Omne Trium Perfectum: Bordeaux 2019s in Bottle
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 17, 2022
Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | Margaux | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Left Bank Satellites | Sauternes
Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Right Bank Satellites
Omne trium perfectum, Latin for “good things come in threes”: Star Wars (the original trilogy, of course), Bacon’s triptychs, The Ronettes, Guigal’s La La’s, French hens, little pigs, wise men and dimensions. The Bordelais will point to another: the 2018, 2019 and 2020 vintages. In the future, wine lovers will compare this triumvirate and debate which takes gold, silver and bronze (unless you are a Bordeaux winemaker, in which case they will all receive gold). Though points can be compared and conclusions drawn, it is too early to predict what pinnacles these vintages will ultimately reach. When tasting the barrel samples, my gut feeling was that 2019 edged out 2018.
As COVID-19 began dismantling life in the spring of 2020, châteaux sent samples to housebound critics like myself. Now it’s time for a second snapshot of those finished wines in bottle. At least this time I didn’t have to conduct tastings in my back garden, surrounded by a mountain of polystyrene and cardboard. Instead, I spent a fortnight tasting the vintage at various châteaux, négociants and consultants… just like I did in normal times.
A mirror-like Gironde Estuary from the Pauillac quayside, taken during my first week of visits to taste the 2019s, which coincided with the harvest.
The Growing Season
For the minutiae of the 2019 growing season, I refer to my original en primeur report. The main points were a relatively warm, short winter followed by a rather inclement April and May that predicated inter-plot heterogeneity. A rainy, cool May impeded growth, and despite the changeable conditions continuing into June and during flowering, the vines escaped serious millerandage and coulure, except for the Right Bank, where some vineyards lost up to 20% of their production.
Everything changed on June 23, when warm air was sucked up from the south; the mercury reached 35°C in the last week of that month. Localized storms relieved some of the parched throats. In Sauternes, instead, rain caused outbreaks of acid rot. But overall, Bordeaux enjoyed the most sunlight hours in 30 years, and apart from a brief cool spell around August 10-11, it was sufficiently hot and dry to even out véraison. Though winemakers denied there were heat spikes, when I was vacationing in the region toward the end of August, I had to seek shelter in a supermarket to escape the heat. Having inspected vines close up at the time, I am convinced that the high temperatures impacted some of the 2019s. September started off cooler before a stable period between September 11 and 20 allowed the reds to gain tannins and color. Rainfall was 20% below average (though higher than in 2014 or 2018) and largely arrived in the last 10 days of the month. Winemakers are adamant that it was too late to affect final quality.
Sauternes received significantly higher rainfall in the summer, around 100mm compared to 30-40mm on the Left Bank, thanks to a storm that deluged the region in August and weakened the grape skins. In early September, this caused some acid rot, even as berries on vines planted in free-draining, arid soils began to shrivel. It was therefore necessary to undertake a labor-intensive nettoyage to eradicate affected fruit from the vineyard before the development of pourriture noble. After mid-September rains, noble rot began to form, and a fortnight of warm weather at the beginning of October concentrated the berries further, although it tended to be too dry for botrytis. Much of the harvest was conducted October 10-14, after damp conditions and before heavy rain forecast on the evening of October 14. There was a second window of picking from October 18 to 23, but after this, producers were unable to use the fruit for their Grand Vin. Hence yields for 2019 in Sauternes are extremely low. Plus ça change.
Primeur as It Should Be
Due to the pandemic, the 2019s were denied their primeur fanfare, and cautious châteaux, wary of an unknown future, kept release prices moderate. As it turned out, wine lovers, incarcerated in their abodes, did not reduce consumption; on the contrary, many merchants reported record sales. How else could we enjoy ourselves apart from a bit of cheeky libation? Buying en primeur was the one habit that could continue unaffected, and, denied alternative avenues of pleasure, not least frequenting restaurants, there was more disposable income to splash out on the new vintage. In hindsight, those who bought 2019s were rewarded with high-quality, well-priced wines that have since increased in market value. It was a pertinent reminder of what en primeur should be about.
