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Booming Burgundy Wine

Expertise and Technology Have Created Burgundy's Greatest Run Of Vintages Ever, And 1997 Promises to Preserve the Streak
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

Is this what will happen in the blemish-free '97 vintage? Unlikely. Just why also partly explains why Burgundy hasn't had a poor vintage in more than a decade: grower expertise. Simply put, vintages prior to the mid-'80s weren't as bad as some of the wines suggested. The growers then just didn't have the technology and the wine-making knowledge that today's new generation commands.

Twenty years ago, most Burgundy producers, even the biggest and most sophisticated shippers, lacked real control. For example, they lacked temperature control equipment. If grapes came in too warm or, more often, too cold, there was little they could do. If fermenting juice overheats, the result is reduced acidity and certain kinds of spoilage. If cold juice takes too long to start fermenting, yet another sort of spoilage can set in.

Stainless steel tanks (with their temperature control "jackets") were almost unknown in Burgundy until the '80s. Too often, the old wood vats were musty. And in the vineyard, rotten or moldy grapes were poorly sorted out, if at all.

Today, it's a new, better Burgundy. Sure, there are still far too many greedy growers who overcrop their vines, producing too many clusters per vines for real quality. That's a perennial problem.

Nevertheless, we have never seen so many beautiful Burgundies as today. Vintages that once would have been declared disastrous--or at least pretty poor--such as the '94 red Burgundies (the whites were far more successful) now emerge in the hands of the best producers as something fine and appealing.

The '94 vintage saw yet more interesting weather (Burgundy's weather is always fascinating). Summer was hot and dry. So far, so good. But then it began to rain in late August. That's not so bad, you say. The vines need a bit of water. Otherwise they can "shut down" from water stress. True enough. But then it kept raining, on and off, all through September. Still, '94 wasn't a disaster. The white Burgundies were quite good. How could this be? Partly it was because the summer was so warm that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were riper than usual by early September. It would have been a very early harvest were it not for the rain.

In '94 rot eventually did set in. Many, if not most, red '94s were light and thin. But the best growers sorted their grapes with almost savage ferocity, eliminating half or more of their Pinot Noir. The result was wines better than what Burgundy would have offered if this same harvest had occurred 20 or 30 years ago.

The '94 whites were more successful as Chardonnay was fully ripe, maybe too much so. The acidity was low. Most '94 white Burgundies were rich, but flabby. It's a vintage to drink young, while the fruit is fresh. As a matter of fact, they taste swell right now.

This brings us to what might be called the Great Triumvirate: 1995, '96 and '97. Let's make it simple. The '95 vintage produced some of the greatest white Burgundies seen in a generation. Unlike most Burgundy vintages, '95 was ambidextrous: both red and white performed beautifully. We haven't seen such switch-hitting since the 1990 vintage.

But it must be said that '95 was a standout for the whites. Why? In a word, yields. Chardonnay yields in Burgundy have crept up as steadily as a sales tax. Demand for white Burgundy is intense; growers are happy to oblige by ratcheting up the yields of their vines.

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