Bordeaux 2022: worth the hype?

By Beth Pearce MW | Buyer
May 2023
By Robbie Toothill | Head of Wine
May 2023

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to be cynical about Bordeaux’s exaltations of a great vintage.

After 2020, 2019, 2018, 2016, and 2015, all of which saw claims of “greatness”, why should you believe producers, critics, and merchants as they claim that 2022, too, is a year not to be missed.

But having tasted hundreds of wines during our recent trip to Bordeaux, and having viewed the harvest first hand last September, we’re convinced that such claims for 2022 have considerable merit.

However, whereas in vintages like 2016 and 2010 it’s felt possible to buy with abandon, with most wines elevated by the quality of the year, 2022 is different. Certain estates have made wines that will rival their greatest ever. But there are others where the fine-edged decisions went in the other direction. As ever, we will be your guide to the wines that we think you’d be remiss to miss in 2022.

In the past it’s often felt like warmer vintages blur the lines between different terroirs: it’s vintage that shines, rather than a sense of place. But 2022 bucks this trend.

Mathieu Chadronnier, President of CVBG, one of Bordeaux’s most important negociants, and owner of Lay & Wheeler favourite Chateau Marsau, suggests that in a year like 2022, where conditions above ground were so extreme, vines were forced to put all their energy into what was below ground. In doing so, they transmitted more terroir character than normal.

The resulting wines are often as individual and nuanced as they are intense and impressive.

In many ways, this is a new benchmark for Bordeaux. Wines from a hot and dry vintage that dazzle with precision and freshness. They are true expressions of their origins, of their estates, that are more about terroir than any overarching vintage character.

It’s what makes it such a fascinating, and exciting year to encounter.

The story of the vintage: fire and rain

20 days above 34 degrees. Wildfires ravaging the countryside outside Bordeaux. Trees dropping their leaves in August. These are hardly the conditions that you’d associate with Bordeaux’s greatest vintages.

Historically the warmest years proved Bordeaux’s most successful: 1929, 1947, 1982, and others spring to mind. But now that ripening grapes fully is rarely, if ever, a challenge, that paradigm has shifted. The reality of today’s climate change-affected world is that the key focus of agronomists and winemakers is how to mitigate hot and dry conditions.

But fortunately, they now have a huge toolkit of methods to do exactly that.

Comparisons with another hot vintage, twenty years ago this year, are misplaced. Whereas 2003 was dominated by an August that broke records, heat in 2022 started a lot earlier, and while intense, was not as violent. The vines seemed to become accustomed to the conditions, which combined with careful vineyard management, meant that vineyards still seemed healthy all the way to harvest. Chateau Giscours showed us a remarkable photo of their vineyards from mid August, where the surrounding trees looked more akin to October, with brown leaves, but the vines themselves remained verdant and thriving.

Many believe that 2021’s challenges proved to be 2022’s salvation. Numerous owners and winemakers suggested that the water reserves put down through the 2021 season gave just enough sustenance to the vines to cope with the extreme conditions of 2022.

Meanwhile, rains came at the right moments to prevent all but the very youngest vines, or those on the most free draining soils, from suffering from excessive water stress. Rather, what stress there was allowed the development of intense and concentrated berries, without moving into overripeness.

Harvest was undertaken under clear skies, and in many estates was the earliest, or among the earliest they’ve ever seen. Picking dates were key: a matter of days could be the difference between truly great wines and wines that seem rather overdone. But fortunately the experience of other recent hot vintages meant that estates were not caught unawares, and were able to pick varieties at their optimum ripeness.

We visited the region towards the end of the harvest, and winemakers were talking with excitement, and a certain amount of surprise, about their positive impressions of the vintage. With time in barrel the freshness that was apparent during the fermentations has become more pronounced, and we’re sure that with a further year or so of elevage, the wines will become even more impressively balanced.

The reds: the highest highs

The high quality of many of the wines is not to say that success was uniform. Indeed, while the best wines are surely some of the greatest that properties have ever produced, it will be wise to be selective.

It’s a year that has rewarded progressive, thoughtful agronomy and winemaking. In the vineyard, those who made swift decisions to counteract the drought were the most successful. Some removed cover crops to reduce competition for the vines, while many avoided leaf thinning, ensuring the fruit stayed shaded.

Those who benefit from parcels of old vines also reaped the rewards (even at petits châteaux like Chateau Marjosse, where owner Pierre Lurton has a plot of historic vines that he calls his secret garden), with considerable root systems able to seek out moisture from deep in the earth. And those blessed with cooler soils, especially parcels of clay, were often able to make wines that bely the warmth of the year.

