After three weeks’ tasting the 2017 vintage in Burgundy I have come back excited and energised. This time last year many of our growers were strangely subdued. While they were thrilled to have some volume after six consecutively small harvests, they couldn’t quite put their finger on an overall style or quality. Twelve months on and their demeanour had changed. There was a spring in their step and many were clearly delighted at the quality of the vintage.
The 2017s were just lovely to taste en primeur. They were not tiring to assess. They are neither heavy nor tannic, nor dominated by tingling acidity or excessive alcohol. They are quite simply a delightfully pure expression of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or. Furthermore, in Chablis there are some truly sensational wines, arguably some of the very best I have tasted from this brilliant appellation in twenty-five years of buying.
In the Côte d’Or the wines are balanced, the greatest compliment I can give to a wine. No one characteristic dominates another. The reds will give pleasure when young and will age with grace. The whites will not disappoint when young and, if they are allowed to evolve, while become hugely rewarding mature white Burgundies in time.
As significant as the wines’ balance this year is the yield which, with the exception of Chablis, is back to normal after six small vintages. This doesn’t mean that 2017 is a year of high production but one of healthy average yields, similar in volume to the brilliant 2009 vintage.
Whilst many think that Burgundy has been riding the crest of a wave of unprecedented demand, behind closed doors life has not been so easy. A look at production levels at one of our domaines showed production in 2009 was 200 barrels, but that every year between 2012 and 2016 was down at least 50% at 100 barrels or fewer. This had been the result of harsh weather conditions at some stage during the growing season. If something hadn’t changed we would surely have seen further repercussions. A proper harvest with excellent quality has been a welcome relief both financially and stock-wise, allowing producers to replenish their depleted cellars.
The year is best considered in two parts: the Côte d’Or and Chablis. Some years when we quiz growers on the stresses and strains of the growing season we must brace ourselves for fifteen long minutes in the damp and cold as the pressures of spring frosts, drought, hail, and excessive humidity are explained in huge detail. This was certainly not the case in 2017. Responses were quick and short. This was not a year of climatic extremes. Whilst the early part of the year was wet it wasn’t excessively so. Budding was prolific in some instances, the result of the vines compensating for low production in frost-affected 2016. The summer months were a little drier, but not worryingly so, particularly as the water table was well-charged following the wet winter months. July and August were warm with plenty of sunshine resulting in even ripening of the berries and an early harvest for the majority of growers began in the first two weeks of September in ideal conditions. Most importantly 2017 was a disease-free year. Treatments in the vineyards were minimal, grape sorting at harvest was virtually irrelevant given that almost every berry and bunch warranted inclusion in the fermentation tanks, such was the clarity and quality of the fruit.
The growing season in Chablis mirrors this, aside from an unfortunate cold snap in April lasting ten days during the crucial budding period, which had a huge impact on yields. The continuous below zero temperatures made budding difficult and, as Benoît Droin explained, resulted in 5 or 6 bunches instead of the normal 12 per vine, particularly in the premiers crus on the right bank. Fortunately, following this initial set-back, the summer months were very similar to the Côte d’Or vineyards further south and the harvest took place early in the first two weeks of September in perfect conditions.
Understanding the growing season is the key to appreciating the quality and style of this lovely vintage. 2017 was a year without excesses. This is clearly reflected in the wines and possibly explains the growers’ initial reserve at harvest time. Whilst they were euphoric to have better volumes, they just couldn’t pinpoint the character of ripeness or fruit concentration in the early days of the vinification process. Twelve months on it is exactly this that excites the growers and myself about this vintage. No one character dominates another. The red wines are reminiscent of the much underrated 2000 vintage, which continues to give so much pleasure. However, making such a comparison is an over simplification. 2000 was a relatively early vintage for the time (the second week in September), and the best wines of the vintage had glorious balance, but that was nearly 20 years ago and in the world of wine that is a long time. Vineyard management techniques have evolved, as has investment in the wineries, resulting in higher quality fruit and more precise winemaking.
The 2017 reds are not powerhouses but have a magnificent balance, with beautiful sweet red fruit flavours. The analyses show that the tannic content is present, but never before have I tasted wines from the region with such a soft, silky and subtle tannic mouthfeel. They have an incredible natural concentration and are a wonderful reflection of their individual vineyard locations. The white Côte de Beaune wines have benefitted from 2017’s even growing season. This was a warm but not heat-stressed vintage and they therefore have wonderfully bright fruit and citrus minerality, not unlike that which defined the 2014 vintage, but with a slightly broader mouthfeel, giving them additional appeal.
It is only fair though to finish with the wines of Chablis. This region often plays second fiddle to the Côte d’Or, but in 2017 is every bit its equal. This is a sensational vintage for Chablis. The wines have everything: drive, energy, depth and weight of fruit. They are what great Chablis should be: citrus, bright, mineral and age worthy. I am confident 2017 Chablis is one of the finest vintages I have tasted in all my years of visiting this wonderful appellation. It is such a shame it is a small harvest…
To conclude, there are some wonderfully joyous wines in 2017. It is most definitely a wine lover’s year. Equally exciting is that we will not have to wait decades for these to reach their peak. They will be approachable young but have all the qualities required for longer term ageing.
David Roberts MW