2022 Bordeaux En Primeur: Balance Imbalance
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MAY 09, 2023
Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Pessac-Léognan & Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes
Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites
The 2022s are some of the most memorable young wines I have ever tasted in Bordeaux. The best 2022s are magnificent, viscerally thrilling wines that show what is possible with thoughtful approaches to viticulture and winemaking. A number of properties at all levels made their best wines ever. But 2022 is not consistently great from top to bottom, so some selection is warranted.
Technical Director Marielle Cazaux turned out one of the wines of the vintage at La Conseillante.
2022: In Brief
It’s no surprise by now that Bordeaux experienced record-setting drought and heat in 2022. “We are more stressed out than the vines were,” Alexandre Thienpont told me at Vieux Château Certan, echoing a refrain I heard often during my visits. Even driving throughout Bordeaux in April 2023, the signs of drought were evident in parched, brown trees in forested areas. Some compare 2022 to 2003, but I don’t see that at all. I lived in Europe that year, a year in which 40 days of non-stop, brutal heat day and night escalated into a public health crisis. Two thousand twenty-two is far more nuanced than that. The wines are even more surprising, as they do not correspond at all to the archetypes of vintages with these hot, dry conditions.
In short, much of 2022 can be explained by four factors:
1. Heat and drought started early and were constants throughout the year, rather than shock events.
2. The end of the growing season saw cool nights, which is always beneficial in preserving freshness.
3. Technical Directors have become far more accustomed to dealing with very warm, dry years.
4. Knowhow in the vineyard and technology in the cellar have advanced meaningfully over the last twenty years, giving winemakers the tools to make decisions that were simply not available in the past.
The solemn cellars at La Mission Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan.
The 2022 Growing Season & Wines
The year began warm and dry. Opinions on when vines entered a water deficit vary from estate to estate. Some winemakers hold the view that water deficit started as early as January-March, while others focus on a bit later in the season. However, the consensus is that water deficits were an issue very early on. Properties reported an unheard-of four to five heat spikes over the course of the season.
Quick intervention in the vineyards was critical. One common decision was to remove cover crops early in order to eliminate competition with the vines for water and nutrients. Severe heat and drought will cause vines to produce small leaves and canopies as they seek to regulate their output and survive. Vineyard managers had to follow the lead of the vines and not push too hard. Among other things, this meant matching production to the smaller size of the canopies. The most drastic choice I know of was at L’ Évangile, where the winemaking team dropped one-third of the potential crop to balance the vines, a remarkable and dramatic decision. There was no de-leafing, with the exception of just prior to harvest, for practical reasons. But I am getting ahead of myself.
There was a bit of frost in April, yet damage appears to have been minimal. Flowering took place early, around mid-May, and was completed in a narrow window because of favorable weather. Violent hail in June in northern Médoc was one of the few shock weather events of the year. Rain in June gave the vines some respite but also varied considerably from appellation to appellation. From then on up to harvest, precipitation was minimal. Fires in the coastal areas around Arcachon starting in July loomed as an added concern but wind patterns remained favorable for Bordeaux's wine-producing regions. I certainly did not see any of the issues I have become all too familiar with in California over the last fifteen years or so.
Picking started very early, in mid-August for the whites and early September for the reds, which is to say 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. Yields were lower than usual, in some cases dramatically lower. This is especially true on the Left Bank, where gravelly, well-draining soils held on to moisture less well than the clay-limestone soils of the Right Bank. In general, yields on the Left Bank are lower than normal, while on the Right Bank, yields are, surprisingly, very much in line with historical norms. That said, vine density can also vary quite a bit from estate to estate, so a true apples-to-apples comparison of yields has to take this variable into account. The rule of thumb in Bordeaux is that 130 kilos of grapes yield 100 liters of wine. In 2022, that number was closer to 160-170, in some cases as much as 180. Berries were smaller than normal and had very little juice. “I was a bit disappointed by our yields,” Château Margaux Estate Director Philippe Bascaules explained. “I thought we would get 30 hectoliters per hectare, but in the end, our production was closer to 25.”
A view of Saint-Émilion in the distance from the tasting room at Canon.
Many estates reported very long harvests, some of the longest ever. That may seem counterintuitive because, in warm years, the more common scenario is that everything ripens quickly and at the same time. “It was our longest harvest ever, four weeks instead of the more typical two,” Bruno Borie told me at Ducru-Beaucaillou. “Our yields were 30 hectoliters per hectare, down from the 35-37 that is the new normal.”
