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Dance the Quickstep: Burgundy 2020

BY NEAL MARTIN | DECEMBER 17, 2021

Côte de Beaune: Aloxe, Ladoix & Pernand | Beaune | Chassagne-Montrachet | Maranges, Monthelie & St-Aubin | Meursault | Pommard | Puligny-Montrachet | Volnay

Côte de Nuits: Chambolle | Gevrey-Chambertin | Morey-Saint-Denis | Nuits Saint-Georges | Vosne-Romanée

Warning: This is a long and detailed report to read at leisure and not necessarily all at once, unless you have time to fill (perhaps while interminably on hold with your wine merchant, waiting to confirm your Burgundy 2020 allocation). The Côte d’Or is at a critical turning point, with changes afoot both inside and beyond the vineyard that have long-term ramifications. Apart from this main introduction, readers can peruse individual Producer Profiles for further information. Before I get down to the nitty-gritty, however, what would my Burgundy report be without the usual preamble? 

Introduction

“Monsieur, votre passe, s’il vous plaît.”

God rifles through His robes, locates His iPhone and shows His Covid pass to the official.

“Non, monsieur. Your pass to enter the Côte d’Or.”

God apologizes and hands over the paperwork showing that the almighty Creator of life, the universe and everything is worthy of entering this hallowed wine region. Once waved through, it’s a short drive to the citadel of Beaune, where He tries to book a room at the Hôtel Dieu. It’s full.

“But I’m God,” He implores the receptionist, who shrugs her shoulders with Gallic indifference.

“Yeah. A lot of people say that around here.”

Having booked another room, not far from the favelas that surround Beaune’s urban center of empty second homes and private members’ clubs (currently embroiled in a bloody turf war), God decides to take the tourist train, pulled by a dozen enslaved Bordeaux winemakers. As the train passes the Rudolf Steiner statue made of yarrow and sheep poo, His attention is diverted by a ruckus outside one of the town’s numerous Michelin-starred restaurants.

“What’s going on?” asks God.

“The restaurant just put a two-year-old bottle of Musigny on the list,” replies a fellow tourist. “It’s a bit like ‘Squid Game.’ Customers kill each other until the survivor gets to order it.”

Wishing to get away from the melée, God drives into the vineyards. The RN74 is bumper-to-bumper Porsches and Mercedes 4x4s with blacked-out windows, neon-lit road signs inviting tourists to look at the vineyard of “Nouveau Richebourg” – €500 for a 10-second peek; double for the Grand Crus up in the Hautes-Côtes, the only place where Pinot Noir can ripen without topping 16.0° alcohol. He spots what looks like Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers shimmering in the distance. In fact, they are Clos de Tart and Domaine des Lambrays in Money-Saint-Denis, in perpetual competition to out-glitz each other, so fixated on pimping out their wineries that both have forgotten pick the vines for 20 years.

God heads toward Gucci-Chambertin to meet Burgundy’s only winemaker. Nowadays, the entire process is automated. Last year, Cyberdyne Systems introduced the T1000 Auto-Vendangeur, equipped with 12 tweezers that precision-pick 100 berries per second. They simultaneously analyze ripeness and sugar levels, even stem lignification, so that only perfect berries get a sniff of a winery. Wineries are also fully automated, employing AI-controlled fermentation, maceration and aging in ceramic pods, and scanners that automatically rate the wines either 99 or 100 points, before delivery direct to customers via Amazon drones. God peers into the sky and spots a fleet of whirring machines delivering Montrachet (a monopole of Musk Corp.) to a drug cartel that recently diversified away from narcotics; Burgundy is now more lucrative and obliges less bloodshed. Such is the demand that nobody drinks the wines these days like those fools who guzzled fortunes away back in pre-Covid times. Nearly every bottle is held in a secret underground bunker, along with cryptocurrency and the lost ark, their values traded on stock markets or used to pay off the national debts of small equatorial countries. 

Finally, God reaches the winery and parks between two Ferraris. It’s just a metal warehouse: no windows, no noise, no people. Disappointingly, the winemaker is actually a hologram repeating phrases by rote. Canicule. Mineralité. Infusion. Terroir. It begins to wax lyrical about the 2050 Burgundy vintage and its speech gets faster and faster and louder and louder until God puts His hands over His ears and cries, “Noooo!”

He sits bolt upright in bed, wiping away a bead of sweat. 

“What a nightmare,” God says unto Himself. “The Côte d’Or in 2050. Thank goodness I woke up.” His iPhone pings. A message announces a recent auction sale of Musigny with more zeros than He can believe. He rubs His eyes to make sure. It was just dream. Wasn’t it?


Blue skies over Beaune Cents-Vignes, just prior to picking at Seguin-Manuel. Thanks to Thibaut Marion for this photo.

The Growing Season

The headline is simple: 2020 is the earliest harvest ever!!! (Check out those triple exclamation points.) Jean-Michel Chartron was snipping bunches in his anomalous Puligny-Montrachet Clos du Cailleret Rouge on August 14, while some early birds were out two days earlier. It’s true that in most cases, the harvest was even earlier than the notorious 2003 season, but what does that mean for the quality of wines? For that, we need to look at the details of the whole 12 months.

