Bordeaux 2022: ‘a miraculous and truly exceptional vintage’
On his return from Bordeaux our Bordeaux correspondent, Colin Hay, reflects on the quality of this complex but ultimately exceptional vintage, the prevailing market conditions and the role of wine critics in the campaign to come.
“It turns out that the vines were less stressed than I was” Guillaume Thienpont, Vieux Chateau Certan.
I write this, as is my new ritual, on the TGV back from Bordeaux to Paris at très grand vitesse. It is labour day in France (la fête de travail), which seems aptly to capture both my sense of the vintage and the three intense weeks of tastings and visits that form the basis of what is to follow – my initial impressions of this remarkable, miraculous and truly exceptional vintage.
Having tasted around 400 wines (though with a few more still to come), I am now utterly convinced that this is the very best vintage that I have had the privilege and honour to taste en primeur.
But that is certainly not to say that it is without issue or controversy. It would be wrong to call Bordeaux 2022 heterogeneous but perhaps only because all generalisations are too simple to capture its complexity.
For even if the average level in each of the leading appellations is exceptionally – perhaps even unprecedently – high (suggesting a certain homogeneity), there is great variation between the peaks above and the foothills below. Part of the explanation of that is that, at the level of the vineyard, this turns out to be something of a tipping-point vintage in which picking dates, maceration timings and methods all needed to be absolutely spot on. It was also a vintage that was technically difficult to vinify, rewarding those with technical capacity and know-how. There was, above all, little or no margin for error even in the absence of any weather-related pressure to pick. Pick a day too late and the acidity that is the key to the freshness of the vintage was gone, the fruit jammy; extract just a little too much, by allowing vinification temperatures to rise too high for instance, and the tannins would become brutally astringent on the finish; extract just a little too timidly and the wine would flatter to deceive in its infancy but lack ageing potential.
This is also, in the end, a vintage of paradoxes, as my more detailed exploration of the climatic and meteorological conditions that produced it, more detailed exploration of the climatic and meteorological conditions that produced it has already sought to highlight. Above all, it is a vintage of fabulous freshness forged out of excessive heat and incessant drought.
Indeed, inadvertently we have already stumbled across one of those paradoxes. For, in a sense, the labour day analogy does not capture at all well the 2022 vintage in Bordeaux. As Stephan von Neipperg explained to me at Canon-La-Gaffelière, with that characteristic glint in his eye, in the vineyard this was a vintage for les feignards (‘the lazy’). There was no malady to treat and the unprecedented combination of sustained heat and, above all, intense and unrelenting drought (from January onwards on the left-bank and from March onwards on the right-bank) meant that doing nothing was, it turns out, the very best thing to do.
But to see 2022 as a reward for the lazy would be to give slightly the wrong impression too – and therein lies the paradox. For if there was not much to do in the vineyard during the ripening season that was precisely because of the work done in the vineyard over the preceding decade, a period in which Bordeaux vineyard management at all levels has been transformed.
The 2022 vintage, and the meteorological excess that produced it, presented the most severe challenge and the most exacting test of the health of every single vineyard in Bordeaux. Ten years ago almost all would have failed that test; yet the majority passed that test today with flying colours. When we start pulling the corks from these bottles in a decade’s time it would seem fitting to toast the work in the vineyard and, indeed, the cellar that has made possible the transformation that Bordeaux has undergone in recent years. The 2022 vintage is the best evidence of the success of that transformation.
Responding to climatic excess
Let me try to be as crystal clear as I can be about this then from the start. There are two reasons, in my view, for the perhaps surprising greatness of this vintage.
The first is the capacity to produce high quality fruit in the vineyard from meteorological conditions both before and during the growing season that were essentially unprecedented in their brutality. This first test was, of course, in part a test of one’s willingness to endure low yields and of the age of one’s vines – with both in general being rewarded.
