Servants of the
Season: Burgundy 2021
BY NEAL MARTIN | JANUARY 05, 2023
Côte de Beaune: Aloxe,
Ladoix & Pernand | Beaune | Chassagne-Montrachet | Maranges,
Monthelie & St-Aubin | Meursault | Pommard | Puligny-Montrachet |
Côte de Nuits: Chambolle | Fixin & Marsannay | Gevrey-Chambertin | Morey-Saint-Denis | Nuits
Saint-Georges | Vosne-Romanée
Many consider being the Creator of life, the
universe and everything a career peak. God realizes there is a higher station
in life: a Burgundy winemaker. Tottering about the vines would be a
perfect way to switch off from the daily grind of organizing everything in
existence. However, omnipotence only gets you so far when trying to outmaneuver
the world’s wealthiest, swooping like hawks at the sniff of a sale. So, He
contacts a clandestine organisation that assists winemakers in getting a
toehold in the Côte d’Or, sandwiched between two private members’ clubs in
Beaune. As church bells strike midnight, He raps upon a weathered oak door and
is beckoned into a crepuscular interior. A jowly man attired in a velvet blazer
sits behind a mahogany desk, signals Him to take a chair and, resting chin upon
arched hands, asks how he may be of service.
“I would like to buy a few vines. I’d like to
make wine,” God says, only to be met with belittling laughter.
“You cannot seriously expect to waltz in with
such a demand.”
“Only a few rows. Nothing fancy.”
“You cannot just buy vines in the Côte d’Or,”
he splutters incredulously. “Not unless you possess Godlike powers…”
“I’ve just begun a WSET certificate at
“Impressive. Perhaps we can assist you in
becoming a nano-négociant.”
“One level down from micro-négociant. We give
you a pseudonym that sounds faintly pretentious. We’ll invent a romantic
backstory, how Bacchus appeared in a dream, how you made a barefoot pilgrimage
thousands of miles until you reached the walls of Montrachet, and there the
vines prophesied your destiny…”
“We need to work on your image. We prefer
winemakers straight off the catwalk. But I dig those diaphanous robes. Hippy garb
goes down well with the biodynamic brigade.”
“I’ve been learning pruning techniques and…”
He snorts, waves his hand, delves into his
pocket and plants on the table…
“A bottle of glue?” God asks.
“We acquire finished wines from a struggling co-operative. Simply slap on our
specially-designed labels that faintly-resemble Henri Jayer but with recycled toilet
paper and a meaningless logo, et voila!”
“People will buy it?”
“What tastes better than rarity? Limit production
to a dozen bottles and two-thousand NFTs. We’ll block-buy 100,000 Instagram
followers, drip-feed samples to more gullible sommeliers and blitz social media
with our crack team of influencers. Auction one-off, bid up the price ourselves until we reach parity with Romanée-Conti.”
“Sounds like chicanery. Critics’ reviews? Don’t
we need them? How about that Neal Martin chap?”
“Don’t let the truth get in the way. But if
you insist, read on…”
The 2021 Growing Season
it when it’s difficult. It’s like the good old days,” quips a sanguine Frédéric
Mugnier only half-jokingly, one of the few, alongside Arnaud Mortet, that seems
to relish a season that ran out of curveballs by June. Having visited the Côte
d’Or since the late nineties, it is indisputably one of the most fiendishly
complex, byzantine seasons I can recall, riddled with a host of interconnected
factors that underpin quality. Compounding heterogeneity is winemakers’
decisions both in the vineyard and winery, though keep in mind most 2021s are
unfinished; bottling is the final act that can potentially be its undoing. The
only real constant this season is the picking date. Everything else varies
according to where you are and whom you speak to - a season without consensus.
Primarily, this is because it was unprecedented and diametric to the three
preceding years of dry and hot summers. As a result, it is a fascinating
vintage to examine in detail. Forgive the forensic analysis, take a long, deep
breath and let me walk you through it month-by-month…
Frédéric Rossignol and the entire production of his Volnay Clos des Angles.
