Burgundy is on a roll. A succession of good to fine vintages, stable prices--at least in French franc terms--and a surge in improvement in winemaking has made this the most exciting wine region in the world. Now we have the 1995 vintage: fine in red, fine in white, though the buyer must choose with care.
Perfectionism is the name of the game in Burgundy today. Over the last 15 years a new generation of growers--competent, dedicated, educated at wine schools, and insatiably curious and enthusiastic--has emerged and decided to bottle all or the vast majority of their wine under their own labels, rather than selling to negociants. What could be more conducive to high quality than your own name on the bottle?
At the same time, the long-established negociants are increasingly winemakers themselves. They have extended their domaines, they take a more active role with the estates they buy from under contract, and more and more they buy fruit or must--not wine--and vinify it themselves. The control on both sides, therefore, is all the way from the vineyard to the bottle. And the quality has improved immensely.
Since 1985, we have seen a succession of successful vintages. The '85 vintage was very good in both colors, indeed very fine in whites. Other white wine vintages of note include '86, '88, '89, '90 and '92; for red wines, '87, '88, '89, '90 (triumphantly so); '91 and '93 are very good to excellent. Even in 1992 and 1994, though the wines are less concentrated, good red Burgundy was made, and these can be drunk with pleasure now while we wait for the '90, '91, '93 and '95 to mature.
So what of 1995? It will go down in history as a very successful red Burgundy vintage. It was a small crop, overall 10% less than the '92, '93 and '94 crops.
Among the best growers, however, it is smaller still, perhaps 20% less than the norm, especially among the late pickers, because of rot brought on by bad weather. Fortunately, a small harvest usually indicates a riper and earlier one. And though there were grapes that turned rotten before they were fully ripe, most of those growers who selected severely managed to make their wine out of healthy fruit.
"We had to fight nature in 1995," said one grower.
The character of the 1995s, I am sure, will find many friends. I'm reminded of the plump, generous, upfront fruit of the '85s: wine with no hard edges, impossible not to enjoy. But in contrast to the 1985s, the 1995s have greater structure and better acidity.
Because 1996 promises at this stage to be at least as good, possibly better, and certainly more consistent, and because it will be a large crop, Burgundy lovers have much to look forward to. This now makes 12 vintages in succession where the red wine harvest has ranked at least "good."
Some describe the vintage as a cross between '78 and '85, others as an '85-'88 cross. "1985s with the capacity to age," says Francois Faiveley, head of Domaine Faiveley.
Moreover, the lesser wines--minor villages in the Co^te de Beaune; wines marketed under regional names, rather than by specific vineyards; wines we can all afford to drink regularly--are of consistently high quality and have the same ample, ripe character. For the first time since 1990, we have good Saint-Aubin rouges and the like, and Hautes Co^tes that are worth investigating. The 1995 vintage is also very good in the Co^te Chalonnaise.
To explain the character of the vintage we must look at the weather. There was no real winter in 1994-'95. The early months of the vegetative cycle were dry and mild. This produced a good sortie of buds in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The bad weather arrived in the middle of May. First, there was snow that remained on the upper slopes; two days later, there was frost on the flatter land below. The weather remained cool and unsettled through mid-June.
The result, naturally, was a long, drawn-out flowering with the inevitable losses due to both coulure and millerandage. The harvest in parts of Chassagne, Chambolle, Gevrey and Marsannay was reduced even further by hail. There were also sporadic outbursts of mildew all the way up and down the Co^te, Gevrey-Chambertin being particularly affected. The bad flowering affected the red wine crop more than the white. It produced an uneven fruit-setting leading to irregular maturity.
Summer, ironically, turned out to be particularly dry and hot, stressing the vines and blocking the progress toward maturity. After unsettled, sometimes rainy weather in early September, most of the Co^te de Beaune was picked in dry but cool weather.
By Sept. 30, the harvest was well underway in the Co^te de Nuits as well, but then there was a thunderstorm, which quickly "turned" the fruit. It became essential to perform triage to eliminate the rotten grapes, first in the vineyard, then in the winery. Some vineyardists decided to wait, hoping for better weather and a gain in sugar content. This did come, but a little too late. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti had to reject 30% of its crop in its last picked vineyards, Echezeaux and Grands-Echezeaux.
* A free sample issue of Coates' newsletter, The Vine, is available on request from 76 Woodstock Road, London W4 1EQ England (fax [011-44-181] 995-8943).