BURGUNDY 2021: THE GROWING SEASON
After three warm years, 2021 marked a return to the sort of weather traditionally associated with Burgundy – and all its challenges.
The winter was warm and wet – “too warm”, Frédéric Weber at Bouchard told us. He remembers finishing pruning in just a t-shirt in March. The vines started growing enthusiastically, with early budbreak, only to be struck by a cold spell at the beginning of April – as frost struck the whole of France. The nights of 6th, 7th and 8th April were devastating, especially 7th. Temperatures dropped to -8˚C in places – temperatures at which candles, helicopters and wine machines could offer little help.
Images of the Côte de Beaune littered with a milky way of candles filled social media, and vignerons could do little but pray. For the early-budding Chardonnay, 80% losses were normal, with some producers in Chablis losing everything. The humid conditions, with snow falling, made matters worse – unusually this combination means that lower-lying village sites were less impacted than the Grands Crus (higher up-slope, where more snow fell). Indeed, if producers had lit candles (or “bougies”), the warmth melted the snow, which then froze and the buds were burnt by the morning sun – cruel retribution for trying to protect their livelihood.
This severe, black frost (“le gel advectif”, as Florence Heresztyn explained) was savage – caused by a mass of cold air from Siberia. Chardonnay (and therefore especially the Côte de Beaune) was impacted more, as were any earlier-ripening Pinot Noir sites, such as Cazetiers or Combe au Moine. Candles can normally only increase the temperature by 2˚C, however some producers noted how a collective effort could make a difference – with a high-density of candles concentrated on an area. Erwan Faiveley had installed electric wires in their Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, as used previously in Chablis, which saved their crop in these plots, but other parcels were devastated. As Thibault Gagey of Louis Jadot noted, late pruning could help; one of their long-term growers in Bâtard-Montrachet pruned late and got a better crop, but the damage was still significant.
David Duband reported how he also had issues in April with caterpillars which munched on the nascent buds. He had to hire five additional workers for a week to battle their hungry attack.
The cold weather continued, with May cold and cloudy. Flowering at Bouchard began on 16th June, in wet and mild conditions that were perfect for oidium (powdery mildew) and downy mildew. Because the weather was so wet, mud prevented tractor access and at Bouchard they hired more people to spray by hand – a luxury not everyone could afford. Producers across the region spent their weekends during the summer spraying their vines when they could, with the disease pressure a particular challenge to anyone working organically or biodynamically. Edouard Confuron estimated he had sprayed four or five times more than in a normal year.
With the wet and cooler conditions, deleafing was important to open up the canopy, reducing disease pressure and exposing the fruit to much-needed sunshine. At Olivier Bernstein, Richard Séguin explained how they deleafed the fruiting zone and kept just one or two bunches per vine, removing any green bunches that remained at mid-véraison.
September saved the vintage, with warm, sunny and mostly dry conditions. With the tiny volumes, this was enough to ripen the fruit – Jacques Devauges at Domaine des Lambrays described it as Mother Nature evening the score, making up for what she’d taken in April.
Harvest dates varied quite significantly – starting from 10th September through to early October. Rain fell on 19th and 20th September, and producers were often divided between picking before and after this date. Generally producers started with Pinot Noir, then moved onto the Chardonnay, and dates were around a month later than in 2020. Jean-Marie Fourrier felt it was important to wait for phenolic maturity – which only arrived after the rain, and Erwan Faiveley argued that it was essential to wait for the dilution from the rain to pass before picking. Given the low yields, the harvest was often shorter – simply because there wasn’t much fruit.
Selection was essential – making a small crop even smaller – but there was some beautiful fruit of both colours. Yields varied, with losses between 50 and 80% – and some parcels (especially of Chardonnay) were blended together due to the tiny volumes at play.
BURGUNDY 2021: THE WHITE WINES
There’s no doubt amongst producers – or tasters – that this is an excellent vintage for Chardonnay. Production levels are laughable – with often the lowest yields they’ve ever seen, at a mere 20% of their normal crop – but the quality goes some small way to making up for the loss.
The small crop (reduced by the harsh April frost) had a long season to slowly ripen, developing intense levels of concentration, yet – with cooler conditions than 2018, 2019 or 2020 – retaining amazing freshness and acidity.
