It was meant to be the year that was going to save us. It was going to be the year of jetpacks, hoverboards and walking on Mars. Of shoes that tied themselves. According to academics, futurists and government agencies, by 2020 we would all be wearing silver spacesuits, carrying disintergrator rays and relying on self-driving cars (well, we almost got that one right). Planet Earth would not exist as we knew it. Optimism was high and nobody could wait to see what the second decade of the 21st century would bring.
But then, reality bit. 2020 was a tumultuous year that saw the onset of a deadly pandemic, widespread protests over systemic racism — and a deeply contentious American election. The US President was aquited of impeachement charges, COVID-19 changed life as we knew it (killing almost 2 million people in the process) and the climate spiralled out of all control. But, despite 2020 not being what was expected, there were a few glimmers of hope. Front line workers risked their lives helping others, people came together to help fight the pandemic and fine wine produced one of its most investable vintages to date.
The Impact of Weather on En Primeur 2020
Yes, 2020 had its ups and downs. The rise of the pandemic during growing season meant that producers had to be ready for every eventuality, while physical distancing measures during harvesting were challenging to say the least. But, like a lot of things that are worth it, the trials of 2020 will perhaps make it one of the best years in history. Especially for wine investors.
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The 2020 harvest experienced extreme conditions that varied considerably around Bordeaux. It was mostly a case of wet spring, followed by a dry, hot summer. This was followed by warm, largely dry conditions at harvest. These conditions propelled many producers to harvest earlier than usual, particularly in the north of France (Champagne harvested in mid-august, the earliest date for many years). However, despite the many challenges the season threw at producers in France, they responded with aplomb. 2020 is being hailed as a “winemaker’s vintage”.
Winemaker’s vintages are the holy grail of the wine world. They need to follow very specific climatic conditions, before they are even harvested and undergo the delicate process that turns them into wine. According to the late oenologist Denis Dubourdieu and decanter.com the five criteria for what makes a great vintage are as follows:
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.
This has been the pattern with great vintages such as 2016, 2018 and 2019. The general feeling is that as 2020 was characterised by an early harvest, it will be one of the best in a long time.
The En Primeur 2020 Tasting
En primeur tastings in 2020 (so the 2019 vintage) were very different than in previous years. For the first time ever, they did not take place physically – COVID only having just come onto the scene.
Thus, the notoriously traditional UGCB (Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux) made the unprecedented decision to move 2021s EP week back by around a month. This, they thought, would make sure that lockdown requirements were well and truly in the past and things could go back to a (new) normal. Unfortunately, they were wrong. President Macron announced the country’s third lockdown on the 17th of March, throwing the UGCB’s plans into turmoil.
So, it was only a few lucky professionals who could gather together to taste the wines. Those that did were mainly European (bar a special few). Wines also benefited from a month extra in barrel, further adding a veil of uncertainty to the tastings. “Nature is teaching us flexibility,” noted one astute winemaker.
But what of the wine itself?
We have already mentioned that 2020 is a winemaker’s vintage. The vintage showed a of “balance of richness and energy that is highly unusual” according to noted wine critic Antonio Galloni. The wines are not consistently amazing across the board but those that are (see below) are fresh, bright, and dazzle with their potential perfection.
Top En Primeur 2020 Wines
At the time of writing, Vindome.net was just ending its very successful inaugural En Primeur campaign. Their top picks of the year are as follows:
Chateau Fombrauge 2020
Château Fombrauge is of course the oldest Château on the right bank, and homes some of the best winemaking terroir there is in France. Despite Fombrauge being a Grand Crus Classé, it got a little left behind in the 20th century. Since it’s take over in 1999 by Bernard Magrez (aided by Michel Rolland), the estate has risen, phoenix like from its ashes, and is today one of the top players in Bordeaux. Magrez has planted the enormous (the second largest on the right bank) 60 hectare vineyard to Château Fombrauge is planted to 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc. The terroir is magnificent: the clay, limestone and sandstone soils are divided up into three sections and have one of the highest elevations (75 metres) of the region. Harvesting is done by hand and vinification is done plot by plot, according to terroir, grape variety and age of vines. Unsurprinsgly this gives the wine a sexy, modern vibe, and something that lovers of old school heavy St. Emilion’s might take time to appreciate. But the scores tell the tale: the past four vintages have scored 95+ with James Suckling calling the 2020 “the best ever”.
