Servants of the Season: Burgundy 2021


Côte de Beaune: Aloxe, Ladoix & Pernand | Beaune | Chassagne-Montrachet | Maranges, Monthelie & St-Aubin | Meursault | Pommard | Puligny-Montrachet | Volnay

Côte de Nuits: Chambolle | Fixin & Marsannay | Gevrey-Chambertin | Morey-Saint-Denis | Nuits Saint-Georges | Vosne-Romanée

Many consider being the Creator of life, the universe and everything a career peak. God realizes there is a higher station in life: a Burgundy winemaker. Tottering about the vines would be a perfect way to switch off from the daily grind of organizing everything in existence. However, omnipotence only gets you so far when trying to outmaneuver the world’s wealthiest, swooping like hawks at the sniff of a sale. So, He contacts a clandestine organisation that assists winemakers in getting a toehold in the Côte d’Or, sandwiched between two private members’ clubs in Beaune. As church bells strike midnight, He raps upon a weathered oak door and is beckoned into a crepuscular interior. A jowly man attired in a velvet blazer sits behind a mahogany desk, signals Him to take a chair and, resting chin upon arched hands, asks how he may be of service.

“I would like to buy a few vines. I’d like to make wine,” God says, only to be met with belittling laughter.

“Mon Dieu…”


“You cannot seriously expect to waltz in with such a demand.”

“Only a few rows. Nothing fancy.”

“You cannot just buy vines in the Côte d’Or,” he splutters incredulously. “Not unless you possess Godlike powers…”

“Well, actually…”


“I’ve just begun a WSET certificate at Battersea College.”

“Impressive. Perhaps we can assist you in becoming a nano-négociant.”

“A nano-what?”

“One level down from micro-négociant. We give you a pseudonym that sounds faintly pretentious. We’ll invent a romantic backstory, how Bacchus appeared in a dream, how you made a barefoot pilgrimage thousands of miles until you reached the walls of Montrachet, and there the vines prophesied your destiny…”


“We need to work on your image. We prefer winemakers straight off the catwalk. But I dig those diaphanous robes. Hippy garb goes down well with the biodynamic brigade.”

“I’ve been learning pruning techniques and…”

He snorts, waves his hand, delves into his pocket and plants on the table…

“A bottle of glue?” God asks.

“We acquire finished wines from a struggling co-operative. Simply slap on our specially-designed labels that faintly-resemble Henri Jayer but with recycled toilet paper and a meaningless logo, et voila!”

“People will buy it?”

“What tastes better than rarity? Limit production to a dozen bottles and two-thousand NFTs. We’ll block-buy 100,000 Instagram followers, drip-feed samples to more gullible sommeliers and blitz social media with our crack team of influencers. Auction one-off, bid up the price ourselves until we reach parity with Romanée-Conti.”

“Sounds like chicanery. Critics’ reviews? Don’t we need them? How about that Neal Martin chap?”

“Don’t let the truth get in the way. But if you insist, read on…”

The 2021 Growing Season

“I like it when it’s difficult. It’s like the good old days,” quips a sanguine Frédéric Mugnier only half-jokingly, one of the few, alongside Arnaud Mortet, that seems to relish a season that ran out of curveballs by June. Having visited the Côte d’Or since the late nineties, it is indisputably one of the most fiendishly complex, byzantine seasons I can recall, riddled with a host of interconnected factors that underpin quality. Compounding heterogeneity is winemakers’ decisions both in the vineyard and winery, though keep in mind most 2021s are unfinished; bottling is the final act that can potentially be its undoing. The only real constant this season is the picking date. Everything else varies according to where you are and whom you speak to - a season without consensus. Primarily, this is because it was unprecedented and diametric to the three preceding years of dry and hot summers. As a result, it is a fascinating vintage to examine in detail. Forgive the forensic analysis, take a long, deep breath and let me walk you through it month-by-month…

Frédéric Rossignol and the entire production of his Volnay Clos des Angles.

