An Early Look at the Excellent 2020 Vintage in Burgundy

The 2020 Burgundies, both reds and whites, are, in short, excellent, making it the the best vintage from that area since 2015.  It’s been over a decade—2010—since a vintage has excelled in both colors.  Offers for these 2020s as futures are just starting to appear.  Burgundy lovers should scrutinize them carefully and buy as much as they can afford because the quality of the wines is that high.  I find the whites fractionally more consistent than the reds.  That said, I found very few reds that were out of balance, over ripe, or had rough tannins.  There was far more consistency among the reds in 2020 than in 2019.  I base my assessment on visits to the area last September and November when I tasted wines from both small négociants, such as Benjamin Leroux, and large négociants, such as Maison Louis Jadot, growers, such as Pernot-Belicard, and grower-négociants, such as Méo-Camuzet.  The problem will be price, and, as always, availability.

Twenty twenty was one of the earliest vintages in history, with almost everyone starting to harvest in August.  An early harvest usually implies a hot growing season that brings grapes to full ripeness quickly and prematurely.  In this scenario, the very ripe grapes have lost acidity.  (As with all fruit, as grapes increase in sugar, they lose acidity.  That’s why ripe fruit tastes sweet and unripe fruit tastes sour.)  So, an early harvest should produce rich wines with low acidity.  But that was not what happened in 2020.  The grapes were ripe, but they also contained sufficient acidity, which means the wines are concentrated, yet still lively and vigorous.  Indeed, the 2020s have a distinctly different profile from those produced in 2018 or 2019, two other hot years.

Different people to whom I spoke had different explanations for this seeming paradox of ripe, yet lively wines.  Frédéric Barnier, the very insightful winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, felt that the early harvest was due to a warm and early spring rather than great heat during the growing season, as occurred in 2003, 2018, and 2019.  Adequate water reserves from the previous wet winter, combined with warm springtime weather, led to an early bud break.  At this point in the vines’ lifecycle, their energy goes into making tartaric and malic acid, rather than sugar, according to Barnier.  With this reasoning, the grapes accumulate plenty of acidity going into the remainder of the growing season.  Barnier noted that their 2019s often weighed in at 14 percent alcohol with good acidity, whereas their 2020s have excellent acidity and lower levels of alcohol.  He notes that the warmth—what he refers to as “a sunny vintage”—of 2019 produced muscular wines.  In contrast, though 2020 is an early vintage on paper, the wines don’t show it.

Whatever the explanation, Jadot hit the bullseye with their 2020s.  Though I do not review specific wines tasted from barrel samples (due to multiple factors preventing accurate extrapolation to the quality of finished wines), the array of 2020s that Jadot produced was impressive for their consistency, harmony, and freshness.  As readers will see below, I do comment on specific wines if the sample is drawn from a tank containing the final blend that is awaiting bottling.

Jasper Morris, MW, one of the world’s leading Burgundy experts, feels that hydric stress contributed to the otherwise hard-to-explain good level of acidity.  He posits that the vines were stressed by the lack of water during the summer and closed down, preventing sugars from rising too rapidly and acidity, especially tartaric, from falling.

Jean Nicolas Méo of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, says with a smile, “Yes, it’s surprising how the wines turned out.”  He agrees that the season started early and characterizes it as a warm, not a hot year.  He notes that there were only a few days of heat in early August, which were harmful because it reduced quantities, but helped concentrate the acidity.  The modest alcohols of his 2020s, from 12.7 percent to just over 14 percent, reflect the lack of over-ripeness that can plague an early and warm vintage.  They all showed incredible freshness and life.  Many of the barrel samples were simply dazzling.

