So, here we are again, a second year of tasting the Bordeaux Primeurs from nearly 6,000 miles away in my basement cellar in Napa Valley. I’ve been better prepared this year, starting earlier, anticipating all the sample delivery delay pitfalls, pacing the steady flow of boxes. For the last five weeks, I’ve headed down into a brightly lit, cold cellar (especially remodeled for large-scale tastings) for 10-12 hours per day. I’m a nerd about things like this. 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).
Although I certainly would not trade this way of tasting for actually visiting the region, tasting from my home office makes it much easier to see each and every wine in the exact same light, literally and metaphorically. I have been able to taste every single wine under the precise same conditions, right down to the same glassware. I’ve requested many fresh barrel samples from wineries whose bottles were not showing their best. Samples that were not showing well, due to even the slightest signs of oxidation and/or volatile acidity, were not reviewed. I’ve re-tasted every one of the 700-800 or so different wines I’ve tasted thus far at least once, many multiple times, many from multiple bottles. It’s not the most fun way of tasting, but it is, admittedly, a very accurate way of tasting.
Fresh bottles were requested when necessary
Apart from escaping from my cellar and seeing daylight occasionally, what I miss most about visiting Bordeaux for the Primeurs are the in-person interviews, which are an essential part of getting the story behind the story. It does seem easier and more effective to have in-depth conversations and delve into technical details when discussing the vintage together in the same room. This year, I conducted all the video conference interviews after I had tasted the interviewees’ wines. When asked why by some winemakers who wanted to taste along with me or discuss the vintage even before the wines arrived with me, I explained that I don’t know what to ask until I have tasted the wine. For me, the major point of the interview is to understand how the wine got to be the way that it is and why it is different from, say, the property right next door.
To be clear, the interviews with winemakers never change my tasting notes or scores. The wines are what the wines are. The interviews just explain the why and the how, largely in order to put together this vintage overview report.
Most of my mornings have been spent conducting these interviews with Bordeaux winemakers and consultants. As per usual, everyone has their stories at the ready. The rule of the game is that no one is ever out-and-out dishonest. But these stories are told a bit like the old Bing Crosby song:
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
If ever I lacked the faith that you can tell all you really need to know about a wine’s growing season just by tasting it, along came 2020.
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. I occasionally felt like that little old lady in the 1980s Wendy’s commercial, demanding, “Where’s the beef?”
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 Vintage Summary
The months of November and December in Bordeaux 2019 were very wet, helping to build up the necessary groundwater for the dry season to come.
January and February were relatively dry and warm.
2020 was a precocious vintage with an early budbreak, and the growing season started tracking two to three weeks early.
A deluge on May 10th led to the start of a vicious attack of mildew in the late spring.
The rain dried up in mid-June putting an end to the mildew risk, but then came the drought period—55 days with no rain.
It was one of the driest Julys on record.
It was an early
veraison, occurring in mid to late July. The heat was turned up during the last week of July, peaking at 39 degrees Celsius/102 degrees Fahrenheit, seriously putting vines at risk of blockage (shut-down), especially on soils without great water-holding capacity (e.g., sandy and gravel-based soils).
Another heat wave occurred during the second week of August, triggering a series of mid-August thunderstorms. The amount and impact of these rains varied enormously across Bordeaux, with parts of the northern Médoc receiving 120 millimeters of the rain, while parts of Saint-Émilion reportedly received only 10 millimeters.
The timing and amount of water application in August was critical to successfully revitalizing the vines. Best case scenario: the rains offered just enough wherewithal to continue the vines’ steady ripening of berries. Worst cases, it was too little, too late or it was too much, resulting in dilution, which occurred in some areas of the Médoc.
White grapes were mostly harvested in August and tended to maintain just enough of the necessary freshness and intensity.
Merlots were harvested from mid to late September, dodging spells of heat and rains, but generally faring very well.
Conditions necessitated a very short harvest window this year for the Cabernets, which had to come in before Storm Alex hit Bordeaux on 2nd October.
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 the best of 2018 and 2019. Therefore, for some areas and terroirs, this is absolutely the third outstanding vintage in this trio.
Calling this a Merlot vintage oversimplifies the situation. Great Cabernets were also produced, but with less consistency. Success this year was largely down to location, luck of the rains and terroir.