I have written before about the importance of small fermentation tanks in precision winemaking. These are now standard in every new winery in Bordeaux but have been common in other places like Napa Valley for some time. Smaller tanks allow winemakers to pick only what is optimally ripe at any given moment, whereas in the past, logistics required picking specific volumes to fill much larger vats. In a year when waiting for optimal phenolic ripeness was key, patience and technology were critical.
In the cellar, winemakers opted for the gentle fermentations that are now the norm in Bordeaux. The most common approach was to lower temperatures and also shorten time on skins, although a few producers actually extended macerations. Winemakers focused extraction on the early part of fermentations. Some winemakers told me they might shorten the time in barrel, although that is by no means a widely held view.
But it is in tasting that the wines surprise most. Given the warm, dry conditions, I expected to find rich, opulent wines in the style of other warm years, like 2009 or 2018. Far from it. The best 2022s combine flavor intensity, energy and finesse in a way that I can only describe as magical. I use that word because no one has a concrete explanation of why the wines turned out the way they did. With some exceptions, the 2022s are generally not big, imposing wines, but instead deliver notable depth and freshness without excess weight. Have the vines truly adapted to the new climate change era? Has learning progressed so meaningfully that even challenging vintages can be harnessed into wines of elegance? Or maybe it was the lack of shocks that was so key. No one really knows. One thing that seems pretty clear is that the 2022s suggest that the scenario for high-end viticulture and winemaking in the future is not so gloomy as some have predicted.
The top 2022s are positively riveting. These are some of the most compelling young Bordeaux wines I have ever tasted. Perhaps more interesting for the consumer, a number of the top performers aren’t the usual suspects, although many of those did quite well. One of the surprises of the year is the quality of the Merlot, which is stellar in many wines on the Right Bank. “All of these years, we have been told that Merlot is going to be severely challenged by climate change, but the 2022s show that might not be the case after all,” Christian Moueix told me, barely containing his glee for the variety he has long championed. At some properties such as Ducru-Beaucaillou blends favor a bit more Merlot because Cabernet yields were lower.
Beyond the very best wines, quality starts to become less consistent. Some 2022s feel overly tannic, as if yields were too low to make balanced wines. Alcohols in some wines are higher than the norm for Bordeaux, but generally not as high as in 2018. Acidities are on the lower side, typically lower than in 2018. Readers will observe a high percentage of press wines in many 2022 reds. Here, too, technical data requires some context. Because extractions were so gentle, quite a bit of juice was left enrobing the berries, so the press lots in the 2022s are very high-quality lots that are also different in terms of quality from those of the past. Ultimately, wines are not defined by blend percentages, alcohol, pH, tannin levels or any other technical parameter but rather by the balance and integration of all of these (and other) elements. In the end, each wine has its own story.
With some notable exceptions, I am less enthusiastic about the dry whites and Sauternes. However, in my experience these wines are harder to read en primeur than the reds and are best evaluated as bottled wines.
Tasting en primeur only provides a glimpse of a young wine’s potential. A quick look back at 2019 and 2020 might be helpful. Barrel samples in both vintages were promising. In time, bottle tastings revealed that the 2019s were less consistent throughout, while the 2020s were much more homogenous, especially among wines from smaller properties and lesser appellations. With the 2022s, the barrel samples already reveal considerable heterogeneity. That will only be amplified over time. In short, though, I came away from my tastings feeling that a number of wines are a bit fragile and that élevage will make or break them.
Estate Manager Nicolas Thienpont and Winemaker David Suire presented a riveting Larcis Ducasse.
The Most Exciting Wines of 2022
Readers certainly don’t need me to tell them that many top-flight properties turned out exceptional wines in 2022. I thought it would be more interesting to list wines that overachieve the quality of the year. Some of these are less well-known, while others enjoy a higher profile. Many of them got their highest scores ever from me. All of them have that extra je ne sais quoi that makes them special.
Alter Ago – The Grand Vin usually gets most of the attention at Palmer, but I found Alter Ago, especially charming this year.
Beau-Séjour Bécot – An example of a wine that might be the best yet here.
Brane-Cantenac – A fabulous showing from Henri Lurton and his team.
Clos Puy Arnaud – Once again, Clos Puy Arnaud challenges wines from far more prestigious appellations. Superb.
Clos Saint-Julien – A tiny jewel in Saint-Émilion and a memorable 2022.
