Burgundy in the time of Covid

Date: 26 February, 2021 / Author: Robin Kick MW / Tags: 2019 vintage, Burgundy, Robin Kick MW, Vineyard, buttage, covid, en primeurs, pruning

Pruned vines in Meursault

Robin Kick MW counts herself lucky to taste the 2019 Burgundy En Primeurs

For many, this past year has been a succession of what might be viewed as perpetual working ‘staycations’, peppered with travel bans and health risks. Living within driving distance of Burgundy has been a saving grace for me. In view of this region’s unusual lack of visitors and tasters, I have been one of the lucky few to be able to make their way to the Golden Slope, and I cannot feel more grateful.

Like many countries, France has imposed a series of lockdowns replete with ‘attestations’ (necessary forms when travelling outside one’s home), curfews, closed restaurants and shut down non-essential businesses. Towns are understandably emptier, with very few tourists. Even Burgundy’s renowned Hospices de Beaune sale, whose proceeds benefit the local hospital, had to be postponed for the first time in five decades (taking place in December, one month later than planned, with record results).

Despite the closures, it has been business as usual for many of the region’s producers. Some are visibly saddened by their lack of visitors during this uneasy time, while others have taken a ‘glass half full’ approach and decided to channel their energies into new projects or catching up with old ones. Vineyard work has not paused; there is as much to be done as ever and one can see that it has been all-hands-on-deck with the winter pruning and ‘buttage’ – earthing up around the vines to protect them from frost – during what has so far been a relatively mild winter.

Barrel tasting the 2019 En Primeurs during this forced Covid hibernation was, for those of us who could make it to Burgundy, an experience to remember. For the most part, producers welcomed us with an appreciative smile, peering out behind their masks. As one would now expect, distances were respected and individual spittoons were made available. A few producers, however, were more cautious, preferring to see virtually no one until the situation calms.

For me, the ‘show must go on’ attitude (with health protocols firmly in place) has been a welcome one, not least because many of the 2019 wines truly sing with freshness, luminosity, concentration and depth. Even more exciting is that overall, the terroir really shines through.

The 2019 growing conditions, however, would not have suggested such success. While not significantly different to that of 2018 – both were sunny vintages, hot and dry – winter and spring precipitation left 2018 with a high water table to draw from; this was not a benefit enjoyed by 2019. Both vintages are considered ‘hot’ years, but, if anything, 2019 was slightly milder, leaving many of the wines fresher, more sculpted and ‘digeste’ (not an easy word to translate but ‘melts easily on the tongue’ is a near explanation). This has led Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to suggest that the region’s vines might be adapting to the more challenging weather conditions; a view that is being echoed by a number of growers. One can only hope they are right.

Red wines from 2019 generally have a slight advantage over the whites, which are more heterogenous, but the best reflect the same characters: they are fresh, fruity, floral, mineral and balanced, with some underlying richness.

One down side, however, is that there will be far fewer wines to go round. Poor flowering combined with frost in April and May lowered the yields early on while the dry, hot summer weather caused water stress in the vines. A hot wind in mid-September further concentrated the Pinot Noir. All this resulted in small healthy bunches with small berries, little juice and thick skins. Yields were diminished by 20% in some areas, and as much as 70% in others compared to 2018. However, these berries also gave the wines notable concentration, freshness, flavour and texture. Henri Boillot commented: ‘In all my years, I have never seen such a balanced vintage.’

The 2019 burgundies are well-worth seeking out from your favourite producers. The charm of this vintage will dazzle, but the wines generally have the depth and concentration to age nicely in the years to come.

AUTHOR

Based in Lugano, Switzerland, Robin Kick is a freelance wine consultant and writer who spends most of her time tasting through Europe, paying particular attention to the wines of Burgundy, Italy and Switzerland. She passed the Master of Wine exam in 2014.