The Miraculous 2022 Vintage

2022 is a miraculous vintage. It was the year that the vine showed its resilience to climate change and adapted to both the heat and the drought that were present throughout the summer, to make elegant, fresh, fruity wines that often showed the best of the terroirs in which they grow. We have never seen anything like it!

To quickly sum up the weather patterns: A period of cold weather in January allowed the vines to become dormant so they could regenerate for the year ahead. As the vines began to grow, the weather turned warm and stayed so until the end of the harvest with more than 30 days during the summer months reaching over 30°C. The flowering happened quickly and evenly throughout Bordeaux. Heavy rainstorms at the end of June were a welcome respite for the parched soils although two bands of hail did considerable damage in St. Estèphe and the Haut Médoc as they diagonally crossed the Gironde estuary at the same time. The drought meant that the grapes were small and concentrated which accounted for the small yields during harvest. The drought was felt everywhere, particularly for holiday makers on the Atlantic coast where huge fires in the pine forests of the Landes destroyed over 20,000 hectares of forest. There were no Bastille Day fireworks in the Bordeaux region last year.

The first time I tasted a wine En Primeur was forty years ago with the fabled 1982s. Like the 2022s, they were also surprising. No-one believed that such ripeness and intensity could be found in Bordeaux (they had forgotten the 1947 vintage!). Some are tempted to make a comparison between the glorious 1982s and the 2022s but there was rain in 1982. Some hark back to 2003, a hellish vintage, where heat and drought with peaks of extreme temperatures topping 40°C burnt away many hopes and turned Le Pin into Le Pin Grillé. The fact that the same fate did not befall the 2022 vintage, goes to show how much Bordeaux has learnt.

So how come the wines are so good? Firstly, because the weather was already warm during the start of the growth period, the vines realised early on that they had to adapt to these weather conditions. They produced less foliage as there was going to be sufficient light and heat to ripen their grapes and when the veraison came, they quickly changed their efforts from vegetative growth to berry development. It may be too fanciful to say that vines have a memory which helps them to adapt to climate change, but we did indeed see that the vines knew how to adapt to this year’s weather conditions.

Secondly, the grapes were in perfect health with no fungal diseases. Instead of spraying the grapes, the attention was drawn to the architecture of the vine. Growers made sure that there was a parasol effect so that the vines were shaded, especially on the west side of the vine rows and only a dappled light effect could enter the canopy. They did very little leaf stripping and then only on the east side of the vines and no green harvest. In fact, this year, vignerons tended to leave the vines to their own devices. Their confidence in them was rewarded.

Thirdly, throughout the summer and autumn, the nights were fresh, creating a large temperature difference between day and night, which many believed helped to “polish” the tannins in the skins as the grapes expanded and contracted. This also helped to keep the vines fresh and allowed them to rest overnight.

Finally, Bordeaux has learnt a great deal about viticulture in these times of climate change: Pruning techniques have changed: pruning later than in the past to avoid frost damage to the buds and spreading the vine over a double guyot to open the vine and extend its branches. Heavy ploughs are no longer used in the vineyards, as they could break up the earth around the roots. Instead, electric rakes just scratch the surface, so humidity can get underground without disturbing the soils., Mulch or cover crops are put in the vine rows, maybe doing this once every two or three rows to keep the balance right and the stress levels down, to make sure there was enough water preserved underground. The microbial life around the root system has become very important to keep the worms and the vines happy. Bordeaux vineyards today look very different from the tidy but barren parcels of a decade or so ago with their vegetation cut like a hedge to keep everything neat and tidy.

Ready in the starting blocks by the end of August. The harvest was one of the earliest on record, with growers both starting and finishing their reds in September. On both banks of Bordeaux, châteaux began picking in the first days of September and at Château Cheval Blanc for example, they harvested most of their Merlots between the 29th of August and the 2nd of September. However, in other vineyards, because photosynthesis had slowed ripening down, harvesting began for serious in the second week of September and finished during the first week of October. Before harvest, the statistics didn’t look good. Vignerons were scared because the pHs were high which of course meant the acidity was low, and the alcohol levels were climbing. The berries were very small and concentrated, and the tannin levels were powerful. As Alexandre Thienpont commented wryly, “there was more stress in the winemakers than in the vines”. In the end, many growers had to throw away the rule book. If you made wine according to the statistics, you wouldn’t have got any sleep. It was scary yet magical to see how the vines had coped with the heat and drought.

Carefully making the wines: Most people made their wines very, very carefully with barely any remontage [pumping over]. The aim was just to wet the cap with no maceration because the idea was to infuse (which is the buzzword in Bordeaux) the juice rather than getting rough tannins or dry extract and it seems to have worked. Maceration time was shortened, lower temperatures were used to ferment the juice and less new oak was chosen to age the wines. Some people may have panicked and picked too early; others may have not taken the unique weather into account and made their wines as they had always done. In these cases, their wines might lack the grace and beauty of the best wines but in general everyone was caught by surprise at the quality of wines as they emerged from the vats.

The tastings for the En Primeur began in earnest during the last week of April. The wines are deeply coloured, fragrant and rich with expressive aromas. Their structure is either silky or velvety and there was an abiding freshness in the attack. The wines were incredibly easy to taste, and the sheer mass of tannin has led us all to believe that these wines will be long lived. Since there is so much fruit and freshness, the oak and the tannins are barely perceptible. Many of the wines have a mineral tanginess at their centre which serves to reinforce the ripeness of the fruit and the acidity which has remained magically intact. The most successful wines on the Right Bank came from the clay limestone soils of the St. Emilion plateau and from old vines which proved the grandeur of their age. In the Médoc, growers were especially impressed by the quality of their Merlot which they said, “tasted more like Cabernet” with their luscious black fruit. For the last few years there has been talk about planting other grape varietals such as Touriga Nacional and Marselan in Bordeaux. Judging on the way the Merlots performed in 2022, they have bought themselves a stay of execution. Most of the talk has been about the red wines of course, but the Sauternes and other noble rot wines taste indecently lush and rich. There are also some absolute stunners in the white wines including a beautifully elegant La Mission Haut Brion Blanc and a wine which may be unknown to many of you, the magical Les Champs Libres from the Guinaudeau family, owners of Lafleur.

Yields and prices are the next question everybody asks. Since the berries were generally small with very little juice, yields are around 20% to 30% down in the Médoc depending upon the appellation. Those vineyards who had been affected by hail or frost had even lower results. On the Right bank the water retaining clay soils in Pomerol and Saint Emilion saw better results with higher quantities of wine produced in 2022 than in 2021. In addition, some châteaux were so pleased by the quality of their wine, that the did not produce a second label; there will be no Petit Cheval at Cheval Blanc this year. Prices for this surprising vintage, will, inevitably, rise but Bordeaux has hopefully learnt a bit of caution, especially from their friends in Burgundy, and we should not see excessive rises. In this still unstable economic climate, most châteaux talk about a two euro rise per bottle on the opening prices, but this could easily climb when the wine critics name their favourite wines.

So, to finish, we come down to the usual question: Why should you buy these wines? Most importantly 2022 is a surprisingly successful vintage with delicious, elegant, fruit and fresh wines. Bordeaux has shown that it can make extraordinary wines in a hot and dry year and that its vines are going to survive. If you want to buy a beautiful vintage in the time of climate change, that has incredible aging potential, this is it.

© Fiona Morrison M.W.