Although at times it seemed unlikely thanks to the challenges of travelling during Covid, I did manage to spend six weeks in Burgundy between July and November this year.
And what I tasted over that time was well worth the added stress of PCR tests and Passenger Locator Forms.
Since 2012 I’ve done seven vintages in Burgundy, including the 2020 harvest at Comte Armand. And although it may sound strange given the gloomy shadow cast by the pandemic, the 2020 harvest was imbued with the happiest, brightest and most joyful atmosphere I’ve experienced.
Perhaps it was because we’d all spent so long in lockdown, but I’ve never seen a more excited group of harvesters, delighted to get stuck into the tough work harvest entails.
The growers, too, were thrilled. While they and their small teams had continued to work in the vineyards throughout the year (pruning, debudding and spraying don’t lend themselves to working from home), they’d worried it would be hard to recruit pickers in August. And yet they could.
Furthermore, the extreme summer heat had given rise to fears of another 2003, where acidity plummeted, and jammy, short-lived wines resulted. Instead, the fruit they picked at harvest had notably high acidity, as well as impeccable ripeness. These wines have freshness, balance, and magnificent ageing potential.
The results of the growing season: a wonderful contradiction
The wines themselves have such vibrant acidity and freshness, that in spite of the ripe fruit and, in the reds, smooth, sumptuous tannins, they feel like the product of a cool year. Yet 2020 was a record-breaking scorcher, hotter even than 2018 and 2019.
I heard many theories of why the wines stayed so fresh. Was it the summer heat that concentrated everything, including acidity? Was it low potassium levels in the grape stems that precipitated out less tartaric acidity during pressing? Have winemakers simply got better at dealing with this type of climate, picking at just the right time? I honestly can’t say.
The one fact I can give you is that 2020 was the earliest harvest on record, with the vast majority of growers heading out to gather their precious grapes in August.
The whites: aiming for the top of the leaderboard?
Damien Colin of Domaine Marc Colin rates 2020 above 2017, an established high point on the white Burgundy landscape, while Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau of Domaine Michel Bouzereau said that he wishes he could make 2020 every year: no one ever gets bored with the best.
And Charles Ballot of Domaine Ballot-Millot says the vintage is “perfect on paper”, with excellent ageing potential. He was not only thrilled with the vintage, but also so encouraged that, after a hot year, he could produce wines with such energy, freshness, and verve.
It’s a vintage to buy across the board. From Bourgogne level up to grand cru, these are exceptionally delicious wines. Furthermore, they are so gorgeous now, they won’t need time like the 2014s or 2017s. And for those who like tension and moderation in their whites, the 2020s are noticeably lower in alcohol than the energetic but generous 2019s, with most coming in around 13%.
So where do I put 2020 overall? Easily on par with 2019, 2017 and 2014. And given I plan on drinking them from earlier on, they might just become my favourites by dint of exposure.
Volumes, happily, are reasonable; not big, by any means, but there is wine to sell, and to buy. Nevertheless, I expect demand to outstrip supply, given that the minute 2021 harvest will see almost no wines on the market next year.
The reds: voluminous ripeness and agile freshness
“Freshness,” declared Nicholas Potel, “will be the word of 2020.”
The reds are more tricky to pin down than the whites. Where I found the whites uniformly brilliant, the reds need more careful assessment. The warm summer brought on drought-induced stress in some vineyards. Chardonnay seemed to ride this out well, but some Pinot suffered. Volumes, as a result, are small. Bruno Clair said it was the most extreme drought he’s seen in his long career: they lost up to 50% in volume in some vineyards.
The 2020 reds encompass a wide range of styles. Some echo the red fruit energy of the 2019s, whilst others have the black fruit density and power of the best 2018s.
Picking dates are a popular topic, and as helpful as they are when the date supports the theory of the winemaker, it would be a mistake to rely entirely on the hypothesis that early picking means fresh and bright wines, and late picking creates dense, ripe, and structured wines.
Early picking, from around 20th-22nd August, was almost essential in the Côte de Beaune. But quite a few growers in Vosne-Romanée had the luxury, if they dared, to wait until early September. The Grivots headed out on 3rd September, waiting, Etienne says, for the phenolic ripeness to match the acidity and sugar ripeness. The result is a beautifully complete and balanced set of wines. Nicole Lamarche pushed it until 7th September, yet, amazingly, has made the most delicate, elegant, fine-boned wines that defy the natural tendencies of the vintage.
On the other hand, some who picked early have nailed it. Mark Fincham at Domaine Tawse was picking in August, and has made a set of wines that he thinks outpaces the mighty 2010s.
It strikes me that although picking dates are important, it’s how each grower handled the fruit when it came in that counts the most. Over-extracted wines showed the bruises of the growing season, only exacerbated by the relatively high alcohols found in the reds this year. Whereas those with lighter handling have capitalised on the vintage’s naturally sweet ripeness, gorgeously deep colours, and already plentiful tannins.
What both styles have in common is emphatic freshness. This is a high-acid vintage. That it is also high tannin, rich in fruit, and relatively full in alcohol means that the reds pack some impressive ageing potential.
Where the whites are ready to dive into right away, you’d be wise to wait a while for the reds. If they are given the time, they are set to be a miraculously good set of wines.
Where to look for value:
This Burgundy list celebrates many long standing relationships that have endured down the decades at Lay & Wheeler. But it is also an ever-changing list, with new faces appearing every year.
Given that 2020 is such a brilliant vintage I made sure to knock on as many new doors as possible. And I am delighted to add nine new growers, all of which offer brilliant value and exceptional quality.
You’ll notice two new domaines from the Côte Chalonnaise - Claudie Jobard and Vincent Charton - whose wines are totally delicious and offer serious bang for buck. We’ve grown our position significantly with our Mâconnais grower, Marcel Couturier, who made scintillating 2020s. And I’ve added two growers in Santenay, David Moreau and Justin Girardin, such is my conviction that this village in the Côte d’Or offers outstanding value and is a hotbed of talent.
In the heart of the Côte d’Or I’ve added some domaines that have long been on my wishlist: domaines including Jean-Claude Bachelet in St-Aubin, François Buffet in Volnay, Violet-Guillemard in Pommard, and Patrice Rion in Nuits-St-Georges that have consistently impressed me at the annual blind tasting ‘Burgfest’.
A final word:
2020 is not a year many of us would wish to relive. And yet tasting the wines proves that even in the strangest and most challenging of circumstances, Burgundy is capable of remarkable beauty. 2020 is the tenth vintage I’ve bought en primeur, and I am certain it’s one of the best I’ve tasted, made all the more exciting for being such an unexpected joy.
As always, demand will be high, so I encourage you to make your selection with haste. This is definitely a vintage you’ll want in your cellar.