The Early Season

The winter was relatively mild and wet, not particularly desirable since winemakers need the sap to fall to commence pruning, notwithstanding that cold weather helps kill viruses and bugs. Jacques Devauges recalls the mercury reaching a balmy 20° Celsius on 20 February. Vineyard workers were out in their t-shirts. After a dip, temperatures warmed up again for around 15 days in the latter half of March. This encouraged vines to sprint out the blocks with early bud burst by early April, the Chardonnay around 2 April and Pinot Noir six days later – a crucial difference. Laurent Lignier reports temperatures as high as 25° Celsius in late March, the warmth exacerbated on the mid-slopes, strewn with larger stones than those on the plain. These stones reflect heat back upwards, raising night-time temperatures. Alexander Abel at Domaine Ponsot corroborated this and noted far more mid-slope damage in Morey-Saint-Denis and one or two others; a geological advantage mutated into a hindrance.

The Black Frost

Vineyard managers and winemakers were on tenterhooks as the vines burst to life during a period when spring frosts remained a risk. You know what happened.

On 5 April, a large mass of Arctic air descended, covering much of Europe. Temperatures fell within three or four hours, tumbling down to -6 or -7° Celsius. Those figures are pivotal because there is a significant difference in how vines cope at that level compared to -1° or -2° Celsius. Not only did intensity imperil vines, but its extent. This was a winter or a black frost. Freezing air was everywhere, not localized or descending from one of the Côte d’Or’s offshoot valleys, which is what happened in 2016. A priori, there was no escape. If that was not bad enough, this Polar airmass loitered for three consecutive days, twisting the knife repeatedly, burning sensitive buds. Compounding winemakers’ woes, the second night of 7 April saw an unusual blanket of snow that fomented humidity, allowing moisture to penetrate and destroy buds even further. As Céline Gagnard explained, the snow did not even cover the vine entirely, which might have created some kind of igloo effect but came from a westerly direction and blanketed one side, leaving the other exposed. Benoît Riffault at Etienne Sauzet and Antoine Amiot-Servelle are two of many that cite snow as the year’s most lethal assassin.

By the first night of frost, some of the vine growth was already at 9cm or 10cm in the most precocious parcels. In contrast, elsewhere, some buds, particularly Pinot Noir on less forward plots, survived relatively unscathed. “There were small green buds in the Premier Crus,” Laurent Lignier explains, “whereas many buds were still closed among the Village Crus. The green buds are sensitive at temperatures of -2° Celsius whereas enclosed buds can withstand down to -6° Celsius.” So already, there is furcation between sites, terroir and grape varieties.

In light of the frost, consider decisions made by vineyard managers that had their own ramifications. Let’s broach the available options one by one.

Many use wax burners placed between vine rows during the night. (In this report, I use the term “candles” as that is how most winemakers refer to them.) They look pretty and great for your Instagram feed. But how efficient are they? It depends on whom you speak to. “We used candles in the Premier Crus, and they were quite effective,” Eric Germain at Vincent Girardin confirmed. “For example, in Puligny Les Combettes, we lost just one barrel. We lost much more where we did not have candles.” Yet Marie-Andrée Mugneret said that it was like having one candle to warm a living room and decided not to put any out because she regarded it as a futile gesture. Plus the cost. Apart from the suddenly rising prices, few producers own sufficient candles to protect all their holdings. They must prioritise their best parcels, leaving lesser ones to fend for themselves. However, many quickly realised they had insufficient protection even for their most valuable parcels for the predicted duration. By the third night, when all hope was being lost, the night sky was less aglow.

Then factor in the timing insofar that you must ensure candles are still burning at the coldest hour, often in the early morning around dawn, which is why many hold fire until after midnight. Easier said than done. Spending all night in Arctic temperatures is arduous work, Cécile Gagnard recalls collapsing on her sofa in exhaustion. A couple of hours of sleep for one night is bad enough, but three? Consider the cost of your workers and fuel. Dominique Lafon estimates that he required 2,100 liters per hectare per day to keep candles lit, while Cécile Gagnard calculated that she needed ten workers to protect three hectares. It all adds up.

Of course, it’s a case of the haves and have-nots. Some, like Clos du Tart, Clos du Lambrays and Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, doubled or even quadrupled the density of candles and told me that this was the only way to protect vines with temperatures so extreme. “In Echézeaux, I used 800 candles per hectare, and it raised the temperature from -9° Celsius to +2° Celsius,” Arnaud Mortet told me in Gevrey-Chambertin. “The density of candles is critical. If you use 300-400 candles, then it is ineffective.”