One of several tastings examining some of the less familiar but often just as worthy names was this lineup at Oenoconseil’s laboratory in Pauillac.
Tasting almost 900 samples enabled me to form a broad picture, not just of the Grand Cru Classés, or whatever classification is causing a kerfuffle in Saint-Émilion at the moment, but of Cru Bourgeois, Petit Châteaux and satellite appellations - in other words, wines that ordinary people can afford. Perusing my notes, there are even more stellar showings in bottle vis-à-vis barrel, since some top estates opted not to send barrel samples during lockdown. Those names include Montrose, Lafleur, Petrus and Palmer, to name a few off the top of my head. (Incidentally, the strong correlation between barrel and bottle is a testament to the efforts that châteaux, organizational bodies and consulting companies made in dispatching samples as efficiently as possible.)
When I judged the 2019s from barrel, I was unequivocal in my praise and felt that the vintage might deserve a place among the top tier of growing seasons. The best 2019s demonstrated more control and freshness than their 2018 counterparts; many felt less subjugated by the warmth of the season. I cautioned that it was not a consistent vintage; the variegated terroirs ensured that the prolonged dry conditions impacted châteaux to varying degrees, compromising quality of fruit with respect to younger vines with shallower root systems that struggled to eke moisture from the ground. The weather disadvantaged those without the technology or manpower to handle its challenges, and so 2019 was a growing season that was not egalitarian but jemmied open the gap between the haves and have-nots. Nobody ever said winemaking was fair.
Now that the 2019s are in bottle, they continue to display more detail and delineation than the 2018s - and I write that having just blind-tasted the top 250-odd châteaux from that preceding vintage. The 2019s just have a little more verve and panache, and if they’re going to face a challenge, then it may well come from the 2020s. Re-tasting some of the latter in barrel, they are evolving beautifully and may snatch the gold medal from 2019. It will be fun finding out if that comes to pass. Does 2019 surpass that modern-day benchmark, the 2016 vintage? I am not convinced, and broadly, I would suggest that there are only a few instances where 2019s trump that fêted growing season, notwithstanding that the 2019 vintage is less consistent at lower levels of the hierarchy. I found wines compromised by over-maturity due to late picking and, ironically, under-maturity in cases where dry conditions forced vines to shut down and halt photosynthesis, not to mention the inevitable array of misjudgments in the winery. That said, casting the net wide meant that I was able to find many excellent wines that are less well known and affordably priced – you just have to pick and choose.
One interesting aspect of the 2019 vintage is yield. Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc made the valid point that with so much energy absorbed by vines that rapidly accumulated sugar, higher yields are preferable, so that the sun’s relentless energy is dispersed over a greater number of bunches. (At Cheval Blanc, they picked at around 41hl/ha.) It is a complete reversal of the 1990s mantra of lower yields. Far fewer vineyard teams carry out green harvesting compared to a decade ago; that practice has been replaced by canopy management, de-leafing carefully to protect bunches from the sun and potentially manage photosynthesis. Nevertheless, drinkers should steel themselves for high alcohol levels, often clocking in between 14.5% and 15.0%, particularly on the Right Bank, where many analytically reached 14.8%. I would describe the best 2019s as opulent rather than blockbuster wines, partly because the 2019s were corralled toward higher alcohol levels by the growing season rather than by the now outdated premeditated push toward richness by winemakers. The 2019s are, broadly, manifestations of nature, not man.
Where Bordeaux has a distinct advantage over Burgundy is that the wines are predominantly blends. Whereas Burgundy winemakers are bound to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, their counterparts in Bordeaux are at liberty to adjust blends to suit a hot season like 2019. Therefore, on the Right Bank we are witnessing the increasing importance of Cabernet Franc. Just as I predicted 15 or 20 years ago, when it was still unfashionable, the then-poor quality of clonal material has since been addressed by one or two highly regarded nurseries and massal selection programs. Now we see a handful of properties taking a leaf out of Figeac/Vieux Château Certan’s books and planting a few rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, such as their neighbours La Conseillante and l’Évangile. Why not? I think we will see more in the future. These later-ripening varieties underpin the success of many Right Bank 2019s. On the Left Bank, they are already equipped with Cabernet Sauvignon that can handle a hot growing season, and indeed, alcohol levels are more moderate in the Médoc, even if historically higher than average.
