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Bordeaux En Primeur 2020

Giles Cooper

7 May 2021

"When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I'm finished, if the solution is not beautiful I know it's wrong." Buckminster Fuller, architect, scientist, practical philosopher

Following last year's hastily organised Bordeaux 2019 En Primeur campaign, which was nonetheless extremely successful (albeit frustratingly light on volumes released), we were both unsure and confident when it came to 2020: unsure whether we would be able to get to Bordeaux to taste, and yet confident that a 'remote' campaign complete with multiple tastings could lead to another successful year's activity – as long as the quality and price stacked up. As it has transpired, with the fences well and truly up in the UK, in order to protect and maximise the effectiveness of our COVID-19 vaccination program, and with cases in France and across Europe not yet under control and vaccinations rolling out more slowly, we have endured another 'domestic' EP build up.

As we learned last year, this has advantages and disadvantages. Despite the EP week being genuinely hard work, we all enjoy the week away not just for its regularity of great food and plenty of laughs but for that sense of buzz, of being in the centre of the fine wine world for that one week, and of really getting under the skin of a vintage. But while we miss seeing many of our old friends in the flesh, and the intensity and understanding which comes from tasting 250+ wines in four days, the remote option can allow one to be more circumspect and perhaps dive deeper; extended Zoom calls with winemakers may be less personally satisfying but afford you considerably more time to ask searching questions – and receiving full-size samples in perfect condition just a day or two after they have been bottled enables you to track the progress of the wine over a day or even two, or even more, giving greater insight into what the finished wines may resemble.

So without further ado here are the headlines:

  • 2020 is the third in a trilogy of very good to excellent vintages, the likes of which we have not seen in Bordeaux in the post-war era. Christian Seely (Pichon Baron) described it as 'almost embarrassing' to have three such fine years in a row. '88, '89 and '90 is the closest comparison we have been given.
  • 2020 is unquestionably a 'solar' vintage in that the region experienced a 50+ day drought from mid June to mid August and had days where the mercury touched 40 degrees centigrade; likewise September experienced a week of heatwave. However the wines are not exclusively defined by sunshine or heat. There is a freshness which was unexpected but very welcome and leans the wines toward a more classical style. Also the alcohols are pleasantly in the mid range, furthering the freshness and balance. Despite the inevitable recent comparisons of hot years: '2018 and 2015 are fuller, sunnier vintages. 2020 doesn't feel like that – they are wines of architecture, harmony and balance.' (JM Laporte, Talbot)
  • 2020 is less homogenous than 2019; while the weather conditions were changeable, they were often benevolent for Chateaux on the right kinds of terroir and with older vines and in fact delivered exactly what the vines needed at the right time. For those on less favourable soils, it was challenging. 'The top wines show real poise and precision' (Fiona Morrison MW, Domaines Jacques Thienpont)
  • Production volumes in general are slightly down on 2019, a result primarily of mildew pressures associated with the vintage's early flowering, and also scattered hail events. In addition the very small size of the berries, due to the drought period, automatically means a reduction in juice.
  • Overall most top estates are extremely happy with their 2020s and we can see why.

Vintage Conditions

A mild and wet winter precipitated early bud break, early flowering (which thanks to the early bud break, fell in a two-week break between sets of heavy rains), and fast, homogenous fruit set. At this stage the vines were effectively very happy and some two weeks ahead of their usual cycle – take note as this is important later! May kept vineyard teams busy with occasions of frost, hail and mildew, all of which reduced potential yields (but which have no bearing on final quality).

From mid-June it barely rained at all. The drought lasted in the region of 50 days from June 19th to August 10th and when the rain finally came in mid-August it fell primarily overnight, often in huge downpours; there was a lot of run-off so the vines were refreshed without dilution of the grapes. The volume of rain differed significantly on both sides of the river: the Left Bank encountered up to 120mm of rain during this week, whilst the Right averaged around 25% of this. However, the remainder of August was cooler than usual and somewhat dull, enabling the grapes to continue their slow ripening cycle. The warm weather eventually returned – indeed in the middle of September there was a mini-heatwave – and the resulting berries were small, in relatively loose clusters (excellent for airflow), and with thick, richly-coloured skins and ripe pips.

