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A VIEW OF THE 2015 BURGUNDY VINTAGE IN ADVANCE OF THE ANNUAL UNDERGROUND WINELETTER TRIP TO BURGUNDY TO TASTE THE 2014S

John Tilson • 10/28/15        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

 Route de Grand Crus

I will soon be leaving for Burgundy to taste the 2014 wines from barrel. This is the 35th year since my first trip with my friends in 1981. During that time, I missed a few years because of business demands or illness, but my long time friend and Underground Contributing Editor, Geoffrey Troy, has been there every year. What is interesting this year is that 2014 is now at a stage of evolution where one can start to determine the complete picture of the wines and the vintage. But, the 2015s, which were only just harvested, are already receiving huge accolades. So will the 2014 vintage become an “orphan vintage”? We will soon see. And we will taste the 2015s next fall after they have had additional time to develop in barrel.

Early next year I will have tasting notes on many 2014s and a brief discussion of the vintage (to read about the 2013 Burgundies click here). No doubt there will be a lot of buzz about the 2015s as well. Stay tuned.

For now, I thought you might be interested in an early review of the 2015 vintage from Alex Gambal. I first met Alex Gambal many years ago on one of our early trips to Burgundy. The story here is quite remarkable. Alex Gambal is an American whose background was in the real estate business. But, he fell in love with Burgundy wine. On a vacation to Burgundy with his family, he met another American, Becky Wasserman, who had moved to Burgundy years before. Becky had established a business as a Burgundy wine broker and she encouraged him to start by working with her. He accepted and moved to Burgundy with his family in 1993.

During this time he also studied winemaking in Beaune for a year before establishing his negociant business in 1997. He first purchased wine and in 1998 began making his own wine from purchased grapes. In 2003 he was able to purchase his first vineyard and in 2004 to purchase a building which has been renovated into the current winery facility and offices. Many of the relationships that enabled him to make these initial purchases came from the parents of his children’s classmates who were in the real estate and wine business.

In the succeeding years, Alex has continued to buy vineyards and establish financial partnerships (many of whom are with Americans) to buy vineyards in Burgundy. These arrangements often involve the partners receiving bottled wine produced from those vineyards at “market value.” By being able to effectively sell a portion of the production at a higher price than through a traditional marketing arrangement, Alex is able to pay more for vineyards that come up for sale.

So in less than 20 years, literally starting from scratch, Alex Gambal, a Burgundian “outsider,” has been able to establish a thriving business. Production today averages 5,000-6,000 cases per year and about 20 different wines are produced. Quite a number of these are produced in small quantities of under 100 cases. About 1/3 of the production comes from estate vineyards and 2/3s from wine made from mostly from grapes purchased under long term contracts with a small amount purchased as juice. Since 2009 there have been no purchased wines. The estate vineyards consist of vineyards that produce Bourgogne (red and white), Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Picotins, Chassagne-Montrachet La Maltroie 1er Cru, Chassagne-Montrachet L’Ormeau, Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseigneres and Batard Montrachet.

This is how Alex describes the winemaking: “Our winemaking is practical and is based on Burgundy practices and tradition. That is to say that there are no great wines without great grapes; thus our focus is on the vineyard and the work necessary to harvest the ripest grapes as possible. Each growing season is different and we respect what nature gives; we harvest when the grapes are ready (not when it is convenient for us) and use the grapes indigenous yeasts. We understand that wine is as much a living product as is the vine.”

ALEX GAMBAL SIGN

 THE 2015 BURGUNDY VINTAGE

ALEX GAMBAL

SEPTEMBER 30, 2015

My notes are longer than normal but it was a fascinating harvest and worth the extra reflection. I hope you enjoy them and look forward to your comments.
Regards,
Alex

Dear Friends,
Many of you have asked and have patiently waited to hear “what the heck is happening” in Burgundy? I can safely tell you that the center is holding and that the vintage will be a good to great one.

