The cellars at Domaine Faiveley

The cellars at Domaine Faiveley (Photo by Renee Wilmeth)

BEAUNE, FRANCE– It was cold and gray as we walked up the hill to the village in Couchey, the biting wind reminding us it was January. The celebration of Saint Vincent Tournante, which took place on Saturday, January 28, was the culmination of a week of events, including paulées, where attendees bring wines from their own cellars to share. More than 80 villages participated, celebrating by blessing their village’s statue of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of wine growers.

Every year, on the last Saturday of January, the statues and their keepers parade through the streets of a different host village – this year Couchey – with banners, bands, and the horn players from the Clos du Vougeot. The village church holds Mass as well as tastings, music, and feasts in the streets, and at the end, the current year’s statue host passes on the revered icon to a new grower to hold for the following year.

If you haven’t heard of Couchey, you’re not alone. Situated at the north end of the Cote d’Noir, this little-known village is just south of Dijon to the northwest of its celebrated neighbor Gevrey–Chambertin. Wines from Couchy fall into the Marsannay and Fixin appellations- one of the few villages to make all three wines: white, red, and rose.

Beginning Saturday morning, people participated in meals, tastings, and other events, including a long, 8-course lunch at the storied Clos du Vougeot, headquarters of Confrerie du Chevaliers des Tastevin, the event’s organizer. This national landmark is France’s Burgundy palace, complete with a banqueting hall for 600 international members and guests to gather to celebrate the day from morning until long past dinner.

The highlighted annual lunch, replete with singing, speeches, and great wines, including a Chambolle-Musigny to announce the following year’s host city and to celebrate this year’s guest of honor, US Ambassador to France Denise Cambell Bauer, who was inducted as a member of the organization.

Although the celebrations were the week’s main focus, the real news was the infamous 2021 Burgundy harvest. A late frost on April 7, 2021, severely damaged vines already flowering and in bud development. While ice and snow blanketed the entire region, the damage was significantly worse north of Beaune. Some growers in Savigny-les-Beaune and Pernand-Vergelesses suffered 80-100% losses, and those grapes not lost to frost were damaged by mildew later that summer. These events led to dire predictions about the quality of the vintage.

However, there was a surprise twist- the 2021s are terrific. It’s no secret that Burgundy’s recent years have yielded a wide variation in styles ranging from classic Burgundies to rounder, more approachable offerings. These wines can be notoriously difficult to craft in bad years, leading locals to dub them “winemaker’s vintages,” alluding to the outcome depending upon the winemakers’ skills.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the 2021s I sampled were classically styled- balanced and restrained, although some were approachable now. Despite concerns about the aging capabilities of some of these wines, experience has shown vintages with similar fruit/acid/alcohol profiles have yielded some of the longest-lasting wines for those holding bottles for 10-20 years. I’m not sure I’ll have enough left to test the theory, as many are drinking nicely now.

Tastings at Domaine Faiveley, Domaine Michel Lafarge, Domaine Jessiaume, Christian Clerget, and Domaine Vincent Rapet yielded consistent results. Some producers consolidated grapes from what would typically be multiple single vineyard bottlings into a single “1er cru” (Premier Cru) or village-level offering.

Given the severely reduced volumes, few of the wines are likely to make it into the US market, especially with the generous quantities of the 2020 and upcoming 2022 vintages. But if you have a favorite producer, it’s worth going out of your way to track down a 2021 to see how it fared under skilled hands.

UPDATE: We were treated to a demonstration and preview of winemaker Laurent Ponsot’s potentially controversial electronic tracking anti-counterfeiting and quality control measures for individual bottles as well as cases of his wine. Wine lovers may recall that Ponset is the Burgundian producer who traveled to a US auction to demand they remove counterfeit bottles for sale. Using chips and other tracking mechanisms, he can let a buyer – and the domaine – know if the bottles are genuine and whether they’ve been kept at consistent temperatures or suffered heat spikes. However, the real controversy lies in his ability to electronically track each bottle even through multiple aftermarket sales and owners, creating a potential for privacy concerns.