This photo illustrates the differences between the growth cycle of vines between 2020 and 2021, taken in the same vineyard on almost the same day.

Though candles are currently the most popular countermeasure, I detect an undercurrent of growing skepticism, a move away from their use, not least amongst more organic and environmentally conscientious growers who gazed up with consternation at a black cloud the following morning. This sight does not chime with their eco-friendly principles. The candles’ efficiency is partly dependent upon the lay of the land. As Philippe Abadie at Alvina Pernot pointed out, they work less well on steeper slopes such as in Puligny-Folatières. There is that old adage: Heat rises. Instead of warming ground temperatures, you are simply warming the air above. Trust Louis-Michel Liger-Belair to devise a solution, installing a large air turbine, like a giant hair dryer, more commonly seen in Bordeaux, to blow rising warm air horizontally across the vines. Of course, that option is only available to those with a few Euros in their back pocket.

The other alternative is to prune later so that vines’ growth is less advanced by the time of any frost episode. This is gaining popularity amongst many that adopt a two-phased approach, one early and the other late in the off-season. That poses a risk because you don’t want to prune when the sap is rising and damage the vine. The main stumbling block is logistics. Getting the manpower to prune vines at the end of March is not easy since it is a skilled job that takes time, unfeasible for estates with a large acreage. “It’s hard to prune late when you farm 18 hectares,” Diana Snowden-Seysses at Domaine Dujac rued. Nevertheless, a number of growers are now adopting a late-pruning approach: Jean-Marc Vincent, Nathalie Tollot, Dominique La Guen (Hudelot-Baillet), David Croix, Pierrick Bouley, Antoine Gouges, Antoine Amiot-Servelle and Cyprien Arlaud to name but a few (readers should read the producer profiles for further information on this.) “I pruned late in Morey-Saint-Denis on 15 March,” Thomas Collardot at Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot told me, “but it still didn’t make much difference.” So it’s not guaranteed, and some, like Dominique Lafon, continue to prune at the standard time, which proved the right course of action in the following season.

Others grow cover crops to help fight frost, grasses and/or cereals. Pierrick Bouley in Volnay is convinced that they made a huge difference, one that was visible the next morning, where he could see his parcels were greener than surrounding ones, losing only 15% even in his most precocious plots. Jean-Louis Trapet in Gevrey-Chambertin is another trialing this technique. Nicolas Groffier opined that the answer lays in employing Cordon Royat instead of double Guyot, which he argues helps the vines to recover quicker. Then, there is the option of laying electric cables across the vineyard, like an electric blanket. These were not common in the Côte d’Or in 2021, though Domaine Henri Rebourseau has subsequently installed them in some of their Grand Crus. They apparently worked wonders up in Chablis at Domaine William Fèvre, now under the same umbrella as Clos de Tart and Domaine d’Eugénie…so could we see them there? The downside is (again) the expense and the fact that they use a large amount of electricity.

There are more radical alternatives. Edouard Labet at Château de la Tour mentioned how he clubbed together with other growers to hire a helicopter. As I have already explained, that was fairly useless because any downdraft simply replaced cold air with more cold air, notwithstanding that, it does not reconcile with their biodynamic ethos. Labet already seems to rue that decision, so don’t expect whirring blades above Clos Vougeot again.

At the other extreme…do nothing. In Pommard, Paul Zanetti believed that his five-hectare monopole of Clos des Epeneaux was too large to protect with candles completely, rolled with the punches and saved them for another hopefully less severe frost. Chisa Bize in Savigny-lès-Beaune took the philosophical view that one must let Nature takes its course. That’s how the dice rolled. That said, Nature shows no mercy.

The frost tossed growers’ fortunes in the air depending upon the extent of damage and the countermeasures. It was certainly most pernicious in the Côte de Beaune due to Chardonnay’s earlier ripening: losses of 80% to 100% were not uncommon. Yields were almost comically low, epitomised by a single demijohn that houses the entire production of Rossignol-Février’s Volnay Clos des Angles that he will bottle for private use. Such pitiful volumes, often measured in single-figure numbers of crates, persuaded some to relegate their Grand Crus into Premier Crus or blend Premier Crus together, such as Frédéric Lafarge with his single Volnay 1er Cru and Comte du Liger-Belair with their Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru, each containing fruit from prestigious sites. This practice is less common than I envisaged. Winemakers prefer tiny volumes of their normal range instead of a larger volume of a generic Premier Cru, perhaps signaling that they were not to be defeated. The minuscule volumes had ramifications during vinification, which I will broach later.

