2020 Bordeaux: wines of ‘quiet power’

A solar vintage offers plenty in terms of power and refinement, particularly in wines from the Médoc, says Panos Kakaviatos. Here he shares an overview of how the Bordeaux 2020 vintage – now in bottle – is shaping up

Words by Panos Kakaviatos

Photography by Panos Kakaviatos


Winemakers in Bordeaux love to draw comparisons between vintages. Chatting to Château Montrose managing director Pierre Graffeuille between breaks in a week of tasting the recently bottled 2020 vintage, he recalled 2016 and 2005. ‘You get a sense of the structure of those great vintages in the 2020,’ said Graffeuille. ‘You have all the advantages of a solar vintage, but not the disadvantages,’ added technical director Vincent Decup.

While 2020 was the driest summer in Bordeaux since 1959, yielding small and rather thick-skinned grapes with high alcohol potential and low acidities, the cooler nights, particularly compared to, say, 2018 led to a ‘freshness and wonderful sap in the wines, despite the hot and dry summer,’ explained Vincent Millet at neighbouring estate Château Calon Ségur.

Many have dubbed 2018-2019-2020 a great Bordeaux trilogy, but it pays to understand nuances among these vintages. My week of tastings in late November took in various estates and communes, and many wines I encountered were sculpted, refined, smooth yet structured, reflecting the cliché of the iron fist in the velvet glove. But the best came from cooler climates and/or cooler soils, in the Médoc and much of the Right Bank.

bordeaux 2020 tasting of fine cru bourgeois wine
The Médoc's cooler climate has resulted in 'wines of quiet power and refinement'

The 2020s lack the immediate charm of the 2019s. They also lack the unbridled, almost New World ostentatiousness of the 2018s. But in the Médoc especially, the 2020s have lower alcohol compared to the two other vintages, resulting in wines of quiet power and refinement. And while alcohol levels can be high on the Right Bank, they are often balanced by acidity, yielding compelling wines.

As with the 2019 vintage, few people assessed 2020 Bordeaux from barrel in situ because of COVID lockdowns and limitations, but by November this year, tasters were back in force. At Château Palmer in Margaux, director Thomas Duroux commented: ‘I don’t remember seeing so many people at the same time to taste the most recent bottled vintage.’

For much of the week, I joined celebrated author and Bordeaux expert Jane Anson, after we were among the few to taste the 2020 from barrel last year. Both of us noticed how well the Médoc wines have developed since the en primeur tastings: ‘There are a lot of excellent wines here,’ Anson said after we went through much of the Médoc.

You want Pauillac power, with unmistakable notes of pencil lead and cassis? You find that in spades

Here, barrel ageing has rounded out the somewhat imposing tannins. You want Pauillac power, with unmistakable notes of pencil lead and cassis? You find that in spades: from more affordable estates like Château Pedesclaux to the superb Château Mouton Rothschild that clocks in at well under 13% alcohol. Mouton director Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy says that 2020 has ‘a bit more depth’ than the 2019, a sentiment shared by other commentators.

Saint-Estèphe shines bright: with the aforementioned estates, but also in a wine from the 2020 vintage at Château Cos d’Estournel, which exhibits seamless opulence and power, seashell freshness, and an endless finish. Further south, floral elegance and impressive power at Château Brane Cantenac in Margaux is complemented First Growth-like breed at Château Gruaud Larose in Saint-Julien. Many non-classified wines I tasted were excellent, notably Château Sociando Mallet (AOC Haut Médoc) and Château Poujeaux (AOC Moulis).

Château Cos d’Estournel
'Seashell freshness and an endless finish' from the 2020 vintage at Château Cos d’Estournel

The troublesome, ambiguous word ‘classic’ comes to mind for the 2020 vintage in the Médoc. It is ironic that some in Bordeaux last year peddled the inferior but lower-alcohol 2021 vintage as more ‘classic’, but 2020 is the real deal (the term not intended as a euphemism). Indeed, Danjoy at Mouton Rothschild dubs 2020 the most ‘classic’ in style of the 2018-2019-2020 triumvirate.

Merlots from cooler clay and limestone soils make the Right Bank captivating. Comparing notes with a group of tasters at the negociant CVGB at Château Belgrave, I spoke to Hans Martin Gesellmann, portfolio manager for Kracher Fine Wine in Austria, who calls 2020 an ‘excellent vintage’ for both the Right and Left Banks. ‘The wines have a lot of power, great structure and lots of energy,’ he said, comparing it to the 2016, and grading it higher than the 2019.

Gesellmann’s wine of the vintage is Pomerol’s Château Vieux Château Certan. But as in the Médoc, buyers can find quality from more economical brands. Take, for example, Château Beauregard in Pomerol, which exudes bright fruit and impressive structure. The same goes for Saint-Emilion. Even the second wine of Cheval Blanc, Petit Cheval, especially impressed Anson and myself in a marathon tasting of Saint-Emilions at negociant Joanne. We went from one great wine to the next with Saint-Emilion, including a spectacular Château Larcisse Ducasse, pure in its expression of wet stone and precision. Or, Château Canon, whose floral aromas precede a palate of density and depth conveyed with cool freshness and a long finish. But as in Pomerol, buyers can find excellent less expensive wines, from the wet stone elegance and refinement of Château Laroque, which Anson dubbed a ‘brilliant wine’, to the gorgeously balanced Château Rochebelle, with its smooth tannins and long finish.

chateau laroque
In St-Emilion, there's value to be found - with Château Laroque's 'brilliant' 2020 vintage standing out

London-based merchant Bordeaux Index confirms that 2020 is selling better thus far than both 2017 and the ‘challenging’ 2021, albeit ‘a long way from the heady days of the 2016 and 2018 campaigns,’ according to director Matthew O’Connell.

2020 has not been as successful as the 2019 for the simple reason that opening prices for 2020 were higher. According to Liv-Ex, the global marketplace for the wine trade, analysts calculate that as of December this year, the total sales value for 2019 is approximately 6.4 times that of 2020, as major markets like Hong Kong still focus on 2019.

Savvy buyers of young Bordeaux will take interest in the vintage

But as 2019s stocks recede, and 2020 bottles hit the shelves, savvy buyers of young Bordeaux will take interest in the vintage, especially since the inferior 2021 saw opening prices similar to 2020. Several sources in Bordeaux wishing to remain anonymous told me that 2021 was ‘too expensive’ and that they are ‘stuck with stock’. In the United States, a strong dollar could make 2020 especially appealing for buyers, says Jeff Zacharia of Zachys in New York.