The Roaring ‘20s

The Roaring ‘20s

Thursday 13th May 2021
by Tom Jenkins

The Roaring '20s

Numerologists probably decided 2020 was destined for greatness many years ago. Every vintage ending with a zero is marked by success in the same way that seven spells disaster. Whilst 2020 is indeed the culmination of an unmatched trilogy, it was certainly not straightforward for vignerons and winemakers.

If 2019 was the Covid campaign, 2020 is the Covid vintage, produced during various stages of lockdown. As the first wave struck Europe, Bordeaux experienced yet another humid spring, which brought with it the ever-present danger of mildew and oidium. Like 2016 and 2018, everyone from First Growth to Bordeaux Superieur had to be extremely vigilant and work tirelessly to combat this threat. Though few would have thought it at the time, the water reserves stored up during winter and spring were to be critical to the success of the vintage.

The warm weather meant the vegetative cycle was precocious. A window of fine weather in May allowed for an even flowering in near perfect conditions. What followed was an extremely dry summer, which put immense pressure on the vines. Aurélien Vallance noted that Margaux had 50 consecutive days without a drop of rain. On the right back, they had an even more pronounced drought. Pierre-Olivier Clouet explained that 2020 was the driest year at Cheval Blanc since 1959. We had no rain from the 15th of June to the end of September.” Although warm, it was not a scorching summer like 2003. Châteaux Margaux describes the “2020 vintage as an early one that benefited from very favourable weather conditions, an alternation between hot and cool temperatures as well as wet and very dry periods”. A few heavy thunderstorms brought relief at just the right times, although, as Edouard Moueix explains, this is very much a “terroir vintage”. He continued, “It wasn’t a vintage where everyone could make exceptional wine. Limestone and clay subsoils were critical. They acted like sponges, releasing moisture to the vines throughout the drought.”

2020 was an early season. Flowering was 10-15 days ahead of normal. Vines planted on water-retentive clay and limestone had no blockage to maturation, and thanks to the warm temperatures in September, reached full phenolic ripeness quickly and relatively evenly. This meant many châteaux harvested everything before the end of September, including some estates in the Medoc with a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon. Pierre Olivier recounted, “the harvest took place very early and was very quick. We harvested on 15 days between the 3rd and 23rd of September. It usually takes 40 days to harvest the whole of Cheval Blanc. Of those 15 days, 10 reached 30 degrees centigrade”.

Many are defining 2020 as a Merlot vintage, and it’s true, the Merlots are quite exceptional. They provide a creaminess, freshness and intensity that makes them so alluring. But it doesn’t pay to generalise. We have tasted some magical Cabernet-based wines, which do also benefit from a generous dash of Merlot. Pichon Comtesse and Margaux are both classical blends with 77% and 89% Cabernet Sauvignon respectively; they are clearly two of the most absorbing and textural wines of the vintage, and in our opinion surpass their phenomenal achievements of 2019. The only disappointment will be the yields…

Due to the drought and the warmth, berries were tiny, with thick skins full of tannins. Our friends at Ducru Beaucaillou noted, “The berries were tiny, with Cabernets weighing just 1g, and 1.2g for the Merlots. They were packed with tannins and anthocyanins.” This meant most winemakers exercised restraint with their macerations. Edouard Moueix explained, “Some seeds were not ripe, so we chose shorter macerations, draining tanks after 18 to 20 days – more an infusion than brassé. Just circulating juice under the cap, no pumping over; we’re not fans of pigéage”. This view was echoed by nearly everyone we’ve spoken to. Gently does it. There was so much material: colours, tannins, fruit – it paid to be cautious. In the vast majority of cases, the tannic structure and the freshness of fruit is what sets these wines apart. Yes, you have immense, profound colours and this huge core of fruit, yet it appears so lifted and fresh, framed by these glorious tannins coated with dark berries and minerals.

As we already intimated, water saved 2020. Pierre Olivier again, “because the spring water allowed the vines to grow homogenously and build up a resilience to the heat, the fruit has balance. The drought gives power, the warmth gives sexy aromatics, but they never go onto the dark side of excess.”

Comparisons between these three great vintages have already begun. Debates will rage for decades and there will no doubt be some variations from chateau to chateau. However, we are beginning to see a clear picture emerging. 2018 is a vintage that will be remembered for scale and grandeur; 2019 is both voluptuous and refined; 2020 will become renowned for its intensity, freshness and poised stature.

Tastings
If ever there were a vintage that required our annual voyages to Bordeaux, 2020 is it. The UGC samples didn’t travel with the same swagger as last year’s super-seductive 2019s. But this is not a reason to dismiss 2020 – we requested fresh samples from the chateau and discovered many exceptional wines. The high points are definitely worth seeking out, they are breath-taking. There’s concentration, structure and power matched with definition, vibrancy, and relatively low alcohol levels. Many growers claim their wines are superior to their 2018s and 2019s, something to which we can attest.

Of the numerous wines we’ve tasted, there are scores of successes. We highly recommend the following: Pichon Comtesse, Margaux, Rauzan Segla, Canon, Brane Cantenac, Lynch Bages, Haut Bailly, Smith Haut Lafitte, Domaine de Chevalier, La Fleur Petrus, Belair Monange, Leoville Barton, Ducru Beaucaillou, Branaire Ducru, Grand Puy Lacoste, Meyney, Batailley and Phelan Segur.

Quantities
As we’ve already stated, berries were tiny, and in some cases, vignerons noted fewer berries per bunch. Cabernet-based wines from the Medoc are particularly affected, so yields will likely be 10-30% smaller than 2019. Many of the top Medoc château recorded yields of between 30-35 hl/ha.

Prices
Much as we’d love to have prices at the same level as 2019, it’s unlikely to happen. They were released under unprecedented circumstances. No-one really knew whether there would be demand. For those who secured 2019s, you should be delighted. We expect prices to be somewhere between 2019s and 2018s, although, the release of Cheval Blanc at 10€/bottle more than last year is a positive start…

Views from the Châteaux

The style of the 2020 vintage is therefore less like the concentrated wine of 2018 and resembles more the balanced and unctuous style of 2019 vintage, but with greater intensity.” Château Margaux.

2020 was an extreme vintage with a very dry summer and a really hot autumn. The wines reflect perfectly these climatic conditions, with an intense, ripe nose and a powerful, dense tannic structure.” Château Cheval Blanc.

We are very much eager to share with you the brilliance, lift and purity of the 2020 vintage. Far removed from the climatic excess of its hot and dry summer, 2020 is a vintage of remarkable finesse, breathing life, balance and harmony, elements that we perpetually strive to embody in our wines. In this more than turbulent period, the wines of 2020 nourish us with a hefty dose of optimism.” Jacques Guinaudeau – Château Lafleur.