A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See this guide to our coverage of burgundy 2021.
Next week is Burgundy Week in London but it will be a much more modest affair than usual.
While interest in the region, and the wines’ general price level, has never been higher, in 2021 Nature delivered a slap in the face in the form of vicious early-April frosts that severely trimmed the crop, by up to 80% in villages such as St-Aubin, and by more than 50% in the region overall. The earlier-budding Chardonnay was particularly badly affected so 2021 white burgundy is available in even more reduced quantity than the red. (As for the prices, don’t ask.)
But the spring frosts were followed by seesawing temperatures and a generally cool, cloudy, damp summer that brought with them the constant threat of both sorts of mildew. Vignerons, who had to spend virtually the entire growing season in the vineyard, began to wonder whether the grapes – for reds as well as for whites – would ripen at all, not least because of some pretty heavy rain in mid September. According to the vintage report of the négociant Jean-Claude Boisset, ‘the region has rarely experienced such harsh conditions, even the older generations can only recall the vintage of 1951 as being so extreme’.
As I reported in October 2021, however, the weather suddenly changed on 22 September and such grapes as there were on the vine were brought in under sunny conditions. Nowadays every decent cellar has a sorting table, or even an optical sorter, so grapes that were split, rotten, frosted or even sunburnt could be rejected – shrinking quantities even further.
Practical problems also included the fact that in frost-hit areas some vines had both first- and second-generation buds on them, ripening at very different times. So either the underripe bunches had to be discarded before the harvest, or extremely knowledgeable pickers had to be sent twice through the vineyard at different times. And the reduced volumes meant that certain wines, especially premiers crus, had to be combined – or were made in too small a volume for even the smallest tank or vat. New oak was used extremely sparingly in view of the delicacy and scarcity of the wines.
It is hardly surprising therefore that many of the UK wine merchants who usually hold tastings of the latest vintage for their customers and commentators during Burgundy Week are sitting it out this year. We know of about a dozen tastings next week, when in some more plentiful years there have been more than 20, sometimes eight in a single day.
Quantities of 2021 burgundies are so limited that it’s a real headache for everyone. For the growers of course. For the négociants, who have had to pay so much more for ingredients in their blends. For the importers, who have so little to go round, and for us consumers who will almost certainly not be able to get, let alone afford, the wines they want.
As soon as he saw the effects of the April frosts and the certain shortfall of supply, Charles Taylor MW of UK wine merchant Montrachet went scouting for new suppliers, on 12 separate buying trips to Burgundy. Whereas he used to buy from four producers in Chablis, for instance, he now buys from 10. He describes pricing of the 2021s as ‘erratic’, with some producers in the worst-hit (generally white-wine) areas increasing their prices only enough to cover the increased costs of dry goods, fuel and labour. Others have increased their prices so much that he has declined their offer.
This year the UK wine merchants have to decide which of their clients will be lucky enough to get the rarest wines. Brett Fleming of Armit acknowledges, ‘it is hell having to now work out who gets what from our tiny allocation as we will satisfy no one!’ Jason Haynes of Stannary Wines agrees that allocating 2021s will be a ‘nightmare’ and adds, ‘wines we used to offer in cases of 12 not too long ago have shrunk to sixes and then threes and sometimes even ones!’ Justerini & Brooks have also been encouraging their suppliers to offer wines in three- and one-bottle lots so as to disappoint as few customers as possible.
Even though the UK is the earliest market in which the new Burgundy vintage is sold, the producers have to ensure they have enough wine to supply everyone else. Offers in the US will probably go out in spring and autumn of this year.
But to what extent will there be demand for these expensive survivors of a gruelling growing season? Some burgundy lovers seem convinced that challenges in the vineyard will automatically result in challenging wines. However, having myself seen the quality of grapes being harvested, I have been keenly anticipating the chance to taste the 2021s, as I have found the produce of the warm years 2018, 2019 and 2020 uncomfortably atypical in some cases, with acidities too low for true refreshment and alcohol levels way above my platonic ideal of true burgundy.
What 2021 delivers, in the right hands of course, is a return to classicism, the produce of weather more often encountered in the 1970s and 1980s but with first-class plant material in the vineyards and infinitely more skill and ambition in the cellar. Yes, the grapes were much less ripe than for many years, so there was a return to a practice entirely traditional in Burgundy, that of adding sugar to the fermentation vat to boost the alcohol level of the eventual wine – not to make the wine sweeter. (Some younger vignerons may have had to ask their parents for guidance with this technique.) But the results that I have tasted to date have been delicious.
My Dijon-based colleague Matthew Hayes has taken over from me the end-of-year ‘duty’ of tasting the 2021s straight from cask in numerous cellars and publishing his tasting notes in three articles beginning here, focusing on producers too fashionable or too obscure to feature in London’s Burgundy Week tastings.
So I have had to content myself so far with attending a handful of tastings of 2021s held in London by some of the bigger producers, mainly négociants such as Louis Jadot, Faiveley, Chanson and Jean-Claude Boisset. The négociant Delaunay also sent cask samples to my home.
And so far I find that my potential enthusiasm for the vintage has not been misplaced. Chanson’s style seemed in general a little overworked and chunky rather than ethereal for my taste but I really enjoyed the selections from Jadot and Faiveley. And as for winemaker Gregory Patriat at Jean-Claude, not a name immediately associated with Burgundy at the very top of the tree, absolutely mind-blowing. This was burgundy with both finesse and energy – not a great deal of alcohol, often no more than 12%, but perfectly ripe, expressive fruit.
Next week I expect to taste hundreds of 2021 burgundies and will doubtless find some failures, whites that are simply too skinny and reds that are too soft. But I think it’s a mistake to require young red burgundy to be chock full of tannin and young whites to be searingly high in acid. Seize the moment. Enjoy these beauties while they offer so much current pleasure.
Some 2021 négociant favourites
These wines will find their way to countries other than the UK with any luck. In much-reduced quantities, alas. Grands crus are omitted on the basis of price and (tiny) quantity.
Image of Beaune's Hôtel Dieu by Hiroshi Higuchi via Getty Images.