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June 8, 2023

Bordeaux 2022: Something new under the sun—Catch 22

Simon Field MW delivers his definitive overview of the Bordeaux 2022 vintage.

By Simon Field MW

What a year! Severe frost, mildew, brown rot, a lack of hydric stress, a cool summer, then rain at harvest and a final burst of mildew for good measure. Incredible. I refer of course to 2021, not one of Bordeaux’s finest. Everything rehearsed hereabove was turned on its head, however, in 2022, which is already being indented in the same marble as the greats of the past, 2016 and 2010 among them. Even better, many are saying. 1961 has been mooted (Henri Lurton), as has 1945 (Damien Barton Sartorius), and at Léoville-Las-Cases, based on empirical experience no doubt, they suggest a comparison with 1870. The year of the Paris Commune.

Luminous

Let’s get the clichés out of the way first. During my three and a half weeks of tasting in Bordeaux, certain terms came up again and again: the “luminosity” of the wines, the “resilience” of the vines, and the overall “miracle” of the vintage. How could a year that broke records for prolonged high temperatures and unprecedented dryness yield wines of such freshness and vibrancy, such sapidity, and with such highly refined tannins? Many theories were offered, some more plausible than others. There was unanimity, however, in recognizing that 2022 was rather special.

Noblesse oblige

Let’s hear a few words from those close to the vines. Christian Moueix, the urbane patriarch of the empire that has been built around (often quite literally) Petrus, is positive: “It was a year of sun rather than heat—a nuanced but significant difference. Reports of the death of Merlot are greatly exaggerated,” he adds waspishly. It is hard to argue. Henri Lurton at Brane-Cantenac, meanwhile, praises “un millésime chaud qui (ne) fait pas comme un millésime chaud,” (“a hot vintage that didn’t act like a hot vintage”)—testament to all the hard work done in the face of climate change over the past 20 years. Similar conditions 25 years ago would not have bestowed similar jewels.

Jean-Dominique Videau at Branaire-Ducru is not a professional anthropomorphologist, yet he concludes that the vines may have “got used” to the hot conditions; they are just like a human being, he maintains: “Over time, they adapt to the intense heat and are therefore less likely to suffer from sunburn. We should have more confidence in nature; there is no merit in describing 2022 as a miracle, for all the miraculous quality evidenced,” he concludes with a flourish of Gallic wordplay. The vines are also humanized by Guillaume Fredoux, maître de chai at Petit-Village, who maintains that it was their unprecedented resilience that presaged the quality on display. For him, the warm Spring was key—significantly warmer than in other recent warm years.

The wines were more heterogenous and more impacted by the climate in both 2018 and 2020, says Aymeric de Gironde at Troplong Mondot. He has been involved with properties on both sides of the Estuary (previously at Pichon Baron and Cos d’Estournel) and cannot remember such felicitous conditions, He is happy to confirm that this, his eighth vintage in St-Emilion, is certainly his best. To date, that is!

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

Gonzague Lurton, meanwhile, the scion of one of the region’s most influential dynasties, maintains that 2022 offered the bonus of two excellent vintages rolled into one—“solaire et classique”—and that the vines were not distressed (stress does not mean distress, is his pithy conclusion). He knows all about heat from his California vineyard and recognizes how the vines behave in the face of hot and dry conditions. In his 25 years of experience in Margaux (and elsewhere), he has seen the vines struggle only once, and that was in 2003. More of that instructive comparison later.

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One or two more overview comments before we look at the season itself. “A mind-blowing vintage,” according to Daisy Sichel at Château Angludet, “a surprise and a relief. The vine is able not only to recover from punishing conditions, but actually to benefit from them. No blocage, no stress. A great year.” Meanwhile, François Mitjavile at Tertre Roteboeuf uses the word “époustouflant,” which means breath-taking. He also, interestingly, selects the epithet “rôtie”—not as in the roasted slope of Côte Rôtie in the Rhône Valley, but, if I understood correctly, with the word assuming its full etymological meaning: rotation, in the round, the meat or grape, in this case, perfectly “done from and on all sides.” I may be reading too much into the word, but herein lies the logic of the whole, the essence of harmony, in vinous terms.

