Bordeaux Glitters Once Again

By W. Peter Hoyne

Given the continuing pandemic, it was unlikely that many would attend this year’s En-Primeur tasting in Bordeaux, France to review the 2020 wines. Despite the adversity, Bordeaux producers were optimistic of the quality of their wines and chose to ship samples internationally for remote tastings.

The outcome was not a simple hyperbole, but more of a defining moment in the history of Bordeaux as the acclaimed wines from the 2020 vintage succeeded in securing their status in the Triple Crown. This year’s success comes on the heels of two previously noteworthy and collectable Bordeaux vintages from 2018 and 2019. It was an unlikely scenario, but it seemed obvious after tasting these young wines that the 2020 vintage stood apart and, in some cases, rose above their predecessors. The result was a trio of vintages resembling competing siblings, each demonstrating why Bordeaux remains the world’s benchmark. Early on there was some question as to the greatness of the 2020 wines given the challenges of the vintage, but in the end mother nature placed her signature on these wines endowing them with dazzling aromatics, endless layers of fresh red orchard fruits and ripe, finely grained tannins. Although these wines are still resting in barrels and will typically be released in two years, the wines displayed a level of sophistication that many referred to as “classic” Bordeaux. While immediately appealing, they are destined for long-term aging.

The 2020 vintage started off with a wet winter and spring allowing clay-limestone soils to store enough water to sustain the vines through the upcoming summer drought. The vines got off to a quick start with an early bud break, although there was some downy mildew that occurred due to rainfall in the early part of May. A long and hot, dry summer followed, concentrating the berries with nearly 60 days of heat from mid-June through mid-August. Thunderstorms in June and especially in August refreshed vines that were challenged by hydric stress and the summer drought. Localized downpours in August varied between the Left and Right Bank appellations, which might account for some variability in quality. The weather culminated with a September heat wave.

The harvest started in August for the whites and mid-September for the reds, which meant that it was an early ripening vintage. The conditions during the harvest of Merlot were ideal as these wines displayed an exuberance and captivating aromatics, especially with wines from cooler climates and those from the Right Bank of Pomerol and St. Emilion. The wines from Moueix excelled, as did other properties throughout Pomerol as the earlier ripening grapes were less stressed.

Yields were down between 10-25% from the 2019 vintage and varied depending on the appellation On the Left Bank, the northern appellations of Pauillac and St. Estephe fared well. The berries for Cabernet Sauvignon were small and thick skinned with added concentration while in many cases, the Merlot was plump and juicy.

I had an opportunity to virtually discuss the attributes of the 2020 wines with several producers in Bordeaux to gain their perspective. According to Jean–Emmanuel Danjoy of Chateau Mouton Rothschild “there is so much personality in each of the terroirs that we work with… The vintage made very pure, refined and a very fresh, vibrant style of Pauillac with a sweetness and quality of tannins that ripened properly.” Jean–Emmanuel describes the wines as having a “sense of time and place. We have seen more consistency in the last two decades with the wines being structured early on, but not in a powerful or muscular way. Tannins in this vintage are fine and dense.”

Veronique Drusse of Chateau Phelan Segur in St Estephe describes the 2020 vintage as “pure and long with a huge aromatic complexity.” Alcohols were also lower by 1%. As Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot ripened at the same time on the Left Bank, she found her Merlot to be big, juicy and very aromatic with some power. The Cabernet Sauvignon had structure and precision. Veronique explains that “these wines show their best right away. For Phelan, which was not the case 10 years ago, now you can open it and drink it. That’s crazy. They are so friendly, the tannins are so ripe, the structure is not overly big and the wood is totally integrated. People make better wine now than in the past and they are more approachable. My goal is to make a wine that is different from my neighbor. “

Dominique Arangoits of Chateau Cos d’Estournel believes there is something very special with the 2020 vintage. Wines have low acidity and alcohols with nice fruit and energy, which is a sign of quality and the ability to age. “These are wines of purity… with an opulence and sweet touch that is similar to 2018,” he says. Regarding the 2020 Chateau Cos d’Estournel, Dominique feels that “this vintage shows the terroir and there is something unique in these wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon was small and helped make rich wines with fresh fruit and energy. With a high Ph and low acidity, you don’t feel all the tannins. The low alcohols help with long aging.”

Fabien Teitgen is the technical director of Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte in the southern appellation of Pessac-Leognan. He believes that 2020 is a wonderful vintage that is incredibly aromatic at this early stage. There were small berries that were very ripe and dense. He professes “eating the berries, I felt the freshness, aromatics and complexity.”

When asked if this was a better vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, he explains, “for Smith Haut-Lafitte it was more a Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot year because of our location. Cabernet Sauvignon was ripe and water came at the right time. We also paid a lot of attention not to over extract. In this year there were cool nights which allowed the grapes to preserve the acids.”

Fabien believes that the 2020 wines are a bit more silky and more expressive. “It’s the new, modern, classic Bordeaux style. For me, Bordeaux should be balanced with freshness and good ripeness. It could be the evolution of the new classic Bordeaux; full ripeness but with balance.”

Reflecting on the 2020 vintage, I was curious when would be the ideal time to drink these wines. Fabien firmly believes “it’s more a question of your taste, of what you like. If you like a young wine with a middle, body and structure or if you prefer to drink a very old Bordeaux style with less body, but with more sophistication, more evolution and complexity. It’s your choice. Don’t be afraid to drink it too early. For me, I have been more disappointed with wines that are too old, than being disappointed with wines that are too young.”

Regardless, of when you indulge in these wines, the 2020 vintage will offer long lasting memories in a historic trilogy of Bordeaux vintages.