Burgundy 2021: If one thing is certain, you won’t be bored

The growing season was tough but the mood is upbeat. Adam Lechmere asks winemakers, buyers and experts what to expect from Burgundy 2021 and where it might be worth investing in the vintage

Words by Adam Lechmere

vines and Sorine Mill in Santenay, Burgundy
Santenay, one of the regions getting favourable reviews for the Burgundy 2021 vintage

What to make of a vintage like Burgundy 2021? The growing season was ghastly. In a nutshell, frost in April, hail in June, a cool, damp, sunless summer with rain at harvest, combined to decimate yields. Producers across the region were left with a fraction of their normal crop.

Domaine Génot Boulanger, which has 22ha across the Côte d’Or, lost 85 per cent of its grapes, owner Guillaume Lavollée says. They made no red Corton, nothing from certain vineyards like Meursault Meix-Chavaux, and the Chassagne-Montrachet Premiers Crus Les Chenevottes and Clos St Jean.

Edouard Labet owns Château de la Tour, which has just over five hectares of Pinot Noir in Clos de Vougeot, and Domaine Pierre Labet, which has holdings across the Côte de Beaune. He has made just five barrels of Chardonnay at the latter, he says.

Vincent Avenal, Domaine Chanson’s managing director, brought in 10-15 per cent compared to the average level; further south, Pierre de Benoist is the owner (with his uncle Aubert de Villaine) of Domaine de Villaine in the Côte Chalonnaise. His losses were ‘Seventy to one hundred per cent’ of the crop.

It’s a grim picture, so why is everyone so upbeat? Here’s Julian Campbell, senior buyer at Justerini & Brooks: ‘Yes it was challenging, and no winemaker is going to pretend that they want to go through it again, but the wines are really rather beautiful. They’re fresh, red-fruited, perfumed… they have a lot of the qualities that many people first fell in love with Burgundy for.’

vines in winter in pommard, burgundy
Pommard in winter: a difficult growing season for Burgundy 2021 included frost in April

Campbell’s not alone. His opposite number at Corney & Barrow, Guy Seddon, ‘came away beaming’ from some estates on his visit last month. There are any number of others who will talk in the most positive terms about 2021.

Burgundy 2021 is a vintage of charm and approachability

The common theme (and sceptics, don’t spill your tea just yet) is that this is a return to classicism. ‘There’s no post-climate change density and richness here,’ Seddon says. The reds are light, with typical alcohol levels of 12.5 to 13 per cent. They are luminously fresh. The whites have electric acidity but they are ‘crystalline’, as Campbell put it. It’s a vintage of charm and approachability.

Of course, they would say that. The results of an indifferent growing season are so often described as ‘classic’ that it’s become something of a joke. But climate chaos has changed the parameters. The last few ‘solar’ vintages (culminating in the blistering 2022) produced early-harvested, ripe, round, luscious wines. For winemakers, for lovers of the old style, 2021 comes almost as a relief.

‘It’s pure Burgundy DNA,’ Labet told me. ‘It hasn’t got the same ripeness or silkiness of a solar vintage but it’s pure, and fresh. I think it’s rather brilliant.’ Others are noting that it’s a ‘Bourguignon, not a Mediterranean’ vintage.

Delve deeper however, and you can find a bit of realism tempering the upbeat mood. ‘No one thinks this is the vintage of the century,’ Domaine Chanson’s Avenal says. ‘Yes, the reds are delicate and elegant, but I’d like them with a bit more flesh. I prefer the whites for their concentration.’ One person’s delicacy is another person’s lack of body, in other words.

The consensus is that 2021 is a vintage for early drinking

There’s also some debate about ageability. As with all poor growing seasons, it’s the bigger, wealthier producers – those who can afford to run optic sorters to reduce the yield still further – who have produced wines which will last decades; but the consensus is that 2021 is a vintage for early drinking, especially at the village and premier cru level.

The mood is also tempered by the hard, cold fact that there is practically no wine to sell. At the big London importer Mentzendorff, the quantities they’ve been allocated are almost comically small: of the Domaine Chanson Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières, for example, they have six bottles to sell (compared to their normal allowance of five cases). ‘So we’re simply not offering that at all,’ sales director Justin Liddle said. It’s especially hard for people who haven’t bought Burgundy en primeur before, as merchants allocate wines first to existing customers. ‘I’m afraid it’s not really a vintage for newcomers,’ he added.

At the top end, this is above all a vintage for Burgundy veterans – the enthusiasts who understand the region village by village. Big, fruit-forward wines can mask the terroir, whereas when the vine struggles toward ripeness, the land expresses itself. ‘This is a great vintage to really get into the intricacies of terroir,’ says Seddon.

red grapes in frost in pommard, burgundy
Does the Burgundy 2021 vintage favour the reds or the whites? Some critics suggest that red grapes fared better in the frost

If you can get hold of the wine, it’s not going to be cheap. Not only have producers got little wine to sell, but production costs – bottles, labels, boxes – have been correspondingly high. Avenal, Labet and Lavollée all said they would be charging fifteen to twenty per cent more for the 2021 compared to the 2020.

Don’t buy on label, look to the less-famous communes

It’s not all doom and gloom. You might not be able to get your allocations in the big-name, stellar communes, but regions like Pommard, Santenay, Marsannay, the Côte Chalonnaise, are getting favourable reviews. de Benoist is brimming with confidence about the quality of his Pinot Noir; indeed, he even claims that there was a danger of over-ripeness in some of the parcels. ‘It was a bit like California, where you had a small window of opportunity to pick before the grapes became over-ripe,’ he said, improbably. Such bullishness aside, the advice from the wine merchants is: don’t buy on label, look to the less-famous communes.

As to whether this is a vintage that favours reds or whites, that is a matter of opinion. The reds fared better in the frost, say some, and the wines are classically beautiful. It’s a white vintage, say others: the summer was more conducive to their ripening and they are concentrated and rich. What is certain is that Burgundy 2021 is a vintage of surpassing interest. As Avenal said, ‘Variation is the joy of Burgundy. You’ll never be bored.’