Bordeaux 2020: the view from the starting line

My recycling has really gotten out of hand. I’m commandeering not just one, but three neighbours’ bins. I’m also now on first name terms with my DHL delivery driver, and getting there with the good people of DPD, UPS et al. Over the past months, the odd sample delivery has become normal – but the current wave, nay, tsunami, of Bordeaux 2020 samples has really seen things escalate.

On the upside, most of the samples arrive almost entirely in recyclable packaging (with black marks for those that don’t). On the downside, my neighbours seem to have little sympathy – and their patience for my excess cardboard and glass is starting to wear thin (although they’ve all had quite the upgrade on their stocks of cooking wine, benefiting from the dregs). Those on my street who are only within earshot of the clank of bottles toppling into bin after bin definitely think I have a serious habit.

A first world problem? Of course. But tasting Bordeaux en primeur samples isn’t necessarily a joy. Even from the very best châteaux and vintages, these are wines in their infancy. Mere six-month-olds, their acidity can feel raw, the tannins biting. It can – and depending on how many samples you’re tasting in one sitting, will – literally hurt your teeth. (Dentists do good business with wine merchants, unfortunately.)

It’s not a mere matter of supping away, though. The challenge is to taste the nascent liquid and read its future as best we can. But this isn’t us playing Mystic Meg. We judge the concentration, complexity and balance of a wine, exploring how each element stands up alone and how they interplay, and will integrate with more time in cask and then bottle. Does the oak stand out? Is there enough acidity to off-set the concentration? Is the alcohol in check? How will it evolve?

It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to Bordeaux en primeur. Considering the wines will spend another six to 12 months in barrel, many ask whether it’s worthwhile looking into our vinous crystal ball at all? Why bother? In many ways, this elaborate unveiling of the new vintage is mad.

Can you imagine if any other agricultural product did the same thing? If we anticipated the debut of 2020 wheat, carrot or celery? Like many other farmers, vignerons have just one chance a year to get it right – but their success or failure will haunt them far beyond the following season. An infinite number of decisions are made first in the field, then in the winery – and every single one has an impact on the liquid that ends up in our glass. Yes, wine is farming in many ways – but it is a craft like no other, and that’s why we’re all so hooked. The chance to be part of it, to get in on the action right at the start… well, somehow it’s a buzz. I love peering into my list of stocks and impatiently eyeing the little I’ve bought en primeur. My bottles are modest, but I can’t wait to uncork them when the time comes.

But what of the 2020s? It’s only the beginning and I’m still forming a complete picture as we taste more. So far, however, I’m excited about the wines. Talking to the region’s winemakers, there’s a palpable delight and amazement at the wines. It was not an easy season for vignerons, a rollercoaster of a year in many ways, yet somehow – despite all the challenges it posed – it produced wines that are, so far, impressive. The dry, warm summer might make you think the 2020s are destined to be super-ripe, tannic and over-blown; it’s not so.

These are surprisingly elegant, fresh wines, with quite moderate alcohols. The fruit is ripe and concentrated, but there’s a crunchiness too – a vibrancy and saline acidity that makes them moreish. There’s no shortage of structure, but the tannins are beautifully ripe – making them relatively approachable as en primeur samples go. The best wines offer the richness of a warm vintage, yet with an added level of freshness. I say the best wines, because this is not a totally homogenous vintage. Because of the challenging growing season, those who didn’t or couldn’t put the requisite work in in the vineyard didn’t necessarily excel. With the dry summer, soils were of particular importance – with water-holding clay a boon. Yields are down, in general more on the Left Bank than the Right, with mildew being more of an issue in the Médoc, while the dry conditions over the summer in general led to smaller berries. Gentle handling in the winery was essential given the smaller berries and thicker skins, and some have suggested that the pips didn’t fully ripen – meaning it was even more important.

All this aside, however, the very best wines are outstanding – comfortably sitting alongside or above the ‘18s and ‘19s, ‘15s and ‘16s. There’s a classicism and elegance about the wines, with an aromatic delicacy and expressiveness, that makes them enchanting. More to follow – this is, after all, just the starting line. And the anticipation is everything.

Highlights from the tasting table so far

Talbot, Batailley, Clinet, Enclos Tourmaline, Angelus, Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clement, d’Armailhac and Clerc Milon


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