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En Primeur 2020 was unlike any seen before, except perhaps En Primeur 2019 one year ago. The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic and resulting closed borders meant that most of the world’s wine media could not make it to France. To help things around, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), along with many of the individual Chateaus, sent barrel samples around the world so that En Primeur could still take place, albeit in a somewhat ‘virtual’ setting.

Over the past few weeks, a number of reports and tasting notes have started to trickle out and the long and the short of it is this: Bordeaux 2020 looks like another classic vintage.

Similar to 2018, perhaps not reaching the heights of 2019 tends to be the overriding consensus, but altogether completing a trilogy of great vintages for the region.

Growing season

A warm growing season with above-average temperatures in the spring through the early autumn which may be indicative of climate change – some commentators are calling it the ‘new normal’. What this brought was ideal ripening conditions for both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and concentrated fruit flavours across the region. With night temperatures staying cool, acidity was preserved in the grapes bringing balance and freshness to a number of wines, as well as keeping alcohol levels in check – more on that later.

Volumes suffered from the heat with many AOCs reporting declining harvest volumes when compared with 2019, as well as 10-year averages. Harvest conditions were ideal for Merlot and much of the Cabernet Sauvignon, although cooler, wetter weather towards the end of September led to some variations in quality in later ripening Cabernet vineyards.

The First Growths

Chateau Latour have, obviously, not partaken in En Primeur for close to a decade, however the other 5 left-bank First Growths did in EP 2020.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the First Growths are expected to receive exceptional scores – 98 to 100 points will not be uncommon in this group. Lafite Rothschild was described by James Lawther at jancis-robinson.com as a ‘masculine’ wine with a ‘powerful tannic frame’ with ‘incredible potential’, whilst James Suckling noted the Chateau Margaux was displaying ‘super, fine tannins’ with ‘great length and intensity’.

The potential for all of the First Growth is universally considered high.

The Right Bank

The ideal harvest conditions for Merlot discussed above has led to wines from the Right Bank’s top Chateaus among the best of the past five vintages. Angelus, Pontet Canet and Figeac are among the leading wines, however it will be interesting to see how other Chateau, for example Le Pin, will rate once further scores start to come out over the coming weeks and months.

One expects all of the Right Bank leading Chateau to have exceptionally high scores. However, those areas of the right bank with less forgiving soil profiles struggled with both the heat and the rains, leading to an overall patchy vintage in terms of quality, noted by several commentators.

Second wines, Second Growths and further

There is some variation when it comes to the First Growth’s second wines and the other wines of the Medoc. Alcohol levels might average around 14% for the vintage, but there is great variation from as little as under 13% to around 14.5% in rare cases. Indeed, the best wines from the vintage generally share low alcohol, are lighter bodied and would feel more at home in a cooler vintage (more on why below).

The best wines have great intensity in the mid-palate with very good length and high quality, fine grained tannins. The worst wines have a more ‘hollow’ mid-palate with firm tannins and an abrupt finish, summarising most findings.

Lower alcohol from a warm vintage?

This seemingly paradoxical expression of the vintage rings true for the greater wines. Chateau Lafite Rothschild comes in at just 12.8% ABV, a figure almost unheard of in recent times. And yet, despite this, the wine has received universal praise. So what’s going on here?

Lisa Perotti-Brown MW has done some amazing work over at robertparker.com so I encourage you to read her fascinating account of EP 2020, but the gist of it is rain – however not rainfall during harvest, but thunderstorms during August.

This rain was far from universal; where areas of Pauillac had over 100mm between August 9 and 14, several Chateau in Saint-Emillon across the river recorded just 10mm. This is also true the further south one goes – by the time you head south-east of Bordeaux city and reach Pessac-Leognan, Pauillac’s 100mm becomes 30-40mm.

For many of the lesser estates, this rain led to dilution of sugars and increasing of pH in the resulting wine (up to 3.8-3.9 in some cases). For others, whose terroir can handle this rain easily (for example Mouton Rothschild with its 6m of gravel soils providing outstanding drainage), the wines are regarded as exceptional. The rain that fell was a God-send, relieving the vines of the stresses of the drought, and producing fruit of exquisite quality come harvest; the resulting wines showing great intensity and capacity to age.

White and Sweet Wines

The overall consensus is that there were a number of very well made dry white wines, with the early harvest helping retain acidity and freshness. Moderate aging potential on these wines shows that the vintage is perhaps an earlier-drinking vintage than many, although Bordeaux Blanc continues to provide a source of good value, if often overlooked, wines.

The sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac are relatively low in botrytis. As such, I’m struggling to find any mention of a 2020 Chateau d’Yquem anywhere (not unusual as they don’t take part in En Primeur) so it will be interesting to see if they’ve produced a wine from the 2020 vintage – botrytis didn’t develop until October and quality was no doubt impacted by the early October rains.

Despite this, there is consensus that there is density and concentration, in part thanks to the warm summer, leading to some good sweet wines overall.

Overall verdict

The difficulty with presenting En Primeur in this ‘virtual’ form is that information flow can come out in drips and drabs over weeks and months. As such, making any definitive conclusions about Bordeaux 2020 is difficult.

Suffice to say, the overall picture is one where the top Chateau clearly shine, with some patchy results lower down the food chain. However, the vintage is still a very good vintage and if I’m being completely honest, I wonder if the ‘patchyness’ of the vintage expressed by several commentators is more a reflection of the strength of Bordeaux over the last five vintages – we have been spoilt in having three vintages in a row being high quality, and four of the last five.

Overall, the larger Chateaus (on both the Left and Right Banks) have almost uniformly produced wines of exceptional quality, and there is quality to be found across the region. Is there value? Well, time will tell, especially for the lower crus, but prices right now appear to be slightly depressed on 2019, so if you get in early enough…

 

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Phil Jones DipWSET

A passion for wine underpinned by a degree in winemaking and viticulture as well as the highest certification offered by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust - the Diploma in Wines, Phil Jones DipWSET provides a no-nonsense, no-BS, look at wine.

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