Fromm Winery getting ready to harvest.

As per last year, this 2020 en primeur campaign has been undertaken remotely. Return flights to Bordeaux were replaced by countless Zoom meetings with châteaux owners and technical directors to taste through samples together, discuss the vintage and the market for Bordeaux in its current state. It’s not the same as being there, but I gained the same level of understanding as I would had I partaken in my yearly pilgrimage. The only thing missing was the usual weekend spent visiting my parents post-primeur tasting week, enjoying my mother’s cooking and my father’s thirst for Bordeaux wines.

Winter-spring was one of the wettest in recent history, with almost a year’s worth of rain falling between November and April, replenishing rivers and underground reserves – which was much needed for the summer season that was to follow.

Budburst took place comparatively early in early April and under mild, rainy weather. While early budding can be risky because of frost, 2020 only witnessed a few episodes, which had little impact in terms of potential yields. “Early budburst actually fortuitously saved the vintage to some extent in 2020,” as Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc (Bordeaux AOP) puts it.

May brought warm weather, but with soil still wet and water-logged in some areas, the resulting humidity led to considerable mildew pressure during flowering time, creating uneven fruit set – especially on cabernet sauvignon. Merlot went through largely unscathed. “That was nature’s way of limiting yields without much need of green-harvesting,” said Andréane Gornard of Chanel-owned Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux), Canon and Berliquet (St-Emilion).

This highlights the various viticultural approaches. While conventional châteaux treated their vines swiftly, it was a little more time-consuming and arduous for those with an organic or biodynamic philosophy to regain control over the disease pressure.

No rain fell between 18 June and 11 August, revealing the differences in terroir profile of the Left and Right Banks. The Right Bank – especially St-Émilion, Castillon and Pomerol – suffered little hydric stress, thanks to the water-retention prowess of its clay and limestone subsoil, and thus avoided a large drop in yields.

Meanwhile, the free-draining soils of the Médoc (especially its southern AOCs and some of the younger vineyards) struggled and experienced a noticeable drop in yields. Emmanuel Cruse of Châteaux d’Issan (Margaux), Lilan-Ladouys (St-Estèphe) and Pédésclaux (Pauillac) mentioned that the hydric stress impacted the cabernet-sauvignon much more than other red varieties due to the naturally smaller size of the berries causing quicker dehydration.

Agility was the key for a successful vintage at Châteaux d’Issan in Margaux.
Agility was the key for a successful vintage at Châteaux d’Issan in Margaux.

While the drought slowed the ripening cycle, it wasn’t too dry to stop it. When some welcome precipitation arrived in mid-August, the cycle gathered speed again – although the damage on potential yields was already done. However lovely the rain was, it was short-lived and uneven across the region, and according to Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac-Léognan), “While the Médoc was getting a good drenching, Pessac was not getting any rain.” Harvest for dry whites and reds was completed during the warm, dry weather of September – just in time before the heavy October rain episodes that lasted on and off for several weeks.

Several winemakers told me one could feel the bunches dehydrate during the sunny weather. “Thankfully while the weather was dry, it wasn’t overly hot, and nights were reasonably cool, which was a key factor in retaining great pH levels and marked acidity essential for the balance and backbone of this vintage,” recollected Matthieu Cuvelier of Châteaux Poujeaux (Moulis), Côte de Baleau and Clos Fourtet (St-Emilion).

Both Gornard and Cuvelier compared the yield from past vintages and while the Right Bank dropped by an average of 5%, the Left Bank suffered a drop closer to 25%. Cuvelier noted a “5% drop due to mildew, 5% due to poor fruit set, 15% due to drought”. This highlights the unevenness in the region during the 2020 vintage, but lower-than-usual yields do not mean lower quality.

Harvest was on average two weeks early but not the earliest on record. It seemed as though most châteaux experienced a harvest without a break. Véronique Dausse of Château Phélan-Ségur (St-Estèphe) said that while one team finished picking the merlot, another started picking through the cabernet franc, then the petit verdot (a first for Phélan-Ségur), then straight into the cabernet sauvignon.

Such was the nature of 2020, efficiency was needed in the vineyard, as acidity was dropping by the minute, and in the cellar, as all varieties needed vinifying at almost the same time.

Wines from the Château Angélus in St-Emilion have been a revelation.
Wines from the Château Angélus in St-Emilion have been a revelation.

Overall, 2020 produced thick-skinned bunches giving deep colour, with a high quantity of ripe and finely grained tannins for red wine production. It was easy to get a well-balanced extraction without overworking the ferments. The acidity and pH levels were maintained to a suitable level enabling balance and harmony between tannic structure, rich deep fruit core and a moderate alcohol level.

At Château Poujeaux, for example, only four pigeage (punching-down) were performed versus 8-10 in a regular year, although what is ‘regular’ these days? It seems that lighter extractions are the new norm, both because of a change in style for the better and in order to adapt winemaking techniques to climate change.

