Quite frankly, 2017 is the most complex, the most variable, red wine vintage that I’ve ever tasted.*
I believe that this is largely down to the volumes – i.e. the yields – at harvest time. Some volumes were ridiculously high, others merely high, whilst the best producers – that includes négociants and domaines alike – were more modest with their yields, indeed could sometimes even be described as miserly.
Stats, courtesy, BIVB.
The red harvest volume in 2017 was clearly much higher than the frost-affected 2016 vintage. Indeed given such a run of low volume vintages in the Côte de Beaune, the 5-year average of the vintages 2013-2017, still remains rather understated versus the allowed (potential) yields. This is clearly visible in that the Côte de Nuits figure is very high vs the average figure, but the extra in the Côte de Beaune is double! Of-course that’s just the bare statistics, the problem is that each domaine is different – some massively overcompensated with excess fruit, whilst others made their usual 30-35 hl/ha.
Just a few of the important differences that you will encounter, each of which contributing to the domaine to domaine differences:
It was a hard choice for many domaines – hard-debudding is the ultimate in limiting your potential crop, but given the previous years of frost, hail or dryness – or all three(!) many domaines have been ‘softer’ with their pruning. But then how to limit the yield? – enter an old technique:
- Green Harvesting
At the well-known, sought-after domaines, you can be sure that the de-budding, and failing that, the green-harvesting was done to ensure 4-6 good bunches per vine at harvest-time. Interestingly, green-harvesting – so long pooh-poohed – has made a resurgence in 2017, and in 2018 too, even at ‘proper’ domaines such as DRC, choosing to avoid the dogma associated with technique and simply use all the tools at their disposal to a desirable end.
What the vintage certainly was, was clean – triage was on quite a low-level – some vineyards had under-ripe fruit, but often it was the picking-date that was at fault – the weather was good, and the grapes would have ripened had they waited. Boris Champy, now of the Clos des Lambrays, explains “It’s clearly a very ripe vintage; we have long recorded of the total phenolic content in our wine. If you consider that a very ripe vintage might bring a phenolic level of ‘100’ in Bordeaux varieties, we typically see 60 in the Clos des Lambrays – but in 2017 we had 65!”
It seems that 2017 was complicated – or simple – it depended on the address. Some domaines (who habitually use stems) chose to use fewer whole clusters versus 2015 and 2016, yet other addresses said the stems were riper and more consistent – so that they could use more stems!
- Less sulfur in elevage
The cleanliness of the fruit, has also meant many domaines choosing to use no sulfur during elevage – or very little. Sulfur has a number of functions – at bottling it acts as a preservative/anti-oxidant, but during elevage it has more the function of an antiseptic – reducing the chance of acetic (volatility) or lactic bacteria doing their bad work – but there is less bacterial challenge to the wine when the fruit is so clean. “I check my wines every week at the lab, following very closely the amount of volatiles – so-long as they remain stable, there’s nothing for me to do – particularly as the cellar cools for the winter – of-course as the cellar warms in the Spring, I will have to be very vigilant, probably using some sulfur for the first time,” explains Benjamin Leroux.
- Length of elevage
You will find every single answer as you tour the domaines – from ‘shorter elevage to trap the fine fruit‘ to ‘These are wines that are putting on more and more weight with elevage – I don’t understand why anyone would bottle early‘ – except in the case that they have no wine left from 2016 to sell. This latter commercial point should not be underestimated – it may not be the rule for all a particular domaine’s cuvées, but you can be sure that many domaines have done some early bottling, simply because they have no money from sales…
The wines to buy – or not…
Right: Corton – the pinnacle of 2017 red burgundy?
At the outset, the biggest problem that I have with this vintage, is that just about everything is deliciously pinot-fruited, fine and agreeable wine – even the thinner, overcropped, wines – but there are two important points to bear in mind with those thinner wines:
- At todays pricing, overcropping is simply unacceptable
- The overcropped wines will have no durability – i.e. open a bottle in 3-5 years – maybe less – and the result will be thin and weedy, the young, attractive fruit flavour having long departed – incompatible with both the label, the price or even enjoyable drinking.
