"The Heroic Vintage": Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur Vintage Report

Well here we are again, with Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur on the near horizon and a whole new set of wines for collectors and Club Members to get stuck into. Like last year the tasting halls of La Place in Bordeaux are plaintively silent with Primeurs delayed due to another wave of Covid in France, so this will likely be another virtual campaign largely run from mobile phones and computer screens. That being said, the Union des Grands Crus managed to pull this off impressively well last year and we are confident they will make it work again with the 2020 vintage.

But what of 2020? It’s often said that great vintages come in pairs: 2009 & 2010, 2015 & 2016, 2018 & 2019 are recent examples – rarely do they come in trilogies however. So, can the Bordelais do it again in the upcoming Bordeaux En Primeur 2020 campaign? Based from our conversations with key growers and commentators the answer is a resounding “yes!”, with vignerons rising above the challenges of the year to produce wines of incredible freshness, vivacity and structure.

That doesn't mean the wines are uniformly great. As we will see, the growing season was far from picture perfect, but we're confident that rather than fall into the shadow of 2019 and 2018, 2020 will stand alongside them, and all the bolder for having surpassed greater challenges.

The Growing Season

As always Gavin Quinney’s report comes highly recommended for a detailed look into the 2020 growing season, but here is the essential story. Everything happened much faster than usual, with bud-break occurring almost unprecedently early in mid-March. Winter and spring were extremely wet and many estates faced mildew pressure, like in 2018, although the technical team from leading chateaux were fortunately well prepared. Flowering began in May, almost a full month earlier than in 2019, and a good thing too. Had it happened later in June there would have been huge rainfall & hail, creating more pressure on the vines.

When we spoke to Comtesse de Pichon Lalande’s Directeur General Nicolas Glumineau, he characterised recent years as having two seasons: one very wet and rainy, the other incredibly dry. Such was the case in 2020, with rainclouds receding into the distance and leaving a long summer drought in their wake. Whilst this helped to resolve mildew pressure, it also introduced a new problem in the face of heat stress. This could have been decisive but, much like in 2019, a welcome blast of rain helped refresh vineyards in time for harvest.

Many vignerons had prepared for an early harvest, with picking for the whites starting in mid to late August for Smith Haut Lafitte. For the reds, Merlot harvest began in early September with Rauzan Segla starting on the 9th, and Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon bringing up the rear in late September, with Smith Haut Lafitte rounding off on the 31st and Pichon Comtesse finishing on 1st October. Most chateaux were finished by this point, another stroke of fortune as the heaven’s opened in early October with practically a month’s rain falling in less than a week.

Due to the dry summer and chaotic nature of the growing season yields are down in 2020, especially on the kaleidoscopic Left Bank where plots and vineyards form complex mosaics, whilst the more homogenous Right Bank is better equipped to deal with inconsistent climactic conditions. The worst hit are Southern Medoc appellations, Graves & Pessac-Leognan especially, where yields are down by as much as 20% from 2019.

The heat in September also led to thick skins, so picking at the right time was absolutely crucial in preserving freshness and acidity. As such there will be variance across the Left and Right Bank, and this is a vintage where the final wines will be defined not only by terroir, but also the technical skill of the winemaker.

Bordeaux Chateau
The illustrious Chateau Margaux

The Wines

And onto the wines themselves. On the back of two vintages in the shape of 2018 & 2019, the Bordelais were somewhat self-conscious about bigging up 2020 too much. However the early signs are that they have managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat yet again, with reports from vignerons and more recently James Suckling bursting with positivity for the vintage. “We have a trilogy” was the refrain, although one even greater than 1988, 1989 and 1990.

For Nicolas Glumineau this is a “heroic vintage”, whilst for Jean-Basile Roland of Rauzan Segla, Canon & Berliquet, the wines show “the magic of terroir”. “We have experienced an extraordinary vintage”, opines Directeur General Veronique Dausse of Phelan Segur, as well as a “fundamental” one for the Grand Vin, where years of work are finally paying off.

There is clearly something very special about 2020 – vignerons were faced with not only an incredibly challenging growing season, but also the restrictions and stress of the Covid-19 pandemic (Jean-Basile also characterised 2020 as a “virtual vintage”, with much of the team having to work remotely). This only makes it more rewarding that the wines have transcended the conditions. For Florence Cathiard and Ludovic Fradin of Smith Haut Lafitte, 2020 is a “year of surprises”, whilst Jean-Basile and the technical team were verging on incredulity with “freshness you could never imagine to occur in such a dry vintage”.

Over at Langoa Barton, Lilian & Damien Barton-Sartorius will also “definitely keep this vintage in mind for many many years”, not just because the “tannins are beautifully ripe” and the wines “have a wonderful fruit expression”, but also because of how the chateau faced the challenges of the year head-on and came out victorious.

On the Right Bank, Jonathan Maltus emphasises the importance of clay over limestone, suggesting these terroirs in St Emilion and Pomerol "were extremely successful in 2020". He goes on to say that 2018, 2019 and 2020 are "serious vintages". Similar reports are coming from other great Right Bank estates, with The Drinks Business' Colin Hay hearing from Marielle Cazaux of La Conseillante that Merlot and Cabernet Franc really overperformed, drawing comparison to 2016.

The wines themselves sound very attractive. Florence and Ludovic note an incredible “freshness, mineral tension, intensity and vibrant aromatics” in the whites, whilst the reds “display a structure that shows off with huge tannins, a great and chiseled length, with a precise texture and promises of aromatic elegance”. Over in Pichon Comtesse, Nicolas Glumineau describes 2020 as “an arrow of tannins and … a scarf of delicate beauty”. In Phelan Segur there is “complex mix of flowers and red fruit aromas” with more of that wonderful “freshness”.

