Now is a good time for any wine-lover to be drinking Burgundy’s 2017 vintage, says The World of Fine Wine’s Burgundy critic, Sarah Marsh MW. But Marsh has her own reasons for finding the vintage special: The year marked the first time she made her own wines in Burgundy, using grapes from Domaine Boyer-Martenot in Meursault and following the winemaking lead of none other than Dominique Lafon.
Burgundy’s 2017 vintage is a good friend in the cellar while you wait for 2015 and 2016 to come forward. The reds are charming and fruity with easy tannins and fair acidity. Don’t expect great intensity, since the vines bounced back from the 2016 frost with a bountiful crop, producing a loose relaxed style on the Côte de Beaune, albeit slightly more defined on the Côte de Nuits.
Chardonnay was less affected by the abundant yields, pushing the whites a notch higher on the quality scale, and they feel fresher and more elegant than you might suppose from this warm and early vintage. They were born with the aromatics of a warm vintage, but the structure of a somewhat cooler one and now with a couple of years in bottle they are delightful. It’s a good moment to enjoy the top village wines and the “smaller” premiers crus in both colors.
I’ve taken a special interest in Burgundy for many years, annually assessing the young wine, tasted from barrel, since the 2004 vintage. But in 2017 I also made some of my own wine. I spotted an opportunity when Pierre Meurgey, former owner of Maison Champy, asked me to taste at Château de Bligny. Attached to the 19th-century château is a good-sized winery belonging to Pierre Meurgey and Dominique Lafon. Here they make their negociant wine with space to accommodate other producers. This is highly unusual in Burgundy. Was there room for me? A crazy thought, but what better way to deepen my understanding of Burgundy. I said “what if” and the response came back “why not?”
It would be a terroir-driven project of course. After a rummage through my wine producer friends, Vincent Boyer (Domaine Boyer-Martenot) offered to sell me 600kg of Meursault, Narvaux, sufficient to make two barriques, from a small parcel of old vines in the middle of his 1.5ha (3.7acre) vineyard. Vincent was intrigued to discover what they contributed to the cuvée.
Narvaux is a top-level village vineyard, which together with glossy, feline Tessons, and the light, floral Tillets are my favourite village lieux-dits in Meursault. Narvaux lies on a warm and breezy slope above 1er Cru Genevrières and the thin rocky soil, red with iron, produces Meursault with cold grip; mineral, but muscular.
Making white Burgundy is technical and requires precision. I could not have done this alone, but was surrounded by people who could advise me. WFW readers will be aware of premature oxidation, a problem that dogged white Burgundy from the mid-1990s. Much has been done to address the issue, not only at bottling (better and tighter-fitting closures, accurate bottling heads, and sufficient sulfur), but also in winemaking, which had become overly reductive and less extractive in the pursuit of pure and accessible white Burgundy.
So I followed Dominique Lafon’s protocol, which allows aeration of the juice, notably the taille. The whole bunches are pressed for 90 minutes to reach 1.4 bar of pressure and the free run is allowed to collect in the press pan before sulfur is added. This is pumped to a stainless steel tank and held at 14 degrees for débourbage—during which the sediment or bourbes fall to the bottom of the tank and the juice clarifies.
After a further hour, the pressure reaches 2 bar, extracting phenols that will provide structure and anti-oxidant qualities for ageing, but also a higher concentration of elements that might lead to oxidation. So this small quality of juice is transferred, without sulfur, into a mini tank and left at ambient temperature to allow the oxidases, those elements most vulnerable to oxygen, to settle with the help of some enzymes. Few producers pay this attention to the press juice in order to avoid premox.
After 48 hours both parts are racked from their sediment and combined in another tank. Racking is a skill—how much of the bourbes to take—and I peered over Dominique Lafon’s shoulder and grabbed some practice racking with Caroline Lestimé at Domaine Jean-Noel Gagnard. The best way is to smell and taste the bourbes and make sure to leave the gray sludge at the bottom.
Now the juice warms naturally to 17-18°C (62.6-64.4°F) and spontaneously starts fermenting. When it hits a density of 1060, it’s time to move it into barrel. While it’s traditional to transfer the juice to barrel directly after débourbage, Dominique Lafon swears by starting in tank. Increasingly, I see more producers doing this. You can control the temperature in the early stages and move it secure in the knowledge of a healthy fermentation.
If you have noticed slightly more new oak in 2017 vintage, well spotted. When a large vintage follows a very small one, there is a shortage of older barrels. While not keen for any new oak, I settled for one older Chassin barrique and one new Damy.
By the time my Meursault was in barrel, I was itching to make my own red. At the eleventh hour I secured some organic Savigny-lès-Beaune, from Bas-Liards, a silty village parcel that produces a delicate wine, unlike the firm, bold wine from the clays of Fourneaux and Grands Liards. (Rossignol-Trapet and Remi-Rollin make good examples.)
The challenge was how to translate terroir into wine. If white winemaking is technical and controlled, to make red it seems you go with the flow, and the ride can be white knuckle for a novice.
Nothing went to plan from the moment several hundred kilos of Pinot Noir hit the sorting table in an empty winery. It was Sunday lunchtime, and unsurprisingly all promises of help had evaporated. Pierre Meurgey’s little children were press-ganged into assisting. This set the tone of adventure and adaptation making a three-barrel cuvée with a Health Robinson temperature control system consisting of a radiator, a length of roofing insulation, and a few trips out side to cool down—that was the tank, not me.
By the end of vintage I had a light fruity wine with a sunny disposition and just enough tannin. I worked for four weeks as a cellar rat for Domaine Clos de La Chapelle, while making my wine and had lost several pounds and acquired a broken rib and an overwhelming desire to sleep for a week. At this point, when producers feel most ragged, the press and trade descend, all fresh and breezy, to taste the previous vintage.
So am I living the dream, making wine in Burgundy? Well 2018 and 2019 presented more challenges, greater risks through making premier crus, and equal measures of elation and despair. I have a keener appreciation not only of winemaking but of sales and marketing, since I imported my first vintage and placed it in London restaurants in 2019. It seemed like a good strategy at the time. Wine retail has flourished during Covid, but the lockdown effect on hospitality has affected wine producers who supply restaurants. Like many, I worry about my business, but remain optimistic and look forward to returning to Burgundy to make another vintage.
Meanwhile I’m concentrating on tasting and writing. Just recently I tasted 40 examples of premier cru from recent vintages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet. The 2016s were always awkward and remain surly; while the rich 2015 whites are splendid and showing great potential, but merit more time. 2018 are burly infants, but 2017 is a lighter and forward vintage. Sometimes white Burgundy can hit a sticky patch at five years, but I sense 2017 will not falter. Naturally you could wait another three years or so for the top wines, but if you decant the premiers crus, always advisable for white Burgundy, they are delicious now, already on the cusp of youth and something more complex.
So open some of Burgundy’s 2017 vintage. It was a wonderfully fruitful year for raspberries, cherries, grapes— indeed everything flourished, even new winemakers. It’s a happy vintage to see us through to the end of Covid.