A tough weather year yields huge wines and some surprising winners
The New Wine Review’s Senior Editor Christy Canterbury recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Bordeaux for its annual en primeur showcase. After dozens of interviews, meetings, industry events, winemaker visits and more than 350 tastings, she came back with . . . some thoughts.
Here’s what she has to say about the 2022 vintage, what’s happening on the ground in Bordeaux, and how to buy intelligently in a futures market that’s changed dramatically in recent years.
- These wines are huge. They have dark, inky colors and loads of tannins. Sometimes the tannins were masterfully handled. Sometimes the tannins are parching—saliva-wicking. They’re also relatively low in acidity, but surprisingly, they’ve got great freshness and energy. I suspect lots of these will need time to come around—they’re big and concentrated. If you don’t like big wines, buy the 2021s or something that’s more mature now.
- This wasn’t the blockbuster vintage some might have you believe. The Bordelais are phenomenal salespeople, but it’s laughable that so many people said “it was impossible to make bad wine last year.” No way. 2022 was a very heterogeneous year and a hard year. Generally, the most famous names did excellent work, but plenty of people made bad wines.
- Prices continue their climb. Many of the marquee wines in 2022 are impressively good, and early indications are that prices for the top wines will rise by double digits year over year [shortly before The New Wine Review’s launch, several châteaux announced price increases of 20% or more over 2021]. At this point, much of the anticipated future appreciation is now factored into the en primeur prices. In other words, there aren’t many en primeur bargains here the way there were 20 or 30 years ago.
- You have to do your homework in this vintage to know what to buy. Quality varies significantly from producer to producer in this vintage. But quantities were lower (particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines), while input costs continued to rise—so these are expensive gambles to make if you don’t buy carefully.
The weather’s changing for the worse, but winemaking is changing for the better
- It was an early harvest, not only because it was hot and dry, but also because the growing season started earlier. Yields were lower on the Left Bank because it was super dry and hot—and those soils drain very well, an advantage in wet years, but not in 2022. Left Bank producers also struggled because they have more Cabernet Sauvignon, which really suffered in the heat. Merlot did better. In a low-yield year, you’re not going to throw out that Merlot; so there’s more of it, proportionally, than we’re used to seeing in the wines. Petit Verdot loves heat and performed beautifully. I saw some unusually high levels of Petit Verdot mixed into wines this year.
- Producers have become less recipe-driven and more reactive to what they’re seeing in the moment. I think that’s a very good thing. It’s like cooking: when you use fresh ingredients, you have to pay attention to what the specific flavors of your ingredients are in order to adjust the dish. If you follow a recipe rigidly, you can end up with weird outcomes. If you allow yourself to adjust to the ingredients, you’ll end up with a better-tasting dish. Same goes for wine.
- Over the last 20 years, winemakers have become very sophisticated about being more responsive in the vineyards, not just trying to make adjustments after the fact in the cellar. Farmers better understand how to manage their cover crops, how to manage the canopy, how to prune and hedge (or not), how to keep the grapes cooler and shaded by more selectively de-leafing. With a tougher vintage like this, you can see the difference it makes in the wines.
- You can see the evolution in winemaking by contrasting vintages. Some compare this vintage to 2003, and yes, 2003 was very hot, though the timing of the heat was different than in 2022. Additionally, the vines weren’t used to the heat like they are now. The winemakers also were less experienced in dealing with heat. In 2003, we were in the “bigger is better” era—lots of extraction and new oak. Moving away from that is a big reason why the 2022s have the energy they do.
Regional quick takes
- On the Left Bank, Saint-Estèphe is the winner, hands-down. It’s cooler there because the peninsula narrows in that area and gets more Atlantic influence. That really helped mitigate the otherwise hot, dry weather. Saint-Estèphe has beautiful wines everywhere. Pauillac and Saint-Julien also had very nice years.
- Margaux did okay. This commune got the least rain on the Left Bank, only about 60% of what Saint-Estèphe received. The wines are good, but they don’t taste like Margaux. If I was blind tasting these, I might not have recognized them. They’re not as ethereal and delicate as usual.
- Pessac and Graves: I only had a chance to taste the very top wines, but what I had was fantastic. A really nice showing, at least at the high end. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any Graves Cru Classé—white or red.
- Saint-Émilion is highly variable, which is normal—it’s a huge region. But generally, the wines are good. The Merlot really pulled through, due in part to the fact that there’s more water-retaining clay in the vineyards.
- Pomerol: The vines got baked—Pomerol has no trees, no vegetation (other than vines), no reservoirs of coolness. The top châteaux made very good—and sometimes terrific—wine, but many of the smaller producers struggled with the heat. When you don’t have a lot of wine to work with, there’s less room for error. I’d stay away from Pomerol producers you’re not familiar with.
- Sauternes and Barsac: What a weird year for Sauternes and Barsac. Many don’t have that signature honey, apricot, almond paste character. They lack the typicity of Sauternes, which is strange. They’re very sweet, and some are quite heavy, especially with the generally higher pHs of this vintage. Because it was so hot and dry, there wasn’t a ton of disease, so you really had to wait for the noble rot to set in [botrytis, or noble rot, is a fungus that causes wine grapes to decay, adding complexity to the finished wines—botrytis plays a key role in the production of Sauternes and Barsac wines]. Because there was almost no Sauternes or Barsac in 2021, there was a lot of pressure just to make some wine in 2022. A lot of people harvested early out of caution and therefore didn’t allow the grapes to become botrytized. The few who managed to wait ended up with wonderful, pretty wines. But not a ton of people had that patience, so they ended up with slightly odd wines.
