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The Ten Best French Red Wines: A Beginner’s Guide

The French red wines can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but they are actually easy to understand by just knowing a few basics. French winemakers have had such success in matching the perfect grape variety to specific plots of land for so long, that these marriages have been codified into law. That means that each wine region can grow only the varieties that grow well in that area. Hundreds of years of trial and error have passed and wine buyers of today can generally be assured that any given bottle of French wine will taste as it should. That’s not to say that French winemakers are not allowed to experiment and innovate—they are, just under specific appellations. Once you know the best varieties for each region, shopping for French red wine is a snap!

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Bourgogne Wine Tour Up Close and Personal

I am pleased to share my Burgundy wine tour experience with the Wine Scholar Guild, as it was the trip of a lifetime.  My wife and I arrived a couple of days early and enjoyed fine wine and dining in Paris before our quick train trip over to Beaune (via Dijon).  We spent Sunday on our own, touring the Hospices de Beaune, wandering the city streets and having a lovely dinner.

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Ten Essential French White Wines

The white wines of France offer unrivaled perfection. With few exceptions, every vineyard growing white grapes is so planted not because reds won’t grow well there, but because whites will flourish. France’s white wines are not an afterthought or a consolation prize. These are vinous treasures worth exploring.

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5 Things to Keep in Mind When Visiting Producers in Burgundy

Sadly, time has marched on, since the fantastic Bourgogne Immersion Trip I took with the Wine Scholar Guild lead by Andrew Jefford, October 23 – 28, 2016. Everyone on the trip was definitely a “wine nerd” but the group was composed of a mix of wine industry professionals, wine students of all levels that had “day jobs” and just wine appreciators. I had been on a few wine trips previously that were organized by friends or non-winegroups like Backroads (biking and wine). However, I had never gone on such a blockbuster, action-packed wine trip as this one. So for future participants here are 5 items to keep in mind so you have an incredible trip.

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Bourgogne Vintage Charts & Ratings