This said, at the moment it is difficult to pin down what it is or what it does NOT resemble. As one gets a bit more experience in all things related to the big “L” word, life, if one is wise one should tend to prognosticate less and offer options more. Therefore for a change of pace I will give you observations, some hints but few conclusions. However, I can give you ten bullet point certainties:

  1. The vintage will result in a huge debate: outliner, classic, aberration, early drinking, age worthy, etc., trust me there is going to be far too much ink spilled over this.
  2. What vintage is it like: I can tell you it is not 2003, 2005 or 2009 but it has elements of all of them. This is true for the reds and whites.
  3. Some people picked early, some in the middle and some late and will make great wine. Other people picked early, some in the middle and some late and will make terrible wine. There really is nothing new here.
  4. Yields were down overall but some wine makers made their count while others were far off. Throughout the Cote d’Or the initial buzz is that yields are down about ~30%: ~40% for the reds (especially in the Cote de Beaune) and ~20% for the whites. Averages are a dangerous thing and details will follow.
  5. Over the summer we all were “whistling past the cemetery” and did not adequately assess the potential yield; bottom line in many of vineyards the sortie des raisins, bunches that actually formed, were few. Coupled with vines that have had 2-3 years of hail damage, and then a record hot and dry summer, it is clear we are fortunate to have produced what we did. 
  6. The wines will be concentrated and deeply colored for the reds and concentrated and powerful for the whites.
  7. ACIDS: I hate to write the following because it makes for a smart sounding sound bite so I will reverse the sentence I was about to write. The wines are balanced and zippy relative to their acid readings that are low compared to most vintages. In other words its the chemistry; taste and then decide. As Thierry Matrot told me over twenty years ago total acid is not as important as what is its composition; this give the wine its personality. (You will need to read through this essay to find out what really happened.)
  8. The tannins were very ripe and extractable. Recently I had an amusing conversation with a colleague who is frankly obsessed with phenolic ripeness. I told him to relax, the tannins are NEVER as ripe here as they are in southern climes, that is why this is Burgundy and why we love it. This said the tannins were VERY ripe and we could wish to have such ripeness and ability to extract them each year.
  9. However there is a PARADOX: the above said the sugars in the reds are good but not over the top. About half of our reds finished in the 13-13.5 alc. range with the other between 12.5-13 alc. (Hint, you will find another twist also at the end.)
  10. Many of the whites have high sugars in the 13-13.5 range but others are in the 12.5-13 range. Until their fermentations are done, actually until the malolactic fermentations are done for both the red and white, anyone who tells you they know how the wines are going to turn out is well, clueless.

Summer:
Hot and Dry

We had an amazing hot and dry summer. From someone from Washington, DC, who is used to heat and humidity, I loved it because the humidity was so low. There was a wonderful high-pressure system over Europe this summer that was self-feeding. The dryer it got the less humidity that could be released so we had a self drying phenomena. (I literally gave up trying to water my garden because the ground was bone dry the next day.) This is what happens in the south of France with the mistral and to a lesser extent the Rhone valley winds that my friends describe as a blow dryer. 

Thus we had little threat of mildew but paradoxically we had to treat for odium. The dry air, cloudless skies, hot days, cool nights, especially in the early summer, produced great sleeping nights. The downside to this is that odium loves a cool damp environment that it found early in the season with the low temperatures and soil moisture that evaporated as dew in the nights. Once established in its cycle it had to be regularly treated and was more acute in the Cote de Nuits than in the Cote de Beaune.

Hail:

There was no hail except for a localized storm on May 20 that dumped for about 5-10 minutes at 14:00 on the place in Puligny. A kilometer away in our vines there were a few impacts and the ground was hardly damp: for once a year without hail.

Flowering:

We had a relatively dry warm spring but we had a cold spell just after the St. Glace (May 11-13) traditionally the date when the threat of frost is over. At the time I wondered if his might hurt the vines and the flowering because it wacked my young tomato plants when normally I would have been in the clear. I did notice retrospectively after flowering, that went at record speed, that there was more millerandage (shatter) on the vines than I had expected. (BTW Bruno Clair, in Marsannay, told me this was the fastest flowering he has ever seen.)

