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Bordeaux 2020 en primeur by appellation: St Julien

In the latest of his appellation reports on the Bordeaux 2020 vintage, Colin Hay is full of praise for the wines of St Julien, which, he feels, deserve a place in any discerning collector’s cellar.

Château Beychevelle. Image c/o Oneo Group

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, this is another great vintage for St Julien. It rightly deserves its place in the triptych of excellence that is 2018-2019-2020. These are exceptional wines that will age both gracefully and glacially – and they deserve a place in your cellar.

Yet, as I noted in my overview of the vintage, there is an argument for suggesting that St Julien was not perhaps the most blessed of appellations in this vintage. As I wrote, the leading crus of St Julien are “more homogeneous … not in my view because they was particularly advantaged by the characteristics of the vintage, but simply because the quality of their terroirs is more even”. Having now completed my tasting of the vintage, I stand by that claim.

And that marks a contrast with the first two vintages of this trilogy. In 2018, the strip of St Julien vineyards bordering the river (and continuing north into Pauillac) was probably the very best place to make great wine. 2019 was less challenging and the wines of St Julien were always going to shine. Don’t get me wrong: in 2020 they shine again. But they do so rather more, I think, because of the sheer quality of their terroirs and the now consistent quality of the wine-making (perhaps the best in general of the Médoc) rather than the conditions of the vintage per se.

The best wines of the appellation (notably Ducru-Beaucaillou and Léoville Las Cases) provide severe competition to the first growths – but there is now nothing unusual about that. And in general when I compare St Julien to, say, Margaux and St Estèphe, I find just a little less mid-palate delineation and definition. These wines are just slightly less sinuous and luminous in the mid-palate. They are, in short, less defined by and redolent of the vintage. They taste of St Julien and they taste of their terroir, but they taste just a little less of 2020.

That this is so is at least in part because most of these wines, though ultra-fresh and profoundly refreshing (with reduced alcohol playing a significant role) are deep, concentrated, rich and ample, sometimes more so than even than their Pauillac near neighbours.

Overall, then, I would place 2020 just about on a par with 2018, but still some way below 2019. That said, there are two properties that, in my view, have made the best wine I have ever tasted from them in this vintage. They are Lagrange and Talbot. And there are two others that have made wines that I think are certainly at the same level as their sublime 2019s: Beychevelle and Léoville-Poyferré.

Lagrange is staggeringly beautiful as a wine, with the most lithe and shimmering of mid-palates, the most gloriously pure and crystalline of fruit profiles and a previously unprecedented density and depth. It is the culmination of 5-10 years of startling progression. It is massively recommended.

Talbot too is stunning, expressing fantastically the bright freshness and lift of the vintage in a way that exudes St Julien typicity.

Pick of the appellation: Ducru Beaucaillou (96-98)

Léoville Las Cases (96-98)

Truly great: Beychevelle (94-96)

Gruaud Larose (93-95)

Lagrange (93-95+)

Léoville-Barton (94-96)

Léoville-Poyferré (95-97)

Value picks: Gloria (92-94)

Lagrange (93-95+)

Langoa Barton (92-94)

Revelatory: Lagrange (93-95+)

Talbot (93-95)


Tasting notes

Admiral de Beychevelle (St Julien; the second wine of Beychevelle; 54% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 3% Petit Verdot; 1% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 47 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 40% of which are new; pH 3.86; IPT 71; 13.3% alcohol). Bright and crisp on the nose with lots of very dark ‘just ripe’ autumnal briary fruit, a lovely herby/earthy note and a hint of the graphite minerality that is redolent of the grand vin.

On the palate, although this is a little slender, it has a nice sense of evolution over the palate, with a particularly impressive lift just before the finish as the juicy fresh fruit from the attack re-engages. Less opulent, a little more open-textured but with a gentle softness that is very characteristic of Beychevelle itself, this is an excellent introduction to the grand vin.

Beychevelle (St Julien; 51% Cabernet Sauvignon; 45% Merlot; 4% Petit Verdot; a final yield of 47 hl/ha; aging in oak barrels, 70% of which are new, for 18 months; pH 3.81; IPT 78; 13.4% alcohol). Tasted first at the UGC tasting in Paris and then from a sample sent from the property. This is extremely floral, very elegant and instantly recognisable as Beychevelle on the nose. It is pure and lifted, with a signature nutty element – walnuts and hazelnuts alongside the brambles, black berries, mulberries and a hint of cherry.

