An Introduction to the 2020 Bordeaux En Primeur

2020 will always be known as the third year in a great trilogy of vintages 2018-2019-2020 in Bordeaux.   Yet the story behind the 2020s is much more interesting than just wonderful quality:   it is a modern vintage which beautifully shows how climate change and acquired winemaking skills (both in the vineyard and in the cellars) have combined to produce stunning results.  

Climate change is not always a bad thing.  In Bordeaux, known in the past for its maritime climate which meant rain and humidity, the pattern of wet winters and dry, sunny summers has become normal over the last decade.  This means that grapes can ripen fully without those green, herbaceous notes that were part of the Bordeaux lexicon of the past and there is much less risk of rot.  On the downside, the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change – Spring frosts, hailstorms, droughts, are annual challenges.  If growers manage to navigate them, they are rewarded by grapes that are much healthier than in the past.  

Let’s take a look at the 2020 weather pattern to understand this:  there was lots of rain in November and December 2019 and again in the Spring of 2020; temperatures were mild from the new year until March (there was no real winter to speak of);  this led to an early budbreak around 20–26 March which presaged an early vintage; tropical Spring conditions, which led to problems of downy mildew,  were  mitigated by a period  of dry, sunny weather around 17–22 May which coincided with a precocious flowering and continued right through the summer until mid August; hot summer temperatures; cooler, duller weather in August followed by thunderstorms in mid-August (much more rain fell in the Médoc than the Right Bank); hot, dry, sunny weather in early September then cooler days and rain from the 19th–27th with mixed, windy weather during the last days of September and beginning of October, when harvesting was finished before heavy rain fell for the rest of the month.   

As in the last two years, water stress in the dry summer months was a challenge, (Cheval Blanc registering the biggest water shortage ever recorded at the property).  Clay and limestone soils with adequate water reserves did better, which is why some of the most consistently high quality wines in 2020 were produced on the Pomerol plateau and in Saint  Émilion.  Interestingly, both Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc recorded higher levels of Merlot in their blends than Cabernet Franc, as a cause of water stress where clay was not present in some parcels.   Vineyards with a decent amount of clay in the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan (such as in Saint Estèphe) resisted better and the more than 100 mm of rain that fell in mid August on the Left Bank gave a welcome boost to the Cabernet Sauvignons when hardly any rain fell at that time on the Right Bank. 

What does seem to be happening is that the vines have a memory and are adapting.  An example being how the yields after a damaging Spring frost one year are so much bigger the next as the vines seek to make up the shortfall.  It may be that this trio of sunny years has allowed the vines to build up their defences and find a “go-slow” mode during the peak of the heat and drought, when previously they would have shut down.  Of course, this is linked to the quality of the terroir, since it clear that the best vineyards cope better in these days of climate change.  Linking all this together is vine and soil health, and the microbial biome in the soil, especially around the vines’ roots.  Growers are gently tilling their soils rather than ploughing them so as not to disturb the root systems and microbial life.

Another interesting phenomenon is that while alcohol levels are still high, the perception of alcohol on the palate is more balanced and the wines seem less hot in the finish. According to the ISVV (The Bordeaux Institute of Vines and Wines) this seems to be because in the past, wines with a high alcohol were produced most often from overripe grapes and during this physiological process, acids were degraded.  

For the third year in a row, winemakers and tasters were surprised by the wonderful freshness that was apparent in the wines right from the start.  Gone are the rather overcooked flavours of the 2003 vintage.  Recent warmer conditions and drier summers have ripened the grapes earlier than in the past and picking decisions have changed from anticipating the latest moment to pick to achieve ripeness, to having the luxury of choosing when to pick.  Acidity is still present in these modern wines but the Ph levels remain quite low  and it is the tannins that have more acidity than the fruit.  Instead of the freshness being found in the juicy fruit as in 2019, this year, the key to the wines is this wonderful tannic tension and energy which drives the mid palate expression.

Although climate and terroir play an important role in this vintage and account for the fact that there is more variation this year than in 2019, winemakers play a decisive role in the success of the 2020 wines.  Those that have adapted their picking dates and vineyard management to the summer drought, have succeeded better than most.   Leaf plucking and green harvesting are no longer automatically done; instead, the key practices are cover crops to keep the soil protected and nourished; biodiversity to help pollination and control insect populations; and pruning and shoot positioning to keep the vine well aerated and the clusters shaded.   

