This was my 16th consecutive harvest in Burgundy – triaging the grapes of multiple villages. I believe that this, together with questioning the winemakers, is the best balance of first-hand and third-party input required to comment on the vintage:
All vintages that end with a 9 are great vintages – aren’t they?
I write these first words as we finish the harvest for 2019; it’s yet another special year, of rot-free, concentrated grapes. The yields are relatively modest. Largely, and depending on location, the low yields are down to three factors, or combinations of each; frost, poor weather at flowering and the dryness of the vintage.
Frederic Drouhin explained “In March, we had 25 degrees of heat and then two weeks later, minus two or more… The weather has never been so extreme.”
The vast majority* of the 2019 harvest was made in beautiful, sunny and dry, weather. From the Côte d’Or to Beaujolais those pickers who started at first light were presented with a perfect view of the sun rising behind Mont Blanc to the east – such visibility all the way to the Alps is said to be a sign of bad weather to come – but in this vintage, for most, that wasn’t the case.
*Rain arrived – and a lot – in the late afternoon of Sunday 22 September.
The 2019 Harvest
This was, mainly, a mid-September harvest, so almost 2 weeks later than the preceding two vintages, but only because of the cold weather experienced in April and May where many nights hovered around 0°C. February and March saw days in the 20°C’s with vineyard workers already sporting shorts and t-shirts, but April never exceeded 12°C! Only towards the end of May did the warmth return to the vines. As near as dammit, the last grapes were harvested in the last weekend of September when I spied a couple of troops of harvesters in the Beaujolais equivalent of the Hautes Côtes – high in the hills above Fleurie.
Given that April was a ‘lost month’ due to the cold weather, the 2019 harvest could easily have been finished in August – as was the case for many domaines in 2003 – as the average temperature of all the other months was rather high.
A few vintage pointers:
Whilst 2019 did bring some hail to southern Beaujolais, the three defining factors of 2019 are the frosts of April, the poor weather during an extended flowering period at the start of June and, finally, the dry heat of the summer.
The frost came in waves – some domaines lighting candles or burning straw on 10 separate occasions in April. New this year were the windmills – I saw a number in Meursault, and Cyprien Arlaud was the first in the Côte de Nuits to buy one – he professed satisfaction with his purchase, saying that for 6 nights he used the windmill together with candles in other locations in the Côte de Nuits. For practically everyone, the most damaging episode of frost was the first one at the beginning of the month; 05-06 April. Despite 95% of the buds not being open, and seemingly unaffected, many of them grew without flowers – but the chardonnay was the most impacted as it has the most precious bud-burst.
It was a much longer flowering period than the short perfection of 2018 – the first week had wind and rain, the second week was a little better. Like for bud-burst, the chardonnay vines also flower first, so they were again the most affected. Many of the flowers ‘aborted’ and produced no grapes – called coulure. The grapes that were produced were generally in very open clusters – which helped dissuade rot – but the grapes that were formed were a mix of normal-sized and the very tiny – or millerandes.
Hot and Dry
Exactly as in 2017 and 2018, the most overt pre-harvest problem for vigneron(ne)s was the heat and dryness of the late summer – indeed the practically drought conditions that, this year, had some of the lower leaves of young vines turning yellow. There were two heat spikes, but the first and main one produced record temperatures – on July 25 I saw 41.5°C in and around Beaune – the temperatures were 39°+ for about one week. This wall of heat was before grapes began their veraison, so will have had little to no effect, except from the perspective of further parching the soil to make life hard for young vines. There was a second spike to the heat in August and whilst it mercifully lasted only 3 days, peaking at 38°C, it probably retarded (blocked) ripening for almost 1 week – the rest of August was warm but not hot for a Burgundian summer – 30-35°C. By harvest time, there had been only about 60% of a normal year’s rain, most of which fell before the second week of June – but each village in Burgundy had a different story to tell versus its neighbours – the rain had been very localised.
So what did we end up with?
Not a lot – in terms of quantity. You can see directly that the Hospices de Beaune auctioned 589 pièces, or barrels, from their 2019 vintage, compared to 828 in 2018. We can see that generally, the whites are down over 30% and the reds by closer to 20% – the exact position, by village/region, won’t be available for a few months. It was clear that the summer dryness had limited the amount of juice in the grapes.
But what was harvested was in fine shape – some areas of whites needed a little triage for oïdium. The main focus for triage was removing the sunburned/roasted dry fruit – canopy management to avoid direct sun made significant differences in 2019. Certain lots of fruit were the most beautiful, almost clichéd, bunches of pinot fruit that I have ever seen. The average berry size was similar to that seen in 2010 – the smallest I’ve seen.
For the second vintage in a row – and the only 2 vintages since 2004 – for certain parcels, reflecting my triage of 2019 fruit, I don’t think I made a significant difference with triage in this vintage as there was minimal rot and practically no unripe bunches, only the dried berries from some parcels had to be removed.
The reds started to show their colour very quickly in the fermentation tanks – though slower than in 2018. What was clear was that for both colours the average (potential) alcohols were high – let’s be kind and say 13.5 to 14.5% – though legion were the anecdotes “my neighbour brought in his ‘xx’ at 16.5 natural!” What is also clear, is that there is significantly higher acidity than in 2018. Despite such high levels of sugar, the fermentations seemed easier than in 2018.
I’m looking forward to tasting these next year, and, of course, the same people with anecdotes about their neighbour’s harvests are also proclaiming 2019 to be another GREAT vintage ending in a 9! We will see in another year.