Vineyards in Rully, which suffered frost, mildew and uneven flowering

Anyone driving through the vineyards of the Côte d’Or in the early hours of 27 April 2017 was in for a shock. People who witnessed it said Burgundy’s Golden Slope looked like a war zone with thick, acrid smoke hanging over the vines and visibility reduced to a few metres in some places. The battle had been joined, but the region’s vignerons weren’t fighting a mortal enemy; they were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the elements, specifically the threat of a devastating black frost. For three nights in a row they struggled against a foe that had done so much damage in 2016, burning damp bales of straw to protect their vineyards from the combined effects of the freezing temperatures and the magnified early morning sun.

Jacques Carillon of Domaine Jacques Carillon was “pleasantly surprised” by the result.
Jacques Carillon of Domaine Jacques Carillon was “pleasantly surprised” by the result.

There was some luck involved – the soils were dry rather than damp, as they had been a year earlier – but the collaborative effort paid off, at least in the Côte d’Or. “We’ll never know exactly what difference it made,” says Bertrand Chevillon of Domaine Chevillon, “but we narrowly avoided another disaster.” Further north in Chablis, where the sub-zero temperatures lasted for nearly a fortnight, producers were not so lucky. The region lost a third of a normal crop, despite using every measure at their disposal: large candles, electric cables, watering systems and, like their counterparts in Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée and Meursault, anything flammable to hand. The frost, combined with sporadic hail and mildew, did more damage in Chablis than anywhere else in Burgundy in 2017, although the quality of the crop is still very good.

Frost was a defining characteristic of the vintage, and in two respects. It wasn’t just a question of what occurred in 2017, there was also the influence of the much worse gelées noires (“black jelly”) the year before. When vineyards are devastated by frost, as they were in ill-starred villages like Marsannay, Chambolle-Musigny, southern Nuits-Saint-Georges, Meursault, and Chassagne-Montrachet in 2016, they tend to over-produce in the following growing season. This happened in 1982, 1992, 1999, and again in 2017. High yields, which prompted some producers to do one or more green harvests to reduce crop sizes, proved difficult to ripen in some cases. Dilution and, worse, honeyed or jammy notes from late-picked grapes are noticeable in some of the finished wines.  

 Etienne and Mathilde Grivot.
Etienne and Mathilde Grivot.

Top 25 Mâconnais Producers

➼ Bret Brothers
➼ Château de Beauregard
➼ Château de Fuissé
➼ Château des Quarts
➼ Château des Rontets
➼ Clos des Vignes du Maynes
➼ Domaine Cheveau
➼ Domaine Christophe Cordier
➼ Domaine Vincent Cornin
➼ Domaine du Clos des Rocs
➼ Domaine Daniel et Julien Barraud
➼ Domaine de la Bon Gran
➼ Domaine de la Sarazinière
➼ Domaine Ferret
➼ Domaine Frantz Chagnoleau
➼ Domaine Guillemot
➼ Domaine Jacques Saumaize
➼ Domaine Marcel Couturier
➼ Domaine Nicolas Maillet
➼ Domaine Parisse
➼ Domaine Pierre Vessigaud
➼ Domaine Robert-Denogent
➼ Domaine Saumaize-Michelin
➼ Domaine Sophie Cinier
➼ Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon

But before we discuss the wines of this heterogenous vintage in more detail, let’s look at the growing season. It began with what Etienne Grivot of Domaine Jean Grivot called a “real winter at last” – an increasing rarity in Burgundy these days because of global warming – with no snow, but three weeks of sub-zero temperatures in December and January. February and March, by contrast, were unusually mild, as was the first half of April. Budburst was early – 20 days ahead of 2015, hardly a cool vintage – which was why the frosts at the end of the month were so worrying. Flowering was also way ahead of schedule, the vines grew rapidly and the mercury continued to rise in June, with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recording a temperature of 39°C on the 21st of the month. There was some much-needed rain in mid-July, late August and early September, but this was still a warm, dry growing season when some vines suffered from dehydration and others shut down altogether during the height of summer. September was cooler than normal and helped to preserve necessary acidity in the grapes, which were generally ripe and healthy: “beautiful bunches” in the words of Cyrielle Rousseau of Domaine Armand Rousseau.

Cyrielle Rousseau.
Cyrielle Rousseau.

