Bordeaux 2020: Saving the Best for Last


Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Pessac-Léognan & Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites

Two thousand-twenty is an incredibly exciting vintage for Bordeaux. After having tasted more than 800 wines for this report, my conclusion is that 2020 is by far the most consistent of the three vintages in Bordeaux’s so-called trilogy spanning 2018 through 2020. It is a year brimming with phenomenal wines at all levels, from the big names down to bottles the average consumer can still afford to purchase by the case.

On many an evening during the trip for this report I was quite simply astonished when I reflected on what I had tasted throughout the day. Some of that was surprising because 2020 has always been a unique vintage that began its life during a very strange time in the history of the world. The critical summer ripening period and the harvest took place at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. There were none of the typical on-the-ground reports from visitors watching events unfold. In speaking with many producers, I got the impression they rather enjoyed the calm of a harvest without distractions, even with the challenges of having to manage crews during the pandemic. By the time spring came around, it was clear that en primeur tastings would once again have to be remote. The Bordeaux machine turned on the gears quickly. With the experience of the previous year, samples were dutifully shipped to all corners of the world. A few reference-point châteaux did not send samples, which created several blind spots for those of us tasting the wines from home, meaning the vast majority of reviewers. For all of these reasons, I was not expecting to see such a high level of quality across the board, but in the end, 2020 has turned out to be an exceptional vintage.

The very modest entrance at Petrus, Pomerol.

The 2020 Growing Season & Wines

Readers who want to revisit the details of the growing season will find plenty of information in my article 2020 Bordeaux En Primeur: Almost Back to Normal and Neal Martin’s articles Vingt-Vingt Vins: Bordeaux 2020 and Thrice Is Nice: Bordeaux 2020 in Bottle. In short, 2020 was another warm and very dry year for Bordeaux, but without the excesses of the previous vintages (most notably the heat of 2018), generally well-timed episodes of rain and no significant shock events, except isolated hail. There was some rain in early summer, but mildew was much more modest than in 2018. June and July turned exceptionally warm and dry, with elevated temperatures and essentially no rain for 54-55 days between mid-June and mid-August. Rain arrived around August 9, more in the northern Médoc, less to the south and over in the Right Bank. A number of estates on the Left Bank reported dehydration on the vine for Cabernet Sauvignon because of intense drying winds, which in turn led to smaller berries and lower juice yields. Most notably, cool evenings during the last phase of ripening seems to have helped the wines preserve a measure of freshness.

In tasting, the 2020s marry the richness of fruit with tension and energy. It’s that interplay that makes so many wines exciting. In some places, alcohols are down, which shifts them into more classic proportions, the likes of which we have not seen in years. If forced to choose, I might give the Right Bank a bit of the edge, as so many wines are truly magnificent. On the Left Bank, the personality of the year is more heterogeneous; some wines are quite elegant, and others are bruisers, as described below and in the tasting notes.

Sara Lecompte Cuvelier and her team turned out a gorgeous set of 2020s at the family’s Léoville-Poyferré and Le Crock estates in Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe respectively.


The 2020 Saint-Estèphes are especially fine. It’s a magical vintage for this appellation in the northern Médoc. The wines are not only compelling, but also archetypes. The power of Montrose, the classicism of Calon-Ségur, the elegance of Lafon-Rochet, the sensuality of Cos d’Estournel. It’s all there. In spades. Meyney, Phélan Ségur and Lilian Ladouys are some of the wines that offer superb quality and value.


This year I was deeply impressed with the wines from the Mouton-Rothschild stable. The 2020 Mouton is fabulous, but that is true of every wine through to d'Armailhac. Pichon Baron is also a standout. Some wines are quite reticent, though, and harder to read. These include Pichon Comtesse, Lynch-Bages, Lafite-Rothschild and Pontet-Canet, both of which are very structured and closed at this stage. Except for Pichon Comtesse, these are wines that are generally extremely silky and refined. In 2020, though, they have added a feeling of tannic intensity (likely from concentration in the Cabernet) that will require time to soften. Haut-Bages Libéral is the under-the-radar Sleeper. Note: Latour preferred to show their bottled 2020s at a later date. As is the custom at Latour, the wines will not be released for several years.


