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Burgundy, November 2023


There’s plenty to be happy about right now if you’re a Burgundy vigneron. The cellars are full of wine (fuller than I’ve ever seen them in 25 years of visiting), with barrels stacked two and even three high. There is an outstanding vintage (2022) maturing away and an abundant 2023 as well. Regarding the quality of the latter year, it’s a bit too early to call, but the quality appears at least solid and undoubtedly excellent at some addresses. However, it’s premature to say anything definitive. I give some vague indications below. But first, 2022.



The 2022 vintage


A surprise has been just how well the ’22s have turned out—outstanding in both colours—and, in particular, how fresh and racy the wines are, considering the vintage, generally summarised as “hot and dry”. Grower after grower expressed their delight. It’s a genuinely outstanding and very even vintage. It has a depth similar to ’15 combined with the juiciness of a vintage like ’17. That’s about as close as I can get to a meaningful guide, based on recent years, at least.


So why are the wines so balanced and fresh? Well, it’s much as we saw in the Loire Valley. Although statistically, it was a hot year, much of the extreme heat was during the summer months earlier in the growing season, and the temperatures were cooler later, throughout the critical ripening period. Perhaps more importantly, there was also enough rain—certainly more than in 2020. You might remember the news about that massive storm that smashed Gevrey in late June? Well, for most regions, that rain was far less dramatic. However, it was still significant and, along with other storms and showers, enough to keep the soils and vines happy.


This was quite a contrast to 2020, the most recent “hot and dry” vintage, where the drought conditions caused significant water stress and even resulted in the vines shutting down in places (very rare in Burgundy but an occurrence that was repeated even more acutely late in the 2023 season). The extreme drought conditions in 2020 resulted in smaller, less-juicy berries and a tendency towards over-maturity in the reds (it was, almost miraculously, a great year for whites). The story in 2022 was completely different, with the wines in both colours having first-rate brightness, freshness and digestibility. Nothing suggests “warm year” in the glass (even for the reds). The only clue is how open and drinkable the wines already are.





Another factor in the balance of the wines is surely that growers are learning how to deal with these ever-warmer and drier years, adjusting their practice in the vineyard (creating more shading, managing crop loads, leaving grass cover, etc.) and picking dates (earlier, more precise and more rapid, assuming they can get the pickers!) And, of course, there’s the work in the cellar. The way whites are pressed to preserve pH and to bring some grip has never had more emphasis, and solids are also being ‘played with’ more than ever. As for reds, careful extraction and use of whole bunches is more and more of a discussion, as acidification I is no longer (such) a dirty word. Some growers also wonder if the vines themselves are starting to adjust to the warmer conditions. This seems a stretch and, anyway, it’s impossible to verify.



The 2023 vintage

Regarding 2023, we tasted some good and some outstanding wines, although, for the most part, it was a tiny sample size, and it was obviously very early days. The one producer we tasted widely from this vintage was Guffens/Verget, and the wines are brilliant. Jean-Marie Guffens seems to be a genius at handling warmer, high-yielding vintages (as anyone who has tasted his 2018s would already know). But more of that later.


Returning to the general overview, let’s be clear that I am only tasting at top growers, which also skews any impression I might get from a given vintage. The truth is that 2023 is likely to be far less regular across the region than 2022 as the conditions were much, much trickier, with a cold, wet season, plenty of disease pressure, explosive yields and heavy, late rainfall in some zones bringing berry splitting, botrytis, etc, and then extreme heat leading up to harvest. Keeping yields down, getting the grapes in quickly, and strict sorting were all key to a quality outcome.




The late, savage heat and the difficulty getting enough pickers perhaps caused the biggest headaches. It’s clear that it will be much more “a year of the grower” than 2022. It may also be better for whites than reds, whereas, as mentioned, 2022 is terrific in both colours. We’ll see.