Figeac – Figeac has been knocking on the door of the most elite Bordeaux wines for some time. The 2022 is truly magnificent.
Forts de Latour – Although it is not sold en primeur, Forts de Latour deserves a mention, as it is terrific.
Giscours – Another very strong showing from one of Bordeaux’s up-and-coming stars.
La Conseillante – It all comes together for La Conseillante in 2022. Superb.
La Gaffelière – The 2022 might be the best La Gaffelière in modern times. Unforgettable.
Lafon-Rochet – One of Bordeaux’s under-the-radar gems is fabulous in 2022.
Larcis Ducasse – A wonderful showing from what might be the single most under-the-radar property in Bordeaux.
Léoville Las-Cases – An epic Las Cases. There’s nothing more to say.
Le Pin Beausoleil – A stellar 2022 that won’t break the bank. I loved it.
Les Carmes Haut-Brion – I look forward to tasting the 2022 next to the 2020 for many years to come. Tremendous.
Malartic Lagravière – One of the best young vintages I can remember tasting.
Moulin Saint-Georges – A gorgeous, affordable gem from the Vauthier family.
Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande – It’s all class and finesse in the 2022. A masterpiece.
Puyblanquet – The sublime, delicate side of Saint-Émilion.
Quinault L’Enclos – Maybe the best Quinault I have tasted.
The tiny Clos de Sarpe in Saint-Émilion on an early April morning.
Should You Buy the 2022s?
That is the million-dollar question. The basic premise of en primeur is that wines purchased today will be less expensive than when they are delivered in two years’ time. There is little doubt that the best wines in 2022 are stunningly brilliant. So, that is out of the way. Readers may wish to consider additional factors.
We are in the middle of a banking crisis that no one really understands just yet. I worked at a large European bank the last time this happened. The first signs of distress appeared in 2007. By 2008 the subprime lending crisis was front-page news. We were told that we (the bank) and our clients had ‘limited exposure,’ before we found out no one had limited exposure. I used to walk past the Lehman Brothers headquarters every morning. Then, one day, the sign said ‘Barclays.’ The fourth largest investment bank in the United States no longer existed. So far, regulators have moved quickly to find solutions for failed banks, but they can't do that forever. Geopolitical tensions persist in several areas around the world. Certain sectors of the global economy appear weak, others less so. Currency fluctuations mean that wines could be materially more or less expensive in the future than they are today. Many consumers don’t factor in costs of shipping, insurance and storage when considering wine as an investment. Last but certainly not least, interest rates are high.
Bordeaux has a very unique business model. Châteaux make the wines. A small network of Courtiers (brokers) manages the allocations from Châteaux to Négociants. The Négociants buy the wines and then sell them to their clients, who are typically importers and distributors. Négociants are pressured to take their full allocations each and every year because they know that failing to do so will likely mean losing those allocations in the future. Typically, a significant portion of the en primeur campaign is financed through bank loans. That’s pretty benign when interest rates are low, but what happens when interest rates are high, as they are now? The Négociant margin is already pretty slim. It does not take a genius to figure out that the market is in a pretty precarious place. As always, if the wines are priced attractively, they will sell. If they don’t, proprietors can look in the mirror for the sole explanation of why not. As my former boss used to say: “There’s always another great vintage.” That has never been truer than it is today.
Technical Manager Jérôme Poisson and General Manager Alexander Van Beek continue to make great strides at Giscours.
A Deeper Dive in 2022 and the Current State of Bordeaux
There are two main questions on the minds of Vinous readers I have spoken with so far:
1. How can Bordeaux have another potentially great vintage in 2022 after the 2018/2019/2020 trio?
2. Is it really possible that viticulture and winemaking have improved so rapidly that the challenges of very difficult years, especially in the climate change era, are being met?
Some historical perspective might be helpful. Without going too far back into obscurity, Bordeaux’s recent past can be broken up into a few major periods.
Things looked very different in the period that started approximately in the post-World War II era. Vineyards were farmed with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The goals of viticulture were simply to ripen as large a crop as possible and avoid disease. There was no such thing as ‘sustainable farming’ at the time because these concepts were in their infancy, and they would have never worked in a marginal climate such as Bordeaux had at the time. The concept of ‘optimal ripeness’ did not exist. Owners sent crews into the vineyards with instructions to harvest a certain amount of fruit by volume that would fill a vat. The idea of limiting yields in the field for the purpose of elevating quality through ‘green harvesting’ had not been developed. In the cellar, winemaking was done by recipe, the same every year, unlike today, when winemakers are always challenging convention. Save for a few exceptions, there were no second wines. Great vintages came along once or twice a decade. Economic prospects for most estates were bleak.