The use of new oak in recent years has been in decline, as has extraction and the search for over-ripeness. This has been especially the case since 2014, as the demand for a more ‘classic’ style of Bordeaux has returned – perhaps in conjunction with the retirement of a certain American wine critic.

Rarely do we see 100% new oak barrels, with 40-50% being the new norm. There were of course some who resisted returning to lighter style but they have seen reason after all. Château Beauséjour-Bécot (St-Emilion) returned to a lighter style in 2017, as did another St-Émilion powerhouse, Château Troplong-Mondot, whose 2010 registered a whopping 16% ABV.

As such, for 2020 it was a great pleasure and revelation to taste the embryonic Château Angélus (St-Emilion) and its second label Carillons d’Angélus.

On the other side of the screen, owner Hubert de Boüard, congratulated his daughter Stéphanie on her decision to invest in 3000l foudres for the élevage (ageing) of their cabernet franc, 40% of which constitute the final blend of the 2020 Angélus, with the balance being merlot. This resulted in a major shift for the Grand Vin towards a fresher, more floral and purer style less masked by oak as it often was. Bravo, I say, a wonderful wine.

White grapes were picked very quickly from mid-August to ensure acid levels remained high while preserving fresh aromatic compounds. Dry whites are more textural than in cooler years, but without feeling flabby and out of balance. Fabien Teitgen of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan) was very pleased with the balance between the acid levels, pH levels and moderate level of alcohol, while being “surprised by the aromas of yellow fruit, linden flowers and the nice liveliness”.

Sauternes, while enjoying another lovely vintage, suffered from tiny yields as has become the norm in recent years. Pierre Montégut of Château Suduiraut (Sauternes) explained that for them it was a “gambling vintage but it paid off”. The harvest began for them with a first trie (pick) on 16 September of mainly passerillés (shrivelled) grapes in tiny quantities, as the onset of botrytis cinerea (noble rot) only arrived after a 10-day period of rain in later September.

From early October, botrytis appeared quickly but another period of heavy rain followed, giving the picking team just enough time to gather the first noble grapes.

The gambling paid off when sunny skies returned and picking resumed during second part of October, with a very satisfactory quality of botrytised grapes, followed by a third picking late October and the fourth and final picking on 2 November.

First early reports and tastings have started to take place and while some critics and négociants are already talking of another great Bordeaux vintage, this time there is less homogeneity throughout the region.

Viticulture techniques have once again played a very important role, with canopy management to protect bunches from sunshine and cover crops to limit soil dehydration to name just a couple.

Hubert de Boüard of Château Angelus (St-Emilion) was proud to share with me data and images of his parcels planted on deep clay demonstrating that the cover crop used in 2020 showed no signs of browning due to lack of water. This is becoming a big thing in Bordeaux as vignerons are faced with the reality of climate change and, as is the case around the world, must act fast to deal with this challenge.

Warmer weather  played a role at  Châteaux d’Issan  in Margaux.
Warmer weather played a role at Châteaux d’Issan in Margaux.

In summary, 2020 was a vintage of the vignerons using their common sense and remaining in close proximity to their vineyards. The key factors that made the 2020 vintage somewhat unique formed a challenge solved only by smart thinking from vignerons, and an increased presence in the vineyard to monitor ripeness levels that could have easily gotten out of hand if less rigorously supervised.

As tastings take place and wines are starting to be released, we need to keep geopolitical factors in mind as we think about prices. The 2019 vintage was released at the beginning of the global pandemic, with Brexit yet-to-happen and the Trump tax on European wines in full effect. In addition to this, China was not buying much either, as a result of Covid-19. These are the region’s main three markets.

In a calculated move last year, we saw early releases from Pontet-Canet and Palmer, with both dropping their prices considerably compared to previous vintages and setting the tone for a campaign where we witnessed an overall drop of about 30%, bringing release prices to pre-2009 vintage level.

It seems that Bordeaux has listened to the world after all – as it needed to – and that
has made for a very successful campaign in a less-than-ideal situation.

The 2020 vintage releases will most likely have a slightly different tone. Granted, we are still in a middle of a global pandemic, but Brexit has come into effect, the Trump tax has been repealed, while China has rediscovered its thirst for Bordeaux at the expense of Burgundy – and to some extent Australia, with the ongoing trade war.

However, given the nature of the much smaller quantity of wine produced and the April frost on vineyards throughout Bordeaux, it is not unreasonable to assume that we will see a slight increase in price (I estimate around 12%) and a decrease in the number of bottles released. It is highly likely that the campaign won’t be as ‘trigger-happy’ as last year when we were faced most days with countless releases.

