Wine News Early Burgundy Vintage Confounds Expectations

Early Burgundy Vintage Confounds Expectations

Burgundy enjoyed an unusually early harvest this year, as the weather played ball.
© About Wine | Burgundy enjoyed an unusually early harvest this year, as the weather played ball.
An early start to the harvest doesn't necessarily mean a hot vintage on the C?te d'Or.
By Christy Canterbury MW | Posted Thursday, 01-Oct-2020

"As human beings, we suffer from an innate tendency to jump to conclusions, to judge people too quickly, and to pronounce them failures or heroes without due consideration."

Attributed to both Prince and Prince Charles, whomever it was delivered a wallop of truth. Just replace "people" with "vintage", and we're ready to talk about the latest vintage in Burgundy.

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Following producers on Instagram? The worst is easy assume. Guillaume d'Angerville posted that Domaine d'Angerville in Volnay finished its 2020 harvest on August 25, the same day it started its 2003 harvest. Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair signed off on its harvesting on 30 August. Domaine de Montille posted its harvest finale shot on 31 August.

I emailed Didier Séguier of William Fèvre to wish him a happy birthday in late August only to be surprised to find him on his email as midnight in Chablis approached. Harvesting had begun the day before (on the same day as in 2003), and he was waiting for the day's last pressings to finish. Céline Fontaine of Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard in Chassagne-Montrachet began on August 20 this year. In 2003, her first official vintage at the domaine, they began on August 31. Anne Morey in Meursault told me that it is the first time ever that Domaine Pierre Morey and Maison Morey-Blanc brought in all of their grapes in August. They had only started in August once before in 2011; in 2003, they started on September 1.

The very first harvest date in the entirety of Burgundy was on August 12. Yes, grapes for crémants started coming in that morning, but so did others for still wines at Domaine Fichet in the Maconnais' Igé.

The 100 day dictum

The old rule of thumb was that Burgundians could count 100 days between flowering and harvest. Burgundians could basically plan their vacations based on this. Last year, Denis Bachelet of his eponymous domaine in Gevrey-Chambertin told me that it is becoming clearer by the vintage that this was "for the '80s".

Today, it is more like 90 days. For example, Hervé Tucki of La Chablisienne – whose remarkable 35-year tenure at the cooperative closes this month – noted that their first grapes came in on August 24, 90 days from mid-flowering.

The key to the precocious harvest dates lies with the previous winter of 2019-2020. Relatively warm with little winter frost, the vines were hydrated and raring to go by mid-March. So, the 90-100 day band began incredibly early.

Two other points are worth noting regarding the evolution of the 100 day dictum. Tucki pointed out that vignerons' understanding of and ability to foster vine growth and their ability to analyze grape maturity (sugars, various acids, pH, etc.) have greatly evolved picking decisions. More accurate weather forecasts now weigh in on the decision-making as does the trend toward lighter rather than richer wine styles. Antoine Vincent of Chateau Fuissé also made a clever point when noting that his vegetative period was 90-95 days this year: because the vintage got off to an earlier start, the earlier growing days offered more sunshine hours. This pushed maturity down the road more quickly, too.

The Growing Season

The ferociously forward spring mostly continued into April, which saw temperatures that were 3.6C higher than average across the region. Chablis had frost spells in late March, early April and early May. Séguier turned on the aspersion nine nights. Overall, Tucki estimates that Chablis yields were reduced no more than 10-15 percent, thanks largely due to the overall dry conditions.

Cooler temperatures provided some early relief further south in late May. However, by June 3, at least half of the vines in the C?te d'Or had flowered (they had done so in Chablis by May 24), marking 2020 as one of the three earliest vintages to arrive at this stage. According to the BIVB, the vines were two weeks in advance over the previous 25-year average and three weeks in advance of 2019.

Paul Zinetti at Domaine Comte Armand remarked that in the C?te de Beaune, it was a hot vintage. Humans didn't have to feel or measure it. It could be seen in the vines. There was tremendous vegetative growth, a trait particularly noticeable in vines planted beside Burgundy's famous vineyard walls.

Jean-Marie Fourrier of Domaine Fourrier wrote to me that "vineyard management will be a key of success". In his vineyards, he saw that higher and wider foliage gave better results than narrow cutting and leaf pulling. The more unusual vintages become, the clearer the best producers will be. Nothing can be systematic these days.

High temperatures and precious little rain followed for all of Burgundy. The heat wave of August 6-12 was particularly tough. Seemingly worse than the heat was the lack of precipitation, save in one form. There generally was a glorious absence of hail.

Harvest conditions

Following on with Chablis, every winemaker I communicated with insisted that it was an early vintage rather than a hot one. Not that they denied there were hot days. There were.

So, while August 2020 in Chablis clearly exceeded the high and low temperatures of 2019, the vines were also not as stressed by lack of rain and higher temperatures going into that month. Luckily, Chablis enjoyed some rain in early August that saved the vintage yield-wise.

With no precipitation, the whole of Burgundy saw no disease. It was the one comment resonated in every conversation: the quality of the grapes – save some dried fruit and sun damage – was immaculate. This is highly unusual as was one other aspect of harvest: everyone began picking Pinot Noir before Chardonnay.

Surprisingly, Pinot Noir was picked before Chardonnay this year.
© BigStock | Surprisingly, Pinot Noir was picked before Chardonnay this year.

Yields and grapes

Francoise Roure, the BIVB's head of communications and marketing in Chablis was cautious on final quantities as declarations were still being made. However, it is clear that most reclamations are under the limit, potentially averaging around 52-54 hl/ha. Few producers asked to use theVCI, or Volume Complémentaire Individuel, which allows them to set aside some of the new vintage for next year in case it is short.

