Bordeaux 2020: a matter of interpretation

Bordeaux’s 2020 vintage is turning out to be a highly anticipated one for a number of reasons. First, it has the advantage of displaying the symbolic number of twenty – a figure that rhymes with wine in French – twice, and side by side to boot. This has led many wine marketing professionals to predict that interest in this vintage will be keen, as it has the added factor of being the year of the Covid-19 outbreak around the world with its cargo of uncertainty and stress, not to forget the economic upheaval and the constant need to adapt to circumstances. Also in the equation of future success is the fact that it is yet another Bordeaux vintage affected in a seemingly beneficial way by the climatic trend that many describe as global warming. To top it all, 2020 joins a rousing run of highly qualitative Bordeaux vintages that began notably with 2016.

The spring of 2020 was marked by rainy but relatively mild weather, and this had the double effect of replenishing the water table and leading to rapid and significant growth of buds and leaves. While France was locked down in combat position during the pandemic crisis, winegrowers had to fight against the dreaded plant disease known as downy mildew. It was so widespread and intense that, in the words of Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, technical director of Château Mouton Rothschild “we thought that we were heading for a repeat of the 2018 vintage.” Thomas Duroux, director of Château Palmer in the Margaux appellation – where the farming is biodynamic – concurs, noting that its impact “was strong, especially in May, after nearly 100 millimeters of rain during the second weekend”. However, thanks to the experience acquired when mildew mayhem spread through the vines with a vengeance in 2018, in most instances, the fungal disease was this time round more easily contained, even though crop loss did attain around 10 to 15% in certain regions of Bordeaux.

Philippe Bascaules, director of Château Margaux recalls that “the rapid, condensed flowering took place around May 20,” but points out that “the number of bunches was relatively low, which resulted in low yields, around 20% less than in 2019,” so this crop loss could even occur for properties that were relatively unaffected by a problem of mildew.

From June 20 on, the region was hit by a prolonged heat wave that lasted until August 10. “We experienced the most deficient water balance of the past 50 years,” is how Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director of Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion, describes it. Thus, after a rainy and mild spring, the vines had to face the onslaught of a long, hot summer. The young vines soon experienced hydric stress while the older ones could rely on their deeper roots to absorb welcome moisture from the water table. This dry, even drought-like, weather was a vector of differentiation in the quality of the wines, and adaptive wine-growing strategies were necessary to help the vines get through their ordeal with happy results.

Vineyard work has made immense progress in Bordeaux, but it is apparent that all the properties do not share the same vision or strategy. The smartest players rethink their strategies based on the vintage conditions, but there remain others who seem to rely on ready-made recipes that stay the same year after year. It seems clear, though, that an haute-couture approach to viticulture, one that uses a deft and delicate handling of the vines, can help limit the harmful impact of shock weather events that are so recurrent in this era of climate disruption. “We have made so much progress in the vineyard that we are able to adapt and soften the blow of the extreme conditions on the vines. We realize that there is more rainfall today than 20 years ago, and the winter and spring rains create adequate water reserves. The vines continue to thrive thanks to these reserves”, explains Thomas Duclos, consultant and partner at Oenoteam, a small but dynamic company of in-the-field oenologists.

This aspect of water management was a crucial element of the vintage. Working the soil, fine-tuning crop evapotranspiration by reducing the canopy, amending vineyard soils with potash and many other elements; these are becoming essential steps to enable the vines to regulate their water needs and cope with the long dry periods. Such meticulous vineyard practices can prevent or at least attenuate hydric stress that tends to shut down the grape growing activity of the vine, enabling the grapes to ripen slowly, gradually and hopefully fully, without suffering the slings and arrows of disruptive climate extremes. Not only has meticulous viticulture become the cornerstone for the production of a great wine, a reactive and adaptive mindset of the winegrower has become equally de rigueur. A revolution is underway, and in my opinion, it accounts for the aesthetic differences in the style and quality of Bordeaux wines today. The heterogeneity that one encounters when tasting the 2020 primeur wines does not result so much from differences of terroir and grape varieties, as evidenced by the fact that there are even some underperforming wines produced from quality terroirs on clay-limestone or even plain limestone soils, and so normally having adequate water reserves. Any disappointment with the result comes rather from the vineyard management strategies implemented at some properties, which reflects how the vintage conditions were interpreted by the team in place.

