2020 Bordeaux En Primeur: Almost Back to Normal
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JUNE 01, 2021
Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes
Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites
Two thousand-twenty was a year of ups and downs. A number of challenges during the growing season kept vineyard managers and winemakers on their toes, just as the world grappled with the most serious health crisis in living memory. Now that the 2020s are being released en primeur, the Bordelais refer to the vintage as the third in a ‘trilogy’ that includes 2018 and 2019, but it’s not always easy to separate the marketing buzz from reality. How did the wines turn out?
In tasting, the 2020s impress for a combination of energy and vibrancy that is hugely appealing, for reasons I explain in more detail below.
Pessac-Léognan is the most successful appellation as a whole, most likely because the timing and amount of summer rains worked very well with where vineyards were in their ripening cycles. Of course, Pessac-Léognan is really two appellations, but for this purpose I will consider them together. Yes, the top names are magnificent, but there’s more to it than that. I was especially struck by the quality of both the second wines at top properties as well as by wines from a number of more modest châteaux. It is that depth that leads me to believe that Pessac-Léognan did exceptionally well in 2020.
Looking farther afield, readers will find many fabulous wines on both the Left and Right Banks, but on a château-by-château basis. Especially on the Left Bank, many wines feel super-classic, with mid-weight structures and low-ish alcohol levels that have not been seen in a number of years. Based on what I have tasted so far, I don’t see the consistency of 2019 or possibly even 2018, and yet the best 2020s are incredibly exciting. These may very well be wines that only truly blossom with many years in bottle.
Saskia de Rothschild and Technical Eric Kohler share their views on 2020 at Lafite-Rothschild. Don’t get me wrong, but I will be quite happy when Zoom tastings are a thing of the past.
The 2020 Growing Season – An Overview
Two thousand twenty saw its fair share of challenges in the field. I won’t go into a full recap of the weather during 2020, as Neal Martin did an exceptional job in his article Vingt-Vingt Vins: Bordeaux 2020 in conveying all the specifics of the year in tremendous detail. Instead, I will focus on key events throughout the year.
Rainfall during the end of 2019 and early 2020 was far above historical averages. Warm weather in early 2020 triggered an early start to the vegetative cycle that would be a theme for the entire season. After a spell of colder temperatures in March, warm weather returned in April and May, both among the warmest on record. Abundant rain and elevated temperatures created the conditions for widespread outbreaks of mildew. “We had almost 100mm of rain in just a few days, around May 10,” Mouton-Rothschild Technical Director Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy relayed. “That created two challenges: dealing with the risk of mildew, and just being able to get into the vineyards to work. Ultimately, our growing season from bud-break to harvest was a bit longer than usual, 185 days as opposed to 178.”
“Mildew was far less dangerous in 2020 than it was in 2018," Lafite-Rothschild Technical Director Eric Kohler explained. “In 2020, mildew pressure started before flowering, in 2018 it peaked during flowering and lasted longer. Overall, timing of heat events was also more beneficial in 2020.” That feeling seems to be backed up by fact, as very few estates reported heavy crop losses due to mildew, unlike 2018. This is especially remarkable, as COVD-19 created all sort of logistical challenges in organizing work crews, especially with essentially no notice as key weather events unfolded. Many estates relied on skeleton staffs to do critical spraying. Surely the very recent experiences of 2018 also provided quite a bit of learning that was applied in 2020.
"We now have 2/3rds of the estate certified biodynamic," Oliver Bernard told me at Domaine de Chevalier. "Curiously, yields were higher in our biodynamic vineyards than in our conventionally farmed sites. Flowering was two weeks ahead of schedule, but we had good weather in June. Yields were 38 hectoliters per hectare, and would have been higher if not for some dehydration in the Cabernets later in the year.”
I was curious about the differences between mildew on the Left Bank versus the Right Bank. According to Nicolas Auderbert, who oversees Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Canon in Saint-Émilion (and now Berliquet as well) “the outbreak of mildew was pretty similar in both Margaux and Saint-Émilion, but for us, it was harder to manage at Rauzan because we have a patchwork of vineyards spread out across the appellation and vineyard age is quite variable. At Canon, on the other hand, we are essentially dealing with one large parcel, and more homogenous vine situation.”
Flowering was early, once again presaging a precocious harvest. June and July turned exceptionally warm and dry, with elevated temperatures and essentially no rain for 54-55 days between mid-June and mid-August. This was the first of three critical periods that began to define the harvest, as stress events always separate great terroirs and old vines from less favored sites and younger vineyards that have not developed the root systems to deal with severe heat, drought and rain and therefore experience heat stress leading to blocked ripening.