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Chablis

Vintage Quality Drink Comments
2016 Drink/Cellar After a mild winter and a very wet spring, disaster struck Chablis with severe frosts on April 26th-27th, followed by two hail episodes on May 13th and May 27th.  Conditions were cool and cloudy until the third week in June, after which summer was dry and warm until mid-September, when further cool and cloudy weather began to provoke rot; a speedy harvest took place in late September. The harvest losses vary from 55 per cent for Chablis and Petit Chablis to 35 per cent for Premier Cru wines and 15 per cent for Grand Cru wines, making this the most difficult vintage for Chablis in terms of quality since the 1950s.  Quality, however, was good, and the style of the wines is light, fresh and classical, with ample ‘mineral’ notes.
2015 Drink/Cellar A mild winter was followed by a clement spring without frost problems.  Flowering, in early June, was unproblematic, and summer was generally warm and dry.  Unfortunately, a hail storm on September 1st destroyed 300 ha in some of the best sites (Les Clos, Blanchots and Montée de Tonnerre).  The region’s remaining 5,100 ha were picked in good conditions over the following two weeks.  The wines have ample fruit, with fresh though not steely acidity. Delicious mid-term Chablis, with the best wines ageing well.
2014 Drink/Cellar Spring was warm, with some April frost damage to less propitious vineyards.  July and August were both cool months, with double the annual rainfall and less sunshine than usual; at that point, the vintage looked bleak.  Then, came the hottest September in 130 years with some useful, freshening rain mid-month. Most fruit was harvested in the latter part of September and early October as growers waited for acid levels to fall.  The resulting wines are classically taut, tight and lean, with pungent, nuanced, mouth-watering ripeness: the kind of balance which allows full expression to Chablis’ stony, ‘mineral’ character.
2013 Drink After a cool, wet spring, flowering came late (at the end of June) and under difficult conditions. The consequent coulure (shatter) and millerandage (shot berries) set a small crop.  July and August were warm and generally dry but the cycle remained a very late one, with harvest beginning at the end of September.  Heavy rain on October 4th, and the rapid onset of botrytis afterwards, posed further problems.  Early pickers produced attractive Chablis in a fruity, rounded style; late pickers produced softer wines.   
2012 Drink/Cellar Spring frosts , extended flowering with isolated hail followed by very dry summer & water stress. Beneficial rains in September. Reduced harvest of mature grapes leading to structured wines with potentially long life. Some compare to 2010 or 2002.
2011 Drink Early start. Cool, wet summer marked by frequent storms. Very sunny end of August. Normal volume after short 2010. Sorting key to quality. Lighter, often delicate wines of lower alcohol & moderate acidity, many with early appeal. Considerable variability.
2010 Drink/Cellar Challenged flowering, coulure & millerandage reduced crop. Low yields delivered concentrated wines with density & dimension: ripeness plus structure. A uniform success. Even regional Chablis will be worthy of mid-term bottle aging.
2009 Drink Full, ripe wines with generous flavors rather than a textbook Chablis profile. Some forward & soft; drink early.
2008 Drink Extended flowering, millerandage. Good summer, average sun hours & temperatures. Expressive, aromatic wines; a classic Chablis vintage combining substance & vivacity.
2007 Drink Several hailstorms affecting Chichée and various 1ers crus. Uneven maturity. Disparate quality ranging from thin and green to fresh and delicate.
2006 Drink Successful, well-balanced wines, sometimes heavy. Clearly defined tiers of quality according to rank.
2005 Drink Ripe, generous, full wines, occasionally high in alcohol. Best grands crus suitable for long cellaring.
2004 Drink Large crop. Best sites & those harvested later achieved adequate maturity. Many light, weak wines showing effects of high yields.
2003 Drink/Past peak Anormal year, highly precocious. Exceptionally hot, dry, sunny August. Some grapes “burnt” on the vine. Harvest commenced 25 August. Rich wines, high alcohols, low acidity. Compared to 1893.
2002 Drink Mature, healthy grapes delivered generous wines with ripe acidity. Best grands crus will have long life.
2001 Past peak Unequal ripening favored best sites, old vines. Marked acidity. Particularly large quality gap between petit/ regional Chablis and grands crus.
2000 Past peak Well- balanced, mature and fairly generous wines with sound acidity harvested in good weather.

 

Côte de Beaune Whites

Vintage Quality Drink Comments
2016 Drink/Cellar After the warmest December to February quarter in over a century, spring turned cool, wet and gloomy. A humid, wet evening on April 26th was followed by a very cold, clear night which brought severe frost damage on the morning of April 27th; unusually, this affected the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards (notably Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet) more than ‘village’ vineyards.  Damp and dreary conditions continued throughout most of June, and flowering was late, with intense disease pressure.  The picture eased with a warm, sunny July, a hot August and a fine beginning to September, with a little refreshing rain.  Harvest was generally underway by mid-September, producing a very small crop of charming, fresh-flavoured whites.
2015 Drink/Cellar After a mild winter, spring began early and remained frost-free.  A warm April followed by a dry May led to flowering at the end of the month in what rapidly transitioned into very warm weather. The crop was not as large as hoped due to continuing vine stress from 2014.  Rain fell just after flowering and helped the Côte d’Or through a hot, dry summer; there were further light showers in early August.  Harvest began early, at the end of August, in fine weather.  The resulting wines are ripe and generous, vividly fruity, without excess, and should age well.
2014 Drink/Cellar

Spring was clement and frost-free, and flowering at the end of May went well, setting a good crop.  Severe hailstorms on June 28th, though, caused comprehensive damage, especially in Beaune and Meursault, with losses of up to 50% in some sites; Puligny was partly hit, but Chassagne largely escaped.  July and early August were mixed, but the weather rapidly improved in late August and the harvest was picked in perfect conditions throughout September.  Volume may have been impacted, but quality was excellent: fresh, lively wines with vibrant acidity and excellent ageing potential.

