Owner and winemaker of Château Haut-Bages Libéral in Pauillac and Château Ferrière in Margaux: “If it was a person my wine would be an opera-singer, like Pavarotti”.
The fifth in Le Figaro Vin’s series brings us back to Bordeaux to meet Claire Villars-Lurton, #46 best winemaker in France, who has embraced biodynamic viticulture to create her exquisite wines at her two estates. In her interview she shares her passion for a vocation to which she has devoted the last 30 years.
Le Figaro Vin: How does it feel to be crowned a winemaking champion?
Claire Villars-Lurton: I am not sure that I am a winemaking champion, but I do feel that I am now on the right path and that I have fully found my feet. When I started there was so much to learn and I really struggled. After a time I wanted to take the lead. Today I feel that everything I have set in train makes sense and that I have a clear grasp of the way ahead.
Have you been training for long?
Yes, for almost 30 years. I have tried a variety of approaches and it hasn’t always been easy. I question almost everything and am never satisfied, which prompts me to challenge myself and also to push my colleagues out of their comfort zone. I cannot bear being comfortable and I don’t like treading water. It is now over 20 years since I took over at Château Haut-Bages Libéral and Château Ferrière. For the last 15 years I have immersed myself in a comprehensive training in biodynamic agriculture. I think it’s wonderful that there is now so much awareness and appreciation of its methodology, so much expertise, research, and literature, all of which paves the way towards an alternative viticulture.
Who is your mentor?
I have a number of mentors. The most important guide on my biodynamic adventure has been Alain Moueix who, crucially, has convinced my colleagues that this is the way forward. Jacques Lurton has shared his expertise on all things wine. Alain Canet (agroforestry adviser to Château Cheval Blanc, ed.) has helped me with the planting of trees in the vineyards. Four or five years ago I, my husband Gonzague (Lurton, owner of Château Durfort-Vivens, ed.), and the agronomist Konrad Schreiber, set up a knowledge-sharing platform for winemakers to pool their experience and expertise, “La Belle Vigne”. I have found this really helpful.
Is wine a team sport?
More than ever, especially when you don’t take shortcuts and don’t introduce cultured yeasts. We have to work with what we have, so we need to operate as a team, from vineyard to cellar. Wine is a team sport played in front of a huge number of spectators who are focused on the product.
What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the winemaker?
Always the terroir! But you need both. You can make a poor wine from a great terroir, while a good winemaker can never work miracles with poor terroir.
To what do you owe your success?
I am not sure that I have been successful. I would say that I owe a great deal to my education and my family. I had dynamic parents who refused to rest on their laurels. Mum was a role model, even though she was very young when she left us, and I never got to see her at work. I felt secure in the knowledge that my grandfather, my uncle, and my husband all had my back. Becoming sole owner at 30 developed my sense of responsibility. I knew that my family was always there for me, so now I am delighted by the thought that my children want to take up the reins.
Are your children proud of you?
You would have to ask them, as they certainly won’t tell me, but I think so.
Who is your biggest supporter?
Your favourite colour?
Orange, because it’s a warm, bright colour that’s full of energy. As far as wine is concerned then, of course, it’s red.
The king of grape varieties?
Entirely predictably, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Your favourite wine?
Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2018.
Your favourite vintage?
I really like 2020, which is a bit like 2010.
If your wine was a person, who would it be?
It would be an opera-singer, like Pavarotti. Brilliant and luminous, with a perfect timbre, at once powerful and restrained.
What are the best circumstances in which to taste your wine?
I try to make a wine that can be enjoyed whatever the circumstances. Ideally, it’s when you share it with good friends or with family, at your leisure and with a lot of love.
Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing yourself, or your wine?
Never! I am called Claire and a given name like that means that I cannot cheat. I think our first names determine who we are. I’m a completely open book, so much so that I reveal too much, reveal everything. So absolutely no chemical enhancement for me, not even make-up.
For what price would you be prepared to sell your estate?
Money doesn’t interest me. I will never sell. It’s not money that makes me happy; it’s the tool of my trade, my land, that brings me joy.
Who is your strongest competition in Bordeaux?
