In November 2009, I attended the Hospices de Beaune auction, ready to exercise my arm to win a bid for my very first barrel of Burgundy purchased at auction. Before I left for Burgundy, I had a group of friends who had happily agreed to split the volume of any barrels I acquired. It would be easy among wine-loving friends to split the 25 cases, or 300 bottles, which constitute a barrel of wine.
Before I arrived in Beaune, I had heard rumours about the wonderful 2009 vintage; I was mindful that this was coming from a region that is much more modest about its success compared with Bordeaux. The only infant Burgundies I was able to taste at that time were the 2009 barrel samples that Christie's prepared just prior to the Hospices' auction. The 50-plus wines I tasted were indeed delicious and surprisingly round and accessible.
To my dismay, the hammer went down throughout the auction, and I left with no wines. I watched the bidding escalate to a level that took me out of the race. For the best wines, the bidding went over 35 per cent of 2008 prices and some up to 50 per cent higher. Many had deep pockets and were willing to pay for what was purported to be a great Burgundy vintage.
What I expected to find from the 2009s, when I finally had a chance to taste them a year later, was intensity combined with an energy that emanates from a combination of firm acidity, layers of flavours and silky tannins. What I found in the 2009 white Burgundies were ripe, sweet flavours and a friendly, New World-like approachability. But the best 2009 whites would need to be consumed a lot earlier than the less expensive 2008s!
In the reds, there were equally generous flavours, an abundance of rich, velvety tannins and a roundness in the mid-palate that would not be a cause for concern if it were 10 years old. As an infant wine, it was disconcerting. Where is the tension, that verve which runs through the veins of all great Burgundy? I was so disturbed that I blurted out to Michel Mallard, the winemaker at Domaine d'Eugenie, that I was frankly disappointed in their entire range of 2009s. When tasting the 2008s from this domaine, I was impressed. I doubted whether the same team (and same owner) responsible for Chateau Latour could possibly make red Burgundies with finesse and subtlety. In 2008 they were successful - balancing intense delicate, fresh flavours with beautifully textured tannins and fine acidity. In 2009, the flavours were too overt and lacking in precision.
There is no doubt that for whites, whether they hail from Chablis in the north or Macon in the south, that 2008 is the better vintage. The cooler ripening period (compared with the 2009) allowed the flavours to develop slowly and the acidity to remain a prominent part of the wine. In 2009, the warmer, sunnier conditions meant the acidity was less prominent and flavours tended toward overt, ripe-fruit expressions - not ideal for the best whites to lay down in your cellar.
For red wines, there were producers who made better wines in 2009 than 2008. When I was treated to a vertical of George Roumier's Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoreuse at the domaine, I was charmed by the 2009, which had amazing complexity combined with gentle grace. The 2008 by comparison was more evolved, much lighter and less intense. The 2002 vintage nearly brought tears to my eyes, it was such a beguiling, expressive wine filled with emotion. I enjoyed it much more than the 1999 or the 2005, both great red Burgundy vintages.
At Domaine de Montille, where Etienne de Montille crafts delicate, feminine Volnays and Pommards, the 2008 was the clear winner. His Volnay Mitans 1er Cru, for example, in 2008 was much more precise and possessed clear, delineated flavours,while in 2009, the palate was broader and the flavours more ripe. It seems clear that wines which require the tension of fine acidity as a key element to the wine's style and expression will likely have fared better in 2008. However, much of the success depends on the producer and how they dealt with the different challenges in the two vintages. In 2008, winemakers had to overcome mildew, various issues with rot and hail, while in 2009, the challenge was in retaining acidity and achieving ideal flavour ripeness.
Comte Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Domaine Liger Belair was in Hong Kong at the end of May, and I asked him what he thought of the two vintages. '2008 is a true Burgundy lover's vintage, and 2009 ...' - he paused for a second, trying to find the right words - 'Well, that is a wine for the more general market.'
Right now Armand Rousseau's Le Chambertin 2008 can be purchased for approximately US$600 per bottle and the 2009 - if one can find any - is well over US$1,000 per bottle. I know what vintage I will stock in my cellar.