After Frost and Amid Supply Chain Issues, A Small but Mighty Harvest in Burgundy

Burgundy harvest workers in vineyard
The 2021 harvest at Domaine Bichot / Photo by Baptiste Beauvais and Domaine Albert Bichot

The 2021 Burgundy vintage will be remembered as a highly challenging year for winegrowers and producers, with ramifications that will ripple from wine trade to consumers.

Historically low yields in 2021 were triggered by catastrophic spring frost and compounded by a cold, wet growing season. According to the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), up to 30–50% of Burgundy’s yield was lost regionwide in 2021. White grape varieties from the Côte de Beaune were hit especially hard, suffering an 80% loss of yield.

Grapes and barrel in Burgundy harvest
Chambolle Musigny les Amoureuses (left) and barrel of Nuit Bodots (right) / Photos via Maison Louis Jadot

Despite severe losses in production volume, many winemakers remain optimistic about the quality of wines they will produce. Combined with surging global demand for Burgundy wines, challenges posed by the lingering pandemic, labor shortages and universal supply chain and shipping issues are likely to increase prices and present supply shortages.

“Very clearly… this has been a really difficult year,” says Brice de La Morandière, the managing director of Domaine Leflaive, a family-operated winery in Puligny-Montrachet. “It feels like a return to the bad old days of the ‘70s, with really cold weather, lots of humidity and lots of pressure from disease [in the vineyard].”

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Climate at the Crux 

Struggles for the 2021 vintage began with a catastrophic black frost on April 5, 2021, followed by episodes of sub-zero temperatures, frost and snow throughout France. Hitting vines just as delicate buds opened, entire crops were eradicated overnight. 

“It looked like the end of the world,” says Marc Jessiaume, a co-owner of his son’s namesake winemaker-negociant operation, Jean-Baptiste Jessiaume. The vineyards were “frozen totally black,” he says. “It’s something my father and grandfather told me about, but I’d never seen this in all my life.” 

Spring frost has been a persistent challenge for winegrowers in Burgundy, but, in recent decades, combined with warming climates, its impact on yields has magnified, say winegrowers.

Frédéric Barnier is the technical director at Maison Louis Jadot, the grower-négociant that operates throughout Burgundy. He believes that increasingly warm winters accelerate the growth cycle of grape vines, coaxing buds and young shoots to open prematurely only to be wiped out by spring frost. In 2021, Jessiaume says, varieties like Chardonnay and Aligoté were hard particularly hit because their vine cycles begin earlier than Pinot Noir. 

Rain and humidity throughout the growing season compounded spring casualties with increased disease pressure. 

“The end of June through the beginning of July was quite rainy,” says Matthieu Mangenot, the assistant technical director at Domaine Albert Bichot, the grower-négociant based in Beaune. This makes it difficult for winemakers to prevent diseases like downy or powdery mildew, “Most years, you have either downy mildew or powdery mildew, but rarely do you have a year with both,” he says. 

Winemakers sample bottles of wine in Burgundy
Guilllaume Marko and Philippe Pascal sample a previous vintage / Photo by Benoit Guenot

For many, the vintage was reminiscent of 2016, another vintage with historically low yields due to spring frost and high humidity. But producers like Mangenot suggest the widespread nature of frost in 2021 in Burgundy and much of France exceeds the damage of 2016. 

A Return to a More ‘Classic’ Vintage

Winegrowers say that 2021 marks a departure from the hot, dry growing seasons and richly concentrated, often robust wines of Burgundy’s previous three vintages. Instead, producers like Jessiaume suggest the wines of 2021 reflect a more “classic” vintage marked by lower alcohol and freshness attributed to balanced pH levels. 

Despite miniscule yields, many winegrowers are optimistic about the quality of the 2021 wines. 

“I’m not going to tell you this is going to be the greatest vintage of the century,” says Philippe Pascal, owner of Cellier aux Moines, his family’s winery in Givry. “We made only a big fourth or a small third of what we make usually, but whatever we have has a nice balance… between phenolic maturity, sugar content and acidity.” 

La Morandière hesitates to proclaim the quality of his 2021 wines before they are finished. Based on early tastings, however, he’s optimistic that battles fought in the vineyard this year will be rewarded with a small quantity—“half of a typical vintage”—of “chiseled,” “precise wines” with marked “minerality” and “energy” that reflect Leflaive’s signature style.

Winery in Givry, Burgundy, France
The Cellier aux Moines in Givry, France / Photo by Benoit Guenot

A Second Vintage Amid the Pandemic

The 2021 vintage was Burgundy’s second in which harvest was conducted under strict Covid protocols. “[2020] was the first year with all the regulations,” says Mangenot, “so everything was a big challenge.”

