Our Bordeaux 2020 Vintage Report
“There are some stunningly good 2020s… These wines delightfully combine the classicism of traditional Bordeaux with the modern winemaking and vine-growing sophistication.” Jancis Robinson MW
“The 2020 vintage marks a rare trilogy of excellent vintages that produced wines at the same or very close quality level across the board from great named chateaux to lesser-known estates.” – James Suckling
More so than ever before, Armit Wines’ historical relationship with our négociants and producers proves to be indispensable. We are grateful for countless barrel samples shipped to our Hammersmith office and the wealth of insight from the vignerons we work with, in particular Omri Ram at Château Lafleur. The team has now tasted hundreds of wines, some on multiple occasions, in order to provide you with an informed, honest and impartial assessment of the vintage and what to buy (or not!).
For 6 years now, Bordeaux has experienced a run of vintages characterised by the absence of any real winter, an early start to the spring vegetative cycle, intense rainy episodes, and hot, drought-like summers causing water stress in the vines. Vignerons have been adapting to the challenges and many wines are getting better and better. We are now seeing wines of less extraction and less concentration, and never before has there been a greater focus on balance, freshness and precision of flavour. As Jancis Robinson explains, “the most exciting aspect of Bordeaux today is, as usual, not commercial but what is happening in vineyards and cellars. It could be described as a revolution.”
The growing season
A mild start to the year triggered bud break two to three weeks early. Warmer weather and rain in April encouraged the speedy growth of vine shoots – the first sign of the earliness of the vintage. Healthy flowering occurred in late May under dry and warm conditions. Following a summery May, June was wet and dull. Rainfall affected the vineyards’ natural defences, increasingly the risk of mildew. The weather improved significantly from mid-June onwards, ushering in two months of hot, drought-like conditions. By early August, the effects of water stress could be felt, especially for younger vines with shallow roots, unable to reach deeper water reserves.
On 10th August, storms brought a welcome relief to the dry conditions. September started dry and sunny, speeding up the ripening process, and the Merlot harvest began for many producers around 10th September under excellent conditions. As Christian Seely, owner of Pichon Baron, explains, “the Merlots were magnificent… wonderfully ripe, expressive”. In their insightful report from Bordeaux University, Professors Laurence Geny and Axel Marchal note how “Merlot wines are deeply-coloured, intensely fruity and delicious. Despite being made from fairly large grapes, they boast a good tannic structure, without hardness or dilution.”
At Smith-Haut-Lafitte, harvest for the red wines began on 9th September. As winemaker Fabien Teitgen explains: “We picked in ideal conditions, very sunny days and very warm temperature”. He notes how “[with] the dryness of the summer we have very small berries with thick skins – very dense grapes with very big concentration,” concluding: “The vintage is a bit of a mix with 2018 and 2016… With the power, the density of 2018 and the balance and freshness of 2016.”
From the middle of September, the weather became more unsettled. Light showers prevented the grapes from shrivelling, which helped them finish ripening. The Cabernet grapes were picked after the Merlot, for the most part in excellent conditions. As Geny and Marchal explain: “The Cabernets grapes, which were generally very small, produced deeply coloured and tannic wines without any herbaceousness. Due to the deteriorating weather conditions, the early-ripening great terroirs were clearly at an advantage and produced very fine wines.
White grapes for Bordeaux Blanc were picked relatively early, throughout the last days of August and early September. The hot summer increased their aromatic potential, but most importantly the grapes also retained very good acidity. “They were sweet, delicious, and in perfect condition,”according to Geny and Marchal.
The highlights from our En Primeur tastings so far point to a charming and fruit-forward vintage, with freshness and an inherent drinkability at the forefront. We believe the 2020 vintage has the potential to offer a great deal of pleasure over the years to come – and with many of the Merlot-driven wines, you will not have to wait a decade to open a bottle. With precise fruit and ripe tannins, many of the best examples will prove to be deliciously forward-drinking, although there are of course the usual suspects which will reward time in the cellar. For Jancis Robinson, “there are some stunningly good 2020s”. As she goes on to explain: “wines are becoming much fresher and more expressive of the vineyard… These wines delightfully combine the classicism of traditional Bordeaux with modern winemaking and vine-growing sophistication”.
Notably, production in 2020 is down by about 10% compared to the 2019 and 2018 harvests, which makes it one of the lowest yielding vintages in a decade. This, along with the widespread frost damage in 2021, may be cause for the Bordelaise to review their pricing. We sincerely hope, however, that it will be in line with the 2019s. The 2020 vintage also strikes us a little less homogeneous than in 2019, and we encourage you to pay particular attention to our recommendations, letting us guide you towards quality and value as the vintage is offered over the coming weeks.