How does red burgundy compare to the upstarts? Jane Eyre, above, makes both red burgundy and Pinot Noir in Australia. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
In the old days we Europeans used to berate what we referred to as ‘New World’ Pinot Noirs for being too dark, too alcoholic, often too tannic, and lacking the finesse of the prototype, red burgundy.
Having tasted many a 2020 red burgundy over the last few weeks, I venture to suggest that the tables are increasingly turned. The 2020 red burgundies I encountered during London’s COVID-shrunk Burgundy Week are deeply coloured, often quite sweet, more potent than burgundy used to be, and, thanks to a dry growing season that yielded thick-skinned, albeit admirably healthy grapes, rather chewier than usual.
My Dijon-based colleague Matthew Hayes inherited my carefully crafted timetable for tasting 2020s at some of the top domaines in Burgundy itself when it turned out at the last minute that I couldn’t go, and he has been raving about the quality he encountered. And at the finest addresses 2020 certainly produced some truly memorable wines of both colours.
The wines shown in London, however, tend to be a notch down from the most sought-after producers and, while there were some stunning 2020 white burgundies, I found some of the reds just too bold and sweet to fit into my (perhaps prejudiced?) idea of the red burgundy paradigm.
Meanwhile, being a lover of red burgundy and Pinot Noir in all its forms, I have continued to taste Pinots from all over the world and have noticed them getting paler and paler, fresher and fresher, and increasingly delicate. Thanks to climate change and its effect on increasing ripeness in grapes, it can be difficult to limit alcohol levels wherever the grapes are grown, but I would argue there has been a real evolution in the style of wine made by the top exponents of Pinot Noir outside France. Their wines are so much more subtle than they used to be.
I just searched in my tasting notes database for top-scoring non-burgundy Pinot Noirs tasted in the last three years, expecting to be able to mention a handful of exciting producers. But in fact I found well over 100 examples of such wines that I scored at least 17 out 20. (I am a mean scorer and to put that in context, of the 280 2020 red burgundies I have so far tasted in London, I gave hardly 20 a score of at least 17.)
Looking for examples of fine Pinots produced outside France nowadays, I am almost spoilt for choice for candidates from, in no particular order, California, Oregon, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Germany. Because Pinot Noir is an early-ripening grape, to develop sufficiently interesting flavours it has to be grown in fairly cool parts of these countries or states so that the growing season is not too short. In many cases this has meant reliance on vineyards with a strong coastal influence – the Pacific in the first three on the list above and the South Atlantic in South Africa – or the relatively high sites that produce some (though by no means all) of Australia’s finest Pinots.
My list of recommended Pinot producers below mentions only some of those who I think can now offer something of interest to those who hanker after pre-climate-change red burgundy. Travel restrictions being what they are, I have had to limit my list to those wines that find their way to the UK, which doubtless excludes many worthy American examples since the US market tends to be much more appealing to wine producers there than the more penny-pinching British one.
Whereas those outside France can carefully choose where to plant their Pinot Noir vines, growers in Burgundy are stuck. The Appellation Contrôlée regulations delimited the region, and the complex web of climats within it, many decades ago. I read reports by general commentators on the effect of global warming on French wine producers that glibly suggest that vignerons move to cooler climes; it ain’t that easy in a country whose wines are sold on the basis of geography.
(That said, the extremely challenging, cool – and small – vintage of 2021 will almost certainly produce wines that are more like the traditional, fresh burgundian stereotype.)
So I would say that the richness of the 2020 vintage in Burgundy, preceded as it was by two other warm to hot growing seasons in 2019 and 2018, offers an opportunity for the best Pinot Noir producers outside France to champion the finesse of their wines.
And what about price comparisons? One generalisation that can safely be made is that top red burgundy prices have zoomed off the scale – perhaps not at the cellar door but certainly on merchants’ and fine-wine traders’ lists. As for the finest non-burgundy Pinots, there is no mature secondary market for them so release prices remain pretty stable and there are – for the moment – few producers asking truly silly prices for them. However, many of these wines are made in small quantities (like pretty much all red burgundy) and have a keen and adoring local following, so few of them are inexpensive.
In terms of recommendations for value, I find myself repeating the advice I gave for the (even hotter than 2020) 2019 vintage. When you have a warm growing season in Burgundy, the wine quality difference between the grandest and the least grand sites tends to shrink, so that probably the greatest bargains are among the lowlier appellations made by the finest producers – and such wines (Bourgogne Rouge or wines labelled with the name of a village) can be less expensive than the most exalted non-French Pinot Noirs.
Much is made in the sales spiels of those UK merchants who, as usual, are making offers of 2020 burgundies, whether or not they have managed to get samples across the Channel into Brexitland and organise tastings, of the remarkable level of freshness in the 2020 reds, despite their having been grown in a pretty relentlessly warm summer. (Harvest dates were unusually early – many grapes were picked before the end of August – but fortunately budburst in spring was also early so the total growing season was long enough.) Some of this may well be due, not as usual to natural acidity retained as the grapes ripened but to the fact that at the end of this hot summer some of the grapes started to shrivel, so everything in them, including such acidity as remained, was concentrated. It will be interesting to monitor the effect of this as the wines age.
I hate generalising but offer two nuggets of advice. Take 2020 white burgundy very seriously. And it’s time to abandon any lingering prejudice against Pinot Noir grown outside Burgundy.
Some recommended Pinot Noir producers
A far-from-exhaustive list.
Au Bon Climat
Domaine de la Côte
Clos des Fous
Shaw + Smith
Enderle & Moll
Tasting notes in our tasting notes database. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.