2020 Vintage Overview

2020 Vintage Overview

Written: December 2021

My 2020 tasting season took me from 11th October to 15th December, leaving me not quite as much time as usual to write up all my notes before Christmas. My report on the southern half of the Côte de Beaune is published today, with the northern half and the Côte de Nuits to follow rapidly. This introduction aims to set the scene for all parts of the Côte d’Or. Overall I have covered about the same number of producers as for the 2019 vintage but, I suspect, rather more wines!

Detailed weather conditions across the year will be found here but it makes sense to summarise the key elements.

  • The water table was replenished by reasonably adequate winter rains
  • No frost damage
  • A fine spring meant a very early start to the growing cycle
  • A hot dry summer, but with no real heat spikes until August
  • The earliest harvest on record for most producers

Challenges

Two other issues of great importance however need to be noted. We have learned, more or less, to live with Covid, but that was not at all the case in the spring and summer of 2020. There was the much greater fear of the unknown, and nobody was vaccinated. The initial lockdowns were drastic, and vignerons were far from sure if they would be able to get the work done in the vineyards. In the end this proved surprisingly manageable, though there was a shortage of seasonal workers. Thibault Liger-Belair proposed that sommeliers who could not work in their closed restaurants might come and do a season in the vines instead.

Later on, there was real concern at the harvest that an inspection of the picking crew might turn up a positive covid test and put the whole crew into quarantine – though fortunately this did not happen.

The other major cause for concern was the dieback of large sections of vineyard, principally but not entirely down to the sudden failure of the 161/49C rootstock to cope with hot dry conditions. I have never seen as many vines being ripped out as I did in the autumn of 2020. More on this in the New Year.

The Harvest

Let us focus briefly on the all-important month of August. All was going swimmingly (excluding the challenges referred to above) and the grapes were exceptionally healthy. No rot, no mildew, just the occasional trace of oidium. There were plenty of bunches: all set for a cracking good harvest. Yet more than one producer who had managed to fit in a quick holiday at the beginning of the month came back to a very changed scene, with leaves turning or falling off completely, and a much more evident feel of drought conditions.

Temperatures did rise through the month but without the otherworldly feel of 2003 when there were 13 consecutive days reaching 40°C and unpleasantly hot nights. In 2020 the hot days were rarer and the nights cooler. Unusually for a hot year, there were barely any storm incidents, the exception being 1st August when the southern side of Nuits-St-Georges was hailed.

Many producers mentioned a small shower at some stage that they felt was a saving grace. Nobody seemed quite sure exactly when this magical little sprinkle happened. There would seem to have been some precipitation on 21/22 August and 28/30 August and though I am not sure how much real benefit could be gained, these few drops could only have helped rather than hindered.

The harvest was the earliest on record, and it was hot! Once producers had started, they went quickly, with as many pickers as they could raise. Often picking was only done in the morning – trying to squeeze in a full day from 6.30am to a late lunch at 1.30pm. A further necessity was the ability to cool grapes down. Many of the larger domaines had hired cool room containers to store the warm grapes overnight so as to be able to process them at optimum temperature the following morning.

 

The White Wines

I am thrilled to report an almost universally successful vintage for the white wines! Nobody is completely sure why, but here are some pointers. The chardonnay (and aligoté) grapes retained much more juice than the pinots (and gamay). The effect of the hydric stress concentrated everything, including acidity which is such a positive feature of the vintage. Anne Morey came up with the interesting theory that these early vintages have more protein in the juice and the acidity may be derived from the protein. I have no idea how this stacks up scientifically!

Alex Moreau makes the point that there was steady ripening in 2020, not sudden as in 2019. Given that chardonnay flowers before pinot, and was mostly picked later in 2020, the ripening cycle for the whites came close to the established ideal of 100 days – probably around 95 in fact.

There is little or no sign of over ripe flavours among the whites. Vintage comparisons are notoriously tricky but, unexpectedly, given the weather conditions across the year, the wines taste like some of the most classical white Burgundy vintages of recent times: 2017 with a proportion of 2014 added in. Those who picked earlier are more likely to have made wines reminiscent of 2014.

Differences according to geography within the Côte d’Or are much less evident in white than in red. Where there are nuances, these will be mentioned in the brief introductions to each appellation in the Côte de Beaune report.

 

The Red Wines

There is a much wider range of styles and success rate in the red wines. Indeed, during the two month tasting season, my opinion of the vintage yo-yoed wildly, depending on where or what I was tasting. The red wine vintage needs a lot more explanation in detail than the whites.

The key issues for pinot noir were the deficit of juice inside the berries, the degrees of sugar and the wrinkling of the skins. The first of these explains the relatively low yields, to the extent that there are a number of producers in the Côte de Nuits who have actually made more wine in the frost damaged 2021 vintage than they did in 2020.

