Burgundy Vintage Report
By Jacky Blisson MW
The wines of Burgundy are among the most revered on the planet. Collectors bid dizzying figures for the region’s top estates. Aficionados carefully cellar their premier and grand crus, agonizing over the perfect occasion to serve them.
The racy Chardonnay and elegant Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy have been held up as a benchmark for centuries, with winemakers around the globe attempting to emulate the style. And yet, the essence of Burgundy is impossible to pin down.
This is in part due to the region’s mosaic of vineyard terroirs, creating a patchwork of over 1200 climates (vineyard plots). The subtle differences in Burgundy soils, topography, and orientation gives distinctive flavours in grapes from vineyards as close as several metres apart.
Perhaps the most important stylistic influence on Burgundy wines, however, is the climate and annual weather patterns. Chablis and the Côte d’Or, which make up the northern and central parts of Burgundy, are typically considered to be cool-climate vineyards.
Cooler regions often struggle to ripen fruit, extending the growing season and allowing for a long, slow ripening period. This gives wines with vibrant acidity, moderate alcohol, and tangy fruit flavours. Burgundy’s cool conditions also tend to produce smaller grapes with thicker skins. For reds, fermented on their skins, this results in more concentrated, flavourful wines.
In recent years, global warming has led to a greater frequency of warm vintages, bringing riper fruited, more generously proportioned wines that were once a rarity in the region. Climate change is also responsible for more extreme and erratic weather patterns like heatwaves, extended dry spells, sudden cold snaps, heavy rains, and violent hail.
Spring frosts are a growing concern in the colder areas of Burgundy. Unseasonably warm early spring weather has been pushing bud burst dates forward. When followed by a sharp drop to freezing overnight temperatures, the tender new buds can be damaged, impacting quality and reducing the season’s yield.
These wide-ranging weather conditions produce wines of very different personalities from one growing season to the next. When buying Burgundy, it is always a good idea to read up on the vintage before stocking your cellar.
Producers in highly frost-prone areas, like the higher altitude Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, deployed preventative measures in time to avoid major losses in the spring of 2017. Otherwise, the summer was mainly sunny and dry, leading to an early harvest. 2017 is considered a classic, if lighter-bodied, year; defined by bright fruit, lively acidity, and supple tannins. The vintage is already drinking well with good medium-term ageing potential.
A wet winter and spring gave the vines much-needed water reserves to counter the intense, arid heat of the summer. While localized hailstorms damaged vines in certain Côte de Nuits appellations including Nuits-Saint-Georges and Côte de Nuits-Villages, the overall Burgundy harvest was bountiful. Often compared to the famous heatwave vintage of 2003, the wines of 2018 are ripe, lush, and amply proportioned with just enough refreshing acidity for balance. Good mid-term ageing potential.
The 2019 vintage was a season of contrasts. Extremes of cold and warm weather plagued the winter and spring, leading to minor frost damage and poor vine flowering. Temperatures then soared in June and July, with sunny, yet milder conditions marking the end of the season. 2019 is a small, yet well-regarded vintage of powerfully structured, highly concentrated, flavourful wines for long-term ageing.
For traditional Burgundy lovers, 2020 is the vintage of note. The growing season was warm, yet not excessively hot, with well-timed rains in August to offset the otherwise dry weather. Quality was deemed equally outstanding for both red and white wines across the region. Critics praise the freshness, elegance, depth, and textural appeal of the vintage. 2020 is a great year to invest in top wines for cellaring, but also to seek out value appellations like Bourgogne, or Rully in the Côte Chalonnaise.
After such a banner year, 2021 proved a challenging vintage for Burgundy growers. Four days of punishing spring frosts led to widespread damage, notably to the earlier budding Chardonnay grapes. Relentless rains hammered the region for much of July, finally tapering off in early August. The harvest was exceptionally small, yet of surprisingly good quality. The delicate, perfumed, ethereal wines of 2021 should drink very well over the short to medium term.
Jacky Blisson MW is an independent wine educator, writer, and consultant with over two decades of experience in all facets of the global wine trade. She is the first Master of Wine in Québec and one of only ten across Canada.