With a lesser vintage to come out next year, Burgundy producers are cashing in – so watch for price rises.
© Chateau de Pommard
| The 2020 vintage was mostly very good, but getting your hands on the wines will not be easy.
That means warmer than 2015, warmer than 2003. Still, the reds overall don’t have those warm year flavors, and the whites have the kind of freshness and acidity they lacked in 2019 – and it didn’t come out of a package either. How come?
The vintage is not homogeneous, there are overripe reds and reds that are a little weak in acidity. In red I wrote “would pass for fresh if he was Spanish”. This is the kind of vintage for reds that you really have to taste before you buy.
But will you have the option? Demand, according to London merchant Charles Taylor, is skyrocketing, as are prices: “All major markets have come back in the last six months. Before, the US was buying less because of US taxes, and the off-trade in Europe was flat, although the UK resisted. But suddenly, in the summer, Burgundy was back. The cellars were full 12 months ago and now they are empty. They sell everything and the prices soar.
That means prices for 2020 are around 10-20% off 2019 opening prices, but the top end, the grand crus, are up 30-40% or more. Some are up 55%. “I can’t blame the producers,” Taylor says. “They will make a loss next year, so they are making money with 2020.”
Giles Burke-Gaffney of Justerini & Brooks agrees: “They’re doing it this year because they can’t do it next year.”
The 2021s don’t look so promising. If 2020 was hot, 2021 was wet. The reds look a bit watered down and the threat of rot has forced some growers to pick too early. And there’s nothing like the threat of a lesser year ahead to drive up prices for the best year.
“The Grand Cru of Burgundy followed the path of the Premier Cru of Bordeaux,” says Taylor; although he adds that the 2020 Grand Cru de Bourgogne is often still below the current market price for older years. Will people buy? “We’re seeing some resistance in the UK, but Asia and the US will buy.”
Let’s calm down, take a step back and look at what happened in 2020. Why don’t they taste like hot summer wines? Jasper Morris MW has the detail here.
Flowering was early, he says, and there were no late frosts, which was a welcome change. It was the first flowering ever recorded. So even though the picking also started early, the grapes had a good hang time: there were almost 100 days between flowering and picking. When those 100 or more days occur earlier in the year, there’s more sun and often less heat – although admittedly it’s the last stretch that makes the difference. Plus, says Morris, “2020 didn’t feel like 2003. There weren’t any big heat spikes. There were even high temperatures until a slightly warmer August.”
It also points to a reasonable difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures, and a drought that has caused water stress and stalled development. The wind was either from the north (cold and dry) or from the south (hot and dry), and the dry winds concentrated the sugar, acidity and flavor. Sugar levels aren’t too high and alcohols are usually between 13-14%. The acidity was almost entirely tartaric.
Pickers are smiles
It all depended on the picking dates. Those who picked earlier, Morris says, did so because they feared sugar levels would rise too high and acidity would drop. They have alcohol levels of around 13.5% and freshness. Those who waited did so because they were hoping for rain, which didn’t happen.
“If the wine is balanced, you can accept 14 to 14.5%, but you have to consider the flavor profile,” he says. “Should Pinot be all dark fruit or all red fruit? Late pickers haven’t considered it enough for my palate. I prefer fresh, vibrant red fruit to all dark fruit. Overripe flavors remain forever. Slightly unripe fruit sorts itself Between 1959 and 1990 we had to accept a certain degree of under-ripeness. If you say you can’t have that, then there were no good years between 1959 and 1990.”
| The vintage grapes were so concentrated that they had less juice than normal.
Most producers gave up on extraction: the grapes were super intense and contained less juice than usual. Normally, says Morris, 315 to 320 kilos of grapes fill a barrel, but this year it took 360 kilos. The colors were so deep that no one had to work for them, and most were satisfied with an infusion, or at most a very light punching down. It was a year to be handled with delicacy.
The percentage of whole bunches was sometimes up, as the stems were ripe. That extra definition you get with some stems in the fermentation is helpful, but using lots of stems can reduce acidity, which no one wanted this year, so growers have been careful. Vincent Avenel of Chanson says that while they used to do 100% whole bunches each year, they are now more nuanced and range between 50-75%.
The reds are big and the best ones have real greatness. I would cite Bertrand Ambroise, Bruno Clair, Drouhin-Laroze, Follin-Arbelet, Genot-Boulanger, Ghislaine Barthod, Michel Magnien, de Montille, Robert Chevillon, Rossignol-Trapet – but the list is far from exhaustive.
They are muscular, powerful, energetic, yet effortlessly balanced. It’s the key to this year’s best reds, and it will be the key to wines that age best. If they are too ripe, a little too soft, it is better to drink them fairly early. But it’s also fair to say that they take their time to show what they’re talking about. The wines from the January tastings were on the whole more impressive than those I tasted in November. Yes, they were from different producers, and it would be easy to read too much. But Morris, too, feels they’ve been a bit slow to show all of their characters.
So much for the reds. The whites are delicious, fresh, tight, concentrated, often salty, nicely balanced. There was plenty of juice in the grapes, unlike the reds. The alcohol was rarely up to 14 percent and usually considerably lower; the acidity was almost entirely tartaric and there was very little overripeness. These are classic white Burgundies – and better than 2019. If you were going to nitpick, you might say some overdid the oak a bit. And while hit match ratings are in retirement, there were still instances where they could be retired even more.
Chablis actually tastes like Chablis this year – not necessarily really steely, but certainly taut, linear and saline. You can taste the chalk. Chablis had some rain in August which helped, and again they are better than the 2019s.
What is particularly remarkable is that among the small whites – Bourgogne Blanc, St Aubin, Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, rather than cheap, which is not much anymore – there are wines dressed to appear larger than they are. So you’ll have cream and smoke and oak and citrus and nuts, all crammed into a wine that, when looked at closely, doesn’t have much more to it. They are completely convincing until you look closely.
I put this to Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler of Private Cellar. Yes, she said: they just need to drink quickly. Don’t put them away. And aren’t they so much nicer than the skinny, mean white people we used to have? She’s right, of course: they are.
Above this level, the different appellations are quite distinct on the palate in 2020, but still on a somewhat more mature level than was the case for a “classic” year in the past. So Pernand-Vergelesses has a bit less of that telltale stoniness, but is still taut and elegant; The Montrachet, if you have your spending boots, is clearly linear; Corton-Charlemagne fleshy in its very refined way.
As an aside, Aligoté seems to be adorable. If you don’t know it, 2020 is the year to try it.
So what does all this tell us about climate change and the future of Burgundy? Back to Morris.
“Pinot Noir is at the limit of what it can handle,” he says. “Chardonnay can grow in California. But pinot noir, for me, should be 12.5% to just over 13%. I don’t want it to be 15.5%. Pinot Noir is more at risk, that’s for sure.
But he tempers this somewhat apocalyptic statement by pointing out that “producers are awesome enough to handle it.” They can adjust rootstocks, their choice of Pinot Noir material – different mass selections and different clones can help here – and also make viticultural changes. Whether you cut the shoots, the way you plow, as well as obvious changes like more shading can all help. Biodynamics, in 2020, did not seem to yield the least harvest that is usually said, and the areas that had the best balance are often those that are biodynamic. One of the attractions of biodynamics for the estates that practice it has always been the better acidity it seems to give. It could well have paid dividends this year. Morris also suggests that the Pinot Noir is “getting used to the new rules and may have been less affected by the drought in 2020 than in 2019.”
The party is therefore not over. But the days of bargains in Burgundy, if you knew where to look, well, those days may be over.
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