But it was also – and perhaps above all – a test of the quality of one’s vineyard management. Cover crops were important (as was their management, notably the decision when to cut them back to reduce transpiration). No less important was soil quality maintenance (an issue whose true significance has only recently started to be fully appreciated), the density of one’s planting, the decision to forego green-harvesting and leaf-thinning and canopy maintenance and canopy management more generally.
These were all factors and, crucially, factors that needed to be judged sensitively and at a very local level. Global recipe-book type solutions did not work. For these were issues that needed to be worked out on a parcel-by-parcel and on an almost day-by-day basis. Even if there was in the end little to do, the little that did need to be done needed to be done very well and in a very timely manner.
It is not surprising then, that vineyard managers were under constant stress as the summer progressed. As Guillaume Thienpont put it to me at Vieux Château Certan, with the kind of humble wit and modesty that is the very best evidence of genetic determinism, “it turns out that the vines were less stressed than I was”.
The second factor, no less essential, was the capacity to turn high quality fruit into greatness in the chai and in the cellar. Amongst wine-writers, critics and commentators, this tends to receive somewhat more attention (though perhaps not the attention it really warrants). It is hardly iconoclastic to suggest that the technical proficiency and precision of wine-making, in Bordeaux perhaps more than any other region in the entire world, has been transformed in the last decade. But let me labour the point nonetheless.
Under the influence of a new generation of better trained, more travelled, more reflexive and more demanding wine-makers and consultants, Bordeaux leads the way. The size of its vineyards perThaps helps, though this is as much true of Pomerol and St Emilion (where the vineyards are typically tiny) as it is in the Médoc (where they are larger). It is today part of Bordeaux’s competitive advantage and that surely needs to be underscored.
On both left and right banks, through the ever more dedicated application of science (often under the watchful gaze and influence of the University of Bordeaux’s Institut des sciences de la vigne et du vin) and invariably in combination with organic and/or biodynamic viticulture, it has stared into the climatic abyss and is facing down the multiple challenges of global warming and dérèglement climatique (or ‘climate weirding) as best it can. In the process, it has shown itself to be both a global innovator and an excellent drawer of lessons from other parts of the world where the pressures of climate change were felt earlier or even more severely. Bordeaux’s world-renowned consultant oenologues are very much in the vanguard here, notably (though far from exclusively) the new generation – Axel Marchal and Thomas Duclos, to give but two examples.
All of this was key. But, perhaps most importantly, neither changes in vineyard management nor changes in vinification alone would have been sufficient to produce the miraculous majesty that is the 2022 vintage in Bordeaux at its best. Both were necessary but not in themselves sufficient conditions of that success. The triumph of this vintage comes, and could only come, from their co-presence.
An overall assessment
As is probably by now clear, I rather like this vintage. And if it is not, let me state it again: I rather like this vintage. It is without any doubt in my mind the best that I have tasted en primeur. It was produced in climatic and meteorological conditions much more difficult than, say, 2010 or 2016. But it is at least every bit their equal.
Its exceeds, too, at both a general level and undoubtedly at its best each of the trilogy 2018, 2019, 2020. Of that trio, 2020 is for me the strongest (though 2019 is more consistent). 2020 is also the vintage that, in certain respects at least, 2022 most closely resembles, above all for its combination of freshness, density and luminosity. As regular readers of this column will no doubt be aware, I love freshness and luminosity. When they are combined with mid-palate density, delineation and layered structure we have greatness. 2022 has all that and more. It also continues the ‘post-peak Parker’ trend towards terroir expression and that pleases me more than anything.
But … and there is always a but … like all vintages constructed out of climatic excess, 2022 is far from entirely homogenous. Yields are down and, as in both 2018 and 2020 before it, we find the excitement of anticipated greatness tempered just a little by the realisation of the simple lack of volume produced.
Yields are also highly uneven, within appellations as much as between them, as my appellation-by-appellation profiles will seek to describe in further detail.