The 2017 vintage was the latest in what is becoming a worrying line-up of early harvests, with 2017 following 2015 and preceding the sweltering 2018. In such circumstances, picking windows are narrow and harvest dates have a huge impact on the style of the finished wines. “The decision gives me sleepless nights,” admits Benjamin Leroux. “It’s the hardest part of my job. I do my best after tasting the grapes, but I don’t always get it right.” Olivier Lamy of Domaine Hubert Lamy says that at the end of the growing season potential alcohol levels normally increase by around 1% per week. “In 2017, it was more like 2% or even 2.5%.”

Starting in August, once an extreme rarity, even for whites, is almost becoming the norm. Arnaud Ente of Domaine Ente was the first out of the blocks on 23 August, with other top white producers such as Olivier Lamy, Jean-Marc Roulot, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, and Dominique Lafon following suit. The reds were mostly harvested in the first two weeks of September, although Yves Confuron of Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot held out to the end, as ever, finishing on 23 September. Not everyone agrees with this trend – one Meursault-based blogger has accused the early pickers of making sparkling wine base or, worse, being responsible for a “new phylloxera”– but there’s no denying acidity levels were low in the grapes and fell rapidly in early September, just as sugar and potential alcohol levels rose. “I don’t pick early,” is Jean-Marc Roulot’s dismissive response. “I pick ripe.”

Arnaud Ente.
Arnaud Ente.

Vintage comparisons are a favourite parlour game in Burgundy, even if there is rarely much in the way of consensus among the Burgundians themselves. The heat and early harvest reminded some of 2007 and 2011, although 2017 is considerably better than both. Other parallels were drawn with 1947, 1979, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2014 and 2015. Others opted for a combination of vintages, such as 2014 and 2002, 2014 and 2010, 2014 and 2015 or (in one case) a mixture of 2007, 2011 and 2014. Maybe 2017 is just sui generis (“unique”), or as Christophe Roumier put it, “more serious than 2014, more mineral than 2007”. If you can divide Burgundian vintages into three types, according to a half-serious Freddy Mugnier of Domaine J-F Mugnier (“good”, “great” and “of the century”) then 2017 is somewhere between the first two.

What is certain is that, in one significant respect, 2017 is like both 1999 and 1989: a large vintage of mostly good to very good quality wines, both white and red. After eight years of comparative penury – both for producers and consumers – there is now finally plenty of wine to go round. The laws of supply and demand mean prices should come down, but they haven’t in the main, especially for the most famous domaines. In fact, some of them are arguably higher than they should be in absolute terms, which is partly a reflection of land prices, as well as scarcity. If 2019 is another big crop, as both 2017 and 2018 were, that may change. As a recent Liv-ex report put it: “Burgundy has been on a relentless rise…but prices are beginning to show increased volatility – often a sign of a turn.”

And what of the wines themselves? Of mixed quality would be my judgement having tasted nearly 3,000 samples in Burgundy and London. Aubert de Villaine of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, normally a shrewd judge of a vintage, has described 2017 as a “superb harvest both in quantity and quality, which we have not seen for a long time”, but he’s a little too enthusiastic in my view. There’s certainly lots of it – this was the largest-ever red wine crop in Burgundy – and the best wines are indeed impressive, but 2017 is not as good as 2016, 2015, 2012 or 2010 for reds, nor as good as 2014 or 2010 for whites. A more accurate assessment would be what the French call “restaurant wines” in many cases: appealing, full of fruit, well-balanced and made, mostly, for comparatively early drinking. Adjectives I heard more than once in Burgundy included “charming”, “easy-going”, “fresh”, “well-balanced”, “pleasurable”, “transparent”, “textured” and, the ultimate compliment to some people’s ears: “very Burgundian”. Possibly my favourite comment came from Emmanuel Guillot-Broux of Domaine Guillot-Broux in the Mâconnais. “They’re swimming pool wines. If you don’t have a pool, at least you can open a few bottles.”

Maxime Cheurlin of Domaine Georges Noëllat
Maxime Cheurlin of Domaine Georges Noëllat.

