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2020 Bordeaux En Primeur - Vintage Report: Rain and shine...and everything in between

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Another unusual Bordeaux En Primeur campaign is on the cards. Unusual on account of COVID 19, with few merchants visiting the region to taste in situ and therefore we are reliant once more on samples being sent to the UK. Unusual given the timing of the campaign has been pushed back and in fact individual Châteaux are likely to adopt completely different release schedules, doing their best to judge the right time to release. Samples are still landing in the UK, and yet Cheval-Blanc has opted to be the first major release coming onto the market yesterday morning (11th May) at a price which is a fraction higher than last year.

There is no perfect substitute for tasting at the Châteaux – it has been proven to us time and again that visiting the individual Châteaux provides the best opportunity for assessment. Not only are the samples fresh, served at the correct temperature and vetted by trained staff, but we also gain an insight into the vintage via our conversations with numerous technical directors and winemakers.  This is all part of the professional enjoyment of a Bordeaux campaign, collecting commentary and piecing together the puzzle to understand how the region fared as a whole and which sub-regions and Châteaux excelled. Fortunately, the key Châteaux with whom we work, have embraced the idea of sending samples more widely than was the case last year and like every other field of commerce, Zoom tastings have become the accepted norm. All of this means that we have more direct contact than last year, which as you read through the following report you might see as more necessary than ever before in understanding this complicated vintage.

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Talking with Nicolas Audebert, Technical Director at Château Canon, highlighted how trying the vintage had proven. When asked for his thoughts on recent vintages and how he might choose to compare them, he alluded to a rugby match. His point was when you play a team and win with ease, without breaking a sweat, the feeling is not the same as when you have slogged it out to the very end and won a close fought battle by a few points. 2020 necessitated a lot of work in tricky circumstances and while the results are not homogenous, there are some very fine wines with great potential to reward efforts.

Recent Bordeaux vintages have followed a similar track: wet spring; dry, hot summer; warm, largely dry conditions at harvest. This has been the pattern with 2016, 2018, 2019 and now 2020. Unlike 2016 or 2019 however, 2020 was characterised by an early harvest. This was fortunate as an early budbreak and early flowering in warm spring conditions drew forward the eventual harvest date into September, largely ensuring harvest was completed in dry conditions, thereby avoiding the rains that came in October. This summary, however, only serves to mask the difficulties of the 2020 vintage.

Spring was very wet but also warm giving rise to downy mildew. Treatments for mildew were not only complicated by the wet ground but also by the COVID 19 restrictions. In fact, in a study produced by Gavin Quinney on, it was both the hottest and wettest May of the last ten years by some distance, following on the heels of the hottest April of the last ten years. To put the rainfall in perspective, 126mm fell in May and 111mm in April compared to 30-year averages of 78mm and 76mm respectively! If those statistics seem dramatic, the extremities of the climate in 2020 are underlined by the fact that the period March to September, essentially the growing season, was both wetter and warmer than the 30-year average. 560mm of rain fell in this period versus an average of 469mm and the average temperature for this period came in at 18.9 degrees versus an average of 18.2. Temperature-wise there is a comparison to the 2018 vintage, though there was far more rain in 2020. It is also worth bearing in mind that the rains that did come largely came in the form of overnight storms in May, June and August.

If you were to consider this to be a vintage characterised by high rainfall, you would get the wrong impression, as it was also a vintage characterised by a lengthy period of drought. There were 54 days of drought between the 18th June and the 11th August according to Gavin Quinney’s in depth report and another 20 days where no rain fell after the last weekend in August. The ground water reserves were therefore very welcome.

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Guillaume Pouthier at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion termed it a year for clay-based terroirs as these soils were able to provide valuable moisture to the vines in even the driest and hottest periods. He compared 2020’s extreme heat to the conditions witnessed in 2003. In 2020, there were 13 days that exceeded 35 degrees compared to 14 days in 2003. However, the results are very different indeed; the key difference being that rains did come in 2020, heat didn’t extend in the same way into the evening, and Château owners have become much more adept at handling hotter vintages. The attributes of terroirs came into sharp focus in 2020, as they needed to be able to deal with the early risk of frost in late March that comes with a warm spring, the significant downpours that punctuated the growing season and then they needed to be able to provide some moisture to the drought-afflicted vines. 