That is the first source of unevenness. For wherever yields are both low and variable it is possible that what has been lost from the final blend of the grand vin would have elevated it further. Put simply, those with more to choose from when it came to assembling the wine had greater choice and that choice has credibly contributed to the greatness of the wine they ultimately produced. Put differently, if one’s first wine habitually relies on a parcel whose yields were decimated by frost, hail or hydric stress (as many were), the wine is less likely to be as good as the neighbours whose top parcels were spared or more evenly impacted.
A second factor is closely related. It pains me to draw attention to it, but I must. It is the simple financial pressure that comes from consecutive recent vintages in which yields have been low and the cost of production rising. This, again, is a pressure that is highly unevenly distributed. But it is not difficult to imagine the conversation in a number of properties between the wine-making team on the one hand and the actionnaires (or share-holders) on the other. It is quite clear to me that in certain properties and even at the highest level the latter (the actionnaires) require a certain volume of production – a target yield.
Below, let’s say, 30 to 35 hl/ha the return on their investment either does not cover the investment or, more credibly perhaps, give them the financial yield they are seeking. Where that is the case, it generates an additional pressure when it comes to the assemblage. In short, those constructing the blend do not have the same liberty as their qualitative peers to exclude parcels that do not really belong in the grand vin in their view. We will never really know for sure, but I suspect that this is a factor in a number of cases in this vintage.
This, to be clear, is not to make excuses nor to provide a pretext for condoning the kind of release price rises that many now expect to see (including the négociants that I have spoken to). We will return to release prices presently. But, to cut to the chase, these are not determined to any significant extent, and whatever one might think, by average vineyard yields. They are determined by an assessment, however accurate or inaccurate that might prove to be, of what the market will endure. Fairly obviously, they are also entirely independent of whatever people like me might think or write.
With the exception of yield, I have concentrated thus far very much on the positives. But there are negatives too and it is important to be aware of these. For even if there will be potential value to be found at every price point, this is still a vintage in which a fair degree of consumer caution is still required. What makes this more difficult is the absence of a single recognised authority on these wines – a Robert Parker, in effect – and the (actual and anticipated) diversity of opinion amongst potential successors to the throne.
Like 2018, 2020 and 2021 if one is to purchase 2022 en primeur one probably needs some kind of a guide. There are two rather obvious approaches to this it strikes me. The first, in the absence of ‘the new Parker’, is to select on the basis of some kind of median expert opinion, suitably calibrated against one’s sense of one’s own taste (since preferences are in the end a matter of taste and taste is subjective). The second, which seems to me intuitively the more appealing, is to follow – within limits, of course – those commentators and critics whose tastes and preferences seem closest to one’s own (to appoint one’s own Parker or Parkers, as it were).
Either way, there are a variety of issues to look out for when reading the analyses and tasting notes of the critics one chooses to follow. Let me simply try to list them here, as I see them. Each of them will come up time and again, in context, in the detailed tasting notes that I will seek to publish in the next few weeks.
- Alcohol levels are typically high but quite variable. Where they exceed 14.5 (and certainly 15) degrees, the need for balancing acidity is all the greater (high pH and high alcohol together might give cause for reflection).
- The higher the alcohol level the greater the penetration of the barrel by the wine and the more dry, raw wood tannins are extracted from the barrel. Dryness of tannins on the finish is a sure sign that a wine will not age well.
- This is a vintage in which the strict selection of parcels and sub-parcels, though costly financially, was very much rewarded.
- In part precisely because of this, there are many excellent second wines in 2022 – though, again, there are others that feel more like a combination of the parcels that failed to make the grade (so, whilst there is value to be found in second wines, one needs to proceed with caution).
- It is also a vintage that was technically challenging to vinify, rewarding those with the talent and resources to do so with precision (controlling vinification temperatures, using the most delicate of extraction techniques, vinifying by parcel and so forth). None of that comes cheap.
- With relatively few exceptions, the very best terroirs and, above all, old vines on the very best terroirs, fared best (often with higher yields than younger parcels).
