The famous French wine-producing region produced sterling vintages in 2018 and 2019. Is the latest one equally as good? James Suckling takes a closer look at what the year brought and picks his top bottles.
We all know that the pandemic will make the 2020 vintage particularly memorable, but the vintage in Bordeaux will also be remembered because it produced so many outstanding wines under such challenging circumstances – from logistical shortages to severe drought conditions.
In fact, 2020 is the third outstanding vintage in a row for Bordeaux and marks perhaps the first time the region has experienced such a high-quality trilogy of superlative years.
JamesSuckling.com rated 1,302 barrel samples from the 2020 vintage and conducted almost 40 Zoom calls from Hong Kong with chateau owners and winemakers, and the story behind the 2020 vintage is a fantastic one.
It was not only our biggest en primeur tasting ever but perhaps even the biggest for any wine critic. The outstanding quality of so many of the wines highlights the genius of Bordeaux viticulture and winemaking, as well as the incredible human effort and collective energy it takes to make so many terrific-quality wines.
“You had a new challenge every day, and it could be climatic or it could be sanitary,” says Veronique Sanders, general manager of Château Haut-Bailly, who made one of the best wines of the vintage. “We had to keep our team working and that could be a challenge. Imagine what it was like when France was in lockdown in May and April!”
I think that we’re all going to be excited with what’s eventually bottled in Bordeaux from 2020. The reds show complex and intense aromas as well as bright fruit character, but also floral and earth undertones. This is something you don’t see in such young wine resting in barrels or other vessels in cellars. They also have intense yet fine tannins and relatively fresh acidity. They’re wines that can be consumed relatively young but will age very well after bottling.
Some wines are of really exceptional quality. In fact, I rated 10 wines with possible perfect scores of 99 to 100. That’s the third-highest number of top wines in the last 10 years for my en primeur tastings for Bordeaux and one of the highest in my career of tasting Bordeaux from barrel. By comparison, 2019 had eight wines with 99-to-100 ratings, and 2018 just four.
“We think that the 2020 is the best of the trilogy,” says Florence Cathiard, owner of Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, who made one of her best wines ever. “It has the structure and the typicity of the 2018 and the aromatics of the 2019. So it takes the best of both.”
The best wines of 2020 also have a ripeness but slightly less alcohol than 2019 and 2018, because many wineries picked earlier and extracted less during fermentation and macerations, using lower temperatures and fewer pump-overs.
“It was crazy, crazy,” says Saskia Rothschild, head of the famous first-growth Château Lafite-Rothschild, as well as Château Duhart-Milon and Château L’Évangile. The Lafite only has about 12.8 percent alcohol, a good degree less than most recent high-quality vintages.
“Everyone told us 2020 was hot and we measured the vats and they were like what we knew in the 1990s and 1980s. It’s very surprising. It’s about that paradox [of the vintage] that we talked about.”
The paradox is that Bordeaux experienced one of its most severe droughts ever during the summer, with almost 50 days of no rain – or only a few drops from about mid-June to mid-August. Most winemakers worried that they would have a high-alcohol harvest with shrivelled and sugar-rich grapes.
Yet the wet weather during most of the first half of the year enabled the best vineyards with great soils to maintain moisture. Large amounts of rain came in mid-August, but not enough negatively to affect the quality of the grape crop. The most important precipitation arrived in late September, but many of the top names on the Right Bank had finished their harvest or were very close to ending. This early and dry harvest delivered some impeccable merlot in many estates.
But don’t write off wines with a predominance of cabernet sauvignon in their blends. The cabernets were much smaller than normal, with thick skins, so the rains at the end of September didn’t negatively affect them in many areas or properties.
Moreover, the cabernets in Pessac-Léognan were super in 2020, which is why three out of my top 10 wines were from the appellation.
The question now is whether 2020 is better than 2019 or 2018. My impression after tasting so many barrel samples is that it’s certainly better than 2018 and at least at the same level as 2019 in quality. I’ll have to wait and see the wines in bottle to finally decide how they compare with 2019.
Tasting Notes: Top 10 Bordeaux 2020 Wines
These 10 Bordeaux 2020 wines were rated 99-100 by James Suckling and his tasting team.
CHÂTEAU HAUT-BRION PESSAC-LÉOGNAN 2020
This is a superb Haut-Brion with incredible tannins that are wonderfully fine-grained. It’s really powerful. This is very primary, with so much grape-generated tannin structure.
CHÂTEAU MARGAUX MARGAUX 2020
So floral and perfumed with blackcurrants, blackberries and some asphalt. Full-bodied with super, fine tannins.
CHÂTEAU HOSANNA POMEROL 2020
This shows very intense, old-vine character with bark, black mushroom and dark fruit. Full-bodied and creamy with unique flavours of earth and fruit.
CHÂTEAU LA FLEUR-PÉTRUS POMEROL 2020
Purple berry and blackberry aromas with cracked black pepper, violets and lavender. It’s full-bodied and layered, and broadens in the mouth.
CHÂTEAU LAFITE ROTHSCHILD PAUILLAC 2020
Rather ethereal and so refined, with finesse, focus and brightness that provide incredible energy and pedigree.
CHÂTEAU HAUT-BAILLY PESSAC-LÉOGNAN 2020
This has incredible power and drive, with blackberry, black olive and graphite. It’s full-bodied, yet dynamic and agile, with so much polished and muscular tannin.
CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD PAUILLAC 2020
This is a great and impressive Mouton with plushness and precision. A million layers of tannins. It’s full and very friendly, even seductive, in a rich and opulent way.
CHÂTEAU TROTANOY POMEROL 2020
A very concentrated Trot with density and depth, the tannins spreading across the palate.
CHÂTEAU SMITH-HAUT-LAFITTE PESSAC-LÉOGNAN 2020
So much blackcurrant, graphite and iodine character. Full-bodied. Incredible quality to the tannins. They’re polished yet powerful.
CHÂTEAU PAVIE ST-ÉMILION 2020
The aromas are already exceptional, showing crushed stone, limestone and salt character to the dark fruit and bark. Floats on the palate.
James Suckling honoured by French Government
In June, James Suckling, noted international wine critic and Prestige’s wine correspondent, was honoured by the French Government for his services to the country and its wine industry with the title and rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre Nationale du Mérite. Suckling received the honour — the only time such an award has been bestowed on an Asia-based wine critic — during a ceremony held at the residence of the French consul general in Hong Kong, Alexandre Giorgini.
For more wine reports and ratings, you can visit JamesSuckling.com