Saint-Julien is a crown jewel whose only problem is that it is a small appellation. The 2020 is a regal Léoville Las Cases that is shaping up to be iconic. Léoville-Poyferré is done in a more immediate style but with more finesse than in the past, as has been the norm for several years. I also find Beychevelle compelling. It dances the line between flamboyance and being too much, with just enough balance to keep it from going over the top. The two most surprising wines in Saint-Julien are Lagrange and Talbot, both of which are especially noteworthy in 2020. I also adore the classicism of Léoville Barton. You get the idea. Note: Bruno Borie preferred to show his bottled 2020s at a later date.


Margaux is another sweet spot in 2020. If that sounds like a theme, that’s because it is. The Margaux Grand Vin is epic. It is a towering achievement from Estate Manager Philippe Bascaules. If anything, I may be underestimating it. Palmer is off the charts. The wines now spend their second year of wood in cask rather than barrique, which has introduced an element of strictness that is such a complement to the opulence that comes so easily here. Giscours is on a roll. Gonzague Lurton’s wines at Durfort-Vivens are rich, modern-day Margaux. Cantenac Brown is especially fine, while Malescot Saint Exupéry deserves greater acclaim.


Readers will find a significant number of compelling wines from Pessac and Léognan. Starting with Pessac, Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Pape-Clément are both truly exceptional. Estate Director Guillaume Pouthier has been refining his approach at Les Carmes for many years. The 2020 represents the culmination of that work. At Pape Clément, a move towards less extraction and more elegance resulted in a wine of breathtaking beauty. The two wines from Couhins, an under the radar property that belongs to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), are among the positive surprises of the year.

Unfortunately, I was not able to taste Haut-Brion and La Mission because of a scheduling error.

Moving over to Léognan, where the wines are generally more finessed, Haut-Bailly is a model of elegance. At Smith Haut-Lafitte the wines tend to show greater richness. Here, too, some of the excesses in winemaking of the past are, thankfully, of the past. At Smith, the reds and whites are notable. It’s a terrific vintage for proprietors Florence and Daniel Cathiard and the winemaking team led by Fabien Tietjen.

Some of the most memorable Saint-Émilions of 2020. Following these wines over several days was incredibly instructive.


Saint-Émilion is one of the sweet spots of 2020. I don’t really even know where to begin, as there are so many memorable wines. Let’s start with Canon, which is truly epic. Readers will find a Saint-Émilion that captures all the best the vintage has to offer, framed of course by the sizzling tension and minerality that is such a signature here. It’s a brilliant effort from Technical Director Nicolas Audebert and his team. Pavie Macquin is truly sublime in the way it captures the natural flamboyance that is typical, along with an added kick of vibrancy to balance that richness. Ausone and Cheval Blanc show the majesty of Cabernet Franc. Both wines are hauntingly beautiful. The 2020 is the finest Bélair-Monange yet from the Moueix family, as it avoids the super-ripe quality of most years. Beau-Séjour-Bécot is especially fine. I love the vertical classicism of Le Prieuré, La Gaffelière and Larcis Ducasse, wines that show a stricter side of Saint-Émilion. And that’s just for starters. At a more modest level, Croix-Canon, the second wine of Canon, is ridiculously good. Note: Both the Perse and DeBoüard families preferred to show their bottled 2020s in 2023, so they are missing from this report.


Three wines in Pomerol took my breath away: Le Pin, Petrus and Vieux-Château-Certan, all of which stand out for their magnificent balance and complete beauty. The rest of the wines aren’t too far behind. Picking favorites is next to impossible in a vintage that yielded many memorable wines. Among the lesser-known names, I have long admired Bourgneuf, so that is not exactly new, but the wine is very good again. Le Bon Pasteur is one of the most improved wines in Pomerol, as recent years show less of the pushed approach to extraction than was once the norm.

A stunning collection of 2020s from Noëmie and Constance Durantou at L'Eglise Clinet. The Pomerols are superb, but the rest of the range is just as deserving of attention.


Readers will find a bevy of compelling wines from satellite appellations ranging from Haut-Médoc, to Fronsac to Côtes de Bordeaux. It’s no secret that there are at least two different economic realities in Bordeaux – the world of the elite, fancy châteaux and the world of properties struggling to get by. In the case of the latter, the main objective is to control production costs. That means budgets for farming are tight. In many cases, these wines are not aged in oak, but in steel tanks, with submerged oak staves to add flavor and some structure. Last year I wrote that many lower and mid-tier 2019s had not turned out as well as expected. I suspect time exposed the year's shortcomings and the lack of financial means to deal with those challenges. The 2020s are a different story altogether. Of course, there is some variability – there always is – but I get the impression of a year much more forgiving for châteaux that can use a little help from Mother Nature.