- Conversely, young vines especially on well-draining gravel or sandy soils really struggled with intense hydric stress and blockages in maturity.
- The style of the vintage, like that of 2020 and to some extent 2019 too, is one that reinforces mid-palate clarity. Many of the best wines are fresh, pure, precise and focussed with a luminous and crystalline mid-palate. From top terroirs that can be captivating; from lesser terroir it can produce wines that are a little monotonic and uninteresting. Transparency, in other words, is good only if what it reveals is good.
- In a tipping-point vintage such as this, picking dates were crucial. Where the fruit was picked à point or al dente the wines have a wonderful sapid juicy freshness; where the fruit was picked even a day too late, acidity, freshness and balance are lacking and the fruit profile tends to become jammy.
- Similarly, extractions needed to be very carefully managed – where extraction has been pushed just a little too far (through habit, the limits of the wine-making facility or a lack of deftness of touch), the tannins can become brutal and abrasive very rapidly.
- Yet conversely, other wines reveal a certain (perhaps understandable) timidity on the part of the wine-maker in the face of high potential tannic levels. This has resulted in some wines that are delicate, light and insubstantial but with little aging potential.
- There is plenty of evidence of greater use of larger format wood, amphorae and more neutral vessels for aging. This, for me, is to be welcomed. But it can be overdone. There is a balance to be struck and there is a certain danger present in some wines of a form of joyless ascetism that comes from treating the presence of oak as the sin of a now distant past.
The devil of this vintage lies in the detail, as is so often the case in vintages fashioned out of climatic excess. Generalisations, such as those offered above, are difficult and of only limited value. It is for that reason that I will leave the more detailed assessment of individual wines and appellations to the appellation-by-appellation profiles to follow. In a vintage like this, we need rather longer tasting notes than we are perhaps accustomed to if we are to get inside what is really going on and certainly if we are to gauge the aging potential of each wine.
What I can say at this point is that there are fabulous wines in each of the leading appellations of the right and left banks. In St Emilion, Pomerol, Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estèphe, Sauternes and Barsac without exception I have tasted wines that are the best I have ever tasted from a number of properties – even if I don’t quite share Jean-Marc Quarin’s assessment that 80 per cent of the wines tasted are the ‘best ever’ produced by the property in question.
In addition, there are remarkable wines to be found in a number of ‘satellite’ or lesser appellations that should most definitely not be overlooked. Most notable perhaps here are the wines from the limestone plateau and côtes of Fronsac and Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, terroirs with a natural comparative advantage in vintages such as this. But look out, too, for wines from all of the satellite St Emilion appellations, Lalande de Pomerol and, on the left-bank, from Haut-Médoc, Médoc, Moulis and Listrac.
As anticipated in my report on the climatic conditions of the growing season, the dry whites are weaker and more heterogeneous still. But there are some surprising highlights nonetheless, notably on limestone and clay soils. They, too, deserve and will receive their own analysis.
Prices and market conditions
I will return to questions of pricing as the campaign starts to unfold. But, before the first releases, let me share what I hope are a few useful pointers for the campaign to come. Each is based on conversations in and around la place de Bordeaux and with a number of left and right bank properties over the last few months.
Again, in the interests of brevity, I will simply list these.
- We can expect the campaign itself to start in earnest very soon, with the first releases likely to come this week (the 1st week of May) and with a crescendo of releases in the second and third weeks of May (before Vinexpo Asia).
- The négociants that I speak to are expecting increases in release prices of around 20-25 per cent (in €s) on average with the anticipated range of release price increases being between 10 and 35 per cent or so (for the classed growths and their peers, rising towards the top). La place is anxious about such potential price increases, given the difficult prevailing market conditions, and the négociants have been lobbying strenuously behind the scenes since Vinexpo Paris (if not before) to exert a downward pressure on release price inflation (contrary to what some commentators seem to suggest).