Let’s examine the vintage by appellation.
Two wines elicited choirs of angels to sing hallelujah. First, there was the astonishing 2019 Lafleur that Baptiste and Julie Guinaudeau crafted with the finest chisel in their toolbox. Having tasted most major vintages of Lafleur, I would place this in their top rank of wines, alongside the 1982 or the 2000; although, I must forewarn that you will need a cool, dark cellar and an enormous amount of patience for it to reach its zenith, which will take longer than the 2018. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Cut from a similar cloth, albeit without the Cabernet Franc contribution, the 2019 Trotanoy is mind-boggling. It riveted me to the spot and flirts with perfection. Like Lafleur, it is imbued with entrancing effortlessness, a wine that has no need to boast because it’s secure in its own greatness. There are several wines snapping at the heels of this pair, including perhaps the best Clinet of the last decade and a l’Église-Clinet that is not only a testament to the legacy of Denis Durantou but also represents his daughters Constance and Noëmie carrying his flame forward. Then there is the 2019 La Conseillante, which is unequivocally not just the best since the 2010, but perhaps even better. Chapeau, winemaker Marielle Cazaux. And how can you ignore the sublime 2019 Vieux Château Certan crafted by Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont, elevated by the contribution of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon? Down at Le Pin, Jacques Thienpont introduced me to his new wingman, Diana Berrouet-Garcia, who is transferring from Petit-Village. Theirs is a gorgeous Pomerol for sure, though maybe its alcohol just blurs the edges a little on the finish.
It was a pleasure to return to Petrus. Or at least it would have been had I not mixed up my times. I realized that I should have been chatting to Olivier Berrouet midway through discussing Le Pin with Jacques Thienpont. Thank goodness those two estates are five minutes’ drive from each other – two minutes if driving with the pedal to the metal. Berrouet was still there waiting for me with his usual welcoming smile. “It is an unusual Petrus because of its prominent structure compared to 2018 and 2020,” he explained. “It was important to keep that structure, and so we can feel the power, which is more than the previous year.” This is an intense Petrus, and at 14.8% alcohol, it’s not exactly shy and retiring. I love the wine, and it certainly meliorated with aeration, though at the same time, I kept asking myself whether Petrus operates at full flight at such degrees of alcohol. The 2020 Petrus may ultimately have the edge, hence my prudent score.
It was a pleasure to finally meet Nöemie and Constance Durantou for the first time since the passing of their father Denis. Their 2019s, not only in Pomerol but also in Lalande de Pomerol and Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, are outstanding. Without Denis Durantou, it does feel different, yet you sense he is never far away.
Meanwhile, the 2019 vintage marks reorganization at some properties - for example, at l’Évangile. This is one of Pomerol’s top vineyards, albeit one that has underperformed in recent years. I returned to find a change of the guard after the appointments of Olivier Trégoat and Juliette Couderc. “It is a big change for l’Évangile,” Trégoat told me. After receiving a doctorate in pedology, he worked as a consultant, counting Domaines Baron de Rothschild among his main clients, and then joined the company in 2015. Juliette Couderc was the technical director in China for Long Dai before returning to Bordeaux. “We tried to move the lines in 2020,” she continued. “The aim is to reveal the terroir. We want to have a scientific, impartial approach to winemaking. We plan to decrease the new barrels and ask ourselves what kind of oaky flavors we want. The barrels bring some tannins, but we have to manage the toasting. We have our own cooperage and can compare it with others. We have to take care with the date of picking, which was challenging this year . It was crucial and waiting was an error. We are farming the vineyards biodynamically but without certification.” These are all areas that I have been waiting to see addressed for quite some time now, not least the oak management, which always seemed to smother the wine rather than enhance it. The 2019 l’Évangile was made under the old modus operandi, and I have to say that, regrettably, I stand by my original tepid reaction to this wine. There is no doubt that the 2020 will be far better in quality and a step in the right direction.
