By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 4 February 2023

In April 2021 dramatic images of Burgundy’s vineyards were beamed across the world showing thousands of candles burning between the vines through the night.  With temperatures dropping as low as (minus) -8 degrees C on 6, 7 and 8 April, it was the worst days of frost in living memory for vignerons who desperately tried to protect their precious vines.

Wine merchants are now offering the small quantity of wines made in this challenging vintage through ‘en primeur’ offers.  In a year that saw devastating April frosts, as well as June hail and summer rain, crop levels were extremely low with many wines made from the second generation of buds – but the white and red Burgundies that I have tasted so far have been surprisingly good quality.

White Burgundy lovers will be sad to hear that the worst hit were the early budding Chardonnay vines.  In some famous appellations like Meursault, yields were down 90%.  Pinot Noir was less affected as it is a later budder– so 2021 will be known as a ‘Pinot Noir vintage’.

Vines in the warmest sites – often the best sites of the Cote d’Or – had budded early, so many top vineyards were affected.  Cooler clay vineyards in parts of Pommard AC or lower lying Bourgogne AC vineyards went unscathed.

“The real problem in 2021 was that a warm March had encouraged early budding – so buds were young and tender when the frost struck”, explained Julian Campbell wine buyer for Justerini & Brooks.  “The last big frost in Burgundy was back in 2016, so vignerons were also unprepared”.

When frost strikes, vignerons have few protection devices.  Burning paraffin wax candles – or ‘bougies’ as they are known – are placed between vine rows, but at least 600 candles are needed per hectare.  This is both labour intensive and expensive as the candles need replacing every eight hours.

Sprinklers can also be effective spraying water onto vines which form ice around the bud to protect it; but this system needs to have already been installed and near a water source.  More affluent winemakers fly helicopters over vines to circulate air below – but in the black frost of 2021 no method was particularly effective against the column of cold air.

Now winemakers like Bruno Clair in Marsannay are considering investing in electric cables to run along the training wires so that they can heat vines during bad frosts, this method has been used by Chablis producers like Fevre since 2004.  In Chablis, frost protection is the norm so they are usually more prepared, although in 2021 Fevre still lost 75% of their crop.

“Tastewise 2021 shows a return to classically styled vintages with fresh vibrant Chardonnay and perfumed red fruited Pinot Noir – as the summer was not too hot so you get less of density and ripeness of recent vintages like 2018, 2019 and 2020”, says Campbell.  “The harvest starting on 20 September was late in comparison to recent warm vintages which have begun in August”, he says.

From the small selection of wines from this scarce vintage I tasted from Cote Chalonnaise, Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits, I thought 2021 seemed an approachable early drinking vintage.  Whites were taut and fresh, but not as good as the cracking 2020 vintage.  For the reds, I tasted very attractive fragrant 2021s including Beaune 1er Cru Greves (Genot Boulanger), Savigny les Beaune 1er Cru La Dominode (Bruno Clair) and Vosne Romanee (Jean Grivot).


£19 The Wine Society
This shows what a fabulous vintage 2020 was for Chardonnay in the Cote de Beaune – this is both fresh and floral with crystalline fruits alongside a rich honeyed depth of citric fruit on the palate.

Red: MERCUREY-SAZENAY 1ER CRU 2018 Genot Boulanger
£30 Justerini & Brooks
Guillaume Lavollee has such a light touch – his wines are beautifully soft and approachable – but very stylish.  Mercurey’s reds can often be more rustic and tannic, but this is a gentler style from Cote Chalonnaise.

£220 Justerini & Brooks
Star of the show at a recent dinner, this 1er Cru from Cote de Nuits’ top village is fragrant, floral with ripe sappy fleshy cherry fruits and plenty of mineral tension.

Red: POMMARD VIEILLES VIGNES 2017 Genot Boulanger
£52 Justerini & Brooks
Showing the softer side of Pommard, this charming soft silky Pinot Noir shows the winemaker’s light touch in this blend of three plots planted 90 yrs ago matured 12 months in 20% new oak.

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