The 2018 Burgundy Vintage – what we know in 2018 – and a few pointers…

Update 2.11.2018(1.11.2018)billn

Grand Cru Chablis – harvested later that day.
This was my 15th consecutive harvest in Burgundy – triaging the grapes of multiple villages. I believe that this, together with questioning the winemakers, is the best balance of first-hand and third-party input required to comment on the vintage.

2018 was a vintage without frost – though sometimes only by the skin of the teeth in some areas – Domaine Henri & Gilles Buisson using candles in some of their St.Romain vines. It was also a vintage only touched in few places by hail. Early in the growing season there was a lot of rain – loud warnings were given about rot – but it was a hot summer and to all intents and purposes, there was no rot. Oh – and for the second year in a row, it was an August vintage.

Whilst central Burgundy was a, relative, exception in France in 2017 – largely avoiding the twin ravages of frost and hail – 2018 was generally a higher volume vintage across the country – though some places did have their despair. In 2018 both Chablis and Beaujolais had good harvests, though each and every storm brought much ‘hail-anticipation’ stress for the vigneron(ne)s. Northern Mâconnais and southern Nuits both experienced the pain of hail in 2018, otherwise the main topic of conversation was to be the sun.

Exactly as in 2017, the most overt pre-harvest problem for vigneron(ne)s was the heat and dryness of the late summer, but that also meant that very little triage was going to be required – yet there was still to be a surprise. A few were already harvesting from 20 August; mainly strategic strikes of young vines or early ripening plots, but they were not yet in the vines in full force. The technical bulletins of the BIVB reminding growers that they would need to press hard in order to extract the juice from small grapes with thick skins. Then towards the end of August came some rain – as much as 40mm in some places – gradually less as you headed south from Meursault – only about 10+mm landed in Chassagne, less in St.Aubin. Some (white wine) vignerons joked that it was like seeing €500 notes falling from the sky as they anticipated yields of 40 hl/ha jumping to 50! Yet that wasn’t the full story – even before the rain there was more juice than anyone had anticipated; Jean-Marc Roulot recounts that he normally produces villages wine at about 50 hl/ha – and that’s exactly where he thought there was – but when he pressed his grapes he had 60! Likewise Dominique Lafon noted that he thought he had 40 hl/ha on the hillside (i.e his 1er crus) but when he pressed, he had 50. Almost without exception the vignerons underestimated how much juice their grapes would deliver. There were last-minute pushes for volume increases by some syndicates – Meursault was to authorise 64 hl/ha for villages and 62 for their 1er crus! Some other villages chose not to authorise higher yields, indeed some regions – such as Chablis chose not to increase at all, over and above their VCI, but they also had bumper yields – frankly needed after years of frost and hail.

Like in 2017, there was also some mention of ‘blocked maturities’ due to the the heat stress, though on a relatively low-level – still the southern Mâconnais and Chablis harvests were just a little later – relative to the Côte d’Or – than usual. Generally, the grapes were less large than in 2017, and they were ripe – the Côte d’Or, in particular, benefitting from regular downpours of rain that punctuated the heat every 10 days or-so.

If it was a bumper volume harvest for whites in 2018 – more volume than in 2017 – there is a little less yield for the reds vs 2017 – and that’s no bad thing. In both colours the heat of the vintage had all-but removed all the malic acid in the grapes, but the levels of tartaric acid remained quite good – so post malo, not much acidity will have been lost. The reds of the Côte d’Or and Beaujolais too – look exceptionally promising – provided that you prioritise ripeness over freshness. The colour was oozing from these black grapes – triage was practically unnecessary, indeed some domaines that have invested hundreds of thousands of euros in optical triage, chose not to use those machines at all!

As, at least in my own head(!), the notional head of the triage table, I always ask myself at the end of the vintage – ‘Did I make a difference?‘ And each year the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!‘ Except that in 2018, for the first time in 15 years, I cannot honestly say that – yes plenty of leaves were removed – more important for red than white – but a gust of wind could have done that too! There was relatively little fauna in our grapes too – maybe such warm and early vintages mean that the insects don’t need to search out places of refuge like in cooler weather(?) – anyway…

Early indications are for richness and concentration, despite high yields in many whites, but particularly so for the reds – the phenolics were very high – Boris Champy of the Clos des Lambrays comments “Phenols are very high, I can’t see through the wine. Total polyphenol can reach 100 units in Bordeaux, Burgundy grand crus can usually reach 60 and it was 65 here 2017 versus our average of 60. It’s 80 this year – that’s never been seen here before…​“. Potential alcohols were often well over 13° in many of the more gifted red areas. The pHs are certainly modest – pre malo – though with not much malic acid they will change very little; the whites between 3.1 and 3.4, the reds closer to 3.4 to 3.6.

From a distance, we can conjecture whites like 1999 or 2005 but hopefully less brutal than the latter, and reds like 2003 but with a little more freshness and certainly more yield. They will be fascinating to follow through elevage…

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