Bordeaux 2020 Vintage Report
2020 BORDEAUX VINTAGE REPORT
2020 evokes so many memories. A Bordeaux vintage report is not the place for us to list the highs and lows that we have all been through during this time. What is worth noting here, having tasted some 300 wines over the past two weeks, is the calibre of the 2020 Bordeaux vintage: it is nothing short of extraordinary considering the pressures vignerons have been under these past 12 months. Tasting this vintage has been an amazing, rejuvenating experience and a reminder of why I love my job so much.
TASTING THE WINES
At the start of this year, I didn’t expect that, rather than being surrounded by the wisteria-lined Chateaux of the Left and Right Banks of Bordeaux, we would be tasting yet another en primeur vintage in London with barrel samples shipped via DHL. Atmosphere is so important to the success of a wine tasting and I am sure has historically influenced our scores and comments. In contrast, tasting in our offices with no distractions - whilst significantly less glamorous - must surely be the ultimate test and one which the 2020 vintage has passed with flying colours.
As I mentioned in my last blog, a huge thanks from all of us at Goedhuis must go to the Chateaux and Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, for arranging and coordinating delivery of the samples to arrive, fresh and in the most perfect condition possible. It is for this reason we can report with absolute confidence on the style and quality of these wines.
2020 is a high-quality vintage. It sits with pride and confidence in terms of quality alongside the 2018 and 2019 vintages, but with a distinct identity of its own. The best wines are stylish with plush, ripe fruit. Statistically, the tannin levels are amongst some of the highest of recent vintages, but this can be misleading. Whilst crucial for longevity, I have also found the tannins in the best 2020s extraordinarily harmonious, with an almost velvet-like texture.
Despite the warmth of the summer, alcohol levels are reassuringly low - especially for the Cabernet-based wines - and are on average a degree lower than the 2019s. Acidity levels are also somewhat lower yet remain healthy. As always, the best positioned properties show the importance of location, with their superb tension and freshness.
It is wrong to call it a Cabernet or Merlot vintage, or even a Right or Left Bank year. The key to success this year is vineyard location. This ranges from the impact of the Gironde estuary and Garonne river on the Medoc-based Chateaux, to the crucial importance of the clay and limestone soils of St Emilion and Pomerol. To understand this, we need to consider the seasons and climatic conditions of the year.
THE GROWING SEASON
The 2019/20 winter was so mild it was not really a winter at all. Aymeric de Grironde at Ch Troplong-Mondot in St Emilion commented that temperatures of 30°C were recorded in February, with only a negligible number of nights falling below zero. As March arrived the inevitability of an early budburst could not be avoided. The vines were some 3 weeks ahead of an average year rendering them once again vulnerable to spring frosts which duly arrived on the nights of 29th and 30th March. The best terroirs are often the ones which escaped the freeze, highlighting the benefits of the warming effect of the Gironde estuary and the importance of the plateau of St Emilion.
April itself was relatively uneventful, but what followed was an extraordinarily wet May, with the equivalent of two months rain in the first two weeks and an equally healthy dose of rain in early June. Thankfully, it remained clement, warm, and dry during the all-important early flowering at the end of May. The real danger then was not a loss of crop through poor flowering but the risk of disease, particularly mildew from the excess of rain.
Thomas Duroux at Ch Palmer was not alone when, with a sense of irony, he commented that the enforced spring lockdown may have actually helped them and the 2020 vintage! Whilst offices were closed the French government had the good sense to exempt agriculture from lockdown conditions. So, as he said, “we had nothing else to do but spend our days in the vineyards!” Throughout the region, working in teams to reduce the risk of infection, you could see an army of workers wherever you looked, combatting the potential of disease in whatever method they thought best: biodynamic, organic or lutte raisonée (treatment when only absolutely necessary).
While battling the demons of mildew, little did growers know how grateful they would be later on for this excess of water. From mid-June through to the 10th August they experienced 55 consecutive days of zero rainfall and warm weather. This is when we return to that all important word “location” in the trials and tribulations of the 2020 vintage.
