1996 and 1995 Red Burgundies

Although I embark on each trip to taste the new Burgundy vintage with optimism and an open mind, it was hard to avoid a measure of skepticism in advance of my November red wine adventure. After all, many growers and their importers were talking up the quality of the '96 vintage-even better than 1995, some claimed-despite the fact that yields were the highest since 1990. The reason for their enthusiasm? This was the first time since '90 when growers could harvest when they wanted, rather than when incipient rot or forecasted rain required, and ideal conditions allowed them to bring in impeccable grapes. Indeed, some producers were comparing the '96s in quality to the '90s. Still, it a truth universally acknowledged that Pinot Noir is not as forgiving of high yields as Chardonnay-hence my apprehension.

But after visiting about 60 of the Cote d'Or's leading red wine estates, I was more than satisfied with what I found. The vintage is consistently attractive, and in numerous cellars outstanding wines were made. On the Cote de Beaune, 1996 is as a whole at least as successful as 1995. (The September rain in '95 had a more destructive effect here, especially in Volnay and Pommard, than on the Cote de Nuits: several growers reported that their '95s were rather austere or lacked the structure of a top year.) On the Cote de Nuits, the relative strengths of '95 and '96 differed from grower to grower, although I still give the edge to '95 for sheer density of material in a majority of the cellars I regularly visit. But the '96s promise to be captivating, fruit-driven wines with considerable early appeal. More than one grower noted in November that 1995 is a year of terroir, while 1996 is a vintage that showcases pure Pinot Noir fruit. My own experience tells me that any vintage that offers a combination of healthy grape sugars and firm acids, as '96 does, cannot help conveying differences of site.

The 1996 growing season. A fast and regular flowering set the stage for a large crop. The summer was not especially hot or sunny, and significant rain fell in late August. But September turned bright again, though very cool nighttime temperatures kept acidity levels from falling as grape sugars grudgingly rose. Most growers began picking on September 20 or 21, but a few waited a full week to start. Conditions remained excellent throughout the harvest.

The large but healthy crop prompted growers in several villages to petition the authorities to increase the P.L.C. (plafond limite de classement), the legal amount by which the growers can exceed the rendement de base (base yield), which is generally 40 hectoliters per hectare for premier crus and 35 for grand crus. Indeed, the P.L.C., which is 10% or 20% in most villages in most vintages, was in a number of instances increased to 30%, particularly in village and premier cru appellations. Yet, even with Pinot Noir, copious yields do not always tell the whole story. In 1990, almost universally regarded as one of the three or four best vintages of the last 20 years, the harvest brought a huge crop, in many cases larger than '96. And the absence of rot in '96 meant that little of the crop load had to be eliminated.

The 1996 wines. With high levels of malic acidity in their grapes, many growers initially were concerned that the wines would turn out tart or angular. And the malolactic fermentations proceeded slowly, in many cases not finishing until June or July. (In fact, I tasted some wines in November that had not finished!) Yes, the '96 reds display the same crisp acids as the whites from this vintage, but, by and large, the acids of '96 are ripe and serve to brighten the fruit. Tannins are generally firm but unobtrusive. However, many wines made from excessive yields or from grapes harvested before the skins were sufficiently ripe lack the stuffing for proper balance. Without enough buffering extract, these wines frequently do taste tart, and some of them finish dry. If there is a difference between '96 and '90, it is that the higher acidity of '96 gives some wines a harder edge and the impression of less density. On the other hand, well-made village wines in '96 have a purity and delineation of flavor less frequently seen in '90.

Colors are bright and dark, aromas remain quite fresh, and the quality and clarity of fruit is often exhilarating. Many wines have been kept fresh by remaining longer on their fine lees. Because this is a vintage that accents fresh Pinot Noir fruit, most growers are likely to bottle on the early side, so the typical '96 will have spent a relatively short period of time in barrel unprotected by contact with its lees. Most growers believe that this is a vintage that will give early pleasure but also age well, although some are beginning to think that these wines, like the '95s, will shut down at some point following the bottling. Certainly, with their firm acids, they may go through an angular period.

Pricing for '96s. A relatively small crop in '97, and the sharply higher prices paid by negociants for '97 wine at the Hospices de Beaune auction, have put further upward pressure on Burgundy prices. Last spring, most growers I regularly visit told me that price hikes in '96 would be minimal due to the large size of the crop and their general preference for price stability. But this fall, they were singing another tune. The '95s are completely sold out, worldwide demand for Burgundy continues to soar, and the Burgundians are well aware of the recent explosion in Bordeaux prices. They will not have much '97 to sell, and although some outrageously rich wines will be produced, it is a vintage of extremely variable quality. Right now, it appears that many estates will hike prices on '96 reds by 10% to 20%, and some by even more. On the bright side, though, any increments will be partly offset by a stronger dollar, and more '96 will be available for sale, so that mark-ups between the cellar and the consumer are unlikely to be as high as those taken on the scarcer '95s. Burgundy lovers should probably commit to these '96s soon, rather than waiting for prices to rise or supplies to disappear.

The '95s revisited. Although some '95s displayed glorious fruit in November, many were beginning to show a rather sullen tannic side, and it's entirely possible that a majority of the more serious '95s will go through an awkward stage lasting at least two or three years. The vintage's most imposing wines will require as much as six to ten years to reach maturity. Don't make the mistake of viewing 1995 as simply a fruity, forward vintage to enjoy while waiting for your '93s to reach maturity. On the contrary, the best '95s are concentrated, dense, structured wines made from a small crop. They carry substantial firm tannins and average to slightly above average acidity by recent standards. They may not have quite the pristine fruit quality of the '93s, but they will last well. A few comparisons to other red Burgundy vintages I heard a year ago still hold true: "like '78 but suppler"; "like '88 but with the gentler middle palate of 1990"; "like '93 but with the somewhat more advanced aromatics and fleshier texture of '89." The majority of growers told me that the skins of the '95 grapes were not quite as ripe as those of '93.

On the following pages are my notes on the '96s and '95s, with brief producer profiles. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines, and ranges for wines still in barrel. Due to space constraints, I have omitted most 1996 village wines unlikely to rate at least 85 points. Finished wines I scored lower than 85 are simply listed without comment; those followed by an asterisk merited scores of 83 or 84.