There is also a rather enticing gentle suggestion of the cedar that will come through with more age; and a hint of black tea leaf. On the palate this is plump and juicy on the attack, but also compact, with more density and concentration that it used to have – but without any loss in its signature svelteness and refined elegance. The tannins and the resulting mouthfeel are sublime – it’s as if they bundle up the energy of the bright, crisp, fresh fruit delivering it in a succession of juicy waves on the long, stylish and slowly tapering finish. I love the hint of grape and cherry skin right at the end. Every bit as good as the 2016. 

Branaire Ducru (St Julien; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 7% Petit Verdot; 3% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; 13.55% alcohol). This is quite big, rich, broad-framed, ample and generous, yet it’s also very open-textured. The effect is to create an interesting sense of tension and interest and, in effect, to shine a clear and luminous glow on the mid-palate which is nicely detailed.

Branaire in 2020 seems very true to its terroir and appellation, with a rather pleasing wild streak – I find notes of heather and plenty of wild herbs alongside the deep, rich, dark berry and stone fruit. It’s perhaps a little sweet in the mid-palate, but that seems somehow very natural here, even if it suppresses a little the equally natural lift and freshness of the vintage. An honest, unpretentious and very accessible wine that will surely give lots of pleasure.

Clos du Marquis (St Julien; 61% Cabernet Sauvignon; 33% Merlot; 6% Cabernet Franc; IPT 84 – higher than Las Cases itself and higher than the 2016; pH 3.76; 13.57% alcohol; a final yield of 33 hl/ha). Tasted at Chateau Nenin. Darker in the glass than La Marquise, but equally pure with a lovely crunchy blackberry, bramble and cassis fruit, cracked peppercorns and walnut shell on the nose. On the palate, this is both rich and creamily textured on the one hand, but also rolling and rippling through the generous mid-palate on the other – and it has a gracious, tense and slowly tapering finish. Sumptuous and elegant despite the high IPT, this is beautifully structured and the tannin management is, as ever, extraordinary. A wine of great quality and textural interest.

Connétable de Talbot (St Julien; the second wine of Talbot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 60% Merlot; aging in oak barrels for 15 months, 15% of which are new; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; 13.3% alcohol). A very stylish second that is an excellent introduction to the grand vin itself in this vintage, this is clearly cut from the same cloth.

On the nose, this is immediately redolent of the appellation, with graphite, a hint of cedar, a lovely ripe nutty note – hazelnuts and walnuts – and quite a rich dark berry and stone fruit. On the palate, this is compact and with decent substance and depth, and it has a lovely silky mouthfeel for a second wine. As with many of the better second wines of the appellation, we would not have to go back too many decades to have been quite impressed by this as the grand vin itself.

La Croix Ducru-Beaucillou (St Julien; 53% Cabernet Sauvignon; 44% Merlot; 3% Petit Verdot; pH 3.78; IPT 91; aging in oak barrels, 60% of which are new, for 12 months; 13.75% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Bruno Borie and Tracey Dobbin from Flaconwit samples. From the centre of the appellation, just south of La Mouline, the stream that divides the appellation north and south. Fuller, richer, more dark, crisp and crunchy cherry and blueberry and blackberry notes, walnuts too and Ducru graphite.

Spiciness from the Petit Verdot – cinnamon, fennel seeds and nutmeg, a touch of vanilla. This has that signature Ducru creaminess too right from the attack, nice fine-grained and textural tannins, very redolent of the appellation – lovely concentration and density with great lift on the sappy and yet very soft and silky finish. Excellent – this could be a Ducru from the 1980s in terms of sheer quality and character.

Ducru Beaucaillou (St Julien; 81% Cabernet Sauvignon; 19% Merlot; IPT 90; pH 3.83; aging in new oak barrels for 18 months; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Bruno Borie and Tracey Dobbin from Flaconwit samples. Sumptuous, cool on the nose, very quietly composed and calm and subtle, yet also open and expressive aromatically – pure, precision with wonderful lift and dynamism. Quite explosive. Graphite, cedar, tobacco leaf, spring flowers, black and red cherry fruit, blackberries and blueberries, a little cassis too.