Given that list of requirements, it is unsurprising that the vintage has been described by critics and Château owners as being both capable of high quality and variable – not every terroir will have succeeded in such conditions. Responsible for one of the vintage’s successes, Véronique Sanders’ team at Château Haut-Bailly termed it ‘a vintage that was filled with unprecedented challenges, but also highlighted the incredible power of adaptation and our capacity to think on our feet’.

For the most part harvest was uncomplicated, taking place in drier conditions than are common to Bordeaux. Mid-September had a spike of heat where temperatures hit the early to mid-30s, which also had an impact on the style of the vintage as it followed a dry period that ran from the end of August. Around 22nd September, the weather turned and there were several days of rain, but by this time a large part of the Merlot harvest had been gathered and certainly it was concluded before the end of September. Many Cabernets took advantage of a return to favourable conditions around 28th September when rain abated.

You will no doubt have gained the impression that the weather in 2020 wasn’t easily typecast – there were completely different challenges at different points. Yields are down, firstly on account of downy mildew in the spring inhibiting flowering, and secondly the lack of moisture leading to smaller berries and therefore less juice. That said, I am never a fan of generalisations particularly as they are seldom suited to a region as vast and diverse as Bordeaux. Terroir and the composition of the vineyard subsoils is crucial in 2020 – you will find a freshness and juiciness in the wines of the best sited vineyards, crucially those with clay-limestone soils. Timing was also everything; Merlot started to be harvested before that September heat spike and was largely in before the wet weather returned. This will be a huge plus point for those wines that incorporate established Merlot. Young-vine Merlot or those with shallower root systems will have struggled, but older vines with a deep network of established roots will have found moisture in the clay sub-soil – and the clay did not necessarily need to be famous clay – satellite appellations like the Fronsac could well turn up some surprises.

As conceded in my opening paragraph, my tastings are only part way through on account of the arrival of samples. The wines I have tasted so far have suggested there is some serious potential apparent in a number of wines in 2020, but it seems far more variable than 2019. Some of the wines miss a certain juiciness and can show some dry tannins. The best capture wonderfully ripe fruit, they do not disguise their origins in a hotter vintage but neither have they lost freshness and poise despite their evident richness. Unsurprisingly, the right bank of Bordeaux has become a focal point and I have tasted some hugely impressive Pomerol and St. Emilion, where the proportion of Merlot is of course high. 

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In the Graves, there are some exceptional wines too, which show a richness of fruit but a balance that perhaps belies the nature of the vintage. In these areas, I have tasted some wines which resemble a later-harvest vintage like 2016, which is startling given the vintage context (2016 was a later harvest and 2020 earlier). I expect, as I taste further through the Medoc, we may well see some significant variation.

St-Estèphe is more than likely to have succeeded due to the clay content of some of its soils as well as an occasionally higher percentage of Merlot in the blend. Pauillac and St-Julien may have had more challenges. Cabernet Sauvignon yields were down by a quarter with smaller berries due to the drought conditions, but the vines did not suffer the same problem as in 2003 with photosynthesis being blocked (with a consequent potential for harder tannins). While August was dry it was not unusually hot, so the vines merely slowed in their sugar accumulation, resulting in slightly lower alcohol levels than we’ve seen in recent years. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in extraction; with such low skin to juice ratios for Cabernet, a measured approach needed to be taken and where judged correctly the resultant wines have been highly successful.

One final word on wine style; pH is an important determinant of freshness in wines. It more accurately reflects freshness as we perceive it than total acidity. The danger in 2020, as was the case in 2018, is that some of the pHs can seem a touch high, which presents no problems in tasting and enjoying young wines, indeed this can flatter the wines at an early stage. However, as they age, the higher pH will become more apparent and therefore longer-term cellarage may not prove so rewarding. Results vary across Bordeaux and it is not commonplace for each and every Château to publish the pH for their wines in their marketing literature, but in a vintage like 2020, it may well prove a qualitative factor, as it is clear that not all wines will necessarily make beautiful old bones.

In summary, 2020 was a tumultuous vintage, compounded by difficulties: frost risk, sodden ground, downy mildew, unseasonal heat, drought, thunderstorms with heavy rainfall, dramatic summer heat, more drought, an early harvest just before or around the time when wet weather returned. If any viticultural team can stand up to these issues in a year where we are all too aware of the COVID 19 situation, it is a very complete audit of their capabilities and they should be applauded. The fact that they have made some exceptional wines among a backdrop of good to very good wines merely increases the praise. Attentiveness and adaptation are the watch-words in vineyards across the world today and, given the changes in weather pattern and climate, they are nothing short of a modern-day necessity.

Simon Larkin MW

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