The top Pomerol wines cost a pretty penny, and the truth is that quality can rapidly fall away once you move off the gravel plateau. However, there are a clutch of wines that boast great terroir and often sell for reasonable prices: Bellegrave, Bourgneuf, Clos du Clocher, Enclos Tourmaline, Feytit-Clinet, La Cabanne, La Création, La Croix Saint-Georges, Mazeyres, a quite brilliant Séraphine and La Pointe should all be on your shopping list. Even Pomerol’s Lagrange, an estate that has been at the sharp end of my criticism in the past, produced their best wine ever.
Olivier Trégoat and Juliette Couderc, the pair charged with turning around one of Pomerol’s great estates, Château l’Évangile.
Whither the Saint-Émilion classification? For many, including myself, the whole well-intentioned endeavor is rendered meaningless by the withdrawal of its top estates. Away from all that brouhaha, it seems they can still produce wine without classification, just like they do in Pomerol. Here, I found that those estates armed with Cabernet Franc thrived, as did those located on the limestone plateau and the côte.
Take, for example, the 2019 Ausone, founded upon 60% Cabernet Franc. You might mistake it for a Left Bank by its nose, yet the palate revels in ripe but not overripe Merlot. I remember sampling vintages with Alain Vauthier 10 or 15 years ago that came with a wall of tannins, but tasting with his daughter Pauline, the tannins are malleable, rendering this Ausone more approachable compared to those of yore. That said, it still deserves a few years in bottle so that you can enjoy its sense of completeness. Also, hats off to the Vauthiers’ 2019 La Clotte, a wonderful, almost Burgundy-like Saint-Émilion that has blossomed in recent vintages. You could argue that this represents the best value from the Vauthier stable.
Another standout, from just over the road, is the 2019 Bélair-Monange. “I like the complexity of the 2019,” Edouard Moueix opined at Moueix’s offices in Libourne. “My father [Christian] said that the 2019s remind him of the 1982s in terms of the natural equilibrium. They have the highest level of anthocyanins ever.” I almost feel sorry for Bélair-Monange, because in any other year it would have been the highlight, but this time Trotanoy stole its thunder. That takes nothing away from this rejuvenated Saint-Émilion, which paradoxically seems approachable and yet, you instinctively know that it deserves time in the cellar. I tasted the 2019 Canon on three occasions, including a brief pit stop at the property to see Nicolas Audebert. This is a fabulous creation, one of their finest in recent years, with immense breeding and class, the sapid finish urging you back for more. Again, it’s the 26% Cabernet Franc and the limestone terroir that take it to another level. Load up.
The 2019 Cheval Blanc, one of the first that I tasted in September, is another outstanding wine. Pierre-Olivier Clouet remarked that it was important to maintain higher yields, in their case 41hL/ha, in order to retain balance. Here again, the Cabernets play a vital role, constituting 42% of the blend, to create a Cheval Blanc that occupies the liminal point between Left and Right banks. Nearby at Figeac, Frédéric Faye has created a wine befitting a state-of-the-art winery that was receiving fruit for its maiden vintage when I dropped in last September. A sibling to the Cheval Blanc, it manages to retain a sense of classicism, coming across more Médoc in style, since the Merlot contributes only 30% of the final blend. This will merit a decade in the cellar. Meanwhile, the 2019 Angélus showed extremely well and displayed noticeable sharpness thanks to the slightly lower pH level: around 3.6, whereas, Hubert de Boüard said, it used to hover around 3.85. Here, I also noticed melioration with respect to the Carillon d’Angélus. Stéphanie de Boüard emphasized that they are focused on improving this cuvée and treating it more as an individual wine rather than a Deuxième Vin.
