After sampling the vintage, wine critic Elin McCoy reveals her recommendations from a colourful crop

Château Margaux, US$620 ($832) a bottle. Château Lafite Rothschild, US$695. Haut-Bailly, US$139. Ducru-Beaucaillou, US$239 a bottle. The final futures prices for the 2020 Bordeaux wines trickled out recently, meaning we are nearly at the end of the wine world’s most important spring ritual: En primeur.

Over the past two months, the world’s retailers and critics, including me, have tasted samples of the wines still aging in barrels, and châteaux have very slowly rolled out what they’ll cost.

All that is left is for consumers to buy. Should you?

Well, after tasting more than 350 barrel samples, I offer a qualified yes. Yet again, because of pandemic travel restrictions, the wines — some in 100 ml tubes, some in half-bottles, some in regular bottles — were shipped to me from Bordeaux. I do not want to tally the carbon footprint.

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Overall, the vintage is excellent, the third in a trilogy — 2018, 2019, and now 2020 — of very good years. The last time a three-in-a-row scenario happened was 30 years ago, with 1988, 1989, and 1990.

“2020 is the grand finale, the fireworks,” says Veronique Sanders, general manager of Haut-Bailly. “The wines have the concentration and depth of the 2018 and the charm and elegance of the 2019.”

The best 2020s are classics, bright and fresh, elegant and refined with rich, ripe tannins, silky textures and a special vibrant energy. Some have an unusual luminous quality and enormous precision, with very clear and detailed layers of flavour. They have more density and richness than 2019, and cooler tannins and less alcohol than 2018.

But the quality is not as homogeneous as in the 2019 vintage, which also offered the best bargains (US$400 for Mouton Rothschild, for example) in more than a decade.

Though there are good deals to be had, most prices in the 2020 vintage are up anywhere from 2% to 53% (first growths Mouton Rothschild and Haut-Brion) and even a whopping 88.8% (Château Petit Village) over last year. And production was lower than in 2019.

The good financial news is that on June 15, the Biden administration suspended the 25% wine tariffs for the next five years. Which means there is no chance you will be hit with further costs when the bottled wines arrive in 2023. 

A strange and difficult vintage

This was not an easy-peasy vintage, starting with the obvious fact that it all took place, from bud break to harvest to winemaking, in the middle of a terrible global pandemic.

“The most difficult part was that, because of Covid-19, we were obliged to ask new questions about the way we manage people and the whole organisation,” says Dominique Arangoits of Cos d’Estournel, a winery in the Saint-Estèphe appellation of the Bordeaux region of France. That included spacing out teams for picking and no big harvest lunches.

“The upside,” says Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy of Mouton-Rothschild, “was there was no hectic travel, and we focused only on what was important: The vines and the people.”

One of the keys to the vintage was that it started and ended early, before autumn rains, and while the growing season began with a rainy spring, a hot, dry summer with cool nights followed.

“We had an intense drought for nearly two months,” says Philippe Bascaules of Château Margaux. “I don’t think we have ever seen that. For 50 days, we had no rain.”

The paradox is that despite this hot, dry spell, alcohol levels are mostly lower than usual. What is clear is that the very best terroirs, with limestone and clay soils and deep, deep gravel that could retain moisture during the summer, made the best wines.

“It’s a vintage of the vigneron [winemaker],” adds Eric Kohler of Château Lafite Rothschild, “because you had to be able to change and adapt quickly.”

How futures work

With Bordeaux futures, you plunk money down now and receive the bottled wines in two years. The presumption is that if you wait to buy, you’ll have to pay more. But here is a warning: Prices do not always rise. Meanwhile, you have tied up money for two years.

Besides locking in a supply of your favourite wine, though, you can choose the format you want: Regular bottles, magnums — even a six litre imperial.

Shaun Bishop of Bay Area-based online retailer JJ Buckley points out that the weaker US dollar makes the release prices even higher for American buyers. He has narrowed his selection to about only 50 names.

Sotheby’s is offering 60 to 80 wines, and head of wine Jamie Ritchie singled out several that are already bestsellers, including the Leoville Barton I recommend below.

All the first growths are impressive and worth buying, so I am putting only Margaux, my top wine of the vintage, in the list below. You probably cannot go wrong with any of them as an investment.

