'It's a fact, and it's unprecedented: 80% of the wines I have tasted are the best the estates have ever made.' - Jean-Marc Quarin, quarin.com
It was a privilege and a great pleasure to spend last week in Bordeaux tasting the 2022 vintage. There is the sense of a very special vintage, one that will be drunk and talked about for decades to come. 2022s are charged with an astonishing sense of tension, freshness and energy. They are concentrated but not overripe. They are lifted in the mouth, yet leave behind a weighty impression. The defining sense of freshness that marks 2022 Bordeaux means that even wines which can sometimes come across on the heavy side are energetic and lifted. Average quality is well above normal, and the peaks of the vintage are extremely high.
Bordeaux has enjoyed a run of good vintages. 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020 have each been outstanding in their own way. By and large, though, the vignerons we spoke to resisted comparing 2022 with any of these vintages. Most of them told us they had never known a vintage like it. A few of them consulted history books and mentioned 1947. Professor Colin Hay has called the vintage ‘miraculous and truly exceptional’; exceptional because of the very high quality, and miraculous because it was so unexpected. The strangest thing of all about 2022 is that nobody predicted such a good result. As Gonzague Lurton told us at Durfort-Vivens, ‘it was my 31st vintage, but the first one in which the fruit did not come out the way I expected’.
Every vintage in the vineyard is a follow-on from the year before. 2021 was a cool, damp year, and heavy rain in December 2021 left the water table relatively topped up. In light of what was to follow, this proved essential.
There was a cold, frosty spell in January, but winter frosts are of no concern to dormant vines. (It is spring frosts, when vines are budding, that do the damage). February was mild. Budbreak took place at the end of March, and at this point in the year, the cycle was running to a normal calender. April did see some spring frosts causing localised damage, though these were less severe than in some recent vintages. The year was already noticeably drier than usual. Flowering took place in mid-May (two weeks ahead of 2021) in warm, dry weather, which is ideal, since rain will disrupt flowering. (As pollinated flowers become berries, fewer flowers ultimately means fewer grapes). At the end of May, unseasonably hot weather set in. Vines grew vigorously and the growing season accelerated.
June saw the first of three heatwaves, with temperatures peaking at 40 degrees around the weekend of 18/19 June. The following week saw stormy weather. Extreme hailstorms on the night of 20/21 June caused serious damage across more than 10,000 hectares in the Médoc. Hailstones as large as hens eggs fell in some spots, causing misery to some vignerons. At Capbern, they remarked that ‘hail performed the green harvest that we had been planning to do ourselves’. But the stormy week also gave essential water to the vineyards.
July saw the second heatwave peak in the second week of the month. Veraison (when grapes change colour and start to ripen) began early, in the second fortnight of July. Some grapes also began to show signs of sunburn, and smart vignerons adapted their vineyard management accordingly: that meant no leaf removal and minimal topping (cutting off the ends of shoots), to allow the grapes more shade. ‘It’s the hardest decision I had to make,’ said Jean-Philippe Delmas at Haut-Brion, ‘doing nothing in the vineyard’.
The combination of heat and drought also led to a series of forest fires between June and August, especially around the Graves and Les Landes. A pall of smoke temporarily hung over the city of Bordeaux. Vignerons with vineyards in the path of the smoke shadow feared they might lose the vintage to smoke taint; in the end, the smoke mostly bypassed them.
A third heatwave took place at the start of August. By now the grapes were well in advance of where they would usually be at this time of year. At Margaux, they observed acidity levels in the grapes dropping rapidly between early and mid-August, and made plans to bring harvest forward accordingly. By mid-month at Figeac, they noticed the grape pips had already turned brown – they wouldn’t normally expect that until mid-September. A few rain showers in the middle of the month were much welcomed.
The first white grapes were brought in as early as 9 August. On the right bank, harvest started at the beginning of September – in a couple of instances, slightly earlier. At Troplong-Mondot, Aymeric de Gironde was bringing in some plots on 31 August. (‘I never in my life thought I would be harvesting red grapes in August’). On the left bank, harvest widely began around the 7th September, with Merlot first, and Cabernet being brought in later in the month. Warm, dry conditions continued through the harvest, allowing growers the flexibility to pick each parcel at the most appropriate moment. Harvest was 2-3 weeks in advance of what is considered normal.
What went right?
Almost every vigneron we spoke to struggled (through bemused happiness) to explain the ‘surprise of the vintage’, with the grapes from such a hot year nevertheless showing such an intense vein of freshness.
For one thing, comparison with 2003 is instructive. 2003 was another scorchingly hot, dry vintage. But while overall 2022 was hotter, in 2003 there was very little remission from the heatwave at night, resulting in a lot of jammy, overripe fruit. By contrast, in 2022, even when it was very hot in the daytime, temperatures dropped significantly at night, resulting in fruit that has combined concentration and freshness. When it was 38 degrees in the daytime in the hot spells of 2022, it was still dropping to 20 at night.
Vines respond well to hydric stress – just not too much of it. In a damp year, vines throw out a lot of leaf growth (which needs to be trimmed back) and are liable to produce dilute fruit. When the supply of water to a vine is restricted (as in a dry year), it will grow fewer leaves (as a defence against water loss, since transpiration takes place from leaves) and focus instead on fruit growth. While too much hydric stress means dessicated fruit (and drought will eventually kill a vine) a great vintage does demand a certain amount of hydric stress. Throughout 2022, vignerons were praying for more rain, but in fact the rains of December 2021 and June 2022 may have left just enough in the soil. 2022 perhaps achieved the optimum amount of hydric stress.
