Bordeaux 2020 has produced some fabulous wines. I know the cynics may retort that they always seem to these days, and of course I’m going to encourage you to buy some. But I suppose our job at Tanners, as your wine merchant, is to guide you towards making some sensible choices – which is what this piece sets out to do.
Overall is seems that despite being a very challenging year for the producers, the quality everywhere was good to outstanding. On balance the Right Bank wines, particularly Pomerol and parts of Saint-Emilion, have made fuller, more substantial wines while the Médoc is a bit more reserved, a little more restrained. That is however a generalisation because both banks had to deal with early flowering, mildew in spring, a dry and hot summer with variable lumps of rain before and during harvest. It was a year, emphasised Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, “when you had to be precise in everything you did!”. There are plenty of triumphs throughout the Left Bank, while the whites and reds of Pessace-Léognan and the Graves also stood out as a collection on the tasting bench. Merlot fared a little better than the Cabernets, particularly if the site had more water-retaining clays to cope with the heat of high summer, while many properties were praising their Petit Verdot which, although used in tiny percentages by most, endowed them with lovely fragrance and ripe tannins.
Tannin quality was the talk of the Zoom seminars we had with producers. Winery techniques have pushed on remarkably in recent years, to the point that while the fruit coming in is better grown to all intents and purposes, the best wines uniformly show few hard, dry edges yet still have the structure to last for years. This vintage the tannins are responsible for the cool purity attached to many wines. Alcohol levels are a touch below 2019 and 2018, yet acidity is not too high. The manipulation of tannins appears to have balanced the fruit to give a fresher feel than 2018, though there’s no lack of texture or substance. Fruit flavours vary as they often do – some with more fresh raspberry, some veering towards blueberry, with plenty of plum and currant in between. Many wines suggest they will age well, maybe forty years for some. The huge majority however will be versatile enough to drink well in their youth and in their dotage. It simply depends on the style that you prefer.
The whites are superb
We tend to mention the whites, both dry and sweet, somewhat unfairly as a bit of a footnote. It’s fair to say they also have been improving in quality, although the Sauternes and Barsac are very much linked to the whim of the weather. The dry whites, particularly those from Pessac, are a delight. You’ll find a mixture of styles from the chunkier Semillon dominated examples to the lemony, racier wines using mostly Sauvignon Blanc, like Doisy Daene Sec or Clos de la Lunes.
The sweet Sauternes
It is a ‘botrytis’ year on the whole, despite the early ravages of mildew and the rainy couple of days in October. There’s a true purity of flavour in the samples we tried, plenty of different characters standing out in different wines and it’s really down to the type of sweetness you like – fresher and more citrussy in some, rounder and more unctuous in others. Suduiraut for example has tremendous depth and viscosity this year while Coutet is all about fresh ginger and a lightness that dances over the palate. There are many brilliant wines in between, all worthy of consideration in an outstanding Sauternes vintage.
A closer look at the ‘affordable’ end
From the ‘top’ of Bordeaux downwards, let’s consider the various communes. Generalisations again, be warned, but the Médoc and Haut-Médoc has it’s share of stars, especially at the price. You can compare Cissac, round, rich and well-knit with Tour de By, fuller, more structured, more substantial. Both are excellent in our opinion, Tour de By possibly even better than the previous two vintages. Cantemerle has class once again, Lanessan lovely charm and balance. We also picked out Senejac, from the Talbot stable, as a stand-out alongside Poujeaux from the dozens of samples we were sent, and Coufran has also made a very decent wine that should be a very fair price. Also encouraging, and back on the ‘recommended’ list, is La Lagune and old favourite Chasse-Spleen. The former is quite showy but now has more substance, the latter has suffered for us in recent past vintages from heavy handed extraction. This year the balance at Chasse-Spleen is back.
Margaux is tricky
Margaux covers a much wider area than you may think, and the differences between properties can be marked. We were delighted by Angludet, where Ben Sichel has made an excellent, joyful wine, all the better because they have suffered awful frost damage again in 2021. Du Tertre and Marquis de Terme are good, Brane-Cantenac and D’Issan continue their upward trajectory of the last few vintages in our opinion while Kirwan has made another great, well-balanced wine.
Saint-Estephe and Paulillac
Stellar properties notwithstanding, this has been a happy hunting ground recently. St-Estèphes tend to benefit from hotter years and there’s plenty of ripe fruit behind that characteristic ‘stony’ side. Phélan-Segur has been winning great praise and there’s no doubt they’ve made a superb wine in 2020. Lilian-Ladouys is also bang on form, possibly reversing last year’s order with Ormes de Pez – Lilian has a bit more character a vivacity, although both are solid, appealing wines. After last year’s blip, Meyney is back on it ̶ generous, ripe, well-formed and that lovely 2020 freshness. Lafon-Rochet is also classy, getting a bit more expensive but a cracking wine you don’t want to forget. Down the road in Pauillac you often have to shell out more, but you get more power and precision. Haut-Bages Monpelou is well worth a look, Lynch Moussas has lots of soft black fruit but for us the ‘value’ stand-out may be Pibran from the Pichon Baron stable. Finally mention of Batailley which we suppose is on the cusp of moving into the big league. Once again the Borie-Manoux stable has made a winner and you should snap some up. Otherwise it joins some wonderful wines – supple Pichon Lalande, muscular Pichon Baron, classic Grand-Puy-Lacoste, all of which will give you fabulous drinking… at a price.