2020 Bordeaux Growing Season
After a fairly rainy end to 2019, January and February started out dry and warm. In fact, I was in Bordeaux in late February 2020 (my last trip before the lockdown) and was surprised by how nice the weather was. At that time of the year, I am usually shivering in a parka, under my umbrella, between visits to taste the most recently bottled wines. But this year I got away with wearing just a light cardigan and leaving my umbrella in the car. On 20th February, I pulled up to one of Château Margaux’s vineyards and took a photo with my phone of the buds starting to swell, in awe of the precociousness of the growing season.
Margaux vineyards with buds swelling on the vine, 20th February 2020
With the first week of March came the first rains of the year. Toward the end of March, buds started to break in warmer areas, two to three weeks earlier than normal.
Cut to the chase, the spring was wet. Seriously wet. “In six months, from November to June, we got more rain than we do in an average entire year,” Pierre Graffeuille, managing director at Léoville Las Cases told me.
“On February 3rd, it was over 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit),” said Dominique Arangoits of Cos d’Estournel. “The same in March. This explained the early budburst. The precocity is an important point of the vintage. The first part of rain—60 millimeters on May 10th—it was dangerous, for mildew and for the quality of the flowering. We have some vines between 80 and 100 years old; they are very sensitive.”
Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, estates manager for Mouton Rothschild agreed: “On May 10th came the first downpour and the increase in mildew pressure. It was mostly our Merlot on clay that was impacted.”
“The first part of the season was very wet with high mildew pressure,” said Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal, CEO and co-owner of Château Angélus. “We are still in organic conversion, so this was challenging.”
Indeed, across Bordeaux it was spring 2018 all over again, and even with that benefit of hindsight, which is not to be underestimated, 2020 posed a whole new challenge: COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Because, if there was one thing growers had learned from the vicious attack of 2018, they needed to respond quickly to mildew outbreaks in order to contain them.
“In the lockdown, we couldn’t go into the vineyard with our usual staff, because we didn’t have them,” said Aymeric de Gironde of Troplong Mondot. “So, it was the office staff, the chef, the finance director, me—we were all doing the spraying ourselves. It was one of the wettest years for us.”
“In 2018, we lost two-thirds of production because of mildew,” said Justine Tesseron, who now works very closely with her father Alfred Tesseron, owner of Château Pontet-Canet. “In 2020, we were very scared. We didn’t want to have the same situation. Our vineyard people were very motivated. We didn’t miss any treatments—even on Saturday and Sunday. We HAD to be in the vineyard. Everyone was there. In the end, we didn’t lose any crops due to mildew. We kept it contained and it did not spread to the grapes.”
Indeed, most producers reported some crop losses to mildew, but nowhere near on the scale of 2018. Apart from the mildew, all that water in the spring would actually be a benefit for what was to come next: a long period of drought.
“Fortunately, the second part of May was dry,” said Arangoits of Cos d’Estournel. “Flowering occurred between May 21 and 24. It was like 2005’s flowering conditions—very good! The old vines had a lot of healthy bunches. There were many seeds per berry—this is a good sign. Ripe seeds contribute a different type of tannins, which we like. Afterward, from June 18 to August 12, we had 55 days with almost NO rain!”
This 55-day period of drought occurred throughout Bordeaux, impacting all areas. Meanwhile, the vintage was still tracking earlier than average, but the vintage precociousness from the early budburst was starting to narrow, as the vines became more and more stressed by lack of water and sporadic heat spikes, slowing their progress. Nonetheless,
veraison occurred earlier than average, starting around mid-July for most red varieties.
“Veraison occurred two weeks early for us, from July 15-25 for the reds,” confirmed Fabien Teitgen from Smith Haut Lafitte.
It was a very similar story for the red varieties at Haut-Brion. “Half-veraison (the point when the bunches are halfway through color change) occurred for us on 20th July,” said Jean-Philippe Delmas.
“Warm temperatures triggered veraison ahead of schedule, as grapes began taking on warmer hues starting 15th July,” reported Cos d’Estournel.
In some areas, veraison was slow and uneven. In an annual vintage report on 2020, co-authored by professor Axel Marchal, Dr. Valérie Lavigne, and professor Laurence Geny, of Bordeaux University’s Institute of Vine and Wine Science, it was noted of Bordeaux generally, “The first berries changed color fairly unevenly around 20 July, and veraison did not properly set in until the last few days of July. Mid-veraison (mid color change) occurred around 1st August in our reference plots, nearly 10 days later than in 2011, but nevertheless six days earlier than the 20-year average. In late July, despite the lack of rainfall and high temperatures, only shallow-rooted and young vines displayed obvious signs of water stress. Veraison slowed down in these plots and progressed at an uneven pace, with initial signs of interrupted physiological development.”