Chateau Laroque 2020
Sold to the Beaumartins in 1935 after it had fallen into disrepair, Château Laroque is today one of the finest estates in St. Emilion. After over 60 years spent developing and extending the château’s vineyards, Laroque was finnally awarded the recognition that it (and the Beaumartins) deserved with the château’s promotion to cru classé in the 1996 classification of Saint-Emilion. However, Laroque only really gets interesting for investors post 2015, after the replanted vineyards began giving fruit. This, along with a change in winemaking methods, including biodiverse, orgnic farming, makes Château Laroque the epitome of elegant, classically balanced St. Emilions.
Chateau Lagrange 2020
Château Lagrange’s Third Growth status was once a source of controversy. The massive 280 hectacre estate was hailed throughout the 19th century for its superlative draining system and wines of that era were said to be outstanding. But this is a case where size does matter, and over the next 100 years, plots were sold off (including 32 hectares to Château Ducru Beaucaillou), reducing the estate to the 118 hectares that we know today. It was during these 100 years that the troubles began. Strapped for cash and lacking the necessary know how, the owners began cutting corners. Prices and quality plummeted and had it not been for the arrival of Japanese drink company Suntory in 1983 who knows what the estate’s future would have been? Suntory invested heavily, notably in the winemaking facilities and cellars, and Lagrange has not looked back since. Today the estate produces enviable wines, vinified in temperature-controlled, stainless steel cuvées. 2020s offering is no exception: powerful, creamy and smooth we fully expect this vintage of Château Lagrange to go down in history.
Chateau Pape Clement 2020
Once known for being the summer residence of Popes in the 17th century, Château Pape Clement is today the shining jewel in Bernard Magraz’s portfolio. The estate has one of the oldest histories in Bordeaux – documentation shows vineyards on the property as far back as 1300 and it harvested it 700th vintage in 2006. It is also home to some of the finest terroirs in Bordeaux. Yet, by the mid-20th century the estate was performing sadly under par, despite heavy investment from owner Paul Montagne. Having bought the property in 1939, Montagne began restoring Pape Clement to its former glory. It would take another ten years before any improvement was seen. The estate carried on during the 1960s and 1970s but Montagne’s stroke of genius would be to appoint Magrez as general manager in 1985. He quickly turned Pape Clément’s fortunes around by introducing a more rigorous selection in the vineyards. Magrez also advocated installing stainless steel vats and raising the percentage of new oak casks used in the maturation process. The final stroke of genius was to bring winemaker Michel Rolland on board and today, Magrez, Rolland and Paul Montagne’s son Leo are responsible for one of the most respected Bordeaux fine wines there is today. The proof is in the product: Pape Clement is well used to the very high scores of its 2019 and 2018 vintages, nor is it a stranger to the perfect 100 points.
Chateau Palmer 2020
Château Palmer might “only” be a Third Growth, but if recent vintages are anything to go by, it could easily hold its own among some of the Super Seconds. Palmer’s Grand Vin is without a doubt one of the finest in Margaux. Put simply, it’s a superb wine full of contrast and tannic richness – which translate into excellent ageing ability and complexity. So good were the 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2018 that they all reached iconic 100-point perfection, and we expect more to follow suit. This is no doubt down to Palmer’s oenologist Thomas Duroux, who arrived in 2004 and has systematically set about turning the estate into one of the most enviable in all Medoc. Previously at Tuscany’s famed Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Duroux is young, forward-thinking and extremely talented. He converted 66 hectares of the estate to biodynamics, refusing to use chemicals even when the threat of mildew and possibly botrytis was looming. The proof is in the glass with this producer – excellent scores, superb ageing and very high quality.
If you find this topic interesting, you definitely have to read our article on fine wine critics ratings!