winter was relatively mild and wet, not particularly desirable since winemakers
need the sap to fall to commence pruning, notwithstanding that cold weather
helps kill viruses and bugs. Jacques Devauges recalls the mercury reaching a
balmy 20° Celsius on 20 February. Vineyard workers were out in their t-shirts. After a dip, temperatures warmed up again for around 15 days in the latter half of March. This encouraged vines to sprint out the blocks with early bud
burst by early April, the Chardonnay around 2 April and Pinot Noir six days
later – a crucial difference. Laurent Lignier reports temperatures as high as
25° Celsius in late March, the warmth exacerbated on the mid-slopes, strewn
with larger stones than those on the plain. These stones reflect heat back
upwards, raising night-time temperatures. Alexander Abel at Domaine Ponsot
corroborated this and noted far more mid-slope damage in Morey-Saint-Denis and
one or two others; a geological advantage mutated into a hindrance.
managers and winemakers were on tenterhooks as the vines burst to life during a
period when spring frosts remained a risk. You know what happened.
April, a large mass of Arctic air descended, covering much of Europe. Temperatures
fell within three or four hours, tumbling down to -6 or -7° Celsius. Those
figures are pivotal because there is a significant difference in how vines cope
at that level compared to -1° or -2° Celsius. Not only did intensity imperil vines, but its extent. This was a winter or a black frost. Freezing air was everywhere,
not localized or descending from one of the Côte d’Or’s offshoot valleys, which
is what happened in 2016. A priori, there was no escape. If that was not bad
enough, this Polar airmass loitered for three consecutive days, twisting the
knife repeatedly, burning sensitive buds. Compounding winemakers’ woes, the
second night of 7 April saw an unusual blanket of snow that fomented humidity,
allowing moisture to penetrate and destroy buds even further. As Céline Gagnard
explained, the snow did not even cover the vine entirely, which might have
created some kind of igloo effect but came from a westerly direction and blanketed
one side, leaving the other exposed. Benoît Riffault at Etienne Sauzet and
Antoine Amiot-Servelle are two of many that cite snow as the year’s most lethal
first night of frost, some of the vine growth was already at 9cm or 10cm in the
most precocious parcels. In contrast, elsewhere, some buds, particularly Pinot
Noir on less forward plots, survived relatively unscathed. “There were small
green buds in the Premier Crus,” Laurent Lignier explains, “whereas many buds
were still closed among the Village Crus. The green buds are sensitive at
temperatures of -2° Celsius whereas enclosed buds can withstand down to -6°
Celsius.” So already, there is furcation between sites, terroir and grape varieties.
of the frost, consider decisions made by vineyard managers that had their own
ramifications. Let’s broach the available options one by one.
use wax burners placed between vine rows during the night. (In this report, I
use the term “candles” as that is how most winemakers refer to them.) They look
pretty and great for your Instagram feed. But how efficient are they? It
depends on whom you speak to. “We used candles in the
Premier Crus, and they were quite effective,” Eric Germain at Vincent Girardin
confirmed. “For example, in Puligny Les Combettes, we lost just one barrel. We
lost much more where we did not have candles.” Yet Marie-Andrée Mugneret said that it was like
having one candle to warm a living room and decided not to put any out because she
regarded it as a futile gesture. Plus the
cost. Apart from the suddenly rising prices, few producers own sufficient
candles to protect all their holdings. They must prioritise their best parcels,
leaving lesser ones to fend for themselves. However, many quickly realised they
had insufficient protection even for their most valuable parcels for the
predicted duration. By the third night, when all hope was being lost, the night
sky was less aglow.
Then factor in the timing
insofar that you must ensure candles are still burning at the coldest hour, often
in the early morning around dawn, which is why many hold fire until after
midnight. Easier said than done. Spending all night in Arctic temperatures is
arduous work, Cécile Gagnard recalls collapsing on her sofa in exhaustion. A couple of hours of sleep for one night is bad enough, but three? Consider the cost of your workers and fuel. Dominique Lafon estimates that he required 2,100 liters per hectare per day to keep candles lit, while Cécile Gagnard calculated that she needed ten workers to protect three hectares. It all adds up.
Of course, it’s a case of
the haves and have-nots. Some, like Clos du Tart, Clos du Lambrays and Domaine
du Comte Liger-Belair, doubled or even quadrupled the density of candles and
told me that this was the only way to protect vines with temperatures so
Echézeaux, I used 800 candles per hectare, and it raised the temperature from
-9° Celsius to +2° Celsius,” Arnaud Mortet told me in Gevrey-Chambertin. “The
density of candles is critical. If you use 300-400 candles, then it is ineffective.”
This photo illustrates the differences between the growth cycle of vines between 2020 and 2021, taken in the same vineyard on almost the same day.