Fruit:

I have several “canaries in the mine” that I consult throughout the year that give me a read on the vines. My cherry tree consultants told me that ripening was slow, the fruits were small, the flavors good, but the fruit fell off the trees quickly. Fast forward three months and my peaches all fell within days and the few I salvaged were sweet runts. Finally late summer and fall fruits, especially pitted are small and have thick skins especially tomatoes, apples, figs and pears.

Heat and Rain:

Heat and sun are wonderful but coupled with no rain they are a killer. (It is interesting how many guests we receive do not know that we dry farm.) In short perennials, tomatoes, vines, in fact all plants shut down their respiration in order to conserve moisture in their bodies (trunks) so they can survive drought and reproduce in the future.

2015 was the second hottest summer on record following 2003 and followed by 2006 (which I found very interesting). It has been noted it was the driest summer since 1949 and I would also offer 1976. I do not have all the figures yet but there were several critical factors that affected our final result.

As noted we had a spring drier than normal, a bit of rain in mid June but virtually no rain until mid August. To be frank the August rains saved us. Without these rains, still not a lot, about an inch, the grapes would have never ripened and the quantity of juice would have been even less.

The rain jump started final ripening and the torrid heat at the end of August shot the sugar levels up. Here are bullet points leading up to harvest. Please note that grape sugars are important but it is their relation to the acids (various) and the physical health of the bunches that collectively make the vintage.

August:

24 August, Monday: most domains are back to work after the August break. We conduct our first sugar and acid readings under hot and sunny skies. Here is a compilation of various results.

Bourgogne Chardonnay: 11.5
Meursault: 12.3
Puligny: 11.8
St. Aubin 1er Cru 11.0
Batard: 11.0
Bourgogne Pinot Noir: 10.7
Volnay: 11.4
Savigny: 10.6
Nuits 1er Cru Les Argrillières: 11.0

After looking at all of our results, and the availability of harvesters we decide to start next Monday, August 31 instead of Friday, September 4.

26 August, Wednesday: the seeds appear to be as in 2005 with the tannins as in 2009. The phs are good but there is little to no malic acid so after the malolactic fermentations the total acidity will hardly change.

27 August, Thursday: The weather continues to be full sunshine and very hot with the temperature in the high 80s to low 90s. The sugars explode up in three days and we have never seen anything like this (see below). Vines that were damaged by the previous years hail have ripened the fastest, as you would expect, because of the low fruit levels.

Bourgogne Chardonnay: 11.3 (This makes no sense, we need a better sample.)
Meursault: 12.9 (CRAZY)
Puligny: 12.7 (CRAZY)
St. Aubin 1er Cru 12.1 (WOW)
Batard: 12.1 (WOW)
Bourgogne Pinot Noir: 11.2 (More normal)
Volnay: 12.0 (Normal)
Savigny: 11.6 (crazy)
Nuits 1er Cru Les Argrillières: 12.2 (crazy)

Tonight we decide to begin harvest earlier on Saturday, August 29 and we spend the evening rounding up vendangers. With the continued heat and sun, and no rain in sight, sugars will spike and the grapes will concentrate with the loss of juice.

29 August, Saturday: we begin with a small picking team in our two Meursault vineyards. The combined sugars come in at over 13%. In the afternoon, under very hot weather we harvest our Beaune Blanc at 13.4%.

30 August, Sunday: As the team picks I tour our various vines and take samples of the grapes. I visit a friend, a well know Chassagne producer, who relates to me that he made less Meursault 1er Cru Les Perrieres this year than in 2012; this is depressing news. It is confirmed when I visit our team in our Puligny vineyard and see we made about what we did in 2012; record lows.

Bloody hot: 30 c / 86 f at noon, 35 c / 95 f at 15:30 and 28 c / 82 c at 20:00!

31 August, Monday: Still hot and I begin to do a quick and dirty calculation of the yields of juice per kilo. Our rule of thumb is that 330 kilos = 228 liters or one barrel (~300 btls.) of wine. It appears that the actual number this year will again be in the 355-365 range depending on the parcel or in other words 7.5-10.5% less juice than the average. In addition there are significantly fewer bunches with many vines vacant.

