June 12: 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 the weather in this Part of his Magnum Opus and will discuss Structure in the Final Part-3
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. Here is how the weather shaped up against those criteria and how a few of the producers reacted:
Winter weather is important, but often ignored when discussing a vintage. Firstly, the rainfall is vital to fill up the water table ready to keep the vine from suffering hydric stress during the coming hot, dry summer weather (we hope!). Secondly, we need some sharp frosts to kill off the bugs and beasties in the vineyards. Thirdly, even though many chais today are temperature and moisture controlled, cold weather helps the new wine to fall bright in the many smaller chais, where such luxury controls are beyond the purse of the producers.
NOVEMBER 2019 (Rain 264.8mm: Sun 54 hours 26 minutes)
An incredibly wet month, but the harvest was finished so nobody worried about it. Also, there were no frosts, just rain! An unpleasant, but harmless month and the rain will help to refill the water table.
Also Read : Bordeaux 2020 : A Trinity in the Making (Part-1)
DECEMBER 2019 (Rain 130.9mm: Sun 75 hours 21 minutes)
We had 3 days with over 30mm of rain and 130.9mm during the month. It was also warm, very warm, with only 2 very mild frosts on nights of 3rd and 4th. OK for beginning to fill up the water table for next year, but not much good for cleaning up the bugs and beasties in the vineyard or for helping the new wine to fall bright.
JANUARY 2020 (Rain 67.3mm: Sun 96 hours 53 minutes)
A dry month with 3% less rain than the long-term average. But also warm with some spring-like days and an average minimum temperature of 6.8°C. Meteorological Winter is from December to February. This winter was the second mildest after 2015/16. Ch. Margaux said only 4 feeble frosts all winter. We could have done with some good, crisp ones.
FEBRUARY 2020 (Rain 60.7mm: Sun 129 hours 40 minutes)
Another dry month and at the same time it continued mild and felt like April. Overall temperatures were a huge 3.5°C above the long-term average. Some records were broken in this respect. At daybreak on 7th it was 12.7°C and at 16.00 on 3rd the thermometer reached 23.1°C (Merignac). The same amount of rain as in January, but again we really needed some crisp frosts before Spring and bud break.
MARCH 2020 (Rain 103.5mm: Sun 165 hours 52 minutes)
We had welcomed heavy rain to help refill the water table during the first week. Less so and unsettled weather from 10th – 18th and dry weather for the rest of the month. Total rainfall was 58% above the long-term average. We went into a total lockdown from 17th. It warmed up from 18th and we had some fine, hot weather (20°C). This was extremely welcome as budburst arrived 2-3 weeks early and Bruno Borie at Château Ducru Beaucaillou saw buds in cotton on 21st. Château Margaux 22nd – 26th, Cheval Blanc from 22nd. This budding was uneven and spread-out. The burst of fine, hot weather was short and in quite extraordinary fashion we had frost from 25th. Icy conditions replaced warmth and from 29th – 31st temperatures were up to 12% below average. Château Haut Bailly had serious frost damage the night of 25th – 26th. Even so there was no frost at Merignac and only one mild one night of 27th at Arsac (Commune in Gironde Department). In a few places we even had a touch of snow on 30th, among them Château Mouton Rothschild! No great damage was done except in a few frost-prone and low-lying areas.
Also Read: John Salvi MW revisits Bordeaux 2019 En Primeur
APRIL 2020 (Rain 114.0mm: Sun 179 hours 45 minutes)
After that icy end to March that somewhat slowed down growth, April was hot, exceptionally hot with no frosts. The vines shot ahead with vigour. The month was the third hottest over the last 50 years after 2007 and 2011. It touched 25.6°C on 10th. Also, the warmest on record for the average of the 30 minimum temperatures. It was dry during the first half of the month and then unsettled with sporadic rain. Total rainfall was 34% above the long-term average. As always after the heat, we had storms and also hail, which hit Entre Deux Mers and Saint Emilion causing serious damage to growth in some plots. Most of the rain fell in the last days of the month.