- It remains to be seen what effect that pressure has had and might still have. But most of the properties that I have spoken to indicate that they have already decided upon an at least provisional release price (though, predictably, none has shared a putative release price with me).
- As in the 2019 campaign, I expect a clear price signal to be set early in the campaign by a leading right-bank property. In that campaign (as, indeed, in the one that followed) it was Cheval Blanc that was the first mover [https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2020/06/cheval-blanc-leads-todays-flurry-of-2019-releases/]. The signal was clear (with a 30 per cent reduction on the 2018 release price) and it resulted in the most successful recent en primeur campaign, largely because the price signal was followed.
- An equivalent signal given by any similar release to kick-start the 2022 campaign will be crucial in determining the success or failure of the campaign and, if it comes from Cheval Blanc once again, there is a good chance that the negociants’ fears will not be realised (or at least not fully realised).
- Either way, the négociants will not refuse their allocations as is evidenced by the more conservative position taken by a number of them on the March hors Bordeaux releases. In effect, they have been holding back funds to commit to this year’s en primeur
- Given higher interest rates (and hence higher borrowing costs), the 2022 campaign may well also herald some subtle changes in the relative status and pecking order of the leading négociants of la place with those more reliant on credit ceding some of their allocations to those with greater liquidity.
This perhaps gives us a sense of the mood music in and around Bordeaux on the eve of the first releases. But all of that notwithstanding, it is important, as ever, to set that in a slightly wider and more global context.
‘Bordeaux bashing’ in recent years has focussed, above all, on release prices. Indeed, that, in a sense, is the disadvantage of en primeur which is all about release price transparency. There is no ‘Burgundy bashing’ very simply because prices are set without anything like the same focussed attention on price at the moment of release (an issue to which it will be interesting to return in later articles).
Precisely because of this, if somewhat ironically, Bordeaux continues to represent excellent value for money at all quality and price points. The leading wines of Burgundy, Napa and Sonoma, Tuscany and even Piedmont simply cost more. That does not make en primeur a good investment in the short term; but it does suggest that it is still likely to prove a good investment in the medium to longer term (as, in fact, Liv-ex data continue to show).
More significantly, perhaps, no other global wine region saw anything like an equivalent downward recalibration in releases prices during the Covid period. In that sense Bordeaux 2019, 2020 and 2021 are cheaper than they would have been were it not for Covid.
It is perhaps then not surprising that, post Covid, with a vintage at least as good as 2019 and 2020 aging in the cellar, and with 7000 visitors having descended on Bordeaux for en primeur week, the properties will seek to push release prices higher. But none of that ensures the success of the campaign.
What is clear to me is that there is potential global demand for this vintage – but not at any price. What is equally clear to me is that many Bordeaux lovers will be returning with renewed interest to the 2020 vintage to supplement whatever en primeur purchases might tempt them.
Critical acclaim, the role of critics and the ‘problem’ of grade inflation
No reflection on the vintage and the campaign to come is perhaps complete without at least a few words on the role of critical acclaim and critics, more generally, in all of this.
We have seen already, as we are now accustomed to seeing, the perhaps rather unedifying spectacle of the race to score first. In a market for Bordeaux critical appreciation with many runners and riders, that is entirely understandable and forgivable. But there is surely something just a little sad about it nonetheless.
For we are told, and it is true, that to understand this complex vintage one needed to visit the properties periodically during the entire year, to speak with them, to visit them again during en primeur, to speak again, presumably to listen and to taste the wine multiple times. Yet those who tell us this – and who, presumably have practiced what they preach – seem also to be in such a rush to score that they share precious little if anything of the understanding they have garnered. We get a score, first and foremost, 2 or 3 sentences on each wine and precious little analysis of the vintage. What is missing is any analysis at the appellation level or below. What is also missing is any account of the (multiple) strategies for negotiating the vintage’s various challenges that have led to the wines that are tasted. In the dash to pin the scores to the doors this seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.
