It has officially been en primeur week in Bordeaux, but for the second year running, the annual barrel tasting has been hampered by the pandemic. And while most samples are being tasted remotely across the globe, a hardy band of critics and trade are tasting on the ground – albeit with masks and social distancing to the fore.
With France in another lockdown, it is mostly local merchants and media who are in attendance. “We’ve had about five times fewer people than for a normal vintage,” said Marielle Cazaux of Château La Conseillante in Pomerol, which welcomed 400 people in the past week. On the Left Bank, Château Pontet-Canet replaced its expansive gourmet lunches with a food truck serving Charolais beef hamburgers.
So what’s the word from on the ground for Bordeaux 2020? The general gist is a Right-Bank, Merlot-dominated vintage. While the top estates of the Left Bank managed to transcend what was a challenging year for Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s a more consistent quality to the wines from the Right Bank – seen from the top brands, but also demonstrated in wines at more affordable prices.
Bordeaux oenologists Laurence Geny and Axel Marchal explained that harvesting conditions were “ideal” for Merlot but “more variable” for Cabernet Sauvignon, with these later-ripening grapes sometimes failing to reach optimum maturity despite the precocity of the vintage. And that was particularly true for many low- to mid-range wines in the Médoc and Graves, some of which show harsher, unpleasant tannins.
At a tasting of non-classified Margaux wines, for example, one of the highlights was a small estate with 100% Merlot, Château Moutte Blanc. Equally, many Graves wines ended up with more Merlots in their blends: “It’s a Merlot year,” said Jacques Lurton of Château La Louvière.
The Merlots are particularly expressive this year
The hot and dry summer – the driest since 1959 – stressed grapes and delayed maturity. As a result, estates with cooler clay subsoils have thrived. Take Château d’Issan in Margaux, where the clay subsoil “for sure” helped to make 2020 successful, according to co-owner Emmanuel Cruse. The 2020 blend includes nearly 40% Merlot, approaching the highest proportion of Merlot ever seen at the estate. Unlike some other Margaux estates, marked by somewhat rigid Cabernet-derived tannins, Issan has crafted a juicy wine with mid-palate sap and refined elegance.
Many Left Bank estates highlighted the quality of their Merlot, which, in many chateaux, has made up a higher proportion of the blend compared to average years: “The Merlots are particularly expressive this year”, said a spokeswoman at Château Marquis d’Alesme in Margaux. Château Margaux itself may be the wine of the Left Bank, combining impressive structure and airy elegance, while among the lower ranked classed growths to excel were a fresh and juicy Pontet-Canet and a suave and refined Grand-Puy-Lacoste.
Cooler clay subsoils found more often in St-Estèphe have yielded very good economically priced wines such as Château Lilian Ladouys, while mid-range wines like Château de Pez and Ormes de Pez are also worth seeking out. The top St-Estèphes – Château Calon-Ségur, Montrose and Cos d’Estournel – live up to their lofty classified reputations. Cooler weather in the northern Médoc helped to buffer the dryness (and heat) of the summer, with mid-August rainfall especially refreshing grapes enough to yield quality Cabernet Sauvignon. “We finally got 84mm of rain that refreshed the vine and allowed the Cabernets to accomplish their perfect phenolic ripeness”, said Nicolas Glumineau of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, another successful Pauillac wine in 2020.
Top estates in Pessac-Léognan such as Domaine de Chevalier – which benefitted from its cooler microclimate surrounded by forest – crafted an especially nuanced and juicy red. Similarly, Château Couhins-Lurton, whose cooler limestone terroir shined in 2020. Arguably the most exciting wines, however, have come from the top Right Bank estates, with Petrus, Château Lafleur and Ausone the pick of the vintage. Cooler clays and limestone coped with the 2020 arid heat best, and faster-ripening Merlot ripened perfectly.
Matthieu Cuvelier – who owns estates in the Médoc (Poujeaux in Moulis) and in St-Emilion (Clos Fourtet, among others, in Saint Emilion) – feels 2020 is “a bit better” for the Right Bank, while 2019 favoured the Left. Certainly it seems easier to find high-quality, mid-priced wines from St-Emilion than in the Médoc and Graves. By the same token, châteaux’s second wines from the Left Bank are often harsh, while second wines on the Right Bank are smooth.
A tasting of 50 St-Emilion grands crus classés – each priced between about 25 and 50 euros – revealed superb wines with ripe and velvety tannins, opulence, fine acidity for vibrancy and long finishes. Excellent mid-priced wines begin first and foremost with the superb Château Fonplegade, but also include Château Rochebelle, Château Fleur Cardinale, Château de Pressac, Grand Corbin Despagne and Les Grandes Murailles. The 100% Merlot of Château Bellevue, from Hubert de Bouärd, is at once juicy and dense, with both drinkability and freshness. By the same token, top Pomerols come from estates with cold clays, and for that very reason Petrus stood out in 2020, mirroring the sumptuous appeal of a 1998, for example. The deep clays of Château Petit Village, Latour à Pomerol, La Fleur-Pétrus, Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan and La Conseillante have also all shone especially brightly.
A great vintage raises all boats, as in the case of 2005, 2010 and 2016. The 2020 vintage does not fit in this category, and could perhaps more accurately be termed a top vintage for the Right Bank (like 1998 or 2001) and a vintage for top terroirs on the Left Bank.
As for pricing, given lower volumes than last year, top estates are likely to raise prices, but “the market is still fragile, so we should not raise prices too much higher than in 2019,” said Emmanuel Cruse of Château d’Issan. A courtier of a famous wine company in Bordeaux who did not wish to be named said: “Prices should remain at 2019 levels to better sell through, although 30 or 40 top estates that excelled in 2020 should be able to raise their prices”.