Bordeaux 2022: vintage preview
Author: Mark Pardoe MW
It was “an exceptional year”, says Mark Pardoe MW. Ahead of the comprehensive En Primeur tastings, we asked our Wine Director to examine how a vintage of sweltering heat has yielded such balanced, lively and age-worthy wines.
The 2022 vintage will live long in the memory of the Bordelais. The year was so hot and dry that irrigation was permitted for the first time in some regions, and forest fires dominated the news during July. Yet what was harvested is of very high quality. These are luscious, plush wines that coat the mouth with flavour and intensity yet have somehow preserved freshness and balance. This is a vintage unlike any other in recent memory, with some older hands drawing comparisons with 1947 or 1929.
A COLD START
Winter was cold, and drier than usual. But from February, average temperatures were higher than normal. The vines were sufficiently advanced to be exposed when heavy spring frost (now an almost-annual event) hit in early April. Unlike in 2021, however, much of the damage was averted using candles and frost towers. It was a close call. There was then hardly any rain until June, which provided a little respite before the torrid temperatures in July and August.
There were two bands of heavy, fist-sized hail: one across the northern Médoc, just above St Estèphe; the other between Margaux and Bordeaux, leaving the famous communes of the Left Bank unscathed. The lower band continued to the Right Bank, bisecting Blaye and Pomerol. As with the frosts, it was a near miss for the big names, although many petits châteaux were badly affected.
FEELING THE HEAT
But the heat and drought are the keynotes of the vintage. It was the driest July since 1959, and there were five separate heatwaves between May and September. Temperatures hit 42 degrees Celsius, the highest since 1947. Forest fires destroyed nearly 30,000 hectares of woodland in Landiras and La Teste-de-Buch, the worst damage since 1949. Thankfully, concerns of smoke taint were unfounded. This was due to the thickness of the skins at the time, in turn due to the drought.
Amid these conditions, the vines seemed resilient – although younger vines with shallow roots did suffer. The berries were small, and the skins began to wrinkle, but at no stage did the vines fully shut down or stop ripening. This stage was key for the excellent levels of phenolic ripeness at harvest. So too was the decision to green harvest, reducing the number of grapes each vine had to nourish.
There was relief in mid-August when rain finally fell, just before the harvest for the dry whites. Some châteaux began picking on their earliest dates on record; others waited. The weather stayed warm and dry throughout, and picking was concluded quickly and safely. The bunches were very small, the fruit beautifully healthy and fully ripe.
This is a small vintage, due both to the fruit-dropping earlier in the summer and also the grapes’ low water content after the extended dry weather. Some châteaux yielded as little as 20hl/ha; most are around 35hl/ha.
IN THE CELLAR
Most châteaux recognised that extraction had to be restrained and intuitive, but others felt that the maximum should be made of such natural bounty. Successful wines are available from both camps. Alcohol is around 14%, and tannins are very ripe and intense. There are good levels of freshness also; although the pH levels are on the high side, the wines have energy and minerality.
Despite the year being so hot and dry, the wines are balanced and full of life. Empirically, such conditions lead to heavy, alcoholic and flat wines; that charge cannot be laid against 2022. There are some likely contributory elements here.
The early start to the warm (then hot), dry weather, starting from February, possibly encouraged the vines to start their search for water early on. This helped later in summer when temperatures turned extreme. This ongoing access to water kept the vines ticking over and stopped them from shutting down to preserve water.
Many people’s minds will turn to 2003, a similarly torrid year. But the nights in 2022 were significantly cooler, allowing the vines to recoup some of their energy. And in the two decades since, skills in vineyard and soil management have improved beyond measure. It is hard now to find a serious Bordeaux vigneron who does not appreciate the importance of the biodiversity of insects, nematodes and mycorrhizal fungi in the vineyard soils. These practices act almost as an immune system for the vines, allowing them to adapt individually to the climatic challenges. Other considerations, including the more forensic management of each plot, likely played a part this year.
There would not seem to be a winner between the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The Cabernets of the Médoc and Graves are outstanding, as are the Merlots of Pomerol and St Emilion. Those with more water-retentive soils or older vines will have benefited, but essentially: where a vine is well married to its terroir, it will have succeeded this year.
This is an exceptional vintage for reds, in all senses of the word. It is not easy to compare with others; perhaps a little like 2005 but with more weight, or 2018 with more freshness. The dry white wines, harvested in August, are plump, exotic, generous and rounded. The fruit is overt and succulent and should give a lot of pleasure in the short and medium term. The sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac have exceeded expectations. They are rich and well-perfumed, and volumes are not too drastically small this year – for a change.
BORDEAUX 2022: A SUMMARY
The reds combine accessibility with intensity. They are a remarkable expression of an extraordinary year, and they will age superbly. The dry whites will give pleasure to their slowly growing number of followers, and the sweet whites are rich and balanced. This is an exceptional year, but not without precedent. There have been hotter and drier years, and years with forest fires before, but never have these challenges come with such frequency. The 2022 vintage may have dodged a few bullets on its way to success, but it also acts as a signpost for the future of Bordeaux.
Always interesting to read and analyse, I am particularly delighted to read that Sauternes/Barsac seems to have had a better time of it.
I can’t wait to read the daily briefings from next weeks on-the-ground visit and tastings.
A miracle in the vineyard or some post picking sculduggery? It seems truly extraordinary that the 2022 vintage has turned out so well.
Hello Edward, many thanks for your comment. Mark had the below note for you.
All the best,
“It does seem to to be miraculous and for that reason many châteaux were unable to explain the success of the vintage. Many of the theories are outlined in our vintage preview. Note that there we state that the vintage may have “dodged a bullet” – a different series of climatic events would have certainly resulted in very different wines. But there is no sense of skullduggery – for the important châteaux the risks to their brand by doing anything illegal would be disastrous – and what is most surprising is that there is little sense of acidification (which is legal under EU wine law). When that happens, the acidity is usually detectable on tasting as being dissociated or unbalanced on the palate. There is little evidence of that; indeed the freshness is usually articulated as “mineral”, “saline” or “phenolic”, instead of citric. It is also worth stating that the style of the wines was consistent across all the tastings, making a Bordeaux-wide conspiracy inconceivable. So, yes, a miracle in the vineyard but do not underestimate the impact of more sustainable viticultural practices, more intelligent management of the extractions and, above all, the experience gained in the twenty years since the heatwave of 2003 and during the recent sequence of hot years.”