The right picking dates were crucial and there is now a tendency to look for freshness rather than overripeness by picking earlier than in the past.  This is the first vintage that I have witnessed that the Médoc finished harvesting before the Right Bank and where on the Right Bank we were harvesting Pomerol, Saint Emilion and the Côte de Castillon at the same time, depending upon how the drought affected the final ripening.  

In the cellar, the ever-complicated sorting equipment seems to be somewhat abandoned for the simple reason is that the grapes are so healthy these days.  Instead of lengthy pumping over of the must in the vats, the buzz word today is “infusion” so that the cap is kept wet but the amount of oxygen the musts receive is much more limited.  The impression of alcohol seems to be exacerbated by new oak, so today there is hardly any estate using 100% new oak and the trend of using larger oak “muids” of 300 to 600 liters (instead of the traditional 225-liter Bordeaux barrique) to temper the oak is becoming widely seen.  

As soil studies become more and more important in the desire to map out the differences in the vineyards, smaller vats, amphora, and clay jars are being used to separate out the different parcels.  The amount of building work going on to accommodate this strict parcel selection has not been seen for at least two decades.  The most talked about new cellars are those at Château Figeac, Château Haut Bailly and Château Lynch Bages but major work is going on or planned at Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Léoville Las Cases and Château Haut Brion, to mention the big boys. 

Finally, I should mention the strangeness of harvesting while the Covid pandemic was with us.  Wearing masks during the heat in the first weeks of September was arduous for everyone.  Testing the picking teams daily to ensure no-one was infected was vital; having to isolate a whole team, especially in the Médoc where teams are much larger, would have been a disaster when it was hard to find pickers.  At least two directors of Bordeaux châteaux contracted Covid and are yet to fully get their taste buds back which has made the blending of the 2020 wines challenging.  The ISVV has even issued a protocol of how to retrain your brain to pick up aroma signals in the hope that the sense of smell will eventually return fully.  

The only cloud on the horizon for the launch of the 2020s is that after an abundant harvest in 2019 (perhaps not fully felt by the market as châteaux are increasingly holding back stocks to be released at a later, Covid free time), yields for the 2020s are generally down as much as 10-20 percent on 2019. It varies by appellation and individual château but mildew, hail, and small berries with less juice due to the heat and drought were the primary causes.

It was amusing to hear producers in the Médoc speak with surprise at the quality of their Merlots this year and to see that they played a major role in plumping out the wines in Saint Estèphe and Margaux (two successful regions).  There had been fears that the Cabernet Sauvignons would not ripen fully before the autumn rains, but they had been given a boost by the August rainfall so in the end they ripened around the same time as the Merlots.  Not to ignore the white and the sweet wines of Bordeaux, there are lovely fresh, fruity, floral whites which were picked at the end of August and the beginning of September.  

Speaking generally about the red wines, they have deep colours, dark fruit and often more floral than juicy aromas. On the palate there is excellent fruit concentration and exciting, taut fresh tannins which are silky and energetic.  Alcohol levels are slightly lower on the left bank (a very comfortable 12.8% at Lafite and 13.8% at Calon-Ségur compared with 14.5% in 2019) but still high on the right bank (14.5% being a rough average) because of the higher use of Merlot although, as said earlier, the alcohol does not seem to be a factor in many of my tasting notes.  

In reply to the inevitable question to winemakers as to where they would situate the 2020 wines stylistically, most say that they lie somewhere between the 2018 and the 2019 vintages.  Others point to the precision and the structure of the 2016s.   I have hesitated to use the word “classic” to describe the wines, but the success of the tannins tends to make the wines seem more poised, restrained, and classy than the juicy exuberance of the charming and pretty 2019s.  One thing for certain is that a decade ago, we would never have believed that the marginality of Bordeaux’s climate would be capable of producing tannins with this level of maturity, texture, and complexity.  This looks to be a vintage which will age impressively, and we will be talking about this trio of vintages for a very long time.

The first wines are just beginning to come out, but we will launch the first group on Friday May 21st.
In the meantime, do check our En Primeur page on a regular basis for any updates.

© Fiona Morrison M.W.

This post originally appeared in Wine & Spirits Magazine, reprinted here with permission.