1998 and 1997 Red Burgundies

As I toured the best red Burgundy addresses in November, growers were still buzzing about the huge 1999 crop, a harvest for which they were granted the right to make 40% more wine (30% for the grand crus) than the normal maximum yield, or rendement de base, set for each appellation. Those who managed to keep yields to less-than-ludicrous levels claimed that the summer sunshine and heat had been sufficient to ripen their fruit thoroughly, and that despite the usual September rains, the young '99s were deeply colored, fruit-driven wines with considerable potential. They were also thrilled that they'd have a ton of wine to sell, following the small crops of '98 and '97. It was clear from my very early look at the infant '99s that there will be no shortage of excellent bottles to buy, even if the chronic overcroppers are likely to offer dilute wines. But it was the more classic, sterner '98s that I was in Burgundy to taste in September; I was eager as well to follow up on the freakishly ripe '97s, now safely in bottle.

The 1998 growing season. In a nutshell, 1998 featured a hot August, a humid, rainy first half of September, and then a nine-day window of dry weather during which most of the harvest took place in a rush. The April frost that sharply reduced crop levels on some of the Cote de Beaune's best hillsides was less of a factor on the Cote de Nuits, although higher spots in Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertin and Marsannay were affected. Sites hit by frost, especially on the Cote de Beaune, were more vulnerable to an early-summer outbreak of oidium (powdery mildew). During several days of extreme heat in early August, sunburn was also a problem in some south- and southwest-facing vineyards. Overall, yields in '98 were somewhat below average, but considerably lower in vineyards hard-hit by frost.

After a very warm August, the first half of September featured rainy spells that left growers fearing for the health of their grapes. But then the rains ended on the 15th, the bans de vendange were declared a couple days later (on Thursday the 17th on the Cote de Beaune and on Saturday the 19th on the Cote de Nuits), and the dry weather held until the following Saturday. Nineteen ninety-eight was the year of the accurate weather forecast: by Monday the 21st, the meteorologists were unanimously predicting that favorable conditions would hold through the end of the week, and that rain would arrive on the weekend. Those growers who did not begin picking fruit on the first legal day because they were waiting for their grapes to shed more moisture or to ripen further typically began harvesting in full force by Monday or Tuesday, and most finished their best sites before it began raining Saturday at midday, right on schedule. Rot was generally a minor if annoying factor, but more of an issue for fruit brought in after the 27th. Nineteen ninety-eight was a harvest in which the elimination of underripe, rotten and sunburned fruit would be essential to making excellent wine.

The 1998 wines. The '98s have developed slowly. From the outset they have demonstrated a tendency toward austerity. Many vignerons told me that their wines were quite sullen during their first nine or ten months in barrel and only started revealing personality in the late summer or early fall. Indeed, even in November relatively few of the young '98s moved me like the best '96s, '95s and '93s at a similar stage of their evolutions. Due to their combination of reasonably ripe and often thick skins and moderate middle-palate flesh, many of these wines project a firm tannic edge, which in some instances tends toward hardness. These tougher tannins are most likely to be found in wines from Vosne-Romanee and, to a lesser degree, Nuits-Saint-Georges and Chambolle-Musigny. (I also tasted some rather dry-edged wines that may have been made with a percentage of rotten grapes.) Acidity levels are mostly average by today's standards, although a handful of growers reported acidity levels even lower than those of '97. No doubt due in part to their firm tannic structures, the '98s come across as fresher and more delineated than the '97s, with generally deeper colors, blacker fruit flavors and much clearer terroir character, even if they are less sweet and thick.

Several winemakers noted that the '98s have resisted oxidation well in barrel and thus have not required a lof of sulfur. On the other hand, said a few, they have not absorbed the sulfur especially well, so healthy doses of SO2 have no doubt exacerbated the impression of hardness currently conveyed by many wines. Still, many estates are opting for fairly early bottling, for fear that the tannins will further harden and overwhelm the fruit if the wines are left in barrel too long. Early reports suggest that many wines, even those given a gentle bottling without filtration, are suffering from bottle sickness and will need time to recover. And where wines have been filtered, this process has tended to bring out the green side of the tannins. Moreover, some local enologists have apparently recommended that their clients increase their normal dosage of SO2 thus compounding the problem of hard tannins. What all this means is that tasters who insist that their red Burgundies be sweet and accessible just off the boat are likely to be disappointed. But the best '98s have all the elements to be classic red Burgundies for at least medium-term aging, and merit serious buying interest.

