1998 and 1997 White Burgundies

Burgundy lovers who bought the '95s and '96s heavily can afford to view today outrageously high prices with equanimity. On my annual late spring tour of the Cote de Beaune's best white wine addresses, however, it was hard to taste the '97s and '98s without being painfully aware of their record prices. While there is no shortage of excellent bottles from either of these vintages, neither year is outstanding, and it is difficult to recommend any but the top scorers at the current prices.
In terms of the style of the '97 and '98 vintages, there are more similarities between these two years than differences, although generalizations quickly break down at the level of the village and the individual grower. Both years featured periods of sustained heat and warm nights (September in '97 and August in '98), and neither produced fruit particularly high in malic acidity or total acidity. Grape sugars were often freakishly high in 1997 and were well above average in '98, and relatively few growers needed to chaptalize their musts more than a half-degree. Not surprisingly, neither year, generally speaking, has produced wines likely to reward extended cellaring, although there will be some exceptions.

A first look at 1998. The 1998 growing season was a wacky one. Frost on the Tuesday morning after Easter did extensive damage to a number of the Cote de Beaune's prime hillside premier crus but largely spared vines on lower ground, where the buds were less advanced and thus less vulnerable, and where the vines were more shielded by early morning mist. As more than one vigneron described it to me, dawn temperatures were as low as 25oF, and bright early-morning sunshine, which of course strikes the east-facing hillsides before the flatter land, literally seared the unprotected buds. Vineyards high on the hillside, in a wide swath stretching from Meursault (especially Narvaux, Perrieres and Charmes) across Puligny-Montrachet (Champs-Canet, Chalumeaux, Truffieres, Folatieres) to Chassagne-Montrachet (Caillerets, Virondot, La Romanee), were hard-hit, with growers reporting losses of between 30% and 70% of their crops. A portion of Chevalier-Montrachet was affected, but Le Montrachet lying just below it was virtually untouched. As the frost occurred early in the spring, there was a second generation of buds just a couple of weeks later. While the most painstaking domains did not ultimately use this fruit, the heat of August helped it reach decent ripeness levels and, due to the short crop, many estates must have been tempted to include it in their cuvees.

Hail at the end of April and again in July, also more damaging in the premier crus, further cut yields in some sites. But many of the growers I visit each year reported that yields in their village appellations were actually higher in 1998 than in the previous year.

August featured scorching heat (during a particularly brutal period early in the month, some southwest-facing vines suffered from sunburn), concentrating the grapes in some spots, but resulting in hydric stress in other sites. Then the first half of September was plagued by periods of rain, ending hopes for an exceptional year and raising fears of rot. Many vines, especially those affected by the April frost, had been hard-hit by oidium (powdery mildew) during the first half of the summer, and were especially vulnerable to the September rain, which had the general effect of sending potassium levels higher and compromising the acidity levels in the grapes. At the same time, numerous growers said that at least some of this rain was necessary to jumpstart the ripening process, which had been slowed by the extreme conditions of August. The ban de vendange was Thursday, September 17, and in fact the next nine days offered sunny, dry conditions for harvesting. But many growers told me the fruit was not really ripe yet, and most of the better estates did not begin picking until the following Monday or Tuesday. This gave them no more than four or five days to bring in their best fruit before substantial rain fell on Saturday, the 26th. The Saturday rain had been widely predicted for several days (one of the rare accurate calls by the local weather forecasters in recent years), and many domains got in their top crus just before the window of dry weather closed. However, a few growers did not start harvesting until just a day or two before the rain.

The grape skins were in less-than-perfect condition owing to the earlier oidium outbreak and the September rains, and most winemakers describe their musts and wines as fragile. Many fermentations were difficult, in part because the September rains had washed so much of the wild yeasts off the grape skins. Winemakers tended to use more sulfur than usual early on, and, with some notable exceptions, did a longer debourbage, or decanting of the wine, following the alcoholic fermentation, in order to eliminate more of the gross lees, which they feared were not completely healthy. Many growers then did less subsequent stirring of the lees (batonnage), also for fear of introducing off tastes into their wines. On the other hand, some growers did their normal debourbage, while others who began by eliminating more of the lees than normal then did substantial batonnage in the hopes of enriching their wines.

The young '98s are not particularly large-scaled or rich, but the best of them are lively and nicely balanced, with more aromatic interest and flavor definition than the '97s. I must admit to having enjoyed these wines far more than I thought I would, particularly in view of the difficult growing season and frequently tricky vinifications. The main question mark regarding the '98s is whether they have enough middle-palate stuffing or will turn out to be a bit hollow. Thus, for those producers who had clean lees, substantial batonnage may indeed have helped flesh out their wines.

The vintage appears to be most variable in Meursault, where very low yields due to frost and hail have not necessarily translated into superior wines. Quality, and style of wine, varies widely by domain. On the other hand, I was favorably impressed by the wines produced in Chassagne-Montrachet; here the developing '98s display a good balance of fruit and structure and fresher aromas and flavors than the '97s at a similar stage. More than one grower in Chassagne-Montrachet reported that the grapes in '98 were higher in acids and sugars than those of the previous year.

A follow-up on 1997. The '97s are rich, fat wines that tend to lack freshness and cut. Many wines have alcohol in the 13% to 14% range, with little or no chaptalization. The standouts are impressively lush and deep, while others are rather ponderous. Although the vintage is best suited for drinking over the near to medium term, the best wines will give substantial pleasure-and will be ideal to drink while the higher-acid '96s are developing in bottle. But only the finest examples of the vintage possess the mineral character and grip to become aromatically interesting as they age. Because grape skins were generally healthy, many growers did substantial lees stirring-perhaps too much in some cases as these wines were already quite fleshy to begin with. But batonnage, and long time on the lees, also helps growers keep their wines fresh-particularly important in a vintage with moderate to low acidity. Acidification was widespread in 1997, although several growers told me that their wines possessed average natural acidity and did not require adjustment.

A word on pricing. As a rule, high prices make the 1998 white Burgundies questionable value, so price-sensitive fans of these wines are advised to buy extremely selectively. The short crop in '98 sent bulk prices soaring, as negociants scrambled to find grapes, must or wine. It is hard to believe that 1998 won't turn out to have been the peak in the current Burgundy cycle. The best domains are less affected by excessive price swings for grapes and must; they will be offering-and in today's hot Burgundy market will probably sell with limited difficulty-their '98s at prices moderately higher than their '97s, which in turn were often significantly higher than the '96s. But negociants who paid a steep premium for juice in '98 are in a more tenuous position: except for a few firms with reputations for consistently high quality, their wines will have a tendency to be grossly overpriced for their quality. Lesser negociants will doubtless have trouble selling these wines (some are still sitting with unsold '97s), and the resulting cash crunch will make it difficult for them to commit to '99 grapes in advance. Assuming that the '99 crop is a full one, this should help to cool off Burgundy prices.