Top 25 Côte d’Or White Wine Producers

➼ Domaine Arnaud Ente
➼ Domaine Ballot-Millot
➼ Domaine Bonneau du Martray
➼ Domaine Coche-Dury
➼ Domaine Darviot-Perrin
➼ Domaine de la Vougeraie
➼ Domaine de Montille
➼ Domaine des Comtes Lafon
➼ Domaine Ramonet
➼ Domaine Jean-Louis Chavy
➼ Domaine Faiveley
➼ Domaine Fernand & Laurent Pillot
➼ Domaine François Mikulski
➼ Domaine Jacques Carillon
➼ Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard
➼ Domaine Leflaive
➼ Domaine Marc Morey
➼ Domaine Martelet de Chérisey
➼ Domaine Michel Niellon
➼ Domaine Olivier Leflaive
➼ Domaine Paul Pillot
➼ Domaine Roulot
➼ Domaine Yves Boyer-Martenot
➼ Etienne Sauzet
➼ Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey

Overall, this is a better white than red wine vintage, partly because chardonnay copes more easily with the combination of heat and high yields than fragile pinot noir. Anne Morey of Domaine Pierre Morey calls it an “exceptional year”, a sentiment echoed by Jérôme Flous of Domaine Faiveley. Some producers blocked their malolactic to retain acidity, while others used shorter press cycles, quicker fermentations and less time in wood. “I was worried 2017 would be like 2015,” adds Jacques Carillon of Domaine Jacques Carillon, “but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how they’ve developed.” Pierre Vincent of Domaine Leflaive says Burgundians learnt a lot from the even hotter 2013 vintage.

Do the wines reflect their terroirs, as some people (mostly wine merchants, but also growers) have claimed? Again, yes and no. As Loïc Dugat-Py of Domaine Dugat-Py, whose Chambertin was my wine of the vintage, puts it with commendable frankness, there are “some very, very good 2017s, but also some bad ones”. As crop levels and picking dates varied considerably from vineyard to vineyard and producer to producer, it’s not easy to generalise about individual villages or even Grands or Premiers Crus. But here goes…

2017 is certainly the best white wine crop since 2014 in Chablis, which remains a comparative source of bargains, even at the top end, where the likes of Domaines Vincent Dauvissat, François Raveneau, and Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin sell their Grands Crus at the same prices as some village wines in the Côte de Beaune. The summer was cooler in more northerly Chablis than in the rest of Burgundy, with quite a bit of rain in July, and that’s reflected in the precision and tautness of the best bottlings. The April frosts, as I’ve already mentioned, reduced quantities in the Yonne, particularly in the Grands Crus and the Premiers Crus on the right bank of the River Serein.

High, as opposed to low, yields were a problem in some parts of the Côte de Nuits, especially Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin. There was also a small hailstorm in the northern part of Morey-Saint-Denis, but this affected quantity rather than quality. Green harvests were widely employed to reduce crop levels; those who had lots of grapes to ripen, on the other hand, often had to wait, producing wines that are soft and lacking in structure in some cases. Buy these wines with care and stick to the best names, with Vosne the pick of the communes. Don’t be afraid to buy village level or even generic wines as they are often very good to drink. The Grands Crus, many of which, highly unusually, were picked first, sometimes lack transcendence.

Anne Morey.
Anne Morey.

Top 25 Côte d’Or Red Wine Producers

➼ Domaine Armand Rousseau
➼ Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé
➼ Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
➼ Domaine de la Vougeraie
➼ Domaine Denis Bachelet
➼ Domaine Denis Mortet
➼ Domaine Drouhin-Laroze
➼ Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair
➼ Domaine Dujac
➼ Domaine Dugat-Py
➼ Domaine Duroché
➼ Domaine Fourrier
➼ Domaine Georges Roumier
➼ Domaine Ghislaine Barthod
➼ Domaine Henri Gouges
➼ Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat
➼ Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier
➼ Domaine Jean Grivot
➼ Domaine Leroy
➼ Domaine Marquis d’Angerville
➼ Domaine Méo-Camuzet
➼ Domaine Robert Chevillon
➼ Domaine Robert Groffier
➼ Domaine Sylvain Cathiard
➼ Domaine Taupenot-Merme

It was a similar story in the Côte de Beaune, although here the good crop was even more welcome after a catastrophic run of hail and/or frost-affected vintages in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 which devastated certain villages and left some growers with the equivalent of 1.75 crops in five years. The whites are preferable here, with some notable successes in Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Saint-Aubin and, to a slightly lesser extent, Chassagne-Montrachet. The reds are more heterogeneous, but there are some delicious wines from Corton, Beaune (at Premier Cru level) and Volnay.

The Côte Chalonnaise, like Chablis, made smaller quantities of wine, especially in Rully (frost, mildew and uneven flowering) and Montagny, where berry sizes were reduced by the drought conditions. There are some good whites from the region in 2017, mostly when people picked early, but the reds are even better from the pinot noir-dominated villages of Givry and Mercurey. In common with Chablis once more, these are often well priced by the increasingly stratospheric standards of the Côte d’Or.

