How tough was 2021 for northern France? Well, Burgundian grower, Raymond Dureuil, told Jancis Robinson last year that he’d never seen such a bad vintage – and he’s lived in the region for over 80 years.
The April frost last year that decimated young vines – particularly Chardonnay – has been well documented. But to have it followed up by summer hail and then torrential rain around vintage simply added insult to injury.
Worse, it came on the back of a string of depleted vintages for Burgundy. Only one year in the last seven – 2018 – has been above average, with three well below, and 2021 something of a catastrophe in terms of volume.
It’s a similar story in the Loire, where four of the last seven vintages have been 10-20% below the norm.
Put all this together, and it means that across northern France, wineries are in damage limitation mode. Allocations, particularly for white wines, are through the floor as growers attempt to eke out their depleted cellars.
And all the while they are praying there is no more frost. Chablis, in particular, seems to have been hit again this year – although not to the extent of 2021. Growers, importers and sommeliers all over the world are praying for a mild end to April. No-one can afford another short year.
The trade all knew the situation would be bad – and now we’re seeing how much. One Collective member told me that his supplier usually has 70,000 bottles of Burgundy to sell. This year they’ve got 17,000.
‘We have been seeing reduced allocations on the popular appellations such as Meursault and Puligny over the last two years, and it is likely to get worse when I come to discuss the availabilities for 2021 [vintage],’ warns Beverly Tabbron MW, Buyer and Quality Controller at Hallgarten Novum.
‘I’m allocating Chablis,’ says Gearoid Devaney MS of Flint Wines and former UK Sommelier of the Year. ‘It feels deeply wrong…’
At Douneside House in Deeside, James Payne says he is ‘currently basking in the delicious drinkability of 2020 white Burgundy and a few 2019s’. But the future looks uncertain for restaurants who don’t have big stocks or preferential status with suppliers.
‘I prepared myself as soon as I knew,’ says Andre Luis Martins of the Cavalry and Guards Club in London. ‘I’ve got stock reserved for my house white, which is a Macon, because I’ve been a customer for years.’
Martins says he has stocks that will last him until the middle of next year.
With big-name appellations so short of stock, merchants have been searching for new producers from different regions to make up the shortage.
Hallgarten’s Tabbron says she has looked to Macon Villages as an alternative to Chablis; Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé instead of Sancerre; and Santenay, Hautes Cotes, Beaune and Monthelie to replace Puligny and Meursault. Although she accepts that ‘consumers are going to take some persuasion to move to these different appellations, away from the familiar ones.’
At Mentzendorff, Claire Scott-Gall says that AC Bourgogne and Chablis have become prohibitively expensive because many producers buy these grapes in, and the extreme shortage has sent prices soaring. Macon-Villages and Viré-Clessé are being shipped as alternatives.
But across the board, pricing is tough, with somms telling the Collective that they are seeing increases of over 20%.
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ says Martins. ‘I’m looking at Australia, the US, New Zealand – seeing where I can get Burgundy style Chardonnay that isn’t Burgundy. Prices have gone through the roof.’
The alternatives, as one Collective member put it, are a Chassagne for £100 or an alternative from elsewhere for £60.
Of course, some venues can’t substitute A-list appellations with alternatives, no matter how good they are.
‘We do Puligny by the glass,’ says Igor Sotric of China Tang at the Dorchester. ‘Normally it would be £18 a bottle trade price, but now I’m paying £33 – and I had to buy tonnes of it to get the price down even to that. It’s pretty simple village wines – nothing spectacular or expressive.’
In other words, restaurants – and their customers – are going to be paying significantly more for the same or less, which could lead to a wholesale rethinking of the way a list is put together.
Tabbron describes entry level Bourgogne as ‘almost getting to the point that it is no longer competitive, particularly when compared to good quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming from other countries’.
There are two big questions. Firstly, in the immediate short term, how do restaurants manage the shortages and price rises they are facing – and how do they ‘sell’ any changes to customers.
Then, in the medium term, whether the 2022 vintage will allow wineries in northern France to re-stock depleted cellars and, if so, whether prices will come down.
Either way, at a time of extreme social and economic turbulence, the Collective’s members look like they are going to have to face up to even more big changes over the next 12 months.