The 1982 vintage ushered in a new era for Bordeaux. The wines were made with the methods described above, but the vintage was of exceptional quality, and the wines achieved notable success, largely because of Robert Parker’s praise. Gradually, newfound economic prosperity and a greater focus on quality hand in hand elevated the wines and the reputations of the best estates. Following the trends of the time, wines became richer and riper. Yields were brought way down in the vineyard. Deleafing and green harvesting became standard practices. Heavy extraction and pronounced use of oak were de rigeur, more on the Right Bank than the Left Bank.
The late 1980s and early 1990s brought the first wave of big acquisitions by large groups and/or families. These include AXA’s purchase of Pichon Baron, the Rothschild family’s acquisition of L’Évangile and Francois Pinault’s purchase of Latour. The 2000s saw the acquisition of Cos d’Estournel by Michel Reybier, Montrose by the Bouygues family and Pichon Comtesse by Roederer, among other transactions of note. All of these estates (and many others) received significant investment. Selection was greater in the field and in the cellar. Parker’s influence on farming and winemaking peaked with the 2010 harvest.
The vintages that followed were less kind to Bordeaux for different reasons. By the time 2014 arrived, Bob had retired, and farming and winemaking around the world started to be completely rethought. Sustainability in the vineyards was still not the norm, but was increasingly being trialed and adopted. Vineyards started to be farmed with less imposed stress. Winemaking became gentler and the use of oak less intrusive, while selection increased as the best wines commanded higher and higher prices. Climate change started to become a topic of serious concern, although thus far, Bordeaux is among the regions that have been a net beneficiary of this change to radically different weather. One of the benefits of climate change is that generally warmer and drier weather makes organic and biodynamic farming a more practical option because the risk of losing a crop to very bad weather has been reduced substantially. The percentage of high-quality, good to great vintages in a decade is notably higher than in the past. Over time, the idea of what a ‘great’ wine is has moved away from power and flamboyant opulence towards finesse and nuance. In a prior era, winemakers would have exalted the attributes of a warm year, today they seek to temper them. Of course, these dates aren’t exact and big transitions like these take place over time, but you get the idea. This brings us to the present.
We are witnessing the most rapid advances in viticulture and winemaking ever in history. Meaningful progress once took decades, then it took a number of years, now it can take place in a year or two. How is this possible? The closest analogy is technology. That new phone you just got, well, it will be replaced by a new model in a year or two. A year after that, it will be old, and a few years after that, it will be obsolete. The pace of change in wine is exactly that fast, which is why winemakers can adapt so quickly. The last piece of the equation is that today’s young winemakers are exposed to much more of the world of wine than their parents were. They taste wines from everywhere, and those bottles influence their overall direction and choices.
Occasionally I will see statements like “such-and-such a vintage was overrated on release.” Of course, there are instances where vintages are over- or under-rated. But that is far easier to see with the benefit of hindsight. A more accurate analysis, in my view, involves understanding that past vintages were rated with the standards of the time based on what critics and other observers had tasted up until then. Back to technology. Think of the phone you have today and what you had in 2005. Have there been changes? Of course. In 2005 you thought you had the most advanced phone in the world or you wished you had it. Want to go back to that phone today? Probably not. It is ultimately dangerous and potentially misleading to evaluate wines from another era with the standards of today without considering what has transpired over time.
Technical Director Dominique Arangoïts and proprietor Michel Reybier at Cos d'Estournel, Saint-Estèphe.
2022 By Appellation
Readers will find a number of compelling wines in Saint-Estèphe. Cos d’Estournel and Montrose are both sublime, as is La Dame de Montrose, the estate’s second wine. Lafon-Rochet, the most elegant, Pauillac-like Saint-Estèphe, is once again formidable. I expect that Michel Reybier will do great things following his acquisition of Cos Labory.
Pauillac is unquestionably one of the stars in 2022. It’s hard to find a bad wine. The top properties all did well, but I was also struck by less prestigious estates such as Duhart-Milon and Clerc-Milon. At the very top, Pichon-Comtesse is especially magnificent, but many other wines aren't too far behind!
Saint-Julien produced a number of magnificent 2022s, including a magical Léoville Las-Cases. Beychevelle, Brainaire-Ducru and Ducru-Beaucailloun are all stellar. Gruaud-Larose is a bit shocking in its opulence, but is certainly distinctive.