As a reminder to readers, in 2019, the vintage was essentially saved across Bordeaux by three periods of light to moderate rains—just enough to push the stressed vines through at each occurrence. In the northern Medoc, in 2019, vines received 30 millimeters of rain on July 25-27, just at the beginning of veraison that year. Then the vines received a few more millimeters of rain on August 7th, helping to complete veraison. Finally, there were light rains in late September, during harvest, and while I was in Bordeaux to witness (and later taste) the beneficial impact.
I mention what occurred in 2019 because, when it comes to wine quality, the timing and amount of rain received during the growing season are critical factors.
“Cooler temperatures in early August helped complete veraison, while the lack of rainfall led to significant water stress in localized areas,” Marchal, Lavigne and Geny went on to say in their report. “The second week of August was marked by a heat wave. While less extreme than in 2003, several very hot days between the 8th and 13th were particularly noteworthy, with nighttime temperatures exceeding 20 degrees Celsius.”
Indeed, the heat wave in late July 2020—peaking at 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 degrees Fahrenheit) on 30th July—and then resuming during the second week of August was the last thing the beleaguered vines across Bordeaux needed.
“In 2019, we had 50-60 mm [millimeters of rain] at the end of July and into early August, said Noëmie Durantou at L’Eglise Clinet. “This year we had nothing. The vines started suffering. We thought that we would have harvest at the end of August. The berries stopped maturing. The vines reached a point when they stopped maturing.”
“On August 7th, it hit 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 degrees Fahrenheit). We needed water. The vines were starting to suffer,” said Arangoits of Cos d’Estournel.
“The extreme heat triggered a series of thunderstorms between 9 and 14 August, resulting in above-average monthly cumulative rainfall in the Gironde department, although with significant disparities from one area to the next,” commented Marchal, Lavigne and Geny in their report. “The northern Médoc saw the most rainfall, with around 110 mm compared to 86 mm in Saint-Julien, 67 mm in Mérignac, 52 mm in Sauternes and only 45 mm in Saint-Émilion. The consequences in the vineyards and on the onset of ripening thus varied considerably.”
As mentioned above, the amount of rain received during this post-veraison period in August varied dramatically across Bordeaux. For some sites, it was just what was needed and not a minute too soon. For others, the effects were not entirely positive.
Angelus vineyards were still green in August and September 2020.
Here are some accounts by the winemakers I interviewed regarding the amount of rain (in millimeters) falling on Bordeaux vineyards between 9th and 14th August:
Potensac (north of Saint-Estèphe): 90mm
Cos d’Estournel (Saint-Estèphe): 60mm
Lafite (Pauillac): 100mm
Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac): 100mm on August 13th
Léoville Las Cases (Saint-Julien): 70mm
Château Margaux (Margaux): 80mm on August 13th/100mm for the month of August
Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan): 31mm
Haut-Bailly (Pessac-Léognan): 40mm
L’Evangile (Pomerol): 30mm
Nénin (Pomerol): 30mm
Troplong Mondot (Saint-Émilion): 30mm
Pavie (Saint-Émilion): 10mm
In the Marchal, Lavigne and Geny report, a graph demonstrating the “comparison of sugar levels in reference plots on 7 September 2020,” suggests there was a dilution impact of this water influx on some communes in the Médoc, in particular. A sample of
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes taken from Saint-Émilion that day contained 227.4 grams per liter of sugar, the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon from Pauillac contained only 210.6.
The amount of rain that fell during this brief mid-August period is just one factor to consider. The other equally important factor is how well the terroir handled that rapid influx of water—a point I will circle back to when I discuss quality and styles.
Meanwhile, for some areas of Bordeaux, that mid-August rain was not enough. “The first half of September was dry,” said Marchal, Lavigne and Geny, “which had not been the case since 1958. During this period, the berries shriveled up on terroirs affected by water stress or in areas spared by rainstorms in August, sometimes resulting in major crop loss.”
This berry-shrivel effect of the heat wave in September impacted yields. Most winemakers referred to this situation as accounting for more of their crop losses than the mildew.
