2021 Burgundy en primeur
‘Une année très dure, mais de bons vins’
The reds are fragrant and refreshing, fine-boned and aromatic. They are often quite floral, and almost universally show red fruit rather than dark fruit flavours. They are lower in alcohol than recent vintages, usually coming in at around 12.5%. The best are intense but weightless, full of charm, and highly expressive. Vignerons are calling 2021 a classic vintage, one for the connoisseurs of the Burgundy of yesteryear. The whites are surprisingly concentrated, tense and full of energy. What few whites there are, that is. 2021 Burgundy is also a sad tale of empty cellars, with some of the lowest yields the region has seen in forty years. Many vignerons lost most of their crop to three days of hard frost in early April. It was especially bad for early-ripening Chardonnay. After the frost came months of hard work in damp, muddy vineyards fending off vine diseases. Many vignerons told us 2021 had been the hardest vintage of their careers. And yet at the end of the day, there are some beautiful wines. Louis Boillot summed it up: ‘Une année très dure, mais de bons vins’: ‘a very hard year, but good wines’.
Mother nature and the kitchen sink
It started off like many another recent vintage, in the spirit of the ‘new normal’, with a mild, wet winter. It was already warm by February. In the last week of March temperatures soared, and vineyards leapt into life. In many areas, vines began budding – especially Chardonnay, which is always more precocious than Pinot Noir.
Then in early April, disaster struck in the form of an Arctic air current. On the 5 April, temperatures dropped sharply, and from the 6-9 April there were three consecutive nights of hard frost. It also snowed. Vines are resilient plants, and can get through cold winters, but grape flower buds are tender things. Many were killed outright by the cold, frozen from the inside. Those that survived that then had to contend with the morning sun; magnified through the prism of ice, it burnt the buds. After three days of frost, and despite the best (and desperate) efforts of vignerons, vineyards up and down the Cote d’Or were devastated, with huge numbers of potential grapes destroyed. Pinot Noir fared better, since fewer Pinot vines had budded. Cooler vineyard sites also fared better, since fewer vines in these spots had opened buds. But the region’s best vineyards tend to be on warmer sites. After three days of frost, almost everyone was facing huge losses.
By June it was warm again, and the surviving buds were ready to flower, but unsettled weather interfered with flowering. Pollinated flowers become berries, so disrupted flowering also ultimately means fewer grapes. Parts of the region were also hit by hailstorms in June, stripping vines entirely in certain localised spots. July and August were cool and rainy, and both powdery mildew and downy mildew became serious issues in the vineyard, forcing vignerons to put in long hours. Veraison (when grapes change colour and start to ripen) took place between mid-August and September, late by the standards of recent vintages. September started hot and dry, but wet weather set in again around the 11 September, causing some panic. Most growers started picking around 21 September, when the weather was drier again, and had brought in their crop by the end of the month. Sorting tables were essential.
‘The largest berries I have ever seen’
At the end of a wet season, grapes were large, swollen with juice. After the concentrated vintages of 2018, 2019 and (especially) 2020, there was a widespread expectation that this time round the juice would be dilute. ‘They were the largest berries I have ever seen,’ said Romain Taupenot. But he was surprised to discover that the juice they gave, while not as concentrated as in the previous three vintages, still had good fruit density. Etienne Grivot explained the paradox: ‘The very low yields we had in 2021 meant the few grapes we had were more concentrated. If we had generous yields in a vintage like 2021, the wines would have been very dilute.’
Some vignerons still judged they wanted a bit more density and concentration in the juice, and they chose to punch down and pump over more vigorously than usual, the aim being to extract a bit more. Others deliberately avoided doing just that – they said extracting too much in a year like 2021 might risk importing green and unripe elements. Some vignerons decided their 2021s were delicate creatures, and entirely eschewed new oak. (In choosing to do that, of course, they set themselves up for a logistical problem in 2022, when they had no once-used barrels to hand). One thing that struck me in tasting was that although the vintage style is delicate, the wines are still perfectly capable of wearing an element of new oak without feeling out of balance.
‘If someone says they didn’t chaptalise in 2021, then they are lying’. Jean-Nicolas Meo was forthright on the subject of chaptalisation, freely admitting he had chaptalised every cuvee at Meo-Camuzet. Chaptalisation is the addition of sugar to grape must before fermentation, to achieve higher alcohol levels after fermentation. In vintages gone by, when average temperatures were lower, chaptalisation used to be done almost as a matter of course, to bring alcohol levels up to a market-friendly level. In recent warm vintages it has been largely unnecessary. But sugar merchants did a brisk trade in 2021. Most growers told me they felt the need to chaptalise at least some of their cuvees.
Chaptalisation is not just about bringing alcohol up to a level considered appropriate for the market. Some growers always chaptalize slightly, even in warm vintages. The thinking goes that if you add in a little extra sugar towards the end of fermentation, you prolong fermentation and achieve better flavour depth.
