En Primeur 2020 Report

It’s the middle of 2021 and we’re still not out of the pandemic that sunk 2020 and scattered people and wine businesses far and wide, and yet, watching the rescue boats in Bordeaux you have a sense that they are once again all rowing in the same direction. Uncharacteristically uncertain with the 2019 En-Primeur campaign that gave us such wonderful prices, the Bordelaise have adapted once more and have been on song like a choir about the charms and benefits of the 2020 vintage. There is a lot to take our interest in, but last year’s bargains have given way to riper pricing this year, and I would suggest buying selectively from 2020 and taking the estates that you really want to own.

Price is now the main talking point so we must address it first. Several factors are at work… Firstly, the backdrop to last year. No doubt the Bordelaise panicked. The low point in financial markets coincided with the start of the campaign and facing the daunting prospect of a collapsing global economy they released prices at 20-30% below the previous year. Yet everyone was caught by surprise by the idle capacity in many people’s wallets, unable to spend in hospitality or travel, that took advantage of the reductions and led to the most successful en-primeur campaign in a decade. Even by the end of the release, it was notable that prices were rising. They were never going to make the same mistake this year.

Secondly, we have two dramatic impacts on yields that will substantially reduce supply. Patchy weather during flowering last spring and a very hot and dry summer reduced yields out of 2020 by some 20-30% so there is less wine than in 2019. And this year we are all familiar with the dreadfully cold weather in April and May here in the UK – well, European wine regions felt it too and spring frosts have been devastating across the continent. Production right across France (and Italy) will be down at least 20% and in some places 50% and more. Most of Bordeaux has been impacted, particularly the Right Bank, but the moderating oceanic influence has helped mitigate the worst. Still, the net result will be a shrinkingly small 2021 harvest. Against these supply constraints and a much healthier global economy prices were always set to increase. And they have. On the whole, they are back to 2018 levels and in some cases exceed it. The details on price will be outlined against the chateaux below but that is the bad news out of the way. Now to the wines themselves of which there are many good things to say.­

The Growing Season

2020 comes highly regarded qualitatively, the media have all been touting that this is the third great vintage in succession, the first time this has happened since ’88, ’89 and ’90. However, the quality this year is not as homogenous as last year thanks to some complicating factors during the growing season. Flowering in spring was bookended by rain and poor weather and in between, it was dry, warm and sunny so some estates set bunches perfectly, fast and early. Outside of this episode the weather was damp, cool and challenged by hail, frost and mildew!

Thereafter followed one of the driest summers on record and a period of 55 days with virtually no rainfall (19th June – 11th August) whereas Bordeaux often receives 2-3 inches of rain per month, year-round. This weather reduced yields and set a record amount of phenolic material (colour and tannins) for harvest.

Rain fell in the middle of August, and this is where it became tricky because it was unevenly distributed across the region. The Right Bank and the Graves (in the south of the city of Bordeaux itself) generally received ideal amounts, 20-40mm in total, that gave the vines an essential drink and brightened canopies for the run into harvest. Areas that received more faced challenges with dilution and in some cases split berries that led to spoiled fruit. While this was true for much of the Medoc, it was also true that the best terroirs came out with flying colours. Why, you ask? Well, they are planted on deep, free-draining gravels, sometimes with very gentle slopes down to the river, factors that allowed the extra rain to pass through the soils and avoid dilution and damage. Sites on heavier clays struggled to shed the excess water and here we see examples of dilution and slightly under-ripe tannins.

Following the rain event, the weather was warm and dry and facilitated an early harvest across the region under cool nights. This was critical as again, the best estates had the resource to harvest at scale and speed, ultimately beating the arrival of Atlantic storm Alex at the end of September that deluged the region, effectively ending the harvest. For many producers, it was the first year that harvest was fully complete before October and another reason why we see such freshness in the wines.

Style and quality

These are two completely different things. Both are heavily influenced by the vintage, while the style is also guided by the philosophy of the producer. The quality is determined in the vineyard and the skill of the estate is to reveal vineyard quality to its full potential.

It’s clear that the 2020 wines have lots of intensity thanks to record levels of tannins, anthocyanins (colour molecules) and total phenolics, even higher than the legendary 2010 vintage. Consequently, these are wines with enormous potential to improve with time in bottle. The low yields and dry summer, coupled with ideal ripening during September have established a very high level of quality from the vineyard. However, compared to last year the wines are, in many cases, a full degree of alcohol lower at around 13.5-13.75% so hence the general commentary around the enormous freshness in the wines. In this sense, the wines are more ‘classic’ than they have been in the very sunny recent run of vintages since 2015 and point towards a structured, fresh and long-lived style of Bordeaux wines that we may recognise from the 1990s. Yet these are also more intense and powerful thanks to the hotter summer weather and low yields, typically around 25hl-35hl per hectare, or 20-30% lower than would be normal.

A final factor is the change in approach to viticulture and winemaking. Adapting to sunnier vintages the viticulture is now managed to protect wines from excess sunshine and to pull back from the sunnier, swarthier elements that have appeared in years like 2015 and 2018. Winemaking has also become more precise, with parcels within vineyard blocks being identified for one level of wine or another and handled accordingly in the winery. And extraction and overall manipulation in the winery is being pared back. Winemakers are more gentle, careful and nuanced as they know they have more extractable goodies and steadily rising sugar levels, which mean higher alcohol levels, making these easier to extract. Care is therefore the theme of the current era. This is most apparent on the Right Bank where the estates are much smaller and tend to be nimbler in adapting their style of winemaking.

So in summary we have what is a spectacular vintage in places, patchy in others and generally fresher and more vibrant than the last 4 or 5 vintages in Bordeaux. That gives us plenty to be excited about in terms of laying these wines away for the long term. Sadly the prices are on the rise, but this has been the perennial issue with Bordeaux with which we are already familiar. We’ve been as careful as we can in our selection this year, but alas thanks to very strong demand and low volumes not everything we wish for is available. What follows is the heart of our 2020 Bordeaux EP offer and I hope you enjoy reading about it and eventually enjoying the wines from 2020. I’m sure they will reward careful and patient collectors during the 2030s and beyond.

Justin Knock MW