Thrice Is Nice: Bordeaux 2020 in Bottle


Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Pessac-Léognan | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites

I am not foolish enough to pronounce COVID done and dusted. But, looking back in the rear-view mirror at those two years of lockdown, doesn’t it seem surreal? Jogging down the A3 dual-carriageway without seeing a single vehicle, all I could hear was birdsong. It felt like I had unwittingly walked into a science fiction flick. Then there was fathoming how to entertain the bored kids, nothing to do except drive out for a coffee, a polystyrene cup gingerly passed through a window by a gloved hand at a nearby café. Pallets beamed down onto my driveway and were laboriously heaved to my lock-up-cum-tasting room. The timeline of events becomes jumbled, but if memory serves, my first sighting of the 2020 vintage marked the second year I was denied the chance to taste en primeur in Bordeaux. Vaccines meant that, thankfully, a third never transpired.

Despite the ignominious surroundings of my tasting, it was clear that 2020 was the final part of a Bordeaux triumvirate. The hot summer meant that stylistically the wines bore semblances to the decadence of 2018 and 2019. Stylistically, they seemed more aligned with the latter, demonstrating more tension and terroir expression than the former. In my mind, amongst the three, the 2020s were in a silver medal position and threatened gold depending on château, so expectations were high when broaching the vintage in bottle. I was intrigued to discover how vines and winemakers adapt to such growing seasons, dealing with fruit with higher sugar and alcohol levels, the so-called “new normal”.

The Growing Season

I detailed 2020 in my primeur report published two years ago. But it is worth repeating, just for context, in this marginally shortened version.

The 2020 growing season began with an unseasonably warm winter that saw the highest temperatures for a century and one-third of the average frost. After the previous dry summer, vineyard managers welcomed the high rainfall, twice the average during November, December and March, with some châteaux reporting a year’s precipitation in six months. Between these, a series of storm-laden low-pressure systems swept across the region during January and February. Most of a somewhat uneven bud break took place in the middle of March, and the end of that month saw a dive in temperatures, down to -12°C in some locales with snow on 30 March. Thankfully, frost damage was limited to prone spots. April was warm and rainy, conditions that encouraged rapid shoot growth. May was more like summer in terms of temperature due to hot spells at the beginning and the end of the month, 16 days above 25°C, the fourth hottest in 75 years. Humidity and warmth provided perfect conditions for mildew, and vineyard managers had to be vigilant and reactive, seizing every dry window to spray and protect their vines. Below-average temperatures from 10 to 15 May coincided with another rainy spell. Flowering was early in mid- to late-May with little coulure. By now, winemakers knew that they were heading towards an early harvest.

June began cool and overcast, delaying vine growth, while persistent rain increased mildew pressure; some estates suffered considerable losses with some millerandage.

In the final week in June, the weather changed again, followed by nearly two months of warm and extremely dry conditions. Several estates reported not a single drop falling during the 54-day dry period. Hydric stress was initially contained by the preceding months of rain, and minor stress was noticed on young vines on free-draining gravel and sandy soils. Clayey soils in Saint-Estèphe and the Right Bank advantaged those châteaux in their superior moisture-retaining capacity. Uneven véraison slowed down maturity in the most stressed plots so that by early August, winemakers became concerned as vines began to suffer during a heat wave in the second week of that month, when night temperatures remained above 20°C, giving the vines no time to rest. This heat triggered convectional storms between 9 and 14 August, alleviating the hydric stress. However, rainfall varied, highest in the northern Médoc and lowest on the Right Bank, exaggerating unevenness between appellations and terroirs depending on grape varieties and vine age.

The storm clouds dispersed, and clement, warm and dry conditions prevailed through to harvest, concentrating the berries and sugar levels. Temperatures were slightly cooler than average, and the chilly nights, 12°C-14°C, enabled berries to retain acidity that ultimately imparted freshness to the wines. The first two weeks in September were warm and sunny, accelerating sugar accumulation.