By 2021, however, protocols for transporting and housing workers safely, the use of masks and hand washing stations, and maintaining social distance during meals had all become well-established practices, Mangenot says. Producers like Pascal cite high 2021 vaccination rates in France, far exceeding the U.S., U.K. or Germany, and European Union (E.U.) Covid certificates verifying that E.U. workers from outside of France were vaccinated, tested negative for Covid or recovered from Covid, as assets to the 2021 harvest.

Workers at Burgundy harvest empty grapes
Harvest workers at Domaine Bichot / Photo via Baptiste Beauvais and Domaine Albert Bichot

Burgundy, like many wine regions worldwide, has been plagued with labor shortages during harvest in recent years. “It is a big challenge that every year becomes more difficult,” says Jessiaume. 

In 2020, border closures due to the pandemic prevented many foreign harvest workers from entering France, further exacerbating the situation. However, with eased E.U. border crossings and greater comfort with Covid protocols, many producers like Jadot and Cellier aux Moines found the hiring situation in 2021 easier than in 2020. 

Navigating Supply and Demand in a Tense Global Market

Low 2021 yields compound an already tense global market for Burgundy wines. According to the BIVB, while the 2017 and 2018 vintages offered healthy yields, average yields in Burgundy have decreased by an average of 30% annually in the past decade.

Grapes at the 2021 Burgundy wine harvest
Freshly picked wine grapes at the 2021 harvest / Photo via Baptiste Beauvais and Domaine Albert Bichot

“Simply put, there’s just not enough supply of current Burgundy releases in the market,” says John Kapon, chairman of Acker, the New York-based wine retailer and global auction house. 

Because much of the 2021 vintage will not hit retail and restaurant outlets until 2023, consumers are unlikely to feel full the effects of a supply shortage until 2023 and 2024, says Rocco Lombardo, president of Wilson Daniels, the national marketing and import company that represents Domaine Leflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

From winegrowers and négociants in Burgundy, to their U.S. importers and distributors, allocations of wines are actively being held back throughout the supply chain to regulate future availability. 

“We started making adjustments with the releases of [the] 2019 [vintage],” says Lombardo, who notes that Wilson Daniels held back 20–25% of that allocation. “We’ll do so on the 2020s as well. This way, when we… release the 2021s in 2023… we’ll be able to complement it with a library release as well.”

Supply chain disruptions and shipping delays also impair the availability of Burgundy wines. In France, Jadot is “having supply chain issues getting [things like] corks, glass, labels and cartons,” says Kurt Eckert, national manager for the Kobrand Corporation, which imports Louis Jadot. In the United States, “we’re having the same issues… in terms of wine shipping,” Eckert says, with delays around four months. “It’s a disaster.” 

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Increasing costs along the supply chain will likely exert pressure on consumer prices. Serge Doré, owner of Serge Doré Selections, a wine importer and wholesaler in New York who represents Jessiaume, has faced at least a 20% increase in supplier pricing over the last year. In 2021, “shipping costs have also doubled between January 1 and September 1,” he says. 

Despite the pandemic and supply chain disruptions, exports for Burgundy wines continued to surge in 2021. Demand in the United States, typically Burgundy’s biggest export market, is increasing again following the suspension of Trump-era wine tariffs.

“Demand has been off the charts through the Covid period to the point where regardless of the vintage yield, producers just cannot keep up,” says Eckert. “That’s inevitably going to put pressure on prices.”

Advice to Consumers

As the scramble for Burgundy wines begins, experts suggest stocking up early and looking beyond collector favorites in favor of wines from lesser-known appellations and producers.

“If you are going after [appellations like] Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny or Nuits-Saint-Georges, that’s going to cost you an arm and a leg,” says Doré. Instead, he urges consumers seeking value to consider appellations in the Côte de Nuits like Marsannay or Fixin, or the southern reaches of the Côte de Beaune like Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses and Santenay.

Harvest workers and grapes at Louis Jadot harvest in Burgundy
Harvest workers (left) and grapes (right) at Louis Jadot harvest / Photos courtesy of Louis Jadot

At the opposite end of the scale, for consumers and trade buyers looking to source blue-chip Burgundy, “the auction market is the best source of fine and rare Burgundy in the world today,” says Kapon. Auction houses like Acker, Kapon suggests, “specialize in back vintages and private collections” that are not accessible in traditional retail markets.  

Published on January 26, 2022
Topics: Harvest