Speaking of rain, it finally arrived in early August, around the 9th, and lasted for a few days. This is the second key event of the year. The variability of rain from the southern Médoc to the North, and then over to the Right Bank was significant. Some examples of August rain measurements are Lafite-Rothschild (110mm), Dufort-Vivens (100mm), Issan (70mm), Domaine de Chevalier (68mm) and Château Margaux (80mm). But the amount of rain does not tell the entire story, because it is the combination of rain with a specific point in the vegetative cycle that ultimately determines the final result. A small amount of rain at the worst time can be more damaging than a large amount of rain during a time the vines are less vulnerable. Of course, conditions were far more nuanced than that, but that is a general idea.
The final phase of ripening saw strong diurnal shifts, with warm days and cool nights, always beneficial for reaching full physiological ripeness while preserving freshness. A number of estates reported dehydration on the vine for Cabernet Sauvignon, which in turn led to smaller berries and lower juice yields. “Two weeks of drying winds in September concentrated the Cabernet Sauvignon,” Véronique Sanders told me at Haut-Bailly. Yields were 37 hectoliters per hectare, 25% down from 2019, most of that attributable to smaller berries and lower juice yields in Cabernet relative to the Merlot.” Rains in late September, around the 25th, began to close the window on harvest, which ended a few days later, for properties that still had fruit on the vine.
In the cellar, winemakers opted for the gentler style of vinification that is increasingly common in Bordeaux, with pumpovers favored over punchdowns, in this vintage perhaps with slightly lower volumes of wine being moved during punchdowns. Most winemakers I spoke with were afraid to overextract, and proceeded with caution, using low-ish temperatures and avoiding long cuvaisons. As always, it is impossible not to note the continued drive by the top names to improve quality. New cellars have been popping up for years now. Montrose, Pavie, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Pichon Comtesse and many others have state of the art facilities. But those are all big names. That trend is now expanding to estates further down the quality hierarchy. For example, d’Armailhac and Duhart-Milon have new wineries, as does Angélus, with a new facility dedicated to Carillon and No. 3, the château’s second and third wines.
The one significant benefit of tasting from home is the ability to follow wines over a period of hours and days, if desired.
The 2020s in Tasting
The most important signature of 2020 is a balance of richness and energy that is highly unusual. The wines sizzle with brightness and mineral-drenched vibrancy. Cold nights at the end of the season were a huge help in that regard. Other winemakers opined that a slightly higher seed count helps explain freshness in the wines. Two thousand twenty is not consistent across the board, so some selection is necessary, but the most successful wines are unquestionably dazzling.
On the Left Bank, many wines are incredibly reticent, certainly much more than we have become accustomed to over the last 10-15 years. I am thinking about wines like Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Pichon Comtesse and Leoville Las Cases, all of which are quite classic in feel, with low-ish alcohols and a construction that is more about linearity and persistence rather than volume. Alcohol levels alone never tell the full story, but readers may find interesting to see Lafite at 12.8% and Château Margaux at 13.5%, for example. Interestingly, IPT levels (a measure of phenolic intensity) are pretty high across the board.
Moving over to the Right Bank, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion received far less rain in August than the Médoc, so the vintage is more defined by intense summer heat and lack of rain. Many states on the famed limestone/plateau did exceptionally well. In fact, these are some of the most exciting wines of the vintage, as they offer a breathtaking interplay of fruit richness and saline intensity. I am thinking about wines like Pavie, Clos Fourtet, Canon among others. Many Right Bank reds are defined by feeling of soaring vertical energy that is quite different from the days when opulence ruled above all else. La Conseillante, L’If, Figeac, these are all wines that seem to soar out of the glass and into the sky. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit much, but the wines really do have that shape.
I was also quite taken with the dry whites. Quite honestly, I was not expecting the whites to be so strong. I can’t say 2020 is an exceptional vintage for Bordeaux’s dry whites, but it is a very good year. Harvest began as early as mid-August, which is unheard of. Or, I should say, was unheard of. The best dry whites certainly have plenty of cut and vitality. I was impressed.
In Sauternes, the vintage is uneven. Yields were down significantly. Some estates reported only a narrow window for the development of botrytis. Rieussec comes to mind. Production will be down sharply. Still, many of the wines I tasted were quite promising, even if only a few will be truly profound.