Not a very stemmy vintage
One of the most difficult and involved debates in Burgundy today is around the use of whole bunch versus destemming in red winemaking: that is, whether to destem all the red grapes before they go into the fermentation vat, or whether to use a proportion of whole bunch (stems and all).
A well-judged use of stems can bring exuberant aromatics to a wine. They also bring a marked ‘stemmy’ character that some tasters dislike. (In my experience, that character resolves itself with age, usually to the wine’s benefit). Some people argue that the stemmy character of wines made using whole bunch masks terroir character, and leads to wines which are more about the technique than the terroir. Some vignerons avoid stems altogether, believing that they get a purer, sharper fruit character by doing so.
Stems are often said to bring freshness to a wine. Analytically, they in fact decrease acidity, and it is acidity that ordinarily drives the impression of freshness in wines. Arguably, it is the lifted aromatics that stems can bring to a wine which drive the impression of freshness.
There are also practical considerations. A stems-and-all bunch of grapes takes up considerably more space in a vat than the same number of destemmed grapes. That can be a good or a bad thing. Some bunches might be useful in filling up space in a vat; or a winemaker might choose to destem everything just because they don’t have enough tank space to use whole bunches. ‘Stems are for small cuvees,’ Amelie Berthaut told me. She uses a proportion of whole bunch in many of her cuvees, but not her larger Fixin or Hautes-Côtes de Nuits cuvees, because doing so would take up too much tank space.
The winemakers I spoke to who like to use some stems in their fermentations generally told me they cut back in 2021. This wasn’t because they were concerned about unripe stems, though that is a danger; unripe stems will import unattractive, bitter flavours, and stems ripen more slowly than grapes. Both Amelie Berthaut and Gilbert Felettig told me that ripeness in the stems had not been a problem. However, many bunches needed to be broken up and sorted carefully because of the disease pressure that had been rampant in the vineyard; this meant more grapes that were destemmed, and fewer stems going into the vats.
Conscientious winemakers ended up making far better wines than they had feared during the travails of the growing season, but volumes were dismal. When we visited Burgundy in November 2021, many disconsolate vignerons drew our attention to their empty barrel cellars. We traipsed through many cellars where there was only one row of barrels, when in another vintage barrels might have been stacked three rows high. To take two examples, in 2021 Charles Ballot-Millot made 4 barrels of his Morgeot cuvee; in 2020, he had made 22 barrels. And where Frédéric Lafarge normally makes five Volnay premier crus, in 2021, he only had the volume to make one.
A frosty reception
For a vigneron, frost (like hail) is one of those weather events that can wipe out a whole year’s work in a very short space of time. It has bedevilled recent vintages in Burgundy. Vines are resilient creatures, and can survive quite cold winters. Grape buds, on the other hand, are very delicate, and can be wiped out quite quickly by a sudden late snap of frost. In our era of global warming, mild winters have become more common than they used to be; a mild winter is likely to mean an early start to the following growing season. And that makes it more likely that tender grape buds get caught in a late frost snap.
When temperatures plummeted on the night of 6 April, vignerons deployed their main line of defence. Frost candles are a form of paraffin or vegetable-oil fuelled smudge pot. They are deployed and lit at intervals among the vines. They warm the air around, making it circulate, and may prevent frost from settling on the vines. They are expensive: Anne-Cecile Lumpp defined the cost at 3000 euros per hectare for a night’s worth of candles. They are also labour-intensive and time-consuming to lay out, so there may be a limit to how many a vigneron can deploy before the damage is done. And in 2021, they were entirely sold out locally well before the end of the three nights of frost. Other growers rely on wind turbines to prevent frost from forming.
Burgundians like to talk about the difference between a white frost and a black frost. In a white frost, there is more of a difference between ground temperature (cold) and the air above (not quite so cold). In these conditions, frost candles or turbines are more effective. It was a black (air) frost that caused the damage in 2021. When the air above is as cold as the air at ground level, it is much harder to fight. Vincent Rapet told me that under these conditions he found his wind turbines entirely ineffective. Frost candles still helped, up to a point, but they had to be spaced more closely than usual. In many places the frost candles didn’t seem to help much in 2021. Anne-Cecile Lumpp told me they were relatively effective in her Pied du Clou vineyard since it is walled, and so retained the heat from the candles a little better.
One of the worst times for a vine can be the morning after a frosty night. When the sun comes out (as it usually will, because the really cold nights are the ones when there is no cloud cover) the ice on the vines magnifies its rays, which then burn the frosted buds. The morning after the terrible 2016 frost, vignerons set fire to straw bales around the vineyards, hoping the smoke would block the sun’s rays and protect the surviving buds. It deeply annoyed local inhabitants, whose villages were filled with smoke, and it didn’t really protect the buds, either. The practice has since been banned.
