2017 Burgundy - Buyer's Report

By Robbie Toothill | Buyer
December 2018

2017: beloved of winemakers

You would hope that winemakers love every vintage they make, like they love their children. And like children, they hesitate to pick favourites. But 2017 is a vintage that our vignerons are admitting to loving, perhaps more than others.

Certainly, part of this is due to yields: it cheers winemakers to see full cellars. Empty cellars have been the norm in Burgundy over recent years, with growers lamenting frosts, hail and drought for tiny yields. Indeed, at some estates, this was the first time in my five years visiting the Côte d’Or that I saw plentiful barrels, benefitting from the generosity of both 2017 and 2018.
More importantly, it is also the character of the wines that’s impressed. Precise, terroir-driven and fresh, they’re exactly what Burgundy should be about. Someone labelled 2017 a ‘modern classic’: a phrase that resonated. Certainly, with a warm summer, the wines don’t lack maturity. But they’re also crunchy and fresh, with each wine’s origin displayed with precision: Chardonnay and Pinot, and indeed Burgundy’s, calling cards.

2017 is hard to liken to another year, due to those ripe tannins yet crunchy flavours. Some consider it a riper, better 2014 for reds, and a slightly richer 2014 for whites. Most avoided the question all together. Michel Lafarge said it reminded him of 1964: if the wines turn out like that, we’ll all be happy.

My perceptions of a vintage are shaped by frequent visits to the Côte d’Or. A first glance straight after the harvest, when I visit to taste the previous vintage, gives an idea of the growers’ first impressions, while a week in July gives a good idea of successes and failures. Two and a half weeks spent in October and November gives the chance to taste every wine in our range, crisscrossing the côte and spending time with every grower.

Often the wines taste very similar in each period. In 2015, for example, not much had changed, with quality evident at every step.

But in 2017 the two impressions were totally different. The wines had changed, and considerably for the better. Whereas in July, the whites were good but a touch rich, and the reds lacked a bit of substance, by the end of October they were wowing glass after glass, estate after estate.

Both colours have benefitted from the summer’s elevage, putting on weight and developing complexity in spades.

The result is an excellent vintage, one that I can’t wait to see develop.

The season - teamwork required

A cold winter was much needed, but when spring came, it came early, and it came fast. Bud break took place at the start of April, and growers began to worry about a repeat of the frost of 2016.

Sure enough, on the evening of 26/27 April, a year to the day following the catastrophic losses of 2016, temperatures dipped again below freezing, and the Beaunois awoke to icy cars.

Fortunately, in 2017 there was a secret weapon, as vignerons up and down the Côte d’Or lit damp hay bales in the early hours, working as a collective, in order to create a protective screen over the vineyards, to shield the shoots from the sun’s burning rays. And this effort proved worth while. While some vineyards saw damage (including Olivier Lamy in St Aubin, whose losses were worse than in 2016), the majority were spared.

Following this stress, the summer passed without major events, with just a few heat spikes. Some growers picked as early as the 25th August, but the majority started towards the end of that week, following a storm over Burgundy on 30th August. Indeed, these rains refreshed the vines, and allowed berries to swell a little after the heat of the end of August.

The harvest was more or less completed by the third week of September.

The whites - the finest since 2014

Prior to travelling to Burgundy this autumn, it seemed like excitement was building for the whites, in a way we haven’t seen since 2014, or 2012.

Tasting the wines, this excitement is justified. It’s clear that this is the best vintage for white wines since 2014, with terroirs well defined, excellent freshness, and a sense of nervousness. They have everything that I look for in great Chardonnay, and will age well.

It’s certainly a vintage to stock up on.

The reds - pure and expressive Pinot

The 2017 reds from the Côte d’Or are the most pleasant surprise I’ve encountered in my time buying wine. They are juicy, fresh, and many are very saline, inviting you to have another glass.

This quality stretches all the way across the range. In areas which once may have struggled to ripen fully, such as Corton, Marsannay, or plots of Bourgogne, stunning wines are now being made, thanks to increased temperatures.

And these appellations continue to offer excellent value. It’s a vintage to buy widely, at all levels.

Chablis, Mâconnais, Beaujolais - overlooked at your peril

Chablis was again struck by frost at the end of April, with a remarkable 11 consecutive days of problems. So yields are well reduced.

But what remains reflects the story further south. These are outstanding wines, with balance and texture in spades. They are a must-buy for lovers of Chablis, particularly while prices remain comparatively cheap.

In the Mâconnais, too, 2017 has provided a vintage that will be well-loved. Here prices have remained low, while quality has soared, with examples to challenge Burgundy’s best. Indeed, a bottle from Château de Fuissé served blind could easily have come from the Côte de Beaune.

In 2017 sectors of Beaujolais were seriously affected by hail, but where wine was made the results are brilliant. There’s ripeness to the fruit, all balanced with a stunning saltiness. Jean-Claude Lapalu considers it a benchmark vintage - and tasting his wines, you can see why.

Once again, the wines here are the perfect tonic to the prices of the Côte d’Or. Our range is select but carefully chosen: these are bottles to form the backbone of your cellar.

The market - something for everyone

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that prices of Burgundy wines have gone up considerably in recent years. A combination of factors, tiny vintages since 2010, increased global demand, and a punishing exchange rate, have created a perfect storm, where for many the ‘top wines’ of Burgundy are now out of reach. However, you write Burgundy off at your peril. Tasting from our producers, I’m impressed by the sheer quality to be found, all the way up the range. And with warm seasons, and careful work in the vineyard and cellar, appellations that may have been avoided ten years ago are now producing stunning wines, without the prices to match.

I’m constantly evaluating the value of the wines in our Burgundy offering. This means, of course, that at times difficult conversations are required with growers.

However, it also means that whether you buy a grand cru from the most prestigious name, or a Chardonnay from the Mâconnais, you are securing a bottle that will delight, at its proper price.

And whether it’s Clos De Vougeot or Bourgogne Rouge in your cellar; Chevalier-Montrachet or village Chablis, the 2017s you buy will charm for many years to come.

You shouldn’t miss out.