Burgundy’s 2020 vintage has yielded intense, succulent reds and classically styled whites, says Burgundy Buyer Adam Bruntlett. Here, he takes us through the season, from the vineyard to the cellar – and shares his verdict on the results.
The 2020 vintage was one of the earliest harvests on record in Burgundy. For many growers, picking began even earlier than in the notorious heatwave of ’03. But, after five weeks of tasting in the region’s cellars, it has become apparent that these wines bear absolutely no resemblance to the ’03s.
This was a warm and dry vintage picked under the late-August sun. Surprisingly, there is astonishing freshness and purity in both colours. And the quality hierarchy is, arguably, more accurately reflected than in ’19. In cellar after cellar, our expectations were confounded by the energy in these wines.
The whites are classically styled and consistently of a very high quality. Stylistically, many remind me of the excellent ’17 vintage. This year, Chardonnay yielded good volumes – if a little short of the permitted maximum. For the reds, the dry conditions had the effect of concentrating the Pinot Noir. This meant that while the grapes were ripe, with good sugar levels, the acidity levels were also very high – giving wines that are in balance.
The growing season – which took place almost entirely under lockdown restrictions – was warm and dry. Those of us based in the UK enjoyed al fresco dining and made inroads into our cellars. Meanwhile, growers were able to work unhindered in the vineyards, free from the distractions of importers visiting and tasting.
Following the trend of recent years, winter was mild and budburst therefore earlier than was previously the norm. Frost was a danger, but despite some worrying early mornings, there was relatively little damage. Some growers in Chablis indicated they had lost around 10% of their crop. Temperatures climbed further from the middle of May and flowering began early. A cold snap slowed the process, which may have accounted for some of the reduction in volume for Pinot Noir.
The summer was warm and mostly dry. A mid-July visit to Chablis revealed growers in good spirits, if a little nervous at the lack of rainfall. The sturdy Chardonnay seemed to be faring well, and disease was not an issue in either colour. Importantly, there were few spikes of extreme temperatures: July sat in the late 20s, early August seeing a brief spell in the mid-30s. In contrast to ’03, the mercury did not rise above 40°C. Growers reported cool nights, which accounted for the good levels of acidity in the fruit come harvest time.
A little rain fell during August, bringing welcome relief to Chablis in particular. However, some parcels suffered from hydric stress, with the more-delicate Pinot Noir struggling the most. Unsurprisingly, vines on shallow, stony soils were hardest hit as the water reserves were lower than on deeper, clay soils.
Picking began around 20th August in the Mâconnais and the Côte de Beaune. For the latter, the reds were ripe before the whites due to the smaller crop. Early ripening villages like Volnay were tackled first. Weather conditions were warm and sugar levels were reported to leap up quickly between the beginning and end of the harvest. For reds in particular, growers often faced a choice: pick early and ensure low sugar levels, but slightly lower phenolic ripeness; or pick later, to achieve riper tannins but risk higher alcohol levels.
In the Côte de Nuits, some growers began harvesting in early September. Some Aligoté excepted, the grapes were gathered by mid-September. The fruit was healthy. While we had few reports of shrivelled or burnt grapes, many growers felt disappointed with the yield in juice. The berries had thick skins and contained little liquid, meaning on average 10-15% more grapes by weight were required to fill each barrel than in a normal vintage.
Sugar levels were generally good but not excessive, slightly below ’19 on the whole. Most whites were between 12.5-13.5%. Reds were a little higher, between 13-14.5%. A key factor in the wines is their vibrant freshness, built upon a firm backbone of tartaric acid. Even more so than in ’18 and ’19, there was little malic acid. This is converted to softer, creamy lactic acid during malolactic fermentation. The relative absence of this has given the wines a bracing freshness. The wines’ stability is highlighted by their very low pH levels: whites sit around 3.1 or 3.2; reds usually between 3.4 and 3.6.
The vintage was reported as being reasonably straightforward in the cellar, although some malolactic fermentations were slow – despite the low levels of malic acid. As a general trend, the serious profile of the wines has led most growers to prolong their élevage. This will allow them to harmonise before bottling. Most wines will be bottled later than is normal, reds in particular.
Extraction was a key consideration for red wines. The thick skins gave colour and tannins easily. Indeed, many wines have a surprisingly deep purple colour more consistent with Syrah. Thoughtful winemakers recognised this fact, adjusting their vinification methods accordingly: many reduced or eliminated punching down, favouring the gentler pumping-over technique instead.
Approaches to whole-bunch fermentation differed, but some growers felt this was a year to use more in order to have a lighter extraction, add mineral freshness and lose a little alcohol. Others took the opposite approach, dialling back the proportion of whole clusters – either because they felt the stems were less ripe because of the short growing season, or because they did not want to risk deacidifying the wines. Interestingly, both approaches appear to have yielded positive results, depending on personal tastes.
The quality of whites is very high, and consistently so. Stylistically and in terms of balance, quality and ageing potential, they are reminiscent of the ’17s. The best examples – and there are many – surpass even that outstanding white-wine vintage. Chardonnay is renowned for its relative hardiness, and ability to grow – and thrive – almost anywhere. Despite the drought conditions, yields were, broadly, just below the maximum permitted, at around 45-50 hectolitres per hectare.
The balance of the wines is excellent: acidities are brisk and often piercing; alcohols rarely surpass 13.5%; and the fruit profile is firmly in the citrus-and-white-fruit camp. Where in ’19 the boundaries between quality levels and villages were sometimes blurred, the hierarchy is clearly respected in ’20. The firm acid profile offers plenty of rigour and a rigid skeleton, balanced perfectly by a concentrated fruit character. This combination means the wines will offer pleasure from the start, though they will be at their best at least five years or so from bottling.
Pinot Noir is a more complicated beast than Chardonnay. Fragile and vulnerable, it is the variety that vignerons around the world want to master – though few succeed. Phenolic ripeness (that of the skins and pips) is also a greater concern for red wines than white. It is therefore unsurprising that the red wines struggled more in the challenging conditions.
The best wines have been made by the best vignerons, who correctly identified the right moment to pick their plots. As ripening occurred under the warm August sun, sugar levels escalated rapidly, but the lack of rainfall blocked photosynthesis. This meant the grapes were not truly ripening in the classic sense, but instead through concentration inside the berry itself. Much depended on vineyard management: there was often a difficult balance to be struck between phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness. Some picked earlier, to avoid high alcohols; others waited, to achieve riper tannins.
While we include harvest dates for many of the domaines in our En Primeur offer, I would caution against reading too deeply into them. So many other factors come into play that it is folly to do so. During my extensive tastings, I found both approaches to be valid. While they resulted in differing styles of wine, there is much to appreciate in both camps.
Stylistically, it is difficult to compare the red wines to other vintages. For me, they are perhaps a combination of ’17 and ’18. While they retain a quintessentially Burgundian profile, the reds are concentrated and structured. Even regional wines made by those with the gentlest of vinification philosophies will benefit from a couple of years in bottle. The grandest wines will age for several decades.
What makes the 2020 vintage so special?