My husband. He’s not really a competitor – if he were listening, I don’t think he’d take it very well! – but, all the same, there’s a slight competitive edge between Gonzague and me, which makes us motivate each other and which always keeps us on our toes. We both want to do our best and he is always pushing me to the next level. I try to match him, or even outperform him [laughs]. We really complement each other, and we admire each other a lot; for me to love someone is to admire them.
What is the competition that you fear the most?
People who cheat or use others to get ahead. I try to succeed on my own merits.
What are you most proud of?
What has been your most innovative strategy in the vineyard and in the cellar?
Bringing trees into the vineyard, embracing agroforestry, all the work we put in today to support the soil as a living organism. Our approach is to work organically, from the soil and roots up, to produce robust, healthy grapes more resistant to diseases and parasites.
In the cellar we have developed an innovative approach to protecting our wine against oxidisation, one which allows us to use the least sulphur possible, thereby reducing additives to a minimum. The active ingredient in sulphur is only part of the whole element. Although sulphur is indispensable, its use in the battle against oxidisation can be radically reduced, and that’s where our work is bearing fruit. Indeed, we are pioneers in the field.
Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?
My children, obviously. Inheritance is a central part of our Latin culture. I inherited my property and I want to leave something for the next generation.
As the year draws to a close, Wine Lister has published its 2022 Wine Leagues – the third of our annual reports celebrating the top-performing wines and producers within several categories over the past year. The Leagues reveal exciting developments in the world of fine wine, shining a light on consumer trends and estates on the rise, informed by an in-depth trade survey with key industry figures.
Please see some of our key findings below, or click here to download the full study.
Amongst other findings, Part II of Wine Lister’s annual Bordeaux Study, ‘Walking the tightrope’, explores the outperformers of the latest vintage – the top 15 wines whose Wine Lister Quality score (part of our Pro rating system) in 2021 most exceeded their wine-level average. The wine-level average is calculated based on a mean Quality score over the last five vintages, to reveal more recent trends. Seven of this year’s outperformers were also featured in the 2020 list, indicating that these wines continue to build long-term quality in 2021.
Quality score – outperformers in 2021 (as featured in Part II of our 2022 Bordeaux Study)
Four Margaux wines feature in the 2021 outperformers chart, with Durfort-Vivens this year taking the top spot from Ferrière. Receiving a score of 92-94 from Ella Lister (for Le Figaro Vin), she describes it as “Effervescent with energy and life […] with an impressive density, and a generous future ahead of it.”
New additions to the outperformers chart this year, Marquis d’Alesme and Marquis de Terme rank in 11thand 13th place respectively. As well as appearing in our list of Bordeaux 2021 Value Picks (wines with the best quality-to-price ratios), the latter earns the status as the Bordeaux red with the biggest increase in 2021 Quality score compared to the 2020 vintage (also explored in Part II). Antonio Galloni for Vinous awards Marquis de Terme 2021 its highest ever potential score from the critic platform, 93-95, calling it “inky, vibrant, and super-expressive”.
La Lagune returns to the 2021 chart in fourth place, down from third in last year’s study. James Lawther (JancisRobinson.com) calls the 2021 “pure and precise”. The estate has been certified organic since the 2016 vintage and is currently working towards biodynamic certification.
Pauillac also sees four wines on this year’s outperformers chart, with Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Haut-Bages Libéral, Haut-Batailley, and Pédesclaux showing strong improvements in Quality score in 2021. Awarding a score of 92-94, Antonio Galloni notes that Grand-Puy-Ducasse “has made important strides of late”, given the increased investment under the direction of Anne Le Naour, while Pédesclaux has also seen significant investments from proprietor Jacky Lorenzetti.
Saint-Emilion brings three wines to the 2021 outperformers chart, with Fombrauge entering the outperformers chart in 10th place, and La Dominique overtaking La Lagune to occupy the third spot. La Gaffelière has also increased its standing on the chart, having climbed six places from 11th place last year, and achieving its highest ever Wine Lister Quality score in 2021.
Les Carmes Haut-Brion continues its upward trajectory in 2021, receiving a score of 17++ by James Lawther (the highest score given by the JancisRobinson.com team since the 2015 vintage), and gaining Ella Lister’s top score for the vintage (96-99 points). Larrivet Haut-Brion enters the outperformers chart in ninth place, with the estate deciding not to include any Merlot in their 2021 blend – a first in Bordeaux.
