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Bordeaux 2022 Field notes: Epoustouflant (adj)—staggering, mind-blowing

Simon Field MW concludes his series of blogs from the Bordeaux 2022 en primeur tastings.

By Simon Field MW

At the end of his time at the Bordeaux 2022 en primeurs, Simon Field MW is better able to define the remarkable quality of the vintage, and to give an informed overview of how the campaign might play out as the wines come to market.

Top and tailing my three visits to Bordeaux this spring were tastings at Valandraud and at Cantenac-Brown, the former located in a less fashionable enclave in the hills outside St-Emilion, the latter in the heart of Margaux, on the central plateau. Jean-Luc Thunevin has completed his new winery, lustrous, expansive, and expensive, whereas José Sanfins is in the middle of his project to create Bordeaux’s first “earth” winery with a zero-carbon footprint. As we walk through the building site, he questions the architect on the provenance and “authenticity” of the raw materials. He is quite exacting. It’s a huge project, and extremely ambitious.

Both properties exude confidence and, frankly, prosperity. Jean-Luc, the original bad boy of Bordeaux, who at one point personified the garagiste movement, now talks ceaselessly about the soils and the need for cover crops. José, one of the rising stars of the Left Bank, is equally eloquent in his panegyric of all things natural and for the need to afford primacy to the soil above anything else. Bordeaux has come quite a long way in the last two decades.

Bordeaux 2022 Field notes: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

The winemakers are united in veneration of the vintage that has just been released, their appreciation embroidered with notes of genuine surprise at its unprecedented quality. “Epoustouflant” (staggering, mind-blowing) is Jean-Luc’s adjective du choix whereas José merely shrugs his shoulders and says “ceci n’est pas la signature de la nature,” implying that the fierce drought conditions should not have bequeathed wines of such energy, freshness, vitality, and luminosity, to borrow some of the most popular descriptors in play.

How has it come to pass? No rain at all in July and virtually none through the entire summer, a record-breaking heat summation, near ubiquitous drought conditions, and ongoing and significant stress in the vines. The stylistic pattern should have followed 2020, 2018, and even 2003, with richly alcoholic wines and the danger of high pH levels and drying tannins at the back of the palate. “Too much,” as they say, rather engagingly, in Bordeaux. Not a bit of it. None of these signatures of danger have been inscribed. There is generosity aplenty and great optimism about the evolution of the wines in both the short and longer term. The oak for the élevage will be employed relatively modestly, merely to reflect the inherent ripeness of the tannins and to avoid in any way jeopardizing structures which are already harmonious.

Bordeaux 2022: The theories

I encountered many explanations for this happy conclusion, some more credible than others. In no particular order: a cold winter; a high water table from above average rain in December 2021; a built-in resistance because, unlike in 2018 and 2020, the heat set in early and the grapes were prepared for what was to come; the timing of the modest June rain as absolutely perfect; the fact that there heat spikes covered an extended period and were not prolonged as in 2003; the fact that even in the height of summer there was morning mist, which provided welcome moisture; the fact that the Gulf Steam managed to keep the Atlantic relatively cold, which had an effect on soil temperature; the significant diurnal temperature variations which were not encountered in 2003 or 2018; the expertise associated with management of canopy crops and, later, canopy management, thereby ensuring curation of moisture retention in the soils; the treatment of the soil itself, with griffage and horse ploughing avoiding unwanted compaction; the expertise in the winery, particularly when it came to extraction—less is more the new dictum—and so on and so on.

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In essence there appears to have been a conspiracy between an exceptional natural backdrop and a more mature and sensitive (and sustainable) approach to its exploitation. Less exploitation, in a sense, and more partnership. Bordeaux, it seems to me, has got over its hubristic phase and is now putting its not insignificant resources back into the land itself. The cycle of life is thus restored, and the results are incredible.

Whether or not such a spirit of enlightenment will stretch to the good offices of commerce is another matter altogether. Here the jury is still out, quite literally given that at the time of writing (June 4, 2023) only a handful of properties have released their wines. Those who take it upon themselves (brave souls) to explain the machinations of the market advise that the 2022s, to be successful, will have to be released at a cheaper price than the current rates for the 2019, 2018, and 2016 vintages.

Bordeaux 2022 Field Notes: Château Cheval Blanc—odds-on favorite

One of the first out of the stable was Cheval Blanc which did exactly that and was still able to release at a price 20 percent higher than the 2021. And it has pretty much sold out, aided a little no doubt, by the fact that a significant tranche has been held back, the quality of the wine itself, one would hope, the key driver.

Of the other releases most (Angélus the exception) have followed this template; Talbot (+21% on ’21), GPL (+16% on ’21), and Léoville Barton (+ 15% on ’21) all selling well and all priced lower than the trilogy mentioned above. It remains to be seen how the first growths, often reluctant to follow the pack, will behave over the next month. The early releases seem to be in a good place, however—that is to say, already signed up and set, one infers, to appreciate in value.

This is good news in the face of global uncertainty (high interest rates and high inflation across the Western world, unpredictable Asian markets, a new era of protectionism, not to mention war in Europe). Vignerons as experienced and perceptive as Jean-Luc Thunevin and José Sanfins are fully aware of this fragile backdrop but feel confident in the ability of this particular vintage to woo the market, even at slightly higher prices than of late. Thus far they appear to be correct.

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