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Vintage Report: Burgundy 2019 - Incomparable!

21 December 2020

Giles Burke-Gaffney

It has been a year like no other, for all of the wrong reasons, but if there was a bright spot in the gloom of 2020, it has been tasting the delicious 2019 Burgundies. We have an excellent vintage on our hands, even “great” for many domaines.

Travel restrictions and lockdowns have put up significant barriers to assessing this vintage, but the generosity of growers across Burgundy has ensured these were not insurmountable ones.  A huge thanks must go out to producers who adapted and took the trouble to send out samples fit for home tasting, particularly in a vintage as scarce as this one. Equally the likes of DHL, UPS and DPD are due a great deal of praise for not breaking a single bottle!  Inevitably some wines could not be tasted, however, so there will be some gaps in the notes below that I hope you will forgive. Zoom proved a blessing, affording me the chance to catch up with our producers face to face. 24 different video recordings of domaines’ thoughts on 2019 will be available soon on our website.

The 2019 Burgundy vintage was unique for many across the region; Etienne Grivot started making wine in 1982 and has never seen anything like 2019 in all of that time; Simon Rollin describes 2019 as “incomparable”; several producers consider it the vintage of their lives, such as Arnaud Mortet, Cecile Tremblay and Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, who terms it “amazing. One of the top vintages we have made.” Simon Follin in Aloxe is equally effusive, calling it “outstanding,” while Sauzet’s Benoit Riffault terms it “exceptional.”

So what is all the fuss about?  On the face of it 2019 was simply a hot, dry year that resulted in a small crop – the sort of vintage that could potentially produce rich and overly heavy Burgundies. Yet the wines do not bear this out – they are so far removed from other heatwave vintages such as 2003.  The reds are ripe, sensual yet elegant and don’t lack vibrancy, for the most part. Though it may seem curious that many domaines, such as Gouges and Grivot, refer to 2019s as “classic Burgundy,” tasting the wines you can see why. This is obviously a ripe vintage, but the wines have a healthy glow to them rather than a full-on sun tan. They largely mix dark fruits with reds fruits, are refined and show an elegance and terroir transparency unique to Burgundy.  As for the whites, they are every bit as reflective of terroir as the reds. Flavour profiles are stone fruits, mirabelles and citrus mixed with strong minerality and terroir character.  They are a yin yang of richness and energy; sun-kissed and intense without being overly unctuous.

How did this happen?  There are some key points to note about the vintage:

  • It was a small, concentrated crop. Sugars and acidities were concentrated in the small berries or “marbles” as some producers called them.  This started, in small part, with two bouts of early to mid-April frost. There was not the widespread damage of 2016 but pockets of St Aubin, Chassagne and Nuits were affected.  Rain during flowering meant coulure and millerandage, and of course the drought of the summer concentrated what few berries were left. 
  • Intense but short heat spikes. There were two limited heat waves of a week each at the end of June and July. Outside of this, though days were hot and sunny, temperatures were less extreme and nights were cooler.
  • High tartaric acid levels and low malic levels,meant wines kept a stable acidity even after the second fermentation. 
  • September harvest.  The protracted, later flowering meant harvest started relatively late (by modern standards).  Many producers, such as Frédéric Mugnier, consider this to be much better for Pinot Noir than grapes ripening  in August – the berries ripen in cooler sun and shorter days.  The earliest date for the white harvest was around the 6th September, stretching as late as the 16th in Pernand-Vergelesses. For the reds, harvest began around the 12th – 14th September in the Côte de Beaune and in the Côte de Nuits start dates spanned broadly between 9th and the 19th September!
  • Experience.  Adapting to conditions and knowledge of previous hot vintages has played a part.  Adapted canopy management and shading of bunches; attention to keeping moisture in the soils, be it through cover crops or timing of when and how to plough; being precise on harvest dates and picking very reactively; cooling the crop down before fermentation; gentle extractions, or “infusions” as producers like to call them; more judicious use of whole bunch techniques, where employed; attention to oak barrels -  size, toast and coopers; keeping more lees if healthy and necessary. All of these are major steps forward that have had a big impact on quality in Burgundy.

The crop is a small one, between 30-60% less than in 2018.  Frost, flowering and drought have all played their part.  Less talked about, but no less important a factor, is rootstock.  After the frost of 1985, new qualitative rootstocks were used to replant vineyards with.  They were chosen for the right qualitative reasons but, of course, unforeseen at the time was their propensity to struggle in drought.  Over the last few vintages vines have been dying or have needed to be uprooted and replanted with sturdier plants. This has had a significant impact on yields and will continue to do so for the next few years.  Be warned, quantities are small in 2019 and allocations are going to be tough!

In summary, 2019 is an extraordinary year with never before seen analyses. “We had pHs of 3.45, which is a beautiful pH for this kind of vintage” in Mathilde Grivot’s words.  Alcohol degrees are mid to high in both colours, ranging from a solid 13% up to 14.5%. In most cases this is well covered by high acidities.   Both reds and whites are intense and concentrated without being heavy. Structures are round and silky, acidities are fresh.  A most enjoyable, unexpected and unique vintage; a sunny but Burgundian one that offers depth and richness without heaviness.  The wines will charm young but have the balance and underlying structures to suggest great ageing potential.