As in 2020, I have been tasting samples in Australia and have not been able to travel to Bordeaux, so it is quite a different experience. Châteaux have experimented with various techniques to ensure the pristine condition of samples arriving in Australia, with WIT (wine in tubes) being delivered with temperature tracking devices in the box. This is giving us a close to real experience of the vintage, albeit sadly without making the trip to my hometown.

Véronique Dausse, centre, says harvest was unrelenting at Phélan-Ségur.

Lastly, I asked a few vignerons whether they thought the later tasting dates suited them better. Typically, the tasting week is in very late March or early April.

However, all were in agreement that the extra three weeks of ageing made a whole world of difference to samples being sent across the planet and were beneficial to the wines aromatically speaking.

Matthieu Cuvelier went further in saying, “The extra three weeks of élevage, combined with the fact that most châteaux now have returned to a style with less oak tannins and ageing, shows the wine in a purer state.”

Knowing full-well that we French do not embrace change so easily and love our traditions, I cheekily asked if the Union des Grand Cru of which, he is a member, would take that into account when the world returns to normal, and perhaps hold the tasting week later in April.

He actually believes that it could become reality. I did not expect this answer.

Regional Round-up

Saint-Estèphe

Once again there are a lot of high-quality tannins, dark ripe fruits and graphite, all with perfect equilibrium and the unique Saint-Estèphe mineral touch. There is a great consistency in the quality of the wines of this appellation, with 2020 following in the footsteps of previous years.

Pomerol

Thanks to the water-retention virtues of its clay soil, large parts of the appellation escaped being overly affected by the drought. Definitely an outstanding vintage for merlot-dominant wines on the Right Bank, and coupled with the noticeable drop in new oak use, Pomerol is showing brilliantly.

Pauillac

Like its northern neighbour, overall there was a great theme of ripe tannins, dark fruit and graphite with very refined use of oak. The key for châteaux across Pauillac was to use gentle extraction techniques so not to extract unwanted harsh tannins from the tiny cabernet sauvignon berries.

Pessac-Léognan

Pessac enjoyed a very good vintage with the only dampener in some pockets of the appellation being the noticeable hydric stress of the drought, reducing crops greatly, especially for the whites, and giving them more tropical notes. Juicy ripe merlot, floral cabernet franc and spicy cabernet sauvignon were once again in tune.

Margaux

As always, this is an important appellation to concentrate on, being geographically quite different from its northern neighbours. An area normally renowned for wines with finely chiselled tannins, this year’s tannins were high, but unlike previous years, it seems as though châteaux are getting a good handle on working with a denser tannic mass.

Saint-Émilion

Another obvious sun-bathed vintage but with lower alcohol than expected and levels of acitidy kept in check, thanks to the cool nights. As with its neighbour, Saint-Émilion has signalled a great merlot vintage and equally brilliant cabernet francs. Châteaux making cabernet sauvignon have reported deeper colour this year.

Sauternes

More passerillage (shrivelled grapes) than botrytis it seems in some pockets of the appellation, especially for those who preferred not to wait for the onset of botrytis that came late in the season. However, it is too early in the élevage to make a final call. Sauternes are always difficult to taste en primeur due to their much slower fermentation but with the extra few weeks of élevage, it was easier this year.

Best of Bordeaux 2020

Left Bank Red

➼ Château Phélan-Ségur, St-Estèphe
➼ Château Beychevelle, 4th growth St-Julien
➼ Château Haut-Bailly, Grand Cru Classé de Graves
➼ Château Lafite-Rothschild, 1st growth Pauillac
➼ Château Pichon-Baron, 2nd growth Pauillac
➼ Château d’Issan, 3rd growth Margaux

RIGHT Bank Red

➼ Château Angélus, 1er Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ St-Emilion
➼ Château Croix de Labrie, Grand Cru Classé St-Emilion
➼ Château La Conseillante, Pomerol
➼ Clos Fourtet, 1er Grand Cru Classé ‘B’ St-Emilion
➼ Château Feytit-Clinet, Pomerol
➼ Pétrus, Pomerol

HIDDEN GEMS

➼ Château Lilian Ladouys, St-Estèphe
➼ Château Côte de Baleau, Grand Cru Classé St-Emilion
➼ Château Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc
➼ Château La Fleur de Bouard, Lalande de Pomerol
➼ Château Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Médoc
➼ Château Lespault-Martillac Rouge, Pessac-Léognan

Bordeaux Blanc

➼ Château Malartic-Lagravière
➼ Blanc de Lynch-Bages
➼ Château Haut-Brion Blanc
➼ Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc
➼ Château Pâpe-Clément Blanc
➼ Domaine de Chevalier Blanc

Bordeaux Sweet

➼ Château Suduiraut, 1st growth Sauternes
➼ Château La Tour Blanche, 1st growth Sauternes
➼ Château Coutet, 1st growth Barsac
➼ Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, 1st growth Sauternes
➼ Château Guiraud, 1st growth Sauternes
➼ Château d’Arche, 2nd growth Sauternes