Variations on a Theme: Burgundy 2020 Whites


Once more, unto the breach, we go. Glutton for punishment that I am, it was time to head back to Savigny-lès-Beaune, drive up the long meandering lane through dense woodland patrolled by wild boar until I reached the isolated converted farmhouse, Hameau de Barbaron. Once here, I left my ego at the door, tied on my metaphorical blindfold and tasted 226 white Burgundy wines that, this year, were the 2020 intake.

The tasting takes place in a converted outbuilding on the farm, away from any distractions. This was taken between flights as wines, which are double decanted, are poured.

It bears repeating that this five-day tasting is easily the most educational of the year. I often think such a test should be compulsory for any professional critic, irrespective of experience. The amount learned by listening to fellow participants, understanding their perspective and discovering what might evade your own senses is an invaluable tool, to wit, an exercise in self-improvement. This annual tasting was incepted many years ago under the auspice of the late Clive Coates MW. It was less formal in its early days, though the format has settled and been maintained over the last decade. This group of experienced palates comprises predominantly of the UK’s major Burgundy buyers dotted with a couple of scribes. Members do not change, abiding by the rule that the seat is yours unless you resign or die. Thankfully, unlike “Southwold,” Burgfest has only seen resignations, graciously making way for younger blood and, long overdue, women. Bottles are donated by participating domaines; Premier and Grand Crus only due to time limitations. Flights are arranged per climat with more or less one appellation broached each day. What I particularly like about this tasting is the pace. We take our time, sufficient to re-taste and comprehend Burgundy’s mercurial nature. Crucially, it allows intra-group debate about the wines before they are revealed to customary oohs and aahs.

It is a comparative exercise taken to its zenith. Ceteris paribus, variations between wines within flights are influenced by natural differences in terms of terroirs (soil type, altitude, orientation, vine age, rootstock) and human differences (pruning method, canopy management, hours spent in the vineyard etc). One must not overlook the imprint of important decisions: date of picking, sorting, whole bunch addition, alcoholic fermentation and élevage. Given this array of influencing factors, it is remarkable how flights can taste like variations on a theme and therein lies our fascination with Burgundy.

This year, I have decided to split the report into white and red, the latter penciled in for early September as usual. This is partly because I am slammed with the marathon of domaine visits later, and it relieves some of the pressure both for myself and the editorial team towards the end of the year.

Readers should click here for a summary of the 2020 growing season. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the wines…

The Wines

The headline?

I was immensely impressed by the quality of the 2020 white Burgundies. They surpassed expectations, a sentiment that was shared by the group. Generally, these seem superior to their 2019 counterparts thanks to, at times, their spine-tingling nervosité that was presumed impossible given that year’s heat. Whoever claims that modern white Burgundy has lost its typicité and edginess should taste the wines instead of theorizing. As I wrote in a previous report, two plus two does not necessarily equal four. In vino veritas and all that. As a consequence, you will find upgrades in my scores vis-à-vis in barrel back in 2021, wines that have gained complexity and terroir expression.

Nevertheless, the proceedings got off to a stuttering start. The fifty-odd Chablis were variable compared to the Côte d’Or. Some of the sunnier, southerly-exposed vineyards seemed to lose their typicité during the warm summer. This resulted in more blowsy wines amongst the Premier Crus, more reflective of sunshine than soil. Only once we reached the Grand Crus did the wines deliver more consistency and gravitas, which is not a given since, in theory, their advantageous orientation and exposure can be upturned and rendered a disadvantage. Some producers that I admire and praise in barrel, like, for example, Didier Picq, inexplicably never seem to perform well at Burgfest.

Perhaps that is due to the wines closing down after bottling?

Maybe because without wood contact, they tend to be steelier and less flattering when walking down the proverbial catwalk with their more oaky peers?

As usual, Jean-Benoît Droin’s wines performed well, albeit not the royal flush of wins witnessed in recent years, while it should be noted that the co-operative La Chablisienne showed admirably, courtesy of their Les Grenouilles Grand Cru. Readers should note that neither Raveneau nor Vincent Dauvissat are included in the line-up.

On the second day, we moved to the first of the appellations in the Côte de Beaune and half a dozen flights from Meursault. The first flight focused on Premier Crus, located on the lower sectors of the slopes. It augured for what followed: a raft of splendid wines, especially from Porusots. I also applauded the Meursault Caillerets from a new grower, Éric Boigelot, who I will have to keep an eye on. The selection from Meursault Genevrières produced some gems, not least the first from Michel Bouzereau, who, in this tasting’s parlance, had “a very successful Burgfest”. It’s perplexing how his wines do not attract the same reverence as his peers, not that I feel it bothers the self-effacing winemaker. The next flight switched attention to Les Charmes, and there were impressive showings from Vincent Girardin, Alvina Pernot, Olivier Leflaive and Bitouzet-Prieur. As expected, these 2020s are a little fuller and rounder than the Genevrières, perhaps relishing the warmer summer that year. I wondered whether that would erase the signature mineralité that defines Les Perrières? Not so. This was a sterling set of wines, not least a spectacular example from group winner Michel Bouzereau. There were additionally excellent examples from Jean-Marc Roulot, though frustratingly, the Les Perrières from Domaine des Comtes Lafon did not shine as it did out of barrel. Finally, it was also a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Albert Grivault, a grower I once visited regularly and am overdue a return.