MAY 2020 (Rain 122.0mm: Sun 288 hours 47 minutes)
It could be described as “reversed seasons'' – a summery May followed by a Spring-like June. It started with heavy rainfalls. 103mm from 1st – 5th in Listrac, 122mm from 5th – 12th in Sauternes. There was hail on 10th in South Gironde with some total destruction in places (Landiras, Budos, Saint Maixant) and at Merignac a fantastic 71mm of rain fell.
Despite some low temperatures and rain, May was warmer than average because of some VERY hot days. It was 30.7°C on 21st at Merignac and was the first day of the year to reach 30°C. The average of the 31 maxima was 23.8°C, 16 days were over 25°C and 2 were over 30°C. It was the 4th hottest May in 75 years, just 3/10°C behind the record May 2011 and behind May 1999. Naturally, growth accelerated and, due to the very early budbreak, we had early flowering some 10 days earlier than the 20-year average, but still later than 2011. It started around 17th and mid-flowering was around 26th. Château Margaux 21st – 26th with no coulure and no millerandage. They said, “perfect flowering”. Château Cheval Blanc said mid-flower 21st May. It was good flowering with no physiological problems (coulure – shot berries).
CRITERIA 1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
JUNE 2020 (Rain 91.6mm: Sun 215 hours 29 minutes)
A cool start to June, with frequent rainstorms and very little sun at the beginning of the month. Both the maximum and minimum temperatures were lower than average and to start with there was very little sunshine. Growth slowed, although berries continued to swell. The weather was frankly Springlike rather than 'Summery'. From late May attacks of mildew set in and in some places did considerable damage and caused loss of crop. Summer conditions arrived last week and this time they set in for the season. Château Margaux said, “not a drop of rain from 19/6-10/8.
Also Read: Book Review: John Salvi MW-The Count of Wine
CRITERIA 2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.
ONLY PARTIALLY FULFILLED
JULY 2020 (Rain 3.0mm: Sun 322 hours 52 minutes)
Early in the month we had bunch closure, which is the last stage before colour change. This confirmed how early the vintage still is, despite the early June slowdown. However, the slowdown just after fruit-set was enough to cause some “millerandage” and in some cases this prevented complete bunch closure. July proved to be an exceptionally dry and hot month with only a total of 3.0 – 10.0mm of rain all month from place to place and an enormous amount of sunshine (322 hours 52 minutes).
Fortunately, what rain there was fell at the beginning of the month and prevented hydric stress from setting in early. In fact, it was relatively cool until 7th with the average of the maxima a touch below average. Then came real heat from 18th with 10 days over 30°C. Château Margaux said, “highest ever average summer temperature”. It touched 39°C on 30th. Happily, and importantly, nights were cool except right at the end, which protected the vine from heat stress. Colour change started unevenly from 20th but did not fully set in until the last days of July. Mid colour change was 1st August (10 days later than 2011, but 6 days earlier than the 20-year average. At Château Margaux from 23rd – 26th but at Château Cheval Blanc mid-colour change was as early as 19th for Merlot and as late as 2nd August for Cabernet Franc. Despite the dryness, only young and shallow-rooted vines had water stress and here it was uneven and showed initial signs of interrupted physiological development.
CRITERIA 3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.
ONLY PARTIALLY FULFILLED. Due to the earliness of vintage and intense heat at onset of colour change. Situations varied depending upon terroir. Vegetative growth continued after rainfall in vigorous plots or on rich soils, whereas vine growth stopped late July in plots sensitive to water stress. Here, there was no real return to colour change. Finally, vegetative growth was stopped at the beginning of colour change on clay-limestone soils, but colour change was then hastened along by thunderstorms.
AUGUST 2020 (Rain 66.8mm: Sun 233 hours 15 minutes)
A cool early August helped to complete colour change, but lack of rain began to cause water stress in drier places. A huge heatwave the second week was not as hot as in 2003, but sizzled from 8th – 13th and night-time temperatures were over 20°C. Perhaps not significantly, but the aromatic potential of the dry whites was affected by this. Heat storms between 9th – 15th meant high August rainfall, but with large variations between appellations. North Medoc 110mm and Saint Emilion only 45mm. On 13th at Château Margaux 80mm fell, but the ground was so hard that most did not penetrate. At Château Lafite on 15th 100mm fell. At Château Cheval Blanc week of 15th no less than 125mm fell. This led to large variations in ripening times. However, the rain, just after the colour change, put an end to the early blocked ripening in the best drained plots.
