1997 and 1996 Red Burgundies

If you're searching for a simple generalization on the 1997 red Burgundies to help you decide whether to buy these wines or simply to take a year off following your purchases of '96s and '95s, don't look here: 1997 ain't that simple. In theory, the vintage featured the ripest grapes since 1947 and completely healthy grape skins. So why, I repeatedly asked growers, isn't the vintage more concentrated? Why isn't 1997 a truly great year? Growers gave me any number of answers to that question, including heat stress that slowed the ripening process during a very hot August; soaring sugars and dangerously low acidity levels in the grapes at harvest time; the very warm ambient conditions during harvest that made it difficult to prevent fermentations from starting quickly and proceeding rapidly; difficulty extracting color and material without "cooking" the fruit aromas; quick, early malolactic fermentations; the general delicacy of the fruit and resulting wines; insufficient backbone. A few, however, responded with confidence: "But it is an outstanding year."

The 1997 growing season. 1997 was a year of extremes. In contrast to 1996, when the flowering was quick and regular, the flowering in '97 occurred under warm but showery conditions and was dragged out for nearly three weeks. Ripening of the grapes was uneven from the outset, and it was clear from the beginning that yields would be low. Oidium (powdery mildew) was a recurring problem through July. Then August was a scorcher, and by the last third of the month there were signs of heat stress and blockage of grape maturation. But temperatures cooled in late August, and there were rainy periods between August 26 and September 6. The moisture jump started the ripening process, and when warm, dry conditions took over once again in early September, grape sugars began to skyrocket.

The weather remained warm and dry virtually through the end of the harvest. At the same time, however, acidity levels began to plunge, and many growers picked early before their grapes became dangerously acid deficient. (This was a year in which the pinot noir was typically harvested before the chardonnay.) However, numerous growers told me that holding off on the harvest brought them stronger raw materials that sun and wind eventually concentrated both sugars and acids in the grapes. Many growers reported harvesting fruit with record high sugars; I heard many mentions of potential alcohol above 13.5%, a level that practically off the charts for pinot noir in Burgundy. Little or no chaptalization was required (although that didn't stop some growers from sugaring their musts anyway), but many growers acidified as pHs were high.

It is worth noting that in '97 (and again in '98), French authorities gave growers in Burgundy the right to both acidify and chaptalize through the kind of procedural sleight of hand only the French manage to pull off: They decided essentially to treat the unfermented must as one product and the fermented must as another, giving growers the right to add sugar to the unfermented must and acidity to the fermented must even though acid added prior to fermentation has a better chance of ultimately harmonizing with the wine. In fact, more than one grower told me that the early addition of acid facilitated the extraction of color during fermentation. (To protect against abuses, customs officials in Burgundy were charged with spot checking bottles on containers to make sure there are no excesses of chaptalization or acidification. But don't hold your breath waiting for seizures of offending bottles.)

While chaptalization should not generally have been necessary given the high grape sugars in '97, for many growers acidification was. And even growers who harvested fruit with very high sugars have made a habit of using moderate chaptalization to control and extend their fermentations in much the same way that chefs add seasoning or play with the heat controls while cooking a dish.

Although the grapes were brought in in near perfect condition in 1997, ambient temperatures during the harvest were quite high, and fermentations tended to be tumultuous. Most estates made a point of harvesting their best sites in the very early morning hours, when their grapes were still reasonably cool. But fruit picked after mid morning came into the cuverie warm. Moreover, numerous growers told me that the ripe grape skins in '97 were rich in ambient yeasts, in part because there had been no rain in the days leading up to the harvest. Many growers who prefer to do extended cold maceration prior to the onset of fermentation thus found it impossible to prevent the fermentations from starting and finishing quickly. Control of fermentation temperatures was a necessity in '97, and air conditioning the entire cuverie was even better. There were numerous early reports of high levels of volatile acidity, and producers worried that early malolactic fermentations would cause the wines to evolve too quickly in barrel. Many growers used heavier than normal doses of SO2 for fear that their wines had a natural tendency toward oxidation; numerous estates bottled their wines earlier than ever before. Happily, the healthy skins of the vintage have enabled dozens of estates to bottle without filtration.

The 1997 wines. Many growers claim not to have acidified, either because they are philosophically opposed to the idea or because acid levels did not appear to them to be dangerously low. Some said that malic acidity as a percentage of total acidity was low from the outset, so that relatively little acidity was lost during the malolactic fermentations. A number of growers noted that the grapes had more than enough extract and tannins to compensate for any shortfall in acidity.

For a generally low acid year, it is almost a miracle that so many '97s show such lovely fruit aromas. In many wines, fruit aromas are accompanied by roasted notes of torrefaction: coffee bean or roasted coffee, tobacco, dark chocolate, and the like. It is often impossible to know for sure whether these aromas are due to slightly overripe fruit or to quick, hot fermentations. Tannin levels are technically rather high, but the tannins are about as ripe and smooth as Burgundy tannins get, and unlikely to stand in the way of early enjoyment of these wines. I found more finishes marred by slightly sour evidence of acidification than by bothersome tannins.

Nineteen ninety seven is a vintage that will offer enormous early appeal. Typically, when growers describe a year as having produced perfect "restaurant wines," they are simply saying that the wines are light and unlikely to last in bottle. There are, in fact, too many wines that for one reason or another have missed out on the potential richness of the vintage. But the best '97s are remarkably concentrated, opulent wines that will impress long time Burgundy aficionados and neophytes alike with their sweetness and palate presence. Although I like the best '97s a lot, it is by and large a vintage best suited for consumption over the short to medium term. Many growers believe their '97s will enjoy an aging curve similar to the very ripe '85s, most of which were at their peaks between six and ten years after the vintage perhaps a bit later for the best wines and for those stored in consistently cool cellars. But a minority of producers believe that the richest and best balanced '97s will enjoy surprising longevity.

