Nevertheless there are some exceptional wines and it is true to say that certain châteaux have absolutely surpassed what they made in 2009 and 2010. This was either due to position, which allowed their vines to maximise what nature provided, or as a result of considerable investment in both wineries and vineyards in this golden age for France’s most famous wine producing region.
Stylistically 2015 has produced wonderfully vibrant red wines, without excess. The accepted view before we tasted in early March was that the Merlot had excelled, particularly benefitting the appellations of Pomerol, St Emilion and Pessac-Léognan. The best of the Cabernets were considered to be from Pessac-Léognan again and the more southerly Médoc vineyards. As always generalisation is a dangerous game, and in truth the old adage of “location, location, location” could not be more appropriate than in 2015. There is a reason why the greatest estates have been awarded classified growth status; quite simply it is because they have the very best vineyard locations within a given commune, i.e. close to the river in the Médoc, on the fine clay plateau in Pomerol or the finest gravels in Pessac-Léognan and so on.
Consequently, the secret to this vintage is selection, picking out such estates and realising why they have performed so brilliantly. Having visited Bordeaux on three separate occasions this year and tasted every estate’s wines at least twice and the majority three times, we have given this a good go! We are confident that we have made the right choices and our list is as comprehensive yet carefully chosen an example of this vintage as it really could be.
With regards to the whites, whilst they might not have the steely streak and drive of the 2014 vintage, their overall volume and texture of fruit makes them more generally appealing. They have a delicious breadth of fruit and subtle generosity, which will make them slightly earlier drinking wines and more versatile in food matching than the racy 2014s.
The sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac are quite simply gorgeous. I quoted on my return at the beginning of April that 2015 was a dream vintage for the Sauternes producers, everything went to plan for what is a notoriously fickle wine to make. Come autumn a high quality of noble rot raced through the vineyards to produce a perfect amount of botrytis. They are without excess, and beautifully harmonious and giving sweet wines. Again they will be approachable in their youth, but also have excellent aging potential.
Ask any château owner, and they will say 2015 was an unusual year climatically and most certainly one of extremes. In 2014 the mild post-harvest autumn came to an end with an abundance of rain in November. Unbeknown at the time, this was to prove hugely important as the dry months of 2015 progressed. The dry season particularly favoured locations with highly sought-after water retentive soil. In addition, the sixteen freezing nights in December and January did their job perfectly, killing off disease and pests which can potentially lie dormant in the soil in more clement conditions.
Flowering occurred rapidly and smoothly in relatively hot conditions in June, but more importantly June and July produced some of the hottest days on record. Whisperings of another 1961 could be heard amongst some of the more senior members of the region. But equally, concerns were beginning to rise about the lack of rainfall and a fear that if starved of much more moisture, the vines might start to shut down in their development. This is really where vineyard location and vine age was so important and such a major contributor to the overall quality of the wines. The clay soils in the right bank retained the much needed moisture from the winter’s excess and the well positioned vineyards of the Médoc close to the Garonne were able to draw upon the higher water table and water supplies.
The much needed rain arrived at last in August with temperatures dropping both during the day and at night, allowing the dry white wine producers to start their harvest in the week of 24th August. A second flush of rain came in mid-September ahead of the prime harvesting period for the Merlot, which was picked during the third and fourth week of September in ideal conditions. The real concern was for the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon with meteorological reports of heavy rainfall arriving in the first weekend in October, and again the second weekend. In fact, whilst heavy rain did come on the first weekend, no more rain appeared until the very end of the month. This favoured the bold and brave who ignored the temptation to pick ahead of full maturity. Instead they waited and picked fully developed and complexly flavoured grapes in the second week of October. It is for this reason many of the most exciting wines from this fine vintage offer a lovely blend between the richness and succulence of the very best that Merlot can provide, with the fresh bite and tannic structure that is such a unique characteristic of the Cabernet grape variety.
We must of course not forget the Sauternes, the variation of season in October offered the perfect conditions for fine noble rot and the picking of deliciously sweet Sauternes and Barsac.
I am not a fan of such sweeping statements such as “the only wines to buy are from this appellation or that”. Yes it is true to say that Pomerol has produced the most consistent wines of the vintage. One can really see the merit of the race and finesse of great Cabernet Franc in wines such as Cheval Blanc and Vieux Château Certan, and Cabernet Sauvignon in Figeac supporting the deliciously opulent flavours of the more succulent Merlot that was evident in St Emilion, Pomerol and their satellites.
On the left bank in the Médoc, whilst it rained considerably less in Margaux meaning it has a level of consistency seldom seen before, the great vineyards of St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe match the high levels of the very best in Margaux, benefitting from their extraordinary location and terroir. Further south, Pessac-Léognan is home to my wine of the vintage, Ch Haut-Brion, a wine in my view of true perfection. Many of its neighbours also highlight the fine potential of this relatively unsung area.
The big question is, is 2015 a year to buy en primeur or not? In terms of quality and style, categorically yes.
2015 has unequivocally produced some truly outstanding wines and certainly the strongest in stature since 2010. They rightly justify a position in any wine lover’s cellar and will give huge pleasure in 10-15 years’ time and beyond.
The key this year, more than any other, is at what price? We have to accept that the quality is the best from the last 5 vintages; therefore it is only natural that châteaux owners will look to increase their prices to a certain extent. But it is also important that they are respectful of market conditions, comparisons to current vintages available, and - for the UK consumer - the precarious nature of sterling with the forthcoming referendum. We have argued our case to the full, and we hope they listen. If so, we should all have enormous fun, selecting some delicious wines to provide many hours’ pleasure in the years to come.
David Roberts MW