The last few years in Burgundy have been some of the most dramatic and most thrilling ever and yet, at times, the most frustrating in the region’s history. A string of sensational vintages has been interspersed with devasting spring frosts that have sent usually calm and supportive bank managers to their local bar for a strong shot of fortitude. Growers have produced some of the best wines of their careers, only to be brought back down to earth the following year with a painful thud having lost almost an entire crop. Such highs and lows are not for the emotional vigneron, who likes to work in tandem with nature not against her.
But for now, let us focus on the highs, as the 2021 vintage with its derisory yields of Chardonnay and only slightly more generous yields of Pinot, will provide us with enough drama and pain when we come to release what little there is in 12 months’ time.
The white wines in 2020 are a real joy, and a somewhat unexpected one at that. Somehow, despite the evident warmth of the vintage, they have evolved over the past year into one of the best vintages of the last decade, good enough to be on the podium with 2014 and 2017. They may lack a little of the high doses of dry extract that the 2014s exude, but they appear to have everything else. The pHs are nicely low, and the wines have a freshness and vitality that will really appeal to the purists. It helps the wines to express their terroirs and to accentuate both their complexity and length. They are also concentrated but show no sense of heat or over-ripeness. Picking dates were certainly important, as striking a balance between maintaining vibrancy and achieving full phenolic ripeness was crucial, but generally growers played it well. Oak has been managed well and it certainly felt that most winemakers were sensitive to not over-egging the mix.
Volume wise, it felt that there was generally more wine than in 2019 but allocations are being held back by many producers to regulate annual turnover, so available volumes for the market are down on the whole on 2019, though there may be more wine available in 12 months’ time.
The reds were initially harder to assess, as there is more variation, especially stylistically. As is often the case in more challenging vintages, arguably there is more influence on the part of the winemaker, aside from choosing his picking dates. Whole bunch, new oak, infusion or big extraction, length of elevage etc. are all important variables. Plus, there was significant variation between villages in production levels, which not only affected picking dates but affected the character of the raw materials the vignerons had to play with. Cool sites thrived, both in terms of both once borderline appellations (that used to only fully ripen three times a decade) and as well as small parcels, whose cooler microclimates have become a blessing in recent warmer years. In fact, the last 5 or 6 vintages have started to necessitate a fresh look at the order of merit of various vineyards. The most successful reds are stunning and should age very well, as they have enough substance to support the evident fruit. As a rule, they do not have the heat of 2018 and have more freshness and definition than the seductive 2019s. They should age very well indeed.
Volumes and prices of the reds are all over the place, even within one domaine, reflecting the variation between villages and vineyards. The stronger £ has helped a little with some of the increases but sadly it won’t help with the scarcity of many of the wines. Buying en primeur will, no doubt be the only opportunity to secure many of these wines over the coming years. For the whites, it may be even harder. We are about to endure an 18-month shortage of white Burgundy which will only be eased by a bountiful 2022 harvest. With almost no wine being made in 2021, stocks are being depleted rapidly by a sense of panic in the market. On top of this, restaurants will be back this year churning through vast quantities of white Burgundy. The pressure on these 2020s is immense. By the autumn some appellations may have disappeared from the market altogether. Growers have tried to balance their lack of wine with price increases that they feel the market can absorb and, generally, they seem to have got it about right. The wines will clearly age nicely though many may not get the opportunity to do so!
So, all in all, another very successful vintage for Burgundy. It’s just a shame that the supply and demand equation is so out of kilter!