The finished '97s. In contrast to 1998, a vintage whose better wines convey their terroir character quite clearly, 1997 yielded a collection of wines marked more by the heat of the year than by variety or site. For this reason the '97s will never be prized by purists who believe that a Burgundy's first duty is to accurately express its (closely defined) origin. Even the better examples of the vintage are characterized by aromas and flavors of preserved fruits (jammy strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant) and smoky notes of torrefaction (chocolate, mocha, roast coffee). That said, the '97s offer great early appeal and lush, smooth textures. At the level of the most successful domains, the wines are headspinningly rich and velvety, well worth buying and owning; they sidestep the aromas and flavors of confiture and should age well based on sheer material.

The vintage's downside: cooked or muddied aromas and flavors, lack of verve and definition, very low acidity, wimpy structure. Some wines show a disjointed character due to excessive or late acidification. Others came from fruit that had to be picked prematurely due to falling acids, so they miss out on the silky texture and fat of the vintage. (In some areas, heat stress during August slowed the ripening process.) In still other instances, quick, hot fermentations made it difficult to extract color and stuffing without further burning the fruit.

Burgundy's continuing evolution. Repeatedly on my November tour of Burgundy, growers told me they were doing more gentle extraction of their pinot noir, a practice that was especially critical in 1998. They are able to use this approach successfully because they are working with better raw materials than ever before. After passing through a stage featuring what Christian Gouges described as "the technological vinifications that were necessary to put red Burgundy back on the map," many of the region's most thoughtful growers have moved on to the next phase. Their time and energy have gone into growing better fruit. They've adopted a host of methods to reduce yields, replaced the clones that were planted in the '50s and '60s more for their ability to produce large quantities of fruit than for any inherent quality, introduced triage tables to eliminate rotten or underripe grapes-or, better yet, left the bad stuff behind in the vineyard. More recently, a number of estates have begun pulling leaves in late August or early September to get more sun on their grapes, frequently using this additional pass through the vines as another opportunity to eliminate less-ripe fruit. The result of these labors has been grapes that ripen earlier, sometimes ahead of rain and rot-grapes whose higher sugars require less chaptalization and whose riper skins bring suppler, more harmonious tannins. With superior raw materials, Burgundy's growers are increasingly coming to believe that strong extraction is not necessarily the most effective way to make graceful, balanced wines with terroir character. As Denis Mortet, one of today's Gevrey superstars, put it in November, "I get my extraction in the vines, very little through vinification."

Time and again on my November circuit, growers spoke of allowing the wines "to make themselves," of avoiding procedures that would tire the wines. They are paying more attention to the temperature of their fermentations, often doing less vigorous or less frequent punching down of the cap (pigeage). They are reorganizing their winemaking facilities or adopting techniques to avoid pumping their wines. And, one by one, they are eliminating the early post-malolactic fermentation racking or doing it with less exposure to air. By working with cleaner grapes and cleaner lees, winemakers are also able to cut back on the use of sulfur. Today, through better viticultural techniques and more flexible winemaking, competent growers are able to make very good wine from favored sites virtually every year, no matter what challenges Mother Nature lays down for them.

A word on Burgundy pricing. Burgundy remains in strong 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. Even the huge size of the 1999 crop did not drive prices down at the annual Hospices de Beaune auction this past November, confounding the expectations of the wine trade inside and outside Burgundy. Still, at the level of the better small domains, many who raised prices on their small crop of '97s have kept price hikes modest on '98s, even when they believe the '98s are superior. The size of the '99 crop has clearly exerted a moderating influence on '98 prices at the cellar door. American importers have also benefitted from the recent strength of the U.S. dollar, although importers, distributors and retail merchants alike may be tempted to take healthy mark-ups on their prized items as long as demand remains strong. Burgundy is always an expensive commodity. I suppose, given the current supply/demand situation, we're lucky that prices for the top wines aren't even higher.

On the following pages are my notes on the '98s and '97s, with brief producer profiles, based on my visit to Burgundy in November. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. In several instances, I have omitted notes on '97s because these wines were reviewed in their finished form back in Issue 83. Due to space constraints, I have omitted 1998 village wines unlikely to rate at least 85 points.