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Bordeaux 2022: wines of finesse despite record-breaking heat

A long hot summer has miraculously produced some surprisingly fresh reds that should stand the test of time. Panos Kakaviatos shares industry impressions of the Bordeaux 2022 vintage, following en primeur tastings

Words by Panos Kakaviatos

Photography by Panos Kakaviatos

l'eglise clinet vineyard in pomerol, bordeaux
The Collection
L'Eglise Clinet in Pomerol

Bordeaux 2022 has buzz. A near-record number of people have been tasting the latest Bordeaux vintage from barrel during en primeur week (24-27 April), with estates reporting similar if not more visitors since the pre-Covid 2019 – and the highest number of visitors since the heralded 2016 vintage was tasted from barrel in 2017. The hype is evident but is it justified?

The best wines exude seashell freshness as pleasant as the oysters consumed at lunches and dinners thrown to mark the occasion. Some of the reds have classical, fresh profiles, which surprised the likes of Shaun Bishop of US importer and retailer JJ Buckley. ‘This vintage will taste great in five years and in 50 years,’ he said. Or even sooner, perhaps? ‘Very often I drink some 2022 in the evening; up to half a bottle,’ said Christian Moueix, longstanding director of the eponymous stable of Pomerol wines, who is instantly approving of the vintage’s agreeable tannin levels.

The 2022 vintage was marked by unique, record-making dry heat. ‘Given weather reports, one would have expected heavier wines,’ said Omri Ram of the celebrated Pomerol estate Château Lafleur. Indeed, many expressed surprise over the freshness of the wines in contrast to the dry heat of the growing season. Moueix said that he had ‘never seen’ a summer like 2022: In July and August, Pomerol vineyards typically get 270 hours of sunlight each month, but it was nearly 350 hours last year. In the Médoc, Dominique Arangoïts, technical director at Château Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe noted a record for hot days.

And yet, when tasting Château Cos d’Estournel or Château Trotanoy (a top Moueix Pomerol) – among many other excellent 2022 barrel samples – you get neither heaviness nor heat.

chateau trotanoy 2022 wine tasting
Pomerol's Château Trotanoy showed freshness despite the record sunlight and high temperatures that marked the Bordeaux 2022 vintage

Accounting for the character of the vintage

Vintners were at pains to explain the freshness, especially since acidity levels were rather low. Some said that relatively fresher evenings helped. Others said that vines had more time to get accustomed to the heat, which had set in early and lasted throughout the summer, rather than the heat spikes seen in a vintage like 2018. Arangoïts even suggested heat stress in his vineyard slowed development, so that alcohol was not as high as one would have expected.

At Château Troplong Mondot in St-Emilion, director Aymeric de Gironde stressed that the vintage was ‘made underground’ for vines with deep roots that could find necessary water, especially from clay soils. And suggestions were made that 2022 would not have been as good had 2021 not been so wet. ‘If we had gotten 2022 after 2019, it would have been terrible,’ says Omri Ram. He also explains that the winter before the vintage was ‘normal’, which helped vines to prepare for the ‘dry, hot marathon’.

‘I have a master’s degree in viticulture and I still do not understand 2022,’ said Henri Lurton, owner of Château Brane Cantenac in Margaux.

'Sheer floral refinement, sumptuous palate feel, subtly structured tannins and an ultra-long finish' found in Château Cheval Blanc's 2022 vintage

Adapting to the heat

While the vintage can be head scratching, some trends emerge. For many, early picking was the key. At Château Cheval Blanc, 80 per cent of Merlots were picked by the end of August. Its 2022 clocks in at 13.9% alcohol, but the sheer floral refinement, sumptuous palate feel, subtly structured tannins and ultra-long finish all point to refinement and elegance rather than roasted or raisin-like fruit. It is easily a candidate for wine of the vintage.

