The parts that form this report were being passed digitally, yet calmly around the office, taking form, when Chateau Cheval Blanc, who we had a video call with the evening before, thrust us with full impulse into the new Bordeaux En Primeur campaign on Tuesday morning, with an exceptional price for an exceptional wine. This left us reeling to finalise said report, which as with 2019, was researched in anything but normal conditions.

As with any En Primeur campaign, the 2020 will live or die by the Bordelais’ pricing structure. The 2019 vintage had the potential to be met with an underwhelming response when it released in the grips of a global pandemic. However, the discounts we saw across the board set the 2019 on another course and it will remain long in the memory of collectors as a vintage where quality and affordable pricing collided. Early indicators suggest that the prices seen in the 2019 vintage were not a one-off; prior to their release Chateau Cheval Blanc confirmed that the prices of the 2019s were not a ‘covid price’ but rather an acknowledgement of the macro climate. With the ongoing pandemic their surprise release this week held true to this sentiment with only a modest increase from £2,250 last year to £2,328 in this campaign. If other Chateau follow suit, then a campaign we shall have!

The Growing Season – ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’

If price characterises the velocity of a campaign, its quality is its DNA, it defines it now and forever – so what is it like? We look to the ISVV at the University of Bordeaux when defining the five conditions that must be met for a “great” red Bordeaux vintage. They are: 1) and 2) A temperate Spring to facilitate a quick flowering and fruit-set. 3) A warm and dry July to allow the gradual onset of hydric stress before véraison (when the grapes change colour). 4) Continued warmth and dryness into August and September to allow a prolonged and complete ripeness of each grape variety. 5) Clement weather during the harvest to allow vignerons to choose their ideal picking date without any fear of dilution or rot.

With its mild start to the year, triggering an early bud break and even flowering thanks to a warm and dry month of May, the first two requirements were easily met in 2020. However, from June frequent rainfall introduced a risk of mildew in the vineyards that was reminiscent of those which befell the 2018 vintage. Fortuitously, these considerable reserves of water would prove crucial in preventing a great number of vines from shutting down from hydric stress with the nearly two-month period of drought which began from mid-June, continuing well into August.

Many vineyards, particularly those with a high proportion of clay soils, were able to reach the optimum amount of hydric stress without having their vines shut down entirely to satisfy the third requirement, but this careful balance was heavily dependent upon the terroir, soil type, grape variety, vine age and location of each respective vineyard site. By the 10th of August, a flurry of rain showers swept over the region breaking the prolonged period of drought with a welcome influx of hydration before entering a dry and sunny September, which pushed the grapes into their final period of ripening and fulfilling the fourth requirement. The earlier ripening Merlot benefitted from the superb conditions of an early September harvest.

From mid-September, light rain falls provided a final infusion of freshness to the Cabernet grapes which began their harvest not long after, ensuring that the fifth perquisite was fulfilled for Merlot and the earlier ripening Cabernets. Only those with late ripening plots of Cabernet Sauvignon were left in a rush to bring them in in before the concerning forecast pertaining to storm Alex at the beginning of October.

In review, as with 2018 and 2019, those estates with the best terroirs, well-positioned vineyards and adequate vine age would certainly have met all the requirements to produce a truly “great red wine” in 2020, whereas others may have fallen victim to the possible risks of mildew, excessive hydric stress or slight under ripeness due to the earliness of the vintage and the intense heat present at the onset of véraison. The overall harvesting conditions of 2020 were also perfectly suited for the earlier ripening Merlot grape, while the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon vines picked towards the end of September after hot winds had an evaporative effect on grapes, resulting in unusually small berries with high levels of phenolics and tannin. This translated into wines with deep colours, very concentrated flavours, and abundant, well-ripened, fine-grained tannins.

With respect to the white wines of 2020, the intense heat of the summer was thankfully compensated by the water reserves collected by the soils in Spring, producing dry whites which were less aromatic than in 2019, but with plenty of complexity and vibrant acidity. In order to produce a high calibre of sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac, alternating periods of rainfall are required in order to facilitate the spread of Botrytis or noble rot. Although the grapes had reached a perfect level of ripeness by early September, the crucial rain showers did not arrive until October, which meant that only the most patient and diligent growers were rewarded by the small harvesting window with very little wine produced.

