2017 Vintage Overview

2017 Vintage Overview


The first key fact about 2017 was the return to normal, even quite generous volumes. This really mattered for those vignerons in the Côte de Beaune especially, whose crops were so badly damaged by hail for three years in a row (2012-2014) and then by the frosts of 2016. Happily, 2017 is both generous and of good to very good quality, with in general a preference for the white wines. For both colours, the grapes were exceptionally healthy and free from rot.

The weather Beautiful weather through the autumn months of 2016 and a mild start to the New Year made one fear that there would be no winter at all. Then a cold snap in February gave a much-needed chance for the vines to rest and for unwanted bugs to be killed off. Temperatures rose once more through March to bring an early start to the vegetative cycle. Lovely weather for the human population, dangerous in the vineyards. Temperatures dropped suddenly in mid-April with serious danger of frost between 18th and 28th, and indeed some risk even during the following fortnight. However, it was the 10 day period in April that was really acute.

The solution, bearing in mind that it was the early-morning sun on the tender sub-zero shoots that had done the damage in 2016, except where there was cloud cover, was to create artificial cloud protection through burning bales of damp straw to set up a haze of smoke. This appears to have worked extremely well, with teams of vignerons rallying together in the hours before dawn.

In Chablis the situation was far worse – it was not so much a particular episode of negative temperatures, but the fact that the cold remained in place for around 10 days. The worst hit sector was the north, Villy, Maligny and Lignorelles, also Poinchy to the west and Fourchaumes and the Grands Crus on the right bank.

There was some welcome rain in mid-May, even some minor hail damage in and around Nuits-St-Georges on Friday 19th, and some storms in Puligny and Chassagne which did little damage then, but may have opened the way to attacks of mildew later in the season. However, this unsettled period was followed by the return of the heat with a succession of golden days through to the end of the month. The heat was worthy of high summer and inevitable ended in a few stormy days, just as the vines were coming into flower, with huge downpours during the evening of Wednesday 31st May and through the day on Saturday 3rd June. The heat was at its height when the chardonnay was in flower and was certainly a factor in limiting the white wine crop. The pinot flowering proved to be much more abundant.

The timing of the flowering suggested an early September harvest. June brought the heatwave often associated with Vinexpo in Bordeaux – blistering temperatures during the third week which happily did not break down into thunderstorms at the end. July offered a much more mixed picture – sometimes cooler, sometimes warmer but with much higher humidity. This was partially welcome to offset drought but storms could be catastrophic locally. The worst occurred on Monday 10th July, wiping out a swathe of vineyards in Fleurie, Chiroubles and Moulin à Vent in the Beaujolais following a very similar path to the damage of 2016, while in the Côte de Nuits Morey-St-Denis especially suffered damage on the same day – though a reduction of 20 to 30% was more typical than a complete wipe out.

The question now was what to do about crop size. For the whites, no great problem. For the reds however there was a real conundrum. What decision you might take if you were a vigneron in the Côte de Nuits getting an excellent price for premier and grand cru wines, and who had made acceptable if lower than normal yields in most of the last few vintages, might easily differ from what a vigneron in a lesser village of the Côte de Beaune who had not made anything like a normal yield since 2011, from appellations that cannot sustain a substantial price-tag. It is hard to criticise a vigneron in (for example) Savigny-lès-Beaune who chose not to do much of a green harvest.

Meanwhile the high summer was dry and warm, though rarely unpleasantly hot. There was beginning to be some risk of drought, especially in the higher steeper slopes with very little topsoil. One effect of the water shortage was to spin out the véraison, when the grapes change colour, and at this point, walking through the vineyards, I was not particularly optimistic about the prospects for 2017.

The weather became distinctly hot and sometimes humid from Tuesday 22nd August but somehow the threatened storms never emerged and because of the underlying drought there was no sign of rot. The heat and the humidity kept building all through the week and into the following one. The early group in Meursault started in earnest on Monday 28th, picking from dawn through to a late lunch, but chose not to continue through the heat of the afternoon.

The high temperatures continued through to Wednesday 30th August when there was overnight rain continuing through a cooler Thursday. Fresher weather returned behind, dry and lightly sunny, from Friday 1st September through to the following week. By Monday 4th September most of the whites had been brought in and the first Côte de Beaune reds. Many producers mentioned that the rain on 30th/31st August was necessary to unblock the vines where the ripening process had somewhat stalled.

The weather had now cooled enough to make picking conditions rather more agreeable throughout the first week in September. Further rain showers arrived on Saturday 9th, followed by clear intervals with occasional showers on the Sunday and continued cooler and showery weather during the week, with more sustained rain on Thursday 14th and again on Saturday 16th by which time temperatures were notably cooler. There was nothing ugly enough to damage the quality of the grapes, though acidity levels started to decline. On the other hand, those who held out and picked later felt that the skins had become riper. Overall, exact picking dates were less crucial in 2017 than they would be the following year.

First Impressions 2017 is set to be a consistent and delicious vintage for White Burgundy. It is slightly less striking than 2014 but shares many of the same qualities. There are some stylistic overlaps with 2007 and 2011, two other very early vintages, but it is much more interesting than either of them, as well as being much more consistent. Jean-Philippe Fichet said about 2017 immediately after the harvest that ‘anybody who is not happy should change his job’.

Typically yields were a little lower in white than in red, indeed lower than 2016 for those vines which avoided the frost in the earlier year. There is no sense of dilution, and for the most part the wines show optimum ripeness. Chablis, despite the frost damage, is notably more successful in 2017 than 2016. The only problem was the cold, not mildew and other forms of disease pressure later in the season. The Mâconnais has performed well, though on the whole the wines are lowish in acidity and will come forward quite quickly.

The 2017s will not take long to become approachable but they have the fundamental structure to age perfectly well. I do not see any inherent fragility. Not many wines had that tightly-wound configuration that requires long cellaring before the wines come into their own, though this is partly a reflection of current styles of wine-making.

There are many lovely reds in 2017 but it does not look likely to grow into one of the legendary years. 2017, on the other hand, offers a lighter, fresher style, inevitably calling for epithets such as ‘this is a more Burgundian vintage’. Etienne Grivot mentioned its ‘buvabilité splendide’, rather a lovely phrase. Some growers offered 2000 as a comparison (for the drinkability aspect) while I would add a touch of 2002 for the additional crispness. The wines are clearly denser than 2007, and have avoided the slight dimension of pyrazines to be found in 2011.

In one sense it is a very uniform vintage, with wines of middling intensity, accessible fruit, enough acidity and lightish tannins, reflecting their individual terroirs well. It is the same style of wine up and down the Côte. Differences derive from the yield, for those who pruned and de-budded according to their normal program, and then green-harvested in high summer have evidently made wines of much greater concentration than those who, having suffered for several years in a row, allowed the vines to carry their high yields through to harvest.

As for the whites, the reds will become accessible relatively soon. The generics are already attractive to drink with no more than a couple of years in bottle, and many village wines are following suit. It may take a while for the extra level of velvet which signifies maturity to arrive. Various producers, Aubert de Villaine among them, noted that despite the accessible style of the vintage these wines will make old bones. I certainly think that the best of the premiers and grands crus will last for 25+ years, but there will be no need to wait as long as that.


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