1 September, Tuesday: we get some much needed rain (can you believe I am saying this?) Monday night/Tuesday morning and we put off harvesting until Wednesday.

2 September, Tuesday: I conduct more prelevements and spend time in our St. Romain vines. It is clear that what should be the “best” vineyards are suffering a great deal. For example our St. Romain La Périère has a significantly lower sugar reading (10.4) and the grapes are visually more stressed than our St. Romain En Chevrot (11.8), which has a much higher elevation and has a much less interesting exposure. (Please note that the percentage difference of 13.5% does not seem to be a great delta but in “grape” terms it is a canyon or about a week to ten days. Or to put it a harvest context the two vineyards have reversed places.) Finally, in tasting the grapes from En Chevrot they are fresh, zippy, have more juice and have an exotic lychee quality.

In retrospect, and as the harvest continues, it is clear that parcels from “cooler” climes have suffered less and produced more volume of juice. We, the collective Burgundy, seem to have underestimated the stress of the summer weather and have again remained too many the optimists.

7 September, Monday: The weather has remained perfect and has cooled off a bit. For several days in the beginning of the vendange we had the team start earlier and end sooner. It was simply torrid to continue much past 3:00 and in addition the grapes were coming in hot.

The sanitary condition of the grapes is superb and there is little to no triage. This is actually only the third time in my 22 years of harvests where sorting the grapes on the table de tri was an exercise in admiration. There was virtually no rot, a few dried berries and the occasional “verjus;” green grapes.

10 September, Thursday: We finished harvesting the last of our grapes on Tuesday and now have to bring in a few lots of grapes we buy in from the Cote de Nuits. I find it fascinating that once again there is no fixed pattern or perfect solution to the picking order. Different parcels have their own life and personality that is reflected by the growing season. To say there is a prefect day to pick throughout the Cote is sheer folly. This is not a paint by numbers exercise and each parcel is a reflection of its character, the growing season and the husbandry of its owner. This is one of the wonderful pieces of the profession but also one of the discussions that drives me a bit to the edge because everyone seems to know what is best; especially by those not in possession of the responsibility.

11-13 September, Friday-Sunday; Over the weekend we bring in our Chambolle 1er Cru Aux Echanges, Chambolle Village; all lovely small bunches.

15-25 September: Vinifications:

The vinifications are fast. After about a week of a cold maceration we begin to heat, or simply turn off the cold, and the grapes start fermenting. The red fermentations once they start are over in 4-5 days; our laboratory confirms this is normal for vintage and it is a wild ride. The sugars literally disappeared at almost 2X the normal rate because there is not the normal “brakes” of higher acidities. Another fascinating point is that the rendements, yields of alcohol, are actually LOWER than we initially thought; what is going on?

If I may give a brief and oversimplified explanation of fermentations;

There is a general rule of thumb that +-17 grams of sugar per liter of a fruit juice will equal 1 degree of alcohol. Here in Burgundy and in Europe there are practical numbers and legal numbers but at the end of the day we use 17 g for white wine and 17.5 g for red wine. This year it seems it is 18 g for red wine and thus there is less final alcohol making for a more balanced wine of acids, fruits and tannins. This is why in my first paragraph of this essay I said we cannot compare this to any other vintage; details do matter.

Finally, and this is even more bizarre, the final acids are higher after fermentation than before because of this year’s yeasts (strains).

SORRY: Here is a bit more chemistry so bear with me. (I actually looked this stuff up and I am indebted to Wikipedia because I long ago forgot the following in my wine chemistry class.)

The following will not kill you so here are some useful terms visualizations.

Total Acid – refers to the total of all acids present – the skeleton of the wine.

Ph – is the strength of the acidity or potential hydrogen – the muscles of the wine

Tartaric Acid – adds stability – the backbone of the wine.

Malic Acid – gives the green apple taste or “hard” cider aspect to alcohol. In warmer climates it is much lower thus this year we have little of it.

Lactic Acid – gives the “roundness” to wine, and is created by lactic bacteria that converts the malic acid into lactic acid. Think “hard cider” to “cider.”

