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Bordeaux 2020 en primeur by appellation: Saint-Estèphe

In the first of his detailed appellation reports on the Bordeaux 2020 vintage, Colin Hay shares his tasting notes and scores of the standout wines from Saint-Estèphe.

As I sought to make clear in my overview of Bordeaux 2020, this is – contrary to some opinion, and for me at least – a truly fantastic vintage in the northern Médoc.

It is not a Merlot vintage, even though Merlot has typically performed fantastically well; it is not a right-bank vintage, even though many of the best wines of the vintage are from Pomerol and St Emilion; and neither is it a vintage in which only the hallowed river-front terroirs of St Julien and Pauillac have excelled on the left-bank.

Yet when the first samples arrived from St Estèphe, I was not sure what to expect. My anxiety was that in the long (if precocious) hot summer of 2020, the appellation’s somewhat cooler water-retaining clay soils would have continued to allow the production of sugar when other vineyards would have succumbed to hydric stress and shut down, leading once more to the high alcohol of 2018 and, (if to a marginally lesser extent) 2019.

Those anxieties were thankfully misplaced. For what is refreshing (literally as well as figuratively) about 2020 in the northern Médoc is the lower alcohol levels. The result is wines that feel more elegant, brighter, fresher, more balanced, less obviously powerful and yet no less dense, concentrated or intense. Of the triptych of recent strong vintages in the Northern Médoc, 2020 is for my palate certainly the strongest.

What is perhaps most startling about these wines taken as a whole is their wonderfully compact yet graceful and open texture. They are also typically characterised by the sense of tension that comes from the austerity of their terroir combined with the natural brightness and energy of the vintage.

These wines are, as the French would say, croquant – with a vibrant, pure, tactile, crunchy fruit. They are spicy and herby too, and with the saline/iodine minerality that comes from their proximity to the Atlantic, they are almost the Médocain equivalent of Islay single malts. And, perhaps most remarkably of all, in this vintage at least, the very best of them are sinuous and luminous. Those are not adjectives one typically associates with St Estèphe.

Montrose is for me a complete revelation, simply as good a Médocain en primeur sample as I can recall tasting. It is on a par with Lafite and Latour 2016, with the same wondrous layered complexity. The quality of the tannins is breath-taking and it is a wine that is undoubtedly of 1st growth quality. It has elegance, refinement, depth and concentration – and an almost unprecedented beauty on the nose and the palate that shocked me. I simply had no idea that Montrose could produce a wine so beautiful at this stage.

Cos d’Estournel is scarcely less impressive. With this vintage it seems to have rediscovered and reaffirmed its identity; it is a wine of fantastic finesse and elegance, very cleverly and carefully balanced, very natural but sleek and stylish.

Calon-Ségur is very accomplished too, with a lovely sense of energy. It is very authentic to the vintage and is a wine that really benefits from the lower alcohol.

Lafon Rochet is polished and suave. Under the guiding influence of Basile Tesseron and with Olivier Berrouet as consultant, it seems to have shed its long-standing and almost archetypal four-square rusticity in favour of an acrobatic dynamism. Although it still retains just a trace of sombre austerity, that only serves to add to the sense of tension whilst bringing with it a natural calm sense of authority.

Phelan-Ségur, too, has been on a marked and now steeply ascending upward curve, the 2020 simply the best I can recall tasting (though the excellent 2019 runs it close).

Even if the rest of the wines of the appellation are not quite at the same level, with the marked saline and ferrous minerality at times in danger of overpowering the delicate bright fresh fruit, there undoubtedly great value picks from, amongst others, Capbern, Meyney, and Tronquoy-Lalande.

Pick of the appellation: Montrose (98-100)

Truly great: Calon-Ségur (95-97)

Cos d’Estournel;(96-98)

Lafon-Rochet (92-94+)

Phelan-Ségur (93-95)

Value picks: Capbern (92-94)

Le Crock (90-92)

La Dame de Montrose (93-95)

Meyney (92-94)

de Pez (90-92)

Tronquoy Lalande (92-94)

Revelatory: La Haye (89-91)


Full tasting notes:

Andron Blanquet (St Estèphe; 52% Merlot; 32% Cabernet Sauvignon; 16% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels, 45% of which are new; pH 3.68; IPT 71; 13.2% alcohol). Quite wild, heathery and herby on the nose with a dark autumnal briary fruit – brambles, wild blackberries, a good trace of graphite and more loamy-earthy undertones. On the palate this is fresh and quite open-textured, with no great density or concentration, but a nice bright crunchy fruit and good length, aided by the slightly crumbly tannins. A nice expression of the vintage, this is very refreshing and I particularly like the little note of fleur de sel on the finish.