How I Tasted The Wines
Once again, COVID-19 made travel to France impossible. On that subject, I have to say that several châteaux’s desire to place the responsibility for the travel situation on tasters and choices we were forced to make, rather than on an unprecedented global health crisis, including France’s relatively slow distribution of vaccines, in extremely poor taste. For the sake of comparison, had my April/May tastings required a trip to California rather than Bordeaux estate visits would have been no problem whatsoever. Dear château owners: the tasters who did not visit you this year did not do so because they were unable to, but rather because the health situation in your country did not allow it. Period.
I sampled all the wines at my home in New York, plus a few wines in Italy just as this article went to press. It’s interesting to compare the 2021 tastings with those of last year. Samples this year arrived in better shape and no doubt benefitted from all of the lessons of last year. There were a few cases where samples got stuck in customs and required a second shipment, but they were few and far between. In the best cases, samples were pulled on a Monday and arrived in New York just two days later. Time and again, the samples were in impressively good shape. That’s the positive of 2021. Far harder to deal with was the very long arc of time between the first and last wines to arrive. At times, I thought I would never finish these tastings!
Last year, on the other hand, the powers that be decided at the last minute there would be an en primeur campaign. Samples were then hurried off to writers around the world. All the wines arrived within a much shorter period of time. That created huge logistical challenges, but at least the wines could be tasted within a pretty narrow period of time, which is a far more realistic approximation of how the wines are tasted when en primeur can happen in person.
Lastly, I place a great of importance on the timeliness and condition in which samples are delivered. Those châteaux that deliver their samples in impeccable condition and in a timely fashion probably pay a great amount of attention to every detail, while those that cut corners in preparing and shipping samples almost certainly make the same kinds of decisions in all aspects of their operations. On a housekeeping note, a number of estates chose not to submit barrel samples. These include Le Pin, Cheval Blanc, Ausone (and the Vauthier properties), Ducru Beaucaillou, Petrus, Palmer and Latour. Neal and I will endeavor to taste these wines as soon as possible. From a practical perspective, Neal will be in Bordeaux before I will, so his notes will be added first.
This sample from Figeac was prepared on a Monday and arrived at my home in New York in perfect shape less than 48 hours later.
The Notable Wines of 2020
These aren’t necessarily the highest scoring wines, but rather those that stood out on my tastings for various reasons as explained below.
Angélus – The move towards gentler winemaking and the decision to age a significant portion of the Cabernet Franc in cask are two of the recent choices that gave Angélus an added level of finesse that simply was not present in the recent past.
Beychevelle – This Saint-Julien estate has been on a roll lately. The 2020 is an especially fine effort that balances opulence and energy.
Bourgneuf – This has been one of most improved wines in Pomerol of late.
Branaire-Ducru – A Branaire of unusual depth and textural richness, the 2020 is another stellar showing from the Maroteaux family.
Brane Cantenac – Henri Lurton and his team crafted a majestic, towering Brane Cantenac with tons of potential for the future.
Clos de L’Oratoire – Canon La Gaffelière and La Mondotte usually get most of the attention in Stephan von Neipperg’s range, but Clos de L’Oratoire deserves a special mention in 2020.
Clos Fourtet – The 2020 is another towering achievement from the Cuvelier family that shows just how privileged this site is. A truly special and moving wine.
Clos de la Molénie Blanc – This 100% Sauvignon Blanc from proprietors Sylvain and Kim Destrieux and thit tiny vineyard in Entre-Deux-Mers is one of the most impressive whites I tasted this year. Organic farming, native ferments and aging on the lees yields a Sauvignon Blanc of real character and personality.
Clos L’Eglise – The 2020 is one of the best wines I have tasted from Hélène Garcin and Patrice Lévêque.
Domaine de Chevalier – An utterly brilliant wine from Olivier Bernard. And the Blanc is not too far behind.
Grand-Puy-Lacoste – All of the finesse of Pauillac in a memorable wine from Francois-Xavier Borie.
Haut-Brion – A towering achievement from Estate Director Jean-Philippe Delmas and his team, as well as one of the truly epic 2020s. La Mission is not too far behind. It will likely be neck and neck for these two great wines for the next several decades. And both second wines are fabulous, too.
Lafon-Rochet – A superb showing from Basile Tesseron. It’s all class, elegance and finesse in the 2020.
Larcis Ducasse – Another brilliant vintage from Estate Manager Nicolas Thienpont and longtime consulting winemaker Stephane Derenoncourt. Larcis may very well be the single most under the radar, pedigreed château in Saint-Émilion.
Laroque – Estate Manager David Suire continues to elevate quality as this reborn Saint-Émilion property.
