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This vintage has seen some of the lowest yields of recent years, and the resulting concentration means the ability to manage these low yields while keeping fruit and freshness was a line that needed careful walking.
You’re going to find plenty of racy, supple tannins that power forward and have a sense of energy, but also tannins that are a little dry and sometimes underripe if the drought led to blockages.
The best wines perform a sleight of hand from the vintage conditions that you see on paper. This comes from a confidence that I find in Bordeaux today, where there no longer seems to be the need to choose the biggest tannins for the main estate wine, and instead many choose to prioritise site expression.
You’ll hear lots of comparisons to 2016 and 2010 because of the number of tannins, but I haven’t found the wines to be as consistent as in those two vintages.
In most cases (certainly on the Left Bank) 1996, 2000 and 2006 are better comparisons – big tannins that are a little unwieldy at times, not generous but with potential.
The Right Bank has had an easier time of it in many ways – less rain in August, with clay-limestone soils that kept freshness – and here a comparison to 1989 seems reasonable, and more in common with the 2018 than on the Left Bank.
Bordeaux 2020 has seen lower alcohols in general, partly because August was dry but not unusually hot, and partly because the drought meant slow ripening. The vines therefore slowed down and did not build up huge sugar levels. You’ll find this true across both banks but especially in the Médoc.
The most surprising thing about 2020 Bordeaux is the style of wine produced. A hot, dry, early year seemed to indicate a solar expression with, in a worst-case scenario, an overcooked vintage like 2003 a possibility. This is not the case at all, although there is variation, as the top terroirs have produced wines typical of the region with structure, freshness and restraint and, in the case of the Médoc, moderate levels of alcohol. ‘It’s reassuring for Bordeaux that we can still do it in the prevailing conditions’, commented Ch Lafite’s technical director Eric Kohler, having just completed his 28th vintage for Domaines Barons de Rothschild. [It is notable that the same surprise at the freshness of the wines after a hot, dry growing season was expressed in Burgundy about the 2019s – JR]
Climate and terroir are clearly key factors in the vintage but credit must also be given to the growers for adapting to the changing conditions imposed by global warming. As well as refining picking decisions, vineyard management has been tuned to the warmer, drier weather. Leaf plucking and green harvesting are no longer systematic, while soil protection, through the use of cover crops and lighter ploughing, is increasingly in vogue. Winemaking has also been fine-tuned, with gentler extraction (‘infusion’ is a current buzz word) and the use of oak toned down.
Heat in early September and concentration via evaporation were the final factors leading to small berries and a reduction in volume in 2020 (others for the latter being downy mildew, hail in certain regions in April and August and to a lesser extent coulure), down 10% overall on the ten-year average. As for the composition of the berries, they had a high concentration of phenolics, including tannins, and in general low acidity, higher pHs and an absence of any herbaceous notes due to the pyrazines being burned-off by the sun. The harvest was also clean with an absence of any rot.
For the wines, this has translated into deep colours, good depth, dark fruit and floral aromatics, fruit concentration and supple but plentiful, fine-grained tannins. The astonishing element, given the relatively low acidity and high pH, is the freshness which abounds and which appears to come from the tannins themselves. Alcohol levels are generally down on the left bank (witness 12.8% at Lafite and 13.8% at Calon-Ségur compared with 14.5% in 2019) but still high on the right bank (14.5% being a rough average) although in many cases you hardly notice when tasting. Vines that suffered in the drought tend to have produced wines with drier tannins, flatter aromas and weaker fruit on the mid palate.
As for style, 2020 seems to be in the same ballpark as 2019 and 2018 (so the third successful vintage in a row) with a number of producers saying it falls somewhere in between. At this stage I would edge more towards 2019, given the freshness, but with a little less charm and bigger tannic base. But as Jancis never ceases to remind us [! – JR], these are early days and embryonic wines which still have a fair way to go.
I enjoy becoming 100% immersed in projects like the 2020 Bordeaux vintage enigma. And it is an enigma—a vintage that has been more difficult to understand than 2018 or 2019, with far more potential and, in some cases, greater growing season complexities than even 2017 (the year of the devastating frosts).
Even before I delved into this year’s quest to understand the key factors behind the styles and quality levels of the 2020 wines, I heard a lot of winemakers mentioning this growing season was similar to 2018. This was mainly while I was tasting the bottled 2018s—another hot vintage with many great, rich, plush wines, to be sure. Indeed, I had heard about the similar battle with mildew in the spring, the heat and drought of the summer. Details from winemakers started getting hazier after that. The conversation always ended with the catchphrase: “It’s a trio of great vintages!”
As I embarked on the tastings, half-expecting similar styles to the 2018s, I was very quickly taken aback. These are very different wines, possessing some attributes of a cooler vintage, such as lighter bodies and lower alcohols. And in this respect, the Left Bank and the Right Bank almost appeared to have experienced different growing seasons, with the latter possessing more weight and generosity, which could not be accounted for by the differences in grape varieties alone. And then there were factors that were hard to rationalize, such as why some wines on the Left Bank with surprisingly low alcohols also had relatively low acidities and high pHs. More alarming was the hollow mid-palates—a lack of flesh in some examples with perfectly ample tannic structures.
It wasn’t long into my tastings that I realized that in some areas of Bordeaux, it is a trio of great vintages. In others, not so much.
2020 is an irregular vintage that is perhaps on a par with 2017 in terms of the variability of quality; however, the peaks of quality far exceed 2017 and are right up there with 2018 and 2019. Therefore, for some areas and terroirs, this is absolutely the third outstanding vintage in this trio.
There is talk that this is a “Merlot vintage,” which greatly oversimplifies the situation. It is true that this was a vintage that favoured certain terroirs, many of which are mainly planted to Merlot. And those that achieved ripeness earlier succeeded, which generally favoured earlier-ripening Merlot. But, for example, a lot of the Cabernet Franc grown in Saint-Émilion is astonishingly gorgeous this year—shining like beacons in the blends (more on this below). And there are Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated sites/wines, such as Smith Haut Lafitte and Mouton Rothschild, that managed to produce wines of jaw-dropping greatness this year. Applying a two-word summary to such a complicated vintage that is worthy of close attention is not only disrespectful to all those in the industry who went to such extraordinary lengths this year, it is also highly misleading to consumers.
It is nearly impossible to summarize the styles of 2020, because they can vary dramatically depending on commune and grape varieties.
The best 2020 wines undoubtedly have significant aging potential. It is a year when the IPTs (total phenolic index levels) are notably high, and the quality of tannins, in the best wines, is equally high. Some wines produced on the Right Bank and from Pessac-Léognan will be particularly long-lived.
“The headline is that 2020 is an excellent vintage."
Generally 2020 does form the third in a trilogy of great vintages after 2018 and 2019 - better than 2018 but doesn’t quite reach 2019’s peaks.
The 2018s are bold, opulent and the most hedonistic. The 2019s are more elegant and purer, the most complete, harmonious and precise, the closest to what winemakers perceive as an ideal. Consensus is forming that 2019 may turn out the best. At first glance, 2020 does not match 2019, though the difference is marginal. It is easy to generalize. There are instances where 2020 will surpass 2018 and 2019. Proof will be once all are in bottle and judged side by side.”