In this respect the wines bear more comparison with 2018 than with 2019. Indeed during an interview with James Suckling, leading consultant oenologist Michel Rolland describes the 2020s as already “seductive”, whilst Suckling comments on the “ripeness” and “polish” of the tannins. Suckling goes further, writing that the “2020 vintage is an excellent one and compares favorably to 2019 and 2018”.

We've been slowly making our way through 2020 samples and although it's a bit early to generalise, our early impressions are of wines that are very engaging, full of joie de vivre and vigour. Pure, bright yet deep, pastille fruits, which run the spectrum of blue, black and red, are supported by smooth, ripe and creamy tannins, and a vein of spicy, or saline, acidity. The best finish with a refreshing sapidity.

More elegant, less weighty than 2018 but perhaps a touch richer and sweeter than 2019 (especially on the Right Bank), the quality of the Merlot is key (could be like 2015 in that regard) as the fruit needed to be both ripe but also fresh: on the Left Bank to support the later-picked Cabernet, when the weather was hotter, but more thundery; on the Right Bank to provide the infrastructure for balance and style.

“Charming” seems to pop up in Tom's tasting notes frequently, including wines from chateaux that tend towards a more robust style. “Harmonious”, “sophisticated”, “intense”, “classy” (rather than classic) are appearing quite a bit too. The best wines so far glide with a balance, precision and grace which appears almost effortless, all the more remarkable given the unique challenges the pandemic caused chateaux in 2020. In any case few wines appear overworked or give a sense of having to be pulled into shape in the winery.

The Market

Whereas few could fault the quality of the wines in recent years, the En Primeur system has certainly come under increased scrutiny from both collectors and merchants. Wine Lister’s characteristically insightful report (available for purchase here) continues to show Bordeaux’ grip on the fine wine market wane, with the dial swinging in the direction of Burgundy and Italy.

Many were surprised last year by significant price cuts during En Primeur 2019, with Pontet Canet getting the campaign off to a roaring start at a 30% discount to the 2018, despite a potential 100-point score from The Wine Advocate. Many more will hope that this wasn't just a gesture of magnanimity in the context of Covid, but an effective price reset. Indeed, lower prices similar to last year will incentivise collectors to buy on release and restore faith and confidence in the value of the En Primeur system.

According to Colin Hay, the market is better positioned for a successful Bordeaux campaign than last year due to the "modest appreciation of sterling" and the "suspension of US tariffs". Wine Lister’s Chloe Ashton told us that “price-wise, time will tell but I think trade and collectors alike will flock towards properties who priced sensibly in 2019 (and don't go crazy in 2020)”, a sentiment we definitely share. Certainly lower yields in 2020 and these tragic frosts in 2021 show a different picture, and chateaux will likely (and understandably) be keen to recuperate some of these losses. That being said, like our Bordeaux Summit last year we will continue to urge negociants and La Place to keep pricing sensible.

Tom's Buying Tips

As usual we will recommend a much tighter selection of chateaux than most merchants, keeping a very keen eye on both quality and pricing of releases in the upcoming campaign. It’s always worth identifying not just the best but also best value wines within each level, from cru Bourgeois up to the most senior Growths, and much like last year we are anticipating some exciting opportunities in 2020. We all have our favourite châteaux, and there are a number that are consistently reliable and from whom we expect great things again and then there are the hot new entries on to everyone’s hitlist!

The Le Dome Winery
The new Le Dome Winery designed by Norman Foster

During our series of illuminating Wine Therapy Sessions, we heard encouraging reports about Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac, the Barton labels in St Julien, Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Leognan and Jonathan Maltus’ top St Emilions, soon to be housed in their new Norman Foster designed winery. We are also excited about St Estephe’s “Super Seconds”, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose, and the commune’s Cru Bourgeois star turn of last year, Phelan Segur. There is the perennial 1er Cru tussle between Mouton and Lafite for top Rothschild Pauillac, whilst nearby Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet and the excellent value Grand Puy Lacoste never lack for admirers. Neither too do Saint Julien’s “other” Leovilles… Meanwhile I’m always left deciding between Branaire Ducru and Gloria from this cherished appellation.

Further south, Château Palmer is continually challenging Margaux for top spot, whilst Giscours and Rauzan Segla continue their runs of form. In Pessac Leognan Haut Bailly, Pape Clement, and Domaine de Chevalier always command attention. On the highest rung First Growth Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion vie to be The Guv’nor of The Graves, whilst I'm happily squirreling away cases of more modest Malartic Lagraviere.

Over on the Right Bank, Figeac, Le Dôme, and Quintus all have more than half an eye on elevation in the 2022 St Emilion re-classification – strong 2020 vintage showings will set them in good stead, with the former hoping to join Premier Cru Classé “A”s Cheval Blanc and Ausone at the top of the tree. The continuing renaissance and rise of Troplong Mondot and Canon respectively are also worth supporting. To Pomerol – and can L’Evangile repeat its potential 100-point score? Will Clinet capture the hearts of the critics again? What new miniscule production properties will seek to enter the big leagues?

As always our excitement is tempered by caution – whilst there is going to be to some great Bordeaux from 2020, in a year with so many challenges, it pays dividends to choose carefully. Most of all we suggest you focus predominantly on those wines that you want to collect for your future drinking pleasure!

If you'd like to hear more about the vintage and receive offers as they come in, please register interest.