Also appearing on our list of Value Picks for the 2021 vintage, Les Ormes de Pez rounds off the list of outperformers, having received a score of 91-93 from Neal Martin (Vinous), who calls it “A stylish Saint-Estèphe”.
For the full list of Wine Lister’s top 20 Value Picks for Bordeaux, as well as further analyses of the region’s performance on Quality, search data, auction activity, and short-term price performance, download Part II of Wine Lister’s 2022 Bordeaux study here.
It increasingly looks as though the campaign will be more or less drawing to a close this week, with a further flurry of Bordeaux 2021s released en primeur at the end of last week and into Monday, including key entries from the likes of Beychevelle, Pichon Baron, Cos d’Estournel, and Mouton.
Released on Thursday 9th June at £58.90 per bottle, Beychevelle 2021 entered the market 16% below stocks of the 2020 (which has risen in price by around 15% since last year), and otherwise substantially below all other back vintages. With a consistent track record of post-release price performance and critic speculation of the 2021’s promising potential, this may well be one worth backing en primeur.
Trotte Vieille 2021 – an oft-forgotten Saint-Émilion Classé “B” to get behind – also released on Thursday at £53 per bottle (just below the current market price of 2020 and 6% above the now scarce 2019, and otherwise comfortably below recent back vintages of comparable quality). Following suit, Brane-Cantenac 2021 entered the market at £47 (6% below the 2020 vintage and below the prior five back vintages in the market).
Pichon Comtesse 2021 released on Thursday at £134 (just below last year’s release price and 30% below the current market value of the record-quality 2019). The vintage marks the estate’s first year of organic conversion, with Nicolas Glumineau informing the Wine Lister team that 2021 was ” the worst in France for 74 years in terms of climate”, but excellent for Cabernet. Volume is down 70% in 2021, with the vintage comprising 88% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc – the highest proportion since the 2013 vintage (100% Cabernet Sauvignon). These drastically reduced volumes mean that anyone looking to add Pichon Comtesse 2021 to their cellar likely needs to buy it now.
Friday 10th June saw releases from the likes of Giscours, Pichon Baron, and Lafon-Rochet – the latter marking the last ever vintage tended by the estate’s third-generation owner, Basile Tesseron, and the first blended by its new Managing Director, Christophe Congé (of Lafite fame). Released at £25 per bottle, Lafon-Rochet 2021 enters the market below the price of all available back vintages.
Releases came in thick and fast on Monday 13th June, with first growth Mouton entering at £425 per bottle (11% and 15% below the current availability of the 2020 and 2019 vintages respectively). Its little sibling, Le Petit Mouton 2021 was released at £170 per bottle – it appears in eighth place amongst the wines that have seen the highest relative increase between ex-négociant release prices and current market prices across vintages 2016-2020 (see below – extract from Part I of Wine Lister’s 2022 Bordeaux Study).
Cos d’Estournel also entered the market on Monday at £143 per bottle (5% below current market availability of the 2020, and around 8% above the 2019), followed shortly by Cos d’Estournel Blanc at £105 per bottle. According to Wine Lister’s Quality score (892), the 2021 vintage is the best Cos d’Estournel Blanc ever produced, with Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister calling it “delectable, lingering in the mouth”. Le Gay and La Violette owner, Henri Parent released his 2021s on Monday at £69.50 and £240 per bottle respectively. The latter achieves a higher Quality score in 2021 than in 2020 or 2018, while scarce availability of recent vintages on the UK market may also drive interest in the latest release.
Also released during this period: Chasse-Spleen, Réserve de la Comtesse, Léoville Poyferré, Ausone, Lascombes, Ferrière, Giscours, Pagodes de Cos, Aile d’Argent, Rouget, Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Gruaud-Larose, Larcis-Ducasse, Smith Haut Lafitte.
A feast fit for a Queen
Emmanuel Cruse and the Château d’Issan team were this month (17th May 2022) joined by 70 leading figures from the UK’s fine wine trade for an evening of celebration at historic Royal landmark, Kensington Palace. Organised by WLPR, the event commemorated the 870th wedding anniversary of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England on 18th May 1152, whose nuptials were celebrated with the wine of Château d’Issan.
