We are now in the midst of the Bordeaux Futures Season, where merchants and chateau owners lean over critics’ ratings and smell the wind to find the right prices for the previous year’s vintage. The 2020s have started on rough waters.
Last year’s campaign was an unexpected success, in large part thanks to an almost unprecedented combination of high quality and price reductions. It also helped that everyone was sitting at home, only being able to spend money through their screens.
Yet it seems unlikely that the success of the 2019 scoop campaign will repeat itself exactly. Those same screens will reveal that the prices of recent Bordeaux vintages have remained remarkably static in recent years – why bother to dump money so long before the wine is even bottled? One of the arguments for doing this is that 2020 was a relatively small crop and the recent frost has almost certainly reduced the next one, which can cause prices to rise over time. First-time buyers often forget to factor in the cost of (annual) storage fees.
Granted, there are insanely good 2020s, even if the vintage is not as consistent as 2019. Bordelais are hoping that potential buyers from the United States might be encouraged by the suspension of tariffs on imports from the United States. ‘EU and their British counterparts by the force of the pound against the euro. But all signs indicate that Bordeaux is losing its dominant position as the only haven for the money of wine investors. Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, Brunello, Rhône and California are now also included.
For me, however, the most exciting aspect of Bordeaux today is, as usual, not commercial but what happens in the vineyards and cellars. It could be described as a revolution. From the end of the 1980s, there was a feeling of complacency in Bordeaux. Bordeaux top sold out every year. Critics – Americans in particular – reliably handed out rave reviews on wines that in some ways resembled Napa Valley Cabernets. Meanwhile, the region continued to be one of the world’s largest users of agrochemicals in the vineyard, citing its humid maritime climate, which leaves the vines exposed to fungal diseases, as an excuse.
But the change is underway. And you can taste it in wines. As with many wine trends – the shift from international to indigenous varietals, for example – the change has been driven by producers rather than consumers. Part of the impetus may have been to make wines that producers like to drink themselves. Although increasingly hot and drier summers do not help, high alcohol levels are no longer deliberately sought; Ch Lafite 2020 is only 12.8% alcohol, for example.
In general, the wines become much fresher and more expressive of the vineyard rather than being rich and concentrated expressions of oenological know-how. These wines perfectly combine the classicism of traditional Bordeaux with modern winemaking and wine sophistication.
As I sampled samples of the embryonic 2020s, pulled from casks all over Bordeaux, my inbox was littered with emails from their producers explaining how they completely revolutionized their approaches.
It was especially encouraging to see the number of samples bearing the logo of an organic certification body, which would have been unthinkable 20 – maybe even 10 – years ago. Certainly, castles determined to reduce their reliance on herbicides, pesticides and fungicidal sprays to control late blight and rot have been helped by the fact that the summers have become drier, but there is clearly no shortage of well-meaning intentions.
In his recent book Inside Bordeaux, Jane anson was able to include a long list of influential properties that turn into organic or even biodynamic viticulture, more demanding. Notable pioneers have been Chx Ausone, Durfort-Vivens, Gruaud-Larose, Guiraud, Latour, Montrose, Palmer, Pontet-Canet and Smith Haut Lafitte, but countless others follow in their wake.
The emphasis placed on the vineyard rather than the cellar is accompanied by a much better understanding and response to the characteristics of each vineyard plot. I came across this approach – now known as ‘precision viticulture’ – not in Bordeaux but in Napa Valley when I visited Harlan Estate over 20 years ago. Today, precision viticulture has been adopted by ambitious winegrowers around the world and has become de rigueur on the best Bordeaux estates. If they can afford it, the most quality-conscious producers can design individual fermentation tanks tailored to the volume of wine that each vineyard plot is expected to produce. They can then harvest each plot at its optimum maturity – usually earlier than before.
Alexander Van Beek of Ch Giscours in Margaux is delighted that they are now not only picking plot by plot, but also vine by vine. In 1996, the new Dutch owners replaced 130,000 dead vines, scattered throughout the estate. Since 2018, they have been picking these young vines separately and earlier – a complex job that requires the in-house wine team to go through each vineyard up to three times, an approach that excludes occasional work.
(Since 2013, Harlan winemakers have been assigned their own individual plot. According to Cory Empting, Viticulture Manager, this gives workers the opportunity to “create their masterpiece throughout their lives and through their careful management ”.)
At Ch Malartic Lagravière, another Bordeaux classified growth, the Bonnie family plows the soil to encourage the roots of the vine to dig deeply, to dive into the gravel layer and to reach the limestone subsoil, which ensures a water supply. more homogeneous grapes. The result was smaller, fewer clusters and no need to thin out the harvest because the vine is now in harmony with its environment. “The grapes are denser, more vibrant,” says Jean-Jacques Bonnie.
Another development, according to Saskia de Rothschild at Ch Lafite, the disappearance of monoculture in favor of planting hedges and trees on land previously planted exclusively with vines to create “green corridors” and promote the biodiversity that will permeate the grapes. – and therefore the wines – with freshness. In an email describing their plans at Lafite, she cited Chx Lafon Rochet and Palmer as having done this before.
These and similar trends are apparent in many 2020s that I have tasted so far. But it’s also clear, especially in the Cabernet-dominated estates of Bordeaux’s left bank, that the best wines always come from producers who can afford to exclude less than satisfactory ingredients in the final blend. As usual in Bordeaux, there is a big gap between the top and the bottom of the wine ranks.
Cooler red Bordeaux of the 2020s
Please note that the wine tasting work for the 2020s has been shared between the three of us on JancisRobinson.com so my personal experience has been limited to certain appellations, and has necessarily omitted the best estates which will show their cask samples only at the chateau itself. .
Ch Chauvin, Clos Fourtet, Clos St-Martin, Chx Fonplégade, Fonroque, La Gaffelière, Grand Corbin-Despagne, Grand-Pontet, Jean Faure, Laroque, La Marzelle, Pavie-Macquin, Le Prieuré, Rochebelle, La Serre
Ch Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier, Chx de France, Haut-Bergey, La Louvière, Malartic-Lagravière, Smith Haut Lafitte
Chx Beychevelle, Gloria, Langoa Barton, Léoville Barton, Léoville Poyferré, Talbot
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