Calon-Ségur (St Estèphe; 78% Cabernet Sauvignon; 12% Merlot; 9% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 33 hl/ha; aging for 20 months in 100% new oak barrels; pH 3.85; 13.8% alcohol). Ultra-silky and quite viscous in the glass with a very ill-formed but gloriously bright and vibrant deep purple rim. The nose takes a little time to come together, but it’s definitely worth waiting for. It’s the graphite and floral elements that strike you first – wild meadow spring flowers, pencil shavings and a hint of saffron and then damsons, mulberries and brambles, with a little finely crushed fresh black pepper and a touch of baking spices.

Dense and compact on the palate, with incredibly fine-grained yet notably granular tannins holding the plump, pulpy cherry and blueberry fruit in an almost gravity-defying suspension, this is very precise and focussed, very driven in the sense that it projects itself forward along its graphite-mineral spine rather than outwards, and it has a beautifully gathered and tapered finish. A model of harmony.

Capbern (St Estèphe; 69% Cabernet Sauvignon; 29% Merlot; 1% Cabernet Franc;1% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 33 hl/ha; aging for 18 months in oak barrels, 60% of which are new; pH 3.85; 14.1% alcohol). Dark in hue though translucent at the core and relatively light in extract. This is one of those wines that, although tasted relatively early for me in the en primeur cycle, I’d already heard whispers about. Perhaps they influenced me, but I honestly don’t think so.

This is a great wine – with the most pure and sumptuous Cabernet cassis nose, a touch of (Médocain) blueberries and loads and loads of equally Médocain cedar and, above all, graphite. Soft and supple on the palate, with an impressive amplitude and a lovely gentle but supportive tannic structure; and at ‘just’ 14.1% alcohol it’s so much more balanced than the 2019 (15.1%). This is bound to represent fantastic value. It doesn’t have the depth or concentration, of course, of Calon-Ségur but its cut from the same cloth.

Clauzet (St Estèphe; on a deep gravel and clay terroir; 55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; pH 3.6; 13.5% alcohol). A wine I have admired for a number of years. On the nose, this is aromatically open and expressive with a bright, fresh cassis and plump pulpy plum fruit, redcurrant leaf and loamy-earthy undertones, a little hint of baking spices and a slightly marine saline-iodine minerality that helps place this in St Estèphe. Soft and subtle on the entry, with impressively fine-grained tannins that bring some definition and layering to the mid-palate, even if they will need some time to mellow. The juicy, sappy finish seals the deal. Lots of potential.

Cos d’Estournel (St Estèphe; 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 38% Merlot; a final yield of 39 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 55% of which are new; pH 3.9; IPT 80; 13.46% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. Beautifully purple in the glass, very dark and rich looking, an impression reinforced by the viscous limpidity and the shimmering magenta rim.

This is a wine with extraordinary tension and dynamism, a yin and yang wine in a way. On the nose we have the most fantastically bright and lifted, fresh and crunchy red and black cherry, cherry skin and blueberry fruit, with cedar, graphite, and those archetypal Cos spices – Chinese five spice, star anise, cinnamon, bay, saffron with a touch of hoisin; and that takes one to the slightly ferrous-saline note that, for me, is so characteristic of St Estèphe.

This is a Cos that takes us back to – and deep into – its terroir and I really love that. On the palate, this is zingy yet opulent, fresh and vivid, yet tender and soft and delicate, intensely compact and concentrated and yet with so much energy and natural levity. It is also wonderfully clear and luminous. Overall, this is a wine of great natural clarity, great precision, great freshness, great focus and, above all, great balance. It is not massive, though it is actually more massive in way that it seems; but it has a tender beauty that is very natural and it has the most gorgeous texture.

Cos Labory (St Estèphe; 48% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; aging in oak barrels, 60% of which are new; pH 3.67; IPT 81; 13.3% alcohol). This is quite floral on the nose, with notes of apple blossom, peonies and irises alongside the fresh blueberry and black cherry fruit, with a sweeter note of wild strawberries too; there’s a nice slug of cedar here and a little twist of pepper. On the palate, like its stablemate Andron Blanquet, this is open-textured and quite sinuous, with soft and gentle tannins on the entry; it’s a little sweet but the sweetness feels quite natural, though it does make it difficult to identify this as St Estéphe. This is quite light, delicate even, and it lacks a little mid-palate density, but it’s finely crafted, bright and refreshing.