2013 Drink/Cellar Winter was cold. March, April and May were all wet, with flooding in some lower-lying vineyards.  Both bud break and flowering were late, the latter in cool, wet conditions towards the end of June, setting a small crop.  July was warm, but a hailstorm on the 23rd caused extensive losses, principally in Beaune and Meursault.  A normal August and a cool September followed, with a late harvest at the end of September followed by considerable fruit sorting and chaptalisation.  Assiduous growers, however, have made fresh, classic white wines with plenty of site expression.
2012 Drink Difficult year with multiple climatic challenges. Severe hail damage in Meursault, Puligny, Chassagne. Volume 39% less than 5-year average. Open, full wines with generous fruit; fat on occasion. Best have balancing acidity. Less consistent than their 2012 peers in red.
2011 Drink Early start. Cool, wet summer marked by frequent storms. Very sunny end of August. Normal volume after short 2010. Sorting key to quality. Lighter, often delicate wines of lower alcohol & moderate acidity, many with early appeal. Considerable variability.
2010 Drink/Cellar Small harvest. Concentrated whites with dimension, intensity & structure. Most wines, village & above, will benefit from cellaring.
2009 Drink Wines display expressive, very ripe fruit. Best are balanced, offer considerable early pleasure; others lack acidity & will age rapidly. Only the most structured should be cellared.
2008 Drink Focused, elegant, incisive whites. Standouts are backward and have concentration & structure to permit long cellaring. Superior to the ’08 reds.
2007 Drink Challenging season, wet & cold summer. Expressive lighter wines possessing marked acidities. Some are thin, sharp & will not keep well.
2006 Drink Some variability at all levels of AOC ranks. Ripe, full whites, though lacking acidity in certain cases.
2005 Drink Dry year without extremes. Rich, complete whites with sound acidities. Consistent quality across communes. Wines for further cellaring should be selected with care after assessing their current maturity.
2004 Drink Large harvest in white and better overall quality than ’04 reds. Aromatic wines, high acidity.
2003 Drink/Past peak Atypically hot, dry season. Cooler communes (e.g., St.-Romain, Pernand) dealt best with conditions.  Rich, heady whites, low natural acidity (no malic). Prone to oxidation.
2002 Drink Smaller vintage of regular quality with sound maturity & acidity. Complex, complete whites with substance & equilibrium.
2001 Past peak Wet, cool season. Whites not as good as reds, which were picked later. Irregular maturities, lower sugars. Best in Meursault.
2000 Drink

Healthy, ripe, often soft whites unaffected by September storm. Immediately appealing, most are past their prime.  Machine harvesters, already in wide use in Chablis & Mâconnais, became more prevalent in the Côte by this vintage.

 

Côte de Beaune & Côte de Nuits Reds

Vintage Quality Drink Comments
2016 Drink/Cellar Very mild, humid winter conditions gave way to a cold March and then a warmer month of April.  On the night of the 26th to 27th April, catastrophic frost conditions struck not the customary bottom-slope village vineyards but many of the mid-slope Grands Crus and Premiers Crus. These frosts were inconsistent: the village of Marsannay lost 90% of its fruit, and Vougeot, Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux, Musigny and Chambolle les Amoureuses were badly hit, while the other vineyards of Vosne, and most of Gevrey and Nuits in general escaped unscathed.  Damage to Pommard and Volnay was mixed, too; Corton was hit on the Pernand side, but not the Aloxe side.  After the frosts came intense disease pressure during a dismal May and June.  By the end of June, though, conditions improved, and July and August were ideal; harvest made it clear that the overall Bugundy crop was 25 to 30 per cent below normal.  Attentive growers who were spared the worst of the frost rigours have made deep-coloured, lively, fleshy wines with ample fruit and soft tannins.
2015 Cellar A mild January and a cold February was followed by a very warm spring, early and mid-summer weather; flowering was speedy and successful, though yields were lower than hoped, with a lot of millerandage (shot berries).  The drought conditions of July were eased by August storms, and an early harvest unfolded in perfect weather at the end of August and beginning of September with little sorting required; the berries were small and thick-skinned.  Ripe, vivacious, structured and deeply fruited wines with fine ageing potential were made up and down both Côtes.
2014 Cellar

A mild winter was followed by a generally hot and sunny spring that delivered much less rain than usual; flowering was successful and uneventful at the end of May and beginning of June.  A catastrophic hail storm struck on June 28th, principally affecting Beaune, Pommard and Volnay, with minor damage on the hill of Corton.  The Côte de Nuits escaped – but was hit to a lesser extent around Chambolle on July 25th.  July and August were cloudy and cool, but the harvest was saved by a sunny, warm September, with the red harvest beginning in mid-September.  Comprehensive sorting (up to 20% of the harvest) was required, not only because of hail, but also because summer’s still, humid conditions provoked attack from Drosophila suzukii which can cause acid rot in the berries.  The best wines are fresh, vital and energetic, with more length than amplitude.