The 1996s revisited. As I reported last year, the 1996 vintage featured a rare combination of healthy sugars, high acidity and sound, ripe skins. This may be precisely the formula for wines that benefit most from their elevage, and, indeed, the '96s tended to put on weight and flesh in barrel. I suspect many of these wines will be stronger in bottle than they were prior to bottling, and how often can this be said about Burgundy? If the grape skins in '93 were a bit more phenolically ripe than those of '95, as many growers claim, skins in '96 were riper than either of those two earlier vintages. Tannins tend to be firm but not hard; acidity levels are elevated but the acids are ripe and juicy rather than tart. Adjectives like sappy, penetrating, vibrant, bracing, and sharply etched kept popping up in my notes as I tasted the '96s in November and January. The better '96s have terrific thrust and grip.

Nineteen ninety six featured a quick, regular flowering under near perfect conditions, setting the stage for extremely even ripening but a copious crop. Late August rain was perfectly timed to refresh the vines and give them enough moisture for the very dry September that followed. The first three weeks of September featured cool, sunny days and very chilly nights, with a dry breeze blowing from the north through much of the period. Under luminous skies, conditions were ideal for photosynthesis. (I recall Pierre Morey telling me a few years ago that chardonnay ripens from heat and pinot noir from light.) Skins ripened and grape sugars climbed slowly and steadily while the cool nights allowed acid levels to remain high. Some dehydration of the grapes due to the north wind tended to further concentrate both sugars and acids.

If the vintage has an Achilles' heel, it is copious yields. Wines from chronic overcroppers may not have quite the middle palate flesh to support their acidity. These wines, while fresh, may always come across as a bit lean and unsatisfying. But those from growers with reasonable production levels (and this includes the majority of the estates I normally visit) generally have the middles to support their structures and should develop slowly and gracefully in bottle. At the level of the better estates, 1996 is an unusually consistent vintage, and likely to be long-lived.

Many growers believe there so much exuberant fruit in '96 that the wines are unlikely to go through a tough, closed stage; others feel their wines are already beginning to shut down. The balance of these wines suggests that they will never be as awkward as the '95s, which now tend to show their sullen sides. Many of the '95s are dominated by their rather rustic tannins today, and all evidence indicates that these wines will remain inaccessible for at least few years.

I normally find that at least 85% to 90% of each vintage's wines merit final ratings within my initial projected range. While this was also true with the '96s, it is worth noting that surprises are almost entirely of the pleasant variety: a majority of '96s merit scores at the high end of my initial range, and a number have turned out even better than I predicted a year ago. Don't miss the finest '96s!

A word on Burgundy pricing. Burgundy remains in great demand around the world, and the tiny size of the '97 crop (as well as some shortages in '98) has put great pressure on prices. Many Burgundy growers initially announced that they would price their '97s at '96 levels, as they did not feel that the quality of the vintage merited an increase. But as they watched the local negociants bid up the prices of grapes and must, and as they saw en primeur prices for '97 Bordeaux go through the roof, many of them abandoned their early restraint. In the end, most raised prices by 5 to 15 percent. However, as the '97 crop was very small, and producers are spreading their wines thinly around the world, mark ups between cellar door and consumer, as well as exchange rate fluctuations, introduce major variables into the pricing equation. I suspect that for well heeled Burgundy drinkers--and can there be any other kind in today's market?--the difficulty of finding the best wines will be more of an obstacle to their passion than retail prices.

On the following pages are my notes on the '97s and '96s, with brief producer profiles, based on my visits to Burgundy in November and January. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. My extra visit in late January this year, in conjunction with the generally early bottling dates for the '97s, enabled me to report on many '97s in their finished form. Due to space constraints, I have omitted most unfinished 1997 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.

Following producer profiles I have included tasting notes on numerous additional '97s and '96s. Included among these wines are numerous special barrel selections from several estates imported by David Hinkle (North Berkeley Wines), working with Paris based broker Peter Vezan. Dealing directly with the growers, Hinkle selects barrels of wine as early as a couple months after the harvest, often paying in advance to lock in his supplies. Hinkle and Vezan do not exert influence during the primary fermentation; it is not their intention, they explain, to standardize vinification. Rather, they attempt to ensure that no errors are made during elevage and bottling, in order to minimize the risk that the wines Hinkle selects in Burgundy will taste different when they arrive in the U.S. Most of these cuvees consist of one to six barrels, and the percentage of new oak used varies widely, from about 25% to 100%. Hinkle and Vezan do what they can to ensure that the wines are minimally handled during elevage, and they insist that the wines be bottled without fining or filtration (even though some of their suppliers may filter or fine cuvees destined for other importers and markets). In most cases, Hinkle has his barrels bottled early to retain youthful fruit.

Please note that the "regular" cuvees from these estates are also brokered by Peter Vezan, and are brought in through other American importers, including Ideal Wines, Medford, MA; Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, NY; Import!, Madison, WI; and Vintner Select, Cincinnati, OH. But in every case, it was the Hinkle selections I tasted; these wines are typically designated with "Cuvee Unique" or "Reserve" on the label and also wear a North Berkeley Wine back label. Small quantities of the Hinkle barrel selections are also available in the Japanese market through Le Terroir, the Tokyo-based import company of broker Yasuko Goda.