Sugar levels are very variable, sometimes high but more often lower than in 2019, and not always directly attributable to picking date. Some producers chose to pick as soon as they saw sugar levels rising beyond their comfort zone; others state that they pick on acidity not sugar. A third group – rant coming up – prefer to wait until they have full phenolic ripeness. That could be a disaster in 2020. Even those with alcohol levels above 15% would point to the high acidity and say that the wines had retained freshness. They may have retained the acidity, but the fruit flavours were no longer fresh, especially where the skins had started to wrinkle – the flétri effect: cooked black fruit, prunes and raisins, or – slightly less off-putting – sun-dried cherries of the sort sometimes used in certain cereals and muesli.

Compromise is needed. It is no longer a question of picking at the optimum moment of rising sugars and falling acidity on the graph. If you wait for your first grapes to be ripe, then the rest will be over-ripe, and if you judge by the perfect taste and texture of the skins (which was a great way to do it a few years ago) your sugar levels may be going off the scale. My own view is that a fractional physiological under-ripeness will sort itself out over time in bottle, but over-ripe flavours will stay with the wine for ever. Rant ends.

The vintage has more in common with 2018 than 2019, but there were many fewer instances of stuck fermentations, excess volatility or bacterial spoilage than in 2018.

In red, there are clear differences according to sector. In the Côte de Beaune, the southern end (Santenay & Maranges) was far less extreme than further north. Probably the most difficult locations were the earliest sectors such as Volnay and Corton. It was a regular feature that the first picked grapes were the least well balanced and the highest in alcohol – they were picked early as an emergency.

But please note that these are very general points, and should not be used to cancel interest in any specific appellations: we need to look producer by producer and wine by wine. It is not uncommon for producers to find 2-star and 4-star wines side by side in a given cellar.

The Côte de Nuits was, in general, more successful than the Côte de Beaune, even if later harvesting dates meant more evaporation of the juice and thus even lower yields. Parts of Marsannay, the light alluvial soils, may have dried out too much, while excessively ripe flavours could be found most often in Nuits-St-Georges, as well as issues from the hail storm in certain vineyards on 1st August. Nonetheless, the Côte de Nuits provided the biggest proportion of potentially very great wines.

So let us talk about the undoubted successes, having rather emphasised the more negative issues in the preceding paragraphs. There are wines of a profound intensity beyond anything I saw in 2018 and 2019. The very best wines remind me of 2005 fleshed out with a small percentage of the ripe flesh of 2003. These are wines with immense ageing potential.

 

Vinification & Maturation

Everybody remarked on how the colour came out within just a few hours of the grapes going into the fermenting vats, and that a very light approach to extraction made sense. Few people did much punching down, if at all, though I would note that those few who did stick to a regular punching down program (e.g Louis Jadot) do not seem to have extracted anything ugly, or made wines of undue structure.

The biggest question was what to do on the whole bunch front, more stems in the vats or fewer? Of course, there are many who do not change their protocol, be it entirely destemming or 100% whole bunch. Many others call their decision according to the vintage. Stems were fairly if not completely ripe in 2020, and the pips were completely brown or even black (according to Stéphane Follin-Arbelet). On the whole, the trend towards including the stems developed further in 2020. I like this style of vinification anyway, and in 2020 I feel it was immensely beneficial, freshening up the wines and prolonging the flavours on the palate, sometimes to a quite extraordinary extent.

Many producers found their wines to be somewhat heavy and even clumsy at first in the cellar, but that during the elevage they have developed far more character and refinement, especially after racking (where this has been done). It is by no means universal, but quite a few producers are tempted to increase the length of elevage for their wines, especially the reds, given the exceptional concentration of the fruit. One or two are being cautious, to avoid any risk of drying out, and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is in fact bottling earlier than usual, going by the traditional maxim that the barrel elevage should not last more than 12 months after the malolactic fermentation, which for the 2020s was particularly early at the domaine.

 

Prices

We have been saying that prices are far too high in Burgundy for quite a while now, yet the bottles continue to race off the shelves. There are no reserves left in producers’ cellars and there is very little in the distribution pipeline. While 2020 produced a reasonable crop in white, it was low in red, and 2021 will be just as low (or worse) in red and more or less catastrophic in white. Producers will have set their 2020 prices with 2021 in mind, so that the new higher levels will be maintained across the two vintages.

Looking at one importer’s 2020 En primeur Burgundy offer I can see that Clos de Vougeot is typically around £900 In Bond for a case – but with some producers you get 6 bottles in the case, and some only 3! The genie is clearly out of the bottle at the top end of the range, but at least these days in Burgundy there are so many brilliant wines throughout the region and across the classifications. Comparing 220 prices for the lesser appellations to 2017, the increase in pricing is much milder than for the 1ers and grands crus.

 

Conclusion

2020 is a wonderful vintage for white wines and you can be confident in hunting down your regular favourites, as long as the price does not put you off.

Take a close look at the reds. There will be some utterly spectacular wines for the long term, and some disasters. Read carefully before spending your money, but do not ignore!

Tasting Notes

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Click to read tasting notes on wines from 2020

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