1997 and 1996 White Burgundies

This spring I made my annual tour of the best white Burgundy addresses of the Cote d'Or with some trepidation. True, the region had enjoyed a very warm, sunny September in 1997; the fruit was ripe and grape skins were healthy. But there were many reasons for concern. From all reports, the harvest had taken place under hot conditions. Grape sugars had soared to often freakishly high levels, acidities had plunged, and reports were rife of tumultuous, hot primary fermentations and equally hurried malolactic fermentations not the best conditions under which to make great wine from the world most cantankerous strip of vineyards. Not to worry, though. 1997 is turning out to be a pleasant surprise indeed: fleshy, satisfying and reasonably fresh. In the words of Jacques Montagnon, winemaker at Chateau de Puligny Montrachet, "1997 is the kind of vintage you drink early because you want to, not because you have to."

The 1997 whites. Following an uneven spring and early summer, August was warm and humid. There was some rain at the end of August, but then much of September was sultry and dry. The ban de vendange was declared early (many growers on the Cote d'Or said they began picking on September 13, although a few waited up to a week for more thorough phenolic ripeness), and ambient temperatures through much of the harvest were in the balmy 80s. It became essential to be able to chill the fruit and slow down fermentations. Yields were generally 5% to 20% lower than the rather high crop levels of '96 but were quite variable, and grape sugars were high (I heard more reports of wines with 13+% natural alcohol this year than ever before), although a few growers said they had even more potential alcohol in '96. Many growers told me it was virtually unnecessary to chaptalize their '97 whites.

Still, it has become clear since last fall that the excesses of the vintage affected pinot noir more than they did chardonnay on the Cote de Beaune. The heat of September and riotous fermentations were a greater threat to the freshness, aromatic complexity and finesse of pinot noir. Many Cote de Beaune producers who make both red and white wines picked their pinot noir before their chardonnay for fear that the pinots were beginning to lose their equilibrium. Although it is already clear that numerous very rich red Burgundies were made in '97, it is also apparent that this vintage will be more variable in quality for red wines than for whites.

The '97 white wines were generally far easier to taste this spring than the '96s had been a year ago. The malolactic fermentations tended to go much more quickly for the new vintage, as there was much less malic acidity in the grapes to begin with. Many growers who were afraid at the outset that their wines would be fat and flabby due to insufficient acidity were relieved to find that total acidity levels declined only slightly during the malos. Even where acidity levels are low, they are in the low average range, rather than dangerously low. A couple of growers maintained that the '97s actually have sounder acids than their '95s. More than one grower I visited admitted to acidifying his '97 pinot noirs but insisted that the chardonnay fruit did not require it.

Virtually all the winemakers I visited at the end of May and beginning of June believe that 1997 will be a vintage to drink on the early side. The wines are rich and inviting, often with very ripe but generally not oxidized aromas and noteworthy depth of flavor. As the fruit was healthy in '97, there is much less of the chocolatey character shown by so many '94s. Relatively few '97s show the grip and backbone necessary for extended bottle aging, but these wines seem less fragile and more shapely than the '94s.

Strategies involving lees contact and lees stirring were radically different in '97 versus '96. In '96, the wines tended to remain longer on their lees simply because of the protracted secondary fermentations. But many winemakers also did more batonnage than usual in order to enrich these wines, to give them a bit more flesh and texture to balance their strong acidity. In '97, more richness was the last thing many winemakers felt they needed, so they generally did less stirring of the lees, and stopped stirring earlier.

A second look at the '96s. As I wrote a year ago, 1996 offers a rare combination of healthy sugars, high acids, and perfectly clean fruit. Some representative comments on the '96 whites I heard this spring include: "Unusually minerally," "A true Burgundy classic," "Perfectly reflective of our unique terroirs," "A great vintage, but austere today." The best '96s have extraordinary aromatic purity and great thrust and grip. These are classic white Burgundies: true to their soils, slow to reveal their personalities, and perfectly balanced for long and graceful evolution in bottle. But due to the high crop yields of this vintage, there are also many wines that come across as a bit skinny. And even those with enough flesh to balance their bracing acids over the longer term can be awkward to drink today, if not downright severe. Wines that finished with particularly low levels of residual sugar may be especially hard to taste over the next couple of years. Patrick Javillier, who considers 1996 an outstanding but not a perfect vintage, pointed out that the SO2 had a tendency to combine very slowly with the '96s, and this may have something to do with why so many wines are not especially expressive early on.

A word on pricing. White Burgundy prices are under severe upward pressure, due to the sharply higher prices negociants paid for grapes and must in 1997. In addition to these higher costs, damaging frost and hail in the spring of 1998 are likely to result in a very short crop this fall. In many instances, 1997 whites will be more expensive than '96s, even where the wines are less impressive. Fans of cellarworthy white Burgundies are advised to snap up the best remaining '96s now, since these wines are likely to disappear quickly.