Picking of the dry whites began on 14 August with the earliest-ripening Sauvignon Blanc, although the heart of the vendange was over the final ten days in August, seemingly now the norm. The Merlot came in from around 10 September under warm and dry conditions, predicating a propitious vintage in Merlot-dominated blends, especially on the Right Bank. Some vineyards were picked in the morning because of the heat, keeping both fruit and workers fresh, with some châteaux now investing in increasingly useful cool rooms. Often there is a pause between the Merlot harvest and the later-ripening Cabernets, but several estates continued straight on as the Cabernets were phenolically ripe. This proved crucial. The weather turned inclement around mid-September with sporadic light rain showers. This is where the true quality of the 2020 growing season becomes a little opaque because the effect of this rainfall was euphemistically brushed off as inconsequential by many winemakers. Too light to dilute the grapes, if anything, it merely warded off shriveling and nudged them towards full ripeness. But conditions worsened, collateral damage courtesy of Storm Alex, which prompted some winemakers to panic, with the more risk-averse expediting the picking of the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Most harvests were done and dusted either by the end of September or early October.

The 2020 Cos d’Estournel comes with a special glass-engraved bottle, though its “rival” Montrose may take the honor as the wine of the vintage. A Montrose for the ages.

How the Wines Were Tasted

I tasted most wines in this report in Bordeaux at châteaux or with négociants. My first tastings on the Left Bank occurred in late September. Contrary to what some winemakers believe, this is an ideal moment to taste, since the weather and atmospheric conditions are often superior to the winter months. Tasting in September also relieves some of the pressure before Christmas after my long sojourn in Burgundy. Some samples were received in the UK, primarily second, third or even fourth showings to corroborate assessments. You can never taste too many times. One or two châteaux did not show their wine: Ducru-Beaucaillou, Angélus and the wines of Gérard Perse (Pavie, Pavie-Decesse inter alia) hence their omission from this report. They will likely be reviewed later in the blind tasting next January.

The Wines

Overall, the 2020 vintage delivers the goods. It seals the trio of great Bordeaux vintages, albeit sculpted in a modern style vis-à-vis pre-global warming, most notably 1988, 1989 and 1990. On the other hand, viticulture and vinification techniques have progressed immensely over the last decade. I see this, especially in terms of parcel-by-parcel and intra-parcel selective picking, organic/biodynamics, rigorous sorting assisted by optical and densiometric machines, investments in wineries with the mantra of less intervention, use of gravity, more tailored ferments in smaller bespoke-sized vats and particularly on the Right Bank and more prudent use of new oak. The trio taught winemakers how to manage warm environments, and this infers that by 2020, they knew a hell of a lot more than in 2018, most definitely more than its forerunner, the notorious 2003. On the other hand, there is an acceptance that even with earlier picked fruit, alcohol levels are much higher than before, often 14.0% to 15.5%, with richer and usually more exotic flavor profiles that can occlude terroir expression. You cannot describe 2020 as “classic”, even if the definition of that word becomes more ambiguous with rising temperatures. If predictions are correct, 2020 and its ilk represent the new normal, and the cooler and more inclement 2021 is an anomaly.  

During élevage, the 2020s have developed a touch more creaminess in texture, though they thankfully don’t approach the lasciviousness of the 2018s; they contain more tension with slightly lower pH levels. Also, alcohol volumes are more moderate than the previous two vintages. That’s not to say they are low, but there is a significant difference in taste sensation between 14.5% and 15.5% alcohol. Occasionally, I find that the wines have firmed up a little as they shed some of their baby fat.

As I broke down my report by appellation two years ago, I will do the same here.

Saint-Estèphe – The most northern appellation bordering the Gironde delivers some of the season’s most exceptional wines. “We have more elegance in the tannins,” Véronique Dausse at Phélan-Ségur explains. “The 2018s are more massive and richer, the 2019s more concentrated and intense, while the 2020s have precision. But it is also powerful with good density.” Indeed, Phélan-Ségur may well represent the best value for money in the appellation. If money is no object, then the 2020 Montrose is a contender for wine of the vintage. Amongst the 20+ releases of this venerable Saint-Estèphe that I have tasted at this stage, it might well be the finest, perhaps even surpassing the memorable 2016.

· Money No Object: Montrose

· Value for Money: Phélan-Ségur

· Punching Above Its Weight: de Pez

· Hidden Gem: Cossieu-Coutelin

Apparently, I was the first person to taste the 2020 Mouton-Rothschild with its new label…not that it makes any difference to how it tastes, of course.