This is my take on the vintage, which goes counter to that of some of my colleagues, who tend to affirm that 2020 is a vintage defined by its drought conditions. What I believe is more nuanced. While it was a hot, dry year, any lack of water could be dealt with by implementing the aforementioned haute-couture approach. As noted by the thoughtful Baptiste Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur in Pomerol, “We have very warm winters” but there are then spells of heat during “the transitional periods such as March-April-May and September-October-November. Heat accumulation in fact occurs mostly during the winter, and not during the summer. Global warming is opening a new passageway for us toward vintages that are less classic. We have everything to gain from this situation, but we can also lose everything. When it comes to today’s climatology, we can go from Cornwall to Castile in just a few days. The vine has to be able to adapt to such sudden changes in weather conditions. ”

Adaption is the name of the game today. It has become all the more imperative when rainfall is as heavy and sudden as that which occurred on August 10 and 11 in 2020. On the right bank, the cumulative rainfall was 30 millimeters, allowing the plant to be refreshed and reinvigorated prior to yet another heatwave that lasted until the harvest. On the other hand, on the left bank, the rainfall sometimes exceeded 130 millimeters, as was the case in Saint-Julien and Pauillac, while Margaux and Saint-Estèphe had a bit less. Certainly, this precipitation helped the vine to restart its growth cycle. However, as it is better understood today, when this stop and go phase occurs in those crucial periods of late summer and early September, the vine tends to focus its energy and survival instinct on its overall vigor, and not on the phenolic ripening that affects tannin quality. This, in my opinion, explains the presence of some rather rigid tannic structure for some reds, which at times also have unwelcome varietal notes – particularly those from the left bank, and notably Pessac-Léognan -, which is a sign that optimal maturity was not reached in some sectors. Certainly, the dry weather had an impact on the emphatically tannic style of some wines, but in some cases so did choices made during the extraction phase of vinification that apparently did not take sufficiently into account the vintage conditions, which seemed to cry out for a gentler, more precise hand in the winery for this crucial stage.

After these August rains, a period of fine weather returned. An added benefit was the fact that the nights were relatively cool, and this favoured a slower ripening of the berries. There was, however, a downside: the return of high temperatures in early September and lasting during the harvest, which was another curious turn of events during the growing season. Temperatures as high as nearly 36 ° C in the shade at noontime made it necessary to rearrange the picking schedules and / or to have cooling systems in place for berries as soon as they were picked. This was to avoid hot grapes that could lead to high temperatures in the vats with fermentation starting too quickly, which has the effect of extracting harsh tannins. As Thomas Duclos explains, Bordeaux “has made a lot of progress in how the grapes are handled at harvest time, including sending picking teams into the vines early in the morning before stopping at 11 am, and handling the grapes with care at every step.” Thanks to such practices, the best 2020 wines have aromatic radiance as well as astounding vibrancy and energy on the palate. The producers of such wines shrewdly judged the optimal maturity of the grapes and so carefully chose their picking dates but also the right early morning time slots for this activity in order to to preserve freshness and precise aromas. In the words of Pierre-Olivier Clouet of Château Cheval Blanc, “a hot day in September has the effect of several days in October.”

Global warming, advances in understanding grape growing and berry ripeness have turned the tables on the conventional wisdom of the past. A key case in point is choice of crucial dates, which has a profound effect on a wine’s style. One of the beneficial aspects of global warming is that the winegrowers are no longer at the mercy of Mother Nature imposing her dates; properties now have a choice, opening the door to possibilities that make a new vintage, as the article’s title suggests, a matter of interpretation.

By being able to carefully gauge grape ripeness, the best producers are able to elaborate wines that have a degree of terroir expression hitherto rarely seen. It is when precise fruit profiles and nuanced aromas form the style of a wine that such terroir expression can stand out, making apparent the influence of the full array of terroir elements including soil and exposition. Behind us is the era of the first decade of the new millennium when excessive grape ripeness and oak influence were the norm. Wines stand out now for their innate quality and character, and not for flashy extremes that failed to disguise a tendency to stylistic homogenization. We know today from our tasting experiences that many wines made in this once fashionable manner have not stayed the distance.

For the multiple reasons described above, 2020 seems to be a year of interpretation and strategy. This is a singular vintage, both for its climatic conditions and for the aesthetic style of the wines, many of which are magnificent. They are so distinctive that it seems almost impossible to compare 2020 to other vintages, even though it can be said that the most successful have the acidity of 2016, the aromatic splendor of 2018 and the dense but airy textures of 2019.

As for the climatic conditions, according to Baptiste Guinaudeau, “2020 seemed to be like the addition of several vintages,” and so there was a need to make risky choices at times while carrying out the sort of precise, pinpoint work both in the vines and in the cellar described earlier as an haute-couture approach. This is how the element of interpretation of vintage character comes to the fore, making the assertion of stylistic identity even more evident than ever before. This outlook underlies a sort of mantra intoned by Guillaume Pouthier of Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion: “2020 is a year of convictions and renunciations. To choose is to renounce something “… Never has the range of possibilities been so great in the region, nor the quality so high. Indeed, all the cards, so to speak, have been reshuffled.

As proof of this, it pays to consider the 2020 vintage reports rife with an impressive array of statistical data. Quite frankly, I do not find them very pertinent when it comes to describing this vintage, especially when the data presented is truncated. Vintages cannot be boiled down to just a few figures; they need to be understood in the context of what was experienced in the vineyard. I made a deliberate choice not to rush to judgment right after the harvest and so did not publish a vintage report then, because this vintage seemed to be so unique with aspects never seen before.  Any claim to be able to evaluate such different vintages as those of recent years by using such raw data amounts to heresy, in my view.

