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Burgundy 2021 Report - By Alistair Cooper MW
This is certainly a vintage that will live long in the memories of the vignerons of Burgundy. Throughout the regions of France, the story of 2021 follows a familiar pattern. The word ‘atypical’ was often used to describe the vintage, and that is certainly true for Burgundy in the context of the past decade.
Climatically it can politely be described as ‘challenging’ as they experienced everything under the sun; rain, hail, frost, sun, mildew, botrytis and pretty much anything else you can think of. Sounds gloomy, yet weirdly enough it isn’t all that bad and there are certainly positives to be taken from 2021. We are used to demand outstripping supply in Burgundy over recent vintages, yet the scant quantities produced in 2021 sees this trend exacerbated. Some producers saw reductions of up to 70%, most notably (but certainly not exclusively) with white wines.
Producers were quiet on the potential quality of the vintage, perhaps licking their wounds and smarting from the devastation caused by nature’s unenviable wrath. Yet, whilst we can certainly say that 2021 was not even close to the phenomenal vintages of 2019 and 2020, it is a vintage that has appeal. The wines are certainly lighter than the blockbusters of the aforementioned vintages, as you might expect yet that doesn’t mean they are dilute, they are just not quite as concentrated – yet many are still well balanced.
For those weaned on Burgundy of the past decade, these wines will come as a bit of a shock – lighter, fresher, more delicately perfumed. Perhaps these consumers might struggle. But for old school Burgundian lovers that enjoyed the older wines of Burgundy, these lighter wines will hold appeal. Another welcome bonus is that these are wines that will drink far earlier than recent vintages. Given that many of the recent vintages will need considerable cellaring time, this is a real bonus.
Vintage and Harvest Report
As already alluded to, erratic weather was the defining feature of the growing season. The most impact was felt from the frosts that devastated nearly all of the country on 7th April, when temperatures plummeted to -7°C overnight. The issue was that it came after a warm period that had seen buds appear precociously. This was a major setback, especially for Chardonnay which buds before Pinot Noir. Unfortunately it also tended to be the better parcels on the higher and mid slopes that were more affected than the lower lying inferior vineyards.
Localised hail caused further headaches for growers in the Cote de Nuits in May. Rainfall and humidity in the early summer saw flowering delayed by over a month compared to 2021. It also provided perfect conditions for mildew (both powdery and downy) to spread. Growers had to be extremely prudent in the vineyard to ensure that air could get through the canopy and mitigate the damage.
Growers breathed a sigh of relief as warmer weather arrived during August and into September. Sadly, they were then dealt another blow with heavy rainfall in mid September saw botrytis take hold. This further reduced what was already a meagre crop.
Due to the risk posed by botrytis, most of the grapes were harvested by the end of September. Growers had to be careful to sort their grapes meticulously and remove any rotten grapes, even further reducing the scant crop!
Whilst this all sounds disastrous (which in truth it was), the grapes were largely ripe and mature (thanks to such a small crop ironically), albeit with lower potential alcohols than have become the norm. Acidity was certainly not a problem in both red and white wines. Judicious work in the cellar was thus an important factor in ensuring the resulting quality of the wines.
In a trip down memory lane, chaptalisation (adding of sugar to the must to boost alcohol) made a comeback to Burgundian cellars in 2021. The typically thin skinned Pinot Noir was even thinner than usual, and sensitive extraction was needed to prevent the tannins overpowering the delicate wines.
Decisions regarding oak usage varied. Some using less oak to prevent it smothering the structure of the wines which is totally understandable. However, something that I found recently when appraising the 2021 Rhone vintagewas that some of the more succesfull wines were those that had cleverly used oak to flesh out the wines. The same often rings true here in Burgundy – sensitive oaking can act as a tool to plump the wines out without adding too much oak flavour.
This was a year where winemakers skill and intuition was paramount. Great winemakers unsurprisingly made very good wines indeed.
Given all of the troubles, the quality of the wines is remarkable. They are certainly not wines from a vintage that will be lauded for decades to come. Yet they are wines that possess delicacy, lightness and overriding drinkability. This is something that cannot be said of many recent vintages where power and concentration have been the major characteristics. This is a vintage that will drink well young and provide plenty of pleasure.
The white wines are in extremely short supply as they were more affected by the adverse weather. Unfortunately Chablis and many of the Grand and Premier Cru sites throughout Burgundy were badly hit. Yet the overall quality of what was made was very good.
Reds fared slightly better from a yield point of view. Largely these are lighter and more delicate wines with red fruits shining through, they are snappy, sapid and crunchy fresh and floral wines. The lower alcohol levels add to their total drinkability and offer a snapshot of vintages from the previous century. Consider them a window into Burgundy’s past, a time where cooler and more difficult vintages were common. Where lighter, fresher and nuanced wines were prized. Diversity is something that we all seem to be applauding these days, and Burgundy hasn’t disappointed!
If you can get hold of them these wines should be in the cellar of any Burgundian lover, they show a real counterpoint to the weighty, concentrated wines that we have seen for the past decade.