The 2019 growing season was warm and sunny with stretches of dryness (see last year’s report for details). Fortunately, 106mm of precipitation recorded at the Beaune weather station in October meant that subterranean reserves could start refilling. The first three months of 2020 brought just 27mm of rain in January – even less than the following August – while February and March were wetter, with 71mm and 60mm, respectively. Without that crucial precipitation, hydric stress and blocked growth cycles would have been more acute. 

The first two months of 2020 were also unseasonably warm, with average temperatures of 4.0°C and 7.9°C. As a consequence, despite a slightly cooler March than usual, bud break was extremely early. The first green shoots of Chardonnay were spotted around March 18, and Pinot Noir five days later. (Compare this to 2019, when those dates were April 2 and April 11, respectively.) This is another important factor. Given the early harvest, one might presume a shorter growth cycle than the prescribed 100 days between flowering and picking, rather than the same duration shifted back by around three weeks. April was 3.5°C warmer than usual, setting the tone for the rest of the growing season. Thankfully, it meant that winemakers had no need to set fire to bales of hay in order to protect their vines from frost (not that this is permitted since the once-fragrant residents of Chagny began to smell of burnt hay). However, the conditions did lead to some coulure.   

The landscape burst into green and the quick tempo motivated wary vineyard managers to preemptively de-bud vines and/or remove shoots to regulate yields and retard the vegetative cycle. Guillaume Levollée in Meursault reported up to a meter of growth within a week. The vines had their skates on. Warm temperatures from May 14 prompted an early and, it turned out, fairly regular flowering, despite a small dip in temperatures on May 23 and 24. (Again, compared to 2019, when flowering was June 12–14, this was already almost a month ahead of schedule.)

In terms of rain, there was 23mm in April and then a crucial 66mm in May, followed by an above-average 60mm in June. Then the tap was turned off. July saw hardly a drop of rain, with just 7mm recorded at the Beaune weather station, followed by a below-average 41mm in August. Yet, critically, the season was not marked by the heat waves witnessed in 2003. In fact, average temperatures were 18.1°C and 22.0°C in June and July, compared to 20.0°C and 22.6°C the previous year. On the afternoon of August 1, there was a localized hailstorm in Nuits-Saint-Georges that cut a swath through Les Perrières, Roncière and Les Pruliers, to name but three vineyards. Denis Chevillon lost half his crop in the worst-affected parcels. This was followed by a heat wave that raised the month’s average temperatures to 22.1°C (compared to 20.8°C in 2019). Boris Champy reported that the mercury reached 39.0°C on August 4. At this point, some of the vines showed symptoms of stress, particularly fledglings with smaller spatial root systems and those located on inclines more exposed to the sun. Perversely, this handicapped the notionally superior Premier and Grand Crus, a factor that jumbled up the quality hierarchy. Leaves began browning and falling off, some vines discarding bunches. There was less of a problem with grillure or burned berries vis-à-vis 2018 and 2019, the dry conditions leading to high levels of evaporation that simultaneously concentrated juice and acidity.

This is the phenomenon that explains 2020 more than any other. Normally, an increase in sugar level decreases acidity. The heat combined with dryness, intensified by the often overlooked factor of a steady northerly breeze from the end of July, burned away the malic acid, and levels ended up very low. However, the berries retained normal levels of tartaric acid, which tends to decrease less rapidly during the ripening process –ergo the low pH levels and unexpected freshness. Evidence of vines adapting to the “new normal” of warmer and drier summers brought relief to winemakers who feared a return to the low-acid wines of 2003. Perhaps one factor is that more winemakers are trellising their vines higher off the ground, which makes a particular difference on soils strewn with white detritus that reflects heat back up onto the vines. Frédéric Barnier at Louis Jadot attributed the higher tartaric levels to the vines’ reaction to the prior year’s warm summer.

Of course, another bonus of the dryness was that sanitary conditions were very good; there was negligible rot and only localized outbreaks of oidium. So vineyard managers had no need to apply as many treatments as in a wet year. (As it transpired, all that rain and rot was being saved for 2021.) There was a brief shower on Friday, August 21, and a sprinkling on the Sunday, followed by a further small dousing the following weekend. Some told me that this revitalized the vines, though frankly, it was too close to picking to have a tangible effect on the bunches, since moisture takes a few days to be absorbed through the root system. One negative aspect of arid seasons like 2020 is the long-term implications for vine degeneration, specifically 161-49 rootstock planted around 10 to 25 years ago (see last year’s report). One winemaker informed me that he lost 5% of his vines in a major vineyard last year. Will the drought-like conditions accelerate this serious problem? We’ll have to wait and see.

Finally, one extraneous factor distinguishes 2020 from every preceding vintage. The pandemic meant that Burgundy winemakers were left alone to do their tasks. No importers negotiating allocations, no tourists asking for a quick vertical, and best of all, no pesky journalists – at least not until October, when a few of us made it into France. Many winemakers told me that while they missed the social contact, without the doorbell ringing they were able to spend more time tending their vines and conduct the harvest and vinification without interruption. They took precautions during picking in terms of social distancing, though the incidence of Covid infection was low and did not disrupt the work.