Le Crock (St Estèphe; Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel). Dark hued and charged with very dark berry and plum fruit with an earthy-gravelly note too and that rich, gamey, slightly ferrous-saline minerality of the appellation. Very lively and engaging, charged with dark fruit – brambles, blackcurrant, black cherries and baked plums – and big, bold and with more density and concentration than either the 2018 or 2019. This is very impressive – it’s always a stylish and refined wine but there is plenty of depth and substance to this too. The tannins, though considerable, are extremely fine-grained and they contribute to the cool and focussed precision of the juicy finale.

La Dame de Montrose (St Estèphe; 44% Cabernet Sauvignon; 49% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; 4% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; pH 3.80; IPT 74; 13.6% alcohol). Tasted at Chateau Montrose. Very much more a second label than a second wine. Darker than Tronquoy Lalande (tasted alongside) and slightly more opaque, with a broader purple/magenta rim. On the nose we have violet-coated black cherries and blueberry, cedar and acacia and graphite by the pencil case full, with a little hint of sesame seed oil and an utterly lovely suggestion of the parfumier’s floral toolbox.

On the palate this has an elegant coolness, an impressive amplitude but just a lovely soft and sinuous mouthfeel that disguises the depth and concentration here (the IPT is higher than the 2019 but you’d never guess). This has a glorious texture from the most gentle extraction. It really could be the grand vin – until you them alongside one another. The finish is wonderfully refreshing, sapid and juicy and has you craving more. La vrai dame de Montrose!

Goulèe (Médoc; the northernmost part of the Médoc; 90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Sauvignon; a final yield of 46 hl/ha; pH 3.94; TIP 65; 13.2% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. Not, of course, from the appellation of St Estèphe at all, but very much cut from the same cloth and produced by the team from Cos d’Estournel. Very pure and crystalline with a fresh and nicely focussed blackcurrant nose, with a touch of raspberry, redcurrant and red and blackcurrant leaf, chervil and sorrel and lemon thyme.

This is soft, gentle and very elegant on the attack, with perhaps a slightly less fresh and direct mid-palate as the nose prepares you for; it’s also a little broader and more open-knit than I was anticipating and it loses just a little bit of its focus and precision with that. Very fruit-forwarded, not especially complex, but a delightful expression of the vintage with that signature marine salt and pepper of the extreme north of the Médoc.

La Haye (St Estèphe; from a deep gravel and clay terroir; 59% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; aging in oak barrels, 46% of which are new; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; pH 3.6; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted just after its stablemate Clauzet, this is a little sweeter on the nose, the fruit even more lifted and vertical, accentuating the freshness of the cassis and the leafiness of this.

That works well, as the extra acidity balances the additional sweetness. On the entry this has a lovely lithe and dynamically sinuous quality – it glides over the palate in a rather graceful way with the fine-grained tannins helping to pick out the detail. This is a little lighter and more compact, perhaps, than Clauzet and it might drink a little earlier too, but it’s every bit as good and actually seems more fluid and vibrant to me.

Lafon Rochet (St Estèphe; from a vineyard of 40 hectares on deep gravel and gravel over clay; 61% Cabernet Sauvignon; 33% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot; pH 3.68; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris and later from a fresher sample supplied by the Château. This has a very pure cassis fruit on the nose and, indeed, the palate and somehow feels cool and northern – perhaps it’s the little hint of sea-spray, iodine and samphire on the nose.

As ever, this is just a touch austere (the shocking yellow of the Château itself is not really reflected in the personality of the wine other than in the archetypal brightness of the vintage), an impression reinforced for me by the dense and compact mid-palate that is charged with dark cassis and berry fruit, wild herbs, moss, damp earth and heather – with a little hint of walnut and lavender too on the (much better) second sample.

Whilst the first sample was a touch firm, thick and chewy and not perhaps quite as bright as some, the second is a revelation texturally – lithe, acrobatic, bright, vibrant and energetic with the herbal and fruit elements dancing, intermingling and interacting on the palate in a most exciting way. This is very fine and a very authentic and articulate expression of both the vintage and its terroir.