Though candles are currently
the most popular countermeasure, I detect an undercurrent of growing skepticism,
a move away from their use, not least amongst more organic and environmentally
conscientious growers who gazed up with consternation at a black cloud the
following morning. This sight does not chime with their eco-friendly principles.
The candles’ efficiency is partly dependent upon the lay of the land. As Philippe Abadie at Alvina Pernot pointed out, they work less well on steeper slopes such as in Puligny-Folatières. There is that old adage: Heat rises.
Instead of warming ground temperatures, you are simply warming the air above.
Trust Louis-Michel Liger-Belair to devise a solution, installing a large air
turbine, like a giant hair dryer, more commonly seen in Bordeaux, to blow
rising warm air horizontally across the vines. Of course, that option is only
available to those with a few Euros in their back pocket.
The other alternative is to
prune later so that vines’ growth is less advanced by the time of any frost
episode. This is gaining popularity amongst many that adopt a two-phased
approach, one early and the other late in the off-season. That poses a risk
because you don’t want to prune when the sap is rising and damage the vine. The
main stumbling block is logistics. Getting the manpower to prune vines at the
end of March is not easy since it is a skilled job that takes time, unfeasible
for estates with a large acreage. “It’s hard to prune late when you farm 18 hectares,” Diana Snowden-Seysses at Domaine Dujac rued. Nevertheless, a number of growers are now adopting a late-pruning approach: Jean-Marc Vincent, Nathalie Tollot,
Dominique La Guen (Hudelot-Baillet), David Croix, Pierrick Bouley, Antoine
Gouges, Antoine Amiot-Servelle and Cyprien Arlaud to name but a few (readers should
read the producer profiles for further information on this.) “I pruned late in
Morey-Saint-Denis on 15 March,” Thomas Collardot at Domaine Coquard Loison
Fleurot told me, “but it still didn’t make much difference.” So it’s not
guaranteed, and some, like Dominique Lafon, continue to prune at the standard
time, which proved the right course of action in the following season.
grow cover crops to help fight frost, grasses and/or cereals. Pierrick Bouley
in Volnay is convinced that they made a huge difference, one that was visible the
next morning, where he could see his parcels were greener than surrounding
ones, losing only 15% even in his most precocious plots. Jean-Louis Trapet
in Gevrey-Chambertin is another trialing this technique. Nicolas Groffier
opined that the answer lays in employing Cordon Royat instead of double Guyot,
which he argues helps the vines to recover quicker. Then, there is the option
of laying electric cables across the vineyard, like an electric blanket. These
were not common in the Côte d’Or in 2021, though Domaine Henri Rebourseau has
subsequently installed them in some of their Grand Crus. They apparently worked
wonders up in Chablis at Domaine William Fèvre, now under the same umbrella as
Clos de Tart and Domaine d’Eugénie…so could we see them there? The downside is
(again) the expense and the fact that they use a large amount of electricity.
are more radical alternatives. Edouard Labet at Château de la Tour mentioned
how he clubbed together with other growers to hire a helicopter. As I have
already explained, that was fairly useless because any downdraft simply replaced cold air with more cold air, notwithstanding that, it does not reconcile with their biodynamic ethos. Labet already seems to rue that decision, so don’t expect whirring blades above Clos Vougeot again.
other extreme…do nothing. In Pommard, Paul Zanetti believed that his five-hectare
monopole of Clos des Epeneaux was too large to protect with candles completely,
rolled with the punches and saved them for another hopefully less severe frost.
Chisa Bize in Savigny-lès-Beaune took the philosophical view that one must let
Nature takes its course. That’s how the dice rolled. That said, Nature shows no
frost tossed growers’ fortunes in the air depending upon the extent of damage
and the countermeasures. It was certainly most pernicious in the Côte de Beaune
due to Chardonnay’s earlier ripening: losses of 80% to 100% were not uncommon.
