2020: there is so much I could say about the year itself, most of it revolving around desperation, sunshine, looking into the abyss, golf with Frenchie, Big Phil and Lubes, and – finally – redemption. A proper rollercoaster, which found me in April 2021 tasting cask samples of 2020 Bordeaux in a rather nice garden in Wandsworth.
Said cask samples had been expertly shipped from Bordeaux. The Bordelais had done remote EP tasting already with their 2019s and this time they had the logistics nailed. Though I was never quite sure of the quality of the samples themselves, largely on account of the difference of opinion on the wines that was opening up between me and the critics and pretty much everyone in Bordeaux (though no fisherman will tell you his own fish stink, as they say in Barbados). From the start I thought the vintage over-rated. The UGC tasting of the wines in bottle in late 2022 confirmed my initial appraisal (whereas I’d come away from the same tasting of 2019s a year earlier with a spring in my step and wouldn’t shut up about it for a week or so).
More recently, though, a few bottles have impressed me and the opinions of a clever young MW whose palate I rate (and who is usually on the same page as me) got me wondering if I had got this vintage wrong. So I was looking forward to the Southwold tasting.
Here is what I thought:
This part of the tasting remains arduous simply on account of the number of wines to be tasted, but it gets easier and more pleasurable every year as the foot continues to come off the accelerator in the winery. Sure, there still is a bit of over-ripeness, a bit of over-extraction, but it’s the exception rather than the norm these days. My winners here were a sublimely balanced Canon, a profound Troplong Mondot – the depth to this wine is something else: you can really taste that they have some proper vineyards here – a delightfully complete Belair Monange and, quite obviously, Tertre Rôteboeuf. Surprise showings (i.e. wines that I have not traditionally rated well) were Bellefont Belcier, Canon la Gaffeliere and a supremely tarty Tour St Christophe.
I’ve written this before: outside the top ten wines or so it’s all a bit samey. This was very much the case for me in 2020. Eglise-Clinet is a humdinger, Le Pin and Lafleur ditto, but below this I struggled to find wines of any real depth, class or character. OK, Pétrus and VCC are pretty good, but for the most part I found many of the wines lacking a bit of bounce and a bit of joy – this is a theme that runs throughout the vintage for me. Oh – I rather liked Trotanoy, too. I usually struggle with this one a bit when it’s young.
These ran as per expected for me: Carmes Haut Brion leading the way, closely followed by Smith Haut Lafitte and Domaine de Chevalier. I didn’t score anything else above 16/20. Which is as good a time as any to volunteer my opinion that I do not think 2020 is a great vintage. Because great vintages – 2019, 2016, 2009 – are consistent. Consistent from north to south and left bank to right bank and from top to bottom. This is something that 2020 definitely ain’t.
This is an appellation frequently dominated by the use of some very glossy oak. I barely got this with the 2020s, though it may well be that I was getting a bit overwhelmed by tannin, and increasingly underwhelmed by the tasting. I scored three wines higher than 16: Rauzan Ségla, Brane-Cantenac and Palmer, with Rauzan in front. Ségla – as in the second wine – deserves a mention coming in just a whisker behind these.
This is always the most consistent appellation and this is the case in 2020. Notwithstanding the fact that by this time I was really struggling with the tannic nature of the wines, they are decent. Poyferré, both Bartons, Gloria and St Pierre were my picks along with, surprisingly, Beychevelle, which rarely floats my boat at this sort of tasting.
OK: I’m going to come clean. I really don’t like this vintage as a whole. This is an appellation that I ALWAYS enjoy tasting, no matter how knackered or fed up I am. Yes – there are some very, very good wines but it’s that consistency thing. And that tannin thing. 2020 Pichon Lalande is a seriously good wine but I’ll take the 2019 every day and twice on Sundays. GPL is just perfectly GPL – unforced, complete – but I’ll take the 2019 again. The only 2020 Pauillac that I scored higher than 2019 was Armailhac. And that wine that always tastes wonky? It tasted wonky. Or, as someone much better at this than I am put it: “running its own race”.
Montrose walked this for the group and, going back to it, I may have under-rated it. I missed Calon-Ségur, as I always do. Wine of the appellation for me was Phélan Ségur, likely because it had some joy to it and, by this stage, I needed some joy. And a lager.
The big boys
There is no excuse for wines that cost many thousands of pounds per case to be anything other than excellent, and this is more or less the case in 2020. My pick on the left bank was Latour, closely followed by Mouton. This is normally the other way around. I clearly favoured the right bank, though, if only in terms of sheer numbers consequent to greater consistency. Of the wines not mentioned previously I had Cheval Blanc at the top and – I’m not supposed to say this – Pavie, which stayed cool throughout despite the turbochargers. And anyone who has had mature modern Pavie will know that these boisterous wines soften out into something special.
Firstly: I don’t think that I had this vintage wrong, which is a bit of a disappointment and, secondly: the great triumvirate of 2018, 2019 & 2020 just does not exist.
The great vintages of the past ten years are 2016 & 2019. If they were siblings then 2016 would be the clever one, 2019 the fun one: you’d play chess with 2016, backgammon with 2019 (OK, I’ll give you that backgammon requires brains too but I’m struggling with the analogy). I’m not quite sure what you’d play with 2020. There are no doubt some high peaks of the vintage but (a) the consistency of a great vintage isn’t there and (b) there was not one wine in the line up where I wouldn’t rather drink, taste or own either the counterpart 2016 or 2019. In St Julien you can add 2018 to that.
Time may well prove me wrong on these but, well, the past couple of years, and the last one in particular, has taught me that life is too short.