According to Christian Moueix, “the death of Merlot” [pictured here in St-Emilion] has been greatly exaggerated.”

And as we are in philosophical mode, Stephan von Neipperg at Canon-la-Gaffelière detects an almost Hegelian pendulum in the evolution of his profession; the winemaker was the most important… now it is the vines, but things must not and will not go too far in one direction, or the golden mean will be sacrificed. The humanist inclination must live side by side with a more pantheistic approach. 2022, to Stephan, and to many others, is a vintage to showcase human virtue in the face of natural benevolence—only achieved by giving precedence to the latter. A year of harmony in every sense.

The four seasons

What, then, were the conditions that gifted such a special year?

The wet 2021 must surely, finally, bear some credit for replenishing the water table and succouring the vines through the ensuing drought. December 2021 was especially important in that respect, with more than 11 inches (228mm) of rain falling, above the monthly average. The early months of 2022 were relatively dry and mild, however, provoking a relatively early budbreak and, with it, the now annual anxiety over the prospect of Spring frost.

And sure enough, there was a widespread frost in early April. From April 2–5, the night-time mercury dropped dramatically, in some low-lying areas getting as low as 16oF (-9oC), causing sleepless nights for vignerons. I recall driving through the vineyards of Pessac-Léognan at the time, when there was a strangely apocalyptic atmosphere. The candles of the hours around dawn had been replaced by bonfires, and hay or straw or whatever came to hand was lit up; the miasmic fog that resulted was eery indeed, and the near-religious experience of the ordered and frankly beautiful pageantry of the evenly spread candles was replaced by something far more sinister. The methods may have been varied (fans and heaters are more and more common) but, to a greater or lesser extent, they did protect most of the vines and avoided the risk of decimation. The frosts did, however, have a minor impact on yields, and partially explain why the crop in 2022 was relatively short. This, for many, has been the only source of complaint during the entire growing season.

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

Warm and dry weather followed until the mid-May flowering, which was earlier than usual, and described by Marielle Cazaux at La Conseillante as “explosive.” Herein lies one of the key explanations for the resilience of the vines. In 2003 and 2008, the other significant hot years of the past two decades, the Spring was, in fact, rather wet. The vines were lulled into a false sense of security in terms of water retention and were not ready for the shock that was to come. In 2022, however, they seem to have taken stock of the situation and prepared for the long haul. “The vines love heat and dryness,” insists Cyrille Thienpont at Pavie Macquin, “as long as they are not taken by surprise.” They were not, clearly; the skins got thick, and the antioxidant capacity gifted by the polyphenols served to protect and also, as a bonus, to enhance aromatic potential. The vines were ready for the onslaught that was to come.

June was crucial for two reasons; first, rain, much needed and seemingly redemptive, but second, the not unrelated but not remotely redemptive phenomenon of hail, localized over two corridors: one in St-Estèphe across the river to the Côtes de Blaye, the other in the Southern Médoc, between Macau and the city of Bordeaux itself. The elaborate hail canons and balloons that have been invented to minimize the risk of hail damage (changing the ambient temperature to avoid its formation or reducing the size of the hailstones) were not brought to bear quickly enough, such was the ferocity of the storm. There was a huge impact on those whose vines were in the tempest’s path: Charmail, Beau-Site, Phélan Ségur, and Sociando-Mallet, for example, all suffered significant losses because of the destruction wrought on part (but only part) of their vineyards. The hail was, thankfully, localized; the rain, however, was not, and proved to be a real fillip.

Thereafter, there was practically no rain at all until the harvest. A long-drawn-out spell of hot and dry weather ensued, but with heat spikes rather than the intense prolonged heatwave of 2003. This is important because the spikes were of relatively short duration, so the vines were able to continue to function, albeit with somewhat reduced photosynthesis taking place during the dog days of August. The water-retaining clay and the porous, sponge-like limestone were best suited to weather this (lack of) storm, the gravelly and, especially, sandy soils, less so. The younger vines suffered most because of their lack of deep-penetrating root systems.