There is some variability in the wines of Margaux, where the radiant intensity of the year is very much in evidence. Whether or not that is attributable to lower rainfall vis-à-vis the northern Médoc is hard to say. Château Margaux, Palmer, Brane-Cantenac and Giscour are among the highlights.
Pessac-Léognan is full of highlights. The 2022 Les Carmes Haut-Brion is set to take its place among the great vintages here. I was also quite taken with the wines from Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, the reds in particular, although the whites are very fine. Speaking of whites, the Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc is pretty special. I also found much to admire in Malartic Lagravière.
Saint-Émilion is a large appellation, so it is not a surprise that it yielded a number of magnificent wines. Beau-Séjour Bécot, La Gaffelière and Cheval Blanc are all utterly profound. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three contain a significant amount of Cabernet Franc. But the Merlot-based wines are just as compelling. Canon, Clos Fourtet and Clos Saint-Julien are among the highlights from Saint-Émilion’s famed clay/limestone plateau. Larcis Ducasse is stellar.
Pomerol is the warmest appellation in Bordeaux. It is also the most mono-culture of the main appellations, an intricate patchwork of vineyards with very few surrounding trees and forests. Even so, the best wines are brilliant. I adore the finesse of La Conseillante and the modern classicism of Vieux Château Certan. Petrus is a terrific example of the balance found in the finest 2022s. L'Eglise-Clinet and the entire Durantou portfolio benefitted from a lighter hand in winemaking, while progress at L'Évangile is also worthy of a mention.
Alfred and Justine Tesseron flank Technical Director Matthieu Bessonet at Pontet-Canet, Pauillac. Their 2022 is gorgeous.
Tasting En Primeur
Tasting en primeur is part science, part art. Imagine looking at a child and attempting to project how they will be as an adult. And yet, en primeur does provide a fascinating early look at the new vintage.
The task is made more challenging by several factors. First, there is no standard method for preparing and presenting en primeur samples. Some châteaux will draw the samples the day of my visit with the goal of showing the wines as they are, essentially straight from barrel. Others like to prepare samples the day prior so that the wines can come together a bit overnight. A few properties do what are essentially mini-bottlings with all the care of a true commercial run, an approach taken to ensure consistency of samples for a large audience over time.
My least favorite approach is samples that are a few days old, which is often explained as a desire to show a more harmonized wine. That, to me, is not the point of en primeur. The point of en primeur is to taste wines from barrel. But the reality is that en primeur is a sort of circus, especially at larger properties that welcome several thousand people over the course of a week, many of whom are more interested in the social and business (rather than critical) aspects of château visits. There is nothing wrong with that, but it turns Bordeaux into a spectacle resembling a vinous Disneyland for a few days each year.
Weather is also a variable, as samples can often (but not always) show better on days with higher atmospheric pressure. Over the years, I have learned that samples in 750ml bottles tend to show better than those prepared in 375ml bottles.
Tasting directly from barrel at Domaine de Chevalier.
About This Report
I tasted all the wines in this report (with a sole exception) during the two weeks I spent in Bordeaux. Where possible, I tasted many wines more than once. Post COVID-19 lockdowns, the official en primeur tastings have been pushed back by a month, and yet releases take place around the same time as in the past. This means critics and writers have one month less to prepare our reports. At the same time, the number of wines presented en primeur has ballooned. Most insiders will say that the real en primeur market affects somewhere between 50 to 150 wines. After all, the entire premise of en primeur is that a buyer can secure a wine today at a lower price relative to what it will cost in the future, and that is limited to a small subset of wines. A secondary benefit of en primeur is that it does allow buyers to order specific formats prior to bottling, and that is of importance in some markets. The reality, though, is that many wines see no significant appreciation over that time, especially when compared with alternative uses of that capital.
Nevertheless, many châteaux clearly benefit from the exposure of being included in reports with the bigger names. This is especially true for smaller properties or those estates in less-famous appellations. These wineries might not sell much en primeur, but their image relies on being included in comprehensive articles with the large properties. Moreover, consultants, négociants and trade groups that organize large tastings are, in part, marketing their access to critics and buyers who taste en primeur. It must be said that the biggest value of tasting a vintage deeply is understanding the consistency of a year from top to bottom. I have endeavored to include as many wines as possible in this report and expect to be adding to it in the coming weeks.
We will be publishing Neal Martin's report next week.
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