Furthermore, an oasis of June rain saved the vintage, but volume varied – and that influenced wine quality. Aymone Fabre at Château Marquis d’Alesme in Margaux said 2022 would have been a ‘nightmare’ without June rain. Emmanuel Cruse of Château d’Issan in Margaux, remarked: ‘I think mostly Pauillac did well because they had more water.’

Canopy management helped to prevent the sun from roasting grapes, including coating some with ‘sunscreen’, a white mud to reflect sun from the grapes, at Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac, for example. Many estates did not de-leaf vines.

Indeed, thick-skinned grapes had paltry juice-to-skin ratios (which also lowered yields in many locations) vintners said, so tannin management in the vat room was key. ‘I do not get a sense that everyone managed tannin extractions equally well,’ said Arizona-based wine merchant Kyle Lindquist. Most vintners stressed soft extractions, meaning very little if any pumping over. Some spoke of ‘passive’ extractions, described as similar to leaving a tea bag in water. And less oak tannin extraction seemed to be the trend. At the St-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé Clos Fourtet, for example, only 40 per cent new oak is being used to age the 2022 vintage.

The tasting room at Château Mouton Rothschild: June rain meant that Pauillac wines were still showing well in en primeur tastings of the Bordeaux 2022 vintage

The significance of soil and terroir

Another defining factor was soil: cooler limestone in St-Emilion – for example, the exquisite Château Beauséjour Duffau Lagarrosse – or deep clays across appellations tended to obtain more freshness than wines coming from hot, sandy gravels. Buyers will find much to like from economically priced brands with such cooler soils, from Château La Tour de Mons in Margaux to Château Phélan Ségur in Saint Estèphe (just two among many examples in the Médoc).

At a tasting of St-Emilion grand cru classés, the hits kept coming – from Château Laroze to Château Laroque. The limestone and clay soils of less well-known appellations Fronsac and Castillon make 2022 wines shine as well; from Château Dalem (Fronsac) to Clos Puy Arnaud (Castillon). Christian Moueix stressed that the continued trend towards earlier picking also proved important for quality on the Right Bank in 2022.

But it is important to point out that not all wines are hitting these highs: some show overripe fruit or noticeably low acidity. It is hard to speak in terms of appellations because one can find many good wines across all of them but, generally speaking, wines from Pomerol and Graves were not as consistently good as those from estates with cooler clay and limestone (from St-Emilion, for example). By the same token, northern Médoc wines, especially those from Pauillac and Saint Estèphe – because of cooler temperatures, superior June rainfall and more clay under gravel – seem more reliable than wines from the southern Médoc. The whites, in most cases – both dry and late-harvest sweet whites from Sauternes and Barsac – are inferior to the reds, with acidities noticeably low, even if exceptions exist.

bordeaux 2022 en primeur tasting at chateau laroque
'The hits kept coming' in St-Emilion, with the cooler limestone soils of the appellation benefitting Bordeaux 2022 wines

How will the 2022 vintage affect prices?

But in the most part, Bordeaux has been learning from recent hot and dry vintages, even if 2022 marks a paradigm shift for global warming. Winemakers with New World experience proved especially ready for 2022. Philippe Bascaules of Château Margaux, for example, has been working since 2011 at Inglenook in Napa, and he says how the Napa estate developed a spectrophotometer that checks tannin quantity ‘within 20 minutes’, which came in handy for the 2022 vintage.

As happy as tasters were, readers should be prepared for price hikes from famous brands. An experienced broker who wished to remain anonymous told me that he was not concerned about the First Growths raising prices, but seemed worried over strong second-tier brands ‘going too far’ and possibly ‘harming’ future campaigns. But many buyers see the vintage as so special that higher prices will be absorbed. JJ Buckley’s Shaun Bishop says that price hikes would ‘make sense’ for the vintage. Nonetheless, another anonymous merchant told me over lunch at Château La Conseillante that he is ready to buy lots of Bordeaux 2022 wines, regardless of any of the subsequent price hikes.