Burgundy's Trying 2021 Vintage

Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine

May 3rd, 2022

Sylvie Esmonin of her eponymous domaine summed up 2021 saying, "There was little wine and far too much work. There was nothing but rain. September was the prettiest month of summer," she noted sarcastically.

Sylvie Poillot of Domaine de la Vougeraie called it the year of the sorting table. Indeed. And there are different kinds of sorting tables. Christophe Perrot-Minot, of Domaine Perrot-Minot, owns an optical sorter. He feels it is easier to overcome a vintage like 2021 when such a machine puts out "nothing but caviar" for the cellar team to vinify and age. Granted, these are rarer in Burgundy than in Bordeaux.

 After an easy 2020, which Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey described as "nice, even comfortable" and Denis Bachelet called "exceptional", 2021 wreaked havoc on Burgundy's winemakers and their vines and wines. Loïc Dugat-Py of Domaine Dugat-Py said that 2021 was more like a year from the 1980s with lots of rain and temperatures hardly ever reaching 30° C / 86° F.

 While this chart only goes back to the turn of the century, it does shows that 2021 is clearly a more "normal" year, the most normal after 2004.

Meteorologic Comparison of Vintages (Temperature is on the vertical axis, precipitation on the horizontal axis and the size of the bubble represents the amount of sunshine.)

However, before jumping to any conclusions about the 2021 wines, take a look at the spread of vintages and where they fall on the chart. Without knowing anything about the wines, one might look at 2010 or 2016 or 2015 and think those vintages might not have been good ones. That would be wrong.

The struggles of the 2021 vintage began from the very start, with a warmer than usual January (except in the Yonne/Chablis department) and February. The problem with warmer winters is that they start off the growing season too quickly. The vines "wake up" and start their growth cycle too early. When freezing temperatures come along, often in April but in 2021 also in May, the frost kills the buds and reduces the crop. As an aside, I just put on a trade seminar with Christian Moreau of Chablis in Manhattan and he remembers frost as late as May 29th in 1961. In 2021 there were four episodes of sleet - see next chart - in May, as late as the 24th.

In 2021, the night of April 5th into the 6th was catastrophic and followed by sub-zero temperatures, frost and snow. The BIVB recorded that temperatures fell as low as -8° C / 17.6° F - even as far south as Pouilly-Fuissé. This was particularly damaging as it followed ten very warm days. Chardonnay was particularly hard hit as the variety generally was more advanced than Pinot Noir everywhere except in the northern Yonne.

Percentage Differences from Average Temperatures (Two frost periods noted.)

Warmth returned in June, but July and August were cool, again. The temperatures yo-yoed all year.

Then, there was rain - lots of it. Denis Bachelet said that on June 9th there was a tremendous storm with hail in Gevrey-Chambertin. About 30 centimeters / 12 inches of water swept across the vineyards - more than they can absorb. The runoff was dramatic enough that many vignerons had to haul soil back up the hills.

Later in June - the 19th and 21st - the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais saw some significant hail, too. In July, it rained daily, save between the 17th and 22nd.

Diseases were now running rampant in the vines. Some reported both downy and powdery mildew, a rarity. Usually, it is one or the other.

In early August, the rain continued. Luckily, this was followed by warmer weather, accompanied by northern winds that helped to dry out the vineyards. Because of the rain, Xavier Horiot of Domaine Launay-Horiot commented that it was very difficult to stay certified for organic viticulture. Horiot stuck with it, but many decided to leave the qualification, including Domaine Drouhin-Laroze in Gevrey-Chambertin.

Percentage Differences from Average Precipitation (Sleet in May and hail in June noted.)

In the end, the rain does need to be put in perspective. While it felt like a lot - certainly in comparison to recent years, the quantities were slightly lower than average. It's worth having another look at the first chart. The problems were due to the timing of the precipitation - largely May through July.

Monthly Accumulations of Precipitation

Etienne Chaix of Domaine Joseph Voillot in Volnay said that they had everything except hail in 2021. He even had botrytis and desiccation. He - like Esmonin - was thankful for the three weeks of good weather before the harvest that saved the vintage.

However, Jean-Philippe Fichet of his eponymous domaine in Meursault emphasized that it is important not to forget that sunshine is an incredibly important ripening conductor. Overall, the Côte d'Or and and Côte Chalonnaise/Mâconnais were up 6% and 8%, respectively over the normal. Chablis was down only 4% down.