Reception in the Sunken Garden: Entering the garden (left), Virginie and Emmanuel Cruse (middle), guests enjoying 2014 Bollinger La Grande Année (right)
This was the third and largest of Château d’Issan’s series of banquets to celebrate the union, following an event at the Houses of Parliament in 2018 and Westminster Abbey in 2015. Emmanuel, his wife, Virginie, and Château d’Issan’s Commercial Director, Augustin Lacaille were delighted to return to London to host friends and associates in a market close to their hearts.
The reception took place in Kensington Palace’s newly-redesigned Sunken Garden (unveiled to the public for the first time in July 2021), where guests were served the 2014 vintage of Bollinger La Grande Année – a champagne to which Queen Elizabeth awarded a Royal Warrant in 1955. Following the call to dinner, guests joined a short private tour of the Palace’s State Apartments, with bespoke tour booklets leading them through its majestic halls. The banquet took place in the King’s Gallery, with Emmanuel situated below a wind-dial, which, hailing from 1694, still shows the direction of the wind to this day. Adorned on the face of the dial is Great Britain, enlarged to match up to its trusty neighbour, France.
The Royal Banquet: The King’s Gallery table set (left), Emmanuel’s speech (middle), guests seated (right)
What is the connection between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Château d’Issan?
In his introductory speech, Emmanuel shared with his esteemed guests the role of Château d’Issan, formerly Lamothe-Cantenac, in consummating the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II – the former being an avid lover of Bordeaux wines. Bordeaux specialist, Jane Anson shared further historical insight into Eleanor of Aquitaine, explaining that “her contribution to England extended beyond her lifetime”, and “she continued to support the wine of Bordeaux” throughout her reign.
The wines: all formats displayed (left), Château d’Issan 2015 (middle), Château d’Issan 2006 in jeroboam (right)
A bespoke menu booklet at each place setting documented Château d’Issan’s rich history, while the white flowers and green foliage adorning the centre of the table took inspiration from the flora and fauna found at the estate – as well as traditional wedding flowers.
Honing in on their union, themes of Bordeaux and Great Britain were integrated into the dinner menu: to start, guests were served Château d’Issan 2015 with a pigeon and bacon ballotine, foie gras ganache, and pear. Jeroboams of Château d’Issan 2010 were served alongside a baked cannon of lamb, confit shoulder, and potato crown. Château d’Issan 2006 was also served in jeroboam format alongside a Franco-British cheese course, comprising Comté, Mimolette, and Stilton. Finally, imperials of Château d’Issan 1995 were poured with a dessert of dark chocolate mousse, coconut sorbet, peanut, and lime.
For further information on WLPR’s tastings and events, please contact the team here.
While this year’s en primeur releases are yet to kick into full gear, the past week has seen key entries from the likes of Berliquet, Pontet-Canet, Palmer, Haut-Batailley, Lafleur, and more. Reporting on a shorter week of releases than usual due to the French bank holiday on Thursday 26th May, we examine the latest 2021s to market.
Released on Tuesday 24th May at £38.15 per bottle, Berliquet achieves its highest-ever combined score from Wine Lister partner critics, Antonio Galloni and Neal Martin (Vinous), who both award 91-93 points. While up on the last two years’ release prices, one top UK merchant has informed us that this is understandable at this stage in Berliquet’s progression, especially considering the comparable rise in quality and pricing from its Chanel siblings, Rauzan-Ségla and Canon.
This was followed shortly by Pontet-Canet 2021, which is so far being offered at around £74.17 per bottle. While slightly up on last year’s release price, it still poses as a good-value pick relative to its appellation, especially considering its status as the sixth-highest scoring Pauillac according to WL score (see here).
Also entering the market on Tuesday, Palmer’s 2021 vintage is another stand-out offering from the estate, reminding the Wine Lister team of a Palmer from the 1990s, but with more energy and ripeness. At £237 per bottle, the 2021 opens 1% below the 2020 release price, while volume released is down 30% this year. This, alongside strong critics’ scores and a propitious renovation programme currently underway, should no doubt encourage the success of the latest release.