Among Gérard Perse’s range, the standout is, predictably, a sublime 2019 Pavie, in which the Cabernets represent half the final blend – a far cry from earlier vintages dominated by Merlot. Their samples were sent to my home in January, so I was able to observe them over a 24-hour period. The Pavie was even better on the second day, putting some distance between itself and its sibling, the 2019 Pavie-Decesse, which felt a little overdone and alcoholic by comparison. Both contain alcohol levels not far from 15%, but whereas the Pavie felt sumptuous and disguised its alcohol, the Pavie-Decesse felt a bit labored by comparison. Aymeric Gironde poured me the 2019 Troplong-Mondot, which he mentioned is the estate’s first vintage without malo in barrel. This is a much more focused and tensile Troplong compared to previous vintages under Xavier Pariente, very elegant and mineral-driven. Their picking commenced on September 7, one of the earliest in the appellation and almost two weeks before the Vauthiers began to pick at Ausone. That is a huge difference, and it certainly raised a few eyebrows. “That’s too early,” a couple of winemakers commented privately. But it seems to have worked, and with a new winery at Gironde’s disposal, great wines should be coming from this estate in the future. Jean-Luc Thunevin beamed with pride when I tasted the 2019 Valandraud at his winery, vindicating its place within the top tier of Saint-Émilion wines, a position it has claimed time and again at blind tastings. If that lies beyond your budget, do check out his excellent 2019 Clos Badon-Thunevin.
Of course, there is a host of great wines that are worth seeking out. This is such a large and all-encompassing appellation that it’s easy to get lost. So I’ve picked out half a dozen Saint-Émilions off the beaten track that are worth hunting down.
· 2019 Chauvin
· 2019 Côte de Baleau
· 2019 Clos la Madeleine
· 2019 La Marzelle
· 2019 Poesia
· 2019 Villemaurine
Right Bank Satellites
There are a lot of fine 2019s to be found within the satellite appellations, though you do have to tread carefully, because some of the wines come across overripe and alcoholic. Here are one or two properties from each appellation that caught my eye.
· 2019 Canon-Chaigneau Cuve 8A (Lalande-de-Pomerol)
· 2019 Clos Puy Arnaud (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux)
· 2019 Dalem (Fronsac)
· 2019 des Laurets Sélection Parcellaire (Puisseguin Saint-Émilion)
· 2019 du Courlat Cuvée Jean-Baptiste (Lussac Saint-Émilion)
· 2019 Haut-Carles (Fronsac)
· 2019 La Rose Perrière (Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux)
· 2019 Les Tours des Verdots (Côtes de Bergerac)
· 2019 Les Trois Croix (Fronsac)
· 2019 Montlandrie (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux)
· 2019 Roullet (Canon-Fronsac)
· 2019 Tournefeuille La Cure (Lalande-de-Pomerol)
Basile Tesseron outside Lafon-Rochet in September. This was the last time I saw him there, as the château’s sale had been announced a couple of weeks earlier, so this visit was tinged with a bit of sadness.
Saint-Estèphe has previous form when it comes to coping with hot summers, as anyone who has recently tasted its 2003s will confirm. In 2019, there are a clutch of stellar wines from the usual names. Returning to Montrose, I tasted the 2019 and 2020 vintages alongside each other, since I had encountered neither. I was astonished by the 2020, an incredible Montrose with ineffable symmetry and its nose out in front of the 2019. These are both stunning recent examples from Montrose, which can do little wrong of late. The 2019 Cos d’Estournel is more backward on the nose than the recently re-tasted 2018. It has evolved with more density and grip compared to its showing from barrel, and a little more classicism. There’s nothing wrong with that, though it will require more bottle age than I initially predicted. Meanwhile, Vincent Millet oversaw an alluring 2019 Calon-Ségur with precision and power and untrammeled floral aromatics. (If he ever gets bored of winemaking, I am sure Millet could work in a florist shop.) Don’t be surprised if this sensational Calon-Ségur spars against Montrose and Cos d’Estournel in the future. Curiously, I could not get along with its sister estate of Capbern, which displayed some sur-maturité. I should also mention Cos-Labory, a bit of an underperformer in recent vintages, yet showing well out of barrel and now in bottle. Hopefully, this augurs a brighter future, and given the price, it is well worth picking up. More great-value Saint-Estèphes are the 2019 Sérilhan and the Les Ormes de Pez, the latter upping its game in recent vintages.