Incredibly soft and yet immediately lithe and fluid on the palate – silky and luminous, this billows – and it builds too, towards a glorious crescendo on the finish. Super density, compactness and concentration and multi-layered. Opulent, flamboyant, yet elegant, refined and quite brilliant with a breath-taking complexity accentuated by the fine-grained slightly grippy tannins. Bruno Borie compares this to the 2010 and there is some truth in that, though the precision in the wine-making has advanced since then. A singular and glorious expression of the appellation that is so fresh and vital. Wow!

Les Fiefs de Lagrange (St Julien; 62% of the total production; 47% Cabernet Sauvignon; 44% Merlot; 9% Petit Verdot; pH 3.62; IPT 75; 13.4% alcohol). Like the grand vin, this has a lovely archetypal St Julien nose – a slight natural sweetness, a deep, dark bramble, blackberry and black cherry fruit, a hint of wild oregano and walnut shell. The tannins are superbly soft for a second wine and this has a lovely glossy mouthfeel that has one quickly recalibrating (upwards) one’s expectations. This might lack the mid-palate density and the length of the grand vin, but it’s a very open, fresh, bright and accessible introduction to its stablemate – and, I think, a new benchmark for Les Fiefs.

Gloria (St Julien; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 11% Petit Verdot; 4% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels for 14 months; a final yield of 34 hl/ha; 13.3% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. This is pure, fresh and nicely focussed. It opens beautifully on the palate with a lovely plum, bramble and blackberry, raspberry and loganberry fruit, with that classic touch of cedar too. Rather than fanning out broadly, this is compact and the structural frame holds the wine quite tightly to the spine. This is chewy on the mid-palate with a nice limpid and sinuous texture and it’s very expressive its terroir and appellation. This is nicely judged.

Gruaud Larose (St Julien; 79% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 31 hl/ha; aging for 18 months in oak barrels, 95% of which are new; 13.2% alcohol). Tasted at the chateau with Nicolas Sinoquet. This is shockingly purple, with a wonderfully punk pink luminous rim. A lovely rather classical St Julien nose of graphite and cedar-encrusted black and blue berry fruit, with hazelnut shell and vibrant floral elements – above all, violets and irises.

On the palate, like the 2019, this is impressively dense and compact if a perhaps little more lithe and supple. There is great depth and yet an aerial lightness, clarity and levity to this which I really like. The finish is exquisite – very pure, focused and elegant. If there is a slight evolution here it is towards a somewhat more austere version of Ducru, with great depth and mid-palate concentration yet plenty of brightness and lift. An excellent wine and a great follow-up to the brilliant (if not widely tasted) 2019.

Lagrange (St Julien; from a vineyard of 118 hectares on two Guntzian gravel slopes; historically low yields of 26.5 hl/ha and only 38% of the total production made it into the grand vin; 74% Cabernet Sauvignon; 24% Merlot; 2% Petit Verdot; pH 3.58; IPT 77; 13.5% alcohol). Purple/black at the core, but nicely translucent; glossy and quite viscous with blue/purple highlights on swirling and a violet rim. This has a beautifully archetypal St Julien nose – delicate yet expressive, refined and elegant yet full and engaging, bright and energetic.

Mulberries, damsons, notes of frangipane and toasted brioche, peonies, a loamy-earthiness and wild thyme and dark cocoa powder all intermingle seamlessly on the nose and, indeed, the palate. This has a most exquisite mouthfeel from the filigree tannins – quite the best in my memory from this property. The mid-palate is beautifully layered and holding this all together is a wonderful combination of juicy, sappy freshness and a cedar-coated graphite minerality. Lovely stuff and the best I have ever tasted from Lagrange; the ultra-strict selection has really paid off.

Langoa-Barton (St Julien; 53.5% Cabernet Sauvignon; 38% Merlot; 8.5% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 34.5 hl/ha; 13.5% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris from a very cold sample, then from a fresher sample sent from the property and finally with Lilian Barton Sartorius at Mauvesin Barton – with consistent results given the difference in the quality of the samples. A really beautiful and very classically St Julien nose.