The Wines – ‘Three’s my lucky number and fortune comes in threes’

The Bordelais are never shy in announcing the triumph of their newest vintage to the world and 2020 is no exception with many laying claims that it completes a rare trilogy of three successive vintages which can be considered great successes, with 1988, 1989 and 1990 being the only other that is called to mind. Unlike the last vintage, our team thankfully did have the opportunity to taste a considerable amount of 2020 samples thanks to the painstaking organisation of the chateaux and merchants in Bordeaux. While this provided an invaluable opportunity for us to form an impression about most of the major estates and appellations, the uncertainty of sending fragile tank samples around the world still left us with a fair number of question marks, which had to be chalked up to the transit.

We were able to take away several definitive conclusions about the wines of the vintage and the first is that while 2020 may prove to be on par in quality with the two previous exceptional vintages, stylistically it is a world apart from either 2018 or 2019, at least in this very adolescent stage. The most successful wines of the vintage have succeeded in harnessing the power and opulence of the 2018 vintage with the structure and elegance of the 2019s. As yet another solar vintage, it is no surprise to find plenty of ripe (but not overly so) fruit, but as the harvest took place several weeks earlier than in 18 or 19 for some estates, alcohol levels are modest in 2020, sometimes as much as a full degree percent less than in 2018. There is a pronounced tannic structure in most wines, but the tannins are ripe and polished, providing a luxurious mouthfeel in the wines.

Expectations by Appellation – ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’

With the incredible investment and advancements in technology that so many of the top estates have had access to over the last decade in Bordeaux, there has been an increased consistency across vintages, which makes it difficult to make blanket declarations such as, “It’s a right bank vintage” as the standout estates may transcend the overall success of their respective appellations. In 2020, it was those with a high proportion of clay and limestone soils who fared the best thanks to their ability to retain crucial water reserves during the summer drought. That would include estates situated on the vaunted plateaus of Pomerol and St-Emilion as well as those in the Medoc with clay soils such as within St-Estephe, for example. Meanwhile in Margaux where there is a higher proportion of gravel soils, wines were less consistent and also exhibited hotter characteristics with less of the delicate perfume that the wines are admired for. Because of the great success of the Merlot this vintage, some recalled 1998 when the Right Bank and Pessac-Leognan produced some truly exceptional wines, but the Left Bank was somewhat less reliable.

From our own tasting of St. Emilion, unsurprisingly we found Chateau Canon to be spectacular and we were also seriously impressed by the balance and freshness in its stablemate Berliquet. La Gaffeliere and La Mondotte once again joined our list of Right Bank favourites, while both Haut Bailly and Smith Haut Lafitte wow-ed us when moving over to Pessac-Leognan. We found much to admire from the humble Haut-Medoc and Moulis appellations, particularly with Senejac, Cantemerle, Poujeaux and La Lagune, which were all truly excellent. From Margaux, Brane Cantenac have once again produced a tremendous wine, while Chateau d’Issan demonstrates the fantastic potential in 2020 for estates with predominantly clay soils. St. Julien was as dependable as ever with Beychevelle, Leoville Poyferre and Leoville Barton also rising to the top. There is also plenty to admire in the wines from St. Estephe in 2020, but special mention must go to Phelan Segur who have quite possibly produced their best wine to date.

Finally, the wines of Pauillac are well suited for the powerful yet elegant nature of the 2020 vintage, inspiring greatness from both Pichons as well as one of the finest vintages of Duhart Milon we have ever encountered. While we have not had the opportunity to taste everything that we might have if we had been able to travel to Bordeaux in person, we feel confident that we can confirm that 2020 is worthy of its title as a third truly excellent vintage for the red wines of Bordeaux.

From the Critics – ‘I work hard every day of my life’

While we are still awaiting official reports from most publications, one year of experience in organising samples and tastings during pandemic conditions has meant a far more organised and cohesive distribution to both major international critics as well as merchants around the world. James Suckling has made some confident and early praise for the vintage in stating, “After tasting more than 400-barrel samples from the 2020 vintage, I can 100% confirm that it is another great year for Bordeaux. The 2020 vintage marks a rare trilogy of excellent vintages that produced wines at the same or very close quality level across the board from great named chateaux to lesser-known estates,” he continues, “90% of the wines I have reviewed show an outstanding quality level from first growths to Petit Chateaux, even from simple appellations such as Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superior.” Meanwhile Jancis Robinson and her team at the Purple Pages have decreed, “On the basis of these cask samples, some stunning wines have been produced in 2020. On the Left Bank, they tend to be made by producers who can afford to be extremely selective in their final blends. There is a host of very successful wines on the Merlot-dominated Right Bank too.” Specifically of the wines of St. Emilion, Robinson finds that, “I have found myself falling back in love with St-Émilion” thanks to a continuing trend where “wines are so much fresher and more expressive than they used to be.” Jane Anson, who is living in Bordeaux can give a first-hand view of the vintage and even in these times can be there to taste at the Chateau. Anson reporting for Decanter says, ‘I would say 2018 is the most exuberant, 2020 the most structured and concentrated, while 2019 combines both and for me is the strongest of the three – certainly the most consistent.’ She also points out that ‘Yields overall were around 25% lower than in 2019, particularly with Cabernet Sauvignon but also Cabernet Franc in many cases.’ We would certainly expect some high praise for the vintage from other publications over the next few weeks, although it may not be as unanimous across the board as with 2019.