A long, hot summer ensued. July was the driest since 1959, and there was even a derogation to irrigate as an emergency measure in Pessac-Léognan, Pomerol, and St-Emilion. It was generally not taken up (for logistical and cost reasons, as much as anything), which was maybe just as well, given the quality of the wine that eventually emerged. 2016, 2018, and 2020 all had dry summers, but nothing like 2022. The rainfall in July was 0.1 inch (3mm), and in August it was 1 inch (27mm); the ten-year average being 1.5 inch and 1 inch (37mm and 27mm) respectively, the 30-year average up to 2 inches (50mm) in both cases. Heat and dust, with little respite. Hydric stress, however, is essential to nurture the tension required in all great wine. Guillaume Pouthier at Les Carmes Haut-Brion describes it as “hydric restraint” rather than “hydric stress.” The vine he compares to a rope, which when stretched (the roots and tendrils, I infer) provides the optimum interface between the earth and the sky. I think, a little extravagantly, of Wagner’s Norns, weaving the thread of life.

Guillaume Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan discerns similarities in the cycle between 2020 and 2022, except that in 2020 the heat was drastic, whereas in 2022 it was progressive. He describes his vines as both “opportunistic” and “lazy,” in the sense that they will try and get all of their nutrient requirements from the first three feet (meter) or so of the soil (clay and clay-gravel at VCC, with more gravel as it gets closer to Le Pin). Only force majeure will the vines dig deeper; all the required complexity therefore comes from the topsoil. This line of thought may well run counter to the somewhat romantic idea of vines digging deeper and deeper. The vine, in point of fact, wants to expand only above the ground, looking toward the sun. For that reason, Alexandre, Guillaume’s father (known, affectionately and appropriately in this context, as Professeur Tournesol [Sunflower]) describes the vigneron as the torturer of the vine. The vine, he says, “does not have a soul,” and is essentially rebellious of anything that slows down vigor.

VCC’s Guillaume Thienpont, found similarities between the cycle 2020 and 2022, “except that in 2020 the heat was drastic, whereas in 2022 it was progressive.” Photography by Alexandre James Rocca-Serra, from Fiona Morrison,
10 Great Wine Families (Académie du Vin Library, 2021).

Cooler nights reduced fears of another 2003. Even though there were days of de facto canicule (heatwave), Guillaume Pouthier at Les Carmes Haut-Brion emphasizes that the lower night-time temperatures were key to the physiological development of the vines. While there were a similar number of days with temperatures above 95˚F (35˚C), in 2003 there were eight or nine nights with temperatures above 77˚F (25˚C), whereas in 2022 there was a maximum overnight temperature of 68˚F (20˚C), in Pessac-Léognan. As are result, there was none of the extended blocage encountered not only in 2003, but also in 2018 and 2020.

François Mitjavile at Tetre Roteboeuf describes an “epic drought,” the adjective almost oxymoronic; how can something so good come out of something so difficult, he asks rhetorically. His answer, while conceding the significance of both the Gulf Stream and the diurnal variation, is mostly down to the porous nature of his soils, the limestone component in particular, which released its reserves of water when, and only when, it was required.

Bordeaux 2022 Field notes: St-Estèphe’s northern belles

Be that as it may, even the older vines were starting to feel the heat by August. Nature, however, once again came to the rescue with a little more rain—just enough, according to Ronan Laborde at Clinet, to see them through the rest of the summer. Meanwhile, wildfires raged on the periphery of the main stage, destroying some 75,000 acres (30,000ha) of woodland in Landiras and La Teste-de-Buch. The near-apocalyptic threat failed to encroach, but there was a long-standing anxiety about smoke taint—largely unfounded, it seems.

Harvest festival

And so to what turned out to be a long and glorious harvest festival, celebrated in perfect conditions with no disease threat and the option to pick as and when it suited. Early picking was the preferred option, the earliest at Mouton since 1893, all of its white grapes safely gathered in by the end of August. Christophe Congé at Lafon-Rochet and Jérôme Poisson at Giscours were among the coterie who used drones to monitor the ripeness of the grapes by means of infra-red photography. Levels of precision have advanced, clearly, here as elsewhere, and the coincidence of physiological and phenolic ripeness was assured, all the more so as the fall aspired to Keatsean benevolence, with few signs of ending. Therefore, if things were early in general (Aymeric at Troplong Mondot had never ventured out to pick his Merlot in August, for example), some growers, including Léoville Poyferré and Ducru-Beaucaillou, did not feel rushed. There were multiple tries, with vigilance employed to ensure that any desiccated grapes were avoided. “We took our time,” says Henri Lurton at Brane-Cantenac; he started the Merlot on September 7, and finished the Carmenère on October 10.