Walnuts and walnut shell notes accompany the creamy, red and darker, rich and very fresh and lifted berry and stone fruit, with a ripple of graphite minerality and a loamy, mossy earthiness underpinning all of this. On the palate, the attack is intensely soft and gentle, the tannins exceptionally fine-grained, giving this a very sinuous and fluid mid-palate which is beautifully framed by the sappy, juicy fresh fruit. Very pure and precise, without ever being linear; and fantastically refreshing on the elegant walnut and cassis finish. Just lovely.

Léoville-Barton (St Julien; 85.5% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14,5% Merlot; a final yield of 34.5 hl/ha; 13.6% alcohol). Like Langoa, this was tasted at the UGC in Paris from a very cold sample, then from a fresher sample sent from the property and finally with Lilian Barton Sartorius at Mauvesin Barton – with consistent results given the difference in the quality of the samples. More floral and a little bit fuller and actually more open on the palate than its stablemate, this is sumptuous and, again, so archetypally of its appellation.

This is very pure and ultra-precise. It is just a little more sombre and austere – more compact and concentrated, with a luminous, crystalline and almost gravity-defying mid-palate. For it is both fluid and dynamic and yet simultaneously dense and rich. Really tense, very energetic and, quite simply, excellent, with a gloriously fresh and refreshing rolling sapid finish.

Léoville-Las-Cases (St Julien; 81% Cabernet Sauvignon; 11% Cabernet Franc; 8% Merlot; IPT 79; pH 3.80; 13.68% alcohol; contains 5.7% press wine). Tasted at Chateau Nenin. A truly excellent Las Cases that seems to have more similarities with Latour (next door) than ever. On the nose this is quite marked by the Cabernet Franc – blueberries, cherries, mulberries, a lovely graphite minerality and just a hint of sous bois. The attack is cool and silky, turning limpid, lithe and sinuous and the wine seems to relax and stretch itself out along its spine.

There’s a great and very natural sense of harmony and freshness here and those gorgeously fine-grained and intensely structuring tannins bring great pixilated detail to the mid palate. At this stage, rather like Latour, one feels that the pixilation is in black and white and the colours are still to come with bottle age – one senses the structure and the potential but can only begin to anticipate the evolution. The shimmering finish lasts for minutes and minutes.

Léoville-Poyferré (St Julien; 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot; aging in oak barrels, 80% of which are new; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; 13.7% alcohol). The 100th anniversary of the Cuvelier family’s ownership which will be marked with a special bottle for the vintage. Black/purple at the core and a shade or two darker in both colour and extraction than either Moulin Riche or Le Pavillon, with a pronounced band of lilac/purple at the rim. Viscous and glossy.

Poyferré is intensely floral in this vintage – violets, lilacs, peonies and rose petals, saffron and star anise, a splash of hoisin and a deep dark cherry and plum fruit, with freshly crushed new season walnuts. Cool and unbelievably svelte on the palate with intensely dark crushed pulpy black and blueberry fruit and super-fine but always tactile tannins giving this an almost pixilated complexity and textural focus through the very long mid-palate. This has an exquisite sense of poise and harmony and an almost eternal asymptotic tapered finish.

Moulin Riche (St Julien; more a second label than a second wine – rather like Clos de Marquis is to Léoville-Las-Cases). Charming, accessible and very much of its appellation, this is aromatically quite expressive, with baked plums, cassis, a touch of hoisin and Chinese five spice, crushed pine nuts and a hint of cedar and sandalwood. Plush, rich and full with a nice tannic grip that helps partition the fruit-delivery across the palate. This has good length and a nicely gathered finish. Refined, elegant and very much in the Poyferré style.

Le Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré (St Julien; the genuine second wine of Léoville-Poyferré). A lovely glossy sheen in the glass, quite limpid and viscous with an almost luminescent violet/crimson rim. It’s exciting how closely the nose resembles that of the grand vin a few years ago. Soft, gentle yet aromatically very expressive with a lovely graphite minerality around which the damson and black cherry fruit seems to coalesce, with black chocolate flakes and a loamy-earthy-herby sous bois note too. Plump and rich yet ultra-soft with cashmere Cabernet tannins that build in intensity and granularity across the big, bold, layered mid-palate to a mineral-charged fresh cool finish. Really lovely.

