June 17: Given current climate trends marked by increasingly extreme events, comparisons between vintages are becoming more dubious. Each vintage boasts a unique identity and extreme weather exacerbates local variations. The success of a vintage should be considered at the level of individual vineyards and focused on the personality of each wine. One should remain wary of general assumptions, asserts John Salvi Master of Wine as he looks at Bordeaux 2020 touted as an exceptional Trilogy-2018, 2019, 2020 by Château Palmer and The Divine by Château Angélus, and discusses Structure in this Part of his Magnum Opus
In Part-1 I had discussed that the wine of the vintage is both shaped and structured by the weather and the meteorological conditions from budburst to vintage. I talked about the 5-criteria established by the late Denis Dubourdieu. In Part-2 I discussed in detail how the weather shaped up the vintage against those criteria. Now Let me talk about Structure and its different components like Tannins, Alcohol and acidity before I conclude:
This is one of the most powerful attributes of the 2020 vintage. Everybody, without exception, is praising them to the skies. The IPT (Total Polyphenol Index) was high, but growers are concentrating more on the finesse, purity, silkiness, harmony and smoothness of the tannins.
Château Lafite says, “A gentle monster”, Château Cheval Blanc says, « a rich tannic structure », Château Haut Bailly says, « elegant tannins”, Château Mouton Rothschild says, “powerful, integrated and precise tannins”. They were perfectly ripe and Château Lafite reminded us that VERY gentle extraction was needed to avoid any hardness in the wine.
Also Read : Bordeaux 2020 : A Trinity in the Making (Part-2)
It is true that the latest ripening plots of Cabernet and Petit Verdot did not reach optimum maturity, but as none of the finer wines would have dreamed of using those grapes, we can safely discount them. The tannins are of course what give the wine the ability to mature to an old age with grace and beauty, together with the acidities, so 2020 looks set for a long-term future.
Many of the classified growths are saying that the 2020 is finer than 2018 or 2019 and will outlast them. The French description of Château Lafite 2020 is so beautiful that I quote it here. “Un jeune monstre en devenir, tout en retenue, incroyablement racé, mais discipliné. Assemblage final à 12.8° alcool qui nous rappelle les beaux équilibres des années 90 » ("A young monster in the making, while restrained, incredibly racy, but disciplined. Final assembly at 12.8 ° alcohol that reminds us of the beautiful balances of the 90s).
I have just quoted the most important point above. Alcohols were lower than they have been for several years, and everybody was delighted about it. Alcohol levels have steadily been increasing and have become too high. The essence of great Bordeaux is purity, delicacy, elegance, refinement and not strength and power. Nonetheless, levels varied very considerably, depending upon the area, the soil and the rainfall, and in some places still remained too high. Where this was the case, there were sometimes difficulties during fermentation. This will require extreme vigilance during maturation to avoid spoilage. Even so, for a First Growth to produce a wine of 12.8. ° alcohol in a rich and powerful year is a significant achievement.
This was perhaps the other great feature of the 2020 vintage. White grapes were picked early during the last 10 days of August, so retained their freshness and crisp, mineral acidity, the loss of which is a constant fear for Sauvignon. They were in perfect health and picked under ideal conditions.
For red grapes, although we had great heat, we also had a remarkable preponderance of cool nights, some of them very cool, and this helped to preserve good levels of acidity. Also, from 20th September it was much cooler, which is why some Cabernet never reached optimum maturity, but which was great for preserving fresh acidities.
Château Margaux actually points out acidity as a main feature in their Pavillon Blanc. They say, “the acidity was the principal reason for choosing the dates of our white wine harvest. We harvested from 24th August -1st September and the acidity provided great aromatic freshness and a particularly persistent length.” We must also congratulate Pavillon Blanc for celebrating its centenary in 2020. The other vastly contributing factor was the very early vintage, which allowed grapes to be picked while acidities were still at optimum levels.
White wines picked in August and the Semillon into early September are delicious, with crisp, vibrant, mineral acidity and intense aromas and flavours. Perfect grapes were picked early under perfect conditions. What more could one ask for?
As for Red Wines, last year I jumped to an over-hasty conclusion and was wrong, so I do not want to stick my neck out too far this year for Bruno Borie to cut it off!!
There is no doubt in my mind that there are some very fine, voir great wines this year. Whether it will be greater for the red wines than 2018 and/or 2019, and whether it will outlast them, is a little early to say, but the tannins and acidities point that way. The wines are delicious, the colours deep, the acidities fresh, the tannins magnificent and the opulent fruitiness pronounced. The very best wines are made on the earlier ripening great terroirs. They are wines to lay down.
Also Read : Bordeaux 2020 : A Trinity in the Making (Part-1)
Botrytised wine is not quite such a success story. For many, too much rain prevented sufficient concentration. Some picked not fully concentrated grapes on a large scale, abandoning the first wine. Some gambled and waited, risking a total loss. Storm ALEX on 2nd October, turned the situation critical, although cool temperatures helped avoid the development of bad fungi. Some of the best botrytised grapes were picked around 12th October and again, the lion’s share, around the weekend of 16th – 18th. We see that Château d’Yquem said, “After the rains on 23rd and 25th any grapes remaining unpicked had to be condemned. It is a little early to attribute a style to the 2020, but we are confident of its potential quality”. However, Château Suduiraut waited through another period of rain, picked from 2nd – 5th November and are happy with the results. They said, “We harvested healthy batches worthy of our Grand Vin. The batches were of extremely high quality.”. It never does to be too dogmatic in wine making!
In Summary, as the title suggests, 2020 is a trinity of 2018/2019/2020 in the making.
John Salvi Master of Wine