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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

It has been an incredible run--and it's not over yet. Never in living memory have we seen such a remarkable string of good Burgundy vintages. "It's really something," exults Becky Wasserman, an American wine shipper who has lived in Burgundy for decades. "The last truly poor vintage we've seen was 1984. After that, it's been a dream." And it continues to be, right up to the latest (and possibly greatest) 1997 vintage.

Can this all be chalked up to good luck or perfect weather? Hardly. In an undertaking as quirky and temperamental as wine making, especially when dealing with the weather fluctuations of a region like Burgundy, a run of this length does not happen by accident. Expertise must be at work, like a talented card player who keeps winning hand after hand whether dealt good cards or bad.

That some years are better than others is not news to anyone out of short pants. The complication--nowhere more so than in Burgundy--is that some years see a really good harvest for Chardonnay (white Burgundy) while that same year may well be a lesser one for Pinot Noir (red Burgundy)--or vice versa.

How can this be? Timing. Burgundy, in eastern France and only 100 miles away from the Alps, is well within the mountain range's fast-changing weather influence. Harvest in Burgundy typically is in mid-September, just when cool weather and fall rains start. It's always a delicately played game to wait until the grapes are ripe enough to harvest, but to pick before the rains beginHow can this be? Timing. Burgundy, in eastern France and only 100 miles away from the Alps, is well within the mountain range's fast-changing weather influence. Harvest in Burgundy typically is in mid-September, just when cool weather and fall rains start. It's always a delicately played game to wait until the grapes are ripe enough to harvest, but to pick before the rains come.

Chardonnay vines bud a little later than Pinot Noir. That means that they typically get harvested later as well. In a place such as Burgundy, where a week can mean the difference between delight and disaster, the race between ripeness and rot is all a matter of beating the rain.

Inevitably, there are complications. Some years, Pinot Noir can have thicker, tougher skin than usual, thanks to a warm, dry summer. Then, the normally thin-skinned Pinot Noir, which cracks or bursts after a few days' rain, making it susceptible to rot or mold, can ride out the wet weather. That's what happened in the great '93 vintage.

Yet the '93 whites didn't fare as well. While picking started for Pinot Noir on September 15, when the weather was clear and sunny but cool, the Chardonnay grapes weren't ripe enough for harvest. It began to rain on the 22nd, when much of the Pinot Noir had already been picked, but the Chardonnay fruit was still not ready because of the cool weather. Many of the '93 white Burgundies emerged thin, underripe and a bit too acidic. Yet growers who, earlier in the season, pruned for very low yields made superb wines. Why? Because low-yield vines have grapes that ripen earlier and better.

Knowing this, you can understand why the Burgundians I talked to this past October at the end of the '97 harvest were ecstatic. It's probably best captured by a simple moment in the courtyard of a grower in the village of Volnay, famed for its perfumey Pinot Noirs.

On October 6, after virtually everything had been harvested, I visited Hubert de Montille, one of Volnay's senior eminences. We were tasting wine and spitting in the graveled courtyard. Suddenly, a few drops of rain fell. De Montille looked up, astonished. "That's the first drop of rain that's fallen in five weeks."

Such a statement speaks volumes. Burgundy almost never sees such dryness at harvest. The last time would have been 1976, a famous drought year. At the time, Burgundy growers--and gullible wine writers--declared '76 a vintage of the century. But the wines, in fact, were overripe. The reds were excessively tannic and tasted as if they were made from raisins, which in a way they were. Imagine overbrewed tea and you've got the picture. The whites were overalcoholic and "flabby" from a lack of acidity--raisins again.


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