With the wet summer, disease was an issue: Erwan Faiveley described oidium as “exploding” on the Chardonnay (with levels not seen since 2004). Extensive sorting was essential. He also felt it was necessary to fine with bentonite after pressing to ensure the must was clean; similarly at Bouchard, Frédéric Weber didn’t use the very first free-run and inoculated fermentations this year to ensure they ran smoothly. Others, such as Philippe Abadie at Alvina Pernot and Paul Pernot, emphasised how important it was not to over-press.
Most wines were chaptalised this year, often just to bring up 0.5%, with the final alcohol levels sitting between 12.5 and 13.5%.
Guillaume Boillot at Henri Boillot – who has produced a stunning range of wines – describes the whites as “salin”, having “belle matière”. Vibrant and pure, these are tightly wound with cool, white-fleshed fruit character, sometimes with tropical richness, often a mineral, saline thread and piercing acidity.
Due to the tiny volumes produced, oak usage varies this year. Boillot used none, but others have slightly more in the blend – feeling it didn’t need the freshness added by components aged in stainless steel. For Jadot, it was the first year that they used exclusively foudres, the larger barrels reducing the flavour impact of oak on the wine.
Erwan Faiveley believes that tasting the whites, you can feel “the struggle in them”, that the vines suffered. Tasting through the exceptional Grands Crus he’s produced, however, it’s hard to see this – and perhaps he’s biased by the challenges of working the vines and crafting the wines in 2021.
Comparisons are hard for such a unique year, but 2014 and 2017 were common themes, largely due to the high acidity, quality and ageing potential. Philippe Abadie and Alvina Pernot described it as “classic bourguignon”, while Thibault Gagey at Louis Jadot compared the year to 2011 or 2013, although feels the wines are better than those of the latter vintage. Faiveley points to 2007 – a vintage that has never shut down or, for him, disappointed; for Boillot they’re closest to 2016, but more precise. At Bouchard, Weber is so excited by their potential that he plans to keep them in barrel longer – possibly bottling in July 2023.
These are really exciting wines – with a vibrancy and energy that is compelling. The cool and mineral classicism here, with great fruit concentration and balance, should age beautifully.
BURGUNDY 2021: THE RED WINES
While there is a clear consensus on the 2021 whites, the reds are more varied in the vintage – but much better than we initially thought. The wines have clearly benefited from additional time in barrel, and most addresses have crafted a flight of elegant, pale-coloured and light-bodied Pinot Noirs. Although there are a few, rare examples of dilute or overly lean wines, this is in the main a return to “old school” Burgundy, with wines of perfume rather than power. The volumes are more generous than for the Chardonnay, but still measly, mostly sitting between 30 and 50% of a normal year’s yield.
Frédéric Weber at Bouchard felt there were two styles of Pinot Noir in 2021: those from plots not damaged by frost, with normal yields but grapes with thin, fragile skins, prone to grey rot. The fruit from frost-hit sites, meanwhile, came with lower yields, thicker skins and less disease – for the latter he preferred to harvest later, with their higher tannin levels.
Jean-Marie Fourrier noted that the picking date for Pinot Noir was key, worrying that anyone harvesting before the rain on 19th/20th was playing a risky game when it came to phenolic maturity and might have unripe tannins and vegetal notes.
In general, Florence Heresztyn of Heresztyn-Mazzini felt it was a vintage, like 2012 or 2013, where producers needed to be attentive and precise at every stage – from the vineyard to winery. Sorting was essential and almost every producer chaptalised – largely used to prolong the alcohol fermentation rather than with the sole purpose of increasing the alcohol level.
Beyond this, tactics in the winery were varied – with vignerons often taking opposite approaches. Some producers, such as Bouchard, opted for more whole-bunch fermentation. Winemaker Frédéric Weber explained that the stems were so beautiful that he was happy to include 30-50% on average; the potassium also helped reduce the acidity of the wines, giving – he felt – a better expression of the year.
The opposite was true of many, including Benoît Stehly at Georges Lignier and Hugues Pavelot. At Olivier Bernstein, the team used 30-40%, much less than in a warmer vintage, as they didn’t feel additional freshness was required, nor were the stems sufficiently lignified; similarly Heresztyn-Mazzini used 30-60% rather than 50-100% to avoid any greenness. While Jean-Marie Fourrier de-stems everything, in 2019 and 2020 he added the stems back into ferments for freshness, but didn’t feel it was necessary in 2021.
When it came to extraction, the approach was similarly broad. Some felt it was a year to be more delicate, others thought it was a year that required more work to extract the colour and tannin that was in the grapes.