Bordeaux 2022 harvest at Château Pichon Baron
Harvest at Château Pichon Baron. Photography © Château Pichon Baron.

Yields and production

“Our debt to nature in 2022,” says Jean-Dominique Videau, poetically, “resided in lower yields.” Branaire-Ducru, indeed, was bang on the St-Julien average of 34hl/ha, appreciably down on the ten-year average. The berries were small, their weight historically low at 1g for Cabernet and 1.5g for Merlot (the hot, windy September conditions meant that they lost a further 3 percent of their weight every day, another reason to pick early), and, as we have seen, there had been a little frost, not to mention hail. The dry conditions and gravelly soils meant that yields were generally between ten and 15 percent down on average on the Left Bank, more so in hail-touched St-Estèphe. The clay and limestone on the Right Bank resulted in healthier yields, with St-Emilion bucking the trend, its yields of 41hl/ha actually up on the ten-year average. Sauternes, to which we shall return later, yielded appreciably more than in 2021 (a lofty 14.7hl/ha), hardly surprising given the disasters visited upon its fields during the previous year, when some producers didn’t make any sweet wine at all.

The crus classés and their ilk make up, lest we forget, a small part of greater Bordeaux—much less than 10 percent—but the weather is neither capricious nor selective. Volumes were universally modest, the total 2022 production of 4.14 million hl down on the Bordeaux ten-year average for the third year in a row. Only 2021 and the frosty 2017 performed less well in terms of volume. 2014, 2015, and the uniformly praised 2016 all produced appreciably more, with 2016’s 5.77 million hl the highest over the past decade. Everyone would have liked to make a little more of the 2022.

One of the many paradoxes facing Bordeaux, indeed, lies in the putative overproduction on the lower rungs of the ladder, compared with the aspiration to produce as much as possible, in an acclaimed vintage, at the top end. So, different voices pulling in different directions; an economist’s nightmare and ensuing disagreement on pricing and positioning. This notwithstanding, it seems that the pricing, after three years of Covid-influenced moderation, is back on an upward trajectory. The cocktail of high quality, lower quantity, and a general renaissance of interest in Bordeaux (come in Burgundy, your time is up!) is a heady one. “If not now, when,” one producer who shall remain nameless comments to me, when discussing price rises. A very complex area.

In the vineyard

The vineyards of Bordeaux in the late Spring are invited to compete with an array of cover crops and surrounding greenery; the micro-environment, which once attempted to channel all of the energy into the vine itself, anxious that ripening would be only half-hearted, now assumes a more confident and diverse approach. Long gone is the image of the parsimonious peasant farmer, claiming all of nature for himself and his vines. The organisms in the soil—nematodes, insects, fungal spores, and the like—are essential to the activity that in itself signals health and eschews excess. Horses work the land and the soil does not get overly compacted. The cover crops have the advantage of cooling down the soil, too; the only issue focuses on the timing of their removal, especially if they are seen to compete for water when the drought sets in.

Similar decisions focus on the canopy itself. Leaf-plucking must be done pragmatically, for there are complex, often competing needs: the need to ensure that photosynthesis takes place, the need to avoid too much transpiration, and the need to avoid surplus leaves, which may take too much energy. Each vine will require different treatment, Valerio Mortari at Trotte Vieille reminds us. The philosophy of Marielle Cazaux at La Conseillante involves the lowering the height of the canopy; the ratio between the height of the canopy and the space between rows dictates the volume of leaves in a controlled fashion: 25% fewer leaves, still protecting, but preserving and ensuring that the photosynthesis still proceeds; no shut down, no sunburn, a happy result! She draws a diagram in my tasting booklet, brilliantly. I shall keep it.

