As he considers the inflated prices of 2020 Burgundy, anticipating the shortfall created by the 2021 vintage, David Williams wonders if more wine producers might consider blending not only between regions, but harvests too
As I write this, the UK wine trade is in the middle of its annual celebration of the most influential wine region in the world. With numerous omicron-inspired cancellations, Burgundy 2020 en primeur season may not have been quite up to full strength in terms of physical tastings. But what might be called the Burgundian worldview has never been more powerfully dominant.
Burgundy, after all, is the home of the singular, the place that has done most to promote the idea that quality – or at the very least interest – in wine comes in the smallest possible discrete units of space and time.
It’s there that you find the most vivid example of the Google Earth-zoom view of vineyard hierarchy, the idea that, as you zero in on Europe-France-Bourgogne-Côte de Nuits-Vosne-Romanée-La Tâche, each step represents an exponential rise in quality and price.
Burgundy is also, of course, one of the homes of the single-varietal wine, the idea being that those infinitesimal changes in terroir are best displayed in wines made from one variety, whether that’s Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Most of the coverage I’ve read about 2020 Burgundy, as well as the few wines I’ve managed to taste myself, suggest that it’s a vintage in which Burgundy’s singular virtues were fully on display. Despite the hot, dry growing conditions, it was a year of fresh wines with high acidity, with whites being particularly, consistently good, but plenty to charm in the reds, too. Yet it was also a year in which the best sites stood out, when the grands crus really were that crucial bit more interesting, more vibrant, more focused than their village peers.
Curiously, however, while 2020 may be a classic Burgundy vintage, the en primeur campaign also prompted questions about the value of the last element of Burgundy’s singular vision: the single vintage.
As is clear from the early offers, the price of Burgundy 2020, and not just for the tiny production top wines of the region’s star producers and crus, is going to be high, even in the context of a region that has become a magnet for the world’s super rich.
The reason is simple enough: the frost-bitten, hail-battered, yield-shredding struggle that was 2021. With so many producers, at all levels, having a much-reduced (in some cases, disastrously so) crop, it’s clear that most have taken the decision to recoup the anticipated loss of funds from 2021 by adding a few digits to the price of their 2020s.
Of course, such is demand in Burgundy, this is a perfectly rational move, if not exactly welcome for impecunious Burgundy-lovers like me. But the stark juxtaposition of 2020’s graceful plenty with 2021’s miserly rations did make me wonder. Could – should? – the sharp swings in production from vintage to vintage that are already a feature of the climate crisis (and which are only likely to get more extreme) herald a shift away from the Burgundian obsession with the singular elsewhere in the word?
With so many producers having a much-reduced crop, it’s clear that most have taken the decision to recoup the anticipated loss from 2021 by adding a few digits to the price of their 2020s
It’s a question that many Europeans are asking as they count the cost of their empty tanks this winter. At times like this, the terroirism of Burgundy feels almost absurdly risky, or at least liable to offer a life of hair-raisingly stressful ups and downs – and the supposedly outdated classic model of another north eastern French wine region, Champagne, starts to look a whole lot more attractive.
That model can be summarised as a celebration of the multiple over the singular. Developed at a time when Champagne was still at the margins of viticulture, long before the line of marginality was shoved 300 miles north by the bludgeon of global warming, Champagne’s houses made a virtue of the blend from the necessity of dealing with an unreliable climate.
The insurance policy was partly viticultural: spreading the risk across grape varieties and sub-regions in the knowledge that some years are better for Pinot from the Aube, others for Chardonnay from the Côtes des Blancs. But it was, famously, also temporal: putting away a substantial part of that bountiful vintage for a rainy year.
Of course, the direction of travel in Champagne during the 21st century has been similar to that taken all over the world: away from the traditional blending model towards something much more Burgundian. So much of the excitement in the region has been in the rise of single growers, working with single vineyards and plots in single vintages.
But I’m not the only person wondering if we’re about to see a reversal of that trend. The wine world already has its examples of fine wines that mix up space and time. Last year alone saw the launch of two very high-profile examples: Louis Roederer’s solera-based, “multi-vintage” replacement for Brut Premier, Collection 242, and the latest of Penfolds’ blend of five vintages of Grange, g5.
As more and more producers come to terms with the realities of a new severity of vintage variation, I reckon we’ll start seeing a lot more of these celebrations of the multiple, and a steady shift away from the singular.