Pauillac – This is a strong set of fermented grape juice from the most blue-blooded appellation with a clutch of exceptional wines. As a punter, I would zone in on Pichon-Baron, Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, Lynch-Bages and Grand-Puy-Lacoste. You’re in pretty safe hands with those names, and they don’t have the premium of First Growths. But if you want to flex your wallet, then both Mouton-Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild are brilliant, perhaps the latter just with its nose out in front at the moment. (I have published a note for the 2020 Latour in bottle, though this will not be released until a future date.) Pauillac is adept at managing warmer vintages, and I appreciate how its opulence is countervailed by strong graphite elements that geographically nail the identity of the appellation. Of course, this is no cradle of value-for-money gems like others, but don’t overlook the Domaine Les Sadons that put a smile on my face.

· Money No Object: Lafite-Rothschild

· Value for Money: Batailley

· Punching Above Its Weight: Lynch-Bages

· Hidden Gem: Domaine Les Sadons

Saint-Julien – Another solid performance like Pauillac and arguably with more bang for your buck. With slightly more clay, Saint-Julien could manage the water deficiency a little better than the more free-draining gravel soils elsewhere, though due to mildew, it still recorded an average yield of just 32hL/ha. Perhaps the one question mark I had was about Beychevelle, which displayed an odd green note out of barrel. I tasted two bottles, the first seeming to confirm a vegetal element, but that did not reappear in a second or third, which is why I swayed to a more positive stance. (Again, it demonstrates the need for multiple assessments.) It’s frankly hard to go wrong on this appellation in 2020.

· Money No Object: Léoville Las-Cases

· Value for Money: Langoa Barton

· Punching Above Its Weight: Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré

· Hidden Gem: La Bridane

Margaux – Once known for inconsistency, this broad appellation has pulled its socks up in recent vintages. Kudos must go to Edouard Miailhe, the acting dynamic President of the Syndicat de Margaux. Disappointingly, two or three well-known estates chose not to include their wines in any tastings despite membership in the UGC. So be it. Philippe Bascaules oversaw an absolutely splendid Château Margaux that exudes the floral signature of this First Growth, though it will be pushed by Palmer all the way as they mature in bottle. Rauzan-Ségla and Brane-Cantenac are both benchmarks, while Cantenac Brown, Ferrière, Marquis de Terme, Marojalia and Labégorce are all from their respective top drawers.

· Money No Object: Château Margaux

· Value for Money: Marquis de Terme

· Punching Above Its Weight: Desmirail

· Hidden Gem: La Bessane

Left Bank Satellite (Haut-Médoc, Médoc, Moulis, Listrac etc.) – This year, in the light of escalating prices of fine wine, I have made a special effort to include as many wines from what I have often dubbed “the real Bordeaux”. In particular, readers will find almost a complete rundown of Cru Bourgeois after returning to Bordeaux to add another 100 châteaux. Though the award of Cru Bourgeois status is supposed to guarantee quality, I have to admit that there remain too many wines that should have been excluded; my main gripe is that on lesser terroirs, the vines shut down and failed to achieve phenolic ripeness. The results are 2020s with a veneer of opulence but a jarring and distasteful vegetal note underneath. While in top estates, practically every berry is appraised before entering the vat, it is not feasible in all wineries. Once that underripe fruit is loaded into the fermenter, it’s too late. On the other hand, there are some superb 2020s to be discovered in the Haut-Médoc and the Médoc, as well as the oft-overlooked Listrac and Moulis-en-Médoc.

My supplementary tasting of 2020 Cru Bourgeois at Château de Malleret, itself a very fine contribution to the vintage.

I would welcome these ten Left Bank gems onto my dinner table any time, representing outstanding value for money. I must say that many château owners bemoan that they find it difficult to find customers in an increasingly competitive marketplace and with Bordeaux acreage shrinking. Yet few of these properties have any presence on the Internet, even a simple website offering basic information or contact addresses.

Château Fontis – I remember taking a shine to this wine in my first-ever primeur back in 1997! The 10-hectare Médoc is equally divided between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and is owned by the Boivert family.

Château La France Delhomme – Owned by the Bouey family, I have not encountered this Médoc before, but it conveyed an appealing classicism in 2020.

Château Clément Saint-Jean – I must admit, I could not find much about this property in the Médoc. But this Merlot-driven 2020 is worth seeking out, especially as it sells for a princely sum of just €11 per bottle. 

