The Singular 2020 Bordeaux Vintage
- By Jesse Becker MS
- 08 May 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 301
One of the things we love about wine is its ability to transport us to another time and place. In the year of shutdowns and isolation, many of us found solace by sipping our way around the globe, dreaming of future visits to our favorite wine regions. That snapshot of weather, terroir and winemaking skill always makes itself abundantly clear whenever I open a bottle of Bordeaux. The vintage can also recall significant events, like the joy of drinking wine from a child’s birth year or provide us with a moment to reflect on historical tidbits from long ago. For that reason alone, 2020 is a vintage to consider putting away for a while! Happily, the 2020 Bordeaux vintage is also shaping up to be one of good quality, with weather conditions that played out well for the Right Bank and gave promising results across all appellations.
The Five Prerequisites Of A Good Vintage
The Oenological Research Unit at Bordeaux University gives us an objective means to evaluate the vintage with five prerequisites serving as a guideline for a great red Bordeaux year:
- Quick and even flowering and fruit set
- Warm and dry weather during flowering and fruit set
- The gradual onset of water stress thanks to a warm, dry month of July
- Optimum photosynthesis and completely ripe grapes at harvest
- Relatively dry and medium-warm weather during the harvest
The first two prerequisites are essential to ensure good pollination and predispose the grapes towards even ripening later in the season. The third prerequisite is to slow down and eventually stop vine growth no later than véraison. Prerequisites four and five make it possible to pick the grapes at optimum ripeness without running the risk of dilution, rot, or loss of fruity aromas.
Were These Prerequisites Met In 2020?
2020 began warmer than average, with some spring-like days in January and February followed by a March bud break that was 2 - 3 weeks earlier than usual. April warmth and rainstorms prompted rapid growth of vine shoots, and flowering occurred in May under warm and dry conditions. Prerequisites one and two were therefore satisfied. The summer-like May preceded a spring-like first half of June with frequent rainfall and an increased threat of mildew. July was warm and dry, and the gradual onset of water stress occurred satisfying prerequisite three. Water stress increased in August, and storms on August 10th prevented drought. Nights became cool, which is always welcome for retaining aroma and freshness in the grapes.
The early harvest began with white grapes picked the last ten days of August and the first few in September. Whites were picked in excellent condition and should produce wines of high aromatic intensity and fresh acidity. Early reports suggested that Sémillon was especially successful, a sentiment confirmed by winemaker Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu of Domaines Denis Dubourdieu via email. “Very good Sémillon, small yields, and just enough rain in august to avoid hydric stress with a good level of maturity. Small production but good balance and very precise aromatic expression.”
And So To Ripeness…
The first half of September was warm and sunny, and the (completely ripe) Merlot harvest began on Sept 10, satisfying prerequisite four. In her report on the Bordeaux 2020 – right-bank reds, Jancis Robinson noted consistency in quality and observed a stylistic shift towards freshness from some of the Saint-Émilion Châteaux. Winemaker Charlotte Krajewski from Clos Cantenac in Saint-Émilion and Château Séraphine in Pomerol concurred that many winemakers in the region are working towards a style of greater precision, freshness, and terroir expression. It’s a fascinating development amid warmer vintages and spotlights the importance of soil. “It was probably easier for us [to grow Merlot] on the limestone plate than in sandy and clay terroirs,” said Adrien David Beaulieu of Château Coutet in Saint-Émilion. He added, “the limestone plate is perfect because there are less variations of temperature, humidity, and almost no water stress. We did a great harvest.”
With the prerequisite five fulfilled for Merlot, mid-September rain showers prevented Cabernet from shriveling and helped them finish ripening. The majority of the Cabernet harvest occurred in early October under relatively dry and warm weather and overall excellent condition. Cabernet was smaller-berried than average, with higher malic acid than 2019 and a high concentration of color and tannins.
And Finally, For Sweet...
While satisfactory in quality, the sweet wine harvest produced meagre yields, perhaps saved by the rain in the second half of September. “There was no Botrytis in September, rain at the end of September, and beginning of October open the door to Botrytis,” said Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu, adding, “there a was a perfect window mid-October to harvest very pure Botrytis.” 2020 Bordeaux, should mostly produce wines of balance, freshness, and ripe concentration, a high spot from a year like no other.