Micro-management then, pour encourager, and then a reliance on the vines themselves. The idea of the grapes adapting is taken up by Véronique Sanders at Haut-Bailly. She describes the vintage as prophetic, not in the sense of the Baptist sweltering in the desert, predicting something far more significant, but rather in the sense that the entire process, in the vineyard and winery alike, has been, of late, so minutely refined that the modus operandus today is a template of what is to come; and what is more, there is no fear. Her technical director, Gabriel Vialard, is optimistic; the heatwaves in 2023 in Pessac were severe, he maintains, but they were spread over a long period (one in May, one in June, two in July, one in August) and the vines did not suffer. One has only to look at the trees, however, points out Véronique; the leaves on the surrounding oaks were brown all through August, as was the grass. But not so the vines, with, as usual, the older vines proving the most resourceful.

Château Haut-Bailly, Bordeaux
Château Haut-Bailly. Photography by Clay McLahan

Charlotte Mignon at Larrivet Haut-Brion picks up this particular baton, comparing the phenomenon of drought with that of heatwave; one may feel that the two dovetail inevitably, but the former can be a delayed process, while the latter is a sudden shock. The former engenders an absence of water, the latter a physiological process whereby the grapes attempt to transpire in order for the photosynthesis to take place. The solution that she and others adopted is not that far removed from the application of a sun cream and the carrying of a parasol, the wine once more humanized, as if it were an elegant lady in a Degas painting strolling along the promenade at Deauville. Yet this “talc,” this covering of clay (aka kaolin, see Alex Maltman, WFW 69, 2020, pp.130–31), has served the vines well, together with the additional protection afforded by the decision not to thin the leaves, thereby to afford cover. The grapes are thus able to adapt, to conserve energy at just the moment when they are at their most vulnerable. And then all the vigneron has to do is to decide when to harvest, as we have seen. “Facile” (“easy”), says Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy at Mouton Rothschild; “no rain, no botrytis, and nature on our side.” Quite so.

A good year, then, to be organic, or at least to pursue the “lutte raisonnée. Several producers have entered the conversion period, with Gruaud-Larose, Pédésclaux, and d’Yquem “coming out” as fully organic with their ’22s. We see Palmer, du Tertre, Smith Haut Laffite, and Pontet-Canet in the vanguard of this movement, yarrow and chamomile aplenty in their treatments, but in all honesty the impetus is near-universal. The lack of disease pressure, pace Mathieu Bessonnet at Pontet-Canet, allied to the hot weather, meant that 2022 was the perfect year in which to put organic philosophy into practice. It is impressive to see Bordeaux, with its unpredictable Atlantic meteorology, raising its game in this as in so many other areas.

In the winery

A crop of small berries, high in anthocyanin and extract, hardly requiring sorting, was farmed. What then? There is generally more cold-soaking these days, aromatics thereby enhanced. Slight differences of opinion in the methodology of extraction itself were evidenced, however; a delicate infusion was the philosophy of Sébastien Vergne at Margaux, with far fewer pump-overs than usual; Hélène Génin at Latour did not reduce their number, rather their temperature and, marginally, their duration.

Others took the opposite view. The skins were thick, so more work than usual was required to effect extraction. This was the view of Thomas Duroux at Palmer. Cyrille and Nicolas Thienpont at Pavie Macquin took a similar view; Nicolas was keen to bring out “the fatness of the tannins… the flesh on the bone of this exceptional vintage.” Some felt that the addition of press wine was an additional means of controlling the texture of the final wine. Again, opinion was divided; at Brane Cantenac (15.8%) and at Tetre Rôteboeuf the proportion of press-wine was at its highest level ever, yet at, say, Cheval Blanc, none was added back (as usual).