Dry Whites & Sauternes

With a few exceptions, the 2020 dry whites are less interesting from bottle than they were en primeur. Finding a great 2020 red is easy, but the whites require greater selection. So far, I have only tasted some Sauternes, so I don’t have a complete view of the vintage. The Sauternes I have tasted point to a vintage of mid-weight structure, with strong aromatic presence and fine balance but only modest richness.

Putting 2020 Into Context…

Tasting the new, young vintage in Bordeaux is always a challenge. Invariably, one looks to other recent years that might provide comparisons. That’s not so easy to do with 2020, but the closest vintage to 2020 in terms of the weather and the style of the wines is 2005. In many ways, 2020 is a modern-day version of 2005. That may sound like a silly comparison for vintages that are just 15 years apart. The reality is that so many things have changed in Bordeaux in that relatively short period of time, from the weather, which is now dominated by warm years, to vineyard and cellar practices, many of which have evolved radically. A number of châteaux have since inaugurated brand new, gleaming winemaking facilities decked out with the latest equipment. Both vintages are characterized by warm and very dry weather that is reflected in wines that offer a similar balance of ripeness and structural energy.

What about 2009 and 2010? Here we venture into another area, a fascinating conversation of how much of a vintage is determined by the weather and how much is set by other factors, such as the prevailing style preferences of a specific era. So, let me cut to the chase. Two thousand-twenty is a better vintage than either 2009 or 2010, not because of meteorological conditions per se, but because farming and winemaking approaches have advanced so meaningfully since then.

Managing Director Thomas Duroux in his new cellar at Palmer. Both the Grand Vin and Alter Ego now spend the second year of élevage in oak in cask.

There is one other factor, and it is a big one. And that is the influence Robert Parker exerted on how wines were made, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. Let me be clear that I am not faulting or criticizing anyone. But it is a matter of fact that back in the day proprietors would take wines with high Parker scores and give them to their winemakers with the instructions to make similar wines.

I don’t blame proprietors for this. Wineries are businesses, and owners prefer to run successful enterprises. More importantly, I don’t blame Robert Parker for the standardization of wines in Bordeaux (and other regions) that took place during his peak. Yes, Parker often liked big, rich wines. But he didn’t ONLY like those wines. The idea that Parker is identified so strongly with one style of wine is a shame. But it is a misperception he never cared to address or correct. Many people say they don’t care what people think about them, but most of us do care what others think of us. Deeply. Bob is one of the few people I have ever met who truly does not care what anyone else thinks about him. The reality is that Bob’s tastes and preferences were much more varied than most people realize or give him credit for. I remember going to Bob’s house and seeing a kitchen counter full of Bruno Giacosa Red Label Barolos and Barbarescos lined up for us to drink. I learned about so many old-school Napa Valley producers from Bob and his books, producers like Randy Dunn and Philip Togni, neither of whom ever made a “Parkerized” wine. But that label remains.

Fast forward to the present. It’s a different world. Young winemakers are exposed to more wines from all over the world than the previous generation. “The idea of what constitutes ideal ripeness has changed,” Michel Rolland artfully explained when I asked him about the difference between 2005 and today as part of my research for my retrospective on the 2005s. Extractions are much gentler. The influence of oak has come down materially. Not only do winemakers use less new oak, but coopers have modified toast levels so that today’s ‘medium-toast’ barrel is gentler than the ‘medium-toast’ barrel of 10-15 years ago. Many winemakers are experimenting with alternative format aging vessels, from terracotta to large format oak. And, of course, there is all the work in the vineyards, the most important part of it all, where sustainability and contemporary concepts of balance are very different from those of the past. Last but not least, winemakers no longer feel the pressure to make wines in a certain style.

In short, 2020 is a great modern-day Bordeaux vintage. From the standpoint of both peaks and overall consistency, it surpasses 2018 and 2019. Time will tell how it ultimately stacks up to 2016 and 2015. Seen through the lens of other relatively recent important vintages such as 2010, 2009 and 2005, 2020 is far more interesting. The wines are less extracted, more vibrant and, frankly, much more fun to drink.

I tasted all of the wines in this report during a visit to Bordeaux in December 2022, followed by several extensive group tastings in my office in New York in the weeks that followed.  

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