2013 Drink/Cellar Winter was cold; spring was wet and cool.  The vegetative cycle was late, and flowering took place in cool, damp conditions towards the end of June, provoking some crop loss due to coulure (shatter) and millerandage (shot berries).  July, by contrast, was hot and sunny, helping the vines to catch up somewhat.  Catastrophic hail on July 23rd caused comprehensive losses (up to 90% of the crop) around Beaune, and especially in Pommard and Volnay; the Côtes de Nuits, though, was unscathed.   August was normal but September was cool and wet; the reds were speedily harvested in early October.  Quality was better than expected, especially once the malic acid was eliminated: pure, crisp, fresh reds with good site definition for the medium term.
2012 Drink/Cellar Highly irregular, challenging season. Extremely cold February injured old vines. Oidium & mildew. Rainy April & June, difficult flowering. Hail in Pommard and Volnay. Crop cut in half vs. 5-year norm. Hot, sunny, dry from mid-July through September. Low yields. Best reds are dense, perfumed, rich & sensual with fine-grained tannins. Irregular in hail-affected communes.
2011 Drink/Cellar Very warm April, early budburst. Mixed summer until mid-August, then warm, dry September. Reds of moderate ripeness: light colors, expressive aromas, elegant. Mid-term aging potential. Best in Côte de Nuits where results may be superior to ’07 & ’08.
2010 Drink/Cellar Winter freeze & extended flowering, coulure and millerandage reduced crop. Low yields, small berries with thick skins. Reds possess complexity, intensity & ideal balance of fruit, acidity & tannin. All levels of hierarchy including top Bourgognes  are cellar-worthy.
2009 Drink/Cellar Fully mature reds endowed with generous fruit & sensual texture. Superior ripeness yet with potential to age. High alcohol in certain cases. Many wines with early appeal. Memorable Corton, Côte de Nuits wines will reward mid- to long-term cellaring.
2008 Drink Fresh, aromatic, medium-weight reds. Less successful wines are lean with marked acidity.
2007 Drink Early flowering; cold, wet summer. Threat of mildew & rot. Early harvest. Severe sorting often reduced volume. Best in Côte de Nuits (Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits).
2006 Drink Very hot July, wet & cool August, favorable September. Fleshy reds with fruit & ripe tannins. Considerable variation in quality in Côte de Beaune.
2005 Drink/Cellar Consistent, well-endowed reds, full-bodied & well-structured. Grands crus destined for long aging.
2004 Drink Fresh, well-defined wines of light to medium weight. Many lack flesh & are angular, unlikely to improve. Better in Côte de Nuits. Hail damage in Volnay, Pommard.
2003 Drink Extremely hot summer, smallest crop since 1981. Earliest harvest in centuries, starting 20-25 August in Côte d’Or. High sugars, incomplete phenolic maturities. Atypical profile: dense, rich, high in alcohol, low acidity (acidification common). Cold locales and clay soils yielded best wines. Most have reached their peak.
2002 Drink Small, ripe & mostly healthy berries. Harmonious, balanced wines of medium weight with attractive fruit. A few lack concentration. Some compare to excellent 1999 Côte d’Or reds.
2001 Drink Variable in Côte de Beaune due to hail, notably Volnay. Some excellent wines in Côte de Nuits, especially those picked later and sorted.
2000 Drink

Generous vintage, considerable variation by commune, climat & grower. Green harvesting and sorting key to outcome. Hail & a heavy rainstorm in Côte de Beaune as picking started. Côte de Nuits more successful.

