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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.

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.

But cold spring weather in '95 inhibited flowering, with the result that some Chardonnay vines had up to one-third fewer clusters than usual. And boy, you can taste the difference. The '95 whites are unusually thick-textured and dense. High acidity will make these wines very long-lived, with plenty of dense fruit to stay the course.

The '95 Pinot Noir also had reduced yields. Summer was warm, which helped ripening. September was, naturally, episodically rainy. The reds came in ripe and a bit tannic. Everyone seems to agree that '95 reds were better in the Côte de Nuits, the northern half of the Côte d'Or, than in the Côte de Beaune. The reason: Côte de Nuits growers picked later. They got lucky, as the weather cleared in late September and early October, resulting in more fully ripened, less-astringent-tasting Pinot Noir. (The good weather also helped the later-ripening Chardonnay.)

Then there's '96, which will be much--and rightly--ballyhooed. It's a vintage that just might be the exception to the rule that high yields equal lesser quality. Spring '96 was well-nigh perfect, resulting in abundant flowering and a perfect "set," where each flower turns into a grape berry. It was a large crop ready to rock and roll. And it did. Summer was very dry and warm. And the ever-crucial September saw insignificant rain.

The result will be knockout red Burgundies in '96: darkly colored, richly fruity, moderately tannic and deeply pleasurable. At all levels, from inexpensive, basic Bourgogne rouge to stratospherically priced grands crus, the '96 reds performed brilliantly.

The '96 white Burgundies are unusually tart or acidic (good because it makes the wine refreshing and long-lived). They have exceptional finesse. They're not heavy or flabby wines. But the lesser versions are a little too thin, a little too acidic because there's not enough fruit density to buffer the high acidity. But the best wines are thrilling.

Surely there's a catch, right? It's that niggling matter of yields. The '96s, especially the reds, taste tremendous out of the barrel. But then, so too, did the '90s, another richly fruity, high-yield red and white wonder year. Indeed, '90 created some great Burgundies. But now, closing in on a decade of age, a certain "hollowness" in the midpalate of both the red and white '90s has become apparent.

That's the effect of higher-than-desirable yields in an otherwise sterling vintage. You don't see this effect when wines are very young. Their youthful, exuberant fruit seems unconquerable. But time is merciless. If yields are too high, it's the midpalate, the essential spine of the wine, that goes first.

So that's the one cautionary note to the '96s. Yields were high, with the result that some wines--especially the whites--can be a little light. Still, some very great wines were made that year. It's a vintage to pursue.

What's more, the '96s will be priced reasonably (for Burgundy). Prices for the '97s are widely expected to increase by as much as 30 percent over the '96s. Burgundians saw how much the Bordeaux growers--always more market savvy than the Burgundians--got for their '96s. So now the Burgundians are going for the gold with their '97s.

Which brings us to the almost bizarre '97 vintage, which is guaranteed to be hyped as yet another vintage of the century. It was almost too much of a good thing. As Hubert de Montille commented, September saw not a drop of rain and, even more incredibly, had no forecast of rain. Growers had so much time to decide when to pick (the rarest luxury in Burgundy) that some waited too long, resulting in overripe, sugar-rich grapes.

André Porcheret, winemaker for the vineyard-endowed Hospice de Beaune, an ancient charity hospital, and a grower himself, explained the consequence colorfully. "Some producers had vats of wine that flambéed," said Porcheret. By this he meant not that the wine turned into a Burgundian cherries jubilee, but that the juice was so sugar-rich that when fermentation (yeasts feeding on sugar) began, it took off almost uncontrollably. Temperature control equipment should have taken care of this--if the grower caught the problem in time. Some didn't.

At the very least, the '97 vintage should deliver very ripe-tasting wines, as both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir could be picked whenever the growers liked. There was not a care about rot or mold. Some really terrific Burgundies should result.

No vintage is perfect, though. One potential downside to the '97s might be, apart from overripeness, a deficiency in acidity. Some wines will be soft and lacking in refreshing crispness. That, in turn, will make them mature very quickly. We shall see. So far, '97 looks promising, but potentially treacherous.

For Burgundy buyers, vintages do matter. And they can be aggravating. But since the glorious (and now fully mature) 1985 harvest, it's been a pleasure to play. The odds are in our favor as never before. Some years you play white over red, such as '86 and '92. Other years you put your money only on red, such as '87, '91 and '93. And in a few rare years, such as '90 and '95, you play both white and red.

But one thing is certain: amazingly, not a year--or a harvest--has gone by when Burgundy hasn't delivered the goods. That is something no era of Burgundy lovers could ever say--or even imagine--until now.

Portland, Oregon-based Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator. They Were Very Good Years

The very word "vintage" spooks wine buyers. There's always a niggling fear that you're not getting the right year. The word itself somehow connotes quality: "a vintage year." In fact, a vintage is simply the year of the harvest.

Vintage literally means "harvest," from the Latin vindemia, grape gathering. In Italian, it's vendemmia; in Spanish, vendimia; in French, vendange. Only in English does "vintage" refer to a year on a label.

In France, a Burgundian will talk about 1996 as "une trés bonne année" because it was "une grande vendange." Somehow, all this got lost in translation, resulting in our muddled, yet resonant phrase, "a vintage year." (The California wine industry used to crow that "every year is a vintage year.")

However you use the term, the table at right of vintage ratings compiled by the tasting panel of Wine Spectator magazine illustrates Burgundy's almost unblemished run of quality over a 12-year span.

Vintage Ratings 95-100, classic; 90-94, outstanding; 80-89, good to very good; 70-79, average; 60-69, below average; 50-59, poor.
*1996 vintages were rated from barrel tastings and therefore are expressed in a range.

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