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Bordeaux 2020: Clay and Limestone as King and Queen of the Vintage
By Panos Kakaviatos
May 25, 2021
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From emotions to geeky delights by way of potential bargains, Bordeaux 2020 from barrel has much to offer.  When assessing barrel samples, more attention is paid to structure and aging capacity: Why spend hard-earned cash for not-so-age-worthy Bordeaux?  Nonetheless, top wines with necessary architecture also can evoke immediate emotional appeal.  These wines, which I call the “Emotions” of the vintage, excite with delight, and you will find more such examples on the Right Bank in 2020.  Others promise to appeal more to your intellect or your inner wine geek.  They may not be as (initially) exciting, but what I call the “Intellect” wines have superb density and quality of tannin to go the distance.  This category features more from the Left Bank in 2020.  Finally, you get many potential deals, especially from the Right Bank in 2020.  

As you can read in my initial review of Bordeaux 2020 in Club Oenologique, the vintage can be fantastic for Merlots, especially from vines grown on cooler limestone and clay soils.  After years in a “modernist wilderness,” with too many wines having excessive oak extraction, overripe fruit, excessive alcohol and too little acidity, wines since 2018 in Saint-Émilion reflect more their soils and terroirs.  In 2020, for the first time in a long while we have a vintage that proclaims “Saint-Émilion,” albeit with (many) other stars from Pomerol, Fronsac and the so-called satellite appellations from the Côtes (Castillon, Bourg, etc.) especially from sites with cool limestones and clays.

On a general level, the Cabernets were not as seamless as the Merlots.  And it is telling that many estates on the Left Bank, known for Cabernet Sauvignon, have higher-than-average proportions of Merlots in their blends.

But 2020 has excellent Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines from the Left Bank.  While some Left Bank wines have that “wow” factor, more command intellectual respect.  Think of a modern version of 1986 or perhaps 2005 for the better wines.  Wine geeks will look forward to long discussions assessing these wines.  Hindsight is … 2020, and perhaps the Left Bank may be under-estimated at this early stage.  They have high tannin levels, but alcohol and acidity is in balance: After cellaring, some will turn out to be sensational.

A Word on 2019 (and Pricing)

Price is key, as well as the exchange rate.  Futures are being released as this text is being published, and I suggest that readers follow Liv-ex for timely price related news.  Members of Liv-ex (The London International Vintners Exchange) get access to the most comprehensive database of real-time transaction prices and receive exclusive market data and insights.

One broker told me that, with a few exceptions, châteaux should have 2019 release prices.  Why?  First off – and especially for the Left Bank – 2019 seems the better vintage, both in terms of quality and economics.  This is true especially for U.S. buyers, as the dollar has weakened and will probably get weaker as trillions get printed under Biden Administration programs.  Purchased for less, 2019 still flies under the radar, as its futures campaign was eclipsed by COVID-19, and is sandwiched between the (more hyped) 2018 and (what may turn out to be more hyped) 2020.  2019 also was superb for many Right Bank estates.

12 Tasting Notes:

Château Canon Premier Grand Cru Classé Saint Emilion:  Here’s a wine that rivals and at least equals the splendid 2019 vintage.  Indeed, a Saint Emilion that got me oohing and ahhing as tasted with director Nicolas Glumineau, and again doing so well in a group tasting at Château Belgrave.  Why?  Such “effortless grace,” tasted on two separate occasions with similar results: Freshness reflecting limestone terroir with peerless refinement on the palate, such airy elegance as well as subtle density and subtle power.  Floral yet brisk, with fabulous balance leading to a sea breeze, saline finish along with more floral aromas.  A blend of 68% Merlot and 32% Cabernet Franc, clocking in at 14.5% alcohol with a pH of 3.53, to age 18 months in 50% new oak, this is a wine to purchase.  97-98+

