I recently had the privilege of attending a tasting of the 2020 Bordeaux vintage sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – an organization that includes many top wines from the most famous Bordeaux appellations. It is an opportunity to get a sense of the overall quality of a given harvest and to discern which communes within the Bordeaux AOP were most successful. Most of these wines will arrive in the US by autumn if they are not in the market already.
The weather of 2020, as is often the case, provided great challenges in the vineyard. The winter was quite mild and wet. Warm temperatures in February and March encouraged an early bud break. There was frost in late March which affected the more vulnerable areas. April and May were warm and wet, and flowering and fruit set came early, which would lead to an early harvest. Early June was cool and rainy, leading to mildew problems for some growers. From mid-June through mid-August, however, conditions were hot and dry. Vineyards with clay and limestone soils like those in St. Émilion and Pomerol were better able to handle the drought stress. The two months of heat resulted in small grape berries on the vines and, ultimately, lower yields from the vines and greater concentration in the wines.
In mid-August, some much-needed rains and cooler weather came. Although amounts of rainfall were varied, vines throughout Bordeaux benefited from the break in the dry pattern. The white grape harvest began in late August in moderate temperatures with sunny days and cool nights. September began with warm days and cool nights that allowed further ripening of red grapes. Cool autumn weather arrived in late September and dry conditions allowed the bulk of harvesting to be completed before more rains came in October.
2020 was a very successful harvest overall. It is a vintage of low yields and potentially high quality. Production was down about 10% from 2019 levels and the traditional trade gatherings and offerings were upended by COVID restrictions. This is the third high-quality vintage in succession so prices have not risen quite as dramatically as they might in other circumstances. On balance, I found the Right Bank wines more consistently fine than the Left Bank. That is not surprising since the soils of St. Émilion and Pomerol have greater clay and limestone content and were able to supply the vines with more water during the dry months.
Overall, I think of 2020 as a classic vintage. Despite the long hot spell, I did not sense an overripe or raisined character in the samples. The wines generally show a fine balance of fruit, tannin and acidity. Many wines are impressive now and will age nicely for another decade and beyond. Prices listed below are average US retail prices from various sources. Astute shoppers can find many 2020 wines for less than the averages listed here.
For dry white wines of Pessac-Léognan, the 2020 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc ($99) was the top dry white of those tasted. The purity of fruit, layered complexity and overall finesse sets the Chevalier apart from other wines. Other superb whites were the Pape Clément ($169), Fieuzal ($56), La Louvière ($38) and Malartic-Lagravière ($79).
The Right Bank wines of 2020 are more consistent than the reds, and there are many quality wines and fine values. In Pomerol, Châteaux Gazin ($89) and Le Gay ($115) were my favorites of the small sampling. Saint Émilions that topped my list were Balestard La Tonnelle ($45), Canon ($163), La Dominique ($57), Figeac ($247), La Gaffelière ($78), Pavie Macquin ($92) and Valandraud ($159).
There were many fine wines from the Left Bank as well. Château Fourcas-Hosten in Listrac ($23) was full and balanced. Châteaux Belgrave ($35), Cantemerle ($32) and La Lagune ($42) from the Haut-Médoc appellation were my favorites. Château Citran ($21) is an exceptional value from the Haut-Médoc as well.
In St. Estèphe, Château de Pez ($64) and Château Ormes de Pez ($31) showed well as did Château Phelan-Ségur ($49). Although no first-growth wines were in the tasting, the top 2020 Pauillac wines were very fine. The Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ($204) topped my list, followed closely by Pichon Baron ($168) and Lynch-Bages ($139) The classic power and finesse of Pauillac was evident in all these wines.
In St. Julien, Léoville-Barton ($99) and Beychevelle ($93) were my favorites, with rich fruit and layers of complex flavors already evident. Châteaux Gruaud-Larose ($92), Lagrange ($57) and Saint-Pierre ($61) were also very good.
Moving on to the Margaux appellation, My top wines were Châteaux Lascombes ($76), Rauzan-Gassies ($59), Rauzan-Ségla ($108) and Brane-Cantenac ($78). All showed the elegance and supple style of Margaux. Châteaux Giscours ($65) and Cantenac-Brown ($54) also showed well.
In addition to stellar white wines, Pessac-Léognan offered some excellent reds – showing the deep fruit and earthy complexity of the appellation. My favorites of those tasted were Domaine de Chevalier ($72) and Smith Haut Lafitte ($155) showing opulent and layered styles that bode well for further aging. Châteaux Pape Clément ($98), Olivier ($34) and La Louvière ($34) also showed very well.
Although yields were low and botrytis was late to form, 2020 is a promising year for Sauternes. Of the wines presented, Châteaux Doisy-Daëne ($43), Coutet ($43) and Lafaurie-Peyraguey ($168) were my favorites, followed by Guiraud ($54) and Suduiraut ($65).
The wines tasted were from the top 5% of all Bordeaux wines. The prices listed reflect pre-arrival pricing in several cases. Many of the wines will arrive in the summer and fall of 2023. As always, there is much more to discover among the thousands of other Bordeaux produced every year. Given the overall high quality of the vintage, there are treasures to be found. A careful shopper can find excellent wines in a $15-$20 price range, perhaps even less in the excellent 2020 vintage.