Even with entirely acceptable yields, the vineyard results were far from homogenous. At Chateau Grenouilles, a Chablis Grand Cru, the clusters coming off the same vine had different colors. Elsewhere, Séguier noted that the same cluster could be ripe and grilled on one side and green on the other. Tucki estimates that 20 percent of potential yields were to heat, with some parcels suffering more than others.

Further south in Burgundy, the stories were as complicated but different. Lafon remarked that some vines shed leaves to protect their fruit, leading to a slow down in ripening. Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme noted that in five days, he gained a degree of potential alcohol in some vineyards while waiting to harvest. Meanwhile, 2020 showed him the highest skin to juice ratio he has ever seen as well as the greatest discrepancy in ripeness between plots and varieties. He was in good company with the latter observation.

Shockingly, Taupenot saw yields halve in six weeks to 15-20 hl/ha in coveted vineyards like Chambolle-Musigny Combe d'Orveau and Gevery-Chambertin Bel Air premier crus. Somewhat flatter vineyards, including grand crus like Charmes-Chambertin and Mazoyères-Chambertin fared better, yielding in the high thirties and low forties.

Dominique Lafon said that the heat and drought were harder on the fragile Pinot Noir than the sturdier Chardonnay. Whereas he usually needs 330kg to fill a barrel, this year it often took 360kg. That averaged out to about 25-30 hl/ha, even though the vines generally set their fruit at about 40 hl/ha. Agreeing on Pinot Noir's sensitivity, Zinetti stated yield losses of 20-30 percent in reds.

Fourrier said that yields depended on picking dates in Gevrey, where 20 mm of rain fell between August 28 and 30. Those who picked before got high sugar levels but smaller yields of 20-22 hl/ha. After the rain, the sugar levels receded as the vineyards worked toward maturity, around 27-30 hl/ha. 

While tougher, the Chardonnay wasn't exactly easy. Fontaine said that when she went into the vineyards in early August she was irritated to find that the western sides of the rows were withered and dried. The grapes had dense pulp with little juice. The skins were thick. Tasting them was worse than chewing gum.

Audrey Braccini at Domaine Ferret in Fuissé said that the vintage is very heterogenous even within an appellation as small as Pouilly-Fuissé, as the rain was not equally distributed. Everywhere, the usual harvesting orders were thrown out the window.

In the cellar

What is being noticed in the cellar is incredibly rapid Chardonnay fermentations – the fastest Fontaine has ever seen and attributable to a high level of nitrogen in the wines. Séguier noted that acidities were technically fairly low, the pHs are around 3.2-3.3 and the flavors were rich and concentrated. What malic acid there was would disappear quickly in malolactic fermentation.

Lafon believes the whites will be tremendous. He finds them fresh and balanced. He saw no berry shrivel, and he thinks the white wines on paper are textbook. "...what you'd like to show students". His alcohols range from 12.6 to 13.5 percent.

Though there is an French proverb admonishing "to compare is not correct", drawing comparisons to other vintages is an age-old game in Burgundy.

For the 2020s, I heard mostly very recent comparisons. Tucki mentioned a combination of 2018 and 2019 in Chablis (noting that it is really too early to tell), while Anne Moreau of Domaine Louis Moreau called on the more classic style of 2017. Frédéric-Marc Burrier of Chateau de Beauregard and Maison Joseph Burrier pointed out that it was the lag between the juice and the skin maturities that delivered the unusual phemenon of low pHs with low acidities. This provides a freshness that keeps the wines' profiles well away from 2003, 2009 and 2015. (Moreover, Fuissé wines are sure to have another pulse of energy in the 2020s given that 22 premier crus at last were awarded official status at the end of harvest.) Fontaine said the must analyses looked like 2017 but with more tartaric acid to give the wines more spine.

Lafon said his Pinots reminded him of 2005, showing a bit of shrivel and edging up in alcohol to 13.5-14 percent and with slightly higher pHs. However, he thinks his 2020s will turn out better as he was more gentle in extractions with them than with the 2005s. He also shortened their time on skins by two to three days.

Producers were more obsessed with the instant color they were getting in their tanks rather than whole cluster use. However, Bernard Bouvier at Domaine René Bouvier confirmed that he used an average of 60 percent whole clusters, similar to his usage since at least 2017.

 The Covid curveball

Through all of this, producers were adjusting to life with Covid. Naturally, this posed concerns for harvest. Positioning bodies along rows in vineyards and on sorting tables was tricky. Some decided not to lodge harvesters as it was too difficult to comply with sanitary restrictions. Vincent Laroche of Domaine la Meulière did his research early on, realizing he would need to rent two buses rather than one to transport pickers. Instead, Laroche bought a harvesting machine. For those picking manually, one lucky stroke was that because harvest was so early, student labor was more widely available than usual.

Additionally, COVID coupled with the 25 percent "Taxe Trump" and Brexit uncertainties could have wreaked havoc with the négociant market. As red grape yields dwindled before growers' eyes end of season, the possibility could have grown more dire. However, Fourrier said that market remained remarkably stable by logically weighing all of these factors rather than multiplying them.

When we get to Burgundy post-COVID, it seems that we should find good rigor in the 2020 wines, especially the whites. The critical take-away is that an early harvest does not mean a dramatically hot harvest. Not a single producer felt their wines resembled their 2003s (though some of those are surprisingly spectacular today).

The 2020 harvest is an early harvest largely because the season started early. We shouldn't jump to other conclusions.

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