The “accentuated positive” I heard again and again was that vines everywhere in Bordeaux seriously needed water come mid-August, and they got some. For some sites—e.g., Pomerol, parts of Saint-Émilion, Fronsac and Pessac-Léognan—the timing and the amount of water was a hallelujah moment, and wineries went on to produce sensational wines. But the “Mister In-Between” truth is that some sites/communes got too much, some got too little and for some it was too late. Bear in mind, for vines that had already shut down (were suffering from blockage) or were well on their way, it would take some time for them to recover and resume ripening. Likewise, for bunches suffering from dilution from the mid-August rains, it would take some time to build the concentration back up. The problem was, for later-ripening Cabernet producers in particular, there wouldn’t be a lot of time, because more rains were on the horizon from the second half of September onward, culminating in Storm Alex on the 2nd of October.
In 2020, some growers needed to harvest earlier than usual, some took the choice to harvest earlier and some were forced to harvest earlier. In any case, generally speaking across Bordeaux, harvest was at least one week earlier than average.
Consultants Michel Rolland and his partner Julien Viaud at Michel et Dany Rolland & Associés commented that picking decisions and responsiveness were critical this year. “We had to anticipate a lot this harvest,” said Rolland. “Around the 20th of August, we tasted the berries, and the whites were ready. We had to push the teams to be on top of ripeness. When it’s ready, it’s ready!”
“The harvest window was shorter this year,” Viaud added. “People had to pick very fast this year. Fortunately, we have more ability to do this faster now. This is an important point for the vintage: anticipating the harvest dates. This year we picked in 10 days on the Médoc what we usually pick in three weeks for the big châteaux.”
By mid to late August, most of the grapes for dry white wines needed to come in.
“We started to harvest the whites very early,” said Jean-Philippe Delmas at Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. “What is rare this year is that we finished the whites in August. It was a very early year for the whites.” The white grapes for these two estates came in from 19th to 28th August.
As for the reds, fortunately for those growers that had received enough water to maintain or restart the ripening progress of the vines, the first couple of weeks of September were dry and warm but not hot. This paved the way for the onset of the Merlot harvest. Because Merlot ripens quicker than Cabernet Sauvignon and
Cabernet Franc, Merlot growers had much more choice in the decision of harvest picking dates. This year, many were opting on the earlier side in order to maintain freshness in the wines.
“Since the beginning, it was tracking as an early vintage” said L’Evangile’s winemaker, Olivier Tregoat. “We were close to the mid-ripening period here, when 30 millimeters of rain fell on 17th August in Pomerol. It was just enough. We wanted to maintain the power and creaminess, but we also wanted freshness, more tension in the wine. We were the first people in Pomerol to harvest. We picked all the main plots 5th-13th September, just before the two heat waves on 14th and 17th September.”
“On 10th September, we began to harvest the Merlot at Cos d’Estournel, said Dominique. “We could have waited, but we wanted to keep the freshness. We had days of more than 34 degrees Celsius during harvest—it was hot! We finished the Cabernets on 24th September. We were happy with the ripeness and wanted to finish before the rains that arrived at the end of September.”
So, there were two major risks of concern in the run-up to harvest in mid-September:
1) The heat. The 9th-17th of September brought daytime temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, peaking at over 35 degrees in areas on the 14th of September. High temperatures at this stage of the game were bound to cause dehydration and berry shrivel, resulting in a loss of crop and quality. Also, hot grapes coming into the winery can be detrimental to maintaining freshness and purity.
2) The rains. From the 19th of September, rains descended on Bordeaux. Some days were just a faint drizzle, others a little more substantial. To be clear, though, up until 2nd October, the rain was nowhere near on the scale of the deluge that occurred in some parts of Bordeaux in mid-August. The nature of this precipitation was lighter, with a few completely rainless days.
Dodging the effects of these two potential risks were the most important concerns for winemakers when making their harvesting decisions. That is, they were...until Storm Alex was forecast to hit Bordeaux on 2nd October, threatening heavy rains and gale-force winds. Suddenly, there was a mad scramble across Bordeaux to bring in all remaining red grapes. There would be little point in trying to harvest any grapes for red wines of quality after Storm Alex.
“We finished the Cabernets BEFORE the end of September,” said Henrique da Costa of Château Pavie. “We all knew the storm was coming. We knew. I told my teams we have three days to harvest 18 hectares of Cabernets. We had a crew of 120 people. We did it in 2.5 days. From October 2nd, it was a downpour.”
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 favored certain terroirs, many of which are mainly planted to Merlot. And those that achieved ripeness earlier succeeded, which generally favored 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.