Château La Fon du Berger – This Cabernet-leaning Haut-Médoc showed well out of barrel and likewise in bottle. Gérard Bouge incepted the estate in the commune of Saint Saveur as recently as 1983, and he now works the 25-hectare vineyard with his son Vincent.

Château Guitignan – I have praised previous vintages of this Moulis-en-Médoc in the past. Located on gravel soils between Brillette and Grand Poujeaux, it has been owned by the Lestage family since the 17th century.

Château Haut-Bana – It took a while to trace exactly what Haut-Bana is. Eventually, I discovered that this Médoc is the second wine of Château Le Breuil Renaissance. Owned by Philippe Bérard. I liked its old-school vibe.

Château Meyre – Located in the commune of Avesan, this property has been around for three centuries. Their 2020 displays an attractive pepperiness and freshness.

Château Muret – You will find this estate just north of Saint-Estèphe. Though mentioned in 19th-century texts, it had been reduced to just wild scrub by the time the Boufflerd family purchased it in 1985. Twenty-five hectares of vines are cultivated, and their delightful 2020 is the result.

Château Peyrabon – This estate has a strong following in the UK. One quirky fact is that the former owner sued the authorities for their oversight in not classifying the estate in 1855! It is now owned by Patrick Bernard, who runs the négociant Millésima. I didn’t see the 2020 out of barrel, but that is one oversight I can make amends for by tasting it from bottle.

Château Saint-Aubin – Not to be confused with the Burgundy village, this Saint-Aubin is located far north of the Médoc in the commune of Dignac. Fine structure and harmony can be found in this Cru Bourgeois.

Pessac-Léognan – I found the whites a mixed bag, no surprise given the warmth of the growing season precluded some from achieving sufficient acidity to counterbalance their richness. Still, I absolutely adored the 2020 La Louvière Blanc, so much so that I ended up drinking the bottle remnants sent with the UGC samples over three nights. The reds are probably also less consistent than other appellations, although there are some wonderful examples from Domaine de Chevalier, Smith Haut-Lafitte, Haut-Bailly and Malartic-Lagravière. Once you move away from the familiar names, I feel that some châteaux struggled to cope with the dryness and heat.

· Money No Object: Château La Mission Haut-Brion

· Value for Money: La Garde

· Punching Above Its Weight: La Louvière Blanc

· Hidden Gem: Haut-Bacalan

Saint-Émilion – Saint-Émilion is probably less consistent than in 2019. Its wines run the gamut from spellbinding wonders to others that seem faulty. Alcohol levels will please those seeking inebriation, 15% being commonplace, while from time to time, these high-alcohol wines are beset by excessive warmth and blowsiness. Terroir plays a key role, perhaps more than in other vintages. Châteaux occupying limestone-rich soils are naturally endowed with more acidity than sandier soils. Some die-hards hold on to the “more is better” maxim, and frankly, this is a vintage where that could seriously backfire.

Interestingly, Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc was refreshingly lukewarm about the vintage and did not mince his words. “We see 2020 as an excessive vintage,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “It was very dry, and we had to pick when it was very warm, so we had to run behind the maturity. When you have 14 hours of sun per day, up to 37° Celsius, you have to take off the heat to preserve freshness. So we picked very fast. The decision was to find the freshness and maturity of the tannins, so you had to compromise. The aromas are around black fruit with stronger tannins.” Contrary to Clouet’s sentiments, I thought the 2020 Cheval Blanc was a bit of a “serious kit”, just pipped to the post but a fabulous Figeac and maybe one of the finest releases from Château Canon in recent years. Readers should note that Angélus was not showing any of its 2020s due to late bottling.

· Money No Object: Figeac

· Value for Money: Grand Mayne

· Punching Above Its Weight: Le Prieuré

· Hidden Gem: Tour Baladoz

Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont oversaw one of the great wines from Vieux-Château-Certan, shoulder-to-shoulder with the estate’s post-war icons.