Lilian Ladouys (St Estèphe; 59% Merlot; 37% Cabernet Sauvignon; 3% Petit Verdot; 1% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels, 35% of which are new; a final yield of 44 hl/ha; IPT 74; pH 3.88; 13.44% alcohol). This is quite lifted on the nose, with fresh blackcurrant fruit and a little blackcurrant leaf, a twist of the pencil sharpened and black pen ink.

Fresh and bright on the attack with a pleasant natural sweetness and a natural spring, but the tannins though soft and fine-grained are just a little dry and this finishes a touch vegetal. In a way it reinforces the freshness, but it also exposes the contrast between the sweetness of the entry and the slight greenness of the finale. Not as harmonious as some.

Le Marquis de Calon-Ségur (St Estèphe; 50% Merlot; 49% Cabernet Sauvignon; 1% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 33 hl/ha; aging for 18 months in oak barrels, 30% of which are new; 14.6% alcohol). Perhaps just a shade darker in the glass than Capbern but with a seemingly similarly gentle extraction – so, translucent at the core. It is also perhaps a little more glossy and limpid in the glass (with a higher proportion of Merlot in the blend).

This has a lovely cassis nose, here with cherries and hints of almonds and frangipane, a stony-gravelly minerality and, once again, rods of graphite. Interestingly, I notice the oak a little more than for Capbern, but it’s very nicely integrated. Plush, plump, a little more opulent and a little more open than the firmer, tighter Capbern but similarly impressive. The black cherry fruit is nicely chewy, intermingling well with the tannins to give good length and concentration. An excellent Marquis that is vibrant, fresh and actually very accessible already.

Meyney (St Estèphe; 52% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 13% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 45 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 35% of which are new; 13.5% alcohol). This is now so reliably excellent and, indeed, reliably such a ringer for a (perhaps more rapidly evolving) Montrose (which is, of course, just across the stream that divides the properties).

Beautifully expressive of its prime St Estèphe terroir adjoining the river, this is archetypal Meyney – a touch of tobacco leaf and, indeed, the café it was smoked in (in the days when one could!), a hint of game and charcuterie, some warm baking spices (notably cinnamon), cedar and a touch of graphite, roasted coffee beans and a dark plum and berry fruit. On the palate this is very classical again.

Rich, full, with lovely grip from the tannins and a pronounced ferrous-saline almost briny minerality. My only very slight gripe – and it’s not the only St Estèphe where I have the same very minor quibble – is that it is a little less expressive of the vintage (with all its lift and zingy bright freshness) than is of its appellation and terroir. But there’s no mistaking, this is another great wine from Meyney of classed growth quality.

Montrose (St Estèphe; 71% Cabernet Sauvignon; 23% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; pH 3.86; IPT 80; 13.4% alcohol; just 40% of the production made into the grand vin). Tasted at the Chateau, this has a pronounced radiance to the bright purple rim and is intensely limpid and viscous in the glass, capturing beautifully the late morning sunshine (so tasted in optimal conditions). An utterly profound and beautiful wine.

I would never have guessed that Montrose could produce something of such shimmering elegance and finesse this young. Montrose 2020 has an opulent and bright brilliance on the nose, with radiant black cherry, the parfumier’s intense absolu of violet and essence of rose petal, and then fresh, plump wild blueberries, brambles and mulberries, with hints of wild herbs.

This is remarkably open aromatically and searingly beautiful – so expressive of the singularity of this extraordinary vintage. On the palate, this is incredible. Subtle, cool, elegant, it opens and as it does so unfurls so gently and so languidly, releasing in the process little cedary ripples as it builds graciously in amplitude. This is joyously bright and dynamic with an intensely pixelated and crystalline mid-palate that simply shimmers.

But at the same time, and in a very Montrose-way, it is austere and authoritative, dense, compact and concentrated (the IPT of the 2019 is 72), with incredible layering and staggering detail. A simply extraordinary wine that challenges the senses and that has the most savoury, salivating and sappy of finishes. A study in harmony, this is of clear 1st growth quality. I didn’t think Montrose could bring a tear to my eye, certainly not en primeur; this does.

Ormes de Pez (St Estèphe; 54% Merlot; 38% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4% Cabernet Franc; 4% Petit Verdot; aging in oak barrels, 45% of which are new; 13.1% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris, then from a sample sent by the property and finally at Lynch Bages all with similar notes. This is quite open on the nose, with a distinct ferrous-saline minerality. I find this just a little unfocused. In the context of the vintage, the tannins are just a little strict and aggressive, even if nicely fine-grained – though that impression was possibly reinforced at the UGC in Paris by tasting this immediately after the St Julien flight. More positively, this is tender on the mid-palate and quite pure and fresh. Fine, quite pure and refined with a lovely note of grape skins on the finish.