Château La Fleur Pétrus Pomerol:  This blend of 93% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot indeed communicates emotional excitement, the (sun reflecting) deep gravel successfully conveying ideal ripeness (not too hot) to the fruit, and the underlying clay offering impressive depth and sap.  Aromas are subtle.  More wet stone than anything else.  Some violet.  The palate is veritably suave and even silky in expression, with gorgeous tannins over a deceptively “soft” structure.  The Fleur in La Fleur Pétrus is in focus.  A truly “spherical” wine.  Not sure it’s better than Trotanoy, however, but there is a “wow” factor!  And it seems more suave than the Trotanoy.  97-98+

Château Pontet Canet 5ème Cru Classé Pauillac:  Hats off to pure pencil lead aromas, refined tannins, freshness, and such a delectable and juicy, layered palate!  Un vin bien enrobé … with tobacco leaf and black tea on the long finish, with a hint of what Jean-Claude Berrouet calls “la bonne amertume” and this is a wine to buy without hesitation.  I am hoping that the price will be low, and owner Alfred Tesserson smartly made no second wine.  If your entire vineyard can achieve this caliber of quality, why bother?  Hats off then to Alfred and daughter Justine.  And not just because they provided some incredibly delicious Charolais burgers for lunch in an ambiance still challenged by the pandemic.  Picking lasted from 14-30 September.  The wine blends 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, and 4% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, aging in 50% new oak, 35% concrete amphorae and 15% one-year old oak barrels.  While the estate experienced dramatic losses to mildew in 2018, they fought it off more effectively in 2020.  The importance of having staff available on weekends was again stressed here as it had been by Edouard Moueix in Pomerol.  In any case, about 20 percent less than an average harvest, but not the huge loss of 2018.  The wine gets an easy nod into any Top 15 category for excitement, but also elicits intellectual delight.  96-98

Château Belair Monange Premier Grand Cru Classé Saint Emilion:  While more structured than, say, Château Canon, the tannins display impeccable finesse.  The wine shows impressive density.  However, not as much “sheer excitement” as I had experienced from the 2019 from barrel.  The 2020 wins in terms of density, however, and time in glass brings out aromatics and mid palate sap from this blend of 98% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc.  Tasted at the Moueix offices in Libourne along with some superb Pomerols.  Édouard Moueix says it’s ”far too early” to apply for an A rating, as it’s “only been 13 years” since it was taken over as a Moueix property.  But this estate with vines on both the limestone plateau and on blue clay and limestone is magnificent, bordering Ausone.  The progress over the last decade has been superb.  96-98

Château Larcis Ducasse Premier Grand Cru Classé Saint Emilion:  Like the 2018, this vintage impresses with exemplary density.  Tasted 3 times.  I know that fellow taster Jane Anson finds it very special in 2020, and you get such appealing wet limestone purity from the blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.  Director Nicolas Thienpont says the 2018 is just as dense – a wine I purchased – but lacks the same energy as the 2020, which could explain why many tasters rave about it.  Again, 2020 proves superb for Merlot picked from vines grown on deep clays and limestone, where the nearly 10 hectares of vines grow here.  A very high score, and the price should be competitive.  I will buy this….  96-98

Château Latour à Pomerol, Pomerol:  Another 100% Merlot from vines grown on deep clay.  Subtle aromatics, as if you can “sense” the wet clay overlaid by veritable freshness and dark fruits of blackberry and plum.  A sophisticated wine as the palate exudes subtle density, undeniably present.  One of the more exciting wines of the vintage.  Chocolate finesse on a long finish.  So well balanced!  Ok, you sense some headiness, but the low pH balances overall.  95-97

