Tasting the 2020s was a real joy – not least because so many producers are defying hot, dry years with delightfully fresh, expressive, 'new old' wines. See our guide to coverage of 2020 bordeaux. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Owners of the crus classés, members of UGCB, above.
We’re now in the thick of the bordeaux primeurs season, the time of year when merchants and château owners sniff the wind and pore over critics’ scores to work out the right price for the 2020s that are being launched on to economically uncertain and possibly choppy waters.
Last year’s campaign was an unexpected success, mostly because of an almost unprecedented combination of high quality and price reductions. The fact that everyone was sitting at home, able to spend money only via their screens, also helped.
But it seems unlikely that the success of the 2019 primeur campaign will be exactly repeated. Those same screens reveal that prices for recent bordeaux vintages have remained remarkably static – so why bother to stump up cash so long before the wine is even bottled? One argument is that 2020 was a relatively small crop and the recent frost has almost certainly shrunk the next one – but most Bordeaux wines are made in pretty large quantities anyway. And en primeur purchasers often forget to factor in the cost of annual storage charges.
There are admittedly some stunningly good 2020s, even if 2020 is not as consistent a vintage as 2019. The Bordelais are hoping that American potential buyers may be encouraged by the suspension of tariffs on EU imports, and their British counterparts by the strength of the pound against the euro. But all the signs are that Bordeaux is losing its commanding position as the only safe haven for wine investors’ money. Come in Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, Brunello, Rhône, California…
To me, however, the most exciting aspect of Bordeaux today is, as usual, not commercial but what is happening in vineyards and cellars. It could truly be described as a revolution. For long there was a certain complacency. Top bordeaux sold out every year. Critics, particularly American critics, reliably handed out rave reviews to wines that in some ways resembled Napa Valley Cabernets. And the region continued to be one of the heaviest users of agrochemicals in the vineyard, using the excuse of the maritime climate’s high humidity, which leaves vines exposed to the fungal diseases to which they are particularly prone.
But change has been afoot. And you can now taste it in the wines. As with so many wine trends – the move away from international to indigenous grape varieties, for instance – it has been inspired more by producers than consumers. Perhaps part of the impetus for producers has been to make wines they enjoy drinking themselves. In brief, as has been happening in many other wine regions around the world, wines are generally becoming much fresher and more expressive of the vineyard rather than being rich, concentrated expressions of winemaking expertise. Although hot, dry summers don’t help, high alcohol levels are no longer deliberately sought; Ch Lafite 2020 is just 12.8%. These ‘new old’ wines delightfully combine the classicism of traditional bordeaux with modern winemaking and vine-growing sophistication.
While I have been tasting samples of the embryonic 2020s drawn from casks all over Bordeaux and sent to my home in London, my inbox has been littered with emails from their producers explaining that they have completely revolutionised their approach.
One particularly heartening sign for those of us concerned with long-term sustainability has been the number of these cask samples adorned with the logo of an organic certification body, something that would have been unthinkable 20, perhaps even10, years ago. Admittedly, the châteaux determined to reduce their dependence on herbicides, pesticides and fungicide sprays against mildew and rot have been helped by the fact that summers have been getting drier, but there is no shortage of well-meaning intent.
In her recent compendium Inside Bordeaux, Jane Anson was able to include a long list of influential properties that are in conversion to organic, or the even more demanding biodynamic, viticulture. Notable pioneers were Chx Ausone, Durfort-Vivens, Gruaud Larose, Guiraud, Latour, Montrose, Palmer, Pontet-Canet and Smith Haut Lafitte but countless others are following in their wake.
This emphasis on vineyard rather than cellar is accompanied by much deeper understanding of, and response to, the characteristics of each individual plot of vines. I first came across this approach – now known as precision viticulture – not in Bordeaux but at Harlan Estate in the Napa Valley when I first visited it well over 20 years ago. Today, it’s a technique that has been widely adopted by ambitious wine producers all over the world and has become de rigueur in Bordeaux’s best estates too. The most quality-conscious producers, and/or those who can afford it, design the capacity of fermentation vats specifically for each parcel, and pick that parcel, and only that parcel, at optimum ripeness. In their search for fresher wines than of old, some properties are said to be picking up to a month earlier than they used to.
Alexander Van Beek of Ch Giscours in Margaux, one of the many who have been eager to share news of his estate’s recent evolution, is excited that they now pick not parcel by parcel, but even vine by vine. The new Dutch owners in 1996 replaced 130,000 vines, dotted throughout the estate, that had died. From 2018 they have been picking these younger vines separately and earlier – intricate work that requires their in-house vineyard team to pass through each vineyard up to three different times, an approach that rules out casual labour. In a system similar to one I saw at biodynamic Chakana in Argentina, vineyard workers at Giscours have their pick of vegetables and, in this case, lamb reared on the estate.
(At Harlan, ever the pioneer, since 2013 they have been training their vineyard workers so that they can be assigned their very own individual block, thereby giving them the opportunity, according to Cory Empting, who is in charge of winegrowing, ‘to create their masterpiece over their lifetime and through their careful stewardship’.)
At another Bordeaux classed growth, Ch Malartic Lagravière in Pessac-Léognan, the Bonnie family have also been taking steps to encourage vine roots to dig deep, tilling the soil so that the vines plunge through the layer of gravel and reach the limestone subsoil, ensuring a more even water supply to the grapes. The result has been smaller, fewer bunches and no need to thin the crop because the vine is now in harmony with its environment. ‘The grapes are denser, more vibrant, but also more lively’, according to Jean-Jacques Bonnie.
Another development according to Saskia de Rothschild at Ch Lafite is the demise of monoculture in favour of planting hedges and trees on land previously planted exclusively with vines, in order to encourage biodiversity and create ‘green corridors’ that will imbue the grapes and therefore wines with freshness. In an email outlining their plans at Lafite she cited Chx Lafon-Rochet and Palmer as having done this already.
These and similar trends were apparent in many of the 2020s I have so far had the chance to taste. But it was also apparent, especially in the Cabernet-dominant estates of Bordeaux’s left bank, that the best wines come from those producers who can afford to exclude any less-than-satisfactory ingredients in the final blend. As usual in Bordeaux, there is a vast gap between the top and the bottom of the wine ranks.
Fresher red bordeaux 2020s
Please note that the job of tasting the 2020s has been shared between three of us at JancisRobinson.com so my personal experience has been restricted to certain appellations, and has necessarily omitted the top estates that will show their cask samples only at the château itself.
Ch Chauvin, Clos Fourtet, Clos St-Martin, Chx Fonplégade, Fonroque, La Gaffelière, Grand Corbin-Despagne, Grand-Pontet, Jean Faure, Laroque, La Marzelle, Pavie Macquin, Le Prieuré, Rochebelle, La Serre
Ch Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier, Chx de France, Haut-Bergey, La Louvière, Malartic Lagravière, Smith Haut Lafitte
Chx Beychevelle, Gloria, Langoa Barton, Léoville Barton, Léoville Poyferré, Talbot
Chx Fonbadet, Haut-Batailley, Lynch-Bages