Let’s start with the successes this year. Pomerol fared relatively well and with surprising consistency in my tastings. The area seems to have received just the right amount of water at the right time to keep the vines ticking over. But this very small nugget of a commune has a wide variety of soil types, ranging from the famous crasse de fer (blue clay) to sandy, well-draining profiles. It was the latter soils types/areas that clearly ran into problems, producing disappointing wines with overly herbal characters and hard tannins—a sign the vines had shut down.
2020 Pomerol titans
The Saint-Émilion plateau and other areas of Saint-Émilion and the satellites with limestone and/or clay-based soil profiles also had a distinct advantage this year, and it shows with wonderful consistency and singular expressions.
“The second part of the year, we were in drought,” said Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal of Château Angélus. “But we have clay across the vineyard. It worked like a tank of water. After two months with no rain, we were worried, so we dug in the ground in the vineyard. The clay two meters down was still wet and fresh!”
Fronsac and the Côtes de Castillon also deserve a shout-out, their limestone and clay soil profiles pulling even some very humble properties through the dry/hot periods nicely and producing some great value wines.
Pessac-Léognan in 2020 starts to get a little bit patchier, but generally the quality is also consistent, and the results are potentially through-the-roof good. This is impressive when you consider what a large area this covers (it really should be considered as two communes), and yet there are Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Bailly producing extraordinary wines at the Léognan end, with Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion at the Pessac end, each wine simply amazing. Here, the key was not just terroir and their luck with the rains, but the fact that these grand vins have a lot more flexibility with blending.
To pinpoint the major disadvantage of the Médoc this year, it was the heavy rains in mid-August, which impacted some of the less free-draining terroirs more than others. The water was necessary on the one hand to kick-start the vines that were faltering due to drought, but on the other, there was some dilution. The earlier-ripening Merlots on this side of the river were largely able to recover from the dilution, but the Cabernets needed more time. Then, Storm Alex forced the hand of everyone in the Médoc.
A telling signature of a lot of Médoc 2020 wines is their low alcohols (some below 13%) and relatively high pHs (lower acidity—some at 3.9 or above). This seems a little counterintuitive, because usually lower sugar equates to a lower pH. Ultimately, it helped me to narrow down the cause for the lack of mid-palate intensity I was picking up in the wines. As one winemaker that I queried about this put it, “When you have more water in the grapes, the pH goes up!”
And yet, there are some shockingly great wines in 2020 from the Médoc. Why?
Terroir. I considered what Philippe Dhallhuin of Mouton Rothschild reminded me of a few years back when I was tasting their 1998s, another vintage impacted by heavy rains: “Clerc Milon has three meters of gravel before you get to the clay and limestone that holds the water. At Mouton, there are six meters of gravel before you get to the clay and limestone.” This is why, for example, the 1998 Mouton is a standout from the Médoc, from a vintage that received rains during the Cabernet harvest. The soils are so free-draining here, the impact from dilution is minimized.
Another success was their neighbor, Pontet-Canet. I asked Justine Tesseron how they managed the impact of this wet period. “We left the grass growing this year between the rows,” she said. “This grass was quite high. It managed to soak up some of the water. The berries were in good condition—we did not get dilution.”
These two cases go some way to explaining why there are some truly outstanding exceptions in the Médoc that are not to be overlooked. And, of course, let’s not forget—many of the big, wealthy Médoc châteaux have a lot of available resources to throw at the situation, a factor never to be underestimated in these modern times and when the vintages get tricky.
2020 favored optimal terroirs The Styles
It is nearly impossible to summarize the styles of 2020, because they can vary dramatically depending on commune and grape varieties. For detailed information about the style of each wine, please refer to the tasting notes.
Here’s an overview that, admittedly, oversimplifies the situation, but it gives readers a rough guide:
Some surprisingly good dry whites were made.
Flavors tend to be among the ripe pears, stone fruits and even tropical fruits spectrum.
Acids are good—early harvesting meant freshness was generally maintained.
It’s mainly an earlier-drinking vintage for dry whites, with moderate aging potential.
Right Bank Reds
The best examples have beautifully pure and perfumed expressions of “ripeness”—some on the crunchier fruit side and others are juicier. The signature this year seems to be a fantastic mélange of black, blue and red fruits, creating a complex layered effect that is stunning.
Most Merlots have produced a good level of ripe tannins that are soft and approachable in youth. However, where vines struggled during the drought on the more free-draining soils, the results can be a little chewy.
