2021 is a year that will be defined by one event: the frost of the first week of April, that decimated yields for many of Burgundy’s producers.
But to focus only on the frost, and on the yields produced in 2021, is to do this vintage a considerable disservice. With ravishing, energetic whites, and charming, balanced reds, this is a vintage that impressed me time and time again during my three weeks of tastings in Burgundy this Autumn.
Both reds and whites demonstrate where Burgundy excels: wines of impeccable balance, with moderate alcohol levels and delicious freshness, that display their origins with clarity and purity. I encourage you to explore this surprising, and enchanting, vintage today.
From a cold, wet, and, indeed, snowy January and February, temperatures in Burgundy quickly rose in 2021. By the 20th March, temperatures in the afternoons were approaching 30 degrees celsius. Not only did it see vignerons digging out t-shirts and shorts long before normal: it also woke vineyards from their winter slumber, with buds, and indeed leaves, appearing on the vines.
Just a few days later they were in for a shock.
Between the 5th and 7th of April, the Côte d’Or saw two nights of considerable frost. The second night, in particular, was devastating. Snow fell across much of the Côte early in the morning, creating humid conditions, with temperatures falling to between minus 6 and 9 degrees celsius.
The nascent leaves and buds stood no chance. The most affected parcels were the most advanced, meaning that it was the warmer sites - often premiers and grands crus - that saw the worst of the damage. Chardonnay is an earlier budder than Pinot Noir: yields here were considerably lower, with some vineyards providing 5hl/ha or less when it came to harvest time: a tenth of a generous vintage.
The frost wasn’t the end of the vignerons’ travails in 2021. As the vineyards struggled to recover, cool temperatures and rain persisted well into May, also creating considerable disease pressure. Even when warmth arrived in June and July, it was accompanied by rainfall, while August’s first fortnight was cool and cloudy.
Fortunately, in the second half of August and September things became much brighter: the grapes ripened slowly and surely. Picking dates seemed to matter less than in recent years. With everything delayed by the frost, and a more moderate summer, harvest happened towards the end of September, from around the 17th or 18th. Therefore there’s an hour less of sunlight, and an hour extra of cooler nighttime temperatures compared to the end of August, allowing a slower ripening of the grapes.
2021 was an average vintage, sitting squarely on the thirty year mean. Clearly, for vignerons, the season was anything but average, and when we visited Burgundy last October we were confronted by exhausted faces.
But what it does mean is that the wines are truly Bourguignon: a return to vintages not seen for half a decade or more. They’re all the more charming for it.
It’s often suggested that a considerable crop is required for Chardonnay to show its best.
2021 is the exception to this rule. For despite miniscule yields, particularly in some of the Côte de Beaune’s most celebrated vineyards, the wines have excelled. They show vibrant freshness, intense concentration, and incredible terroir definition. Indeed, for anyone looking to discover the nuances of each village, vineyard, and grower, 2021 is the perfect place to start.
Meanwhile, Chablis’ recent challenges continued: in April 2021 they saw an astonishing 20 days of frost. And even where vineyards were protected by a mixture of sprinklers, candles, and electric wires, yields were tiny. But what has been produced is classic, mineral, and delicious. With prices remaining reasonable, despite a run of painfully low yields, this remains a go-to region for good value premiers and grands crus.
And in the Mâconnais, in addition to April frosts, hail in June devastated many vineyards, including Château de Fuissé’s premiers crus, Les Brûlées and Le Clos. But here, again, quality is superlative. And with added focus on the vineyards of this region, in the wake of Pouilly-Fuissé’s premier cru classification, but with prices still incredibly low for the quality on offer, now’s the time to
While in Burgundy in October and November 2021, to taste the previous vintage, mention of 2021 was met with anguished faces: there was a real fear that the wines would be thin, and lack in complexity. But tasting the wines a year on, it was a lesson in why a vintage shouldn’t be judged too early. These are Pinot Noirs that have put on weight and intensity during their time in barrel. Among many others, Paul Zinnetti of Domaine Comte Armand stressed just how important the period of élevage had proved to be.
With alcohols low, many winemakers were able to chaptalise (the addition of tiny amounts sugar to the must, to increase alcohol levels) for the first time in a number of years. This is a return to traditional methods in Burgundy, and a number of domaines stressed that by doing so, and therefore extending fermentations, complexity and balance are both increased.
Use of whole bunch fermentation, meanwhile, seemed less widespread, as winemakers either felt like the stems weren’t quite ripe enough, or considered the wines fresh enough to not require the added lift that whole bunch can provide. Extraction was often light - Sébastien Cathiard stressed that he didn’t feel that 2021 was a vintage to push too hard.
A number of winemakers, including Etienne Grivot, suggested that the low yields contributed to the considerable quality of the vintage, with the added concentration of a small harvest balanced by the year’s impressive freshness.
He compares the vintage to 2010 for its purity: something supported by Nicolas Potel, who adds 2002 into the mix for the same reasons. Both legendary vintages, this gives an idea of the esteem in which many are holding their 2021s.
One of my favourite Burgundian terms is pinotte. Used to describe a wine that is particularly typical of Pinot Noir in its purity, freshness, and elegance, it’s a phrase that was used time and time again to describe the 2021s.
And I wouldn’t underestimate their potential for ageing, either. While they will surely be delicious in their youth, and many will indeed be drunk young, it’s a year that will continue to surprise and delight for years and decades to come.
With sometimes record-breakingly small quantities, and demand for Burgundy’s greatest wines still at fever pitch, some will, of course, be disappointed. But don’t fear. Because there are wines in Burgundy, from lesser-followed regions and appellations like the Mâconnais and the Côte Chalonnaise, Santenay and Marsannay, that still offer incredible quality, as well as brilliant value for money. So alongside the top names, don’t overlook these gems: you’ll be pleasantly surprised, time and time again.
With Catherine Petrie MW, our Burgundy buyer, on maternity leave, it was a joy for me to reconnect with the region, tasting hundreds of wines with dozens of producers over three weeks in October and November 2022.
It couldn’t have been a more enjoyable experience to do so.
This is a truly Burgundian vintage, where the wines demonstrate the infinite intricacies of the Côte d’Or. With a tendency towards warm vintages, we don’t know when we’ll next see a year like this: it’s one to secure while you can. Our offer goes live on the 4th January at midday: I urge you to make your selection with haste.