In the Mâconnais, Burgundy’s most southerly region (if you exclude Beaujolais), chardonnay accounts for nearly all of the plantings, so what I have said about the white wines from further north also applies here. Frost in the spring and hail in July lowered yields, but the late August rains were more significant for those who hadn’t picked yet. The heat was marked in some places, so look out for gamays (which retain acidity better than pinot noir) and whites from cooler, higher sites in Saint-Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé.

Will these wines age? Where yields were high, cellars warm and malolactics completed early, the wines won’t make old bones and are already soft and developed in some cases, but not all the 2017 reds are like that. The best of them have both acidity and balance, with medium colour and good concentration. These aren’t particularly tannic wines, but pinot doesn’t need masses of structure to develop in bottle. Maxime Cheurlin of Domaine Georges Noëllat is surely right to say there was “no point looking for something that wasn’t there in the grapes”, yet the 2017s may surprise us. “I thought the 2017s were immediately accessible at first,” says Grégory Gouges of Domaine Henri Gouges, “but they do have some backbone after all.”

Cyrielle and  Eric Rousseau  of Domaine  Armand Rosseau.
Cyrielle and Eric Rousseau of Domaine Armand Rosseau.

Top 25 Producers to Watch

➼ Château de Laborde
➼ Domaine Anne et Hervé Sigaut
➼ Domaine Arnaud Tessier
➼ Domaine Charton-Vachet
➼ Domaine Corsin
➼ Domaine Decelle-Villa
➼ Domaine de Chapelle de Blagny
➼ Domaine la Croix Montjoie
➼ Domaine de L’Évêché
➼ Domaine des Hâtes
➼ Domaine du Roc des Boutires
➼ Domaine Guillemot-Michel
➼ Domaine Guy Robin
➼ Domaine Jean-Baptiste Boudier
➼ Domaine Jean-Marc Vincent
➼ Domaine Joseph Colin
➼ Domaine Lecheneaut
➼ Domaine Michel
➼ Domaine Pernot-Belicard
➼ Domaine Roland Lavantureux
➼ Domaine R. Dubois & Fils
➼ Domaine Violot-Guillemard
➼ Jacques Bavard
➼ Jane Eyre
➼ Les Champs de Thémis

We should also take the noise surrounding the denser, more powerful and still-in-barrel 2018s with a grain de sel, especially as they will have their time in the spotlight 12 months hence. Are the 2017s in danger of being overshadowed? Jean-Marie Fourrier says this is what happened to the 2014s, prematurely contrasted with the 2015s. Frédéric Engerer, who runs Château Latour in Bordeaux as well as Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne-Romanée, says that 2017 is caught between 2016 and 2018 in terms of image. “In ten years’ time, we’ll look back and say, ‘ah, that was good’.”

In other words, let’s enjoy the 2017s on their own terms. They are not generally the most complex of Burgundies, but they’re often breezy, aromatic and appealing right now. What’s more, it’s great to have a vintage in Burgundy, Chablis aside, that passed without incident and produced plenty of wine, both red and white. It might not have looked like it when Burgundians stood beside bales of burning straw in the chill of a late April morning, praying that the smoke would do its protective job, but the vintage has turned out well in the end. “We wanted a big crop,” says Louis-Fabrice Latour of Louis Latour, “and so did the vines.” No doubt Burgundy lovers will feel the same way about the 2017s. They’d just like to pay a little less for the privilege of drinking them.  

Star Ratings

WHITE
2017 ★★★★
2016 ★★★★
2015 ★★★(★)
2014 ★★★★★
2013 ★★★(★)
2012 ★★★★
2011 ★★★★
2010 ★★★★★
2009 ★★★★
2008 ★★★★
2007 ★★★(★)
2006 ★★★
2005 ★★★★★
2004 ★★★
2003 ★★
2002 ★★★★
2001 ★★
2000 ★★★
RED
2017 ★★★(★)
2016 ★★★★(★)
2015 ★★★★★
2014 ★★★★
2013 ★★★(★)
2012 ★★★★
2011 ★★★(★)
2010 ★★★★★
2009 ★★★★(★)
2008 ★★★(★)
2007 ★★★
2006 ★★★
2005 ★★★★★
2004 ★
2003 ★★★
2002 ★★★★
2001 ★★
2000 ★★(★)