2020 Burgundy Vintage Report
It was a great pleasure to be able to visit Burgundy again this autumn. Although tasting the 2019s in the office or at home last year was a successful solution to a particular problem, it could never replicate or replace the insight gained from being in the cellar with the producer, nor the importance of human contact in building and maintaining strong relationships.
The 2020 vintage falls in line with the run of warmer vintages which began in 2017, though it is a more notable trend in 2018, 2019 and now 2020. These three vintages have seen significant challenges from hot, dry summers but each has had different challenges and blessings. The success of the 2018s was attributed to the incredibly wet winter providing plentiful water reserves, the 2019s benefited from a cooler period in the early summer and some well-timed, even if small, periods of rain at beneficial moments. The 2020 vintage began with a wet winter, replenishing soil water, and then near perfect conditions from budburst through to harvest but for a notable amount of drought pressure. Indeed, a number of growers commented that, had there been just a little rain during the late summer, 2020 would have certainly received and merited “best ever” style accolades.
From my own tasting experience, what is fascinating about the 2020 vintage is that it does not taste like a hot vintage, something that was more evidently the case when tasting the 2018s and 2019s. On the contrary, there is a cool sense to the wines of 2020, which possess incredible natural acidity and a scintillating sense of freshness in both reds and whites.
No doubt we all remember the start of lockdown in March 2020. No doubt we also remember the incredible weather we experienced then and for the months that followed. The vineyards of Burgundy were beneficiaries of this same fine weather. This provoked an early budburst after a mild and wet winter. While there were some sleepless nights in April, there was ultimately almost no frost to speak of, in stark contrast to so many of the preceding vintages. Instead, April was windy and dry, conditions which limited the threat of disease. There was a small amount of rain in May, but the season as a whole witnessed, as repeated mantra-like in almost every domaine, “record low rainfall and record amounts of sunshine”. The Dijon weather station confirmed it was the driest season in 75 years, with over 40 more hours of sunshine than usual in April as well as 180 hours of extra sunshine over the two-month summertime period. But an important point that emerged was that while the summer months were hot, there were none of the extremes or heat spikes that had been seen in the previous two vintages, when the mercury occasionally pushed up to, and above, 40 degrees. Sébastien Cathiard pointed to this as one of the keys to the acid profile of the 2020s; he explained that though malic acid in the grape degrades with heat, even more so with high sunshine hours, tartaric acid levels only start to decrease significantly when temperatures exceed 36 degrees. Critically, this did not really happen in 2020.
Certainly, this freshness is a hallmark of the vintage. This was evident from my very first tasting and has been echoed in much of the vintage commentary from all quarters. The wines, though the product of a hot and dry year, have a remarkable freshness; this is a trait that you will see repeated throughout our tasting notes.
“A textbook vintage for whites.” said Jasper Morris MW of the 2020s, adding that yields were generally reasonable, and drawing comparisons with 2017 and 2014, two very fine recent white Burgundy vintages.
My own first tasting was at Domaine Latour-Giraud. Jean-Pierre Latour describes the 2020s as “beautifully fresh, extremely pure and incredibly detailed”, with all of which I had to agree, given the quality of the wines tasted. This first tasting brought out a point that was echoed in many of the tastings that followed. Terroir expression – the ability of a wine to show the character traits typical of a specific vineyard, lieu-dit or cru – is clear even at this very early stage. Unlike the 2015s and 2009s, for example, there was no sign of the warmth of the vintage masking those site-specific qualities that make Burgundy so special. While the whites of 2018 and 2019 had a more peach and nectarine profile, occasionally edging towards softer and riper yellow plum characters, the 2020s are dominated by citrus fruit flavours (“lemon is very typical of 2020” said Jean-Pierre Latour) and the alcohol levels are generally lower than the 2019s and 2018s. Latour-Giraud, Javillier, Lamy, Darviot-Perrin and Morey-Coffinet all produced wines of purity, energy, depth and freshness. Every wine was a pleasure to taste, showing healthy ripe fruit, mineral energy and remarkable harmony. The danger for so many of the 2020 whites will be that their approachability will see them all disappear in their youth, as they are certain to age magnificently too, such is their overall balance.