Alcohols are moderate to high. Most are 14% to 14.5%, while a few top 15%+.
Acids are well-balanced to refreshing. Sites on limestone continue to offer strikingly low pHs (higher acidity), e.g., Château Canon at 3.53 pH for an alcohol of 14.5%.
If the Right Bank shouts fruit purity, Pessac-Léognan remains staunchly earthy/savory, pushing the fruit into the background and waving the crushed rocks, minerals and spice-box flags.
The palates are mainly generous and fleshy.
Alcohols are generally 14% to 15%—slightly lower than the Right Bank, but higher than the Médoc.
The tannins are mostly a little firmer than the Right Bank, lending a solid backbone to the wines.
Acids are a little higher than the Right Bank, with many pHs of 3.7-3.8, which is about normal for this area.
The best wines of the Médoc are a paradox—lighter bodied, elegant, perfumed head-turners! They would fool you into thinking that they come from a far cooler vintage.
At best, these wines have a sustained, well drawn-out intensity in the mid-palate with good length. At worst, some wines are dilute, with a hollow mid-palate that doesn’t match the firm tannins, and they have an abrupt finish.
Tannins have the potential to be very high. The Cabernet berries were notoriously small this year, needing careful management in the winery so as not to be over-extracted, especially given the delicacy of the wines. The best wines have very well-crafted, balanced backbones of high quality, grainy tannins. But there are a lot of “rustic,” hard, chewy textures out there too.
Bodies are generally light to medium in weight, and the alcohols are on the low side, generally 13% to 14%.
The acidities can run anywhere from soft and well-balanced to flat and flabby. The pHs are running high at 3.8-3.9 or above, in some cases. In the best wines, the elegance of the fruit and lighter weight is in balance with the higher acidity.
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. This year, I have included projected drinking-window estimates for every single wine reviewed, to help readers with their buying decisions.
And Finally — What the Franc?
I usually add some commentary about winemaking shifts/changes in these reports. This year, what stood out the most to me was the increase in the amount and quality of Cabernet Franc in the blends.“Cabernet Franc was very good this year, and the great terroir for Cab Franc performed very well,” said Michel Rolland, when I asked for his take. “It was easy to blend a quite high percentage. As you may know, Cabernet Franc is very fashionable right now. BUT,” he cautioned with a smile, “we always have to come back to the economic side of the blending. Still, this year we used more Cabernet Franc than we ever have. Because it was showing so well. Sometimes we are in trouble with Cabernet Franc—it can be lacking mid-palate, underripe, not interesting. This year the blend with Merlot was perfect! The Cabernet Franc was giving just what the blend needed. In the future, I think we will find a lot more. A lot of people are replanting to Cabernet Franc now. My only issue is that it is a little up and down with quality. Let’s see what global warming brings—it is very favorable to Cabernet Franc.”One of the stars of the vintage—Château Canon—includes 32% Cabernet Franc in the 2020 blend. Technical Director Nicolas Audebert commented, “It used to be so difficult to get Cabernet Franc ripe in Bordeaux. Now it is fantastic...this year especially! It is impressive by its extreme elegance, by its freshness. The Merlot is sexier. Cabernet Franc will be more important in the future. Today we are planting more at Berliquet. It is roughly a third of the plantings there now. We are aiming for the composition to be 50/50 Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the years to come.”
One place that has long embraced the contribution of Cabernet Franc is Château Angélus. I asked Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal about the Cabernet Franc in the 2020 Angélus—40% of the blend—which provides a remarkable kind of shimmer to the wine this year. “We were very surprised to have a revelation with the Cabernet Franc when we were doing the blends. The Merlot we straight away called ‘sublime,’ but we thought the Cabernet Franc a little shy to begin. Then it came through. Yes, the Cabernet Franc is truly stunning this year!” 2020 Yields
A quick word about 2020 yields: Most wineries reported that their yields were down slightly this year, compared to the 10-year average and 2019, which are roughly the same. Across Bordeaux, we’re looking at yields being down by about 10% compared to 2019, so I wouldn’t call it a small crop. The dip was due to the mildew at the beginning of the growing season and then due to very small Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc berries, partly by nature of how they were formed this year and partly due to some dehydration in mid-September.
Major Châteaux Not Reviewed
So that readers understand why I have no reviews of certain wines, here is the list of the major châteaux who would not send out samples:
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