There can be no better spokesman for Bordeaux as a whole than Nicolas Audebert in his role as wine director at Chateaux Berliquet and Canon in St Emilion and Rauzan Segla in Margaux covering both sides of the river. Clay is like a sponge; he says it absorbs rainfall and enjoys being saturated, as it will then release moisture over time. It didn’t matter if you were in the northerly tip of the Médoc, on the clay-based soils of St Estephe, or the plateaus of Pomerol and St Emilion, the vineyards escaped any form of water stress - although the rain of 10th August did arrive just in the nick of time.
Similarly, whilst the proportion of clay may be less in the heart of the Médoc, its gravel terraces benefit from the all-important water table of their vineyards so conveniently positioned close to the Garonne river. In Pessac-Léognan, Guillaume Pouthier at Ch Les Carmes Haut Brion spoke for many growers when he highlighted the final part of the jigsaw for so many of the great appellations: the limestone bedrock. Deep-rooted aged vines were kept refreshed by this limestone which not only protected against hydric stress but also provided the crucial acidity, giving life and energy to the best of the wines this year.
Much needed rain on 10th and 11th August, as well as two more doses later in August and early September, kept the vines refreshed and set the harvest up perfectly for an almost solid month of sunshine. Bruno Borie at Ducru Beaucaillou commented that you almost have to go back to the 50s to find a previous September with 18 days of pure sunshine.
The 2020 harvest was quick and short. The white grapes were gathered at the end of August and on the right bank the Merlot harvest commenced from 4th September. The Cabernets came later in the month with everyone, except the sweet wine properties, finishing before the end of September. The fact that the vines were always ahead of schedule throughout the year was crucial to this vintage’s success: when the rains came in October, they came with a vengeance, and anybody who had been tempted to wait for a traditional October picking would have been severely caught out.
The vintage conditions in September were near perfect. I remember them well; I was in Bordeaux the second week in September and saw the beautiful quality of the fruit coming in at all the Chateaux I visited. There was huge excitement, the worry of whether estates would be able to actually pick the harvest or not was long gone. Whilst the traditional pickers from Southern and Eastern Europe were absent, it was more like a harvest of the past with French office and factory workers eager to be out. Florence Cathiard at Ch Smith Haut Lafitte extolled the virtues of being just a few miles from Bordeaux university and the supply of as many students as they wanted picking fruit alongside their professors!
THE WINES AND YIELDS
Whilst the quality of the fruit coming into the winery was outstanding, sadly the quantity and size of berries were small. 2020 is a low yielding vintage, with volumes for many Chateaux down by 30% in comparison to previous vintages. This was the result of fewer bunches per vine at flowering and the very dry July and August. In Pessac-Léognan Veronique Sanders commented that, at Haut Bailly, the September winds further concentrated their berries to produce grapes with wonderfully intense aromatics and flavour profiles.
We have really enjoyed tasting this vintage and the samples sent to us. The white wines balance a bright purity with a fine creamy texture. The reds have a delicious volume of fruit and are succulent with velvety tannic structures. In Sauternes they had yet another very small crop, with yields as low as 6hl/ha for many estates. The botrytis was rapid the second week of October meaning a quick harvest producing wines with a good balance between ripe sweet tropical fruit complexity and lively freshness. The Bordelais are referring to 2020 as part of a trilogy of fine vintages following the excellent 2018s and 2019s.
It is difficult to make a vintage comparison, but I think the closest in recent years is 2015: the wines have a similar personality. They will undoubtedly give huge pleasure in their youth, for it is not a vintage that we will have to wait 15-20 years to hit its stride, but as with all great Bordeaux years, the top wines also have a very long life ahead of them.
We are anticipating the classified growths to be released from mid-May and throughout June, when we will see the most sought-after wines. We hope that the wines will be well-priced, as they were last year for the 2019 vintage, but some Chateaux might reflect the small crop and, for some, the impact of a likely second small harvest in 2021 following the ravages of the spring frosts this year.
The quality this year is excellent, warranting en primeur purchasing. It is also a year for posterity as these wines were made against the backdrop of a global pandemic: as we watch the wines develop in cellars, future generations may well look back on them in the same way as we do on those great war time vintages of previous generations.
David Roberts MW