Château Calon Ségur 3ème Cru Classé Saint Estèphe:  I had not been to this estate since they changed back to hosting tastings in a more classical room, after a brief period when the estate overreacted to its once very classical image.  It is a long story, but suffice to say that this is the best Calon I have had en primeur since about 10 years (I did not taste the 2019, which I understand is even better than 2020).  This wine exudes floral notes, with very fine tannin, precise pencil lead aspects, graphite, and leads to a long finish with lift.  If the 2019 is better, it must be amazing, because while I respect Montrose and Cos d’Estournel in 2020 more on intellect, I embrace Calon with my heart, pardon the pun.  It blends 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, clocking in at 13.8% alcohol: what a pleasant difference when compared to the heavier (and less appealing) 2018 vintage.  Aging in 100% new oak, which is integrating very well.  I came away thinking that I really would like to buy this wine, and you should, too.  95-97

Château Petit Village Pomerol:  Both fresh and dense, with juiciness on the mid palate and an overall supple nature.  And yet the tannins are prominent.  Tasted after Petrus, Petit Village does not suffer too much by comparison, only the tannins are not quite as fine grained, but the price will be far lower, so… The finish has a fresh, mentholated aspect, perhaps reflecting the 32% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 60% Merlot lending juicy succulence.  Picked between 9-23 September, with the trickle of mid-August rain providing needed freshening, the resulting wine shows indeed an exciting nose of mint freshness and ripe fruit and spice.  Half of the harvest went into this first wine, especially from grapes grown on vines with clay soils, yet again showing the success of the cooler sectors in 2020, which better resisted the arid summer.  95-97

Château Fonplegade Grand Cru Classé Saint Emilion:  Blending 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, this estate is both biodynamic and organic for the first time in 2020.  It reflects the limestone plateau (40% of the vineyard) and the clay-limestone slopes, with the barrel sample exuding vivid wet stone nose freshness, bright fruit, fine acidity, elegance and refinement… and a gorgeously long finish.  I cannot recommend enough purchasing this wine, which resembles more a “Premier Grand Cru” category level in terms of quality.  A no-brainer: Buy it!  95-96+

Les Perrières de Lafleur Bordeaux Supérieur:  The best Bordeaux Supérieur of the vintage: As Omri Ram of Château Lafleur remarked, this three-hectare estate reflects “motherfucking limestone!”  Indeed, what fabulous freshness on the nose, exuding wet stone and bright fruit, with depth derived from clays as well.  This is a connoisseur’s wine that has velvet over a trapeze act tightrope.  A very long finish, with gorgeous finesse and tightness.  Introduced in 2018, the wine comes from vines located on the southwestern ridge of the Fronsac plateau.  And you guessed it: With highly calcareous soils ideal for 2020, where the Guinaudeaus wanted to see how the Bouchets would be expressed from the genetic lines of Château Lafleur.  So far, so good, as they make up 71% of the blend and the rest is Merlot, all picked by 19 September for freshness.  Superb wine!  95-96+

Château Bellevue Grand Cru Classé Saint-Émilion:  For what should be under $60, this fabulous wine is superbly succulent and fresh.  Like a “unicorn” with such vivacious energy and juicy density from the 100% Merlots, from vines grown along the upper slopes mainly, but some also on the limestone plateau.  Floral and crisp red fruit matches darker ripe fruit aspects.  It has 14.6% alcohol, but well integrated and balanced.  “An ideal vintage for Merlot,” says Hubert de Boüard.  Absolutely.  Buy this one, too! 95-96

Château Le Rey Les Rocheuses Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux:  One of the many fine properties of Vignobles K, the blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc aging in 40% new oak exudes class, refined tannin and wet stone freshness, coming from the limestone terroir.  Also try Les Argileuses crafted from grapes grown on vines in excellent (blue clay), for only $15 retail.  But I do prefer Les Rocheuses in 2020 for more subtle aspects and more refinement.  This should be about $25 in the U.S.  and for a production of only some 5,000 bottles, worth seeking out!  92-93

You can read my just published Top 50+ wines of Bordeaux 2020 from barrel at wine-chronicles.com.  No ads, no fees charged.  Just my objective and experienced impressions of 2020 Bordeaux: 18 years in a row assessing Bordeaux from barrel, including visits to Bordeaux during our pandemic era.