I couldn’t quite believe my luck: a week in Bordeaux in the middle of September, the sun was shining, harvest in full flow, the doors were still open and the opportunity to taste almost every classified growth from the highly praised 2019 vintage on site.
It was a strange feeling, almost 12 months since I was last in this glorious city. A city I love, it possesses something very special, a touch of Parisian class (but a lot more friendly!), an extraordinary history and some of Europe’s most beautiful architecture. As a vineyard region granted (St Emilion excepted) it might not be the most picturesque, although there is the grandeur of the great Medoc Châteaux, in recent times extraordinarily creative modern architecture as new cellars and chais have flourished, for me there is something very special about this place.
Last week I experienced Bordeaux at its absolute best: an exceptional selection of the 2019 vintage primeurs, the excitement and bustle of harvest time, full of nervous energy and expectation, and some of the kindest hospitability I have experienced in 35 years in the trade, possibly unsurprising as I was the first overseas buyer many of them had seen for 6 months… It served as a reminder that few other regions in the world make wines that can age for 50 years or more and still have youth, vibrance and give extraordinary pleasure. More of that later...
Now to the serious business and the purpose of the visit: to taste the 2019 Bordeaux primeur vintage on site. The primeur campaign this summer was extraordinarily successful, prices for the great estates were down for most wines between 25-30% in comparison to the 2018 vintage. A reflection of the state of the world rather than quality which stands alongside some of the best in recent years.
As an active player in the primeur market (Decanter Bordeaux merchant and En Primeur merchant of the year 2020) we had tasted nearly every Châteaux’s wines this summer in the UK, air freighted and sent to my home as cask samples. I therefore had a good grasp of style and quality but there is nothing that can quite replace visiting the Châteaux themselves and tasting fresh from the barrel. Hence this visit was imperative to get a more complete feel for the vintage, even if many of the wines have sold out.
What makes the 2019s so special apart from the unique conditions of their release? In style, which I will go into in greater detail later, they are wonderfully composed, almost seductive in their balance. This is a vintage where no one character dominates or controls another. The fruit quality is so enticing and appeared equal in class for all three of the most important grape varieties in the blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The alcohol levels average between 13.5% and 14% and express the excellent ripeness of the fruit, aided by an intrinsic freshness. The lasting memory of this vintage is a wonderful suppleness of tannins. These are not hard “blockbusting” wines, but wines which have poise, charm and grace. It is this balance which has helped produce a style of wine that will give huge pleasure to the eager who like drinking their wines young, but they will also reward patience as they have a great life ahead of them. This is a wine drinkers’ vintage if ever there was one.
What were the key influences on the 2019 vintage? As always it is the seasons and the variations of the weather at crucial periods. The winter months were cold rather than harsh and so the vines were in a healthy place when spring arrived, almost too much so with the ever-existing worry of an April frost. At Ch Haut Bailly, Veronique Sanders told me that they lit fires on 5 separate nights in April and early May with reports of a potential sub-zero mornings, but thankfully the dangers were averted. Ch Canon wine director, Nicolas Audebert, says with a wonderfully happy purr that, “2019 was an easy year in the vineyard, much more so than in 2018”. At every stage when the vineyard was at risk of stress nature provided either a much-needed change of temperature or burst of rain. Throughout the region everybody commented on what Marielle Cazaux at La Conseillante describes as: “A glorious summer, with sunshine and warmth continuously between June through to September”.
In St Estèphe the team at Ch Montrose say it was the same on the Left Bank too. Whilst there was not a lot, there was rain at three crucial periods. At the end of July and early August rain helped the veraison of the grapes (the ripening of the berries). The final part of the jigsaw came on 10th September with a final douse of rain just before the picking of the Cabernet Sauvignon which Philippe Bascaules at Ch Margaux says revived the acidity and, more importantly, is the key contributor to the wonderful aromatics and complexity of the fruit in 2019. The harvest was completed in ideal conditions by early October and it is fair to say there were smiles all round.
In truth, as I said earlier this really is a wine lovers’ vintage. Philippe at Margaux was a little coy when he said that, as a wine drinker, he might prefer the 2019 vintage to the bigger and bolder style of 2018s… Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan was much more forthright, he loves his 2019s! I, in turn, am in agreement. It doesn’t mean that the 2019s are better, but that they are extremely fine, and have a balance and subtlety of touch and complexity which I love. The fruit flavours are sensational.
The Merlot wines really are exceptional. The team at Lafite commented that it is a variety that always excels in the drier years and they feel the L’Evangile is set to be one of their absolute best in recent years. The Cabernet Sauvignon flavours are layered but, more importantly, its sometimes rather robust tannins are controlled, sweet and mature.
In whites I tasted fewer wines and only from the very finest estates, so I might be a little biased, but those estates who use both Semillon and Sauvignon expressed for me the perfect balance between these two fine varieties, showing the zing of Sauvignon Blanc beautifully supported by a natural breadth of Semillon fruit. There was no better example than the wonderful Domaine de Chevalier Blanc.
During the week I tasted around 200 of the very best 2019s from all the leading appellations. It is very clear that as a vintage it does live up to its billing described in Pauillac as “ A modern classic”. At the primeur release prices many of the wines have sold through and down the road they will surely be seen as exceptional buys.
Wines of the Vintage
Ch Lafite Rothschild
Ch Mouton Rothschild
Ch Pichon Comtesse de Lalande
Ch La Conseillante
Ch Leoville Las Cases
Ch Cheval Blanc
Vieux Chateau Certan
Recommended wines of the Vintage
Ch Les Carmes Haut Brion
Domaine de Chevalier
Ch Haut Bailly
Ch Grand Puy Lacoste
Ch Brane Cantenac
Ch Rauzan Segla
Ch Troplong Mondot
Ch La Conseillante
Value wines of the Vintage
Ch Haut Batailley
Ch Langoa Barton
Ch la Clotte