Percentage Differences from Average Sunshine

Harvest began in mid-September for crémants and the most-advanced plots. In Chablis, brow-furrowed producers said they were likely to start on the 20th or 21st, depending on the rain showers. Like in 2020, the typical harvesting orders were thrown out the windows due to weather and disease impacts. The last clusters were picked in early October. For the still wines, many started harvest a month later than in 2020, the earliest season ever.

What does this mean for the wines? The early season stress on Chardonnay resulted in relatively low sugar levels. Pinot Noir fared better, but it is on the lower end of the spectrum, too. This will stand in great contrast to recent vintages, especially 2019s, but then again, Burgundian Pinot Noir achieving 16% abv in Grand Crus is not a good thing. The 2021s (of all colors) look likely to measure between just over 12% and up to 13.5% abv - perfectly respectable.

Acidities will be high across the board. Whole cluster use on Pinot Noir in 2021 is rare as the stems were less ripe. Poillot said that at Vougeraie many cuvées saw 100% whole cluster in 2020; the exact opposite was the case in 2021. As opposed to his usual 50-60%, Perrot-Minot only used 5-10% of whole clusters in 2021. This also will help keep acidities higher and colors darker. On the latter note, due to smaller berries, reds have anthocyanin (color) levels between 2015 and 2020 (the other two highest years since 2000. Plus, tannin levels stand slightly higher than 1999, giving 2021 the fifth highest tannin level since that year!

Some producers cite a return to "classic years". Alas, classic has an ambiguous connotation these days. There is no question, however, that greatly improved technical acumen in both the vineyard and winery will help the vintage more than in previously "normal" years.

For now, we'll have to wait and see what ends up in our glasses. Speaking of which, Thibault Liger-Belair expects that he will use Sydonios glasses for his 2021s while he uses Zaltos on his 2019s. He believes the rounder, softer shape of the Sydonios glass will help to round out the perception of the 2021s.

That is, of course, if we can get our hands on any 2021 juice.

Hervé Tucki, formerly of La Chablisienne, classified losses in all quality ranks of Chablis from 60-80%. Michel Coutoux at Domaine Michel Niellon racked up losses of 70% in his white Premier Crus. Pierre Duroché of Domaine Duroché said he was also down 70% - across all of his wines. Marie-Andrée Mugneret at Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg said the 2021 is the smallest harvest that she and her sister have ever made. Alexandre Abel said that at Domaine Ponsot, their harvest quantities have been going down consistently since 2017 and 2018, which were down 35%. In 2019, the domaine was down 40%. In 2020 and 2021 respectively, the domaine lost 50 and 70% of its harvest.

Denis Bachelet usually makes eight barrels of Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru but only made three in 2021. Worse volume-wise, Loïc Dugat-Py at Domaine Dugat-Py usually makes 30 barrels of Bourgogne Rouge but only made three. Frédéric Barnier of Bouchard Père et Fils says that for 2021, he is on allocation for every cuvée, including Bourgogne Blanc and Rouge. The only person pleased - relatively - by his yields was Clos de Tart's Alessandro Noli. He harvested almost 30% more in 2021 because in June 2019, after everyone had forgotten about the harsh frosts, there was an oversupply of candles. Noli purchased them all, allowing him to double the number of candles in the monopole vineyard during April's bitter nights.

Poillot has custom-made fermentation vessels for each of the Vougeraie vineyards, but in 2021 she had to combine many cuvées. Some winemakers blended Premier Crus with village wines. It will be a good year to know those kinds of nuances, which may be able to provide some extra value amongst the higher prices.

Many négociants are thinking of purchasing less wine. Those wines are becoming more expensive - especially so in a short year, making them harder to sell, especially when a producer doesn't have a well-established relationship with the grower and doesn't know the vines as well.

On the surface, the story of the 2021 weather might keep some consumers away. However, with demand at ever-rising highs, this tiny vintage will sell out quickly, whatever the prices asked. Jean-Charles Thomas and Bruno Pepin at Louis Latour think it will take three years to get out of the cycle:

2021: will sell quickly

2022: prices won't fall after the miniscule 2021 vintage

2023: prices won't be more than 2022, if the volumes hold at the same levels

2024: sold in 2025, if the harvest is again "normal", things should start to even out or provide for a modest correction. Mind you, some producers say they haven't had a full harvest in over a decade, even in the relatively generous 2018 vintage.

Of course, it's not just the small quantities causing issues. Shipping prices are sky-high, sometimes double. Supply chain disruptions and the higher cost of goods will push up prices. François Moriamet at Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier joked that he could be doing a brisk "gray market" business as he has years of capsules, glass and other supplies.