Either way, there will be plenty of wine. The significant yields were not at the levels we saw in Champagne or Chablis—short pruning and green harvesting (if necessary) are more widespread practices in the Côte d’Or. Nonetheless, it seems almost everyone in Burgundy made the appellation limits in 2023, something I’ve never heard of before. Typically, the best producers in Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards only make a fraction of the maximum permitted, as they prune short, have old vines, and there are always losses at flowering due to disease. But for reasons that no one can precisely explain (likely the vine compensating for the low-yielding vintages in 2019-2021), the vines exploded with fruit in 2023, forcing many vignerons, including those who prune short, to make a big green harvest.


Even DRC and Clos de Tart, owners of the Grand Crus vineyards that have the lowest legal limits (La Romanée Conti, La Tâche and Clos de Tart have maximum yields of 35hl/ha instead of the typical 42hl/ha) both asked for a derogation to allow them to harvest at higher levels in 2023. This request was 37 or 38hl, so still low, but nonetheless, this is a rare occurrence*. Anyway, when you consider that ’22 was also generous, the big crop of 2023 means that there is plenty of wine coming on stream in the next couple of years.


* Alessandro Noli told us that, in the end, they harvested just under 35hl/ha in the Clos de Tart. They had asked for the derogation just in case but ultimately did not need it.





The Market & Pricing


I usually visit Burgundy in the middle of the season, never in November, so I was surprised to find so many importers floating around. It seems to be the season when most traders visit, mainly because you have La Paulée de Meursault and the Hospices de Beaune wine auction happening. Anyway, we bumped into quite a few colleagues, and all the talk was about the trickier market conditions, the higher prices and how the market will respond.


The Burgundians themselves are also concerned—several growers discussed this openly. Of course, Burgundy growers are notorious worriers, famous for finding a dark cloud in any silver lining. But the concerns are real. The downturn in the global wine market and what this will mean with so much more wine coming online, at considerably higher prices, is worth pondering. But let’s not forget that ’19, ’20 and ’21 were very small harvests, and Burgundians understandably increased their prices in line with ballooning costs. Some were clearly, also, inspired by prices on the over-heated secondary market. We are about to find out if this was a mistake. My guess is that demand still well exceeds supply and any quality producer will be able to mitigate any demand slow-down by simply opening new markets—there are plenty of those on offer!


I do not want to be an apologist for the price growth we have seen, but I do think context is important. The truth is that for many years Burgundy has been under-priced (without the majority of wine buyers being aware of this fact). Without writing an essay, the simple reality has been that there was (and still is, in many cases) a significant gap between the stratospheric prices being paid for vineyard land in Burgundy, and the income that such land could/can generate. This gap is now being closed rapidly.


We should also take a look around us at the prices of the most famous wines from elsewhere, even in Australia, to give us some perspective. Many brilliant premier cru Burgundies are still far, far cheaper than Grange or Hill of Grace, (as are some grand cru wines from less sought-after names). This is even though these Burgundies are rarer, and come from land, and from viticultural practice (i.e., production costs), that are considerably more expensive. 




Lastly, we should acknowledge that there are still bargains to be had, especially if we look outside of the more famous appellations.  


Moving on... Having visited Europe for decades, it was typically the case that you would hear of certain markets booming and certain markets slowing down. You were constantly reminded that the world was a complex and diverse place. And yet, since Covid, it’s as though the world has got much smaller, with all markets seemingly having the same conditions. So it was that all the talk we heard was the same, no matter the market: high inflation, the rising cost of living, negative sentiment because of the wars, difficulty in finding staff, etc., all leading to downward pressure (though, again, not on the best Burgundies—everyone wanted more of those!) Regardless, the world currently seems to be operating as one big market, with every country experiencing the same problems.


Predicting the wine market has always been a fool’s errand, so let’s just see what happens. For now, demand for top Burgundy worldwide is still intense, which is as it should be – the wines have never been better. What I can say (with reasonable confidence) is that the prices at the best addresses will not go down ex-cellar. But at least they should not go up for the subsequent two releases.


At least we have the good news that there will be more wine and superb quality, in both colours, available from 2022.


Allez la Bourgogne!


—Robert Walters

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