While arguably the greatest changes and improvements in Bordeaux in recent years have centred on the vineyards, work in the wineries also allowed the production of benchmark wines, where in decades gone by estates may well have fallen short.

Most notable is the increasing focus on smaller tanks for vinification, allowing the work in the vines to move into the cellar, with smaller and smaller plots being vinified separately.

It’s not just the remarkably beautiful, brand new cellars of premium estates like Haut-Bailly, Figeac, or Pichon Comtesse where this parcel by parcel approach is paying dividends. Smaller tanks for vinification, allowing greater precision, is a positive trend that’s stretching further and further down the Bordeaux hierarchy. For example, Lay & Wheeler favourites Branaire-Ducru in St-Julien, and La Garde in Pessac Leognan, are both benefitting from enlarged cellars and much greater precision. They have both made incredibly impressive 2022s.

There is, of course, no formula to winemaking. Whereas most estates spoke about reducing extraction, Thomas Duroux at Chateau Palmer felt that 2022 was a year to seek more from the berries. Palmer was one of our highlights of the vintage.

As in the vineyards, many of the decisions taken by winemakers were informed by the experience of the recent past. In a review of the vintage by a group of Bordelais academics, including renowned consultant Axal Marchal, the Oenological Research Unit of Bordeaux University explicitly attribute this experience to the prevalent wisdom in 2022 not to acidify the must, which they suggest, “would have irrevocably upset the balance of flavours in the red wines”.

Indeed, this is one of the most striking things about the 2022 vintage in Bordeaux: the impeccable balance of the wines. And while such wines would, in years gone by, have taken years to appear at their best, these 2022 will be delicious from far earlier.

While visiting Château Haut-Bailly, we drank their 2016. It was gorgeous. No one doubts the 2016 Haut-Bailly’s ability to age gracefully for decades. But now top wines like this are also approachable - and more than that, a real pleasure - in their youth.

This is, at many estates, an exciting development. For those who secure 2022 Bordeaux by the case, there is a considerable upside: we’re sure that they’re wines that will be enjoyable over a very long period.

However, there is one downside in 2022, particularly on the left bank. Yields are often considerably reduced, with Langoa Barton, for example, announcing a reduction in production of around a third. At many estates these smaller-than-average yields will be mitigated by a higher proportion of first wine thanks to the quality of the vintage, but it remains certain that there will not be enough of the very top wines to satisfy all customers.

The whites and Sauternes: selective excellence

Hot and dry conditions are rarely conducive to producing great white wines in Bordeaux, and it’s fair to say that the 2022s are not generally at the level of the 2021s, or other recent cooler years. However, there are undoubtedly some real delights, with wines that offer considerable aromatic purity, as well as a richness and intensity to the fruit.

In Sauternes the need to be selective is all the more pronounced.

With frost and hail in recent years resulting in tiny quantities, 2022 again looked like a disaster for Sauternes producers.

But fortunately, after the lengthy hot and dry conditions that proliferated throughout summer, finally rain fell at the end of September, allowing the fast development of Botrytis Cinerea. Owners still had to hold their nerve, needing to wait until at least the middle of October and the return of warm conditions for the perfect harvest of nobly rotten grapes.

The best are truly remarkable, with opulence, power, and also incredible balance. Wines like Suduiraut - produced with miniscule yields of only 8hl/ha or so - and Doisy-Daene are benchmark examples of the Sauternes style.

Why buy Bordeaux

We have seen the first few releases from Bordeaux’s 2022 vintage. And it’s clear that where pricing is attractive for the successful wines, and they enter the market at prices well below comparable vintages like 2016 and 2010, demand is considerable. We expect many of the biggest names, with considerable critical acclaim, to sell out fast.

We remain utterly convinced by the value that Bordeaux can offer. Where else in the world can you find wines for between £10 and £50 in bond, that will give enormous pleasure in their youth, and age for decades.

We urge you to consider wines like Branaire-Ducru, Lafon-Rochet, the Durantou stable including Les Cruzelles, Amelisse, and Montlandrie, and others carefully. These are wines that far outperform their prices in a global context, and should form the backbone of any cellar.

Since wines are bought En Primeur prior to bottling, this gives the purchaser the opportunity to secure different formats of the wines, without the considerable premium that such formats command later. So if you’re looking for half bottles of a favourite estate, or bigger bottles to grace your table in the years to come, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team.

Countless times during our visit to Bordeaux last month we were left open mouthed by the beauty of 2022s, from expected and unexpected sources alike. Bordeaux retains the ability to amaze and impress in equal measure: let us be your guide to the 2022 vintage, and discover a year that will, in many cases, be revered in the years and decades to come.

Beth Pearce MW & Robbie Toothill
May 2023