Pomerol – The appellation had more high points in 2020 than Saint-Émilion, with several batting the ball out of the park. They seemed to have a handle on the season just a little better. The 2020 Pétrus is an absolute killer, perhaps surpassing the majestic 2016. I agreed with Olivier Berrouet when he said it gained more backbone during its barrel maturation. The Lafleur is more immediate than other recent vintages with an astonishing mineral spine, sturdy and uncompromising, but what else do you expect from Baptiste Guinaudeau? The Le Pin, which saw less new oak than previously (70%), is defined by its sculpted tannins and prolonged persistence. Tasting through the portfolio at Ets. J-P Moueix, there are some outstanding wines: a Trotanoy that will take on all-comers and a supremely gifted La Fleur-Pétrus and Hosanna. These were lined up against a couple that was a little off the pace, perhaps Latour-à-Pomerol and most certainly the herbaceous Certan-de-May, that I cannot get my head around. Its shortcomings are plain to see when juxtaposed against its neighbor since Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont crafted a sensational Vieux-Château-Certan that ranks amongst the best in the last 20 years. You could probably say the same for a fabulous La Conseillante. Do not estimate when it comes to that pair. L’Évangile has got its mojo back – better late than never – with more prudent winemaking courtesy of their new team of Olivier Trégoat and Juliette Couderc – though there’s better to come as their Cabernet Franc ages. Elsewhere, there is much to recommend, such as Clos du Clocher, a great Vray Croix de Gay, Feytit-Clinet and Gazin.

The last word goes to l’Église-Clinet. After Denis Durantou’s untimely passing, some conjectured that his daughters, Noëmie and Constance, would be unable to replicate their father’s magic touch. That ignores the fact that the terroir is unchanged, the constant guiding expertise and counsel of Durantou’s wingman, Olivier Gautrat, or most vital of all, the talent and hard work that his daughters inherited. That’s why their 2020 hits the ball out of the park.

· Money No Object: Lafleur

· Value for Money: Vieux-Château-Certan

· Punching Above Its Weight: Bourgneuf

· Hidden Gem: Le Chemin

Sauternes – I am writing this off the back of revisiting the 2019 Sauternes last week, and with those two vintages juxtaposed in my mind, I feel that 2020 has the edge over the preceding season. There are some marvelous wines from the usual suspects, such as the resurgent Château de Fargues, Suduiraut and Doisy-Daëne. They seem to possess a touch more tension and pizzazz, though I wanted a little more from the likes of Rayne-Vigneau and Guiraud.

· Money No Object: Suduiraut

· Value for Money: All Sauternes are value for money!

· Punching Above Its Weight: Cantegril

· Hidden Gem: Haut-Bergeron

Final Thoughts

The 2020 Bordeaux will enter the market this year. It will be interesting to see how the region fares in the coming years. On the one hand, those on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy struggle day-to-day, bottles that sell for a handful of Euros, some admitting defeat and replacing vines with more profitable crops. There have been protests in France, yet there is no answer to their plight because you cannot rewind the clock to a time when Bordeaux was, for many, the be-all and end-all of wine. Then, we have the concurrent deification of Burgundy, whose prices for even generic white and red often far outstrip Bordeaux and are becoming unaffordable for many. Given this backdrop, can a lauded vintage like 2020 expand demand, not for the elite Grand Cru Classés, but for those not privileged with status, for Bordeaux as a whole? The region has never looked more attractive in terms of value for money, so why is it not reaping the rewards? Partly that’s because it cannot shake off its fuddy-duddy image. Claret? Bit old-fashioned compared to its New World upstarts. It remains a region of brands when oenophiles hanker for that human connection. Many are hidebound by AC restrictions, but let me reiterate that too many châteaux have a negligible Internet presence, and those that do are often out-of-date and bereft of information. How many châteaux on the precipice will vanish in 2023? The more pertinent question is: will anyone care?

At the top of the pyramid, everything is rosy after three lauded vintages on the trot, though I have reservations about the 2018s that generally do not possess the freshness of 2019 or 2020. Whether you are seeking a decent bottle of claret to quaff after a hard day at work or a First Growth to lay down for your kids, the 2020 vintage has something to offer. The pandemic might have threatened humanity, but as it turned out, it posed no threat to the quality of Bordeaux that year.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Enticingly Fallible: Bordeaux 2021 En Primeur, Neal Martin, May 2022

2021 Bordeaux En Primeur: Back to Classicism, Antonio Galloni, May 2022

Omne Trium Perfectum: Bordeaux 2019s in Bottle, Neal Martin, February 2022

Vingt-Vingt Vins: Bordeaux 2020, Neal Martin, May 2021