What’s the problem with 1996 Red Burgundy?

The Burgundians are not so prone as the Bordelais to call any good year the vintage of the century, but 1996 was widely acclaimed at the time as a great vintage in Burgundy for both red and white. Twenty years later, it is abundantly clear that it is anything but a great vintage. My particular peeve is that I was so pleased at the time to acquire a really good selection of Crus and producers for reds, in fact this was the first time I had been able to get grand crus from the likes of Rousseau and so on. Now this seems more like hubris.

Coincidentally or not, this was also the first year in which premox really took hold for white Burgundy. (Some people date it from 1995, but 1996 was the first year I saw the effect in any quantity of wines). This is a bit odd because my experience since then has been that premox is magnified in the richer years – which 1996 now is turning out not to be. Because of premox, I have finished up my 1996 white Burgundies, but I am still mulling over how the reds could have been so deceptive as I continue to explore them.

This is scarcely the first vintage in which everything seemed fair set at the time of harvest and a problem emerged later. 1983 comes to mind as the most striking precedent: the wines seemed lovely on release, but two or three years later, many showed unmistakable signs of grape rot, and to all intents and purposes rapidly became undrinkable.

I would love to have a proper scientific explanation of the problem with 1996. On the palate the wines universally show a medicinal acidity, sometimes verging on bitter. It’s not just that the wines have too much acidity – we have seen that in plenty of older vintages from Burgundy – but it’s the character of the acidity, more than a bit medicinal, sometimes even a touch metallic. What is responsible for this universal character?

It’s most noticeable at village level, but remains prominent at premier cru; grand crus have a better weight of fruit and richness to balance it, but it’s a rare grand cru that does not show it in the background. It is not entirely predictable: it’s less obvious in Jadot’s Ruchottes Chambertin than in Le Chambertin, for example.

It wasn’t evident at the time of vintage. My tastings of barrel samples identified strong tannins and good acidity, but these did not seem out of kilter, and over the first few years, the wines seemed to have a promising richness. For almost the first ten years after the vintage, acidity seemed high but reasonably in character. By 2006 it began to seem doubtful if and when the wines would come around, and by 2009 or 2010 the acidity seemed to be pushing the tannins on the finish. Tannins aren’t obviously punishing today, but must be contributing to the character that has become so evident over the past five years; virtually all my tasting notes since 2010 include the word “medicinal”.

While the vintage now lacks generosity, I’d be hard put to describe it as mean, since the underlying fruits often show a sweet ripeness – but they can’t get out from under that medicinal character. The puzzle for me is how this developed so uniformly several years after the vintage. Could it have been there all along but has been revealed only as the fruits lightened up? At all events, I don’t accept the school of thought that the wines need more time to come around: they are what they are, and this won’t change.

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