The same goes for oenological analyses, which are no longer adequate to describe or account for the quality of wine produced in such a singular vintage. How can we explain that, despite very high TPIs* but also high pHs**, reaching as much as 3.8 for some wines, that the wines are so fresh, vibrant, juicy, and elegant? Based on just the raw data, they should be dense, heavy, and tannic.

More than ever, beneficial change is underway in Bordeaux as exceptional vintages, each with its singularity, follow one another. Meticulous viticultural work is now de rigueur, as is the goal of optimal grape ripeness.  This incredible trio of vintages, 2018, 2019 and 2020, should make all the major players of Bordeaux, be they institutional or producers on the ground, think twice before planting other grape varieties other than the traditional Bordeaux ones as a measure to meet the challenges of climate change. It seems clear that steps taken to adapt one’s viticulture to increasingly dry periods during the year should suffice without having to turn to Portuguese grape varieties, among others, as a potential panacea. I am convinced that Bordeaux is at a turning point. Terroir expression is now the goal, and the preponderant role of the outside consultant bringing his or her style to a wine must give way to it. This is a welcome trend, especially for wine lovers who seek wines bearing a stamp of identity that comes from their place of origin and not from the cooper and the influence of oak aging.

It is just as problematic to propose a vintage evaluation with an appellation-by-appellation approach. As we have seen, the interpretation of the vintage by each estate made a major difference in the personality of the wines. It may seem evident that the right bank had the most success in producing exceptional wines, thanks to a more prevalent practice of haute-couture viticulture, but also to the smaller scale of its estates compared to those of the left bank, which allows owners to handle their vineyards along the lines of a garden. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to assert that the left bank underperformed, although the quality is certainly more heterogeneous. This mixed result stems mainly from the fact that the veraison – the period when grapes turn from green to red – of Cabernet Sauvignon occurred during a drought episode, whereas the veraison of Merlot was already past.

While the ongoing revolution in Bordeaux affects mainly the winegrowers, it should also lead the informed press, myself included, to take pause for reflection. The remarkable aromatic character of the 2020 Bordeaux wines owes a lot to the very low doses of sulfur used today, as many producers seek a more reductive style less prone to oxidation. The wines thus have a greater fragility than in the recent past. To appreciate them, the tasting conditions must be optimal, be it in terms of service temperature, freshness of samples and general conditions. This year, I decided to change my usual routine and participate in many tastings organized by traders and / or consultants. The tasting conditions were impeccable, unlike the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. I must admit that I can hardly understand the lack of professionalism by this association this year. I will not say more at this time, except to remark I have trouble explaining to myself why the chateaux owners are not more attentive to how their wines are presented.

In addition to the matter of the primeur tasting conditions, there is also the issue of how samples were prepared. As terroir expression moves front stage and relegates overt oak influence to the background, the wines have become more transparent, presented without makeup, if you will. The timing for preparing the final blends has also become critical. The choice to present a primeur version of a wine that does not represent the definitive blend is a bit like showing off a haute-couture dress put together by slapping pieces of fabric together without any stitching and held together by pins. Yes, we like to praise wines with seamless textures, but in this case, this is taking the term too literally. The wine’s balance is too tenuous, even fragile, and certainly does not the ultimate vision of its creator. For next year’s round of Bordeaux primeur wines, I plan to state whether the final blend is definitive or not.

Lastly, always for the sake of a more precise reading of vintage character, I have decided to voluntarily limit the number of wines tasted en primeur. First of all, I do not see any purpose in an overdose of wine commentaries and notes to gauge a vintage style. What’s more, there are so many good Bordeaux wines that do not need a long period of aging before commercial release, and such wines are best tasted once they are in the bottle. If anything, it is a disservice to present such wines, which form the very fabric of Bordeaux wine production, at this primeur stage.

To conclude, 2020 is an exceptional and very distinctive vintage, one that should delight discerning consumers. Hopefully, prices will not see a significant increase from 2019. While some owners told us during the tastings that they wanted to maintain those for the 2019 vintage (which would be great news for consumers), others made it clear that they planned to increase their release prices to compensate for the drop in yield for the upcoming 2021 crop after the recent incident of spring frost last April. A question then arises: should the buyers (the real consumers, not the speculators) be the adjustment variable to maintain sales figures at each property? While a slight increase of around 10% may be acceptable, a larger increase risks dismaying potential customers of this vintage who will simply embrace even more the 2019 vintage, where the prices remain affordable for a quality that is just as high. Just as they had to during the 2020 growing season, the decision makers of Bordeaux will have to make choices based both on their interpretation of the vintage and that of the current marketplace, so as usual, they will have step up and assume their responsibilities.


* a tannic scale called the Total Polyphenol Index; normally high TPIs are a sign of dense and tannic wines.

** pHs measures the strength but not the volume of acidity; high pHs are a sign of low acidity.


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