The writer William Boyd invented a game in his 2015 novel Sweet Caress, in which anyone can be summed up in four adjectives. We may look at introducing this for C&B tasting notes, but it got me thinking about the trio of Burgundy vintages 2018-2020. They are three high-quality vintages from warm, ripe years, yet their characters are entirely different. So, here is the short version:
2018: fruity, seductive, lush, supple
2019: rich, intense, powerful, strident
2020: poised, fresh, tactile, effortless
Clearly you would choose to go out partying with 2018. 2019 sounds worryingly like an investment banker. And 2020? It’s a dancer, soaring with such lightness that you don’t notice the substance, whose supreme technical proficiency is hidden by a beguiling flair. And I know “fresh” is a boring word but it’s key to the brilliance of 2020.
2020 is also the first vintage since 2015 to be equally strong for reds and whites. It was a year in which nearly everything went right in the vineyards, from Chablis to the Mâconnais, and beyond to Beaujolais. Which is ironic, as growers were unable to escape to the beach, due to le confinement Covid.
2020 IN THE VINEYARDS
The season started early, which meant that picking was also early, but 2020 was about as vine-friendly a year as you could wish for. The weather seemed to have been an important ally.
Serene and healthy. The pace was brisk and there was some disparity of ripeness from plot to plot, but generally growers were able to make unhurried decisions about when to pick. Most producers were particularly relieved by the absence of the terrible twins, frost and hail, both of which have ravaged Burgundy’s vines in recent vintages.
Water. Although there was 50% less water during the summer, there was lots the preceding winter. This meant that the water tables were full going into spring. Despite the mean temperature during the 2020 season being 1.5°C above the norm, “It doesn’t taste like a warm vintage…,” said some producers.
Acidity. The most used word for this vintage: “freshness”. Various growers stressed that while there was relatively little malic acid due to the summer heat, levels of tartaric acidity were high. For me, this has brought a sense of purity and crunch to the whites, due to that backbone of tartaric and minimal malolactic creaminess. There was also some concentration of acids due to the heat and blockages in ripening.
Temperatures. The summer heat was consistent, lacking the intense spikes of 2019. Even more importantly, the nights were cool. Both factors served to moderate the sugar levels, which also kept alcohol nicely in check. For example, temperatures in Puligny-Montrachet for the week of 8th to 15th August were in the mid-30s, contrasting with 40°C+ in the same period in 2019.
TRENDS IN THE CELLARS
Whole-bunch fermentation of Pinot Noir continues to be on the march, albeit with some interesting divergences of approach. Although prevailing tastes (and the warming climate) allow for greater inclusion of stems, the view in 2020 ranged from “the stems were ripe so we used more” to “water stress meant stems were not so ripe, so we used fewer”.
Stems were used to great effect in 2020 to soften habitually more robust tannins, such as in Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau’s Pommards (25%). This textural rounding effect of stems is one of their great benefits, it seems to me.
Stems aside, you would be forgiven for thinking that Burgundy’s cellar workers have nothing to do these days. Extraction has all but become a dirty word. Few winemakers now claim to practise pigeage (punching down) – understandable in a vintage with as much natural richness as 2020. The Bordelais mot du jour “infusion” seems to have caught on in Burgundy too (sigh…)
There is less racking (moving wines from one barrel to another) and bâtonnage (lees stirring). Again, this is in the name of prioritising terroir character over winemaking flavours – bâtonnage being particularly associated with rich, buttery whites which are thankfully out of vogue. (There is an interesting side-debate on lees here for another day…)
Another positive is the increasing use of Diam corks – ‘technical’ or conglomerate corks which minimise wine spoilage and have proved particularly suited to whites. The use of the Ardea Seal “corks” is also increasing, François Carillon being one of the leaders here.
THE GROWING SEASON
Summer-like conditions persisted throughout October and early November 2019. Winter 2019-20 continued mild but with high rainfall, allowing the water tables to recover quickly after the dry 2019 summer.
At the end of March, a strong Scandinavian anticyclone caused a marked drop in temperatures, with sustained winds which kept the vineyards disease-free. April was sunny, kick-starting an early start to vegetative growth and a rapid budbreak. At this point, 2020 already ranked amongst the most premature growing seasons, around one week ahead of 2019.