The Left Bank is studded with some absolute gems in 2019. Perhaps the most eye-catching is in Pauillac… but not a First Growth. The 2019 Pichon-Lalande is an absolute killer. “I think it is the best wine that I have made so far,” remarked winemaker Nicolas Glumineau, which sounds arrogant unless you are tasting the wine, in which case it seems matter-of-fact. This estate has always been attuned to warmer growing seasons, when it revels in an opulence uncommon in this appellation. This 2019 follows the sensational 2018 with a wonderful incense-fueled bouquet and a palate more multi-dimensional than Doctor Who’s TARDIS. If you don’t have this in your cellar, then rectify that as soon as humanly possible.
The 2019 Lafite-Rothschild, tasted with Eric Kohler in late September, is a superb addition to recent vintages. It’s unadulterated Cabernet Sauvignon on the nose: no frills, nothing excessive, just pure and elegant claret, of which Lafite-Rothschild is an exemplar. The Merlot cultivated on clayey soils, and previously cut out of the main blend, adds a soupçon of sensuality, and at a modest 13.4%, this has less alcohol than its peers by a whole degree. I should also commend an excellent 2019 Carruades de Lafite, though it is a shame that this cuvée sells for such a premium these days. Meanwhile, the 2019 Mouton-Rothschild bursts from the glass, but it’s still a far cry from days when it could be overly flattering. The aromatics bear a minty scent that could be a hand-me-down from the legendary 1945. Nevertheless, overall, this is a more refined and terroir-driven Mouton-Rothschild than would have been conjured before, exquisitely balanced with extraordinary persistence.
Pauillac is bejeweled with a raft of outstanding 2019s, such as the Grand-Puy Lacoste, which, in typical fashion, deserves considerable time in bottle. It is neck-and-neck with a scintillating Lynch-Bages that was quite backward and necessitated coaxing from the glass when tasted with Jean-Michel and Jean-Charles Cazes at their new winery. The 2019 Pichon-Baron is definitely one of their finest in recent years: intense yet poised, almost pixelated on the finish. Christian Seely remarked that a growing season like 2019 is suited to Pichon-Baron, something patently clear when you taste this wine. Of course, you have to pay a premium for Pauillac, though a handful of estates continue to offer relative value for money, including Batailley and Haut-Bages-Libéral, often overlooked as an estate fully committed to biodynamics.
I cannot recall exactly what head winemaker Eric Kohler was explaining when I visited at Lafite-Rothschild. I am sure it was related to wine.
“The 2019 vintage was a good year,” Claire Villars-Lurton told me. “We did not have good yields at Ferrières, 29hL/ha, though Haut-Bages-Libéral was 45hL/ha. It is the first to be certified organic, though we have been organic since 2007. I think the wine changed during maturation in terms of its purity and tannins. Since 2018 we have completely changed the way we age the wine. Everything is protected under CO2 or nitrogen, with less racking, so that we can use less sulfites. Now it’s between 50 and 55mg/L in bottle. The 2019 is the second year where I feel completely proud about how I made the wines.”
Talking of which, returning to Pontet-Canet after time away, I found that around a third of their 2019 was matured in clay amphorae. Extraordinarily floral and ripe on the nose, the palate was velvety-smooth and ravishing, plush and sensual. Also, do check out Haut-Bages Monpelou, Fonbadet and one of the finest Grand-Puy Ducasse wines that I have encountered in recent years, the latter far better than the barrel samples I received.
Jean-Michel and Jean-Charles Cazes at Lynch-Bages. On this visit, we toured the winery as it was receiving the 2021 harvest, and conducted a multi-vintage vertical including the 2019. It was a busy day.