Yields were almost comically low, epitomised by a single demijohn that houses
the entire production of Rossignol-Février’s Volnay Clos des Angles that he
will bottle for private use. Such pitiful volumes, often measured in
single-figure numbers of crates, persuaded some to relegate their Grand Crus
into Premier Crus or blend Premier Crus together, such as Frédéric Lafarge with
his single Volnay 1er Cru and Comte du Liger-Belair with their Vosne-Romanée
1er Cru, each containing fruit from prestigious sites. This practice is less
common than I envisaged. Winemakers prefer tiny volumes of their normal range
instead of a larger volume of a generic Premier Cru, perhaps signaling that
they were not to be defeated. The minuscule volumes had ramifications during
vinification, which I will broach later.
progressing further with the season in the vineyard, pause for a moment and
consider the oft-overlooked human repercussions. Apart from the physical cost,
frost of this magnitude exacts a mental cost on winemakers’ psyche. It’s
devastating, dispiriting, and soul-crushing. Several confessed to shedding
tears, yet they had to be wiped away when assembling vineyard workers and
keeping them motivated, despite the prospect of little reward come harvest. Adéle
Matrot mentioned that the different ripening cycles doubled the work in the
vines. “The key was not to give up,” Benjamin Leroux advised. “It was as much
about protecting 2022, to get buds in the best condition and keep the embryo
inside the bud for the next year.”
Shock, Rain and Rot
If the following weeks had
seen clement weather, then who knows, in a parallel universe, it might have
predicated a spectacular, if small, harvest. Unfortunately, the only thing that
lives in a parallel universe is Burgundy prices (again, we’ll come to that
later.) In the aftermath, the vines were so shocked that their normal growth
cycle ceased. This is no exaggeration. “By the end of May, it looked like the
beginning of April in the vineyards,” Frédéric
Barnier told me at Louis
Jadot. Assuming that the vines would recover, a later harvest
was inevitable, though there seems to have been slightly less use of second-generation
fruit than in 2016. Having said that, Frédéric Drouhin commented that they had
to make two passes through the same vines to pick first and second-generation
fruit. To compound matters, Michel Mallard told me he had to contend with an
infestation of caterpillars in vineyards such as Aux Brûlées. They like nothing better than
munching away the destroyed buds, especially tasty Premier Cru buds.
summer saw a continuous stream of showers plague the Côte d’Or. Figures from
the BIVB show that rainfall in Beaune was 117mm in May, 62mm and 82mm in June
and July, respectively, compared to 66mm, 60mm and just 7mm in the same months
of 2020. “Mildew was everywhere, whereas the oïdium was much more localised,”
Christophe Perrot-Minot told me, while Paul Zanetti found mildew on leaves and
bunches. It was difficult finding dry windows to spray and protect the vines.
“I did ten treatments with half of them over the weekend as they provided the
driest conditions,” Pierrick Bouley advised, one of countless that sacrificed
their weekend. Such were the muddy conditions that some, particularly those
tending steeper slopes, were obliged to manually spray using atomisers strapped
to their back. On 9 June, there was localised hail that affected the north part
of Gevrey, more towards the village of Brochon. Pierre Duroché told me that event made it challenging to prune this year and will lower quantities in 2022. With all this
drama, don’t forget the ongoing loss of degenerated vines affecting the 161-49
were two glimmers of hope.
a rare week of clement weather meant that some growers, not all, enjoyed an
untroubled flowering. It depended on how your vines had reacted post-frost.
Guillaume d’Angerville suffered coulure and yet called it “a blessing in
disguise” since it enhanced air circulation between missing berries, reducing
the impact of rot and making sprays more effective. Antoine Gouges and
Alexandre Parigot are two of many that de-leafed to improve circulation when
oïdium pressure peaked, while Pierre Duroché found that his old vines that
suffered millerandage were the easiest to protect. Sébastien Caillat was
sanguine in his assessment when he opined, “oïdium is just part of the job.”
the ratio of sunlight and warmth to the volume of fruit is fundamental in
understanding the 2021 vintage. Compare insolation for July: 333 sunlight hours
in 2020 and just 210 hours in 2021. However, this ‘rationed’ warmth and
sunlight were distributed across fewer surviving bunches. It’s like the
punchline to a bad joke. In hindsight, frost damage was beneficial! When good
weather finally materialised in mid-August, vines rapidly made up lost ground
in terms of sugar accumulation. Thankfully, these conditions remained more or
less in situ up until picking.
This photo was taken in Corton-Charlemagne in early September. It clearly depicts how you had to accept what few healthy berries Nature gifted.
