A stop-go growing season, marked by great climatic irregularities within and between regions, had prepared growers for the worst. But then, very hot conditions in August and September raised hopes of a truly great vintage. The three-week advance over a normal year registered at bud-burst gradually slipped back after damp, sunless weather in June and July, and the bans de vendanges were finally set about one week ahead of normal (6/9 – Mâconnais; 10/9 – Côte Chalonnaise; 11/9 – Côte de Beaune; 18/9 – Chablis). But Chardonnay was irregularly ripe and quality-minded growers elected to wait for further sugar sunshine. That said, excessive acid correction was, undoubtedly, a mistake. The vintage’s natural aromatic register of peach skins, pears, honey and dried fruits clearly indicated the sweet, sugar-rich raw materials from which its best white wines come. Final acidity of 4 g/l, after malolactic fermentation, a modest level by 1996 standards, is more than adequate for the gentler 1997 style. 1997 high points include those appellations which struggle to ripen adequately in normal years, or whose naturally firm style was softened in this vintage: exciting wines were made in Saint Aubin, les Hautes Côtes and throughout Chablis where naturally later ripening gave it the best of September conditions. Similarly, Puligny’s dry mineral flavours seem to have been especially well served by the 1997 style. Generally, this is an early-drinking year. Almost all of the wines below grand cru level are now at their peak.
With four unready red Burgundy vintages cluttering the cellar (1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996), producers and consumers were ultimately happy that 1997 should turn out softer, rounder, and more approachable. Something was needed urgently for the shorter-term. Initially, though, the low yields, high grape sugars, unimprovable crop health and fine harvest weather led many to believe that 1997 would surpass even the pedigree of 1996 and 1995. In practice, however, few cuvées possessed quite the phenolic structure or acidity of the preceding years although the happy exceptions, often picked early thus preserving vital freshness, are indeed classics. The growing season was anything but routine. Half of Burgundy`s average annual rainfall fell in the month of November 1996 alone. The sunniest month in 1997 was not July or August, but… April. June was colder than a normal March. Southern Burgundy had its hottest August since 1947. Difficult flowering had reduced crop size but, after a dull July, hot weather persisted right through September, bringing 13% potential degrees but weakening acidity by the time of the bans de vendanges, which fell two weeks early. Overall, the vintage favoured acid-conserving early ripening sites, edging the Côte de Beaune ahead of the Côte de Nuits. Vonay and southern Beaune, in particular, picking right after the ban, turned in rich, authoritative wines. Areas often lacking ripeness, such as northern Burgundy`s red Auxerrois zone, made better wine in 1997 than in 1996 where the fruit was overwhelmed by the structure. Similarly, 1997`s richly-scented, smooth style was a shoe-in for the Beaujolais. Reds below grand cru level are now ready and delicious; the biggest wines, initially checked by high levels of dry extract, are opening up and may be tried over the next two years.