There is a slew of joyous Saint-Julien wines in 2019, but there is only one place to start, and that is with the brilliant Léoville-Barton. Fulfilling all its promise from barrel, it has a sense of classicism but much more intensity than a decade ago. The recent passing of Anthony Barton was a huge loss to Bordeaux, and he will be enormously missed. (I am hoping to locate the transcription of an interview we did together.) With a new winery under construction, the estate is in the safe hands of Lilian and Damien Barton-Sartorius.
The 2019 Ducru-Beaucaillou seems to have borrowed a bit of Pauillac-like backbone and tannic structure, coming across less flamboyant and a bit more serious compared to when I tasted it from barrel, while the Léoville–Las Cases reveals an energetic, tensile, oyster-shell-tinged bouquet, transforming over 20 minutes to reveal much more backbone and grip. I suspect this may well close down, as it has a habit of doing.
A couple of estates that I believe have improved in recent vintages are Talbot and Branaire-Ducru. Both seemed just a bit lightweight in the past, lacking a little substance in the middle. These issues have been addressed and now both feel more complete and age-worthy. For example, Jean-Michel Laporte told me how he has increased the level of Cabernet Sauvignon to 69% for the 2019 Talbot, which is higher than previous vintages, and in my opinion, could be increased to, say, 75% in the future. It has slightly more alcohol than the Branaire-Ducru, though both felt well balanced and delivered the complexity expected at this level.
These twin appellations between Saint-Julien and Margaux are often overlooked, including by myself. There is something almost unfashionable about them, yet they boast some serious terroir despite being inland from the Gironde Estuary. At the moment, quality is mostly determined by the individual estates, some striving for their full potential and others, regrettably, happy to coast. There is a cluster of estates that I believe are spearheading progress yet being ignored by many cognoscenti, which is why I have two individual profiles from these appellations in the pipeline. For the time being, here are six wines that I would be happy to have in my cellar, if postwar council houses had cellars.
· 2019 Branas Grand Poujeaux
· 2019 Chasse-Spleen
· 2019 Fonréaud
· 2019 Lestage
· 2019 Poujeaux
· 2019 Saransot-Dupré
“The wine has gained a little more structure,” winemaker Philippe Bascaule told me at Château Margaux when I asked how it had evolved during its élevage. “Quite quickly after bottling, I found that it became less strict. It is a pure and precise Château Margaux, one where you can feel the density. It has all the qualities that we expect.” A candidate for wine of the vintage, this is an ineffable, mesmerizing 2019 that fools you into thinking it was born in a much cooler growing season. To use the word in my own tasting note, it is effortless.
The appellation contains a cluster of excellent wines in 2019, not least the 2019 Château Palmer. “We had some visits in spring 2020, but not many, so few people have tasted the 2019,” Thomas Duroux confessed when I dropped in at the château, where building work is ongoing (an entire outbuilding seemed to have been demolished during my tasting). “It was a beautiful growing season, everything moderate after the disaster of 2018 in terms of yields. It was a classic Bordeaux season, and the wines are very classic with no excesses. In 2019, 25% of the wines were aged in 29-hectoliter foudres after one year to refine them, and we intend to continue in this direction.” I have mentioned the Bordelais’s reluctance to use foudres in several previous reports; I find it surprising, because I feel they could enhance the region’s wines. I suspect we will see an increasing number of châteaux follow Palmer and Angelus’s leads and equip their cellars with foudres. Here, they helped shape a gorgeous, much more classically styled Palmer after the previous year’s sui generis, with an almost Burgundian silkiness toward the finish.
Following a biodynamic tip, last summer I visited Durfort-Vivens, where I tasted the 2019. “We tried to replicate how we made the wines in 2018, but on a larger scale,” proprietor Gonzalgue Lurton told me. “The fermentation temperature was lower, around 25°C, and in general we extracted for 12 days and then waited to extract slowly, running off the juice after 20 days. The press was very high in quality and there was more elegance. In this year, the selection of the parcels was very important.”
