"2020: a year to be forgotten, a vintage to be remembered."
At first glance, 2020 seems to be a perfect clone of 2019: the same weather sequence with a very wet spring followed by a particularly hot and dry summer, with in the end once again a great Bordeaux vintage born in the midst of a global pandemic.
However, nature never replays the exact same scenario from one vintage to the next and it is these differences that the wines remember that we detail below.
Bordeaux 2020 : the weather in Gironde
First highlight of 2020: an excessively wet spring. From March to June, 431mm of rain fell in Bordeaux, exactly 50% more than the thirty-year average (286mm). Luckily, the deluge stopped from May 14th to 31st, just at the time of flowering.
Second highlight: the almost two months of absolute drought. The spring rains stopped on 18 June and it was not until 11 August that there was rain again (in the form of storms). As far as we know, Bordeaux had never experienced such a long period without rain since the Bordeaux Mérignac station started taking readings (1906).
Third highlight: a hot summer but without a heat wave. After 18 June, summer suddenly set in for three months in Gironde. Taking together the sum of the maximum daily temperatures recorded during the three crucial months of July-August-September, the summer of 2020 was the fourth hottest since records began, 1.9°C above the thirty-year average, behind 2018 (+2.7°C), 2003 (+2.2°C) and 2019 (+2.0°C) but ahead of 2016 (1.8°C). However, this summer heat was regular, with no heatwave (3 days in a row above 35°C) to contend with.
Fourth highlight: the rain that disrupted the very end of the red harvest and made the harvest of the sweet white grapes extremely difficult. While the 3 days of rain in mid-August (11 to 13) were welcomed as a blessing after two dry months, the 4 days of rain at the end of September (21 and 24 to 26) were not welcome as they disrupted the end of the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. Subsequently, the month of October, with 21 days of rain, was a succession of disturbances, reserving only a short window of 4 days of good weather (from the 15th to the 18th) for the Sauternes harvesters.
Bordeaux dry white 2020 : a fine vintage of balance between flavour, richness and tension
Although 2020 was one of the hottest years in Bordeaux, it was a good year for Sauvignon and Semillon:
• the sanitary state was always ideal due to the drought,
• the regularity of the temperatures in July and August, without any prolonged heat wave, guaranteed a smooth ripening without any deterioration in the acidity of the grapes,
• the earliness recorded in the spring (15 days ahead of the budburst) was maintained throughout the summer, resulting in the earliest harvest of the decade: from 17 August for the Sauvignons and 27 August for the Semillons, under ideally cool anticyclonic weather conditions.
On September 10th, the harvesting of the dry whites was finished and the winegrowers knew that they had a great aromatic and fresh vintage. The Sauvignons, although less exuberant than in 2019, showed a beautiful freshness without herbaceous aromas, but the great success of 2020 is the prerogative of the Semillons, tasty and intense, giving depth and density to the blends.
The north of the Médoc, with a more temperate climate than elsewhere in the Gironde, and more generally all the terroirs with good water retention (limestone and clay) produced brilliant dry whites in 2020.
Bordeaux sweet white 2020 : miraculous
The production of great sweet white wines requires a precise chronology with, in order, the ripening of the grapes, then the botrytisation (noble rot) under the effect of air humidity (fogs, drizzle) and finally the concentration in good dry weather (anticyclone) before harvesting.
At the end of August, 2020 was looking good, but this vintage tested the nerves of the producers of sweet white wines for two months:
• at the beginning of September, the white grapes were ripe in excellent conditions (see dry white wines above).
• it was only at the end of September that the autumn rains arrived and with them the botrytis.
• the succession of showers in October prevented any qualitative harvest and producers became worried.
• the miraculous lull came in mid-October. The miraculous lull came in mid-October, during which all the châteaux hurried to carry out a single sorting, before the parade of disturbances resumed, signalling the end of hopes for a second sorting.
As a result, 2020 in Sauternais is qualitative with fine, pure, fruity wines, on semi-liquid bodies giving them an airy and delicate style. But it is once again a very small harvest (less than 10 hectolitres per hectare), after the previous ones which were cut down by frost, hail and mildew... and knowing that the 2021 vintage was 80% frozen at the beginning of April. Having the courage to produce great sweet white wines is no longer enough, we now need self-sacrifice.
Bordeaux red 2020 : 5th great vintage since 2015
Given the accumulated sunshine and temperature over the summer, it was obvious that 2020 would be another great vintage for the reds. In the formidable series of great recent Bordeaux vintages - 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020 - our hunch is to place 2020 behind the exceptional 2016 (refinement) and 2018 (richness) but ahead of 2015 and 2019.
This judgement is global at the scale of the Gironde and suffers from countless exceptions at the scale of each château. One thing is certain: the tastings, comparisons and evolutions of these 5 vintages will be absolutely fascinating to follow and have not finished fuelling the debate.
Bordeaux red 2020 : a vegetative cycle starting like 2016 and ending like 2015
Although the spring of 2020 was copiously watered, it was also very mild, leading to the vines being two weeks earlier than normal, an advance that was maintained right up to the harvest of both the whites and the reds.
Flowering went smoothly at the end of May in dry weather, before the return of rain in early June and the associated mildew.
The weather change on 18 June and the subsequent fine dry weather restored the morale of the winegrowers, drying out the soggy soils and eradicating the attacks of mildew. For two full months, the vines sent their roots and rootlets to chase the gradually lowering water table, drew the water they needed in adequate quantities, neither too much nor too little, and were able to enjoy the generous sunshine without stress.
The very wet spring did not augur well, the dry summer could have been a handicap, but these two events put together were a chance. These conditions at the beginning of the cycle are a perfect copy-paste of those encountered in 2016 (with a weather changeover on exactly the same day: 18 June).
