Bordeaux is on a roll. The 2020 vintage is the third in a trilogy of great years. While 2018 wines are massive with high alcohol, and 2019 more restrained, 2020 is the year classicism came back to Bordeaux.
The 2020 wines have beautiful fruit, tannins that float in the wine and shining acidity. It was surprisingly easy to appreciate the more than 200 wines I tasted for this year’s en primeur reviews. There are no hard tannins to get through, as the wines are impressively velvety. And yet, along with all the fine fruit and stunning acidity, there’s structure, density and great promise for the future.
“It is a great year and with freshness, something we did not expect after the weather conditions of the year,” says Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, estates director at Château Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac.
During the 2020 growing season, the weather in Bordeaux was complicated. A mild and wet spring rode past the stop-everything shutdown for the novel coronavirus pandemic in mid-March. This pushed the buds forward flanked by some mildew.
That was followed by over 50 days without rain in the summer. Unheard of in Bordeaux’s maritime climate, the dry spell cut berry size and thickened grape skins.
Then, scattered August thunderstorms just piqued the grapes. Precocious from the beginning, most grapes were picked in September before an onslaught of rain in October.
If growers expected high tannins and alcohol from the small amount of juice, they were astonished to find it was instead fresh, with balanced acidity. Alcohol levels mark a return to the more classic 13.5% and 14% of previous decades.
“The aromas are very open, and the tannins are velvet, but with the dry summer, you have wines that are concentrated, ripe but not cooked,” says Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Château Cheval-Blanc in Saint-Emilion.
The freshness is due to cool nights through the summer and the moisture that remained in the soil from the wet spring.
The downsides are that quantities are lower than average, continuing a trend of recent years. Plus, it’s not a uniform vintage. Certain areas, appellations and grape varieties fared much better than others.
Some of the finest wines come from Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Saint-Emilion and from Cabernet Sauvignon in Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Things are more mixed in Margaux and Pessac-Léognan. Sauternes seems to have lost crop and intensity, although attractive lighter wines were made. Dry whites from Sauternes and Pessac-Léognan are balanced while also rich.
Certain areas, appellations and grape varieties fared much better than others.
Globally, as with last year’s tasting of the 2019 vintage, the 2020 wines were tasted in strange conditions. Covid restrictions meant few commentators and buyers were able to make the traditional journey to Bordeaux to taste at the chateaus. Instead, samples were sent directly to some people, while tastings were also held in 10 cities around the world. Since barrel samples are fragile things, there’s always the risk of damage to samples along the way. And U.S. importers are just now beginning to travel to Bordeaux.
I live close to Bordeaux, and so I was able to taste samples at home, many of which arrived the day after they were taken from barrel, and in Bordeaux itself. My reviews are of wines that were fresh and full of character.
The 2020 Bordeaux vintage is definitely one to consider buying when importers release their reports. Ex-cellar prices released thus far show increases over 2019 by an average 10%, which makes the wines less expensive and quite possibly better than 2018.
The 2020 wines will be for enjoyment rather than admiration as with 2018.
“The vintage gives a great message that Bordeaux is still able to make classic wines,” says Eric Kohler, technical director, Château Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac.
My Top 10 Wines
These are not necessarily the highest scoring wines, but instead those that sang to me.
Château Pétrus 2020 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 98–100 points. Spice and black fruit aromas shine in this powerful wine. The density of the texture and the concentrated fruits are seamless in their power. Yet, at the same time, the wine has refreshing acidity at the end that puts everything on a pedestal. It is the summation of Pétrus.
Château Angélus 2020 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 97—99 points. This wine brings together all the best elements of the vintage. It shows concentrated tannins laced with a velvety texture and a sustained intensity of black fruits. It shows a strong mineral element in the texture that gives complexity and a fine edge at the end. Obviously, it’s a wine for long-term aging.
Château Léoville Barton 2020 Barrel Sample (Saint-Julien); 97–99 points. The wine shows both elegance and great richness. It is a poised and ripe wine, full of impressive black fruits and generous tannins. The fine structure gives considerable potential for the long term.
Château Palmer 2020 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 97–99 points. This wine’s floral perfume is matched by generous tannins that surprise by their strength. The fruit flavors offer a mix of black and red berries. They are finely structured and concentrated, balanced by tightly woven acidity. Made from organic and biodynamic grapes.
Château Lafite Rothschild 2020 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99 points. This is a complete wine, with its layers of fruit and tannin in total harmony. Concentration comes easily backed by a palate that shows salinity, as well as impressive black currant fruits. The wine is certainly destined for long-term aging.
Château Haut-Bailly 2020 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. This wine’s texture is exceptional, with powerful dark fruits and rich tannins blending seamlessly. All this density is cut with the finest spice and fresh acidity. The result is a wine that has both power and delicacy that gives a lift to the aftertaste. It will certainly age so well.
Château Valandraud 2020 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. This wine from the premier classé estate is seriously structured, dense and firm. At the same time the beautiful black currant fruits, acidity and fine perfumed character balance its richness. It is an impressive, memorable wine that will develop well over many years.
Château Cos d’Estournel 2020 Barrel Sample (Saint-Estèphe); 96–98 points. Powerful, ripe fruits show exceptional quality and a velvety character that’s allied to a ripe structure. With the freshness so typical of the vintage, the wine seems open and fruity but surprises with its density.
Château Ferrière 2020 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 94–96 points. The wood touches the wine and sustains the tannins. Its structure and its freshness combine easily with the pure black currant fruits. It is elegant, with a hint of strength in the tannins at the end. Made from organic and biodynamic grapes.
Château Lafon-Rochet 2020 Barrel Sample (Saint-Estèphe); 93–95 points. Richly structured, powered by dark tannins and rich blackberry fruits, this estate has produced a very fine wine this vintage. The structure is considerable while keeping fruitiness and fine acidity in focus. The wine will certainly age well.