The first thing to know about 2018 in Burgundy is that while it was the warmest year on record, when measured across the whole year, it was not extreme during the summer in the way that 2003 was. The second key to the vintage was the size of the crop - 2018 goes down as one of the biggest on record; a key mitigating factor to the summer warmth and drought. Finally, the winter of 2017/2018 was very wet and served to ensure that deep-lying water reserves were adequately filled at the start of the growing season.
After such a wet winter and spring, growers were relieved to see fine weather arrive just in time for a very successful and early flowering in May, unlocking the door to the vintage’s bountiful yield. Flowering a full three weeks earlier than usual also set the scene for an equally early harvest. Summer was hot, though never too extreme for too long, and, although there was a tiny bit more rain the further north you went in the Côte, the summer everywhere was characterized by drought. The only anomaly during the season was hail in Nuits St Georges; two storms striking the south of the village and Premeaux-Prissey at the end of June and the beginning of July, wiping out as much as 40% of the crop in some vineyards. Ripening continued rapidly, particularly for Chardonnay, with harvest turning out to be one of the most precocious ever; the earliest date recorded amongst our growers was 24th August while the latest was not even half way through September.
Summer’s warmth and drought lasted right the way through the vintage period, it was therefore necessary to cool down grapes or cold pre-soak the must to slow down the fermentation process. The high sugar levels meant vinifications required vigilance and malo-lactic fermentations were quick to occur. Pinot Noir berries readily gave up their juice and extract from their tannic-rich skins. Winemakers had to be gentle and aware of not extracting too much. More Domaines adopted the idea of “infusion” rather than “extraction” than ever before. Pigeages were at an all-time low. Regarding the élévage, whites will by and large be bottled at the same time as usual. For reds this varies from Domaine to Domaine, some producers bottling earlier to capture the fruit of the vintage, others extending barrel-ageing to further refine their powerful wines.
The first major surprise of the vintage is the whites which are incredibly consistent and have a fresher fruit profile than expected. A combination of growers learning from experiences of previous hot vintages, added to a very big crop, helped keep a freshness and juice in the wines and the resulting wines display pure, clear generous fruit profiles. This is not as tense a vintage as the exemplary 2017s but there is nevertheless a great clarity of flavour and verve in these 2018s. There is a ray of sunshine to them, characterised by yellow and white fruit notes that mix with citrus and minerality. A fresher, lighter, shaplier version of 2015 is perhaps the most accurate description.
2018 is a much harder vintage to summarise for reds, being less consistent than for the whites. For starters the picking window for Pinot Noir was a short one as levels for sugars, acids and phenolics were moving at pace as harvest approached. In addition, winemaking style, a vineyard’s specific terroir and the age of the vines all proved even more consequential variables than usual. As such, generalisations are most redundant. Broadly speaking the wines are relatively low in acidity and relatively high in alcohol – we saw wines from a modest 13% up to 14.5%. What we can say, though, is that we tasted many great 2018s. Particularly successful for us were the ones that combined a genuine sense of freshness with the vintage’s over-arching, powerful, sun-ripened fruit character.These should provide great old bottles. There are many wines, too, that are enjoyable, full of charm and immediate seduction but are a little soft and perhaps lack the zip to make old bones.These will provide very pleasurable earlier drinking over the next three to four years. No particular village to village patterns emerged during our tastings, the only thing that struck us was a little more consistency amongst the Côte de Beaune wines than those of the Côte de Nuits. Be it the clay soils or earlier picking dates of the former, we don’t know, but certainly we found many outstanding wines right the way through from Maranges to Aloxe-Corton. Further North the picture was much more fragmented, though despite this inconsistency Côte de Nuits was still home to some of our wines of the vintage.There were some great successes in each of the villages, most notably in Morey, Chambolle, Vosne, Gevrey and Marsannay. There was little uniformity in terms of the red wines’ fruit profiles, either. Fruit characteristics ranged from strawberries and raspberries right the way through to darker black cherry notes.
In short, 2018 is an extraordinary, record-breaking vintage that was as fascinating and enjoyable to taste as it was confounding. If we were to finish with two suggestions, they would be don’t overlook the whites and take advice on which reds wines to lay down and which to drink young.