September 2021, having finished a session’s tasting for Burgfest, I drove to
the foot of Corton-Charlemagne and walked up through the vines. At first, all
appeared normal, and I presumed this plot had been picked. Then, I realised that
this was not the case. There’s hardly a bunch dangling from these ‘eunuch’
vines. The season’s woes had chipped away until a minuscule crop was guaranteed.
the only constants across winemakers in 2021 is the picking date – around
Monday, 20 September, though a few “early birds” trooped out a couple of days
earlier while others hung on for an additional three or four days’ ripening.
French meteorologists provided a misleading forecast (again). “At harvest, the
weather forecast was completely wrong,” Cécile Gagnard complained. Jean-Nicolas
Méo told me how predictions called for 20mm over the weekend (18/19 September), but
there was only 5mm. Some winemakers reported rain on that Monday, the first day
of picking, including Erwan Faiveley, who said that the 30mm diluted some
concentration and, according to François Bitouzet, reignited some botrytis.
Some teams were ordered to re-sheathe their secateurs after barely a bunch had
been cut, then returned later in the day. COVID-19 restrictions were still
enforced and when coupled with a later picking, meaning students had already migrated
back to campus, some found it difficult recruiting numbers. It was not a
vintage where you blithely filled your cagettes steadily as you went,
vine-to-vine, more a case of searching for healthy bunches dispersed hither and
thither across the worst-affected vineyards. At least after those aforementioned
showers, it remained quite sunny. “When you
pick in August, everything is so fast,” Léa Lafon explained, “but in September,
things go more slowly as there is less sun, so waiting a day doesn’t make much
of a difference.” Ergo, even though it was a small crop, it was not necessarily
several ironies in 2021 is that though many were dealing with depleted
yields, the presence of mildew, oïdium and botrytis meant that you still had to
sort incoming bunches, most reporting 5% to 15% being discarded at this stage.
One or two conducted a “nettoyage”, snipping away unhealthy bunches
before pickers entered to make their work more efficient. Not every grower was
confronted with small volumes – it depends much upon the appellation. For
example, Beaune escaped relatively unscathed so that a beaming David Croix
mentioned that his yields were higher in 2021 than in 2020, likewise
Jean-Hugues Pavelot (although new holdings skew his figures!).
was just a case of filling vats and letting yeasts get to work. The problem in
2021 is that there was often insufficient fruit to fill the vessels, Burgundy
not having installed as many miniature vats as Bordeaux. One solution has
already been mentioned: combine fruit from climats that you usually
bottle separately. One or two eschewed vats altogether a fermented and raised
the wine in barrel – vinification intégrale.
Marie-Andrée Mugneret dipping the pipette into their Ruchottes-Chambertin, one of many that used stems to fill the vats of their smallest cuvées.
Use of Stems
from sorting, another crucial decision had to be made regarding stem addition. It
has become de rigueur to use stems, and in 2021, whole bunches had significant
implications. Every winemaker has a specific view with regards to their appropriate use.
plus side, stems can fill the empty space within vats, as they did for some
cuvées at Mugneret-Gibourg. A second benefit is that stems can help mitigate
against the excessively high levels of acidity (Damien Colin reported that his
fruit showed 4g/L down in Saint-Aubin), while Sylvie Esmonin felt that berries
were fragile and wanted to keep them intact in order not to damage them and save
some structure. Frédéric Weber increased the stem contribution to reduce
acidity and “build the wines.” Arnaud Mortet used 100% whole bunches in all his
cuvées from his regional red to his Chambertin. I would say that a majority
chose to reduce the percentage; Christophe Perrot-Minot, for example, used 20%
as he observed that his stems were unripe. On the negative side, winemakers
such as Thierry Glantenay found that his stalks were green and did not want to
risk imparting vegetal notes for wines that were potentially already tainted
with such traits. (Whereas Pascale Mugneret opined that vegetal notes could be
attractive if the fruit is ripe!) Glantenay, Géraldine Godot (de l’Arlot) and
Paul Zanetti (Comte Armand) are just three of many that habitually use partial
stems that eschewed them entirely in 2021. Readers will find details in
producer profiles. Suffice it to say, it's a very complicated picture.
Now we just have to transform those grapes into wine. Generally, most winemakers conducted a shorter cuvaison.
However, Damien Colin reported that there was a variety of yeast strains
working away in the vat instead of a dominating one, which actually prolonged conversion.
“I had some problems
with the alcoholic fermentation,” Sébastien Caillat confessed. “The yeasts had
a very low rate of transformation: 22 grams of sugar to make one alcoholic
degree instead of 17 or 18 grams.” Of course, in 2021, musts were not exactly
overflowing with sucrose. Conversely, others like Alex Moreau found alcoholic
fermentation a little faster than usual.
is absolutely no consensus on how hard you had to work your fruit in 2021.
