June 10: 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
The intelligent comments above made by the Bordeaux University of Oenology that I quote, imply that whatever I say would be challenged by some and neither would be wrong. Therefore, what I write here is my personal opinion and neither Gospel nor hearsay about the Vintage of 2020.
And what a year it was too! Covid has turned the world upside down-and the wine-world too, what with Lockdown, lack of sales, lack of labour and finance, hail, frost, mildew, disease, bankruptcy, death and anguish. Yet somehow our vignerons and winemakers have managed not only to make wine, but fine wine. Hardly a single grape was left unpicked, unsorted or uncared for. Wine was made under extreme conditions, and so well made it was that some of it is very fine, even great! We are beginning to talk about a new trilogy of fine vintages- 2018, 2019, 2020. Some growers are saying that 2020 may even prove to be the finest of the three.
Also Read: John Salvi MW revisits Bordeaux 2019 En Primeur
As each year, I must stress the same things. To make fine wine and great wine you need money. Giving each and every vine individual care and attention costs a lot of money and can only be done by those who sell their wine at high prices. Treatments are expensive and those against mildew were both essential and very costly in 2020. To put only 30-40% of the crop into the first wine is an immense sacrifice, and can be done only by the great châteaux. Only 20% of our vignerons can afford to insure against hail. The gap between les petits vins and les grands vins is immense and unacceptable to many. Outside the fortunate few, life as a small vigneron today is an unending struggle and they are to be highly commended for their untiring struggle to survive.
Great Wine an Art
To make wine is farming, to make good wine is good farming; but to make GREAT wine is an art. There are very few great artists, whether painters, sculptors or musicians, and thus equally very few great winemakers and a very limited number of great wines.
The wine of the vintage is both shaped and structured by the weather and the meteorological conditions from budburst to vintage. As we all know, the 3 vital factors are the soil, the weather and the hand of man. We can enrich the soil, feed it, water it (with some restrictions) and correct its mineral content.
Also Read: Book Review: John Salvi MW-The Count of Wine
Man can bring his knowledge, skill and artistry to bear on the management of the vineyard, vinification and maturation, but the weather remains totally beyond our control. It can make or break a vintage without us being able to do anything about it. We have no idea what it will do from one day to the next, and growers live in a state of perpetual hope and fear. Forecasts improve steadily but are still a long way from protecting us from unwelcome surprises, particularly with the chaotic results of global warming and particularly in 2020.
Looking at details
So let us look at the 2020 vintage in detail and month by month to see why it is what it is and why growers are so delighted with the quality of the wine that they have made. Are their claims justified and can 2020 justly take its place beside 2018 and 2019? It is 170 years since the Pope retired into the Vatican and since Bordeaux made the great 1870 Red Wine. How does 2020 measure up?
Also Read: First Look at the 2018 Vintage in Bordeaux
THE FIVE CRITERIA FOR GREAT WINE
The late Denis Dubourdieu, one of the greatest oenologists that Bordeaux has ever produced, and the world authority on Sauvignon and its precursors, formulated a recipe for the production of GREAT wine. This has become not only famous, but the accepted criteria by the Oenology Department of the Bordeaux University. His formula contains 5 criteria that he deemed essential for making truly great wine. 3 out of 5 are enough to make good wine, 4 for making fine wine, but all 5 should be fulfilled to make GREAT wine. These criteria are perhaps Denis’ greatest legacy to the world of wine, but are they fully justified in 2020?
We will see it in the next edition when we will see Weather and Structure in Detail and see how they measure up to the 5-criteria established by Denis Dubourdieu:
1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.
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.
4. 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).
5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.
Also Read: Bordeaux Vintage 2016: Part Two- Weather
Contd. In Part-2.......
John Salvi Master of Wine
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