2019 Burgundy En Primeur - The Brave New World of Burgundy
After a run of three vintages that could all be classified hot and dry, it appears Burgundy is going through a transition and growers are learning how to handle such conditions. Most growing seasons get underway much earlier than ever before, meaning that the vines start to develop while frost remains a risk. Harvest dates are much earlier, but they are also difficult to predict with plans often having to be altered and brought forward with all the logistical issues that this presents. Summer heat spikes, now sometimes touching forty degrees, see vineyards ripening quickly, but at different speeds. The need for attentive viticulture has never been so sharply felt. Judging the ideal moment for harvest is increasingly tricky too; attention needs to be paid to the balance between sugar and acidity in the berry, but also to tannins in the pips, skins, and stems, particularly for the increasing numbers who practise whole bunch fermentation for reds. You might wait, fearing that the tannins are not quite ripe, only to see the acidity fall away and potential level of alcohol increase. The 2018 vintage underlined the challenges. Some growers encountered stuck fermentations, where the yeast struggled to complete the fermentation in higher-than-normal levels of alcohol. Some growers encountered other problems such as volatile acidity and bacterial spoilage. Some resultant wines ended up seeming baked and heady and there were certainly examples of this in 2018. Not everything is in the negative column, there are a few positives for the grower too. Chaptalisation (adding sugar to boost the strength of the wine) is virtually consigned to the past and there has barely been even the threat of rot around harvest in the last seven or eight years, so healthy fruit is a great benefit. Fortunately, Burgundy is home to a collective of incredibly skilful and talented growers, and they have learned quickly even if they have learned on the job. While 2019 has fewer of these issues, it certainly is not completely clear of problems as our tastings revealed. Never has it been so important to taste widely and discuss the vintage with our growers to understand how they met the challenges.
Unsurprisingly, Vincent Lécheneaut stated that 2019 will be remembered as a vintage of the vigneron. Such comments used to be reserved for vintages where full ripeness was a struggle to achieve! When you read all the reports of the season, this seems like a characteristic understatement. Ludivine Griveau, head winemaker of the Hospices de Beaune ended her summary of the year’s climatic conditions saying: “There’s never been a year whose climate was harder to sum up than 2019!” None of which seems to permit declarations of uniformly outstanding quality which do seem to be emerging from some quarters, so let’s look at the detail of the growing season.
The tone was set by a dramatic lack of rainfall from the end of the 2018 harvest through to a January-February period with 50-70% less water than the norm and the warmest winter in 25 years – 3 degrees above the average – which precipitated an early bud burst. Vegetation was advancing rapidly through March but then on 5th April and again on the 14th there were frosts, as seems to have become increasingly common in recent years. The damage caused by the former was initially underestimated but did significantly contribute to varied states of bud development. The latter saw a Ministerial Decree permit the burning of hay bales to create smoke screens to avoid the problems that blighted the 2016 vintage. May was unusually cold, but also sunny and remarkably dry, with 50% less rain than average. This cooler weather slowed the growth of the vines and altered the expectations of an early harvest. Flowering in early June was uneven and protracted through cool and windy conditions before a heatwave ended the month and led into a July that was hot and with a whopping 80 more sunshine hours than usual. While there was some welcome rain towards the end of June, it was light and the heat of July was sustained and intense, two degrees hotter than the average. The summer was also notable for windy conditions that had two different effects. Firstly, they accentuated the drought impact. Secondly, they helped the bunches dry quickly after the (much-needed) rains in the early part of the month of August and almost entirely eliminated any threat of rot developing as the fruit ripened fully towards the beginning of September.
The short route through this rollercoaster of conditions brings us to a vintage which suffered for a lack of water throughout. No winter rains had replenished water reserves as they did in advance of both 2018 and 2020 to come. The summer had moments of intense heat with high numbers of sunshine hours through June and July, which, combined with windy conditions, led to an intensification of drought pressure. But how did this translate to the fruit and the resultant wines?
