A bullseye in the bag and another on the run
IBELIEVE it to be a true story — rather than urban myth— that a group of five visited Stanton and Killeen’s cellar door one day: grandfather, mum and dad (the three tasters) and two children. The much-admired Chris Killeen (who recently succumbed to cancer, aged only 53) gave a running commentary on the wines, culminating with one of his great vintage ports, only a few years old.
‘‘ This wine,’’ he said, ‘‘ needs 10 years at least, and will live for much longer if properly cellared.’’
Grandfather, standing at the back of the group, put up his hand and declared, ‘‘ Son, I have a problem. These days I don’t even buy green bananas.’’
As the days rush by remorselessly towards my 70th birthday (a decade or two got lost along the way) I amforever reminding myself of the folly of buying green bananas. But when a vintage such as 2005 in Burgundy comes along, caution is thrown to the wind. The whites are very good, the red burgundies sheer miracles. I am going to buy all I can get my hands on and happily drink many of them long before they have fully ripened. These are very special bananas.
All the experts agree this is the best vintage since the fabulous 1978s and ’ 49s. Comparisons such as these are in one sense invidious but everyone seeks some benchmark for comparison.
The wines came from a growing season that had everyone guessing. June was dry and hot (another 2003?), then cool weather returned for the first half of July, followed by a warmer second half with some rain. This disappeared with a mini-drought throughout August but dotted through the first two weeks of September with perfectly timed and weighted light patches of rain.
The end result was a moderate crop of perfect, evenly ripened grapes with no rot. The skins were thick, the juice per kilogram low, the colour great, the tannins perfect. They said in 2002 only a fool did not make good wine; in 2005 it proved difficult not to make great wine.
The supple fruit of these 2005 wines is miraculous given that they have so much concentration: the mid-palate has a crescendo of flavour, yet the wines drive through to an astonishingly long finish. Within their categories, the village wines, the premier crus and the grand crus all leave you with a sense of disbelief. How can such young wines have so much character, typicity and flavour that you will be seduced into drinking them long before they reach their zenith?
Now there is the 2007 vintage, proving the old truism that no two vintages are the same. It will be very early, with the first grapes being picked at much the same time as they were in the searingly hot 2003 vintage. But the circumstances could hardly be more different: spring arrived a month early in what was meant to be winter and relatively dry and warm soil provided a boost to growth.
I usually arrive in Burgundy at the beginning of May, the vineyards still largely bare, the soil that inviting, warm red-brown running up the sides of the Cote d’Or to the forested hilltops. This year there was a sea of green, with not a glimpse of brown to be seen.
May proceeded with climate change on a day-by-day, hour-to-hour basis, sunny one moment, raining the next. Critically, the temperature varied around a balance point of 20C, ideal for vine growth, not so much for flowering: paradoxically, a good thing, as the uneven berry size will reduce the yield.
The Burgundians work on a 100-day period between flowering and picking and find it surprisingly consistent regardless of the intervening weather (unless it be a 2003 continuous heatwave). But what happens when the start is advanced by 30 days? The second half will see far more hours of daily sunlight and warmth.
This will shorten the 100 days to perhaps 90. Will this mean grapes will become sugar-ripe but not flavour-ripe? Will the seeds harden as they should? Is this a foretaste of future climate patterns? May those patterns be even better than the last four decades of the 20th century? We can’t be certain, but the ides of March are good.