2020 Red Bordeaux Vintage Report
There is no doubt that 2020 will long live in the collective memory of the Bordelais. Over the course of the year, the weather threw just about everything it had at the vines, forcing vignerons to make choices at almost every stage of the growing season, and all of this against the backdrop of Covid-19, which forced a complete rethink of practices in both the vineyard and the winery, as well as having a devastating effect on the restaurant trade and through it on the sale of wine. Remarkably, as the estates prepare for the en primeur tastings, there is a widespread sense of optimism about the quality of the vintage even if quantities are down on 2019, by 20%–25% on average.
It was, however, a year of contrasts and variations. 2020 was by far the wettest year in recent history but it is drought that has defined the character of the vintage. The rain, moreover, was unevenly spaced across both time and space – most of it fell in violent, localised thunderstorms so that there were enormous differences between regions, between communes and even between neighbouring domaines. One could have 100 mm in a matter of a few days and next door none at all. In general, the right bank was drier than the left, the southern Médoc drier than the north. Quite what effect it had, however, was greatly dependent on soil types, methods of viticulture and even rootstocks.
In general, the year started off both very wet and considerably warmer than average. This led to an early budbreak in mid-March and a consequent advance in vegetative development that was maintained throughout the year. Flowering occurred in the second half of May in good weather so that there was good fruit set, but the end of May and most of June were extremely wet, creating a significant risk of downy mildew that required prompt treatment, although any losses here were to be overshadowed by what was to come, namely an extremely hot and dry July, with almost no rainfall, and an even hotter August. August was wetter than average, but most of the rain fell in the course of three or four nights in the middle of the month. The result was small, concentrated berries with dark skins, and high potential alcohol. Harvesting of the earliest Merlot (mostly in Pomerol) began at the beginning of September but became more widespread in the middle of the month, with the Cabernet Sauvignon following. The threat of rain towards the end of the month forced another choice – some scrambled to finish the harvest before it arrived, others gambled on waiting until it had been and gone, allowing it to soften the skins of the Cabernet and reduce the total alcohol. Those who had no rain had to harvest as quickly as possible before acidity levels plummeted.
So what can one say about the vintage? What is certain is that the wines have a very deep colour with concentrated tannins, but these are mostly very ripe and soft, although in many cases the vin de presse could not be used. The wines should therefore be quite drinkable at a relatively young age. Alcohol levels are also higher than usual, how much being dependent on decisions taken during the year. Otherwise, there is a great deal of variation in both style and quality between different domaines, and even different parcels within a domaine, that has required all the skills of oenologists and winemakers to mitigate the effects of climate and assemble final blends of the required standard. This has been an exceptionally ‘technical’ vintage, and tasting the wines is going to be even more crucial than ever. Reputation will count for nothing.