This week saw releases from Palmer – tasted by the Wine Lister team in the cellar
Released on Wednesday 25th May, Haut-Batailley 2021 is so far being offered at around £39 per bottle (slightly down on the 2020 release price). As with the other Cazes properties, mildew pressure has impacted the yields in 2021, and volume produced is down 10% compared to the 2020. Its sibling in Saint-Estèphe, Les Ormes de Pez 2021 followed suit, and is so far being offered at around £18 per bottle – also fractionally down on last year’s release.
Finishing the week with a bang, Lafleur 2021 was released on Friday 27th May through its UK agent, Justerini & Brooks at £542.33 per bottle. While entering the market 3% and 12% up on the 2020 and 2019 release prices respectively, there is no remaining availability of last year’s release on the market, and the 2019 has more than doubled in price since its release. As the second-best Quality performer of red Bordeaux in 2021 (after Cheval Blanc), and with a history of consistent and impressive price performance post-release, this will be one of the best buys of the campaign for those lucky enough to get their hands on it.
Also released during this period: Sociando-Mallet, Laroque, Alter Ego, Clos du Marquis, and Nénin.
Margaux’s Wine of the Vintage?
Our latest article takes a closer look at one of the final entries in the Place de Bordeaux’s September 2021 Campaign, as we examine Palmer’s re-release from one of Bordeaux’s most challenging recent vintages.
Palmer’s Director, Thomas Duroux tasting Palmer 2011 and Alter Ego 2017 with Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister
What is the story behind Palmer’s 2011 vintage?
Palmer’s precious secrets
A decade on from production, Thursday 23rd September saw the re-release of Palmer 2011 with a recommended UK onward selling price of £228 per bottle (in-bond). This release represents the second instalment of their ‘10 years on’ series, which presents decade-old ex-château stocks to the market via the Place de Bordeaux. While still releasing Palmer’s latest vintages en primeur, the estate’s Director, Thomas Duroux tells Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister that withholding stock for ex-château release for 10 years plays tribute to Émile Peynaud’s philosophy that “A great wine needed at latest 10 years of age before it was ready to drink”.
The story of a peculiar vintage
Building momentum amongst merchants and collectors for the release of a notoriously challenging vintage is no mean feat. Duroux’s deft storytelling played on the strengths of Palmer’s historically low yields, reminiscing the events of this curious vintage to encourage interest in the re-release. With a mere 20 hl, the 2011 produced less than half the yield of a normal year, and the even-greater scarcity of re-release availability (approximately 1,000 cases) was surely designed to entice further demand. Several Bordeaux properties suffered at the hands of a significant hailstorm on 4th June 2011, with some falling victim to damage in the crucial berry set period. Although Palmer felt the effects of the growing season, it nonetheless still produced a well-scored wine, matching the average WL score of first growths Margaux, Lafite, and Mouton (93).
Duroux links the quality of their 2011 to the somewhat merciful timing of the hailstorm. Having passed through flowering, the berries were small and able to withstand the storm’s impact, with the damage sustained mostly by the vine’s young shoots. Since the vines compensated by rerouting their energy to grow new shoots, they devoted less energy to fruit development, therefore the harvest yielded a smaller collection of concentrated berries. Such details serve as a good reminder, that the story of a vintage can only paint a partial (and general) picture – digging into the detail of each estate can uncover so much more potential.
Keeping it in the family with the best value second wine picks
Further informing your Bordeaux 2020 purchases, we look at the top 20 second wines of the vintage by Wine Lister’s value score. The score is calculated based on the quality to price ratio of a wine and vintage, while still allowing room for higher-priced wines to feature.
The top 20 leading sibling wines by Wine Lister value score
Which second wines provide the greatest value?
Often lurking in the shadows of their Grand Vin counterpart, sibling wines offer a high quality, more accessible alternative to Bordeaux’s long-ageing elite. While some are the product of grapes remaining from the Grand Vin, other producers prefer to give a sibling wine its own dedicated plots, often of slightly younger vines. In either case, these wines made at the hands of some of the world’s greatest winemakers should be considered seriously. Below we look at our top picks of sibling wines for value, based on the latest offerings from the Bordeaux 2020 en primeur campaign.
