"One of the earliest harvests in memory, 2020 was an excellent vintage for reds and an exceptional year for whites which show wonderful intensity and freshness, along with great terroir expression."
One of the earliest harvests in memory, 2020 was an excellent vintage for reds and an exceptional year for whites which show wonderful intensity and freshness along with great terroir expression.
According to the Dijon weather station, 2020 was the driest growing season since 1945. Fortunately for the vines, rainfall at the end of 2019 replenished water reserves in the soil. A mild winter continued into the spring leading to an early budburst, some two weeks ahead of 2019. The flowering took place over the last two weeks of May. Isolated showers caused a few issues, according to Olivier Leflaive, and Domaine Anne-Françoise Gros reported some millerandage, but it promised to be a very generous harvest at this stage. Sunny weather continued into June followed by a hot and extremely dry July and August. By early August it was evident that 2020 was on track for a very early harvest.
Deciding when to harvest was critical. Above average temperatures and dry weather concentrated the fruit and accelerated maturation. Some vignerons kept to the traditional 100 days between flowering and harvest but with grapes gaining around 1% potential alcohol every 48 hours, it was more like 90-95 days. Olivier Lamy emphasised the importance of picking quickly. For most the harvest began around 20th August and was over by early September, one of the earliest and quickest harvests ever recorded. Faiveley started picking Pinot Noir in Mercurey on 19th August, moving to Volnay the following day, while the Chardonnay harvest began on 25th August with Ladoix Blanc. Jacques Carillon started on 23rd in Puligny, three weeks ahead of 2019, and in Morey-Saint-Denis Hubert Lignier began on 27th, the earliest vintage in the domaine’s history.
Due to the drought, the fruit was very healthy, so much so that sorting tables were almost redundant. The white grapes from the Côte de Beaune were ‘healthy and in great shape’ reported Olivier Leflaive and the reds in the Côte de Beaune were concentrated and ripe with thick skins. In common with most growers, Anne-Françoise Gros hardly did any treatments at all. To protect the bunches from the sunshine, the vines were topped at 1.5m and leaf stripping was avoided. Apart from a few traces of sunburn the grapes were perfect. Sugars were naturally high, without going beyond 13.5%, and tartaric acid levels were just right.
In terms of yield, apart from the Côte Chalonnaise which was down 25-50%, due to frost and a chilly spell during flowering, Chardonnay held up well. For Jacques Carillon, 2020 was a ‘pretty normal’ year for yield as the ‘the vines were never thirsty’. The conditions had much more impact on Pinot Noir, especially in the Côte de Beaune. Despite the promise of a generous harvest in the spring, it was nothing of the sort for Olivier Leflaive who explained that ‘across all appellations (the) provisional estimate was slashed in two’. According to Domaine Heresztyn-Mazzini in Gevrey-Chambertin, 2020 was 50% below normal. As Benjamin Leroux explained, tiny berries with thick skins yielded very little juice.
The outcome for the reds partly depended on what happened in the cellar and the subject of whole-bunch fermentation naturally came up in this context. A ‘feeling’ rather than something which is easily explained, growers have differing views on the subject. Whole-bunch fermentations can certainly absorb colour and tannins and may reduce alcohol levels. They can also add a sense of freshness and elegance, even a floral note, and as such, have become an integral part of the style for many growers. Others take a nuanced approach depending on the vintage or terroir. Erwan Faiveley, for example, noted that maturity was blocked for some vines at the height of the summer preventing the stems from lignifying. On the other hand, Anne-Françoise Gros increased the use of whole bunch while Olivier Leflaive thought the stems were perfect, ‘a lovely vintage to vinify in whole bunches.’
Whole bunches aside, the main challenge for Anne-Françoise Gros was to ‘keep soft and silky tannins’ in the reds which is why they avoided pigéage. Most growers opted for gentle pump-overs, rather than punch-downs, with cooler fermentation temperatures. Olivier Lamy moderated the use of wood, avoiding new oak altogether for his whites in favour of two-year-old barrels to keep as much freshness as possible.
As for quality, 2020 is a ‘great year for whites’ for Lamy. Faiveley says it has ‘all the hallmarks of an outstanding vintage, intensely aromatic, with enticing notes of cut pear and lime’. We found quality to be consistent across the board, the wines showing a wonderful balance of ripe fruit with refreshing acidity and lovely tension. One of the reasons for this is that despite a lack of rainfall, there was enough water in the soil to keep the vines going. Unlike 2018, when the vines shut down and ripening was interrupted, the grapes were able to achieve excellent phenolic maturity. The dry weather caused dehydration for sure, but it also concentrated the sugars, flavour and acidity in the berries. Cool night-time temperatures also helped to maintain freshness so there is great natural acidity in the wines. For Domaine Henri Boillot, while 2020 was definitely warm, it was less extreme than 2019 and never too hot. Lamy said that tartaric acid levels were a key factor, creating the perfect combination of ripeness and energy, ‘exactly what we are looking for’. Jacques Carillon highlighted the minerality of the whites which show excellent terroir expression in his opinion.
The 2020 vintage is an excellent year for red wines though quality is less consistent. Pinot Noir was certainly more affected by drought and intense sunshine, absorbing more of the sun’s rays than white grapes. Sebastien Magnien made the point that while vines in Meursault and Puligny could draw on water reserves, other vineyards in Pommard and Beaune suffered some water stress. Nevertheless, there are lots of very attractive reds offering surprising freshness along with appealing, elegant fruit and supple tannins. A few were noticeably more concentrated. The wines from Gouges were some of the densest we have tasted, balanced by excellent acidity thankfully making this a ‘very particular’ vintage for the domaine. Stylistically there is more variation in the reds, but everyone agrees that they show great ageing potential thanks to their freshness and the richness of the tannins.
Comparisons with other vintages are notoriously difficult. While the growing season is perhaps close to 2003, the 2020s taste nothing like the 2003s. Several vignerons, including Benjamin Leroux, likened the vintage to 2017, due to the freshness of the wines. Jacques Carillon thought that 2020 had more ageing potential than 2019 and was somewhere between 2017 and 2018 with its rounder textures. The precision of the wines makes a comparison with 2014 but the 2020s are richer. Franck Grux of Olivier Leflaive likened 2020 to 1985 and 1988. Whatever the comparison, 2020 is clearly a brilliant year for whites. The reds are harder to define. Pinots from 2019 are also round in the mouth but there’s more tension in the 2020s drawing comparisons with 2016. Florence Heresztyn-Mazzini thought the 2020s showed similarities with 2010 but with more intensity. Asked to contrast the last two vintages, Marie-France of Domaine Robert Sirugue thought that 2020 had a slight edge as it was more ‘nuanced’ than 2019.
In summary, one of the earliest harvests on record, 2020 produced superb quality fruit with concentrated flavours. An excellent year for reds, which have great ageing potential, the whites offer the perfect balance between ripeness and crisp acidity. 2020 is certainly one of the best Burgundy vintages in the last decade. With such a small 2021 vintage to follow, down by as much as 75%, demand is bound to outstrip supply. We encourage you to seize this opportunity to purchase some 2020 en primeur Burgundy while you can. Finally, we are delighted to inform you that we will be holding our Burgundy tasting on 13th January 2022. Details will be sent to you next week.
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Due to the high quality of the vintage and limited quantities, demand is sure to be very high with some cuvées, especially at Grand Cru level,
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