Over two separate trips to the region, our team delved into the 2021 vintage – visiting, tasting with and talking to a wide range of producers up and down the Côte d’Or. The vintage was complicated, to say the least – but Burgundy’s vignerons have crafted some exceptional wines. Here we dig into everything you need to know about the vintage – from the growing season and how producers coped with its challenges to the style of the wines
2021 Burgundy: The growing season
After three warm years, 2021 marked a return to the sort of weather traditionally associated with Burgundy – and all its challenges.
The winter was warm and wet – “too warm”, Frédéric Weber at Bouchard told us. He remembers finishing pruning in just a t-shirt in March. The vines started growing enthusiastically, with early budbreak, only to be struck by a cold spell at the beginning of April – as frost struck the whole of France. The nights of April 6th, 7th and 8th were devastating, especially 7th. Temperatures dropped to 18˚F in places – temperatures at which candles, helicopters and wine machines could offer little help.
Images of the Côte de Beaune littered with a milky way of candles filled social media, and vignerons could do little but pray. For the early-budding Chardonnay, 80% losses were normal, with some producers in Chablis losing everything. The humid conditions, with snow falling, made matters worse – unusually this combination means that lower-lying village sites were less impacted than the Grands Crus (higher up-slope, where more snow fell). Indeed, if producers had lit candles (or “bougies”), the warmth melted the snow, which then froze and the buds were burnt by the morning sun – cruel retribution for trying to protect their livelihood.
This severe, black frost (“le gel advectif”, as Florence Heresztyn explained) was savage – caused by a mass of cold air from Siberia. Chardonnay (and therefore especially the Côte de Beaune) was impacted more, as were any earlier-ripening Pinot Noir sites, such as Cazetiers or Combe au Moine. Candles can normally only increase the temperature by about 4˚F, however some producers noted how a collective effort could make a difference – with a high-density of candles concentrated on an area. Erwan Faiveley had installed electric wires in their Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, as used previously in Chablis, which saved their crop in these plots, but other parcels were devastated. As Thibault Gagey of Louis Jadot noted, late pruning could help; one of their long-term growers in Bâtard-Montrachet pruned late and got a better crop, but the damage was still significant.
David Duband reported how he also had issues in April with caterpillars which munched on the nascent buds. He had to hire five additional workers for a week to battle their hungry attack.
The cold weather continued, with May cold and cloudy. Flowering at Bouchard began on June 16, in wet and mild conditions that were perfect for oidium (powdery mildew) and downy mildew. Because the weather was so wet, mud prevented tractor access and at Bouchard they hired more people to spray by hand – a luxury not everyone could afford. Producers across the region spent their weekends during the summer spraying their vines when they could, with the disease pressure a particular challenge to anyone working organically or biodynamically. Edouard Confuron estimated he had sprayed four or five times more than in a normal year.
There was some localized hail, with a storm in June causing damage in the north of Gevrey-Chambertin, especially in Les Champeaux, said Pierre Duroché and Olivier Bernstein.
With the wet and cooler conditions, deleafing was important to open up the canopy, reducing disease pressure and exposing the fruit to much-needed sunshine. At Olivier Bernstein, Richard Séguin explained how they deleafed the fruiting zone and kept just one or two bunches per vine, removing any green bunches that remained at mid-véraison.
September saved the vintage, with warm, sunny and mostly dry conditions. With the tiny volumes, this was enough to ripen the fruit – Jacques Devauges at Domaine des Lambrays described it as Mother Nature evening the score, making up for what she’d taken in April.
Harvest dates varied quite significantly – starting from September 10th through to early October. Rain fell on September 19th and 20th, and producers were often divided between picking before and after this date. Generally producers started with Pinot Noir, then moved onto the Chardonnay, and dates were around a month later than in 2020. Jean-Marie Fourrier felt it was important to wait for phenolic maturity – which only arrived after the rain, and Erwan Faiveley argued that it was essential to wait for the dilution from the rain to pass before picking. Given the low yields, the harvest was often shorter – simply because there wasn’t much fruit.
Selection was essential – making a small crop even smaller – but there was some beautiful fruit of both colors. Yields varied, with losses between 50 and 80% – and some parcels (especially of Chardonnay) were blended together due to the tiny volumes at play.
2021 Burgundy: The white wines
There’s no doubt amongst producers – or tasters – that this is an excellent vintage for Chardonnay. Production levels are laughable – with often the lowest yields they’ve ever seen, at a mere 20% of their normal crop – but the quality goes some small way to making up for the loss.
The small crop (reduced by the harsh April frost) had a long season to slowly ripen, developing intense levels of concentration, yet – with cooler conditions than 2018, 2019 or 2020 – retaining amazing freshness and acidity.
With the wet summer, disease was an issue: Erwan Faiveley described oidium as “exploding” on the Chardonnay (with levels not seen since 2004). Extensive sorting was essential. He also felt it was necessary to fine with bentonite after pressing to ensure the must was clean; similarly at Bouchard, Frédéric Weber didn’t use the very first free-run and inoculated fermentations this year to ensure they ran smoothly. Others, such as Philippe Abadie at Alvina Pernot and Paul Pernot, emphasized how important it was not to over-press.
Most wines were chaptalized this year, often just to bring up 0.5%, with the final alcohol levels sitting between 12.5 and 13.5%.
Guillaume Boillot at Henri Boillot – who has produced a stunning range of wines – describes the whites as “salin”, having “belle matière”. Vibrant and pure, these are tightly wound with cool, white-fleshed fruit character, sometimes with tropical richness, often a mineral, saline thread and piercing acidity.