Left Bank legacies
All major Bordeaux appellations across both banks are well-represented amongst the top 20 value picks, with Margaux property, d’Issan achieving the greatest value score for the 2020 vintage. First produced in 1985, Blason d’Issan bears a greater proportion of Merlot than its Grand Vin sibling (57% compared to 39%), but as noted by its maker, Emmanuel Cruse, is still very much a “baby d’Issan”, sporting the château’s perennial style. The second wine of 2020’s wine of the vintage (according to Wine Lister partner critics), Margaux, has been a permanent feature of the estate since the 17th century; christened Pavillon Rogue in 1908, it is 2020’s only top 20 second wine from a First Growth property. Margaux comrade, Giscours, is also represented, by its Sirène de Giscours, which enjoys the same winemaking attention and ageing as the Grand Vin, but with grapes sourced from younger vines. Finally, Margaux majesty, Palmer is featured with Alter Ego. Its 2020 release was well sought-after, particularly after no second wine was produced in 2018.
Pessac-Léognan royalty, Haut-Brion’s Clarence de Haut-Brion ranks among the top 20 sibling wines for value. It is joined by L’Espirit de Chevalier – the red counterpart of Domaine de Chevalier’s sibling series – and Haut-Bailly’s Haut-Bailly II. The latter was renamed (from La Parde de Haut-Bailly) in 2019 to symbolise the second generation of owners, the Wilmers family. Finally, Chapelle de La Mission Haut Brion comes from the same vineyard as the Grand Vin, grown and harvested in the same way, with the introduction of grapes from the older parcels of La Tour Haut-Brion since the 2006 vintage.
Saint-Julien has three properties represented by their second wines, including Croix de Beaucaillou, which ranks in second place. This sibling wine is produced using grapes hailing from its own distinct vineyard, lying to the west of the château. Completing the top five rankings is Fiefs de Lagrange, which bears familiarity to its Grand Vin sibling, but is more suited for earlier drinking. Finally, Léoville Las Cases’ le Petit Lion celebrates its 13th vintage with the release of the 2020, produced from a blend of replanted vines that are now between 15 and 18 years of age.
In neighbouring Saint-Estèphe, Le Marquis de Calon Ségur and Pagodes de Cos occupy 10th and 11th place respectively, with the former taking very different form from their first wine as an alternative interpretation of the Calon terroir. The latter is produced from a separate, dedicated plot of 40-year-old vines.
Completing the Left Bank selection are four Pauillac value picks, of which two hail from the same property. Pichon Baron is the only property to see its two additional wines feature – Les Griffons de Pichon Baron and Tourelles de Longueville. Lynch-Bages’ Echo joins them within the top 10 picks by value score. Finally, Pichon Comtesse’s Réserve de la Comtesse – first sold in 1973 – is a top feature for en primeur 2020. This well-established sibling wine represents between 20% to 50% of Pichon Comtesse’s total production.
Right Bank relatives
One the Right Bank, and particularly in Pomerol, sibling wines have been slower to catch on, simply due to lower production levels per property. Two Saint Emilion Classés A properties nonetheless stand out for sibling value picks– Pavie and Angélus – featuring Arômes de Pavie and Carillon d’Angélus, respectively. The latter is increasingly becoming a “cousin” rather than a sibling, since the property has recently invested heavily in new plots for Carillon alone. Amongst this top pick hoard is Pomerol estate, Pensées de Lafleur, which takes 13th place amongst the top value picks with a limited-production of 500 cases.
Change and adaptation on the banks of Bordeaux
Unpicking the challenges of the 2020 growing season, we talk to seven top Bordeaux producers to understand more about how climate change continues to impact the region’s fine wine industry.
Haut-Bailly harvest under the scorching September sun
How is Bordeaux adapting to climate change?
Bordeaux has been no stranger to extreme climatic conditions in recent years, culminating in what some may describe as climatological confusion for many châteaux last year. While witnessing 15% more rainfall between March and September 2020 than its 30-year average for this period, Bordeaux also saw 54 days of excessive drought during the summer. It would appear that now, more than ever, adaptation and innovation are key to the successes of the region’s releases.