The harvest team at Château de la Tour in Clos Vougeot during the 2020 vintage.

The Harvest

Winemakers often take their vacations in August. In 2020, when they returned in the middle of the month, many were surprised to find that the fast-forward button had been pressed. Sugar levels had romped ahead after the heat wave, and this, coupled with the early growth cycle, meant that unless they got a move on, fruit could be overripe by the end of the month. (Bear in mind that luminosity is more intense in August compared to September, notwithstanding greater daily sunlight hours.) Domaine de la Romanée-Conti offered figures that highlight this rapid sugar accumulation. In Richebourg, the old vines were around 11.7° potential alcohol on August 10 and 13.2° just 10 days later. Jacques Devauges at Domaine des Lambrays just happened to pop in to “work” during his family vacation, and upon inspecting his vineyard, immediately summoned his picking team, telling them to cancel their plans and prepare to harvest three days later. “There are vintages where the vigneron chooses the date to pick,” Domaine de Montille’s head winemaker Brian Sieve opined, “but in 2020 and 2021, it was determined by Nature.” This (again) invites comparisons to 2003; however, the fundamental difference is that whereas that early harvest was forced by the heat, in 2020 it was forced by the dryness combined with a short burst of heat and the prevailing northerly breeze.

Some winemakers in the Côte de Beaune headed into the vineyards from August 17 or 18. Those in the Côte de Nuits, harvesting predominantly reds, of course, usually begin a little later, though examining the dates gleaned from winemakers themselves, it was virtually concurrent. One quirk of 2020 is that the logical sequence of picking was turned on its head. Because Pinot Noir is thin-skinned and more sensitive to heat, many producers like Antoine Jobard, Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet and Genot-Boulanger opted to pick it before Chardonnay or, alternatively, prioritize Pinot Noir in warmer microclimates and then tackle the Chardonnay and finish with Pinot Noir in cooler microclimates. Of course, this depends on being able to marshal harvesters in the right places at the right times, which is sometimes easier said than done. In this respect, one advantage of the earlier harvest is that the student population is available to work before they return to their places of study. Many winemakers spoke about conducting the harvest as efficiently and quickly as possible in order to avoid over-maturity. Time was of the essence.

As usual, harvest dates vary between winemakers within the same appellation, and in 2020, perhaps more than any other vintage in recent years, they govern the style of the wines. Of course, winemakers’ philosophy toward alcohol/ripeness influences decisions. Are you aiming for phenolic ripeness at all costs and prepared to accept high alcohol? Or do you believe that above, say, 14.5° alcohol, Pinot Noir is compromised, as some assert? To quote Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in their annual summary: “Never mind if the phenolic maturity is not reached at 100%. We didn’t want to run the risk of having overripe grapes with specific tastes of prune or Port wine.” In this report, you will find a plethora of information apropos of harvest dates and corresponding alcohol levels. Let’s examine Vosne-Romanée:

Domaine Méo-Camuzet: August 23 – 12.7° to 14.3°

Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg: August 24 – 13.6° to 14.0°

Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair: August 24 – 12.5° to 14.0°

Domaine Jean Tardy: August 28 – 13.2° to 13.4°

Domaine Georges Noëllat: September 2 – maximum 13.9°

Domaine Jean Grivot: September 3 – 13.0° to 13.8°

Domaine Emmanuel Rouget: September 3 – 14.0° to 16.0°

Domaine Sylvain Cathiard: September 8 – 13.9° to 15.1° 

You can easily see the distribution of harvest dates and alcohol levels. Interestingly, Grivot and Rouget began on the same day and yet Grivot’s highest alcohol level is below Rouget’s lowest. Of course, this data is skewed by the composition of growers’ holdings and vineyard husbandry.

The perception of the 2020 reds is complicated by the concentration of acid levels (particularly tartaric, as previously mentioned). Many winemakers were pleasantly surprised by the pH levels. Referring back to the above list, Sébastien Cathiard recorded a range between 3.3 and 3.47. Indeed, many others reported pH levels between 3.3 and 3.4 and claimed that no acidification was necessary, though one quipped that any winemaker claiming not to have acidified was lying. For the whites, many saw pH levels of 3.10 to 3.25. I have no doubt that more winemakers adjusted their wines than admitted to doing so, but on the other hand, I detected few instances where acidification seemed blatantly obvious. 


A bit of pigeage à pied at Château de la Tour. To confirm, these are the legs of proprietor Edouard Labet.

The Winemaking

Many winemakers were amazed to finish their harvest by the end of August. This meant that vineyard managers had to keep the bunches cool. Some used refrigerated units; some picked in the morning and finished by noon, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and many others. Some wanted to restrict picking to the morning but opted to harvest throughout the day so as not to prolong the harvest. At least the dryness meant the fruit was healthy and obliged little sorting, though Louis-Michel Liger-Belair was adamant that it was necessary and discarded an additional 10% of his crop to eradicate burned or shriveled berries. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti reported that sorting only eliminated 1.5%. Others claimed hardly anything was taken out except for random leaves or insects.

