There may have been others that were affected and I missed them - not everyone agreed with me when I thought a wine smelled or tasted green.

Some of the wines greatly improved over the course of a few days, shedding bulk, gaining definition. For example, I wasn't moved by Sylvie Esmonin's Gevrey Chambertin during our dinner. I found it to be a big wine that didn't show much other than ripe fruit. But on day three it was far more articulate, showing intensity and detail, and a lovely earthy finish. The wines that initially showed green aromas and flavors, however, did not lose those aromas and flavors over the course of several days. Perhaps the 2004 green wines will not lose the green?

The group seemed to agree that 2004 is a vintage in which the quality of the wines very closely adheres to the relative nobility of terroir. For example, as good as the Fourrier villages wine was, its 1er Cru counterpart showed that much more nuance and distinction. I thought this wine was just excellent, and if I owned any I would cellar it for another 8 years or so, the way I would any good 1er Cru from a good producer.

Similarly, Chevillon's 1er Cru Pruliers was good. But Les Saint-Georges was a great wine, a wine that in my opinion was everything Les Saint-Georges is supposed to be - full of ripe and rich dark fruit, perfectly structured and balanced, and with lots of depth and complexity that is just beginning to hint at itself at this early stage in its life.

Hudelot-Noëllat's 1er Cru Suchots was good, especially on days two and three, but the Grand Cru was a very big step up. I thought that it, along with Les Saint-Georges, were the two finest wines on the table.

So, 2004 Burgundy Red Wine - How Bad is it? At this point I would say this: not as bad as you might think. Focus on the wines from the best terroirs. Give the wines time to develop like you would in a typical vintage. And if you have a wine that was affected by the greenies, it might be a simple case of bad luck - doesn't seem like the green aromas are going anywhere, not any time soon, at least.


Anonymous said...

Great post - I've been hard at work with Clive Coates' Burgundy book. -Bryan

Chris Newport said...

Great post, what a great line-up of wines.

It may be worth noting: the lady bug explanation is just a theory. there are other explanations floating around out there, including excessive use of sulfur both during elevage and bottling.

I'm just hoping that they fade with time.

Jesse Becker, MS said...

Brooklynguy, thanks so much for posting your thoughts on this vintage. I was with Bill in Burgundy in 2004. We worked the harvest together at Camille Giroud. The ladybug theory is interesting but rot was rampant and widespread and Bill can attest to how hard we worked the table de tri. I saw decimated vineyards in Volnay and Pommard that had been damaged by hail in August just days before I arrived. I've had many good wines from this vintage but I've always attributed the green character to rot.

Unknown said...

Brother BG, I hate to disagree on the transience of the greens, but some of the Chevillon wines, as one example among several, have lost most or all of their greenies over time. Peter and I discussed geosmin as a mold marker, but I am not convinced that's what we had here.

Methoxypyrazines seems closer to the green flavors, but most of those are more persistent than the '04 greens have been (classical Chinon from the '80s still has plenty, as does, say, '37 Ausone).

So it's tricky. I think the flavor has greatly diminished in many of these wines and may well continue to do so. But I'm not confident about what it might be in chemical terms.

I think we agree about many of the wines, though.


Unknown said...

Jesse: I'm curious what leads you to associate green flavors with rot. I'm sure SFJoe could give an interesting technical analysis, but based on my limited knowledge, it still seems almost counter-intuitive to associate under-ripe (green) flavors with rot that sets in due to hailstorms just before harvest. I'm not trying to be confrontational here, just curious. What am I missing?

Jesse Becker, MS said...

Hi John, sorry, that was lazy of me. I should of said "the taint". I didn't mean green in the under-ripe sense.

Brooklynguy said...

thanks for these thoughtful comments. I kind of had a feeling that i wasn't going to sneak this chemical hypothesis by you, SF Joe.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jesse, that makes much more sense.

Conscience of a Conservative said...

I recently tried a number of 2004 Premiere and Grand Cru reds. I think 2004 is very under-rated, especially when tasting Ponsot Morey St Denis. Both the alouettes and Clos De La Roche.