All this plus, Burgundy sales are soaring. The BIVB reports that sales are slightly higher during the already impressive pre-COVID period. Increasing demand will require increasingly larger pockets. That should raise interest in the secondary market for Burg-ophiles, which should lead to increasing interest in sites like wineauctionprices.com. There is always a silver lining.

REFERENCES

Hospices de Beaune Wines Tasted at Sotheby's New York City

9 November 2021

Christy Canterbury MW

Whites

Beaune Premier Cru, Cuvée Suzanne et Raymond 2016

This hails from young vine Chardonnay planted in 2010 in the place of Pinot Noir vines that previously went into the Beaune Cuvée Cyrot-Chaudron. It comes from Montrevenots on the southern side of Beaune, near the communal border with Pommard.

Singing with ripe citrus fruits and white peaches, this is still impressively fresh and lively. Lightly custardy on the mid-palate, the finish layers on hay and hazelnut nuances.

Meursault Genevrières Premier Cru, Cuvée Philippe Le Bon 2017

This is composed primarily of Genevrières Dessous, which was half planted in 1979 and half in 2001, with just under a quarter coming from the higher, or Dessus, portion of the Premier Cru. These younger vines were planted in 2009.

This starts with the tell-tale floral aromas so classic of Genevrières. Primrose, clematis and lilies swirl out of the glass. The palate offers the pulsating tension typical of 2017 and leaves a satisfying, honeyed apple and spice note finish.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Cuvée Francois de Salins 2016

Hailing from the prized sub-section of Le Charlemagne, this wine boasts a substantial portion of old vine fruit, with almost 60% of it 80 years old. The vines face south and southwest, exposures that lend generosity to a Grand Cru that can be firm in its youth.

This 2016 is already turning on the charm with its finely scented oak well-balanced by creamy lees and ample peach and pear fruits. The lifting finish has a light and pleasantly salty dryness.

Reds

Beaune Premier Cru, Cuvée Guigone de Salins 2017

Composed of three plots - Les Bressandes in the north and Les Seurey and Champs Pimonts in the center, this cuvée combines the power and finesse that the best Beaune wines show. The power comes from old and old-ish vine Les Bressandes, which makes up almost half of the cuvée.

An alluring ruby in color, this 2017 Beaune still focuses on fresh fruit with red plums and sweet cherries leading the way. Lavender and oak spice join on the firm, perky palate. This is pleasant now but could use a few years to unfold.

Volnay Santenots Premier Cru, Cuvée Jehan de Massol 2012

Made from three portions of the Santenots vineyard, half of the vines are over 50 years old and the rest are 33. Technically Santenots sits in Meursault, but all Pinot Noir from this AOC becomes Volnay by law.

Showing alluring development with baked red plums and fallen autumn leaves, this is in a very pretty phase. It's surely got a few more years in the bank, but there seems little reason to wait. The tannins are suave and rounded, and the acidity pulls along the refreshing, minerally finish.

Corton Grand Cru, Cuvée Charlotte Dumay 2016

All facing east on the upper portions of this large Grand Cru's slopes, there are 24 plots that provide fruit for this wine. About two-thirds come from Corton-Renardes with the rest coming from Corton-Bressandes. Both sectors are known for making long-lived reds.

Just starting to come into its own, this Corton shows a combination of baked berries, cedar box and sultry spice. It's a pleasant push-pull of youthful and evolving elements. The firm structural backbone of zingy acidity and lightly gripping, concentrated tannins suggest this will continue to evolve for a good while.

Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, Cuvée Madeleine Collignon 2015

A fairly recent and generous addition to the land holdings of the Hospices (1.75 hectares / 4.3 acres donated in 1976), this sits at the northern end of the Gevrey-Chambertin Grand Crus and in line with Clos de Bèze. Almost 60% of the vines were planted just after World War II.

A dazzling Mazis with blueberries, black cherries and game aromas filling the glass, the robust core is nicely framed by suave and rich tannins. The acidity stays in the background until the layered, long finish, when it races to the fore offering refreshment.

Clos de La Roche Grand Cru, Cuvée Georges Kritter 2013

A small, quarter-hectare (0.25 hectares / 0.62 acre) plot, this is also a recent (1991) addition to the Hospices. It sits in the center of Clos de la Roche in the Les Froichots lieu-dit.

Showing charm and maturity, this is a charismatic Clos de la Roche with licorice, pepper and savory spice woven into the dried dark plums and blackberries. This is drinking well now as the tannins are ripe and round, and the acidity remains fresh. This more of an easy-going rather than a powerhouse Clos de la Roche due in part due to the cooler, rainier and lower sunshine conditions of the year.