One of the key “battle grounds” was alcohol control and its interface with acidity and pH. The risk, of course, was the production of overripe and alcoholic wines, and while it would be reasonable to say that ABVs of 14% or 14.5 % constitute the new norm (between a half and a whole degree higher than a decade ago), it would also be fair to surmize that there were virtually no wines where the “burn” or “glow” felt excessive, and only very few (Calon-Ségur and Troplong Mondot among them) owning up to an ABV of 15% (though neither of those two seems overblown). No need to chaptalize, for sure, but very few acidified their wines, thanks be to God. Very few admitted to it, at least. Matthieu Bordes at Lagrange is one of many who feels that the heat is less evident in the wines than in, say, 2003 or 2018. He notes that there were 31 days when the temperature went above 90ºF (32ºC) in St-Julien, compared to 20 days in 2018—and yet his 2022 came out at a mere 13.7% ABV rather than the 14.5% ABV reached four years earlier. Yet another enigma to shape the style of the vintage.

Other approaches were adopted. Guillaume Pouthier made an outstanding Carmes Haut-Brion in 2022, and did so with 70 percent of his grapes vinified by whole-bunch fermentation. He advises that in a hot vintage like 2022, such a process, not normally associated with an Atlantic climate, makes a lot of sense; the stalks were ripe, but acidity was raised, and the alcohol level lowered, in this instance by a whole degree, to 13.5%.

Bordeaux 2022 Field Notes: Carmes before the storm

In tandem with alcohol, of course, is acidity, and the need to avoid its degradation. 2022 saw very low levels of malic acid (this in turn reducing the “softening” impact of the malolactic conversion), but restorative tartaric acid proved resilient and ensured that the pH levels, if on the high side, did not get out of hand; ditto the potential for volatile acidity. The pH levels need to be viewed in the light of the alcohol itself; Philippe Bascaules at Margaux notes that the alcohol level was the highest ever in his grand vin (14.5%) and yet the pH remained at 3.6, and the overall balance in the wine was thus maintained. Frédéric Ardouin at du Tertre was pleasantly surprised: “We expected a pH of 3.7 or 3.8, so the final 3.6 was a revelation.” Cheval Blanc was nearer the highest of these three pH figures, and Pierre-Olivier Clouet warns that it will be important to be vigilant when it comes to the élevage of the wine, to avoid potential volatility and, of course, to ensure that the wood tannins do not overwhelm the ensemble. Other examples of relatively high pH levels include Haut-Bailly (3.92), Haut-Brion (3.9), and Pichon Lalande. At this stage, the wines do not seem remotely fragile, however—quite the reverse. Time will tell.

The consensus seems to have been that structurally the wines will not necessarily benefit from overoaking. All the work has been done in the vineyard, as demonstrated by the fact that the measurement of tannins in the must, the IPT (translated as Total Polyphenol Index) is 15 percent higher on average than in 2018 or 2020, both hot vintages. Examples at the upper end of the scale include Les Carmes Haut-Brion with an IPT of 98, Lynch-Bages with an IPT of 95, and Montrose, which weighs in at 85.

As with the sugar, however, these tannins do not feel excessive or overworked and, crucially, the number of wines with any astringency or dryness on the finish, is very small indeed. This natural equilibrium has been enhanced by reducing the proportion of new oak and, in more and more instances, turning for the élevage to larger containers (500 hectoliters and upward) and / or amphorae. Very few properties are now using 100% new oak; among the first growths, Mouton Rothschild and Lafite still are, but not Haut-Brion (where the proportion is now a modest but quite sufficient 63%). Other wines associated with muscular styles have also cut back, including Pichon Baron (70%) and Lynch-Bages (75%). Many have opted for the “half-and-half” approach, including Cos d’Estournel, Giscours, and Haut-Bailly, all of which are aging their 2022s in 50% new oak. Others, such as Palmer, take a more chronological approach, in its case moving the wine to older casks after the first year of élevage.

In short, the purpose of maturation has been reassessed in the light of the riper fruit, and a lighter touch is in play almost universally. Even addresses previously associated with indulgently oaky styles—Parker favorites such as Pavie, Pape Clément, and Le Dôme among them—have heeded the message and, if I may dare to presume, made better wines as a result.