April’s mild temperatures quickly exceed seasonal norms (some 3.5°C above average). May was hot and bright, still without rainfall, allowing for a quick, healthy flowering from around 20th May and a correspondingly generous potential crop. June remained dry with high temperatures.
July and August saw some thunderstorms – a nervous period but summer hail fortunately did not materialise and in its place some much-needed rain fell. At this point, the Pinot Noir was further advanced than the Chardonnay (and Aligoté), a disparity that persisted until harvest. Differences in maturity from plot to plot were also observed from summer onwards. It was here that the malic acidity was depleted, yet freshness maintained thanks to good levels of tartaric acidity.
The peak of the summer heat arrived between 6th and 15th August. Although some have called this a heatwave, it was more even and less ferocious than in 2019 (and not a patch on 2003). In any case, véraison (colour change and the beginning of ripening) was slowed by the heat, finishing in mid-August. The brightness of the clear August sky was perfect for photosynthesis and kept disease pressure at bay. In Chablis, some much-needed rain fell in mid-August.
In a year where the vineyard work was relatively straightforward, one crucial decision remained: when to pick. Habitual early pickers started around the 17th August. Some finished harvest by month-end.
Although this was an uncommonly early harvest, it is worth stressing that the growing season was not unusually short. This is a crucial difference between 2020 and, say 2003, in which the heart of the growing season was much shorter (85 days was not uncommon in 2003). The period from flowering to harvest in 2020 was in fact close to the traditional 100-day norm.
Yields in 2020 were refreshingly close to normal. Most Pinot Noir came in at a solid 35-40hl/ha, a positive sign of the resilience of biodynamic vineyard management perhaps.
A few commented that 2020 is better than 2019 (swiftly adding that 2021 is a quarter of a ‘normal’ crop). Anecdotally, yields in Chablis have ranged from good to tiny.
The 2020s have been an absolute pleasure to taste from barrel, with ripe, supple berry fruit in the reds and much less evidence of summer warmth than in the 2019s. The whites will age well but will also drink early, more in line with 2017 than 2014, for example. There is stunning freshness (as I may have mentioned…) and a seated sense of harmony throughout.
Tannins. No shortage of these, but they are ripe, fruit-coated and beautifully resolved. Olivier Cyrot of Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau called them, “beautiful, fairly massive tannins”, to support the “high natural ripeness and impressive concentration”.
Alcohol. Aside from those who picked late, when sugar ripeness was rocketing in August (I don’t include any of ‘our’ producers in this camp), potential alcohols were in the sweet-spot this year.
Comparison vintages. When I asked winemakers whether a previous vintage with similar characteristics came to mind, he suggested 1990, which was not as warm as 2020 but similarly early, and in which very clear terroir distinctions were visible. Several suggested a mix of 2009 and 2010, or 2015 and 2016 (pretty good then!) As I have said, the best of the whites bear hallmarks of the 2014s and 2017s (a shade closer to the latter).
2020 AND BEYOND
This is not the place to get into prices, other than to acknowledge that they continue to rise, just as corporate money continues to arrive in the region. Two contrary observations are that (1) demand has never been higher and (2) everyone has their limit. The number of cranes in the Côte d’Or this autumn reminded me of the Médoc in the years following the 2009 and 2010 vintage bonanza. The very high quality of the best of the 2020s may indeed justify the asking prices. What is more problematic is the tiny, tricky 2021 vintage coming down the tracks at us, which is naturally at the forefront of growers’ minds.
I have a feeling that 2020 will turn out to be my favourite of the last three vintages, the charmed 2018-2020 run which will be tasted and re-tasted, shared and debated over during the years and decades to come. It is of equal standing in white and red, but take your wine merchant’s advice, as there is stylistic variation.
The wines of Burgundy are en pleine forme. There is a young, dynamic generation of growers who are open to sharing ideas and innovating, as well as taking on the challenges posed by the changing climate. The spotlight is shining brightly on the region, which in 2020 might just have given the performance of a lifetime.
GUY SEDDON, DECEMBER 2021