Press harder and macerate more to extract sufficient aromatics, fruit and
colour and risk leeching out unwanted greenness? Or take your foot off the
pedal and extract for a shorter period and less hard, perhaps using a gentler
vertical basket press because of fewer tannins and concentration? A majority
eased off the amount of pigeage but not everyone. Some, like David Croix
and Guillaume Lavallée, conducted a more extended maceration and worked the
must harder. Guillaume Tardy in Vosne-Romanée did two more pigeages than
usual, Romain Taupenot said he worked the fruit a little harder than in 2018
and 2019, and Christophe Roumier did a little more pigeage. By contrast,
Emmanuel Rouget and Mathilde Grivot did fewer pigeages, and Thibault
Clerget conducted a light infusion. Antoine Gouges told me: “I knew the vintage
was more delicate, so we were soft with the punch-downs and pumping over.” It
is unequivocally not the case that there is a right and wrong. At the end of
the day, it comes down to winemakers’ experience and intuition.
Whereas nary a stem entered the vats of some producers, Arnaud Mortet used 100% in all his cuvées. When I mentioned this in passing to another grower, they didn’t believe me.
approach to barrel maturation in 2021 is just as diverse as stem addition:
notably the percentage of new oak, size/type of vessel and duration. Smaller
volumes imply that levels of new oak would be higher, though that would surely
be ill-advised for wines with insufficient concentration and structure to
support the same levels as 2019 or 2020. Alex Moreau, Dominique Lafon and
Guillaume Lavallée are three winemakers who did not purchase new barrels and
used stock from the previous season to maintain approximately the same
percentage of new versus used oak. Boris Champy and Michel Mallard left their orders of new barrels unaltered, accepting a higher rate of oak. Jean-Marc Vincent and Benjamin
Leroux used larger 500-liter barrels to decrease the impact of wood tannins, while
David Croix installed a new foudre. At the other extreme, the tiny
volumes meant that many cuvées were reduced from, say, half-a-dozen barrels to
just one or two, which left winemakers with few options, and less flexibility
if one or two barrels were not up to scratch. You took what little you had. The
tiny volumes meant greater use of feuillettes, half the size of a
228-liter pièces or even 57-liter quarteaus. These look cute, but
as any winemaker will tell you, small-sized barrels are more temperamental and
can impart more wood. A majority racked less during élevage; Cyprien Arlaud was
convinced it would have detracted from the fragile vintage.
effects of malolactic on the 2021s were more significant than in 2019 or 2020
because of the higher levels of malic acid. Indeed, many expressed dismay about
the quality of their gestating 2021s until malo began. Benoît Moreau is one of
many who found some cuvées did not finish until summer. In contrast, in 2022,
they have been very rapid, creating a concertina effect, squashing the 2021 and
2022 vintages together in terms of being ready to be bottled, which might prove
logistically tricky for some. Pierre-Yves Colin suggested that some cuvées will
probably not complete their malo by bottling.
the wines benefit from a second winter in barrel? Sébastien Lamy and
Pierre-Yves Colin are adamant they will. “The wines are not big, but they
managed to attain concentration,” Benoît Bachelet explained at Domaine
Jean-Claude Bachelet. “I believe the second winter is necessary to gain more
tension and freshness.” Yet many feel that the relatively lighter wines should
be bottled early to capture their freshness. Antoine Gouges commenced bottling
his entry-level cuvées in August, while Christophe Roumier transferred all his
wines in stainless steel vats for an earlier bottling in January. Of course,
that assumes you can procure bottles. “I will bottle when I find bottles,”
Laurent Fournier responded when I asked about his plans. “Seriously, I expect
to bottle in March, though my supplier in Switzerland stopped production to
conserve gas. I don’t think it is a vintage for long-term aging.”
Guess who loves his new foudre? David Croix, that’s who.