Before progressing further with the season in the vineyard, pause for a moment and consider the oft-overlooked human repercussions. Apart from the physical cost, frost of this magnitude exacts a mental cost on winemakers’ psyche. It’s devastating, dispiriting, and soul-crushing. Several confessed to shedding tears, yet they had to be wiped away when assembling vineyard workers and keeping them motivated, despite the prospect of little reward come harvest. Adéle Matrot mentioned that the different ripening cycles doubled the work in the vines. “The key was not to give up,” Benjamin Leroux advised. “It was as much about protecting 2022, to get buds in the best condition and keep the embryo inside the bud for the next year.”

Shock, Rain and Rot

If the following weeks had seen clement weather, then who knows, in a parallel universe, it might have predicated a spectacular, if small, harvest. Unfortunately, the only thing that lives in a parallel universe is Burgundy prices (again, we’ll come to that later.) In the aftermath, the vines were so shocked that their normal growth cycle ceased. This is no exaggeration. “By the end of May, it looked like the beginning of April in the vineyards,” Frédéric Barnier told me at Louis Jadot. Assuming that the vines would recover, a later harvest was inevitable, though there seems to have been slightly less use of second-generation fruit than in 2016. Having said that, Frédéric Drouhin commented that they had to make two passes through the same vines to pick first and second-generation fruit. To compound matters, Michel Mallard told me he had to contend with an infestation of caterpillars in vineyards such as Aux Brûlées. They like nothing better than munching away the destroyed buds, especially tasty Premier Cru buds.

The early summer saw a continuous stream of showers plague the Côte d’Or. Figures from the BIVB show that rainfall in Beaune was 117mm in May, 62mm and 82mm in June and July, respectively, compared to 66mm, 60mm and just 7mm in the same months of 2020. “Mildew was everywhere, whereas the oïdium was much more localised,” Christophe Perrot-Minot told me, while Paul Zanetti found mildew on leaves and bunches. It was difficult finding dry windows to spray and protect the vines. “I did ten treatments with half of them over the weekend as they provided the driest conditions,” Pierrick Bouley advised, one of countless that sacrificed their weekend. Such were the muddy conditions that some, particularly those tending steeper slopes, were obliged to manually spray using atomisers strapped to their back. On 9 June, there was localised hail that affected the north part of Gevrey, more towards the village of Brochon. Pierre Duroché told me that event made it challenging to prune this year and will lower quantities in 2022. With all this drama, don’t forget the ongoing loss of degenerated vines affecting the 161-49 rootstock.

There were two glimmers of hope.

Firstly, a rare week of clement weather meant that some growers, not all, enjoyed an untroubled flowering. It depended on how your vines had reacted post-frost. Guillaume d’Angerville suffered coulure and yet called it “a blessing in disguise” since it enhanced air circulation between missing berries, reducing the impact of rot and making sprays more effective. Antoine Gouges and Alexandre Parigot are two of many that de-leafed to improve circulation when oïdium pressure peaked, while Pierre Duroché found that his old vines that suffered millerandage were the easiest to protect. Sébastien Caillat was sanguine in his assessment when he opined, “oïdium is just part of the job.”

Secondly, the ratio of sunlight and warmth to the volume of fruit is fundamental in understanding the 2021 vintage. Compare insolation for July: 333 sunlight hours in 2020 and just 210 hours in 2021. However, this ‘rationed’ warmth and sunlight were distributed across fewer surviving bunches. It’s like the punchline to a bad joke. In hindsight, frost damage was beneficial! When good weather finally materialised in mid-August, vines rapidly made up lost ground in terms of sugar accumulation. Thankfully, these conditions remained more or less in situ up until picking.

This photo was taken in Corton-Charlemagne in early September. It clearly depicts how you had to accept what few healthy berries Nature gifted.

The Harvest

On 9 September 2021, having finished a session’s tasting for Burgfest, I drove to the foot of Corton-Charlemagne and walked up through the vines. At first, all appeared normal, and I presumed this plot had been picked. Then, I realised that this was not the case. There’s hardly a bunch dangling from these ‘eunuch’ vines. The season’s woes had chipped away until a minuscule crop was guaranteed.