Pierre Bart, of Domaine Bart in Marsannay, notes that the grapes had little malic acid but good tartaric acid at harvest, which has imparted energy to their wines.  When I tasted there in November, many of the wines had finished élevage, were resting in tanks, awaiting bottling.  Since they were finished wines and not just from a single barrel or a “representative” blend, I feel comfortable assessing them individually.  Bart is well known for a splendid array of wines from the lieux-dits of Marsannay.  Among those that stood out in 2020 were their Marsannay Finottes, Marsannay Montagne, Marsannay Le Echezeaux (En Chezots), Marsannay Les Grandes Vignes, and Marsannay Clos du Roy.  All should be on anyone’s list looking for relative bargains among the 2020s.

Tasting with Nicole Lamarche, who oversees the winemaking at Domaine François Lamarche, is always a delight because of the precision of her wines.  She notes with great satisfaction that the highest alcohol level of all her wines in 2020 was just 13.9 percent—and there was only one at that level.  Certainly not what you’d expect in a hot year.  She is pleased with the levels of tartaric acid and credits her success with an early harvest and “following the vineyards carefully.”  I left the tasting amazed at the beauty of her 2020s.  These were neither massive nor alcoholic.  All were fresh and finesse filled.  Her wines, like those at Domaine Bart, had finished élevage and were awaiting bottling, sometime in the spring.  Her Bourgogne Rouge was simply stunning for a wine of that pedigree and should be a terrific bargain.  All her wines from Vosne-Romanée, even at the village level, were spellbinding.  If I should win the lottery, I’m buying some of her 2020 Echezeaux, which came from three lieux-dits, Vignes Blanches, Clos Saint-Denis, and Les Champs Traversins, and weighed in at all of 13.6 percent alcohol.

“It was the first time I finished harvesting in August,” exclaims Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau, who heads the Meursault-based Domaine Michel Bouzereau.  He opened his notebook containing detailed notes regarding the weather: only two days above 35º C (95ºF) with temperature mostly between 25 to 30ºC (77 to 86º F).  Yes, it was hot, but not like 2019, according to him.  With a Gallic shrug, he sums up the paradox of the vintage succinctly, “[There are] many things that you cannot explain.”  His wines were delicate and elegant with a great presence and brilliant acidity.  Each transmitted its terroir, which is unusual with a hot vintage when the ripeness of the wines blurs the outline of the vineyard.  His lacy Bourgogne Côte d’Or and his three stunning village Meursault from the lieux-dits of Les Grands Charrons, Le Limousin, and Les Tessons, all awaiting bottling, hit far above their weight class.

I repeat what I’ve said about previous vintages of Pernot-Belicard’s wines: buy as much as you can afford, from his Bourgogne Côte d’Or up to his Meursault-Perrières Dessous.  From the tank samples he showed, it is clear that he made great 2020s, at every level.  Despite the mid-August harvest—it was his earliest harvest ever—the wines have enormous energy and are very precise, reflecting their origins perfectly.  There are no blurred borders at Pernot-Belicard.  He, like Bouzereau, can’t explain the paradox of the vintage.

Benjamin Leroux believes that the cooler nights differentiate the 2020 vintage from other warm ones.  He echoes what Barnier told me.  It was an early vintage because of the mild winter and lovely spring, not because of heatwaves.  The vines not being totally dormant during the winter led to early budding and an early harvest.  It was a warm, but not a hot, year.  He thinks the date of picking was tricky, and critical.  He believes the wines are concentrated with everything—flavor and acidity—and are built for long-term aging.  His stunning line-up of barrel samples was ample evidence of his assessment, “a concentrated vintage, yet the lieux-dits still speak clearly.”

Anne Parent describes the contrasting nature of Domaine Parent’s 2019s and 2020s.  She likes the 2019s for generosity and approachability, while the 2020s have more precision and finesse.  Her line-up of barrel samples of 2020 Pommards was extraordinary.  The combination of the power of Pommard with the finesse that she achieves put them in an other-worldly category.  Not to be overlooked, is her stellar 2020 white Corton.  I can’t wait to taste the finished wines because I suspect they will be sensational.

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January 26, 2022