Léoville Las-Cases – A classic, classic wine from Jean-Hubert Delon and his team.
L'Eglise-Clinet – One of the truly monumental wines of 2020. It’s hard to accept that Denis Durantou is no longer with us. The 2020 points to a bright future under the direction of sisters Constance and Noëmie.
L'Évangile – A new chapter for this Pomerol estate, and arguably the most Lafite-like L'Évangile yet. Superb.
L’If – A Saint-Émilion of explosive vertical energy more than heft, L’If is a tremendous example of the year at its best. It’s a fabulous achievement from Cyrille Thienpont for proprietors Jacques Thienpont and Fiona Morrison MW.
Le Prieuré – Technical Director Pénélope Godefroy has taken the farming and winemaking principles she learned at Latour and the other Artemis Group properties and applied them at Siaurac, Vray Croix de Gay, and the crown jewel Le Prieuré, all of which are now owned by French insurance company Suravenir. The results have been nothing short of remarkable.
Les Carmes Haut-Brion – Yet another lights-out effort from Technical Director Guillaume Pouthier. Dazzling
Léoville-Poyferré – Readers won’t be surprised by this mention here. Sara Lecompte Cuvelier has done a magnificent job since she took over the estate a few years ago.
Margaux – One of three most monumental wines of the year, Margaux is unforgettable. It’s a tremendous effort from the team led by Estate Manager Philippe Bascaules.
Pavie – The 2020 may very well turn out to be one of the greatest wines Gérard Perse has ever made. I can seldom recall a Pavie with so much life, so much vibrancy.
Petit Gravet Aîné – One of the true under the radar gems of Bordeaux. A magnificent wine from proprietor Catherine Papon Nouvelle.
Phélan Ségur – Another brilliant effort from a property that continues to make huge strides in quality.
Pichon Baron – The 2020 is an especially soaring, pure Pauillac that impressed me deeply.
Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande – The 2020 is not as obvious as some other recent vintages, but it will give readers a very good idea of the style of the vintage at its best.
Pontet Canet – A wine of tremendous purity of fruit and majestic balance.
Smith Haut-Lafitte – The new style here, which favors gentler extractions, places Smith Haut-Lafitte in the company of the best wines of the year.
Tour Saint-Christophe – This Saint-Émilion has never been better. The 2020 marries richness with elegance to a degree I have not seen here previously.
Trotanoy – Another benchmark wine for the year, Trotanoy has just as much finesse and power in 2020.
Valandraud – Jean-Luc Thunevin and Murielle Andraud made a truly unforgettable Valandraud in 2020.
Estate Manager Philippe Bascaules and the team at Château Margaux made two absolutely riveting wines in 2020 (I have not tasted the Pavillon Blanc yet).
So much of the attention in Bordeaux is focused on the elite names, and then those estates that aspire to that level. Don’t get me wrong. Those wines can be amazing, and they are unquestionably reference points. But Bordeaux is so much more than wines where a single bottle can cost the same as a monthly car payment. The older I get the more joy I personally find in wine that over-deliver. This is a short list of some of my favorite affordable Bordeaux. These wines will offer 15-20 years of exceptional drinking, perhaps more, as readers can see from my recent retrospective of the 2005s, where so many wines in this category showed exceptionally well. Best of all, most, if not all, of these selections also remain very fairly priced.
· Baron de Brane
· de Pez
· Domaine de L'A
· Domaine Simon Blanchard Au Champ de la Fenêtre
· Gigault Cuvée Viva
· Belle Coline
· Clos Puy Arnaud
· Gree Laroque
· Hostens-Picant Cuvée d'Exception Lucullus
· La Gurgue
· La Lagune
· La Vieille Cure
· Laurence Blanc Sec
· Le Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue
· Le Pin Beausoleil
· Les Charmes Godard
· Le Thil
· Les Grands Maréchaux
· Tour Bayard
A Big Thank You
This report, like all of our articles, highlights the achievements of some of the most important estates and wines in the world. Most of the credit invariably goes to owners, vineyard managers, winemakers, consultants and other specialists who make that happen. Fair enough. But behind them are thousands of other professionals who do far less glamorous jobs. They prepare hundreds of samples; they track every shipment to make sure it arrives safely and in good condition; they schedule what must feel like an endless number of Zoom calls with people around the world, then gracefully deal with last minute changes when samples don’t arrive on time; they respond to a barrage of email promptly. To all of those professionals, some of whom we interact with, and some of whom I have never met, I would just like to say Thank You for everything you do.
© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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