Low yields were another surprise in 2020. Many vineyards produced the expected volume of bunches; however, evaporation meant there was little juice. Pierrick Bouley mentioned a loss of 30% in his Volnay Champans. When it came to pressing, many winemakers were taken aback by how little juice poured out. Given the high skin-to-juice ratio, they did not want to press too hard, so small vertical presses were preferred, since they are more gentle and, to use François Orise’s term, enable more precision. Christophe Perrot-Minot described how in 2020 he required between 360kg and 380kg of fruit to fill a barrel, compared to 330kg in a normal year. (If you want to see that figure for 2021, read his Producer Profile.) Consequently, many yields were between 20hl/ha and 30hl/ha, down to 15hl/ha in Nuits-Saint-Georges, which saw hail damage. The high skin-to-juice ratio also encouraged gentle maceration and less pigeage, if any at all, with some remontage. This was the “infusion” that winemakers like to name-drop.

Higher-than-normal alcohol levels pose their own problems during alcoholic fermentation. As Paul Zanetti at Comte Armand explained, some of the yeasts found it difficult to finish the fermentation, while Pierrick Bouley and Cyrielle Rousseau are just two who admitted that recalcitrant vats suffered stuck ferments; Rousseau was unable to barrel down until mid-November. Winemakers are loath to admit stuck fermentations, as if they were a mark of failure, though as long as you make sure that yeast has eaten all the sugar by the end, it should not compromise the final wine. It’s just a hurdle you have to jump over. I am certain that in 2020 there were many stuck fermentations and those who took their eye off the ball will have wines that risk microbial spoilage.

Whole bunch seems more de rigueur every year, though success varies between growers. Personally, I want to sense the presence of stems, but they should not obscure or distract from fruit or terroir expression in bottle. Gilbert Felettig, who used various percentages, enthused that he had never seen stems in such good condition. Sylvie Esmonin explained how whole bunches can be useful in liberating sugar so that it can be converted by the yeast and therefore assist with a smooth alcoholic fermentation, while Benjamin Leroux opined that they lend freshness. Some, like Domaine Simon Bize and Pascal Mugneret, did not de-stem at all, whereas others abided by Henri Jayer’s principle of de-stemming the entire crop, such as Grivot and, naturally, Méo-Camuzet. It’s not just a case of percentages – it’s also how you add the stems. At Fourrier, they de-stemmed and then added stems back into the vat in layers to make a millefeuille. Leroy’s practice of taking out the central stem has more converts despite being labor-intensive; the likes of Charles Lachaux and Arnaud Mortet have adopted this technique in recent vintages.

In terms of barrel maturation, as I have reported before, Burgundy winemakers such as Benjamin Leroux, Michel Mallard and Olivier Lamy tend to moderate the use of new oak far more than a decade ago, while also employing a greater number of larger vessels, 350- and 500-liter barrels, in order to reduce the influence of wood. There is also greater use of foudres, and I would not be surprised to see this increase in the future. Many winemakers continue to eschew racking during élevage, preferring to leave the wine resting on the lees, though there are some who are adopting a different policy. I could not taste either the Richebourg or the Romanée-Conti because the wines had just been racked. Malolactics were quite regular, although with low malic levels in the first place, it had much less effect on the maturing wines in terms of changes in acidity. There were just a few growers who mentioned that malo was strung out due to the cooler summer in 2021. Depending upon ambient temperatures, cellars are warmed to encourage malolactic, though Jean-Marc Vincent cooled his in order to combine that tartaric with the potassium and lower acidity.

Most but certainly not all winemakers advised that their reds will spend two winters in barrel. There are exceptions, of course, such as Domaine Duroché or Chavy-Chouet, but most 2020s will be bottled in spring 2022. Bottling, the final stage of the winemaking process, is crucial and can potentially ruin all the good work up to that point. The job is not to just contain the wine in glass, but to capture all its virtues so that they are enjoyed by the most important people… you. Some winemakers are dab hands at the practice, and others – well, the wines in bottle seem to lose the sparkle that showed out of barrel. In 2020, bottling is going to be more important than ever because that unexpected gift of freshness and tension is so necessary in counterbalancing the richness. Timing and handling will be vital, with the former often governed by the lunar calendar.


Sometimes you have to just stop and admire the view. This is looking up toward Meursault on a typical crisp autumn morning.

How the Wines Were Tasted

Practically all of these wines were tasted during visits to domaines between mid-October and the end of November 2021, the exceptions being Duroché, François Legros and Changarnier, which were all tasted in September, while Jean-Claude Boisset, Chanson and Edouard Delaunay were tasted in London upon my return. Readers should note that this is only Part One. I will be back in Burgundy the first week of January 2022, subject to any travel restrictions, to visit producers mainly in Gevrey-Chambertin, Fixin and Marsannay.

In Burgundy, it doesn’t matter how many visits you undertake – there’s always one missing. So how do you choose? The producers in this report are a mixture of those I have visited for many years and a smattering of new names to keep things fresh. Some producers were picky and made it challenging to set a date and time. Others sacrificed their weekends or national holidays, and I am grateful to them for being so accommodating. I have endeavored to provide a mixture of small and large producers, stalwarts and newbies. While it’s fun to include “hot” new growers, this sometimes comes at the cost of omitting less fashionable producers with a track record. What I will say is this: I barely took a break during my stay in Burgundy.