Some vignerons have suggested that a later pruning regime might help matters. As the growing season gets going, shoots are tied onto a horizontal wire. But the wire is metal, and in a frost, it acts as a cold conductor; this effect undoubtedly worsened the situation in 2021. Vignerons who were a bit behind in their vineyard work, and who hadn’t yet tied up the shoots when the frost hit, lost significantly fewer buds. But adopting this as a deliberate approach brings risks of its own. If you prune consistently late, you will be pruning when the sap has started to rise. That is bad for the vine, and if you do it a few vintages in a row, you will get noticeably feebler crops.
Cool, damp vintages used to be much more common. At Domaine Jean Grivot, Etienne Grivot has handed over all winemaking authority to his children Mathilde and Hubert; at the joint Barthod and Boillot domaines, Ghislaine Barthod and Louis Boillot have put their son Clement in charge. But both Etienne Grivot and Ghislaine Barthod told me they had felt the need to come out of retirement to provide a guiding hand to their children, who had never had the experience of dealing with a vintage like 2021.
2021’s September harvest was late by the standards of recent vintages, but it opens the door to a sobering historical perspective. In Burgundy in the 1950s, there were two September harvests; the rest were in October. Nowadays, we still expect two September harvests in a decade - except the other eight will be in August. More than people in most walks of life, vignerons come face-to-face with the reality of global warming.
Not a good tractor vintage
In 2021, growers complained much more than usual about logistics issues. For a start, bottles were in short supply. Glassmaking is an energy-intensive process, and in the face of rising energy prices many western European glassmakers have been shutting up shop. Winemakers who did not place orders well in advance ran the risk of being caught short; some were forced to delay bottling. They then had to judge whether to leave the wine in barrel a bit longer or return it to tank. Capsules also ran short. Coopers were slower than usual to deliver barrels, thanks to a shortage of certain fittings used to manufacture barrels. Romain Taupenot’s vineyard management plan was thrown into chaos by the late delivery of a tractor. When it did arrive, it broke down. ‘Not a good tractor vintage,’ he joked. Nobody seemed able to find enough vineyard workers. Since Covid and furlough workers in many sectors have discovered they quite like spending more time with their families. The hospitality sector in France has been very badly hit. Vineyard workers seem to have decided much the same – it is not, after all, an easy life – and have been in distinctly short supply.
That was then
When we visited Burgundy this year, vignerons were in a much better mood than they had been in 2021. They have filled their cellars again with an excellent vintage (great things are promised for 2022). Time has brought perspective on the difficult 2021 season. Gilbert Felettig told me, ‘it was very hard work in 2021, but it was absolutely worth it’. Alex Moreau said, ‘in 10 years’ time nobody will remember the size of the vintage, they will only remember whether you made good wines.’
2020 vs 2021: big berry, little berry
It was very instructive to taste 2020s alongside 2021s. After a summer drought, 2020 saw a harvest of small, concentrated grapes with thick skins and little juice. In 2021, a wet year, it was entirely the opposite, with many vignerons harvesting the largest grapes they had ever seen. 2020s are full and concentrated, with a Claret-like weight, and lots of dark fruit flavours. 2021s are light, delicate and pretty, almost exclusively with red fruit (rather than dark fruit) flavours.
One of the most attractive aspects of the 2021 vintage is how terroir-transparent the wines are. Tasting through many ranges, the vicissitudes of terroir were easier to follow than they often are. Sometimes tasting Burgundy en primeur, it can be hard to distinguish between the various cuvees at one address. That is especially true in the more concentrated vintages. But in 2021, there is a real sense of terroir diversity, with the different cuvees from one domaine often showing very individual character. Also, there is real vertical diversity. In richer and more concentrated vintages, the difference between village and premier cru wines, or between premier and grand cru, can be relatively narrow. In a vintage like 2021 those differences are bigger: there is a strong sense of qualitative progression as you move up the range.
In 2021, the difference between the reds of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune also seems more marked than usual. Beaune reds are soft, open-knit and expressive. In comparison, Nuits reds are structured and muscular. Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny both seem to have performed very well, with the style of the vintage suiting the delicate, pretty complexity they are associated with. In whites I tasted exquisite examples from up and down the Côte de Beaune, but looking back, my notes seem to especially favour Chassagne-Montrachet.
Allocations, allocations, allocations
With yields so drastically reduced in 2021, there is going to be a lot less wine than usual to offer around. Apologies in advance if we can’t offer you every cuvee you might usually take. While we will always do our best to look after previous purchasers, allocating the 2021s is going to involve some unusually tricky juggling acts. Wishlists and prompt responses are always helpful. We’ll be happy to help, and to offer transparent opinions. Wines will be offered soon. /NT