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 1

Harvest was early (theoretically at least – remember that early flowering…?), with many properties starting picking their Merlots in early-to-mid September and many finishing their Cabernets before the start of October. Here we have a divergence in regions with rain affecting the northern Medoc far more than further south; to illustrate the Medoc averaged 60mm of rain in the final week of September, but Margaux had less than a quarter of this. On the Right Bank there was gentle rain during the middle of September but constant gentle breezes and the surprisingly loose clusters kept the grapes aerated. Contrary to what some might think, the effect of rain was not unwelcome: as the grapes were already so small and concentrated, a result of between 110 and 125 days between flowering and picking, there was virtually no dilution – and yet it allowed potential alcohol levels to be moderated, resulting in grapes with great balance, still with fantastic fruit ripeness and a high tannin content, but with fabulous freshness. On the Right Bank potential alcohol dropped by as much as a whole degree, giving an elegance to counter the intense ripeness. Many sought to pick as early as possible each day, to maintain the freshness of the grapes in the cool of the day, and to maintain the health of the workers – who were picking in remarkable heat for the time of year.

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 2

Vintage Character

For those who like a vintage to be summed up in a few words – sorry. 2020 is confounding in its character, being both ripe and fresh, opulent and classical, structured and approachable. To expand an analogy from JM Laporte at Talbot, like a piece of great architecture, 2020 hides its construction under layers of artistic pleasure and practical applications: the tannin count is close to or as high as in 2018 for many estates, and yet the perception is of supple softness; indeed the freshness comes as much from the tannins as it does from the actual acidity. These are wines with all the ingredients to live a long and happy life – indeed apart from the alcohol levels, which are often a degree or even more lower, the technical construction is akin to 2010 – and yet they feel approachable, drinkable, even enjoyable, right now.

The Merlots are of an extremely high quality on both sides of the river, adding considerable aromatic power, as they typically do on the Right Bank, as well as being used for flesh and mid-palate weight, their usual role on the Left Bank. However we would not label it a 'Merlot vintage' because the quality of the Cabernets is stunning. Ch Margaux is a classical 89% Cabernet, for example. Both Cabernet varietals on the Right Bank are stunning – despite initial concerns that they may not have reached full ripeness when it was time to pick. 'We have used 40% Cabernet Franc, the same as last year, to give tension and freshness' (Thomas Soubes, La Gaffeliere)

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 3

Whilst the best estates on both Banks have made beautiful wines, there is a homogeneity to the Pomerol Plateau in particular which means 'you can buy these wines with your eyes shut' (Fiona Morrison MW). Indeed whilst on paper it can look like a challenging year with early flowering, heat, and rain at harvest, it was for Marielle Cazaux at La Conseillante one of the easiest years they can remember – certainly compared to 2018 which made great wines but was 'a pure nightmare!'

Other words or expressions used by our friends in Bordeaux to characterise their vintage include 'Sophisticated' (Marielle Cazaux), 'a real signature vintage with a great level of ripeness but not overripe' (Emeline Borie, Grand Puy Lacoste), and one with which we whole-heartedly agree: 'TANNINS – it's all about the tannins!' (Fiona Morrison MW)

The Campaign

With a combination of assistance from the UGCB (Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux) and many of our friends in Chateaux across Bordeaux we have tasted almost as many wines as we would on a trip, including many of the biggest names. Some are still to come, with estates preferring to leave their sampling as late as possible so as to maximise the time the wines have spent settling in their barrels (a definite advantage to the later campaigns for 2019 and 2020 has been the additional ageing, of a month or greater, of each wine we have tasted).

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 4

Whilst some of the petits chateaux have released their wines already, we do not expect the campaign 'proper' to start until much later this month – indeed we are not even being invited to taste some of the top wines until the very end of May or early June. This should mean a rapid campaign with good momentum as per the 2019 vintage.

The final elephant in the room is pricing, and of course nobody can second guess the mood music here. 2019 was 'a market price, not a COVID price' (JM Laporte) and given all markets have been doing very strong business over the past 6 months or so, we would see an acceptable scenario as a small increase towards, but not close to, the 2018 release price; 'the increase should be moderate; last year (the 2019 campaign) Bordeaux showed great signs for the prices and it worked' (Stephanie de Bouard, Angelus)

Some thoughts on change in Bordeaux

Winemaking continues to evolve with both the changing climate and climate change. With no single voice dominating the critical market, there is no attempt to try and force the vintage into wines which suit the tastes of a single critic. Winemakers are once again able to express their terroir through the prism of each vintage without fear of being 'left behind' in the score stakes.