A handful of growers now decline to show their wines in barrel. These include Charles Lachaux (Arnoux-Lachaux), Olivier Lamy and, though the visit was postponed until January, Thomas Bouley. Personally, I don’t mind tasting the recently bottled vintage as long as it coincides with a later release, so that subscribers benefit from timely reviews and background information.

Readers will also find two additional pieces of information in this report. 

Firstly, I asked every grower what closures they used for the vintage under review. Where a wine is bottled under alternative closures (nearly all Diam), this is mentioned in the tasting note. No mention of closure means that it is under natural cork. I will not enter the complex debate regarding closures and their implications here, because it is not black and white. For example, many Burgundy producers willingly pay a premium for high-quality natural corks that are analyzed for detectable levels of TCA, known as “ND Tech” or sometimes referred to as “Trescases,” after the company that conducts the analyses. {Take a look at the cork next time you open a bottle.) Producers using Diam were fewer than I presupposed, the decisions made by the likes of Domaine Leflaive and Domaine des Comtes Lafon having failed to light the touch paper. I believe that merchants should provide closure information, and I was disappointed to see how few of them do so. Secondly, another cause célèbre: alcohol levels. I asked every grower about their range of alcohol levels, a simple question that elicited both accurate and, occasionally, rather nonplussed answers. You will find this information in relevant Producer Profiles, sometimes with specific analytical figures when I felt the alcohol seemed quite prominent.  

The Wines

The more expensive wine becomes, the more objectivity comes under pressure. When a case of fermented grape juice costs the equivalent of a family’s annual disposable income, then the notion of infallibility is one that cannot be entertained, by consumers or by winemakers. It’s easy to lose a sense of reality when your wine foments insatiable demand, not least if you’re a vigneron who has only ever known Burgundy as genre of wine that elicits quasi-religious fervor. My job is to take a step back and not become entangled in winemakers’ understandable and welcome emotional attachment to the growing season, and to praise and criticize where appropriate, irrespective of vineyard or winemaker reputation, and reflect how I feel about these mainly unfinished wines vis-à-vis others tasted from barrel over the years, whether it is 1999, 2005 or 2019, or anything in between. Wines are living entities, and these are prenatal snapshots taken directly from barrel or assembled as estimations of the final blend, not definitive, immutable judgments.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, there is much to admire about the 2020s. The whites and reds are imbued with remarkable freshness given the precocity of the season, thereby making comparisons with 2003 null and void. I believe this is partly due to tartaric acid tending to have more sharpness, more “bite,” than malic. The 2020s appear to have more tension than the 2018s and perhaps also the 2019s, and as I have already described, the challenge will be capturing this in bottle. Chardonnay, in particular, seems to be adapting incredibly well to the warmer environment, and many of the 2020 whites’ low pH levels deftly counterbalance richness or tropical notes that would have otherwise defined them to a far greater extent. The whites do not exude richness; rather, there is plenty of dry extract that lends weight and attractive textural sensations on their finishes. One of the great attributes of the vintage is that at least in barrel, the best whites almost shimmer with mineralité, especially those grown on more calcareous soils.


Jérôme Fornerot, a name to watch out for in Saint-Aubin, especially once his new winery becomes fully operational.

One feature of the white 2020s is that one appellation does not seem elevated above another. Quality is dispersed not just across the banner appellations of Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault (plus Saint-Aubin, surely now among their ranks) but also down south in Marsannay, Santenay and further north in Beaune, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Ladoix and Corton/Corton-Charlemagne. I point toward the  Marsannay whites that potentially offer affordable and delicious alternatives to more famous vineyards, so check out growers such as Bachelet-Monnot, Elodie Roy or Jean-Marc Vincent, to name but three. The finest whites come replete with nuanced tropical aromas and traits of yellow plum and apricot blossom, often complemented by honeysuckle notes that can combine beautifully with stone, wet pavement or petrichor aromas. What I particularly liked was the aromatic delineation that comes through on the best Chardonnays, and their uninhibited evocation of place. You would presume that  early picking had erased some of the terroir expression, but I was surprised how the wines translate their birthplaces down to the smallest grid reference. This is partly attributable to the relatively high yields, often 50 to 55hl/ha, which in a sense diluted what might have been excessive concentration.

With regard to the reds, the yields are much lower, sometimes half those of the whites. I found plenty of very attractive aromatics. I sought Pinot Noirs that managed to remain in the red fruit spectrum. I do not mind if they commingle with black or blue fruit, but when Burgundy has black fruit stamped all over its bouquet, it tends to lose elegance, transparency and that giddy sense of Pinoté. Winemakers had to somehow put a leash on the concentrated aromatic profiles and lead them away from dense and heady, confit-like traits. That’s not to say these aromas are unattractive, but I interpret them as the growing season getting the upper hand and dictating the wine over terroir expression and typicité. It is difficult to define the archetypal Pinot characteristics in 2020. Apart from fruit, many 2020 reds share the floral perfumes of their 2019 counterparts, perhaps more pressed violet and iris than rose petal being indicative of a warmer season.  