Maxime Cheurlin at Domaine Georges Noëllat used a warmer – and therefore shorter – fermentation (sustaining 33-34˚C, versus 31˚C normally) to build the mid-palate of the wines. Charles van Canneyt had to buy smaller tanks for the miniscule yields, but the tiny tanks therefore fermented more quickly and he was careful to keep maceration short to avoid risking over-extraction. Similarly, Olivier Bernstein was keen to keep the fermentation short, with a five-day cold soak to extract colour and aromatics, then just 13 additional days on skins before the must was pressed – the fermentation finishing off the skins.
By contrast, Fourrier opted for more extraction to get everything possible from the fruit. Guillaume Boillot echoed this view, with an additional week of skin contact. He used just pumping over rather than punching down to focus on fruit and aromatics rather than tannin; but at Faiveley, Erwan used more punching down than pumping over.
Some producers highlighted that the grapes had high levels of malic acid (which has been notably low in recent, solar vintages), meaning that malolactic fermentation had a significant impact on the wines. Both Benoît Stehly and Charles van Canneyt noted how they were verging on severe at first, but after malolactic were open and fruity – totally changing in style. On paper, the pH is quite high for some wines (up to 3.7) – yet there is plenty of freshness, the lighter body and lower alcohol (mostly 13-13.5%) perhaps balancing it out.
For élevage, some winemakers feel the wines need longer or shorter élevage, or different types of oak, with more or less new or different toasting. Nicolas Potel at Domaine and Maison Roche de Bellene feels that the crunchy character of the Pinot Noir will only be enhanced by a longer maturation in barrel (planning for 24 months versus the normal 12). Boillot opted for no new oak (as for his whites), feeling it would mark the fruit too much; while Maxime Cheurlin used less new oak but higher toast levels to add further complexity – and plans to bottle the wines earlier.
For Domaine Joblot, they felt that more new oak helped round out the lighter wines, using 50% new. At Domaine des Lambrays, Jacques Devauges favoured a slow, gentle toast – a "chauffe blonde" that gives the scent of freshly baked bread. Indeed, Devauges feels the wines have been improving significantly in barrel, offering more concentration and aromatics with each month that passes – something that reminds him of the 2010 vintage. Frédéric Weber at Bouchard describes 2021 as “charming”, comparing the wines to those of 2017, with good terroir definition and balance at 13-13.5% – more in line with what used to be “normal” for the region.
Thibault Gagey at Jadot pointed to 2004, 2013 or 2017 as possible similar vintages, but finds it hard to compare – it’s old school but approachable. Marion Raphet added 2014 into the mix, and although the wines are incredibly open now, wonders if they might shut down in bottle. For her, however, it is a year where, “On retrouve la typicité” (they rediscovered Burgundy’s typicity). The team at Tortochot pointed to 2011 or 2001, while Erwan Faiveley looked to 2007 and Florence Heresztyn noted the growing season was reminiscent of 2016.
Maxime Chuerlin looks further back, feeling it has a similar equilibrium, colour and density to the outstanding 1991 vintage – in no doubt that the balance of the wines will allow them to age. While it’s easy to assume that these paler Burgundies might not be the longest-lived, almost every producer anticipates that 2021 will surprise everyone with its ageability – especially for the top wines.
Almost every single grower we spoke to used a different approach for the 2021 vintage – but almost all have succeeded, producing vibrant, open and pretty Pinot Noir. It is a year in which careful vignerons could craft exceptional wines that were both light-bodied, yet persistent – with a purity and intensity that is surprising, along with captivating aromatics. As Nicole Lamarche said, “You can have both lightness and concentration.” It is, overall, a year that has surpassed expectations – one that was transformed by producers’ dedication, work in the vineyard, and modern technology and know-how in the winery.
BURGUNDY 2021 IN BRIEF
An extremely challenging growing season, with April frost and high disease pressure over the summer
Yields were drastically reduced by between 50 and 80%
The whites are superb – concentrated, high-acid with minerality and cooler fruit tones
The reds are a little more varied, but the best are elegant, charming, pale and light-bodied – yet with impressive intensity and freshness
A handful of wines are a little dilute or lean, but all the best vignerons crafted superb wines
Alcohol levels are more traditional for the region, mostly between 12 and 13%, with little above 13.5%
The best wines of both colours will age well, but the reds in particular will be approachable in their youth
Producers used different approaches to handle the year’s challenges
The most common vintage comparisons are to 2014 and 2017, but include a wide range of other years