Vegetative growth DID continue after colour change in vigorous plots and on rich soils but had stopped late July in plots sensitive to water stress and with no real return to colour change. Finally, vegetative growth was stopped at the onset of colour change on clay-limestone soils, BUT colour change was then accelerated by thunderstorms.
The end of the month was not so hot, nights were cool, and ripening developed quietly and steadily. Without the excessive heat the weather was good for the synthesis of colour compounds and for avoiding any loss of aroma. Also, for acidity retention.
The vintage started with the Sauvignon from 14th August, surprisingly at Château d’Yquem for the “Y” and continued until around 5th September. Semillon started 27th until around 10th September. This was about 10 days earlier than 2019. Château Mouton Rothschild picked their Aile d’Argent from 24th – 28th. Previous heat had hastened ripening in plots that had sufficient water. Semillon was not fully ripe when huge storms burst and had to wait for fine weather to finish ripening. Graves and Pessac-Léognan picked Sauvignon from 28th and Semillon from the first week of September.
Also Read: First Look at the 2018 Vintage in Bordeaux
This very hot summer was not really conducive to bright aromas and freshness, but 2020 retained good acidity (except for permeable soils and very young vines where water stress set in too early). The white wines are less exuberant than 2019, but the grapes were picked under perfect conditions and those intense aromas are there despite the heat.
On August 31st Château Cheval Blanc announced the most deficient water balance ever recorded. They describe their wines as, “warm vintage character, black fruit, rich tannic structure, minty freshness, opulent with power and density lengthening and tightening in the mouth”. Merlot 41%, Cabernet Franc 59%. A great description ! Château Haut Bailly said, “freshness, complexity, depth, texture, elegant tannins, powerful, rich wine”. Can anybody doubt that 2020 made some great wines!
SEPTEMBER 2020 (Rain 90.4mm: Sun 227 hours 08 minutes)
The ripening of the Red grapes intensified. The first 14 days were hot and perfect picking weather for the white. Radiant sun and fresh nights – ideal! The 14th reached 35.9° Nights were wonderfully cool the first 10 days for slow ripening, synthesis of anthocyanins and retention of crisp, fresh acidity. After 20th temperatures went down dramatically and record daytime lows were registered on 26th and 27th.
In Pauillac the maximum temperature on 26th was 12.3°C. It is the first time since 1958 that the first half of September has been so dry. Berries shrivelled on water-stressed soils and those who did not enjoy the August storms. Here there was major crop loss. Until this point all grapes were in perfect condition. From 16th frequent rain set in and continued through October. The cumulative rainfall was well over average.
Rainstorms and temperature drop after 20th prevented any stress blocking. Early September had also been windy as well as warm and we had rapid technological maturation of the Merlot. Colour synthesis was excellent, and the grapes kept fine acidities and accumulated high sugar content. There was a fast degradation of Malic acid. Despite all this, sugar content on average was lower than 2019, but with large variations depending on who had had the August rains or not? Skins remained thick. Phenolic and aromatic ripeness was not yet fully attained for the Cabernet. We had to wait until 20th for fully ripe fruit aromas.
The Red wine harvesting began at the end of the first week of September and lasted up to three weeks. At Château Margaux from 10th – 30th. At Château Lafite from 9th – 29th and the fermentation galloped. Château Mouton Rothschild said, “Perfect berries, sanitation perfect, historically precocious, 7th – 14th perfect weather. Vintage 7th – 24th with exceptionally long wines”. At Château Cheval Blanc the vintage lasted from 3rd – 23rd with 9 days over 30°C. Cabernet grapes remained very small despite the late summer rains but were as sweet as 2019.