On the palate, the 2020 vintage generally displays quite fine tannins, an impressive feat considering the high skin-to-juice ratio, and this is surely a result of gentler pressings. Back in the 1990s, I can imagine some winemakers going hell-for-leather toward the dense, concentrated wines that were then in vogue. But this is a growing season where the “less is more” approach clearly paid dividends. The best 2020s have intensity rather than power, often manifesting sorbet-like traits and frequently a tang of blood orange.

As I have already mentioned, the reds contain a surprising amount of acidity, which meant that tasting dozens of barrel samples each day was never taxing. This acidity lends the 2020s a sense of brightness, creating Pinot Noir that you might describe as vivid. Again, this is a trait that must be translated into bottle; mishandling the wines at this last stage of the process could neuter this attribute. And although alcohol levels are higher than average, generally speaking they were kept under control, with less volatility than might have been expected in the past. Essentially, if you seek red Burgundy under 13.5°, there is still plenty to choose from.

So far, I have painted an idyllic landscape. However, 2020 is not a picture-postcard vintage devoid of negatives.


Marc-Olivier Buffet, one of a growing number of quality-driven Volnay-based growers.

From the outset, I speculated whether the early picking would preclude the fruit from achieving the same level of complexity engendered by a standard 100-day hang time. Let’s say flowering was on May 24 and you picked on August 24. That’s 92 days. Nature was a freight train pushing ripeness along, forcing pickers into the vineyard to obviate overripeness instead of choosing the optimal day at leisure. Is there a cost to this? Sometimes, I felt that the wine paid a price in terms of delineation and perhaps also complexity. Two-thirds of the way through my time in Burgundy, I noticed how few wines had obliged superlatives and attendant big scores. I’m not going to dish those out just to make headlines or please others. That said, during my final week, I did finally encounter spellbinding, ethereal wines that set the pulse racing. I would just urge a bit of caution. Ignore proclamations of a dead-cert legendary vintage; let’s be patient and see if it can indeed achieve the show-stopping complexity that might place it among the greats.

With Nature tapping its stopwatch during harvest, it goes without saying that picking all your holdings at precisely the optimal moment poses logistical challenges. Therefore, even within producers’ portfolios that I greatly admired, there were sometimes one or two cuvées where I felt they just could not get the harvesters in on time. Perhaps the freshness of the vintage made these “dropped catches” more conspicuous.

Most of the growers decided to head out into the vineyard around August 20, but there are exceptions, as we have already seen. Did they get away with it? Well, it depends. Certainly, the likes of Grivot did. But elsewhere, I have to admit that the decision backfired. While both produced some brilliant wines, Emmanuel Rouget’s and Sébastien Cathiard’s 2020 portfolios were pockmarked with one or two cuvées that show prune-like characteristics, almost Port-like aromas. Maybe those will magically be assimilated by the time the wines are in bottle, but I think 2020 will be an unforgiving season that punishes those vineyards that picked too late. Indeed, this is a vintage where you have to tread carefully, and though I might put one or two noses out of joint, I have been honest when a sample set my alarm bells ringing, irrespective of level.

This brings me to another point. As I have written before, forget the notion that Grand Cru > Premier Cru > Village Cru > Regional. It is a framework for potential quality. But there is fluidity between ranks, so that Premier Crus can surpass their Grand Cru, Village Crus punch at Premier quality, and so on. Contrast, say, Pascal Mugneret’s Nuits Saint-Georges Le Richemone with his Echézeaux, to give just one example. As winemakers grapple with unprecedented growing seasons, the advantages of propitious terroir can become a handicap, and vice versa. This is why I will always taste cuvées on the lowest rung, your regional whites and reds, those Passetoutgrains and the Bourgogne Côte d’Or category that are becoming more popular, i.e., wine with fruit sourced exclusively from that titular region and not, for example, Beaujolais or Mâconnais.   


Proprietor François de Nicolay at Chandon des Briailles, whose wines often have a classic imprimatur.

In terms of appellations, I feel that Pommard is the one to look out for. Naturally more reserved and backward compared to its neighbor, Volnay, the warm dry weather played into Pommard’s hands. A few years ago, it was somewhat overlooked, often outshone by Volnay and lacking growers prepared to really push the possibilities of its Premier Crus. Now Pommard has the likes of David Rebourgeon of Domaine Rebourgeon-Mure and (though I still need to taste them) Xavier Horiot at Domaine Launay-Horiot, plus long-term residents like Anne Parent and Comte Armand, where Paul Zanetti is performing at a high level. There is also the construction of the luxury hotel and rejuvenation of the Clos de la Commaraine monopole, while in the hinterland you have the likes of Boris Champy and Alexandre Parigot. There is certainly a sense of forward momentum in Volnay; check out Pierrick Bouley (Domaine Réyane & Pascal Bouley), Frédéric Rossignol (Rossignol-Février) and Marc-Olivier Buffet (Domaine François Buffet) in addition to more familiar names such as d’Angerville, Lafarge and Voillot. Sometimes the sumptuousness of Volnay tipped toward over-maturity in 2020, and when tasting through portfolios that included cuvées from both Volnay and Pommard, I leaned toward the latter.