Energy, vibrancy, and harmony are encountered with near uniform regularity in the wines. Ripe purity and generous discretion need not be oxymoronic concepts, certainly not in 2022. When it comes to identifying the most successful communes, one is also faced with a dilemma, in that they were all good in their own way. Overall, maybe (but with so many exceptions that it almost invalidates the generalization), St-Emilion, especially where Cabernet Franc was involved, impressed just as much as Pomerol, which is unusual; Graves and Pessac were, enfin, a little less beguiling than the wines of the Médoc, its hail-ravaged northern enclaves excepted. Elsewhere, superlatives flow: I was particularly taken by what I describe as the “charming austerity” of the best from St-Estèphe, and by the aromatic authority on display in St-Julien. Margaux, the largest of the four central Médoc communes, was, understandably, a little more variable, but the best are very good indeed. I was bouleversé by the quality of the top Pauillacs. Latour (which hasn’t been offered en primeur for several years now) was my favorite of all from the Left Bank, but proxime accessit must come the outstanding Pichon Baron, less muscular than of old and all the better for it, and the rejuvenated Léoville Barton, putting its new winery to good use from the off. On the Right Bank, Conseillante, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Figeac were all outstanding, with Troplong Mondot and Vieux Château Certan also worthy of special mention. All of these wines will, needless to say, keep for several decades.

Whites and sweets

The white wines were generally less impressive than those of the cooler 2021 vintage. Naturally there were excellent examples, but the conditions that, almost miraculously, forged the wonderful reds, will potentially have jeopardized freshness and levels of natural acidity in the whites. Lees-stirring and oak-aging both had to be managed with care to avoid overwhelming the structure of the wines, and the picking date (often the whites were all brought in before the end of August) needed to be carefully selected. Malolactic fermentation was almost universally eschewed, understandably, and acidification widely practiced, equally understandably. Some of the whites were a little exotic, stylistically, and others labored under mid-palate weight. This paints a rather gloomy picture, which is unintended. Many of the white wines will give genuine pleasure and will continue to do so over the short to medium term. Two of the very best examples, which managed to retain a natural acidity without forsaking textural complexity, were Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan and Pavillon Blanc from Château Margaux.

The sweet wines benefited from late on-set botrytis—so late in a season marked elsewhere by precocity, that many inferred that victory had been seized from the jaws of defeat. And what a rotton victory it was, too, with perfectly botrytic grapes suddenly appearing and, just as fast, in need of harvesting.

Style was exclusively a result of the choice of picking date(s) and the nuances usually discerned between different terroirs (broadly speaking, fuller in Sauternes and more elegant in Barsac) were all but irrelevant.

Bordeaux 2022 Sauternes and Barsac
Vineyards in Sauternes. Photography by iStock / Getty Images Plus

How so? Well, after the dry summer—rainfall at (350mm) was less than half the average of (800 mm)—the grapes were perfectly ripe and primed for the humid conditions required for the onset of botrytis cinerea (noble rot). The heat lasted long into September, and several growers, starting to get a little anxious, made their first trie in the vineyard to collect non-botrytic grapes (ripe and passerillé, a style known rather pleasingly as la pourriture de l’été); then, at last, on the cusp of October, came the wet and humid conditions required to catalyze the rot. Enfin! Now all that was needed was a final flourish of sunshine to coax the shriveled grapes into the perfect physiological state for picking. Nothing happened, so many growers set out for another trie, their crop this time somewhat dilute and only partially botrytic. And then, finally, and to the relief of those who had not picked at all thus far, there was a very warm spell of ten days (up to 82ºF [28ºC] in the latter part of October is pretty warm) and a rush to bring in what was by now a perfectly botrytic crop. Frédéric Nivelle at Climens describes it well: “Anxiety… and then more anxiety… but then the marathon became a sprint.” The crop had to be gathered before the acidity levels dipped irredeemably, so it was a race against the clock for those who had waited this long.

Bordeaux 2022 Field notes: Sauternes—ripeness is all

A real diversity of styles ensued, all depending on which of the three tries mentioned above was the most influential at a particular property. The gamut is run between, say, Jean-Pierre Meslier, who preferred the leaner, gentler style of tries 1 and 2 for his Raymond-Lafon, and vignerons such as Pierre Montégut at Suduiraut, who relied almost exclusively on trie3. Suduiraut therefore boasts 190g/l of residual sugar and is incredibly luscious, whereas the Raymond Lafon is a little more delicate, far less sweet, and less obviously botrytic. The apotheosis can be encountered at Lafaurie-Peyraguey, which weighs in at an almost-unprecedented 260g/l of residual sugar; all the more extraordinary is the fact that, structurally speaking, the wine seems entirely in balance.

