Something is killing the 1996 White Burgundies.

July 6 2005 5:33 PM

The Murderer in the Wine Cellar

The 1996 White Burgundies are dying young. Why?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
Click image to expand.

Something is killing the 1996 White Burgundies. When the class of '96 first hit the market, it was hailed as a sublime vintage, the best since 1990. Collectors snapped up case after case. But now, just as the wines should be reaching their prime, they are turning up dead on dining-room tables—the victims of premature oxidation.

Burgundy collectors are understandably apoplectic: The wooden cases gathering dust in their cellars may now be wooden crypts. The extent of the problem is still unclear, but it is bad enough that the Wine Society, a British wine-buying club, has offered to take back the '96s it sold to members in exchange for credits toward other purchases. And there are troubling hints that White Burgundies from other mid- to late-90s vintages are also dying young. The incipient panic has sent wine professionals scrambling to figure out what went wrong.

A little airtime is generally a good thing for most wines: It can soften them up and give them a more alluring smell. Oak barrels are used for aging in part because they are porous and allow a small, salutary amount of oxygen to seep in. It has long been claimed that natural cork serves a similar purpose, although this is a matter of dispute. But too much oxygen can quickly make a young wine old, and white wines are particularly susceptible. A white gone bad will be a sickly shade of amber and will reek of sherry. The best way to prevent premature oxidation is to inject wines with small quantities of sulphur dioxide, an antioxidant, during the winemaking process.

My own experience with the '96 White Burgundies has been mixed. I recently had a bottle of the '96 Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes that was terrific, and the '96 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne I tasted a few months ago was so mind-bendingly good that I still haven't quite gotten over it. On the other hand, several bottles from Colin-Deléger, a normally reliable producer in Chassagne-Montrachet, all hit the table like horses' heads. A '96 Blain-Gagnard Batard-Montrachet was no better. And then there was the 1998 Ramonet Batard-Montrachet I opened last fall. True, '98 was a mediocre year for White Burgundies, but Ramonet is a legendary domaine and Batard-Montrachet a grand cru vineyard—the wine ought to have had some shelf life. Instead, it had the color of caramel and the smell of Dry Sack, and down the drain it went.

Spooked oenophiles naturally want answers, and several theories have been making the rounds. It has been suggested that hydrogen peroxide—which is used to clean corks—was not properly removed from some stoppers during the period in question. Because hydrogen peroxide is an oxidant, contaminated corks could have killed the wines they were meant to protect. Another theory: 1996 was a vintage high in acidity, and a number of winemakers, figuring the acidity would act as a natural preservative, eased up on the sulphur dioxide—too much so, perhaps.

Hoping for a more definitive answer, I called Michel Bettane, who is France's pre-eminent wine critic and who has the rare distinction (for a wine critic) of being an expert on viticulture. Bettane told me no single culprit has been identified but that winemakers in Burgundy have already taken steps to address some of the possible causes of the premature oxidation. They are no longer skimping on sulphur dioxide, for instance, and have become more vigilant about the corks they use. They are also backing off on the batonnage.Batonnage is the practice of stirring the sediment—known as the lees—that accumulates in white wines after fermentation; the process adds richness to the wines, but it also increases contact with oxygen.

Bettane also said that the enologist Denis Dubourdieu, who is generally acknowledged to be the planet's leading authority on oxidation in white wines, had developed an intriguing hypothesis. Dubourdieu and his colleague Valérie Lavigne-Cruege believe the premature aging of so many White Burgundies may be tied to the relatively recent practice of letting grass grow freely in the vineyards. Over the last 15 years or so, many Burgundy producers have stopped using herbicides, finally acknowledging that drenching the soil with chemicals may not be the best way to maximize its potential. But a number of these producers subsequently left the soil completely untouched, and Dubourdieu and Lavigne-Cruege suspect that the resulting carpet of grass is at the heart of the oxidation problem. The vineyards in Burgundy have low water reserves, which means the grape vines are constantly struggling to get the hydration they need. The grass competes with them for water, and in warm vintages the stress on the vines can be extreme. What Dubourdieu and Lavigne-Cruege have discovered is that grapes grown on highly stressed vines tend to have insufficient quantities of glutathione, a compound that serves as an essential antioxidant during the fermentation process. 1996 was a warm, dry vintage, so grapes harvested that year were probably short on glutathione, and the wines they produced may have been doomed from the start.

Whatever the problem is, the demise of so many '96 White Burgundies serves as a reminder that there are limits to the mastery of modern vintners. In the past few decades, winemaking has become an increasingly sophisticated, high-tech craft. Our understanding of what goes on in the vineyard is much greater now than it was 20 years ago, and this knowledge has created the illusion that man has now completely conquered the vine. Winemakers know better, of course, but quite a few oenophiles, spoiled by a seemingly endless succession of good vintages in most major viticultural regions, seem to believe that winemaking has become a precise and virtually fail-safe science.

As this Burgundy fiasco makes clear, the oxidation process is still an unraveling mystery. We don't know how something like micro-oxygenation—the increasingly prevalent practice of administering controlled doses of oxygen to wines in order to soften their tannins and make them more accessible in their youth—affects long-term aging. Nor, for that matter, do we have any idea what influence global warming will ultimately have on wines. Whenever one question gets answered, a new one takes its place.

And if you happen to be the nervous owner of some '96 White Burgundies?

Drink up. Better to serve a wine before its time than to serve it dead.