2017 is the vintage Burgundy has been waiting for. The winemakers have waited since the great 2009 vintage for a year of normal yields and healthy fruit. In 2017 they finally had a bit of luck: no spring frosts (with the exception of Chablis), no summer hailstorms, and no serious disease pressure. This was a year of easy, unexceptional weather conditions and, consequently, healthy volumes.
Tasting from barrel was both enjoyable and rewarding. It was not a tiring vintage to assess as the wines are beautifully bright and balanced. The growers were clearly very happy, but this had not always been the case. At harvest time in 2017 many did not have a clear feel for the vintage’s ultimate quality. 12 months on and that reticence is gone; they are genuinely enthusiastic.
In any vintage it is a combination of climate, weather, vineyard site and soil, and winemakers’ skill that determine its overall quality. In the Côte d’Or in 2017 there were no exceptional circumstances or weather extremes. The year started slightly wetter than average, but it was nothing wildly out of the ordinary. Budding was prolific, the result of clement weather and vines compensating after frost-affected 2016. By spring, the first signs of healthy volumes were beginning to show. The summer months were a little dry, 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 began in the first two weeks of September in ideal conditions.
Crucially 2017 was also a relatively disease-free year. Treatments in the vineyards were minimal, and grape sorting at harvest was virtually redundant. Almost every berry and bunch warranted inclusion in the fermentation tanks, such was the clarity and quality of the fruit. Everything was set for easy winemaking conditions.
It would be remiss not to mention yields in Burgundy. The region has experienced a decade of unprecedented demand matched by superb quality, with some exceptional recent vintages. However this has not been a period of abundant production. Yields have been reduced by frosts, cold weather at flowering, cruel summer hailstorms just before the harvest, and various pernicious vine diseases. The vintages since 2010 have been some of the smallest of the past 50 years.
A look at one of our domaines in the Côte de Beaune showed their production in 2009 was 200 barrels, but that every year between 2012 and 2016 it was down at least 50% to 100 barrels or fewer. For some estates in Savigny Lès Beaune yields were down 90% in 2016. If 2017 had been another small harvest there would surely have been severe financial repercussions for many of the smaller growers in the region. Normal yields with excellent quality were an absolute necessity, thus 2017 was a welcome relief financially and has allowed producers to replenish their depleted cellars.
Understanding the growing season is helpful for appreciating vintage characteristics and style. 2017 was a year without excesses. This is clearly reflected in the wines and their classical balance is exactly what excites the growers about this vintage.
The 2017 red wines are not powerhouses but have magnificent balance, with sweet, crystalline red fruit flavours. The analyses show that there is plenty of tannin, but I have never tasted red Burgundies with such a soft, silky, subtle tannic mouthfeel. They have incredible harmony and are wonderful reflections of their terroirs. They are reminiscent of the much underrated 2000 vintage, which continues to give so much pleasure. 2000 was a similarly early harvest starting in the second week of September and the best wines had glorious balance. However, one must be mindful that was nearly 20 years ago, a long time in the world of wine. In the intervening years vineyard management techniques have evolved and investment in wineries has increased. Thus, significantly higher quality fruit is now handled with greater precision. This bodes well for the 2017 reds.
The Côte d’Or Chardonnay also thrived in 2017’s even growing season. This was a warm though not heat-stressed vintage. The wines have wonderfully bright fruit and citrus minerality, much like the celebrated 2014 vintage. Many growers touched upon this but explained that the wines have greater “tendresse”.
Chablis deserves a special mention. This region can play second fiddle to the Côte d’Or, but in 2017 is every bit its equal. These wines have everything: drive, energy, depth and weight of fruit. They are what great age worthy Chablis should be. 2017 Chablis is one of the finest vintages I have tasted in all my years of visiting this wonderful appellation. What a shame there is so little to go around.
To conclude, both the reds and whites up and down the Côte have youthful charm, but will evolve gracefully to show lovely complex, mature fruit characteristics. 2017 is a vintage that will delight and reward Burgundy enthusiasts who seek above all else subtle charm and finesse.
David Roberts MW