This was my 14th consecutive harvest in Burgundy – triaging the grapes of multiple villages. I believe that this, together with questioning the winemakers, is the best balance of first-hand and third-party input required to comment on the vintage.
If the frosted 2016 vintage was seemingly a case of quality over quantity – we may have ample opportunity to make the reverse case for 2017. After other significantly frosted vintages – for instance 1981 or 1991 – the vintage that followed was bountiful – perhaps nature trying to even out the volumes – this was also the case in 2016/2017.
Burgundy seems to have been an exception in France in 2017 – though with much nail-biting due to many close-calls – because the rest of the country suffered the twin ravages of frost and hail – it is well reported that France as an entity will have the lowest volume harvest since 1957 or even 1945. Though not all of Burgundy escaped the weather problems – in the second half of April, Chablis suffered from frost for almost 10 consecutive nights and in Beaujolais, the crus of Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Chénas lost much of their harvest to July hail. On the same day a little hail also visited Morey St.Denis – but it was more of a green harvest than a problem.
The most overt pre-harvest problem for vigneron(ne)s was the dryness of the late summer. Rows of vines with yellow leaves at their base stood as testament to the lack of rain – it was predominantly the younger vines that suffered. The positive side-effect of this, was that such ‘drought’ also brought fine sanitary conditions in the vines – there was very little rot to be seen or later to triage. The answer to the prayers of many a producer with empty cellars was the heavy rain that came the weekend after the harvest of the whites started, roughly 100 mm was registered in the Côte d’Or. The vines, and more importantly for the vintage, the grapes, greedily sucking up the rain. More than one producer pragmatically explaining to me that this one weekend of rain added 20% to their harvest volumes. The politically correct marketing message of other producers, being that the rain overcame the issue of vines with ‘blocked maturities,’ allowing the grapes to reach a proper maturity of both sugars and phenolics. The grapes were generally big – but they were also ripe. The practical truth is that these two messages are inexorably linked, though it seems very likely that this heavy rainfall will have marked the vintage for later pickers – decreasing the concentration while unlocking the maturity of the reds, or simply the difference between those white domaines that harvested in conditions of 30-35°C before the rain versus those that picked in much cooler, post-rain, conditions one week later. For all that, the growers have much enthusiasm for the vintage, indeed relief now that the grapes are safely ‘in.’ The BIVB estimates that 2017 will be a vintage bringing in about 1.5 million hectolitres, versus the 1.2 million of 2016 – but Chablis is forecast to produce at least 20% less than the average due to frost.
2017 was yet another of those, previously unseen, harvests that began in the heat of August – about the 21st of August for crémant producers sourcing in Beaujolais and a couple of days later in the Côte Chalonnaise. In the Côte d’Or the harvest began on the 25th for the white wine ‘outliners’ such as (among others) Domaine Hubert Lamy of St.Aubin. The reds, a few young vine plots apart, generally being picked in the two weeks of the 4-17 September – the second week was a mix of the fine and cool or showery. The perennial late pickers of the Côte de Nuits, such as Domaine Pierre Damoy in Gevrey-Chambertin and Domaine Ponsot in Morey St.Denis were still not quite finished on the 20th of September where the weather was a little better than that of the previous week.
One significant problem for the domaines this year, was finding enough vineyard workers for the harvest; some producers chose to blame employment rule-changes by President Macron, though the harvest ‘time window’ seemed compressed in 2017, with parts of the Rhône valley, Beaujolais, Mâconnais, Chalonnaise, Côte d’Or and Chablis all picking at the same time – an unusual state of affairs that, more realistically, contributed to a general lack of labour.
In the end it looks like the reds were ‘bountiful’ and the whites delivered closer to ‘correct’ volumes. Though there looked to be plenty of white grapes on the vines, some producers suggest that the juice was not easy to exract, whilst others say that frost was still a factor; “In one parcel of chardonnay I protected half of the vineyard from frost with candles – I only had so many candles – and whilst all of the vineyard looked okay after the frost had passed, the unprotected part delivered 25% less fruit – so voila!” explained one producer. For clarity, we shall have to wait for the best part of six months for the official harvest volume statistics. Given the (surely unscrupulous!) tales of 80-100 hectolitres per hectare of production in certain communes that are famous for red wine, I for one will be very interested to see how much Bourgogne Rouge will result from the famous ‘AOC trickle-down’ effect – but equally common were the grand cru vines with 12-plus pendulous bunches when I expect to see more like 6 – and usually with smaller grapes too. Let’s be clear, I also saw areas that looked to have correct yields of immaculate looking, ripe grapes – if still not the tiniest grapes. The vintage ‘quality’ will be far from homogeneous…
The early analytics look okay, with natural potential alcohols of 12.5%, or more – so certainly better than 2011 – and a similar pH for both reds and whites of 3.2-3.3. This is a good acidity for reds though a little more modest for the whites, where a light acidification may be common, but biodynamic producers point to much lower acidities – Leflaive for instance quoting acidities more like 3.05. Unlike 2015 where the warm dry vintage ‘burnt off’ much of the malic acid, 2017 has a more classic combination of roughly 3 grams per litre, each, of malic and tartaric acids. The colour began extracting very easily for the reds and it seems that we have plenty of ripe phenols.
There are many weather and timing comparisons to 2007 – and even 1997. We will have ample time to make vintage comparisons in the future, but given the paucity of good red vintages which end with a seven, it seems highly likely that this will be the best red vintage since 1947 – assuming that it surpasses the 2007s. For the whites it is much less clear; the 2007s were simply top class at the highest levels of white burgundy, but clearly bordering on too acidic for lower appellations – it seems certain that there will be no problems of ‘too much acidity’ with these 2017s…
So how will all this affect the word on everyones’ lips? Pricing! It’s too early to know about the grape contract prices for these 2017s, but we have a low volume red and white 2016 vintage soon to come to market, and much higher volume, good, but most probably not universally great, vintage in another 15 months. Complicated market dynamics – but it seems that a softening of prices for the 2016s is highly unlikely. Following the wines and the market for the wines of Burgundy will, however, never be boring!