BURGUNDY 2019 VINTAGE REPORT
Never, in my 30 years as a Burgundy en primeur buyer, have I been so eager and excited to taste the new vintage. Starved of my normal spring and summer visits, where I usually get a preview of the upcoming vintage, instead I was relying on cautious but increasingly optimistic reports from the growers during the lockdown months. I knew volumes would be down dramatically in just about every appellation, in some cases as much as 50%! Harvest conditions had been reported as perfect, with wonderfully clean pure fruit and sorting tables discarded, but what of the quality and balance? As autumn 2020 arrived, the early wave of optimism had turned to euphoria. The Burgundians may well have something special on their hands this year.
Disappointment was an understatement when our November tasting visits had to be cancelled. The second lockdown started just two days before we were due to set off for the Côte d’Or, so Plan B sprang into action. Thanks to the extraordinary support from the domaines, 300 samples were collected in a temperature-controlled lorry and delivered in the best condition possible, ensuring our whole team could taste in the UK. Also, at the very last minute, I was so pleased to be able to make a short but comprehensive visit in the second week of December, to get a second bite of the cherry.
Tasting from sample is good, but nothing quite compares to tasting at the individual domaines. In my November blog, after tasting the samples we had shipped to the UK, I described 2019 as, “small, sweet, supple and very very seductive.” In truth these 2019s are so much more. There is something special about these wines to lift our spirits. I returned from my trip with the same feeling of excitement our growers had been sharing.
This is a captivating vintage for both red and white. For many growers, the defining characteristic of the 2019s is a profound terroir identity and I agree. The red wines are models of pristine Pinot Noir; exciting and joyous, full of energy and enticing fresh berry flavours. The whites are also exemplary; they have both the intensity of a small sun-soaked harvest and the refreshing vitality we seek in great Chardonnay.
THE GROWING SEASON
It would be wrong to say that 2019 was plain sailing in the vineyards. The winter of 2018/19 was mild and warm, always a concern for vignerons who fear early budding in the New Year and the potentially devastating impact of frost. Fortunately, according to Caroline Drouhin at Drouhin Laroze, the cooler second half of February slowed the vines’ development in the Côte de Nuits. Sadly, not everywhere escaped the April frosts. Some vineyards, particularly in St Aubin and the village terroir of Puligny Montrachet, were badly hit, with this pair being the first appellations to raise the small crop harvest warning.
The rest of April and May remained stable, relatively warm and just a little drier than average. Flowering started in good conditions in June, before an unexpected two-day cold snap resulted in some aborted flowering. More worryingly, this further reduced yields due to millerandage causing small berries to form.
July and August were dry, with lower-than-average rainfall. Crucially, what little rain there was came at just the right times to maintain vegetative development and avoid hydric stress. That said, 2019 is still considered a drought year and this had a huge impact on overall production, but with fewer bunches per vine the grapes were able to stay refreshed. The harvested fruit, although small, were wonderfully concentrated. Olivier Lamy in St Aubin commented that the individual berries on his estate weighed half the weight of a normal year!
Equally important, and distinct from recent hot summers, was the fact that average temperatures rarely surpassed the crucial 32⁰ which, according to Jean-Marie Fourrier in Gevrey Chambertin, allowed photosynthesis to continue throughout the ripening season. There were heat spikes in 2019 and some days the mercury surpassed this temperature, but fortunately not for the elongated periods of time that would cause a worrying rise in sugars and fall in acidity.
Most estates in the Côtes harvested during the second two weeks of September. Whilst there was little variation amongst the white winemakers, there were certainly two schools of thoughts amongst red wine producers as to the best time to pick. Estates who picked early, between 7th and 13th September depending on appellation, sought to preserve Pinot freshness and keep alcohol levels down between 13 and 13.5%.
However, unlike some years, picking later was not a gamble. The weather was set fair and with such a small impending crop, growers knew they could gather their harvest in a matter of days. The later pickers waited for the traditional 100-day ripening period after flowering to achieve the desired levels of phenolic ripeness in both skins and pips. There was a risk of higher levels of sugars and potential alcohol, but the low yields meant the fruit retained an excellent acid balance.
Both schools have met considerable success this year, stylistically different but exemplary in quality and complexity.
In certain years it is easy to make vintage comparisons whilst others stand on their own. In 2019 the reds are certainly in the latter camp. The fruit flavours are sensational, reminiscent of the sweet ripe character of 2009, but in terms of texture very different. Most surprising is the extraordinary tannic balance; small harvests can sometimes lead to an overconcentrated structure, but this year silken, velvety tannins sit harmoniously alongside, supporting the alcohol level. Equally impressive is the bright, racy acidity. These wines have so much energy and vitality. 2019 should not be viewed as a hot vintage, but a small one of very intense high-class wines.
The white wines are an appealing combination of 2018 and 2017; the best are sensational. They have a volume and richness of fruit. The warmer locations have produced an exotic character, while the cooler sites and more mineral-soiled vineyards have delivered a lacy freshness and delicious citrus vibrancy.
AVAILABILITY & PRICINGAlas, volumes are significantly down from 2018, a year of relative abundance. After this difficult year, growers have been careful with their release pricing. However, they are also mindful that 2020 is an equally small harvest and, whilst they have tried to maintain their prices, it has not always been possible.
On that note we fire the starting gun on this small but glorious set of wines. Make sure you are quick off the mark to add these to your cellar.
David Roberts MW