Despite the rapid degradation there was more malic acid than in 2011 and 2019. We have rarely seen such a high concentration of tannins and anthocyanins, giving deep purple colours. VERY gentle extraction was needed to avoid hardness and resulted in a splendiferous tannic structure. The Cabernets were picked without delay after the Merlots during the last 10 days of September. The grapes were among the smallest on record despite the late summer rainfall but were as sweet as 2019. Complex aromas of red fruit are distinctly noticeable in fully ripe grapes.
Do not be tempted to compare 2020 to 2011, because although the phonological development was similar, the analytical and sensory characteristics of the grapes are quite dissimilar.
Yields were small. Château Margaux said, “1.6 bunches per vine instead of 2. 36 hectolitres/hectare”. Montrose said they had 4 clusters per vine instead of the usual six. They said their wines had the aromatic and structural profile of 2019 and the acidity and balance of 2016. A perfect reflection of their terroir. Cos d’Estournel made 39 hL/hA.
CRITERIA 4 & 5. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).
Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.
PERFECTLY FULFILLED FOR MERLOT
ONLY PARTIALLY FULFILLED FOR CABERNET AND PETIT VERDOT. The late summer weather and August showers helped Cabernet to continue ripening, but rainfall in September required the latest ripening plots to be harvested before optimum maturity.
OCTOBER 2020 (Rain 179.3mm: Sun 81 hours 32 minutes)
A horrible month, both very wet and extremely gloomy. Fortunately, almost all red grapes had been picked by end September, including the Petit Verdot, although the latest ripening Cabernet and Petit Verdot never reached optimum ripeness. Those who had not finished did so as quickly as possible, but the power had gone out of the sun, it rained frequently, and spots of rot were appearing. Château Lascombes, a huge château, finished at high speed on 3rd. Nothing ripened any more than it had by the end of September, so nothing was to be gained by being brave. None the less it should be noted that there was very little rot right to the end.
NOVEMBER 2020 (rain 16.9mm: Sun 166 hours 48 minutes)
A beautiful month, dry and sunny, but the only people that I can find who were still harvesting were Château Suduiraut who harvested until 5th with 4 “tris”. They took a huge risk and waited through the rains to do their 4th "tri" from 2nd – 5th having started on the 16th of September. It just goes to prove that if you have the money you can afford to take the risk! They made 8.5 hL/hA from 100% Semillon. The wine has 14° abv, 3.5 acidity and 137 grams/litre of sugar. The risk would seem to have paid off.
Also Read: Bordeaux Vintage 2016: Part Two- Weather
SWEET BOTRYTISED WINES
See November, but also here. Nothing could be better than a personal message from Sandrine Garbay, the winemaker at Château d’Yquem.
“An absolute record early vintage for us as we started picking for “Y” on 13th September. Wines ‘très beau’ with hugely different varietal expressions depending upon soils. Excellent structure: we expect a particularly good 2020. September weather was very clement and above all very dry. For our Château d’Yquem we picked a first “tri” from 14-18 September. These were mainly shrivelled (not botrytised) grapes, but with a sugar content of 21° (ideal). Ripe and expressive fruit notes. A second 'tri' 21-23 and 30 September with some botrytised grapes. The rain stopped picking for 10 days but allowed a rapid development of botrytis. An excellent drying wind 9-10 October allowed picking to start again from 12th October and to continue, except under heavy rain on 13th. The heart of the vintage was picked the weekend of 16-18 October and 19th under ideal conditions. Wind got up the morning of 18th and allowed a complete picking of our finest parcels with plenty of noble rot. It rained on the evening of 19th and 20th. Fortunately, the wind got up again early on 21st and dried the grapes very rapidly, allowing us to pick the last fine quality grapes on 21st and 22nd. 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”.
For Château Suduiraut see November
At this stage perhaps we should be asking ourselves about these 5 criteria and whether all five are really absolutely essential for great wine. There is no shadow of doubt that some great wines were made in 2020 and there is also no doubt that all five criteria were not fully fulfilled. Perhaps, in the final analysis we should look at the wines themselves rather than the criteria.
Contd to Part 3 where I discuss Structure….
John Salvi Master of Wine
Weather Statistics 2019-20