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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 2)

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.

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