Furthermore, whether as a side-effect of the above or a wider trend change, the majority of wine lovers are increasingly looking for transparency and 'expression of place' in their wines rather than sheer horsepower and impact. Add to this the unrelenting effects of climate change – both in terms of chaotic (unseasonal) events and increased temperatures – and it is clear that much of the old rule book needs to be ripped up.

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 5

As Fiona Morrison MW explained to us, many of the old adages certainly weren't applicable in 2020 and many have just proven to be outdated: 'We harvested L'If (high on the limestone plateau of St Emilion), L'Hetre (in the rural hills of Castillon) and Le Pin (on the Pomerol plateau) at the same time. In fact many of the Left Bank properties were picking at the same time as the Right Bank.' Likewise, rules taken as hard-and-fast such as those about Cabernet ripening 10-14 days later than Merlot were proven to be outdated or at best inadequate. In short, as put to us by Christian Seely, previous experience was only of use if you put it into action rather than simply leaning on what had been done in the past. 'The minute you think you've cracked it, you should retire.'

Experience from outside the Bordeaux bubble has also proven extremely valuable: Philippe Bascaules related some of his experience at Inglenook in the Napa Valley to some of the work not just for the 2020 vintage but for managing the estate going forward, including paying greater attention to the angle of the rows when replanting sections of the vineyard (so as to maximise sunshine while protecting against the hottest parts of the day) and Fiona Morrison MW discussed the importance of pruning and training to create the right shape for the vines to cope with greater extremes of weather.

This work and the cumulative effects of nature also help the vine to 'learn' to cope better with extremes. Whilst some have compared the 2020s with 2016 – there are similarities in terms of texture and hidden power but all bar the best 2020s lack the magical concentration and acid levels of 2016 – it has been put to us that for many estates, the vines actually coped better with the heat of 2020 than they did in 2016; the heat causes the vine to slow down but 'it doesn't panic – it goes into sleep mode but it doesn't stop' (Fiona Morrison MW) so there are no phenolic blocking incidents which lead to 'holes' in the finished wine.

Bordeaux En Primeur 2020
Bordeaux En Primeur 2020, Image 6

Frederic Faye at Figeac told us 2020 was 'a vintage of strategic choices' first in the vineyard, with regards to green harvest and canopy management, and then in the winery where every plot and subplot gets its own vat and is given individual treatment and attention – all with a view to expressing the vineyard as clearly as possible through the prism of the vintage. It's certainly true that the innate power of the fruit and high tannin count in 2020 meant the wines could have been real blockbusters. However everyone we have spoken to has talked of the importance of the light touch in the winery, of 'infusion versus extraction' (Philippe Bascaules even gave us the analogy of a teabag!). The process of remontage or pumping the juice from the bottom of the tank over the cap of skins at the top was kept to a minimum – just enough to keep the oxygen moving – as the juice was incredibly dark and aromatic from the moment the grapes went into the vats. At Ch Margaux, Aurelien Valance explained to us that they had often put the hose through the cap so as not to disturb the skins at all – such was the requirement for delicacy in maceration. We gained a sense that more than ever, the winery is where a great deal of time and effort is made to do as little as possible in order express the nature of the vintage and the estate in as transparent a form as possible.

So we learn from the 2020 campaign that modern-day wine production in Bordeaux requires smarter work in the vineyard, more care over picking dates (and times), greater control over the individual vinification of each plot, a lighter touch in the winery, and a serious review of maturation options from reducing new oak to introducing large foudres, clay amphorae, concrete eggs and more.

Lessons have been learned from previous vintages and with the application of this new understanding, 'quality' has become rather an ephemeral concept; talking simply of 'better or worse' misses the point as winegrowing at this level in Bordeaux has become so skilled and the brands so valuable that it will take an exceptionally disastrous harvest to make poor wines. Style and volume will bend with the wind but quality on average will remain extremely high – happy days for producers and lovers of this resurgent wine region.