Over the last three vintages and further back, we believe that Saint-Julien has achieved the best quality levels, consistently, for the market price. Yes, they are mostly top-performing grand cru wines, so they should. But they do. The lowest priced is invariably Gloria which is lovely this year, and recommended. From the same stable, Saint Pierre is fabulous too. We liked Talbot for its class, Branaire Ducru for its vibrancy, Leoville Poyferré for its impressive size. Tanners customers will however often turn to Léoville and Langoa Barton, and there’s nothing to stop you in 2020. A fabulous, intense, classy, concentrated pair of wines, very much on their style and character, a tribute to excellent winemaking from the Barton family. Mention finally of the Ducru Beaucaillou stable which we taste, usually at the property and invariably early on, so they tend to make an impression. In 2020 the quality of the set was extremely good, culminating in a ‘grand vin’ which we felt was exemplary. Always well-priced in its peer group we feel, and a ‘name’ that won’t let you down, we’d recommend a close look at the Ducru wines.
The emergence of the ‘Second’ wines
‘Virtually’ skipping round Bordeaux in short zoom session with producers and winemakers it is apparent that ‘second’ wines are being thought about and marketed more. Producing a ‘second’ wine is useful for a couple of reasons. By allowing a channel for all the grapes at the property that don’t quite make the grade (often because they are from young vines with less concentration to them) the ‘grand vin’ improves in quality. Secondly, because these seconds still undergo the same winemaking techniques and are grown under the same regime, their style is often very similar to that of the senior wine. This means they can ‘represent’ the property, but at a lower price, allowing customers to get a flavour of what all the excitement is about. The upshot of all this is that many more properties are now releasing their second wines en primeur. From established names like Carruades de Lafite, Alter Ego de Palmer, Petit Mouton and the newish Petit Ducru (used to be Lalande Borie), we can offer Sarget de Gruard Larose, Connetable de Talbot, Lions de Batailley, Dame de Montrose and a host of others, all of which seem to be upping their game. They may not have the concentration of the main event, but they are delightful, affordable drinking.
Pessac forges ahead
As mentioned above, perhaps the most satisfying flight of 2020 wines tasted came from Pessac-Léognan and Graves. Doubly satisfying because, Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion apart, many of them are very affordable. Stand-outs for your consideration include Olivier which oozed class, Lespault-Martiac which has power and poise, de Fieuzal with lovely fresh fruit and, of course, Domaine de Chevalier which still in our view punches well above its weight.
Pomerol at its peak
The wines from Pomerol that we have tasted have been delicious. While there is more work for us to do, more samples to consider, the early ones have been great. Les Hauts-Conseillants is delightful, certainly worth a punt, while bigger brothers from the Audy negociant Bonalgue and Clos de Clocher are, we think, even ahead of excellent efforts in 2019. Another wow for us came from Lafleur-Gazin out of the Mouiex stable, very precise and pure with density and beautiful structure, a star this year. Watch the list on the website for more Pomerol releases that seem sure to impress. The wines from Noémie Durantou at L’Eglise Clinet are ones we follow closely.
Saint-Emilion and associates
While nowhere in Bordeaux has more properties and a tasting can be therefore extremely daunting, once you have sifted the also-rans you are invariably left with a good number of gems. Impressions are that there is more fleshy substance and more sweet fruit character to be found here as well as in Pomerol. The samples have been a bit denser with more of a core of black fruit. As explained, this is down to the Merlot doing well, and both the plateau and the slope properties of Saint-Emilion have made wines with richness and backbone. You should consider the class of Laroque and baby brother Peymouton; Pindefleurs, bold and spicey, while old favourite Pipeau has good texture and depth, probably a keeper in the making. Otherwise we loved both the classic Larcis-Ducasse (upgraded to 100 points for the very similar 2016 vintage) and the blockbuster Pavie-Macquin which, although not cheap, stands well in the upper echelons of Saint Emilion greats.
In summary, this vintage has produced a range of very good to excellent wines, many of which are being released priced similarly to last year. These will reinforce your cellar for short- to mid-term drinking and, some, much longer if you wish. We certainly heartily recommend the wines we have chosen for you.
To view all wines from our Bordeaux 2020 campaign click here.