This is the first, and I expect only, time in my career where I have had the privilege of tasting and buying a vintage that I was also present for during its entire production. I worked in Burgundy from January until December 2019, and lived every bitter, frosty spring dawn, and every sweltering minute of high summer.
Although I am intimately familiar with the throes of the growing season, and its many moments of high-stakes drama, even so, I have been stopped in my tracks by the calibre of the wines when tasting the results.
Somewhere between their supreme balance and their graceful power, they are far greater than the sum of their parts.
That goes for both colours. I’ve been trying to think back to the last vintage where both red and white are genuine five-star quality: 2010, perhaps?
But, this triumph is tinged with disappointment for many growers: yields are down by up to 30-50%. This is due to a combination of spring frost, cold weather at flowering, and the summer drought.
What’s clear is that although 2019 is emerging onto the market at a time of global turmoil, the wines are too good to ignore. Given their relative scarcity, it’s time to move quickly.
The growing season: a slow steady start and a sprint finish
Every year seems to be hotter than the last. But, while France saw record-breaking temperatures in July, and there’s no denying this had an influence on the wines, it is certainly not the defining feature of the vintage.
To understand where the wines gain their balance, freshness, and energy, we need to look back to the earlier part of the season.
Apart from an unseasonably warm spell in mid-February, the winter was generally a cool but not extremely cold or wet one. Spring was chilly and windy, and dipped cold enough in early April to bring on the very real threat of frost, just as buds were breaking.
This brought about a pyrotechnic display from the Burgundians on a scale never seen before. They had been badly hurt by a similar frost in 2016, so the full arsenal of bougies (paraffin pots placed throughout the vines) and hay bales (lit to diffuse the sun’s dawn rays with their smoke) were brought out across the greater region, from Chablis to Beaujolais.
Thanks to these efforts, the damage sustained was minimised, though there are some pockets where losses were heavy: around Chassagne and in parts of Beaujolais, for example.
Flowering was drawn out, and took place at a moment of turbulent weather that swung from dry and sunny to wet, cool and windy. There is, as a result, a high incidence of milleranges in 2019: small berries with not much juice but plenty of flavour.
Up until this point - mid-June - the growing season might have been described as average compared to data stretching back decades, and in the context of the past ten years, positively late. The vegetative growth was well under way, but not galloping along at the staggering rate of recent vintages like 2017 and 2018. Harvest was predicted for late-September.
Then, the heat arrived. While the first half of June had some of the coolest average temperatures in recent times, the second half endured a heat spike that shattered records across France. Burgundy was not spared. Temperatures in the shade reached 39°C, which meant more like 45°C in the unsheltered vineyards.
The heat stayed, peaking again in late July. Picking dates were brought forward, and harvest was in full swing by early September.
The reds: ripe but refined
The past decade has not been short of great red Burgundy vintages. Like 2015 and 2018, 2019 is certainly borne of a warm, ripe year, but its bright freshness means the wines are not weighty or overly rich.
What really marks the vintage out as top quality, however, is the character of the tannins. They are so graceful and elegant: ripe, but refined, setting the wines apart from the more muscular, structured 2018s, and dense, rich 2015s.
This, combined with the red-fruited freshness thanks to their decent acidity, means the style of the reds is what we might call ‘classical’ or ‘Burgundian’. That is to say, the acidity is given equal billing to alcohol and tannin, making for wines of perfect balance.
Many winemakers described the wines as “digeste”, for which we sadly have no satisfactory translation in English.
In short, for want of a better word, they are delicious.
The whites: powerful and graceful
Charles Ballot of Domaine Ballot-Millot hit the nail on the head when he summed up the 2019 whites in three words: “matière, densité, fraîcheur” - substance, density, freshness.
There is something genuinely seductive about their power and volume, made irresistible (you literally want to keep tasting them) thanks to their freshness.
It is quite remarkable in fact, given how hot the summer was, that these wines remain so vibrantly fresh and energetic, particularly apparent in the wines of Chablis. Where sugar was concentrated, so was acidity.
In the Côte de Beaune, many winemakers mentioned how they dialled down the new oak in 2019. The wines are bursting with a concentration, energy and density of their own, there was little need for the additional support of new oak.
2019 is likely to sit alongside 2014 and 2017 as one of the great white vintages of the past decade. Whether it will eventually eclipse these two remains to be seen. But at this early stage, it is every bit their peer.
It’s hard to focus on the individual success stories in 2019 here: there are too many. Throughout this brochure, you will find more detailed regional reports alongside the producer notes.
In spite of travel restrictions, I did manage to spend four weeks tasting in Burgundy this year. My final week was cut short, and the handful of producers I couldn’t visit were able to send samples over.
Earlier this year, I had wondered if we would have an en primeur campaign at all, but I’m pleased to report this is as complete a resource as we’d hope to make in any other year.
While it’s a great shame our annual January tasting at Glaziers Hall will not take place, our team has tasted a wide range of samples sent over by the growers.
2019 is a special vintage: it shows quality of the highest order. So both decisive purchases at the top end as well as exploring the success of lesser communes are equally advised.