In 2020, their different personalities really stand out: Mouton — super-rich, chocolatey and velvety; Lafite, elegant and oh, so subtle and Haut-Brion which is layered, concentrated and structured.

In addition to those below, I would also single out La Conseillante, Clinet, Figeac, Belair-Monange and Beausejour Duffau-Lagarosse. For additional bargains: Langoa Barton, Laroque, La Gaffliere, La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou, and Tour Saint-Christophe.

10 brands over US$100

1. Troplong-Mondot (US$107)

This château in St.-Emilion has been on a roll for the past few years, The 2020 is so smooth and balanced — plump, savoury, pure and fresh.

2. Haut-Bailly (US$139)

This is a vintage that suits the suave, precise, complex style of its château in Pessac-Leognan but it also has wonderful polish, softness, and balance. Some 25% lower production than in 2019.

3. Smith Haut Lafitte (US$139)

Pure and silky, with stunning peony aromas and berry fruit and spice flavours, this biodynamically farmed wine is superior to the excellent 2019 and 2018.

4. Pichon Baron (US$159)

This round, ripe, exuberant wine is slightly ahead of the rich, dense and very good 2019 and 2018. It is intense, powerful, and concentrated with hints of cocoa powder and black fruits. 

5. Cos d’Estournel (US$222)

Dense and rich with a sweet touch, this has a luminous quality. It will come in a special black bottle with gold design to celebrate 20 years of Michel Reybier’s ownership, but the price is high.

6. Ducru-Beaucaillou (US$239)

A truly grand wine, it is powerful but with lusciousness and freshness, incredibly polished tannins, rich berry fruit, and a lift in the finish. It will carry a special, one-off label to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the château.

7. Trotanoy (US$335)

My top Right Bank wine is this Pomerol, with aromas packed with minerals, red fruit, flowers, and incredibly complex flavours. I also love the sumptuous La Fleur-Petrus, a Pomerol from the family of Christian Moueix. 

8. Angelus (US$375)

This brand is clearly aiming to live up to its St.-Emilion premier cru classé A status, both in the price and its new refined, pure, precise style with velvety tannins and notes of spices, violets and dried herbs.

9. La Mission Haut-Brion (US$360)

The combination of quality and price makes this a better buy than first growth Haut-Brion, also owned by the Dillon family. It is packed with fruit and richness, with lots of power and layers of spice and dark chocolate.

10. Château Margaux (US$620)

My top wine of the vintage is this almost perfect first growth. It positively shimmers with complex floral aromas and dark berry and cassis flavours; it is slightly better than the 2019, which stood out for its pure sensuality.

Nine Under $100

1. Talbot (US$59)

The new winemaker, previously at La Conseillante, has really upped quality. The 2020 is very distinctive, with notes of olives and earth and an appealing soft density.

2. Château d’Issan (US$62)

The first vintage to include petit verdot and malbec in the blend is so elegant, with heady, perfumed aromas and silky texture.

3. Clerc Milon (US$86)

This wine in the Mouton stable gets better with every year. It is powerful and fruity, with tobacco overtones and mint and violet aromas.

4. Leoville Barton (US$90)

An exceptionally fair price for a top-class second growth. Tannic and powerful, it is also succulent, filled with plump fruit.

5. Lilian Ladouys (US$20)

At this price of US$20 a bottle, you could not find anything from California that approaches the class of this medium-bodied, spicy-fruity red.

6. Siran (US$33)

This has brilliant balance, fresh cassis aromas and flavours and lush texture. The best vintage yet of this undervalued wine from Margaux.

7. Lafon-Rochet (US$40)

Two of Bordeaux’s top wine consultants collaborated on this St. Estephe blend from an underrated château in 2020. Its bright, crunchy fruit is positively lip-smacking. The price is cheaper than any vintage since 2014.

8. La Lagune (US$40)

This certified organic wine is a standout, with intense cassis and dried herb aromas and classic elegant red fruit flavours.

9. Fonplegade (US$45)

Over the past few years, this wine has jumped in quality. 2020 is the best yet, juicy and vibrant, lavender-scented, with deep blackberry and blueberry fruit.

Photo: Bloomberg