Wednesday commenced with two flights of Saint-Aubin. Perhaps this was the weak link in an otherwise strong week of wines. There were exceptions such as the En Remilly from Domaine de Montille, who, like Bouzereau, enjoyed a successful Burgfest. Still, otherwise, the warmth and lower percentage of clay denuded these wines the terroir expression of a cooler season.

I anticipated a similar tepid reception towards the Puligny-Montrachet, whose success is founded upon nerve and mineralité. I found these in situ out of barrel, so the question was whether they remained in bottle?

There was nothing to worry about. I particularly admired the terroir expressions of the Champs Gain from François Carillon, the Les Referts from J-M Boillot and Les Perrières from Etienne Sauzet. Things clicked up a gear with some wonderful Les Combettes where hardly any grower seemed to put a foot wrong, shading the following flight of Folatières that finally started to merit praise courtesy of de Montille, Bachelet-Monnot and Olivier Leflaive Frères. Some of the highlights from the appellation arrived with de Montille’s Caillerets, which gained incredible focus and delineation in the glass; kudos also to Philippe Colin’s Les Demoiselles.

But if I could repeat tasting one appellation, then it would be Chassagne-Montrachet. These 2020s attest to how young blood has rejuvenated what was once an appellation that played second fiddle to Puligny or Meursault. Bruno Colin’s Les Vergers was an omen of things to come, likewise the La Boudriotte from Fontaine-Gagnard. Coffinet-Duvernay’s Les Fairandes almost hummed with vibrancy, Thierry Pillot’s (Domaine Paul Pillot) La Grands Montagne communicating its terroir with aplomb, his Les Grandes Ruchottes candidate for the best Premier Cru in the entire tasting. These are wines that have developed a real identity of their own, slightly fuller in style yet suffused with remarkable raciness given the warmth of that year. Moreover, these are just wines that I would love to drink, as banal as that reads.

Our final day was dedicated to the Grand Crus. We began with two flights of Corton-Charlemagne, always an intriguing prospect because, unlike nearly all the other flights, the wines are located on various altitudes and perhaps even more influential, different orientations, Pernand-Vergelesses or Ladoix-facing. Compared to previous Burgfest tastings, I found this a more consistent series of wines. The standout surprised some attendees, the Corton-Charlemagne from Domaine Tollot-Beaut. Quantities are so small, one or two barrels, that I rarely ask Nathalie Tollot to taste it. I will ask her in the future because this has all the hallmarks of a great “C.C.” I will also mention Domaine de la Vougeraie because some of their 2020s did not entirely pass muster; this was splendid.

Afterward, it was essentially a tour through the more prestigious enclaves of Puligny-Montrachet: Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet and finishing with a quintet of Montrachet. I was smitten by two of the three Bienvenues from Domaines Jean-Claude Bachelet and Jacques Carillon. There were more 2020s from Bâtard-Montrachet as you would expect given its larger size, though this did not quite deliver as many great wines as expected, though Domaine Jean Chartron and Vincent Girardin were both a cut above. We moved up a gear with no less than ten 2020s from Chevalier-Montrachet. The terroir appears to have relished the challenge of the warm summer and triumphed with some stellar wines from Domaine Bouchard Père & Fils, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine de Montille. Were they better than the Montrachets? I am not sure. Perhaps global warming evens out the top vineyards, however, the Montrachet from Domaine Marc Colin is stellar, likewise from Olivier Leflaive Frères. I did not quite engage with Dominique Lafon’s Montrachet, which showed brilliantly from the barrel, although it often takes a few years to show its mettle.

Final Thoughts

What an enjoyable week of tasting. Though, believe it or not, it is a mentally taxing week, so many of these smiles elicited smiles. You can gauge the quality of the wines by the ambiance of the room, the frisson in the air and the fomented positive energy that left me salivating in anticipation for the next flight. While I envisage the wines maturing well in bottle, it is easy to see why many broach them young, not least with the specter of premature oxidation never far away. That said, there were fewer incidences than in previous editions of Burgfest, indicating growers are actively addressing the situation, even if a) nobody can fully explain its cause(s) and b) it is not completely eradicated and may never be. When a wine costs so much money, it is no wonder that many erstwhile buyers move on to alternatives. Russian Roulette gets tiresome after a while.

On the other hand, despite negativity towards white Burgundy either in terms of expenditure or faults, there were times when the 2020s were reminders of why, when it is on form, nothing compares to a Chassagne-Montrachet or a Chevalier-Montrachet in full flight. Their sheer complexity and nerve, the kaleidoscope of aromas, and the tantalizing aftertaste can elicit tears of joy. After tasting these wines, you had to marvel at the array of styles that were collectively variations on a theme, a quite delicious theme at that.

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