Pagodes de Cos (St Estèphe; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot; 4% Petit Verdot; 4% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels, 30% of which are new; pH 3.85; IPT 68; 13.28% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. Bright, crisp and fresh on the nose, like all of the Cos wines in 2020, with a rich and creamy nose of blackcurrant, bramble, mulberry and blueberry fruit, lilies, a twist or two on the pencil sharpener and a gentle waft of sea-breeze and maybe a little note of heather. Soft and seductive on the palate, this opens very beautifully to a medium-bodied, extremely refined and beautifully-shaped mid palate with a lovely tapering long and diaphanous finish. I love the texture which is much more shaped and contoured, and more compact and elegant, than Goulée.

Petit Bocq (St Estèphe; 50% Merlot; 48% Cabernet Sauvignon; 2% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 42 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 45% of which are new; 13.5% alcohol). Quite a floral expression of the appellation in this vintage, with irises and roses, rec cherry and blackberry fruit and the more typical ferrous-saline minerality of the northern Medoc. Soft and plush on the attack with a bright, fresh fruit and a fine-grained and quite tactile tannin. A nice sense of harmony and composure and an eloquent expression of the vintage.

De Pez (St Estèphe; from a vineyard of 42 hectares on a graves over clay-limestone terroir, 3 hectares of which are managed biodynamically; 51% Cabernet Sauvignon; 43% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 51 hl/ha; aging for 12 months in oak barrels, 35% of which are new; IPT 75; pH 3.71; 13.4% alcohol). This is a beautiful wine that has so much of the Pichon Comtesse de Lalande signature, with a gloriously refined and elegant, deep and slightly sombre nose – of very dark berry fruit, graphite and a hint of cedar. Voluptuous, soft and sumptuous on the attack, with ultra-fine grained tannins that support the radiant and bright fruit so seamlessly. Long and all in perfect harmony. The 2019 was exceptional; this is very much at the same level.

Phélan-Ségur (St Estephe; from a vineyard of 70 hectares on the famous graves argileuses of St Estèphe, overlooking the river; 54% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 2% Petit Verdot; 2% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of around 42 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 55% of which are new; pH 3.7; IPT 88; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom and then at the Château itself with Veronique Dausse with complementary notes (in both senses of the term). The first vintage to contain the Petit Verdot first planted in 2013 and a whole degree less alcohol than the 2018 and 2019.

This is an exciting wine and, for me, the culmination of a decade of incremental but cumulatively significant steps at Phélan-Ségur, taking it to a level that it has never previously attained. This is wonderfully bright and vibrant with a searing cassis and redcurrant nose, hedgerow flowers, violets, a twist or two of pepper (quite possibly the influence of the Petit Verdot) and, with a little more air an engaging almost slightly iodine sea-spray note and suggestions of graphite. Bright and sprightly on the palate, with a lovely grip from the velvety tannins and a chewy but very clean finish of grape-skins and walnuts. Really excellent and completely harmonious.

Ségur de Cabanac (St Estèphe; 55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 45% Merlot; a final yield of 47 hl/ha; aging for 20 months in oak barrels, a third of which are new; IPT 73; pH 3.67; 13.6% alcohol). Like Petit Bocq, this is very floral, with lilacs and lavender and lily of the valley alongside the dark berry and stone fruit. It is also very good in a vintage in which the appellation really shines. Glossy and luminous on the palate with a very bright and lifted fruit, extremely fine-grained and well-managed tannins and good density and concentration. Stylish, elegant and refined, this has a lovely sappy finish and will age very well. Highly recommended.

Tronquoy Lalande (St Estèphe; 52% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 6% Petit Verdot; pH 3.74; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted at Chateau Montrose. Limpid with a dark lilac rim. Classic pure and lifted notes of cassis and graphite on the nose, with a lovely floral element that is rare this far north in the Médoc and a touch of mint leaf and a twist of the pepper mill from the Petit Verdot. On the palate is rolling, sappy and juicy with an impressive sense of forward momentum and drive right from the attack. The fruit seems to darken a shade as the fine-grain tannins engage releasing a juicy wave of fresh black cherries and wild blackberries. Fine, elegant and with a long and tapered finish, I love the slight sense of austerity and the archetypally St Estèphe saline minerality on the finale.

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