Dealing with drought
- Extensive dry spells have become a common phenomenon in Bordeaux, with Margaux’s Business Development Director, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, sharing with us his concerns that the vines “could end up with wilting” leaves, leading to “a loss in terms of yields but also eventually in terms of quality”. Despite also being one of the wettest years on record, 2020 was no exception with its pattern of heatwaves and ensuing drought.
- Saint-Émilion’s Cheval Blanc experienced its driest vintage since 1959, though Technical Director Pierre-Olivier Clouet explains the humid spring fortunately allowed the vines to accumulate “water and nutrients much needed later in the season”. He elaborates that despite the drought, this allowed vines to “grow calmly and homogenously”.
- Across the Gironde, Haut-Bailly’s Véronique Sanders tells us that “work in the vineyards has evolved enormously”, and that “the fundamental process of pruning has been re-examined” as part of a wider series of viticultural practices that have been changed to adapt to climate change, enabling Haut-Bailly to make the most out of the varied conditions.
Coping with concentration
- Several properties such as Larrivet Haut-Brion saw small and concentrated berries as a result of high temperatures and persistent drought in 2020. The estate’s Cellar Master, Charlotte Mignon tells us that it has had to adapt its winemaking in recent years, opting for punching down versus pumping over in order “to control light and elegant extractions” in such hot years.
- Alexis similarly tells us of Margaux’s recent investment in more highly advanced phenolic analysis equipment, which reports the levels of tannin and pigment in the individually-vinified lots and allows the team to “precisely plan extraction with lower temperatures, fewer and gentler pump-overs, and limited maceration time”.
- Increasingly concentrated grapes have also reduced yields across the region, as told to us by Calon Ségur’s Managing Director, Vincent Millet, whose volumes in 2020 fell to 33hl/ha (down from 40hl/ha in 2019) due to the heat.
Larrivet Haut-Brion incorporating recently harvested whole bunches into their blend
A move away from Merlot
- With global warming affecting the evolution of certain grape varieties, Palmer CEO, Thomas Duroux tells us that the “classic complex finish of Merlot” is particularly threatened by rapid ripening induced by hot summers.
- This concern was shared amongst several properties, with Charlotte finding Larrivet Haut-Brion’s Merlot grapes to be heavier, with greater sugar levels and thus a higher alcohol potential. To regain freshness in their Merlot juice, she now “incorporates the whole grape bunch, including the stalk”, to add more structure and tannins. In the long term, the estate is planning to replant more plots to Cabernet Sauvignon due to the varietal’s slower ripening, while Margaux is similarly including “more and more” Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in their blend, and “even thinking of perhaps experimenting with a few rows of Carménère”, to study how it reacts to high temperatures.
- In similar vein, Claire Villars-Lurton of Ferrière remarks on the advantage of less Merlot in the changing climate: “We have prioritised replanting of Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than Merlot, as even young the latter variety is more sensitive to water stress”.
- Several of the châteaux we spoke to highlighted their aim of counteracting the effects of climate change by enriching the natural environment and the soil. Thomas emphasises the importance of having a “living soil” in the face of ecological stress, noting that biological compost and plant growth amongst the vines offers “greater stability, root resilience, and nourishment” in increasingly hot and dry years.
- The benefits of a living soil are echoed by Vincent, who tells us that at Calon Ségur they plant grass cover in the vine rows maintains “some moisture in the soil during dry periods”.
- Claire notes that cover crops help to maintain soil biodiversity, but the approach she takes goes beyond this purpose: “we adopt a minimal intervention approach in the vines. We plant cover crops between the rows, that we fold over or cut so as to have a natural mulch – this protects the soil from the damaging effects of strong sunlight, allows the soil to keep a good level of humidity, and means any rain that falls can seep deeper into the subsoils”.
Shading from the sun
- Like several châteaux adapting viticultural practices vintage-by-vintage, Larrivet Haut-Brion withheld leaf removal until later in the 2020 growing season, to shelter grapes from the scorching sun.
- A similar strategy has been adopted at Haut-Bailly, who revise their canopy management every year to reflect the concurrent needs of vines.