One of the only constants across winemakers in 2021 is the picking date – around Monday, 20 September, though a few “early birds” trooped out a couple of days earlier while others hung on for an additional three or four days’ ripening. French meteorologists provided a misleading forecast (again). “At harvest, the weather forecast was completely wrong,” Cécile Gagnard complained. Jean-Nicolas Méo told me how predictions called for 20mm over the weekend (18/19 September), but there was only 5mm. Some winemakers reported rain on that Monday, the first day of picking, including Erwan Faiveley, who said that the 30mm diluted some concentration and, according to François Bitouzet, reignited some botrytis. Some teams were ordered to re-sheathe their secateurs after barely a bunch had been cut, then returned later in the day. COVID-19 restrictions were still enforced and when coupled with a later picking, meaning students had already migrated back to campus, some found it difficult recruiting numbers. It was not a vintage where you blithely filled your cagettes steadily as you went, vine-to-vine, more a case of searching for healthy bunches dispersed hither and thither across the worst-affected vineyards. At least after those aforementioned showers, it remained quite sunny. “When you pick in August, everything is so fast,” Léa Lafon explained, “but in September, things go more slowly as there is less sun, so waiting a day doesn’t make much of a difference.” Ergo, even though it was a small crop, it was not necessarily shorter.

One of several ironies in 2021 is that though many were dealing with depleted yields, the presence of mildew, oïdium and botrytis meant that you still had to sort incoming bunches, most reporting 5% to 15% being discarded at this stage. One or two conducted a “nettoyage”, snipping away unhealthy bunches before pickers entered to make their work more efficient. Not every grower was confronted with small volumes – it depends much upon the appellation. For example, Beaune escaped relatively unscathed so that a beaming David Croix mentioned that his yields were higher in 2021 than in 2020, likewise Jean-Hugues Pavelot (although new holdings skew his figures!).

Then it was just a case of filling vats and letting yeasts get to work. The problem in 2021 is that there was often insufficient fruit to fill the vessels, Burgundy not having installed as many miniature vats as Bordeaux. One solution has already been mentioned: combine fruit from climats that you usually bottle separately. One or two eschewed vats altogether a fermented and raised the wine in barrel – vinification intégrale.

Marie-Andrée Mugneret dipping the pipette into their Ruchottes-Chambertin, one of many that used stems to fill the vats of their smallest cuvées.

The Use of Stems

Apart from sorting, another crucial decision had to be made regarding stem addition. It has become de rigueur to use stems, and in 2021, whole bunches had significant implications. Every winemaker has a specific view with regards to their appropriate use.

On the plus side, stems can fill the empty space within vats, as they did for some cuvées at Mugneret-Gibourg. A second benefit is that stems can help mitigate against the excessively high levels of acidity (Damien Colin reported that his fruit showed 4g/L down in Saint-Aubin), while Sylvie Esmonin felt that berries were fragile and wanted to keep them intact in order not to damage them and save some structure. Frédéric Weber increased the stem contribution to reduce acidity and “build the wines.” Arnaud Mortet used 100% whole bunches in all his cuvées from his regional red to his Chambertin. I would say that a majority chose to reduce the percentage; Christophe Perrot-Minot, for example, used 20% as he observed that his stems were unripe. On the negative side, winemakers such as Thierry Glantenay found that his stalks were green and did not want to risk imparting vegetal notes for wines that were potentially already tainted with such traits. (Whereas Pascale Mugneret opined that vegetal notes could be attractive if the fruit is ripe!) Glantenay, Géraldine Godot (de l’Arlot) and Paul Zanetti (Comte Armand) are just three of many that habitually use partial stems that eschewed them entirely in 2021. Readers will find details in producer profiles. Suffice it to say, it's a very complicated picture.

Alcoholic Fermentation

Now we just have to transform those grapes into wine. Generally, most winemakers conducted a shorter cuvaison. However, Damien Colin reported that there was a variety of yeast strains working away in the vat instead of a dominating one, which actually prolonged conversion. “I had some problems with the alcoholic fermentation,” Sébastien Caillat confessed. “The yeasts had a very low rate of transformation: 22 grams of sugar to make one alcoholic degree instead of 17 or 18 grams.” Of course, in 2021, musts were not exactly overflowing with sucrose. Conversely, others like Alex Moreau found alcoholic fermentation a little faster than usual.