Le Petit Ducru de Ducru-Beaucillou (St Julien; 18% Cabernet Sauvignon; 78% Merlot; 4% Petit Verdot; IPT 91; pH 3.74; aging in oak barrels, 30% of which are new, for 12 months; 13.75% alcohol). Tasted over Zoom with Bruno Borie and Tracey Dobbin from Flaconwit samples. Rich, creamy, fresh – a very Ducru combination – with loads of graphite and a hint of cedar on the nose. Fruits of the forest, red and dark berry and stone fruit, and dark perfumier floral notes. Patchouli, a hint of peonies too. A pleasant richness to this with little notes of roasted coffee beans and a hint of the cedar to come. Quite plush and refined, with a nice flow over the palate.

Le Petit Lion (St Julien; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 44% Merlot; 6% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels, 30% of which are new; IPT 73; pH 3.69; 13.61% alcohol; contains 12% press wine). Tasted at Chateau Nenin. Le Petit Lion is growing up and starting to roar. This is bold, quite expansive and very expressive on the nose – with white pepper, brambles and blackcurrant alongside rose petals, wild herbs and an interesting crushed stone minerality. There’s also a lovely iodine note and a hint of oyster shell, reminding one that the vineyard here in the former river bed. On the attack this is super-svelte, limpid in the mouth and impressively sinuous, closer in quality than it has ever been to Las Cases itself. I love the energy and brightness.

La Petite Marquise (St Julien; 42% Merlot; 37% Cabernet Sauvignon; 21% Cabernet Franc; IPT 60; pH 3.69; 13.3% alcohol). Tasted at Chateau Nenin. This is very attractive. On the nose, graphite and a touch of cedar, a lovely pure and fresh red berry fruit – red currants, cranberries and raspberries – with wild thyme and spring flowers. This is fresh, ultra-refreshing and very characteristic of the vintage with plenty of zing.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose (St Julien; 61% Cabernet Sauvignon; 29% Merlot; 7% Cabernet Franc; 3 Petit Verdot; pH 3.25; a final yield of 31 hl/ha; 13.4% alcohol). Tasted at the chateau with Nicolas Sinoquet. An excellent second wine as it so often is, this is quite impressive rich and concentrated with fresh and baked plums, cinnamon and cloves. On the palate, Sarget 2020 is open-textured with a nice grip from the tannins and fine-grained, even chiselled, finish. It perhaps lacks just a little mid-palate oomph. But, quite frankly, this is excellent.

St Pierre (St Julien; 79% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% Merlot; 6% Cabernet Franc; aging in oak barrels for 14-16 months; a final yield of 33 hl/ha; 13.3% alcohol). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. A classed growth that seldom gets the attention its wines deserve. This is plush, open and both extremely aromatic and rather indulgently opulent. There’s lots of cedar and graphite here, wrapped around a lovely pure lifted cassis fruit, with a touch of mint leaf and walnut shell – this is very representative of St Julien and, indeed, of St Pierre itself.

On the palate, whilst this is quite ample and broad-shouldered the tannic structure seems to confine and draw the fruit both back to, and then along, the spine, giving this a nice evolving shape in the mouth and considerable length. Deep, dark and rich without ever losing focus, and with a lovely sappy, juicy finish with just a hint of walnut shell right at the end.

Talbot (St Julien; 76% Cabernet Sauvignon; 21% Merlot; 3% Petit Verdot; aging in oak barrels for 15 months, 60% of which are new; a final yield of 35 hl/ha; 13.3% alcohol). A brilliant vintage for Talbot, as it is for the appellation of St Julien more generally. This has a glorious, and impressively evolved, classically St Julien nose – with plenty of what one would usually regard as secondary notes already evident. There is cedar and graphite, smoked black tea leaves (Russian Caravan tea), almond, hazelnut and walnut, and a loamy-earthy note of the soil.

On the palate, this is plump, pulpy and fleshy, with great depth and concentration, the fruit nicely intermingling with a touch of saline minerality and the more spicy cinnamon and nutmeg notes. This is long and full, with a lovely sappy finish. It maybe doesn’t have either the sinuous lithe flow over the palate of something like Beychevelle or the layered complexity of Las Cases and Ducru, but it’s a beautiful expression of the appellation and its terroir in this exciting vintage. As good as any recent vintage that I can recall.

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