Two more appellations not to overlook are Beaune and Savigny-lès-Beaune. Beaune is the hidden gem in the Côte d’Or, too often discounted because of the impression that much is owned by large merchants such as Jadot, Bouchard or Drouhin, irrespective of the fact that all three are dab hands at making top wines. This is hands-down one of the most picturesque appellations, boasting serious Premier Crus such as Grèves, Les Teurons and Les Bressandes, to name but three. Winemakers like David Croix (Domaine des Croix) are realizing the potential of these vineyards, and the added bonus is that they are generally less expensive than more chichi appellations. Likewise, Savigny-lès-Beaune is a bit of a hotbed of talent at the moment, and I endeavored to cover as many growers as possible. Its cooler microclimate used to disadvantage its growers, but with global warming, its top vineyards have found an equilibrium, and like those in Beaune, they often represent great value.

In the Côte de Nuits, I found a lot of quality centered around Clos de Vougeot this year – for example, at Château de la Tour or Mugneret-Gibourg – while Gevrey-Chambertin looks very promising, even though I have more addresses to visit. You might have expected the dry season to advantage vineyards on more water-retentive clayey soils, though the natural acidity imparted by those on limestone bedrock evens things up. On reflection, while terroir naturally plays an important role across all the 2020 reds, the crucial decision on picking date seems to govern style and quality as much as or, at least at this early stage, even more than location.

Nuits Saint-Georges was perhaps just knocked a little off course by the localized hail damage in early August, and so it’s possibly a little more inconsistent in quality. But you ignore this appellation at your peril – just check out some brilliant 2020s from Domaine Patrice et Michèle Rion, where winemaker Maxime Rion has taken their Clos Saint-Marc monopole to dizzy heights.


Winemaker Cyrielle Rousseau with her beloved new puppy in the new cuverie at Domaine Armand Rousseau. Their Chambertin Clos-de-Bèze is one of the standout wines of 2020.

Shifting Sands

This year, I felt the tectonic plates of ownership shifting in Burgundy as domaines divided (Domaine Bernard Moreau split between brothers Alex and Benoît Moreau) or the next generation took their share of family holdings to establish domaines under their own names (Alvina Pernot in Puligny and Simon Colin in Chassagne).

During October and November, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair finally quashed the rumours about the future of Domaine Lamarche when he announced that their vineyards will be divided between Nicole Lamarche and her cousin Nathalie Lamarche, the latter under a 25-year fermage with Domaine Comte du Liger-Belair, adding some prized parcels to their already enviable diaspora. Their prized monopole of La Grande Rue and others will continue to be run by Nicole Lamarche, whom I hope to see in January 2022. Around the same time, Domaine des Lambrays, owned by fashion house LVMH, announced that they had acquired Nuits Saint-Georges Le Richemone (0.89 hectares), Les Murgers (0.18 hectares), Les Cras (0.08 hectares) and Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts (0.45-hectares), not to mention 0.52 hectares in Ruchottes-Chambertin currently under métayage to Frédéric Esmonin, Domaine des Lambrays vinifying their own part from next year. Just as significant is Charles van Canneyt’s acquisition of Domaine des Chezeaux. The winemaker at Hudelot-Noëllat will take ownership of 1.6 hectares of Griotte-Chambertin currently farmed by Domaine René Leclerc; 0.15 hectares of Chambertin, plus parcels in Griotte-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes presently farmed by Laurent Ponsot and Lavaux-Saint-Jacques; and parcels in Vosne-Romanée currently part of Domaine Berthaut-Gerbet. There are around four hectares in total, plus the winery next to Château de Gevrey.

All these announcements transpired in the few weeks of my stay in Burgundy, and they are only the ones I am permitted write about – merely the foothills of a redistribution of the most prized and valuable agricultural land in the world. Given the dwindling number of Premier and Grand Cru vineyards that could potentially come up for sale, expect those blank checks to keep being wafted under shareholders’ noses, not just the ones directly involved in the running of a domaine. (To this end, I had a couple of interesting private conversations with savvy owners who have planned ahead to avoid intra-familial disputes, though it is not easy and requires foresight.) These aforementioned transactions, and those to follow, have enormous implications for inheritance taxes, pricing the next generation of winemakers out of the Côte d’Or. “I don’t like the way Burgundy is heading,” rued one famous winemaker privately. “But there is nothing I can do.” You’ll still find winemakers with calloused hands and dirt under their fingernails; you’ll just find more of them driving fancy cars.

The fact is, the Côte d’Or is already a mishmash of ownership, fermages and métayages. You’d be surprised how many well-known cuvées made by revered winemakers come from vineyards owned by outside investors. How can you lose in the present feverish economic environment? Land will inevitably skyrocket in value. Just attach a celebrated winemaker who’s as eager as anyone to articulate their talents in a few more rows of vines, take your annual allocation of bottles, and leave importers to fight over the rest. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But it can grow on vines if they’re planted in the right postcode.


Charles van Canneyt’s acquisition of Domaine des Chezeaux will see him farm some of the Côte d’Or’s most desirable vineyards.