There is absolutely no consensus on how hard you had to work your fruit in 2021. Press harder and macerate more to extract sufficient aromatics, fruit and colour and risk leeching out unwanted greenness? Or take your foot off the pedal and extract for a shorter period and less hard, perhaps using a gentler vertical basket press because of fewer tannins and concentration? A majority eased off the amount of pigeage but not everyone. Some, like David Croix and Guillaume Lavallée, conducted a more extended maceration and worked the must harder. Guillaume Tardy in Vosne-Romanée did two more pigeages than usual, Romain Taupenot said he worked the fruit a little harder than in 2018 and 2019, and Christophe Roumier did a little more pigeage. By contrast, Emmanuel Rouget and Mathilde Grivot did fewer pigeages, and Thibault Clerget conducted a light infusion. Antoine Gouges told me: “I knew the vintage was more delicate, so we were soft with the punch-downs and pumping over.” It is unequivocally not the case that there is a right and wrong. At the end of the day, it comes down to winemakers’ experience and intuition.

Whereas nary a stem entered the vats of some producers, Arnaud Mortet used 100% in all his cuvées. When I mentioned this in passing to another grower, they didn’t believe me.

Barrel Maturation

The approach to barrel maturation in 2021 is just as diverse as stem addition: notably the percentage of new oak, size/type of vessel and duration. Smaller volumes imply that levels of new oak would be higher, though that would surely be ill-advised for wines with insufficient concentration and structure to support the same levels as 2019 or 2020. Alex Moreau, Dominique Lafon and Guillaume Lavallée are three winemakers who did not purchase new barrels and used stock from the previous season to maintain approximately the same percentage of new versus used oak. Boris Champy and Michel Mallard left their orders of new barrels unaltered, accepting a higher rate of oak. Jean-Marc Vincent and Benjamin Leroux used larger 500-liter barrels to decrease the impact of wood tannins, while David Croix installed a new foudre. At the other extreme, the tiny volumes meant that many cuvées were reduced from, say, half-a-dozen barrels to just one or two, which left winemakers with few options, and less flexibility if one or two barrels were not up to scratch. You took what little you had. The tiny volumes meant greater use of feuillettes, half the size of a 228-liter pièces or even 57-liter quarteaus. These look cute, but as any winemaker will tell you, small-sized barrels are more temperamental and can impart more wood. A majority racked less during élevage; Cyprien Arlaud was convinced it would have detracted from the fragile vintage.

The effects of malolactic on the 2021s were more significant than in 2019 or 2020 because of the higher levels of malic acid. Indeed, many expressed dismay about the quality of their gestating 2021s until malo began. Benoît Moreau is one of many who found some cuvées did not finish until summer. In contrast, in 2022, they have been very rapid, creating a concertina effect, squashing the 2021 and 2022 vintages together in terms of being ready to be bottled, which might prove logistically tricky for some. Pierre-Yves Colin suggested that some cuvées will probably not complete their malo by bottling.

Will the wines benefit from a second winter in barrel? Sébastien Lamy and Pierre-Yves Colin are adamant they will. “The wines are not big, but they managed to attain concentration,” Benoît Bachelet explained at Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet. “I believe the second winter is necessary to gain more tension and freshness.” Yet many feel that the relatively lighter wines should be bottled early to capture their freshness. Antoine Gouges commenced bottling his entry-level cuvées in August, while Christophe Roumier transferred all his wines in stainless steel vats for an earlier bottling in January. Of course, that assumes you can procure bottles. “I will bottle when I find bottles,” Laurent Fournier responded when I asked about his plans. “Seriously, I expect to bottle in March, though my supplier in Switzerland stopped production to conserve gas. I don’t think it is a vintage for long-term aging.”

Guess who loves his new foudre? David Croix, that’s who.

How the Wines Were Tasted

This year, I spent six weeks in the Côte d’Or from 17 October to 25 November, approximately the same as Liz Truss’s duration as PM but with a positive outcome. I visited growers every day, including weekends. It is impossible to see everyone, so in early 2023, I will continue my investigation with the London merchant tastings. Nearly all my notes are written verbatim as I taste the wine to convey an immediate impression, that gut feeling. This year, it was vital to consider whether the wines had been racked. There was not too much reduction this year, but those that were excessively reduced were not appraised.