- At Calon-Ségur, Vincent explains they are “careful about thinning out the leaves in order to avoid burns”, and are considering “adjusting the height of the trellis” to provide shade from one row to another. Opting for a more permanent solution, Margaux have gone so far as to “change the orientation of the vine rows” in order to “expose each side of the vine to the heat equally and minimize sunscald”.
As well as gaining top scores across its reds, Bordeaux 2020 was successful for dry whites, notably at the highest level. Helping you to discover some of the leading examples, we explore the top five Bordeaux 2020 dry white wines by WL score.
The top dry Bordeaux whites of the 2020 vintage, displayed in order of WL score
Will 2020 be a good vintage in Bordeaux for dry white wines?
Despite another exceedingly warm growing season in 2020, Bordeaux’s earlier-ripening white grapes fared well across many of the region’s top blanc producers. Having seen one of the earliest harvests on record, the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes were picked on the 14th of August, and all fruit destined for dry whites was harvested by early September. The white Bordeaux vintage therefore avoided high temperatures during the rest of the month, maintaining balance and freshness.
With a remarkably small production of just c.600 cases per annum, Haut-Brion Blanc remains one of the most sought-after Bordeaux dry whites. To combat the warm summer temperatures, the team conducted pre-dawn harvesting, picking grapes during the cooler night-time climate to ensure better levels of acidity and freshness. Wine Lister CEO, Ella Lister, found Haut-Brion Blanc to show “an almost Burgundian minerality accompanying its unmistakable Pessac green and yellow-fruit character”. With a WL score of 94, it champions the leader board of Bordeaux dry whites for the last four vintages, and there is still some of the 2020 available to purchase en primeur at IG Wines for £600 per bottle (in-bond).
Haut-Brion’s sibling estate, La Mission Haut-Brion’s white is characterised by a Sémillon-dominated blend – a grape with naturally low acidity compared to Bordeaux’s other white varietals. With soaring summer temperatures in 2020, the team therefore increased the percentage of Sauvignon Blanc in its blend to 54.7% (up from 30.1% in 2019) to ensure balance. Ella notes the impact of the increased Sauvignon on the wine’s acidity, describing a “zippy acidity, zingy energy, [with a] peach stone finish.” La Mission Haut-Brion’s white gains a WL score of 94 for the 2020 vintage, and can be found at Justerini & Brooks for £480 per bottle (in-bond).
Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc’s white vines are planted just behind the château to the north, where they benefit from a cooler microclimate that withstood high temperatures in 2020. Technical Director, Fabien Teitgen found a “nice balance and liveliness” in the grapes after harvest, while Ella characterises the 2020 as “subtle and flirtatious, building slowly into notes of white pepper and lime, as well as pure white fruit”. Gaining a WL score of 93, Smith Haut Lafitte blanc 2020 is available at Honest Grapes for £96 per bottle (in-bond).
Located at the heart of the Landes pine forest, Domaine de Chevalier’s vines are also subject to a cooler microclimate as a result of the surrounding woodland, which was certainly welcomed in 2020. When sampling the latest release at the estate, Ella enjoyed the richness of the vintage, noting “Aromas of tangerine, white flowers, custard, and acacia honey” and a palate that is “creamy and caressing […] with a lift of tension and a savoury bite.” Receiving a WL score of 93, Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2020 can be acquired from Berry Bros & Rudd for £68 per bottle (in-bond).
Though First Growth Margaux has been producing a dry white for over 300 years, Pavillon Blanc 2020 marks the 100th anniversary under its current name. The only non-Pessac pick to feature in the top-five ranking, the success of the latest release was not without its challenges. Tasting alongside Margaux’s Managing Director, Philippe Bascaules, and Business Development Director, Alexis Leven-Mentzelopoulos, Ella was informed of the high mildew pressure as a result of a hot wet spring in 2020, which risked affecting the Sauvignon Blanc grapes of their single-varietal wine. Nevertheless, their 2020 receives a WL score of 93, with Ella describing a “Really rich, mouthcoating texture on entering the mouth – almost a Chardonnay-esque opulence”, and declaring the wine “Delicious.” Pavillon Blanc 2020 can be purchased en primeur from Goedhuis & Co for £180 per bottle (in-bond).