Acetic Acid – acetic bacteria makes volatile acidity and in high doses can lead to a faulty wine and in worst cases vinegar. It is however present each year and in relatively low amounts can add roundness and richness to a wine.

Citric Acid – Actually there are very small amounts in grapes and it is often added as a cheap way to increase total acidity (not us, seriously).

And FINALLY the PUNCH LINE:

Succinic Acid – is most commonly found in wine, but can also be present in trace amounts in ripened grapes. It is usually found in higher levels in red wine grapes and is a byproduct of the yeast cells during fermentation. (PLEASE STAY WITH ME.) The combination of succinic acid and alcohol (ethanol) creates a mild, fruit aroma in wines and raises its acidity

So what the heck does this mean? I have no idea what the chemical chain means but I can tell you that this year because of the yeasts they created a great deal more succinic acid. Thus the wines have a sense of movement, lightness, power, length and balance that based on the growing year we would have never expected. What is exciting is that this is confirmed by our observations during their fermentations that many reds initially exhibited a high tone cranberry quality followed by black fruit and then sometimes at the end the cranberries tones returned; exactly what the chemistry predicts.

The colors are intense, very deep and often black; more from the south of France yet all the while they keep their pinot quality or as we say “peanut” character. As you would expect the vines that have some of the lowest yields have the most intense colors; our Volnay and Pommard are almost black. Yields in the Cote de Beaune were very low and as my buddy Francois Rocault said, “I made more Pommard with the hail than I did this year!”

It is clear that three years of hail pummelled the vines and for them to recover we must prune short to develop new and healthy wood (that was bruised/damaged by the hail) and wait for the buds that are formed a year in advance to recover. Today what we have are amazing wines of color, depth and finesse in tiny quantities.

Stems or not to stem…..occasionally we do add whole clusters but it is never systematic and is based on the quality of the grapes and the stems (rafle). Stems can add complexity to a wine if they are brown, snap easily and are not neon green. Often during fermentations they give off an acetone or “nail polish” smell that disappears as the fermentation completes. (Until you get used to it, it is a bit off putting but seems to work itself through.) Stems also make the wines lighter in color but do not make the wines “lighter” in body. (This is why I say again and again color matters from and aesthetic perspective but not from a gustatory one.) This year we have four wines where we have vinified with whole clusters because of the wonderful quality of the bunches.

Chambolle-Musigny: 20%
Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Charmes: 30%
Clos-Vougoet: 50%
Charmes-Chambertin: 50%

Final thoughts:

As I taste through these young wines I am struck that there are no real slackers; they all are lovely, complete, balanced, have a “longeur” (great length) in the mouth and have wonderful pure aromatics. They are all unique and show their vineyard genes and character. Some will argue certain appellations are too dense, not “typical.” I argue what is “typique?” What is typical for Burgundy and the Cote d’Or is that it does change, it is not static and its very unpredictability is one of its charms.

I used to believe that this unpredictability was a liability but with years I relish that it is never the same. It is in the nature of change, and our ability to adapt to her changes, that makes making wine here so satisfying, exciting and never boring. Yes, this makes wines from the Cote d’Or a terrible marketing exercise when we have to explain and defend our children anew every year but is not that the role of the husbander?

Some years ago I met a courageous old acquaintance from high school that was going to plant grapes and make wine in suburban Washington, DC. Trying not to act as a Spanish Inquisitor I was positive to her and her “consultant.” As we discussed philosophies and techniques (there are not the same by the way) he asked, “Do you use natural or industrial yeasts (canned)?” I responded, “Natural yeasts, if I did not the wines would all taste the same.” He replied,  “Isn’t that the point?” I wanted to say “Out damn spot!” but went on recounting the wonder of the diversity in our wines, which I know fell of death ears.

By now you know where I stand; intransigent and a defender of the faith that out of the seemingly chaos of our rocky slope come the most interesting and diverse wines in the world.

Alex Gambal

14 blvd. Jules Ferry
21200 Beaune
03 80 22 75 81
03 80 22 21 66 FAX

alex@alexgambal.com

 

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