Last year, winemakers were exhausted after the 2021 growing season. This year, some seemed almost overwhelmed by the influx of importers, many returning for the first time in three years. Growers had to be prudent as it is dangerous to keep opening and closing the bung on barrels, which in 2021, could well be the same one over and again.

In total, I visited more than 120 producers. Most visits were slightly shorter than usual, not so much due to the blending of climats, but due to négociant operation being curtailed or abandoned. Since readers often enquire why I did not taste so-and-so, particularly names covered in previous years, note that visits were declined at Domaines Jacques Prieur, Fourrier and Dugat-Py, while Jean-Noël Gagnard, Felettig and Chavy-Chouet cancelled at the last moment.

Tasting in the barrel cellar with Cyprien Arlaud in Morey-Saint-Denis. My gilet was a lifesaver, given the hours spent in cool, damp cellars. Next year, he’ll have a comfy tasting room for us to taste in, which I always prefer.

The Wines

First, if you have read my rundown of the 2021 growing season, congratulations. Having read all the tumult, doubtless, you’ve concluded that it is a vintage to dismiss and are crossing your fingers for 2022. I understand. But tell me one thing: Given everything thrown at vineyards and winemakers in 2021, how come so many of the wines are blooming deliciously?

One thing that I have learned over the years is that the causal relationship between the vagaries of a growing season and wine quality is not as strict. Seemingly awful vintages can be studded with vinous gems and walk-in-the-park seasons can disappoint. The oft-heard quote is that 2021 is a “return to normal”, a “return to the classic wines of the 1980s”, to which one less-enthused winemaker rejoindered that the wines of that era were often green and underripe. But there is a lot of truth in those claims, highlighted when some winemakers chose to juxtapose their pretty transparent, limpid ruby 2021s with the concentrated, black-hued, more opaque 2020s. Chalk and cheese.

The 2021s run the gamut from wines more vegetal than a greengrocer’s market stands to those imbued with beguiling complexity and profundity. Where many wine lovers seek headlines and generalisations, the truth is that quality varies dramatically between Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, from appellation to appellation, from Domaine to Domaine and from cuvée to cuvée, so that you never know how the next sample will show. Consequently, amongst any reports that I have authored, this is one where it is imperative to dig into the producer profiles to obtain an accurate picture. I have written one for virtually every producer, and here is where you’ll find the minutiae.

The whites might be ridiculously small in volume, but the fruit that survived the 2021 obstacle course benefitted from those crucial weeks of sun and warmth in late August and September. Bizarrely, they sometimes convey traits of warmer vintages with traces of tropical fruit that counterpoint the acidity. I was particularly taken with the most dynamic appellation in the Côte de Beaune – the wines of Chassagne-Montrachet. This appellation is benefitting from the fact that unlike Puligny-Montrachet and, to a lesser extent, Meursault, many winemakers are based either in the village or nearby expanding industrial parks, resulting in a great sense of community and cross-pollination of ideas. This is concurrent with an influx of new blood and ambition, the likes of Sébastien Caillat, Bernard Moreau and Benoît Moreau, while the likes of Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard and Marc Morey produce better wines year-on-year.

Thierry Pillot at his cellar in Chassagne-Montrachet, just one of several winemakers making it one of the most dynamic appellations.

It is a vintage where I am not convinced that superior quality resides exclusively within the Grand Crus. Yes, they have territorial advantages, but there are too many intervening factors chipping away and jumbling the hierarchy; hence don’t be surprised when you find a winemaker’s most prized parcel playing second fiddle to an excelling Premier Cru.

With respect to the reds, 2021 marks a sharp return to the vivid red fruit of cooler growing seasons. Red cherries, crushed strawberries, often traits of orange rind or blood orange, most are far removed from the black/blue-fruited 2019s and 2020s. Alcohol levels are much lower than the previous three years, usually between 12.0% and 12.5%, often chaptalized to 13.0%. That’s a degree or more, less than the levels we were getting accustomed to. There is greater underlying mineralité, tension, and vibrancy on the palate compared to recent vintages. Tannins, at best, are finely chiselled, and the finishes often contain plenty of sapidity. There is remarkably little under-ripeness of vegetal aspects considering that lack of warmth. Perhaps the hierarchy is less flat than the whites, yet the gap in quality is not enormous and certainly a fraction of what the secondary market would like you to believe.

