It is somewhat ironic that in the extraordinary 2020 lockdown, with growers unable to travel and thankful to spend as much time as possible in their vineyards escaping “le confinement”, conditions were so ideal that the vines hardly needed them at all!

The Growing Season

As a retired vigneron said to me with a touch of jealousy, “2020 was an armchair vintage I dreamed of in my day!” To put this in context, what he meant is that 2020 was a wonderfully easy year to manage in the vineyard. Conditions were almost perfect, for once escaping frost. No excess of rain or humidity meant the vines were generally disease-free throughout the year and minimal treatment was required in the vineyard in the spring and summer.

The winter of 2019/20 was relatively uneventful, but importantly mild which accounted for a very early budding in March and a particularly advanced flowering in mid-May. Growers are not fans of early budding, not that it has an influence on quality, it is just that it makes the vines vulnerable to the risk of a late Spring frost. Thankfully, barring a few exceptions, most areas escaped any frost damage at all.

Summer was dry and warm, so the water reserves built up during winter were hugely important, to protect against hydric stress (lack of water in the final weeks before a harvest, which can restrict berry development). With their vineyards perfectly healthy, growers’ only concern was to protect their bunches from the dangers of excess sunshine and the risk of a lack of water. Many growers decided against leaf thinning to provide canopy and protection against a surfeit of sun during the middle of the day.

Other practical matters for healthy vines in drier years certainly came into play as well, such as older deeper rooting vines and well managed vineyards tilled carefully. Soil types were also so important, such as the clay soils releasing their water reserves on a slow and steady basis throughout the summer. For some vineyards their higher altitude and cooler location was a benefit, whilst other growers commented that their lower lying vineyards, with poorer drainage benefitted by remaining moist and fresh.

It really is a year where Burgundy’s unique patchwork quilt of vineyards and classifications expresses the detailed distinctions between locations. The final weeks of summer in July and August were warm, but in contrast to 2003, not heatwave conditions. Unlike 2003, this vintage the vines were protected from the heat of the day by refreshingly cold nights, controlling the sugar levels and maintaining the all-important acidity.

The harvest took place in wonderful conditions and as predicted was an early vintage starting in the Côte de Beaune any time from 17th August. In some cases, this was earlier than 2003, but this can be the only comparison between the two. The timing of the harvest in 2020 is entirely due to the early May flowering. Growers started picking the traditional 100 days after flowering, with all their fruit achieving full phenolic ripeness and maturity. In 2003 by contrast, many growers were forced to start picking a little too early, approximately 85 days after the flowering, as the extraordinary intensity of heat that year caused the sugars to increase at an extreme rate and the acidity to fall ahead of many of berries, skins, pips and stalks achieving full ripeness. 

White Wines

2020 is very exciting indeed for the white wines from Chablis to the Côte de Beaune. Didier Séguier, wine maker at William Fevre in Chablis, summed this up beautifully: “2020? Yes a little bit of magic.” and I couldn’t agree more. Tasting over a three-week period in October and November I left with the simple conclusion that the white wines are absolutely stunning!

They have in part the richness of 2019 but significantly also an amazing freshness. This superb level of acidity, without going into too much detail, is due to a more stable acid base in the berries which is often the case in warmer drier years. This freshness provides the core to the white wines this year.

They have a delicious intensity and, whilst ripe, the fruit flavours tend to be more white fruits and floral notes, and less exotic. Although the yields were healthy, there is excellent concentration, and the great vitality of freshness provides both balance and excitement. It really is difficult to find fault in these lovely wines.

Red Wines

Pinot Noir is a little more sensitive to heat and drought so, whilst the red vineyards enjoyed the same wonderful sanitary conditions, some areas did feel the effects of the drought a little more than the sturdier Chardonnay grapes. In particular this has impacted the yields and volumes are significantly down on 2019. A consistent comment, echoed by Cyril Audoin in Marsannay, was that they had wonderful bunches with plenty of berries and, although they were small, everyone was really surprised by how little juice there was inside them.

As with the whites the harvest was early, but it varied so much domaine by domaine. Many growers picked in August, such as Domaines Barthod and Boillot, where they like to pick early to keep freshness and purity in their wines and lower alcohol levels closer to 13%. Other equally impressive estates such as Domaine Grivot preferred to wait and didn’t start until 3rd September (still an early year!) This is something I am sure many wine writers will pick up, but in truth harvest dates can be misleading. They are so reliant on so many factors in the vineyard. Pruning dates and viticultural practices all impact on the date each individual domaine’s fruit ripens, so differences are inevitable. The important thing is just to pick the fruit, clean, ripe and mature.

Tasting the reds, it is obvious the fruit came into the wineries in wonderful condition. As mentioned above, the berries were small and didn’t have huge quantities of juice. The key to making high class wines this year, once the fruit arrived in optimum condition, was in the vinification. The common theme from all our red wine growers was to practice slower cooler fermentations in 2020 with minimal extraction and maceration. They all referred to infusion rather than extraction and so rarely used the historical practice of pigeage. The grapes already had a great density of colour, there was no need to extract any more. The natural tannin levels were high, sugars and potential alcohol were spot on. As with the whites, they have superb acidity levels refreshing the palate and as a result it hasn’t been a tiring vintage to taste en primeur...

Estates following these practices and handling their fruit carefully have made some stunning, high-quality wines with great appeal. The style of the vintage is relatively rich; the fruit flavours are deeper fruits of the forest characters than in cooler years. The best domaines have still achieved appellational personality and individuality, which is so important for fine Burgundy and something we always seek. The red wines are intense, with a tannic core which will enable longevity. They also have a charm and brightness which will give youthful appeal for those Burgundy lovers who like to drink their Pinot Noirs in their youth.

Our 2020 Campaign

We are currently in the process of receiving prices and allocations from all our growers. We are delighted to be adding four new domaines to our portfolio and look forward to telling you more about them very soon.

We will release the magnificent 2020 Chablis in December, along with a superb selection from the famous Jadot range, and a couple of other introductory offers. Our full report and tasting notes will be shared early in the New Year, and the campaign will start on Tuesday 11th January 2022.

David Roberts MW