Mâconnais

Vintage Quality Drink Comments
2016 Drink/Cellar In contrast to the Côte d’Or and Chablis, the Mâconnais escaped the late April frosts – but growers there were no cheerier, as a comprehensive hail storm on the afternoon of April 13th had destroyed around 2,500 ha in the best, southern part of region (especially Pouilly-Fuissé, -Loché and –Vinzelles, and St Véran), meaning overall losses of 30 per cent for this sector.  After that, a difficult early summer was followed by a much more successful July and August, and quality was good, with fleshy yet fresh white wines making ideal mid-term drinking.
2015 Drink/Cellar The growing season was warm, regular and precocious with excessive heat in July being the main challenge (new heat records were set in Mâcon on July 4th and August 7th: 39.2°C and 39.1°C respectively). Temperatures were eased by some intermittent rain later in August. A healthy crop was harvested in late August and September with excellent results overall: lush, generous, broad-beamed though sometimes heady wines.
2014 Drink/Cellar

A largely trouble-free growing season with successful flowering led to an early, leisurely harvest under benign skies in early September.  Quality is outstanding: poised, balanced wines with a perfect balance between acidity-derived tension and round but not exaggerated fruit richness.

2013 Drink A rainy spring, poor flowering, a cool summer and a rainy harvest period provided multiple challenges.  Those in the south of the region with well-exposed vineyards who harvested before the heavy rains that fell over the first weekend of October made good wines despite the challenges; elsewhere, the wines were underripe and dilute.
2012 Drink Turbulent season, compromised flowering, reduced crop. Expressive whites displaying ripe fruit and good density at top levels. Some inconsistency in quality.
2011 Drink Round, fleshy wines with appealing fruit & delicacy. Top Pouilly-Fuissé suitable for mid-term cellaring.
2010 Drink/Cellar Smaller harvest of concentrated, balanced wines with noteworthy definition.
2009 Drink/Cellar Wines with marked ripeness, body & fruit.  Cool locales/sites very successful (e.g., Vergisson). Some are powerful, rich & low in acidity and are for current drinking. Cellar the best Pouilly-Fuissé
2008 Drink Difficult season, varied maturities. Well-defined, lighter, fresh whites.
2007 Drink Challenging growing conditions, instances of inadequate maturity. Many good, balanced wines.
2006 Drink Best whites possess fruit, substance & acidity and reflect their terroir. St.-Véran stands out. Variability to a degree with high alcohol and low acidity in some cases.
2005 Drink Ripe, full, balanced whites with generous fruit. Very consistent quality. Assess current maturity before further cellaring.
2004 Past peak Attractive, medium-weight wines. St.-Véran most successful; Pouilly-Fuissé falls short.
2003 Drink Hot, extremely dry. Highly variable outcomes by locale and grower making it difficult to generalize. Many rich, flamboyant wines with low acidity evolved quickly.
2002 Drink Difficult season. Generally attractive whites, best with richness & weight for early/mid-term consumption.
2001 Drink Irregular growing season, poor September. Most successful wines hailed from patient growers who waited for the grapes to achieve maturity.
2000 Drink

High yields resulted largely in early-maturing, aromatic wines with lower acidities. Best wines had depth, intensity & balance.

 

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Chart Legend

Methodology: This report has been compiled utilizing multiple authoritative sources including regional trade associations, experts in each region, wine producers, academic studies, leading journalists, and the editor’s personal notes.
Acknowledgements: E. Gabay MW (Provence); Hugel family (Alsace); D. Markham (Bordeaux); K. McAuliffe (Rhône); M. Stubbs MW (Languedoc-Roussillon).
Editor’s comment: This chart is intended to serve as a reliable guide for professionals, educators and collectors. Judgments as to the quality, longevity and current maturity of a given vintage are by definition simplified assessments describing the average profile of the year. There will always be individual wines which surpass, or fail to reach, the overall standard, or which may have a shorter or longer life than their peers. Last, these evaluations are not fixed and permanent; rather, they will be revised as needed to reflect the wines as they age in bottle.

LEARN MORE ABOUT BOURGOGNE WINES:

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