The Market

Without wishing to sound like the same old record, the price escalation of Burgundy, which increases exponentially with producer/vineyard renown, has no end in sight. Demand outstrips supply by ever-larger amounts as an already limited supply is squeezed by low-yielding growing seasons. Now we must factor in the 2021 growing season, another tiny crop for the whites, which means that Burgundy lovers will double down on securing 2020s, while winemakers are incentivized to withhold their 2020s in order to supplement next year’s shortfall in volume and income.

What has traditionally differentiated Burgundy from Bordeaux is that to a large extent, the former was uncomfortable with the idea of high prices, sometimes even embarrassed by them, and less motivated by material wealth. That is changing in view of the sums that can be made, especially among younger winemakers, whose upbringing and expectations are different from those of their parents, who often struggled to get by year after year. The idea of wine as a brand is seeping into Burgundy – again, not least among the new generation of winemakers, who are more media-savvy and aware of how their wines are perceived. Consequently, prices must support that perception vis-à-vis their neighbors. They must be commensurate with desired standing, which can put tremendous pressure on someone with barely a vintage under their belt who is suddenly thrust into the limelight. All of this is inevitably fueling price rises, now and in the foreseeable future, particularly as more outsiders invest in the region and have a say in pricing policy.

Of course, there are other winemakers whose ex-cellar tariffs remain steady at a fraction of secondary market values. That is unfair, given that middlemen could potentially be profiting more than the winemaker. Who takes the risk? The winemaker at the mercy of Mother Nature, or the distributor who could sell some wines over and over? The cut of the pie taken at each level is something that is being negotiated as I write this report. One trend I’m sure we will see, as Catherine Petrie, head buyer at Lay & Wheeler confirmed, is that escalating prices are encouraging distributors to seek out new growers who can offer value for money. 

With that in mind, I have selected 12 wines that I hope will please both your palate and your bank balance:

White

2020 Domaine Rebourgeon-Mure Bourgogne Blanc “Cuvée Zeli”

2020 Domaine Chavy-Chouet Bourgogne Blanc Les Femelottes

2020 Domaine Jérôme Fornerot Saint-Aubin Village

2020 Alvina Pernot Saint-Romain Village

2020 Domaine Changarnier Monthélie Blanc

2020 Domaine Elodie Roy Maranges En Bulliet

Red

2020 Domaine Boris Champy Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Clous 377

2020 Marchand-Tawse Bourgogne Côte d’Or

2020 Domaine Patrice et Michèle Rion Bourgogne Rouge “Bon Baton”

2020 Domaine de la Folie Rully Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru

2020 Domaine Michel Mallard Aloxe-Corton La Toppe Au Vert

2020 Domaine Seguin-Manuel Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Lavières 1er Cru

Unsurprisingly, the bulk price of Burgundy wine has shot up in recent months. Several winemakers gave me indications of increases, one telling me that the price of a barrel of Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru had already risen by €3,000 since the 2021 harvest. “The whole thing is going to blow up before anyone listens,” said another exasperated vigneron. This has major implications for négociants with portfolios based around contracted growers who simply don’t have much must or wine to sell (although one must remember that the major historical merchants are also considerable landowners). The pinch will be felt among the plethora of micro-négociants without track records, long-term relationships or deep pockets, not larger enterprises or those with wealthy backers. Younger winemakers who can ill afford to buy their own vineyards face being leveraged to the hilt or bowing out of a vintage and losing valuable income. It’s going to be tough for some who have worked hard to establish their name.

Given all of this, do not expect the cost of Burgundy to fall. Record prices were seen at this year’s Hospices de Beaune auction, and even as I was writing this, I got a message from a friend bemoaning the doubling of prices from one of the region’s “hot” producers. Burgundy seems immune to economic ups and downs. It has become the quintessential Giffen good. The more expensive it becomes, the more consumers crave ownership. The more consumers crave ownership, the more expensive it becomes. Repeat until… 


Christophe Roumier’s wines are highly sought after, though he is a winemaker motivated by a passion for his craft, and his ex-cellar tariffs are a fraction of the secondary market prices, as demonstrated when you find his bottles in local restaurants.

Final Thoughts

Who could have predicted 2020? No, not Covid, but a Burgundy growing season that rewrote the rules. Then again, when we examine the minutiae of the season – crucially, the absence of a prolonged heat wave, combined with the quick reaction of Burgundy winemakers and some canny decisions – we should not be surprised that so many 2020s deserve attention. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the most sought-after wines, but there is a simple remedy. Expand your purview. Look beyond the label. Venture into uncharted appellations and unfamiliar growers. Burgundy has a wealth of talent, and while stepping off the beaten trail might be risky, it can offer rich rewards. Over the course of 2022, I will be adding more producers to this list.

Global warming is changing the wines of the Côte d’Or, and yet the vines are resisting the effects witnessed in 2003, so that even in a precocious season like 2020, they retain desirable freshness, tension and alcohol levels that have not spun out of control. In this sense, 2020 allayed fears of permanent and irreversible alterations, of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir becoming untenable. The real and lasting change is the ownership of the Côte d’Or and the dwindling number of people fortunate enough to have access to its finest wines.

© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.


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