General advice for buyers
- By all means, buy these futures (if you live in the U.S., exchange rates are working in your favor right now), but you should know precisely what you want. If what you want are the very top wines—particularly top Left Bank wines, which will have fewer cases released early this year—you’re probably better off buying now. If you wait two years for these to be released, not only are your dollars likely worth less, you’re going to pay the high capital costs of the negociants, the brokers, and all the middlemen who sat on that wine for you. Given where interest rates are right now, that’s significant.
- That said, most people don’t need to buy en primeur. We’ve really seen en primeur become less and less of a value proposition in the last 20 years as the gap between futures and future resale prices has narrowed for the most tradable wines. Two years from now when these wines hit the market, there’ll be more to buy—at least for most of the wines. So unless you’re targeting some very specific wines, put your capital to work elsewhere.
- It’ll be interesting to see this vintage in large format. The best will definitely age well, and wine in large formats ages more slowly than in regular 750ml bottles. That’ll be a fun exercise with this vintage, given how much these will change and improve over time.
- 2020 is an easier, more homogenous year for buyers to navigate than 2022. That’s a year I’d feel more comfortable spending money with a little less homework and care. 2019 is also easier than 2022.
Producers who nailed the vintage
- A few producers whose red, grand vin you absolutely shouldn’t miss: Lafleur, L’Église Clinet, Angelus (the style changes here are working beautifully for an absolutely awesome year!), Trotte Vieille, Tertre Roteboeuf, Clos Cantenac, Montrose, Calon-Ségur, Cos d’Estournel, Batailley, Grand-Puy Lacoste, Gloria, Léoville-Las Cases, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape Clément, Latour-Martillac. Also, Petit Mouton is better than most top wines elsewhere!
- Château Figeac was elevated this year to Premier Grand Cru Classé A [the highest regional designation for a château in Saint-Émilion]. They were the only producer bumped up. So if you’re into novelties, you should buy some just to have it.
- Pessac-Léognan and Graves: Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc is always one of the best white wines in Bordeaux, and it was brilliant again this year. Pape Clément also made a stellar white. No one talks enough about Bordeaux whites—I love them!
- The most impressive Sauternes and Barsac were Coutet, Suduiraut and L’Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne. They all display a sublime sweetness, nice acidity balance and well-handled alcohol. Sauternes may be out of style, but everyone likes these once you get a glass in their hands!
First Growths + Cheval Blanc + Pétrus quick takes
- Château Margaux is an unusual wine—beautiful, but not the archetype. Head winemaker and Managing Director Philippe Bascaules told me that he’s never seen concentration like this.
- Château Latour is a pinnacle of the vintage—better than Lafite this year. It’s robust yet remarkably elegant, too. Technical Director Hélène Génin has used oak very deftly. All of the elements are nicely knit together. (Note: this is no longer sold en primeur but rather when the château deems that it is drinking well once it is in bottle.)
- Château Lafite-Rothschild was a bit tight—it’s a huge young wine. Over time, it’ll do well. The finish doesn’t quit. It smells very northern Pauillac: graphite and dried cedar.
- Château Mouton-Rothschild: A massive wine—it’ll need quite a bit of time. It has excellent fruit clarity—nothing tastes muddled, despite the exceptional weather. Also note that the sister property, Clerc Milon, was very good—it smells like a pine forest!—and is usually pleasantly affordable.
- Château Haut-Brion: This will need some time to come together. It’s a bit warm in alcohol and has lots of glycerol. But it’s going to be gorgeous with all of its succulent fruit. As I often do, I found the La Mission Haut-Brion better integrated at this young stage.
- Château Cheval Blanc: Most Cheval Blanc comes in at 14-14.5% alcohol; this was 13.9%, which was surprising. It is incredibly well balanced, with svelte, powdery tannins. Technical Director Pierre-Olivier Clouet said this vintage has the highest Total Polyphenol Index [a measure of a wine’s tannin levels] in the 13 years they’ve been measuring, but it comes across very gently. This illustrates the tricky side of using TPI measurements: it measures quantity, not quality. So, a high number doesn’t always mean that it is hard to taste the wine.
- Château Pétrus: Winemaker Olivier Berrouet said that it was a year of fine-tuning in the vineyards as well as in the winery. This vintage was as ripe and deeply colored as he’s ever seen it. There was a lot of alcohol in the ripe Merlot, but all of the elements were deftly handled. Berrouet pointed out that you shouldn’t make wines that take 15 years minimum to come around these days. Despite all the “big” input elements, this already feels almost luxuriously well-knit.
Prices are becoming their own story, as usual
- The price increases [Angelus and Cheval Blanc announced 32% and 20% year-over-year price increases, respectively, with others likely to follow suit] are forever cementing the very high-end wines in a completely inaccessible class. It’ll be interesting to see, culturally, how this plays out. These just aren’t wines most people can afford. It doesn’t matter for the wineries, they’ll be fine. The negociants are on the hook to sell it. While there’s plenty of global demand for it for now, fewer and fewer people will have a chance to taste wines like this.