Here is what we wrote in our first "Primeurs 2016" letter in May 2017: "a cool spring where it rained a lot and often, with the three months of April-May-June recording +62% rainfall compared to the norm" and then "on 18 June, a complete turnaround in the weather, with the installation of perfectly dry and sunny weather until 3 November, i.e. for 4 months".
The resemblance with 2016 ended in mid-August with 3 days (from the 11th to the 13th) of sustained rain (55mm, the equivalent of an average August), which arrived at the right time just after the veraison and before the hydric stress became too intense. From then until September 21st, the weather was classic late summer, sunny, cooler and without rain, allowing a slow ripening, a good synthesis of anthocyanins (responsible for the colour) and a cloudless harvest.
The earliest Merlots were harvested in the first days of September, followed by the Cabernets 10 to 15 days later. The rains in the last week of September hampered the picking of the later Cabernet Sauvignon plots. This scenario is reminiscent of the 2015 vintage where the end of the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest was also affected by rain. However, in 2020, as in 2015, the grand crus with earlier terroirs had finished harvesting before the rains.
Bordeaux red 2020 : the big winners
In view of these climatic conditions and after the tastings this spring, the big winners of the 2020 vintage are :
• On the terroir side. Subsoils capable of retaining water and therefore adapted to drought, because they have a limestone base (Fronsac, Saint-Émilion, Castillon, Saint-Estèphe) or a significant proportion of clay (Pomerol) or marl (Médoc along the river).
• Vineyard side. The age of the vines was a decisive quality factor in 2020, with better rooting guaranteeing a better water supply and an absence of ripening blockages.
• Grape varieties. The regular heat throughout the summer, the (relative) coolness after mid-August at the end of berry ripening and the harvest in mid-September under exemplary weather conditions favoured Merlot and Petit Verdot, to the point of being given priority this year in the blends of the great wines.
The two Cabernets (Franc and Sauvignon), perfectly ripe, gave colourful and tannic wines, without any vegetal character. Only those from the latest parcels, picked in the rain, had to be downgraded to the second or third wine.
Without talking about heterogeneity, it must be recognised that, as in 2019, it is the great vintages that have benefited the most from the 2020 vintage, with qualitative and earlier terroirs, older vines and an abundant workforce immediately available in these times of sanitary crisis.
Bordeaux red 2020 : the aromatic freshness of the 2016 and the tannic softness of the 2019
Two characteristics can be found in the successes of 2020, both on the left and right bank, and are the signature of the vintage:
• a beautiful freshness which is revealed both on the nose (aromas of fresh fruit, blackcurrant, black cherry, not compote) and on the palate (mentholated finish), giving dynamism and length. The smooth heat after 15 August allowed for regular ripening, preserving the acidity of the grapes and giving the 2020s a typically Bordeaux balance, as in 2016.
• a remarkable tannic softness, all the more surprising as the tannic indices of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon of 2020 are higher than in 2019, 2018, 2016 and 2015. The perfect ripeness of the skins and pips certainly explains the silkiness and voluptuous finish of the 2020s, just like the 2019s.
Fortunately, the alcohol did not mask the qualities of the 2020s, as the alcohol levels remained within reasonable limits (for a vintage of heat and great maturity) and most often lower than those of 2018 or 2019:
- 13.5% on average on the left bank (Cabernet-Sauvignon in the majority), often less as for example at Lafite (12.8%), Duhart-Milon and Pédesclaux (13.0%), Mouton and Gruaud-Larose (13.1%)...
- 14.5% on average on the right bank (Merlot in the majority), often less as for example at Figeac (13.8%), La Conseillante and La Gaffelière (14.0%), Cheval-Blanc and Côte de Baleau (14.2%)...
Bordeaux red 2020 : a small production, especially of Grand Vin
Without being as low as in 2017 (frosts on 21 and 28 April), the 2020 harvest shows low volumes, nearly 30 hl/ha on the left bank and 40 hl/ha on the right bank, a combination of several factors:
• a slow and irregular flowering in some places, responsible for coulure (non-fertilisation of the flower),
• the summer drought which produced small grapes with thick skins and little juice (the Cabernet Sauvignon had the smallest berries measured in the last 5 years),
• the downgrading to second or third wine of the last vats of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested in the rains at the end of September.
All in all, the Grand Crus, especially on the Left Bank, have announced significant yield reductions in 2020, between -15% and -25% compared to last year. However, these yield reductions vary greatly from one cru to another. Here are a few examples of immediately neighbouring crus of the same standing:
- Montrose is at 29 hl/ha when Cos d'Estournel is at 39 hl/ha
- Saint-Pierre is 33 hl/ha when Beychevelle is 46 hl/ha
- Petit Village is 27 hl/ha when La Conseillante is 39 hl/ha
Bordeaux red 2020 : intermediate prices between 2018 and 2019?
The price of red Bordeaux had reached a high point for the 2018 Primeurs. Last year, as the health crisis spread across all continents and caused widespread concern, the 2019 Primeurs were marketed with price cuts ranging from -20% to -30%.
This spring, the health crisis is still acute, but the spread of vaccines discovered in the meantime suggests a positive outcome in the short to medium term. Under these conditions and taking into account the low yields but also the quality of 2020, the price of 2020 Bordeaux is expected to rise. An increase of 10% to 15%, placing 2020 midway between 2019 and 2018, seems logical and even legitimate.
The surprise release of Cheval Blanc at the very beginning of the campaign, with an increase of barely +3% in 2020 after a -32% drop in 2019, is the best possible signal of moderation, and is reminiscent of that of Pontet-Canet last year at the beginning of the Primeurs 2019 campaign. The future will tell us if the other grands crus will follow the path traced by this courageous Cheval Blanc...