Wines Were Tasted
year, I spent six weeks in the Côte d’Or from 17 October to 25 November,
approximately the same as Liz Truss’s duration as PM but with a positive
outcome. I visited growers every day, including weekends. It is impossible
to see everyone, so in early 2023, I will continue my investigation with the
London merchant tastings. Nearly all my notes are written verbatim as I taste
the wine to convey an immediate impression, that gut feeling. This year, it was
vital to consider whether the wines had been racked. There was not too much reduction this year, but those that were excessively reduced were not appraised.
year, winemakers were exhausted after the 2021 growing season. This year, some
seemed almost overwhelmed by the influx of importers, many returning for the
first time in three years. Growers had to be prudent as it is dangerous to keep
opening and closing the bung on barrels, which in 2021, could well be the same
one over and again.
total, I visited more than 120 producers. Most visits were slightly shorter
than usual, not so much due to the blending of climats, but due to
négociant operation being curtailed or abandoned. Since readers often enquire
why I did not taste so-and-so, particularly names covered in previous years,
note that visits were declined at Domaines Jacques Prieur, Fourrier and
Dugat-Py, while Jean-Noël Gagnard, Felettig and Chavy-Chouet cancelled at the
Tasting in the barrel cellar with Cyprien Arlaud in Morey-Saint-Denis. My gilet was a lifesaver, given the hours spent in cool, damp cellars. Next year, he’ll have a comfy tasting room for us to taste in, which I always prefer.
if you have read my rundown of the 2021 growing season, congratulations. Having
read all the tumult, doubtless, you’ve concluded that it is a vintage to
dismiss and are crossing your fingers for 2022. I understand. But tell me one
thing: Given everything thrown at vineyards and winemakers in 2021, how come
so many of the wines are blooming deliciously?
One thing that I have learned over the years is that the causal relationship between the vagaries of a growing season and wine quality is not as strict. Seemingly awful vintages can be studded with vinous gems and walk-in-the-park seasons can disappoint. The oft-heard quote is that
2021 is a “return to normal”, a “return to the classic wines of the 1980s”, to
which one less-enthused winemaker rejoindered that the wines of that era were often
green and underripe. But there is a lot of truth in those claims, highlighted
when some winemakers chose to juxtapose their pretty transparent, limpid ruby
2021s with the concentrated, black-hued, more opaque 2020s. Chalk and cheese.
2021s run the gamut from wines more vegetal than a greengrocer’s market stands
to those imbued with beguiling complexity and profundity. Where many wine
lovers seek headlines and generalisations, the truth is that quality varies dramatically
between Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, from appellation to appellation, from
Domaine to Domaine and from cuvée to cuvée, so that you never know how the next
sample will show. Consequently, amongst any reports that I have authored, this
is one where it is imperative to dig into the producer profiles to obtain an
accurate picture. I have written one for virtually every producer, and here is
where you’ll find the minutiae.
whites might be ridiculously small in volume, but the fruit that survived the
2021 obstacle course benefitted from those crucial weeks of sun and warmth in
late August and September. Bizarrely, they sometimes convey traits of warmer
vintages with traces of tropical fruit that counterpoint the acidity. I was
particularly taken with the most dynamic appellation in the Côte de Beaune –
the wines of Chassagne-Montrachet. This appellation is benefitting from the
fact that unlike Puligny-Montrachet and, to a lesser extent, Meursault, many
winemakers are based either in the village or nearby expanding industrial
parks, resulting in a great sense of community and cross-pollination of ideas.
This is concurrent with an influx of new blood and ambition, the likes of
Sébastien Caillat, Bernard Moreau and Benoît Moreau, while the likes of Domaine
Fontaine-Gagnard and Marc Morey produce better wines year-on-year.
Thierry Pillot at his cellar in Chassagne-Montrachet, just one of several winemakers making it one of the most dynamic appellations.
It is a
vintage where I am not convinced that superior quality resides exclusively within
the Grand Crus. Yes, they have territorial advantages, but there are too many
intervening factors chipping away and jumbling the hierarchy; hence don’t be
surprised when you find a winemaker’s most prized parcel playing second fiddle
to an excelling Premier Cru.
respect to the reds, 2021 marks a sharp return to the vivid red fruit of cooler
growing seasons. Red cherries, crushed strawberries, often traits of orange
rind or blood orange, most are far removed from the black/blue-fruited 2019s
and 2020s. Alcohol levels are much lower than the previous three years, usually
between 12.0% and 12.5%, often chaptalized to 13.0%. That’s a degree or more,
less than the levels we were getting accustomed to. There is greater underlying
mineralité, tension, and vibrancy on the palate compared to recent
vintages. Tannins, at best, are finely chiselled, and the finishes often
contain plenty of sapidity. There is remarkably little under-ripeness of
vegetal aspects considering that lack of warmth. Perhaps the hierarchy is less
flat than the whites, yet the gap in quality is not enormous and certainly a
fraction of what the secondary market would like you to believe.
