Bordeaux's surprising 2022 vintage

UGC Pesssac Leognan tasting at Ch de Fieuzal

‘Vines, speak to us, please!’ might be the clarion call of the Bordeaux wine establishment at the moment. See our guide to coverage of Bordeaux 2022. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

I’m just back from a brief immersion in this year’s en primeur campaign, during which samples of the latest vintage were shown to thousands of wine traders from around the world and (appropriately enough) scores of commentators. The most common word to describe these embryonic 2022s? ‘Surprising’. Just what was going on in the millions of Merlot and Cabernet vines growing in the Gironde department?

Last summer in France, especially in the south-west, was scorching with temperatures way above average throughout the growing season. Serious wildfires broke out in the Bordeaux region. And, even more testing for vignerons, there was a serious drought with no rain whatsoever from the beginning of July until late August and rainfall totals seriously below average every month except June. One would expect the wines that resulted from these sub-Saharan conditions to taste soupy and as broiled as the surfers in Arcachon, Bordeaux-by-the-Atlantic, were last summer.

The dry season translated into small grapes with thick skins, therefore berries that were unusually high not just in fermentable sugar from the heat but also in colouring matter, flavour and the tannins that ensure longevity. All that was missing in them was acidity that was exceptionally low after record high temperatures. So how come the resulting wines have such amazing freshness?

I put this question to many a wine producer and most of them just laughed – but laughed delightedly. Henri Lurton of Ch Brane-Cantenac in Margaux for instance, a relatively analytical winemaker, smiled broadly. ‘I’ve studied everything’, he said. ‘The plant biology, the condition of the soil et cetera. And I have no idea!’

Jacques Thienpont of Le Pin in Pomerol had an explanation for the freshness in his relatively new St-Émilion property Ch L’If: the limestone under its vines that famously adds zest to wines grown on it. But he confessed he had no way of explaining the vibrancy of the 2022 Le Pin, which is grown on much less drought-friendly deep gravel and sandy soils.

I heard Rémi Edange, who has been managing the Domaine de Chevalier estate for years, offering an explanation to some wine merchants as he poured them a sample of his 2022 at the Union des Grands Crus presentation of Pessac-Léognans citing Bordeaux’s modern winemaking godfather. ‘Professor Émile Peynaud always told me not to worry about ripe musts because the fermentation will create acidity. And that’s what happened in 2022. We have to be humble.’

Peynaud’s successors at the University of Bordeaux, currently Professors Geny, Guittard, Lavigne and Marchal, produce a detailed report on the growing season every year. In their 2022 vintage report they underline the effect of the long hot, dry summer which led to a worrying low acidity level in the grapes at harvest. ‘However, as is often the case, it naturally increased during alcoholic fermentation to reach more standard values. Winemakers’ experience of previous hot vintages was, therefore, beneficial, discouraging them from acidifying the must, which would have irrevocably upset the balance of flavours in the red wines.’

So winemakers have learnt from previous hot vintages such as 2003 and 2018 what to do and what not to do, but so, it seems, have the vines themselves. Unlike some previous years, in 2022 the leaves on the vines stayed green and healthy – right through to November in some cases. As Fabien Teitgen, who has been at Ch Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan for 27 years, put it: ‘2022 was hotter and drier than any other season right from the start. So the vine got used to the heat compared to, say, 2003 when hot, dry weather suddenly arrived in summer.’ A devout practitioner of organic and biodynamic precepts, he rejects the notion that the vines might have their own intelligence, ‘but vines have a better relationship with the soil now’.

It’s certainly true that Bordeaux’s viticultural landscape has changed completely this century, having gone from bare earth to a riot of cover crops, Napa Valley style, designed to improve the microbiology of the soil and the health of the vines.

Teitgen is also responsible for the new Napa outpost of his employers, Cathiard Vineyard. Several notable Bordelais have been investing in northern California and he is far from the only Bordeaux winemaker to be learning lessons from Napa to apply to Bordeaux’s increasingly hot summers. Teitgen is even thinking of changing the way Smith Haut Lafitte’s vines are trained to the completely different cross shape that dominates the Napa landscape, so as to make them more heatwave-hardy.

Stéphane Bonnasse, technical director of Ch Canon in St-Émilion, also cited limestone as a factor in the freshness of his particular wines, but only a portion of Bordeaux’s vines are grown on limestone yet almost all of the 2022s exhibited a freshness that flies in the face of the torrid growing conditions. He too hypothesises that the vines got used to the heat thanks to the warm spring. ‘They didn’t suffer at all. The vines were as green as a leek throughout the season.’

Some people in Bordeaux suggested that relatively cool nights towards the end of the season helped preserve some freshness, but probably just as important were the remarkably low pH levels in the grape juice. Usually, low acidity is accompanied by high pH levels but in 2022 pHs were unexpectedly lower than usual, which kept the musts microbiologically stable and positively rude with health and vigour.

The wines are certainly extremely impressive. After such a hot summer, there is no escaping the fairly high alcohol levels – typically over 14% – even if some vines stopped ripening for a certain period when conditions became just too hot and dry for photosynthesis to continue. But the lack of rain staved off the fungal diseases to which vines are prone so the grapes were reliably healthy, and the weather was so fine during late August and September that estate managers could decide exactly when each plot of each variety should ideally be picked, rather than being rushed by the threat of rain.

Over the years the Bordelais have swung between favouring late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and the fleshier, earlier-ripening Merlot grapes, with Merlot apparently falling out of favour of late. But it’s almost as though Merlot vines became aware of this because all observers are agreed that in 2022 Merlot shone, not just in its traditional territory on the right bank of the Gironde estuary but on the left bank too, where it has often been seen as an inferior blending ingredient for the dominant Cabernet Sauvignon.

Although the berries were small, the flowering was early and generous so the total size of the crop, although lower than the 10-year average, was 9% more than in the much cooler, wetter 2021 vintage. But the fact that the wines are so impressive, and relatively consistent (even those from properties on well-drained soils that one would expect to suffer most in a drought year), will presumably encourage proprietors in their usual habit of increasing prices every year.

They will have been encouraged also by the record number of en primeur visitors this year, and the fact that both Americans and Asians were back in force. Numbers of those who attended UGC tastings were even higher than in spring 2019, when the 2018 vintage was presented almost a year before pandemic lockdowns.

Bordeaux lovers, brace yourselves!

Some especially impressive 2022s

Please note that I tasted only those wines shown at Pessac-Léognan, Margaux and Pomerol UGC tastings plus St-Émilion Grands Crus Classés and the Le Pin and Chanel stable. James Lawther MW manfully tasted the rest for

Graves red


Pessac-Léognan red

Bouscaut, Domaine de Chevalier, Pique Caillou, Smith Haut Lafitte, Latour-Martillac

Pessac-Léognan white

Domaine de Chevalier


Brane-Cantenac, Rauzan-Ségla, Ségla


Clinet, La Croix de Gay, Le Gay, Le Pin, Rouget


Le Chatelet (17/20) plus 11 wines I scored 16.5/20

Tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates are either already published on Purple Pages (whites and right-bank reds) or will be published on Monday (left-bank reds).