Burgundy's first hurdle is always comparisons - often odious - with Bordeaux. The top Bordeaux chateaux release their wines in the spring after the vintage, so they have a head start on Burgundy. There can be a correlation - as in 1995 and 1996 - but 1997 Burgundy looks a lot more promising than 1997 Bordeaux. And a good half of Burgundy is white wine.
It was a vintage of variable ripening and searing summer heat. Despite a low crop, the 1997's saving grace was a fine September and a harvest of healthy grapes, often lower in acidity than usual. Whites are good, reds more variable. Growers using the modern technique of cooling the Pinot Noir and letting it macerate for several days before fermentation have produced good colour and some fine perfumes.
Etienne Grivot, one of Vosne-Romanee's leading growers, sums it up: "It was a vintage in which you had to avoid picking too late in case of jammy and cooked characters. After four austere years, 1997 is a vintage of opulence and charm. It will be silky and complex, not a great keeper but wonderful in between four and 10 years."
It's a year of exceptional ripeness which, in both reds and whites, will need to be drunk sooner rather than later. With a bit of luck, the lack of a "great" vintage tag will deter collectors and speculators who only covet wines rated 90 plus on the Wine Advocate or Spectator scale. On the other hand, it is an approachable vintage likely to appeal to a broad cross-section of wine lovers.
Burgundy's delights rarely come without a sting in the tail. A quarter of the crop was lost and the worldwide clamour for fine reds is unabated. Add in the less favourable exchange rate and domaine-bottled burgundies are generally between 10 to 20 per cent up on 1996, which is beginning to look like good value.
Unlike Bordeaux, which talks in thousands of cases, Burgundy producers can only count in thousands of bottles. Like it or not, supply and demand do kick in. Burgundy's best growers are only too aware of their star status and are pricing according to what they can get.
Tasting the new Burgundies this early gives a useful snapshot of the new vintage, but many of the wines are unfinished cask samples. Here is a selection of some of the best and details of specialists worth contacting for early release offers. At this stage, some wine merchants' prices are in bond (add duty and VAT on delivery), and others ex-cellars (as above, but add shipping, too). To make life simpler, I have given an estimated final bottle price. Wines will be shipped and delivered later in the year.
Whites under pounds 10
I have singled out two 1997 Bourgogne Blancs, one from Alain Coche, pounds 8.66, Bibendum, a characterful, full-flavoured white with deft oak touches, the other from Domaine Marc Morey, the 1997 Bourgogne Blanc, pounds 9.30, HH&C, a model house white Burgundy showing soft, ripe, buttery flavours in a Chassagne- Montrachet mould.
pounds 10 to pounds 15
The 1997 Pouilly Fuisse Les Reisses, pounds 12, Bibendum, from the Cote Chalonnaise is a classy, modern white with well-handled spicy oak and ripe pear-like fruitiness. From the Cote de Beaune, Prudhon's 1997 St Aubin Les Murgers des Dents de Chien, Premier Cru, pounds 11.75, J&B, is ripe and opulently rich with fine savoury fruit flavour. The 1997 Auxey Duresses, Francois d'Allaines, pounds 11.54, Morris & Verdin, is attractively scented with delicate oak spice and full flavour. Lucien Camus Bruchon's 1997 Savigny-Les-Beaune Blanc, Les Goudelettes, pounds 13.55, Bibendum, is a modern Cote de Beaune white Burgundy with spice and smoky oak characters and voluptuous fruit.
Over pounds 15
The whites of Jean-Noel Gagnard stand out. In particular, the 1997 Chassagne Montrachet Les Masures, around pounds 19, J&B, Farr Vintners, is a seductive white with nutty concentration and soft, charmingly approachable honeyed ripeness. A notch up the intensity scale, Les Chenevottes Premier Cru, pounds 23, J&B, is superb.
Reds under pounds 10
The 1997 Bourgogne, Ghislaine Barthod, pounds 8.30, Bibendum, is a supple, elegant expression of Pinot Noir. Tollot-Beaut's Cote de Beaune reds are often good value, in particular this year the 1997 Savigny Les Lavieres Premier Cru, Tollot-Beaut pounds 14, J&B, a fragrantly strawberryish Pinot Noir.
Over pounds 10
Georges Roumier's 1997 Morey Saint Denis Clos de la Bussiere, pounds 22, HH&C, is classically fragrant, elegantly styled Cote de Nuits red with a red berry fruits quality and good ageing potential. The 1997 Vosne-Romanee aux Reas, Domaine Anne-Francoise Gros, pounds 19, HH&C, is fleshy but not flashy and redolent of smoked meats. Louis et Pierre Boillot's 1997 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru Les Corbeaux, pounds 21, offers seductively squashy strawberry fruit favours in a sumptuously silky web.
Ghislaine Barthod's 1997 Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru Les Chatelots, pounds 24, Bibendum and 1997 Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru Les Veroilles, pounds 24, J&B, are the epitome of pure, delicate raspberry-like Pinot Noir with the emphasis on elegance. Robert Chevillon's 1997 Nuits St Georges 1er cru Les Perrieres, pounds 20, J&B, has spicy new oak over intensely flavoured, beautifully balanced Pinot Noir fruitiness, while Chauvenet's 1997 Nuits St Georges 1er cru Rue de Chaux and the 1997 Nuits St Georges 1er cru Les Damodes, pounds 23, Bibendum, are both excellent. Finally, pounds 26 is not exorbitant for the 1997 Vosne-Romanee 1er cru Aux Brulees, Etienne Grivot, pounds 26, Bibendum, a spicy, seductive Pinot Noir with undertones of rhubarb and redcurrant.
Wine merchants with current Burgundy offers
Bibendum 113 Regents Park Road, London NW1 (0171-916 7706).
Farr Vintners 19 Sussex Street, London SW1, 0171-821 2000 (coming soon).
Goedhuis & Co 6 Rudolf Place, Miles Street, London SW8 (0171-793 7900).
Haynes Hanson & Clark 25 Eccleston Street, London SW1 (0171-259 0102).
House of Townend Red Duster House, York Street, Wincomlee, Hull (01482 326891).
Justerini & Brooks St James's Street, London SW1 (0171-493 8721).
Laytons 20 Midland Road, London NW1 (0171-388 4567).
Morris & Verdin 10 The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 (0171-357 8866).
Tanners 26 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury (01743 234500).
White of the week
1998 Concha y Toro Gewurztraminer, pounds 3.99, Fuller's. If you like the floral spiciness of Alsace Gewurztraminer, this sprightly Chilean version won't disappoint you. In its frosted flute bottle, it is fragrantly spicy with typical rose petal scents and a full-bodied dryness which is refreshed by a zingy-fresh spritz.
Red of the week
1996 Chateau de Lancyre Grande Cuvee Pic Saint Loup, pounds 7.99, Fuller's. From one of my favourite spots in the Coteaux du Languedoc, this is an intensely rich, Syrah-based red with a smoky oak and herb-infused perfume which combines with voluptuous, brambly fruit in a wine of gloriously forceful Mediterranean flavour and character.