That pains me, just as I know it pains many properties. Those of us who have the privilege and the opportunity to learn from the properties themselves by talking to the wine-makers about what they have done (and why), owe it both to their readers and, I insist, to the properties themselves to share just a little more of their analysis and their understanding. If they have got it wrong, as we all do, it needs to be corrected; and if it is not rendered publicly it is not available to be corrected.
That may well start to come now, as I suspect it will, from those who are still gathering their thoughts and processing what they have heard (those who have remained silent thus far). Most readers of this column will know who they are. At a time when we have no single authority on the qualitative merits of the wines of Bordeaux and no opinion in and of itself sufficient to move the market quantitatively, it is tempting of course for the Bordeaux critical illuminati to nail their ratings to the mast as quickly as possible.
But we would learn more about them, the value of their assessment and their credentials to become the next Parker if they were to share just a little more of their working with us. We will get that from some, I am sure, and I look forward to reading and learning from it when we do. I am certainly happy to wait and I hope that others are too.
That brings me to a final issue. It has been suggested by some, eloquently, persuasively and very credibly that such is the improvement in the quality of the wine-making and vineyard management in Bordeaux in recent years that we have a problem that now needs to be faced up to and resolved.
That problem, it is suggested, is grade inflation (too many high scores). Now is the time, they argue, to recalibrate our ratings – by, in effect, stretching the scale downwards from 100. Implicitly, at least, 100 remains 100, 97 becomes 95, 95 becomes 93 … 90 becomes 87 or whatever. You get the point.
This sounds like a very good idea and neat solution. And I have to admit to a certain initial sympathy for it. But I will argue that it is, on reflection, a very bad idea and one that should be resisted – though I welcome very much the debate (in precisely the same way that I would welcome the critics showing and sharing more of their working).
My counter-argument is very simple. It is a version of the classical political analyst’s question ‘cui bono’ – who benefits? In fact, I want to turn that on its head and to ask, instead, who suffers? Or who would suffer were we to engage in such a recalibration exercise?
The answer is very clear and it comes in two parts. First, Bordeaux would suffer. Why? Because the argument being made here is precisely that it is in Bordeaux, and in Bordeaux alone, that wine-making and vineyard-management has increased to such a level in recent years that grade-inflation has become a problem. And, more simply and directly, because those who suggest such a downward recalibration in ratings intend only to apply it to Bordeaux. That doesn’t sound to me like a fair reward for the improvement in the wine-making and vineyard-management that leads to the posing of the question to which this is the proposed solution.
The second casualty is a more specific one. Here I am concerned less with who would suffer and more with who would suffer the most? The answer is again clear and obvious, I suspect, to anyone prepared to pose the question: namely, all those Châteaux and producers who rely on the critical appreciation of the critics to sell their wines – and in direct proportion to their reliance on that critical appreciation.
Cheval Blanc and Lafite Rothschild, as we all know, do not need 100 points from any critic to sell their wine. They didn’t need Parker and they don’t need any of Parker’s potential successors. It is of no real consequence to them whether their grands vins are rated 100, 99, 97 or even 95 by the critics and it is probably only of aesthetic interest to them. These wines do not sell because of the critics but, in effect, despite the critics. But for a newly promoted St Emilion grand cru classé, a third growth from Margaux or a cru bourgeois from Moulis-en-Médoc the situation is very different. If, after recalibration, their potential 93 becomes 91, their 91 becomes 89 or their 90 becomes 87 then they simply sell less wine and they are punished, in effect, for the region in which their appellation has the misfortune to be located. It does not take much to see that this is unfair. We’re back to ‘Bordeaux bashing’ albeit in a rather novel form.
So I for one will resist strongly the implicit invitation to recalibrate my ratings (not that I am under any delusion that they shape market prices anyway). If Chateau X’s 2022 is better, in my view, than its 2020 or its 2018 it will receive a higher score. And if that contributes to grade inflation, as I suspect it might, then so be it.