Terroir hardly gets a look in. It is all about the decision on picking dates, and the resulting styles are as diverse as they are intriguing. The wines with RS levels between 140g/l and 160g/l (de Fargues, Rayne Vigneau, Climens, and Doisy-Daëne among them) make up the majority, for sure, but even these can be conspicuously different, from the generous and imperious de Fargues, to the more contemplative Doisy-Daëne. Terroir has struggled to make it through the sugar rush. Terroir has come unstuck in Sauternes in 2022, some may say.

Concluding remarks

Cela n’était pas la vraie signature de la météo” (“That [the vintage] wasn’t the real signature of the weather”), speculates José Sanfins at Château Cantenac Brown. An exceptional vintage then, or the new norm? Comparisons, for Jean-Luc Thunevin, do not bear much scrutiny; first, because of an unprecedented coincidence of benevolent climatic conditions, but more important, because the savoir faire simply wasn’t there in the past—the “coping mechanisms” adopted in both vineyard and winery the result of hard-worn empirical experimentation (for want of a better word). It is fun, of course, to compare 2022 with 1982, or 1961, or whatever, but ultimately not much more than fun. From both ends of the telescope—from the microcosm of human intervention and the broader descant of celestial voices—nothing is as it was before. There is not nothing new under the sun.

Words of caution underly what can only be described as a rather endearing cocktail of astonishment and relief supped post facto by these farmers, supposedly the most sophisticated of all vignerons. Bordeaux has raised its game, and the growers have risen to the challenges. Even after my three Spring visits, however, I have no definitive explanation of the qualitative “miracle,” itself a word that was as ubiquitous as it was unhelpful. From Dominique Arangoït’s speculation of the moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde, especially under a northeasterly wind, to Frédéric Faye’s encomium on rootstock selections, or Ducru-Beaucaillou’s praise for the “significant” morning mists in the vineyards; from diurnal variation, to intelligent vines, an anthropomorphic panacea, theories there have been aplenty. And many, indeed most of them, are hallmarked with credibility.

It should be added, though, that most theories also carried with them words of warning; as in: “We got away with it this time, but…” According to Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc, “On s’est glissé dans un trou de souris” (“We slipped through a mouse-hole”). The year was great for Bordeaux… but also terrible for Bordeaux. A magnificent warning. I also like the metaphor of Romain Beurienne at du Tertre, who compares 2022 Bordeaux to a high-speed train in a narrow tunnel; all about effortless power, momentum, perfect equilibrium, precision… and the sides of the train being very close to the sides of the tunnel, and therefore to potential disaster. Will there always be light at the end of the tunnel?

What, indeed, of 2023, which will not have the cushion of a humid forebear to fall back upon? The good news is that the frost this April was relatively innocuous, and that there was then a squally, rainy spell of weather, ironically highly valued by the vignerons, all the more so as it had abated by the time of flowering. Now, however, as I write this, in the early days of June, the forecast is for several days of temperatures rising to between 80º and 86ºF (27º–30ºC) or even higher. An echo there, at least, of 2022. We’ll need to see what the summer brings. But it will be hard, in any event, to exceed, or even to equal, the qualitative heights that have been scaled in 2022. And the response of the market so far seems to have been suitably positive, despite the almost-inevitable price rises.

Headlines

Excellent quality in reds; generous, harmonious wines with great aging potential.

Yields reduced by frost and, more substantially, by the effects of drought and heat on berry size; concentration ensued. Old vines key.

Wonderful balance of natural acidity, generous fruit, and powerful but finely honed tannins.

Diurnal variation, protracted heat spikes, and timely June rain all conspired favorably. The heat, although more intense, is less evident in the wines than in other solaire years, especially 2003 and 2018.

An early vintage cycle with a protracted, balmy harvest and little pressure to pick.

White wines are less crisp and focused than in the cooler 2021 vintage; some good examples, however.

Sweet wines are varied, with the harvest dates (late botrytis) the keys to the different styles.

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