Bordeaux 2019: what a difference six months makes

By Robbie Toothill | Buyer
May 2020

Bordeaux 2019: what a difference six months makes

I visited Bordeaux during the 2019 harvest, and watched the grapes being picked in dozens of estates. Looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago: little could I imagine the global situation into which these nascent wines would be released. After much discussion, it is now clear that there will be an En Primeur campaign in 2020, with wines being released over the coming weeks. The more examples I taste, the more excited I am about these 2019s: they espouse everything I love about Bordeaux, and everything that makes it unique. Not overblown or overpowering, but fresh and silky, but with incredible depth of flavour and length: only Bordeaux can make wines like this. It’s clearly an outstanding vintage for the region. We’ll be releasing wines over the next month or two: let us be your guide to adding these wines to your cellar.

Tasting the wines

Normally, I would spend over a week in Bordeaux at the start of April, tasting every wine we’re going to offer, and often tasting them multiple times. Clearly, this year this hasn’t been possible. I have received a considerable number of samples to my home already, and other estates are organising ‘socially distant’ events in the UK for professionals. However, it won’t be possible to taste every wine. Where we haven’t tasted, we will be explicit about this, and will use critics’ notes where possible, and will give you every piece of information we can about the wine. Under normal circumstances, I spend weeks of the year in Bordeaux, visiting châteaux and tasting wines. And this gives me the confidence to back estates, and individual winemakers, from one year to the next. Having tasted a considerable number of wines from 2019, and having visited during the harvest, I am convinced of the quality of the year.

The vintage

Compared to the frost of 2017, or the mildew pressure of 2018, 2019 was an easy vintage for viticulturalists. It’s never all completely plain sailing in a vineyard - cloudy, sometimes rainy weather at flowering, and heat spikes throughout the summer all presented their own issues for estates - yet it’s fair to say that 2019 gave the prerequisite conditions for a great vintage. A dry, mild winter led to early bud break, but this precocity was slowed by a cool (and rainy) May and June. This brought fears over flowering - fears that were, on the whole, allayed - but also meant that the flowering happened around the normal time, rather than exceptionally early as looked possible in March. The rest of the summer was a story of hot, dry weather, with a few localised storms, which replenished dwindling groundwater supplies. Perfect weather at the start of September allowed slow-ripening, and some waited until rainfall in the middle of the month to harvest: at Château Margaux this rainfall allowed the potential alcohol level of some grapes to drop by almost a degree: allowing the estate not to rush the harvest, and to preserve acidity. As a result, grapes were picked with similar ripeness to 2018, but with more acidity. Small in size, they’ve produced structured wines that impress with their purity and structure.

The wines

The reds

For me, Bordeaux excels not with blockbusters, but rather with wines that are defined by their sense of balance, treading the tightrope between depth of flavour, intensity of tannins, fresh acidity, and purity of fruit. 2019 falls within this tradition beautifully. They are wines that will consistently impress when opened over the years: never tiring, but always complex, focussed, expressive, and long. The best 2019s will, undoubtedly, stand the test of time. These are clarets that I want for my cellar: and you should, too. Legendary oenologist Michel Rolland has drawn comparisons of 2018 and 2019 with pairs of vintages including 2009 and 2019, and 2015 and 2016, pointing to 2019s’ more focussed, structured character compared to the warmer style of 2018. Meanwhile Thomas Duclos, another respected oenologist, has said, “the wines have this depth and density of the 2018 or 2010 (maybe a little less power) with the sensuality...that [some] really liked in 2015.” Quite a few winemakers have likened 2019 to 2010, but with a little less austerity and structure: this is no bad thing, as these wines will be approachable earlier, while not compromising on longevity. As I taste more widely from the vintage, I will add further information on the different communes, and on individual estates.

Dry whites

The dry white wines, meanwhile, are very impressive. Axel Marchal, who was the right hand man of the master of Bordeaux whites, Denis Dubordieu, for many years, calls them “scintillating”, and tasting through a number of examples, I am not going to contradict him. There’s a ripeness and intensity to the fruit, but also nervy acidities and lots of texture: these are wines that will delight young, but with the power and structure to age beautifully.

Sweet whites

I visited Château de Fargues at the very beginning of their 2019 harvest, and the team was clearly excited about the vintage that was in the offing. Their excitement was justified: noble rot set in quickly, concentrating the grapes on the vines. However, rain that came in the second half of October meant that yields were small. The wines that exist are clean, focussed and elegant, with no heaviness or fatness on the palate. In other words, delicious. But if you want to secure these wines, you’ll need to do so quickly.

The market

The world in which the 2019s were harvested is alarmingly different from the world into which they will be released. For decades, Bordeaux En Primeur has seemed a certainty: something to set your watch by. Yet this year there were certain estates and negociants questioning the wisdom of an En Primeur campaign. Clearly, and understandably, today’s world has different and more pressing preoccupations than the release of wines from a corner of south-west France. Now the decision has been made to proceed with the campaign, there are further decisions to be made on the part of the châteaux. The wines themselves are clearly superb: yet if they’re to entice buyers, the prices will need to be attractive, with considerable price reductions compared to 2018. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that if the prices are right, I will add plenty of bottles from 2019 to my own cellar. Throughout this campaign, we will be candid and honest with our advice to you, our valued customers. If we think a wine is a good buy, we will tell you; equally if we think that the wine is to be avoided, we will say exactly that. We hope you’ll let us be your guide to this campaign, and that you’ll find gems to add to your own cellar, at every price point. Robbie Toothill Buyer May 2020