The drought conditions did bring more notable challenges for the reds. Firstly, some vines did shut down, or block. This response can impact the progress of phenolic ripeness – the ripeness of skins, pips and stems. If this creates a marked difference between the timing of sugar ripeness and ripeness of skins and stems, then the choice of harvest date will become a thornier, philosophical debate. 2020 was the earliest vintage on record, one in which many domaines not only started their harvest in August but finished in August too. That said, there were others who did not start picking until September. Such decisions were dictated by whether a grower prioritised the balance between sugar and acid levels in the grape or whether they prized phenolic ripeness above all else, even if sugars, and therefore alcohol levels, might turn out to be significantly higher. Thibault Morey said he “chose to harvest earlier than normal to maintain a certain freshness in the wines.”, although he rather honestly added, “I do not know if this was the right choice, but the results and the balance found in the wines is what I was looking for and I am very happy with the wines.” Sébastien Cathiard, meanwhile, was one of a number who did not start picking until he was happy that his fruit had achieved full phenolic ripeness, even if it meant the resultant alcohol levels in his highly sought-after wines was between 13.9 and 15 degrees. His harvest began on 8th September. Many growers in the Côte de Beaune began harvesting on or around 17th August, with those in the Côte de Nuits generally starting a week later.
Whatever the choice was on harvest date, there was no escaping the fact that the berries were very small, lacking juice largely due to the drought. If we had not already become familiar with the idea of “infusion rather than extraction” we would be now. Colour came quickly, highlighting that tannin would follow and a gentle touch was therefore essential. Another winemaking choice that has become more prevalent in recent years is the use of stems or whole bunches in red wine fermentations. In 2020 there was a danger that after the blocking of the vines during the summer months and the consequent delay to phenolic ripeness, stems could be less ripe than required and green flavours could be introduced to wines. While the growing season was fairly straightforward – a huge relief in a year beset by social distancing regulations and an occasionally depleted workforce – decisions around harvest time and during that brief moment in time when the fruit is turned to wine were much less so, with the inevitable outcome that there is, as ever, a spectrum when it comes to both quality and style. Not everyone will have got it right, but, as Jasper Morris MW commented on the reds, “where people have got it right, the wines are as great as any I know.”
What can be said with certainty is that the wines do not lack concentration. It is perhaps in this, more than in the fruit expression itself, that the warmer vintage can be seen. There is a density allied to the freshness. There is what the French term ‘sucrosité’, a sweetness of ripe fruit that presents itself in a moreish, mouth-watering manner, rather than being anything overripe, jammy or cloying. With regard to the reds, this characteristic tends to suggest that more time in bottle will be required before the 2020s are broached, and many producers commented that they felt the wines needed a longer time in barrel too. The 2020 reds should be hidden away and forgotten for a good number of years as they should age well and over a long time.
While the 2020s complete a triumvirate of warmer vintages along with 2018s and 2019s, the 2021s that follow highlight that climate change is not just about rising temperatures but, as we discussed in our vintage report last year, it is about alterations to the previously accepted norms of a growing season and the weather patterns that shape a year. This could be in terms of frost risk, water distribution and availability across the year, or wind direction and its impact on humidity to name but a few possibilities. The enthusiasm with which all these challenges appear to be being embraced is palpable. There is a sense of energy in Burgundy and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of unity amongst vignerons that bodes well for the future of this historic region. Skilled vignerons are learning fast and they, as well as, it would seem, their vines, are adapting to the changes and the challenges.
In summary, there is much to get excited about with the 2020 vintage from Burgundy. The whites are widely compared to wines from the 2017 and 2014 vintages and should give great drinking pleasure, not just early on in their lives but for many years beyond. The reds, by contrast, will need more time to show their true potential. It is also important to note that while yields were reasonable for whites, for most red wine producers 2020 marked the third successive vintage that was smaller in production than the previous. The 2021 vintage next year is far smaller still.
We will be tasting further wines in early January and will post all our tasting notes to the website then.