Market Conditions – ‘The show must go on’

An important facet the UK wine market must tend with is the impact FX rates has on pricing. Historically the UK has enjoyed a favourable exchange rate to the Euro but a string of macro events has eroded the buying power of GBP. As such, now more than ever, the GBP/EUR rate is an important element of an En Primeur campaign. At the start of the 2018 releases, the GBP/EUR rate was at 1.16, and then at 1.12 when the 2019 campaign commenced. The current FX rate is back to 2018 prices sitting at 1.17 at the time of writing. This movement since the 2019 offerings will marginally counterbalance any price increases we see in the upcoming releases. Furthermore, the Bordeaux market as a whole has seen a renaissance after a flatter period in Q3 of 2019 to the end of Q2 2020. Since then the Bordeaux 500 index from Liv-ex has risen 6.41%! This elevated interest in the region will likely continue in 2021 with another good campaign. The early scores seem similar to those seen in the 2019 vintage which left plenty on the table for collectors who secured their allocations early. When looking at the average release prices of the four First Growths who release En Primeur, namely Haut Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild and comparing them with their average score from James Suckling (the only major critic to publish scores from the 2020 campaign to date) the value from the 2019 and subsequently the 2020, is clear.

VintageAVG JSAVG Rel

Outside of the 2019, the only vintages that come within 1 point of the 2020 vintage are 2018 and 2016 (the latter being the only one to better the 2020). The average First Growth release price from these two vintages was £5,272, whereas the average release price of the 2019 vintage was just £4,110! A similar pricing structure this year could present a buying opportunity like the 2019 vintage and one we are unlikely to see again! What is perhaps most striking from the table is that with the same average scores, the 2020 could release as high as 28.27% above the 2018 vintage and still be an attractive proposition, in line with the  2016 and 2018 releases. A graphical representation of the astonishing value proposition found in the 2019 and likely the 2020 can be seen below:

Price – ‘Won’t find me practicing what I’m preaching’

With yields down on average 25% in 2020 and the Bordelais well-knowing they left money on the table in 2019, along with the recent reports of frost destruction, we feared increases, that would return to those of 2018 with the realism of 2019 in the rear-view mirror. Particularly given that Bordeaux winemakers are still assessing the damage caused in 2021. Reports are that Margaux, southern Graves and parts of St. Emilion suffered considerably. The situation is better (though far from perfect) in Pauillac and St-Estèphe, where weather conditions are generally milder due to the proximity to the estuary. However, in recent weeks sentiment has changed, with many suggesting pricing close to 2019, which we had quietly hoped this would manifest. Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, is a colossus and their statement is meaningful. We expect many to follow, especially over the next three weeks and this promises much. However, as was the case in 2019, we expect estates to push the envelope of price as the campaign reaches its climax, with competition between neighbours. The smart money should take advantage early on, as was the case in 2019.

In Conclusion – ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.’

The quality of the great estates in this vintage is undeniable, particularly in the aforementioned appellations. It is not a homogenous catch-all vintage, the troughs lower than 2016 and 2019, yet peaks, the peaks aided by ‘magic Merlot’ in Pessac and the Right Bank, ‘Coadjuting clay’ and the prestigious Pauillac and St.Estephe, are every bit as high –  dare we say higher in many places. It is not a homogenous vintage like 2015 or 2010, it is a stock pickers vintage and the road map is clear. A vintage where one can take full advantage at the pinnacle, which towers, rubbing shoulders with the other great vintages. If other top estates release in accordance with Cheval Blanc, at 2019 prices, or there abouts, it will make many wines too good to miss for collectors and investors. These two vintages were not made or released to a world capable of free movement, rather in lockdown and isolation. Yet fate has forged two vintages in the crucible of this backdrop that are utterly superb in their quintessence and unicorns in price. Add 2018 to this and collectors will have immense pleasure owning this trilogy, perhaps unmatched in the history of Bordeaux.