Vine performance also depended on terroir and age. Vines on more water-retentive soils (clay and limestone) often performed better than vines in free-draining gravel soils. Old vines generally performed better than young vines, as a deeper, longer-established root network put them closer to the water table.
There are other ways in which the vintage was clearly a great success. The seminal budbreak and flowering periods took place in warm, dry weather. The drought meant there was very little disease pressure in the vineyard. These are challenges that have badly derailed some vintages, but which were entirely absent in 2022.
In the winery and in the cellar
‘As soon as the grapes went in the vat, the juice was black,’ said Sara Lecompte Cuvelier at Léoville Poyferré. Everyone seemed to realise that in a vintage of small, dark grapes it was more important than ever not to extract too much. Many vignerons told us they had aimed to keep fermentation temperatures a little lower than usual, to extract less. While we tasted many wines with exceptionally silky tannins, we did also hear about some chateaux where they had misjudged the extraction and got a ‘nasty surprise’, with bitter, astringent tannins.
Interestingly, many chateaux told us they planned a slightly shorter elevage than usual. ‘It’s not that the wine can’t take it,’ said Thomas Soubes at La Gaffelière, ‘we want to make sure we lock in the freshness of the vintage.’
Once again, yields were low. Every recent Bordeaux vintage has seen relatively low yields, whether through disease, concentrated grapes, frost, hail, selection at the winery, or a combination of some of these. In 2022 yields were low due to the small, concentrated grapes having relatively little juice, and also because of the fruit from young vine plots often being selected out at the winery.
While red wines excel in 2022, the picture for dry white wines (and Sauternes) is more mixed. White grapes were picked unusually early in 2022, starting from the second week of August. The style of white Bordeaux in 2022 is richer rather than crisp and vivacious. 2022 Bordeaux whites often display generous, complex and expansive aromatics, but sometimes lack the tension and energy that would be more widely on show in a fresher vintage. The best have fine aromatics, mid-palate depth and a crunchy, mineral finish.
Sauternes and Barsac
The dry conditions throughout August prevented botrytis from developing, though the grapes were already ripe and would otherwise have been ready for it. Some raisined grapes were picked in the second half of September. Rain arrived at the end of September, finally allowing botrytis to develop. The bravest growers now waited out a fortnight of cool, wet weather, till hot weather returned in combination with a drying east wind. After the disastrous 2021 Sauternes vintage, the chateaux were delighted to be returning a reasonably-sized harvest. The best 2022 Sauternes combine sweetness with verve; some can seem a little lacklustre and disjointed.
Dérèglement climatique: ‘climate weirding’, and the grapes and vineyards of the future
In recent years there has been much anguished talk about the future of Bordeaux in a world of global warming. Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t planted on the right bank because it won’t ripen reliably in the relatively cold, water-retentive clay soils there – is that set to change? Ripe Merlot has more sugar than ripe Cabernet, so right-bank wines tend to be more alcoholic. Will right bank Merlot need to be uprooted in favour of Cabernet just to rein in alcohol levels? Will the relatively warmer, well-drained gravel soils of the Médoc become too hot for Cabernet, and have to be replanted with Syrah? The inclusion of a very small amount of hot-climate grape varieties is now permitted in Bordeaux blends. We heard about experimental plantings of Albariño and Touriga Nacional.
The 2022 vintage puts a lot of this talk into perspective. Merlot is not supposed to do well in hot, early vintages; when it is hot it can show a jammy character, and when it matures too quickly it is thought to have rougher tannins. And yet, 2022 was very hot, with a very fast growing season; but Merlot did exquisitely well in 2022, both on the left and on the right bank, with a fine fresh streak and silky tannins. We often heard the opinion expressed that the future of Bordeaux is not different grape varieties, it is the better vineyard management that is already in place at many properties (and which is arguably responsible for the great results in many recent vintages, especially 2022). Delayed pruning limits the risk of late frost. Canopy management helps shield grapes in hotter weather. More targeted leaf removal allows bunches to be ventilated, but still gives them shade. Not ploughing deeply limits evaporation from the soil. Agroforestry, or planting trees around (and sometimes in) vineyards gives vines some shade, and some cool air. It used to be thought that cover crops were a bad idea because they would compete with vines for scarce water, but these days the consensus is that they are better because they prevent evaporation. You can barely see the vines at La Gaffelière for the profusion of flowers and grasses between the rows.
It was raining in Bordeaux last week. ‘If it’s raining, it’s not frosty,’ shrugged Jean-Dominique Videau at Branaire-Ducru. ‘Let’s see what the season will bring’. Primeurs week is now behind us, and the campaign proper is about to kick off. There are some fabulous wines, many of which are ‘best ever’. On the other hand, the Bordelais know they have a great vintage on their hands and there are likely to be price increases. Stay tuned! If you are keen to get involved, we are always happy to receive non-committal wishlists – they will help us get you the wines you want in what may be a fast-moving campaign. Pop in, or give us a call, and we’ll always be happy to talk you through our tastings at specific properties, or discuss the campaign in general. /NT