Bordeaux 2020: a year unlike all others

By Robbie Toothill | Buyer
May 2020

With masks in the vineyards, harvesters separated into bubbles, and social distancing in the cellars, 2020 is a year that no winemakers will want to repeat.

Yet the wines in 2020 are something to treasure. From a growing season with two distinct halves, I’ve tasted some astonishingly good wines, that show the very best of their revered terroirs.

2020 represents the third in a trilogy of impressive vintages from Bordeaux. Following the powerful 2018s, and the beautifully balanced 2019s, 2020 is a vintage that combines richness and power with bright freshness, with wines that consistently surprise and delight.

Bordeaux’s changing

In the relatively short period since I’ve been buying Bordeaux, since 2014, Bordeaux and its wines have changed.

In many cases, they’ve had to, as summers have become warmer and drier - 2020 is a case in point - and there have been more examples of extreme weather. And there are also stylistic changes. No single critic is as dominant as they were during the Parker era, and there’s been a concerted effort to return to more classically styled wines, with dialled back extraction, and more freshness.

A favourite marketing phrase has always been ‘wine is made in the vineyard’, but it’s clear that in recent years many châteaux have been paying closer and closer attention to their vines. The number of estates working organically or biodynamically have increased every year, not just at the top end of the hierarchy, with estates like Latour, Palmer, or Rouget, but increasingly at more modestly priced estates, such as Angludet in Margaux, or Marsau in the Côte de Francs.

Others, such as Château Lafon-Rochet, are taking it a step further, thinking holistically about their ecosystems. 70% of the estate is ‘border land’, and they’ve recently removed 4,500 vines in less suitable spots, planting 2,500 trees to replace them, with plans for a further 2,500 trees on the estate by the end of the year.

During the growing season, mitigating heat has become key in hot, dry summers like 2020. Leaf thinning and green harvests, once a staple of Bordeaux, are now much rarer.

Work in the cellar has often been focussed on supporting the nuances developed in the vineyard. There’s much more parcel-by-parcel vinification in smaller tanks prior to blending, while the amount of new oak used for maturation has been reduced at many estates.

In terms of winemaking, many estates are extracting less than before: infusion seems to be a Bordeaux buzz word currently. Others are considering the use of other aging vessels. Much has been made of the use of amphorae by producers like Pontet-Canet, or Larrivet Haut-Brion, who’ve vinified and aged all their merlot in amphorae this year, but others are using cement, or even large oak foudres, such as Château Marsau. And all these changes have been made with the same end goal in site: to produce more nuanced, precise wines, that show off the very best of each estate’s terroir.

2020 - a year of two halves

All of these changes have put many estates in a good position to cope with the particularities of the 2020 vintage.

A year that started incredibly early, with a mild, wet spring and early summer turned into a hot dry summer, and one of the earliest harvests ever. A mixture of mildew and cold weather at flowering, and then heat and drought all conspired to affect yields: in some cases, quantities in 2020 are up to 50% down on last year.

But they haven’t affected quality, with the greatest terroirs shining through, and many admirable wines being produced.

The wines

At their best, the 2020s balance ripe, powerful fruit with bright, fresh acidities. Edouard Moueix points to uneven ripening within bunches as a possible reason for the character of the 2020s: if you waited for the middle of the bunches to be just ripe, the outside grapes were slightly overripe. That might explain the opulence, combined with impressive freshness.

On the left bank, one notable thing is the relatively low alcohol levels of the wines, despite the heat of the vintage. Château Lafite-Rothschild comes in at a modest 12.8%, while Lafon-Rochet, for example, is 13.5%.

Merlot on clay has really excelled in 2020, making the wines on the right bank slightly more homogenous than the left. Here alcohols are slightly higher - as is always the case with Merlot over Cabernet Sauvignon - but is, in virtually every example I’ve tasted, impeccably balanced.

These are wines with the concentration, structure, and acidity to age impressively: many will age spectacularly well.

The market

The big question is why buy Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur. And I’m convinced that there are a few reasons to do so.

First, there’s the quality of the vintage. We get excited about wine and vintages because no two are the same, and talking to numerous château owners over the last month or two, few could draw parallels with other vintages. In 2020 many estates have made superlative wines, which match, or even surpass, some of their best ever efforts. They’re not 2010s, 2016s, 2018s, or 2019s. They’re 2020s. And if you want them in your cellar, you’ll need to secure them.

Which brings us on to when to secure them. It’s true that many Bordeaux estates make large quantities of wines. But in 2020, yields are, in many cases, much lower than normal, with considerably less being released. And while many of these wines will reappear on the market at a later date, they will very likely be at a higher price than these releases.

And finally, there’s the flexibility that buying En Primeur offers. At Lay & Wheeler, we sell every wine by the single bottle, so you can put together a mix of your favourite properties, or wines you just want to discover. And buying En Primeur allows you to choose the format you want the wine bottled in. So whether you fancy a case of halves to enjoy rather sooner, or a 6 litre Impériale for that party in a few years time, you can make sure you’ve got something special tucked away in the cellar. Such formats are often near impossible to find in the years to come, and if you can find them they come at far more of a premium than they are available for now.

Buying Bordeaux En Primeur remains a great way to secure some of the world’s greatest wines, in the format you wish, at what should be the best prices going. As always, we’ll only offer wines that we think are worth buying En Primeur, which we think offer both quality and value for money.

Robbie Toothill Buyer May 2020