There are also wines with very good concentration – yet they remain open and approachable – fine fruited, more floral than in most vintages, complex and of depth – they exhibit none of the impenetrability of many 2015s or for that matter many, but fewer, 2016s. And as previously noted, almost all are delicious. They are neither more nor less concentrated than the 2014s – as we can see, they are both! – But there is a sweetness of ripe fruit in the 2017s that has more in common with 15 and 16 than with 2014.
The vintage signature is strong across all producers: open, accessible, red-fruited and floral wines – actually with good but not too penetrating acidity and a well-developed sense of ‘somewherenessTM‘ – the concentration is the main variable but the number of times I wrote ‘vibrant‘ in my tasting-notes is a minor embarrassment – yet the wines are wonderfully vibrant, so there you go. It is a very commercial vintage for restaurants, indeed anyone who just wants to drink wine, now! Of-course many producers will cower if you describe this as a restaurant vintage, and many individual wines and domaines out-perform that tag, but in essence, it is exactly that. Good 2017s will easily live and bring joy for the next 20 years – something that can’t always say about vintages like 2005, 2015, 2016 or probably 2018 to come. If you have been collecting wine for many years, and have some depth of cellared wines, it’s simply not a vintage you need to buy much of to cellar – it is and will be for drinking. If you do not have much of a back catalogue of wines, it is essential purchasing to get you through the years that you will have to wait for 2012, 2015, 2016 and, again, 2018 to be drinking. There are some great wines in 2017, but generally the question of ‘value’ is more important, but also more personal, for restaurant vintages.
So, assuming that you are going to buy, it’s important to know that it’s not a vintage for blind buying, so: have a journalist taste for you, or have the opportunity to taste yourself, or keep to a trusted cadre of growers. But anyway here are some pointers to the hotspots for really great 2017 reds:
- Only one region had an outstanding red vintage in 2017 – and that was Beaujolais – I’ll be reporting from there in February.
- The extreme north and extreme south of the Côte d’Or have wines that outperform the label ‘Restaurant Wines’ – think of the best 1979s but better – if you have any experience of those.
- It’s more of a Côte de Nuits vintage, no question: Fixin to Gevrey has produced excellent results, concentrated and with a cool aspect to the fruit, despite the obvious ripe sweetness of the vintage. I’ve also had very good Marsannay but from a smaller sample. Morey St.Denis has made some beautiful wines but less consistently than in Gevrey-Chambertin.
- What happened in Echézeaux? The wines are great – properly great! But keep to trusted producers. Oh and as (pre-) warned, don’t buy any unknown Grands-Echézeaux labels! I have found Clos de Vougeot to be very good but not exceptional, rather like:
- Vosne and northern Nuits are very good but also not amazing – unless you happen to own, for instance, La Tâche…
- Nuits, or rather the southern, Premeaux-side of Nuits, has made some gorgeous wines – Domaines Ambroise, Patrice Rion and l’Arlot at the fore – such beautiful wines, and the tannin of the area is particularly well hidden this vintage.
- Corton, and many associated 1ers from Ladoix, Aloxe and Pernand are another great area – but particularly the grand cru, which like the Premeaux wines has lost the austerity that you find in most vintages – it’s possibly the red burgundy pinnacle in 2017.
- Beaune is good but more variable – the Côte de Beaune is generally more variable in terms of concentration than the Côte de Nuits, but des Croix and Jacques Prieur have some great Beaunes.
- Pommard and Volnay remind me, to an extent, of 2002. Not from the style, but rather that in 2002 the area massively outperformed the rest of the Côte de Beaune – the best producers are a match for anything in Gevrey-Chambertin – particularly I single out Roblet-Monnot, closely followed by the wines of Thomas Bouley, Pousse d’Or and Pierre Glantenay – simply great stuff – but here can be found a lot of ‘weaker’ wines too, so beware…
- Chassagne and Santenay have some excellent wines, particularly Santenay and Maranges – again as good as anything from Gevrey in their own context – and here is the most brilliant value in 2017.
- Outside of pure geography are the Bourgognes – there are very many Bourgognes worth their salt in 2017 – look for individual recommendations in the domaine reports.
**My first barrel-tastings were the 1996 and 1997s tasted at the end of 1997. I missed 1998 and 1999, tasted en-primeur samples (London) 2000-2002 and then tasting from barrel every year in Burgundy since the 2003 vintage. Not forgetting triaging the grapes of multiple villages and vineyards every year since the 2004 vintage!