At Giscours, winemaker Alexandre van Beek said, “We had some very old parcels with complanté vines, so in more extreme vintages we have started to measure the hydric stress vis-à-vis age of vine and found enormous differences. Since 2019, on the historical plateau, we have started to harvest in different sequences and vinify them individually.” This is a clean, precise, quite tensile Giscours given the season, benefiting from the consultancy of Thomas Duclos since 2018. I have to confess that there was a wide gap between this and the Château du Tertre. I found the latter wine perplexing from barrel and likewise now in bottle. There is some work that needs to be done at this property by its new owners, and I think it begins out in the vineyard.
On a more positive note, one that I did not taste as a barrel sample was the 2019 Rauzan-Ségla. If you love recent vintages, this is more of the same, and unquestionably one of the finest releases ever, which makes it one of the best of all time. Likewise, Henri Lurton conjured an outstanding 2019 Brane-Cantenac, not powerful or concentrated, yet complex and refined, living up to its nickname of “the Pauillac of Margaux.” If value for money is what you are looking for, then as this extensive appellation becomes more consistent, there is more and more to choose from. Cantenac Brown is still well-priced given the surge in quality [vertical in the pipeline], while the likes of Desmirail, Ferrière, Grand Tayac, Prieuré-Lichine and a superb Siran would all be on my shopping list.
The reds of Pessac-Léognan showed well, perhaps to my surprise, given that the vineyards are less Cabernet-centric. Would the Merlot cope with the summer heat, particularly those vines located in Bordeaux city suburbs? It would seem they did. I called in at Haut-Brion to taste with Jean-Philippe Delmas. “There is a similarity between the 2019 and 2020,” he opined. “They are quite classic in style, not difficult to taste. The 2020, like the 2000, is maybe a little more opulent.” I am not sure if I would agree that these are classically styled examples, yet without question, despite the punchy 14.6% alcohol level, the 2019 manages to retain both the precision and the arching structure that I seek from this estate, and jousts for my favor with La Mission Haut-Brion. Given its track record, the La Mission will overtake it in 25 years!
I must commend the stunning Haut-Bailly, which is, dare I say, First Growth in all but name this year. Construction of the new winery was ongoing when the 2019 was made, so it is remarkable that in this transitional period, winemaker Gabriel Vialard, together with Véronique Sanders, oversaw such a blisteringly fine wine. Put it this way: it was worth the interminable 90-minute traffic jam on the Bordeaux ring road to finally taste it.
Similarly, the 2019 Smith Haut-Lafitte is utterly seductive and displayed almost Burgundy-like purity when I tasted with Fabien Teitgen and Florence Cathiard in September. It is slightly creamier in texture, yet there is mineralité underneath, and that will become more prominent as it ages in bottle. The 2019 Domaine de Chevalier is as noble as ever; it doesn’t like to make too much of fuss, but just goes about its business, offering understated black fruit tinged with brine, the palate replete with tension and poise. I could drink this till the cows come home.
To be honest, the whites are more variable, having struggled harder to cope with the heat. There are still fine examples from La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (though this is nowadays horrendously expensive), Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc and Carbonnieux Blanc. I am not convinced, however, that 2019 will be known for its Bordeaux dry whites.
A little off the beaten track, look out for the 2019 Ferran (red and white), Bouscaut and Cantelys Blanc.
I did not conduct a specific Sauternes tasting as usual because of restrictions on my time, and because I undertake a more comprehensive blind tasting 12 months later at the annual Southwold gathering. However, the few that I tasted are promising and deserve a round of applause for overcoming a tricky growing season that obliged a lot of work in the vineyard to get rid of acid rot. Highlights include a splendid Suduiraut and fabulous Doisy-Daëne, while Raymond-Lafon, Coutet and Lafaurie-Peyraguey all showed well. I was able to taste the 2019 Yquem with winemaker Sandrine Garbay in London in early February. Its release is delayed to spring 2022. Despite being almost entirely picked during a single tri through the vineyard in mid-October, it is a sublime Yquem destined to age over the next half-century.
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