So, 2021 is the miracle vintage?

Not at all. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hailing a vintage just because it is different, just because it might align closer to ideals of what Burgundy should be. There is a surfeit of emotion inextricably entwined with 2021 because winemakers endured so much. You sympathise and then put it aside to assess the wines objectively.

If one is to praise its virtues, then by the same token, you cannot ignore its shortcomings. Sometimes both the whites and reds need more genuine complexity; the ripening cycle squashed into the final six weeks instead of a preferable progressive accumulation of sugar throughout the entire season. Some of the whites feel thin and waiflike, occasionally shrill. The reds are balanced and yet require more substance and concentration, sometimes leaving you feeling short-changed on the finish. Some winemakers that uphold the infusion method of extraction were left with rather anemic reds that translated the winemaking technique more than terroir. Sometimes you could almost blow the wines away.

Winemaker Alexandre Noli demonstrating the new window handles in the tasting room overlooking Clos de Tart. While there is much handwringing about the increasing proprietorship of the super-rich in the Côte d’Or, the wines are better than ever. Besides, did you ever see a member of the Mommessin family driving a tractor?

This must be reflected in attendant scores. While many 2021s will offer delicious early-drinking fare, many demand to be endowed with the substance to last the course. I am not arguing that a wine must be super-concentrated to be cellar-worthy, but there must be at least…presence. Consequently, there is unavoidable dissonance between scores and the sentiment of corresponding reviews. Sure, the 2021s will offer abundant short to mid-term drinking pleasure. Still, only a small number will age long-term, as many winemakers, to varying degrees of reluctance, admitted during tête-à-têtes. My scores might be construed as mean in some places. Before drawing that conclusion, I suggest re-reading the multitude of setbacks that plagued the growing season and reconcile them with the overall results, for it casts them in a far more positive light. Maybe there will be fewer pinnacles in 2021 compared to other vintages. That’s how the cookie crumbled. The fact is that a similar season 15-20 years earlier would have been calamitous. Conditions that not so long ago would have yielded barely palatable and vegetal wines instead give rise to a raft of inexplicably pretty, fresh and delicious Burgundies thought impossible back then. That’s partly down to the quirks of the season, not least the depleted amount of sunshine focused on a depleted volume of fruit, but mostly it is a testament to winemakers that had the fortitude to never give up, from the morning after the first frost hit to the day they were safely in barrel.

The Market

I will shortly publish a standalone article to discuss the factors currently fuelling the inflation of many Burgundy wines, plus some of the trends in terms of changing distribution that is, of course, germane to the 2021s.

Final Thoughts

Some question the relevance of investing so much time in the Côte d’Or, countless hours spent typing hundreds of notes and penning all those producer profiles. On the contrary, independent criticism is more vital now than ever, when fortunes are paid not just for established producers with track records but multitudinous “hot” new names, some of whose price tags reflect more the ego than the intrinsic quality.

Benoît Moreau, whose thrilling Chassagnes are one of the highlights of the 2021 vintage.

Putting that aside, the 2021 vintage is shockingly good in the context of an appalling growing season that pushed many to the brink, physically and mentally. In some ways, it defies explanation. But look closely at the season’s minutiae; you see valid reasons why many clutched victory from the hands of defeat. Not so long ago, winemakers were servants of the season, but there is a growing sense of mastery in overcoming seemingly impossible odds. The vintage unequivocally harks back to when Pinot Noir was all about bright red fruit and tartness, that elusive combination of weightlessness and intensity, transparency and terroir expression. Those reared on the previous trio of vintages will wonder if the 2021s originate from the same region. At the same time, I cannot hail it as a bona fide great vintage, far from it. Many wines lack structure and depth to guarantee long-term aging ability, which winemakers concur when pushed for a view. Yet some wines magically transcend the season, like Messi or Mbappe dribbling through defenders to score winning goals. There are gems to find. It’s just that you might not be able to buy them, and if you can, you might have to remortgage the house.

“Burgundy is a little bit totally stupid,” quipped one renowned Côte de Beaune winemaker midway through a tasting. I did not demur. I replied: “We still love it, though”.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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