Returning to Vincent Lécheneaut’s ‘vintage of the vigneron’; it was a year for being attentive in the vineyard, taking meticulous care of each vine and responding quickly with targeted action. Rather than seeing this as a burden and as a problem, this is seen by many growers as a blessing. As Romain Taupenot echoed: “We have never made such beautiful wines as over the last few years.” The point being made by Romain and by Vincent is that, as vignerons, the ball is now in their court, so to speak. Twenty or thirty years ago, achieving full fruit or phenolic ripeness was often a struggle and the vintage was in the hands of the gods almost entirely. Now vignerons have more control over the outcome. Vincent went on to say that the benefits of the warmer years include more reliably achieved maturity, but also reduced disease pressure on account of less rain resulting in fewer treatments and more natural wines. He merely described as “inconvenient” the smaller volumes of juice due to more regular drought conditions and the risk of burnt fruit with its potential for the undesirable flavours it brings. By working the soil to encourage deeper roots, by changing the approach to training methods to protect the fruit, by using more whole bunches in the fermentations for added freshness, amongst so many other carefully considered approaches, better wines can more consistently be produced. Neal Martin writes in his vintage report: “Personally, I believe vine and vigneron are working with the new type of Burgundy growing season rather than trying to fight against it.” Crucially of course, this does require the will of the grower and a combination of self-confidence and humility. It is probably fair to say that not everyone is there yet…
This is clearly a hot vintage, though one that is largely untroubled by problems of low acidity in the way a vintage such as 2003 or even 1999 might have been. There are a number of explanations for this. Firstly, the heat was concentrated into a handful of spikes and the periods between were often cooler than the average, thus allowing fruit to maintain acidity. Secondly, the acidity became concentrated at the same time, and to the same extent, as the sugars and phenolics by the drought conditions allied to drying north winds in the lead up to harvest. Thirdly, as Romain Taupenot explained, levels of soil potassium, that can reduce acidity, are decreasing from historic highs. This is an interesting point as across the decades of the twentieth century the soil was denuded of life through excessive chemical applications. With more natural cultivation methods in the ascendant, soils are rediscovering their balance and acidity levels are returning. Fourthly, malic acid levels in the grapes were reduced by the high sunshine hours while tartaric acid remained stable. Malic acid levels are inevitably reduced in the winemaking process while tartaric levels are not, so the extent to which acidity dropped in the winemaking process was significantly less, making for fresher natured wines in spite of the heat.
Facile as they often are, comparisons are asked for and made to other vintages. Many growers mention 2015 but suggest there is more freshness in 2019 – the warmth of 2015 with the charm of 2017, said one. The sweet character of 2015 with some of the acidity of 2016 another. And another still drew parallels between the pairs of 2019 and 2018, 2016 and 2015, 2010 and 2009 all having a similar relationship, one to the other. What does seem clear with the 2019 vintage is that growers and critics see a paradigm shift as having taken place with the trio of vintages 2018, 2019 and 2020. It is now accepted that such warm vintages are the norm rather than the exception. Drought conditions will become more common. Spring frost damage is more likely, not only because of a generally earlier bud-break, but also due to the changing airstreams bringing colder weather from the north in that crucial period. Climate change does not just bring more heat, but also alters the previously accepted weather patterns and cycles across the year. Every year will henceforth be a year of the vigneron, perhaps as it always should have been.
The circumstances of this year have, of course, meant that it has not been possible for us to travel to Burgundy for our usual week or two of visits to growers. But sample-sending and zoom-tastings have clearly been the modus operandi in 2020 and many Burgundy producers have embraced this new way of working. While we miss the visits, I have to say it is a whole lot warmer tasting in an office than a cold cellar in Burgundy in November! Over the past two months, we have tasted dozens of 2019s, sent by domaines, to us here in London. What has been fascinating to see is that, in the best examples, the claims ring true. The best of 2019 combine a pure, clean, healthy, ripe fruit profile with a scintillating, saline freshness and sense of energy. There is ripeness and concentration but no heaviness and no sense of warmth. The wines show precision, poise, persistence. In the reds, the tannins are ripe and fine, the product of the vine’s response to the drought conditions. This also follows a pattern of recent years, particularly in areas historically associated with greener or more rustic tannins, of greater phenolic ripeness and finesse. Romain Taupenot said this was certainly one of the upsides of climate change in Morey-St Denis, while he and many others recognise this benefit in the increasingly finessed wines coming out of Nuits-St Georges. The whites in 2019 seem to be a step ahead of their 2018 counterparts, with a number showing less colour intensity and far better balancing acidity.
So, in summary, there are ups and downs to the 2019 vintage, which, along with 2018 and 2020, forms an extraordinary trio of hot, dry years. The phrase may seem worn out, but these conditions very much seem like the new normal. Conditions have not rendered quality more uniform nor reduced the complexity of the one of the world’s most intricate wine regions; the fascination continues and the successes that are achieved underline the attentive approach of Burgundy’s dedicated vignerons and their capacity to adapt to change. It will be interesting to understand the journey that each grower is taking as we return to our cycle of visits, but judging by the evidence in the bottles we have tasted from the 2019 vintage, most are progressing well and adapting more quickly than we may have expected. I certainly expect the ripeness of the fruit and the finer sense of balance to draw plenty of interest this vintage.