2021 is the miracle vintage?
all. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hailing a vintage just because it is
different, just because it might align closer to ideals of what Burgundy should
be. There is a surfeit of emotion inextricably entwined with 2021 because
winemakers endured so much. You sympathise and then put it aside to assess the
is to praise its virtues, then by the same token, you cannot ignore its
shortcomings. Sometimes both the whites and reds need more genuine complexity;
the ripening cycle squashed into the final six weeks instead of a preferable
progressive accumulation of sugar throughout the entire season. Some of the
whites feel thin and waiflike, occasionally shrill. The reds are balanced and
yet require more substance and concentration, sometimes leaving you feeling
short-changed on the finish. Some winemakers that uphold the infusion method of
extraction were left with rather anemic reds that translated the winemaking
technique more than terroir. Sometimes you could almost blow the wines away.
Winemaker Alexandre Noli demonstrating the new window handles in the tasting room overlooking Clos de Tart. While there is much handwringing about the increasing proprietorship of the super-rich in the Côte d’Or, the wines are better than ever. Besides, did you ever see a member of the Mommessin family driving a tractor?
must be reflected in attendant scores. While many 2021s will offer delicious
early-drinking fare, many demand to be endowed with the substance to last the
course. I am not arguing that a wine must be super-concentrated to be
cellar-worthy, but there must be at least…presence. Consequently, there is
unavoidable dissonance between scores and the sentiment of corresponding
reviews. Sure, the 2021s will offer abundant short to mid-term drinking
pleasure. Still, only a small number will age long-term, as many winemakers, to
varying degrees of reluctance, admitted during tête-à-têtes. My scores might be
construed as mean in some places. Before drawing that conclusion, I suggest
re-reading the multitude of setbacks that plagued the growing season and
reconcile them with the overall results, for it casts them in a far more
positive light. Maybe there will be fewer pinnacles in 2021 compared to other
vintages. That’s how the cookie crumbled. The fact is that a similar season
15-20 years earlier would have been calamitous. Conditions that not so long ago
would have yielded barely palatable and vegetal wines instead give rise to a
raft of inexplicably pretty, fresh and delicious Burgundies thought impossible
back then. That’s partly down to the quirks of the season, not least the depleted
amount of sunshine focused on a depleted volume of fruit, but mostly it is a testament
to winemakers that had the fortitude to never give up, from the morning after
the first frost hit to the day they were safely in barrel.
I will shortly publish a standalone article to discuss the
factors currently fuelling the inflation of many Burgundy wines, plus some of
the trends in terms of changing distribution that is, of course, germane to the
question the relevance of investing so much time in the Côte d’Or, countless
hours spent typing hundreds of notes and penning all those producer profiles.
On the contrary, independent criticism is more vital now than ever, when fortunes
are paid not just for established producers with track records but multitudinous
“hot” new names, some of whose price tags reflect more the ego than the intrinsic
Benoît Moreau, whose thrilling Chassagnes are one of the highlights of the 2021 vintage.
that aside, the 2021 vintage is shockingly good in the context of an appalling
growing season that pushed many to the brink, physically and mentally. In some
ways, it defies explanation. But look closely at the season’s minutiae; you see
valid reasons why many clutched victory from the hands of defeat. Not so long
ago, winemakers were servants of the season, but there is a growing sense of
mastery in overcoming seemingly impossible odds. The vintage unequivocally
harks back to when Pinot Noir was all about bright red fruit and tartness, that
elusive combination of weightlessness and intensity, transparency and terroir
expression. Those reared on the previous trio of vintages will wonder if the
2021s originate from the same region. At the same time, I cannot hail it as a
bona fide great vintage, far from it. Many wines lack structure and depth to
guarantee long-term aging ability, which winemakers concur when pushed for a
view. Yet some wines magically transcend the season, like Messi or Mbappe
dribbling through defenders to score winning goals. There are gems to find.
It’s just that you might not be able to buy them, and if you can, you might have
to remortgage the house.
“Burgundy is a little bit totally stupid,”
quipped one renowned Côte de Beaune winemaker midway through a tasting. I did
not demur. I replied: “We still love it, though”.
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