2020 Burgundy Report
BURGUNDY 2020 VINTAGE REPORT
For those who like their information brief and to the point, first a quick summary of the 2020 vintage in Burgundy, as far as that is possible, then a more detailed explanation below. It looks like being a great vintage for the Whites, with an almost uniformly high level of quality, and a variable vintage for the Reds, but with the best of them already arousing a strong sense of excitement (and they are not always to be found in the obvious places – there are potentially some great bargains to be had). Yields were also very good for Chardonnay, but that needs to be placed in the context of 2021 when severe April frosts killed many of the shoots, and the cold, wet summer led to significant amounts of oïdium, mildew and other fungal diseases. All sorts of figures are being bandied about (90% seems to be a favourite), but there is no doubt that quantities are seriously down, and pushing the panic button does generate panic, so the 2020’s are disappearing fast. The prescient are predicting a shortage of White Burgundy, but the knowledgeable know that it is already here. Pinot Noir, on the other hand, fared less well, and some producers in the Côtes de Nuits have actually made more wine in 2021 than they did in 2020. If one wanted to sum up the vintage in one word, however, then the term that seems to be coming to everyone’s lips is ‘fresh’ – acidity levels remained very good despite the high levels of sugar.
So, to the detail. Although 2019 was a very hot and dry year, strong autumnal rainfall largely replenished the groundwater, significantly reducing the stress on the vines from what followed. The first lockdown in March coincided with the most glorious Spring weather, which continued into April leading to early bud-break and an early flowering. There was no significant frost, not even in Chablis and, apart from a short cool spell in May which just served to slow things down a little, flowering proceeded in ideal conditions and everything was ahead of schedule. June saw a reasonable amount of rainfall, but then drought set in for July and there were only scattered showers in August (apart from a hail storm over Nuits St Georges, which caused considerable damage). Temperatures for June and July were down on those of 2019, but the drying conditions of sun and wind not only kept the grapes healthy but concentrated the juice, which in turn meant that acidity levels remained more or less constant as the sugar (and thus potential alcohol) levels increased. A heatwave in early August, however, caused a rapid increase in sugar, and growers had to start taking decisions.
By the middle of August, potential alcohol levels in Pinot Noir were reaching 13%, even though the traditional 100 days between flowering and picking was not yet up and the grapes had not reached full ripeness. A decision was thus required as to whether to pick them at desirable alcohol levels or wait until they were completely ripe, the problem being that if one started the harvest at optimum ripeness, the August sunshine would mean that one was well past it when the harvest finished. Many growers thus decided to pick early, leading to the earliest ever Burgundy harvest (beating even 2003, although there the comparison ends since there was not the extreme heat in 2020). Others decided to wait until early September, but in many cases that led to alcohol levels above 15%. Early picking, of course, also brought problems, since the grapes became too warm to put into vats. Some decided to pick only in the morning while others hired refrigeration plants to cool down the grapes overnight.
Then there was the decision whether to destem the grapes or to ferment whole bunches. The stems were quite ripe, and many growers moved towards including some or all, or destemming and then adding some back. In either case, the grapes were small, the skins thick and the amount of juice that came out was tiny; yields were generally about 20–30 hl/ha. This led to the must quickly taking on colour, and maceration needed to be gentle. Most winemakers, therefore, considerably reduced pigeage (punching down) or eliminated it altogether. Pressing also needed to be gentle, and many chose to use vertical presses. And then there were the decisions of how much wood (and how much of it new) to use and of when to bottle; the effects of those will take time to become apparent.
The effect of all these choices is that there is enormous variation in both style and quality among the reds. The jury is still out, but many experts are of the opinion that there are some outstanding wines of great taste and with great ageing potential. All the wines have a beautiful rich colour with tremendous concentration but, thanks to the high acidity, without being heavy or powerful. The best of them have lovely, soft, velvety tannins and are already becoming approachable, but there are a few that are hard and overly tannic. There are, however, no rules and few clues as to where the best wines may be found. The normal hierarchy has to a great extent been overturned – the exceptional conditions meant that Grand Cru vineyards were frequently disadvantaged (you can have too much of a good thing), and Premiers Crus to some extent as well. Generally speaking, early ripening caused problems, and the Côte de Nuits is generally more successful than the Côte de Beaune, while Pommard is generally more successful than Volnay but, as always, ‘generally’ is superseded by ‘producer’. It is, nevertheless, a year in which ‘Village’ wines are frequently outstanding, while less-trumpeted appellations and even plain ‘Bourgogne’ have often surpassed expectations, so there is great value to be found in a vintage where prices will certainly be more elevated, and in some cases more so than the quality of some well-known names.
Meanwhile, as the Pinot was being harvested the Chardonnay had a little longer to ripen. The grapes retained more juice than the Pinot and yields were mostly around 50 hl/ha, which helped to avoid excessive richness. There are exotic fruit flavours, but they are balanced by the wonderful acidity that they share with the Pinot and the wines are very fresh with no hint of overripeness. The low levels of malic acid caused some problems with malolactic fermentation, and the occasional wine is very hard, but overall quality is high and the wines contain very high levels of extract, giving them a luxurious feel in the mouth. There appears to be general agreement that this is a great vintage for White Burgundy, if you can get hold of any …