The Bordeaux En Primeur tastings for the 2019 vintage have added to the seemingly endless list of stories that has punctuated 2020.
Normally, about 4,000 wine trade professionals, buyers, sommeliers and journalists gather in Bordeaux at the end of March. Instead, there was absolute silence.
France went into shutdown on March 17. My tastings were to begin on the 23rd, with global buyers due to arrive the following week. Instead, France’s biggest Covid-19 death spike occurred and the world stayed home.
At first, Bordeaux chateaus ignored the lack of audience for their wines, from the vaunted first growths to basic Bordeaux. Hesitant initially to send samples directly, chateau owners realized slowly the act was necessary to discuss the new vintage. This was a first.
Taken straight from barrel, the wine lasts only a few days before it spoils. Some négociants were granted socially distanced in-person tastings. A privileged few journalists were offered at-home tastings and video-streamed interviews in place of the major tastings and dinners.
A few classed-growth producers refused to send barrel samples. Lafite-Rothschild only allowed tastings at the chateau or in Paris. Palmer reneged on its offer. Cheval Blanc and Pétrus just said no. With great reluctance, but ultimately acceptance, most producers eventually agreed that samples could not be sent or tasted at that time.
After months of communications and considerations, samples finally began to arrive starting in May. Smith Haut Lafitte, Cos d’Estournel, Pontet-Canet, Trotanoy and Pavie were among the first. Deliveries then began to arrive daily as masked transporters adapted to the weight of the pandemic.
After a failed attempt through the mail, one chateau owner with a fragile biodynamic, no-added-sulfur wine handed off samples safely next to a church. First-growth Haut-Brion’s masked, uniformed chauffeur delivered its wines door to door.
Of the numerous daily packages, many samples were in small-format bottles. Two arrived in an insulated box used normally to ship chocolate. It’s been a fascinating learning exercise for everyone.
The 2019 result
After all these alarms and inspired improvisation, the wines turned out to be rather good. They benefitted from staying in barrel a month or two later than the normal En Primeur tasting.
Even this young, the wines are succulent and accessible. They don’t have the power and tannins of 2018 or 2016. The 2019 Bordeaux vintage is a cross between the openness of 2009, a popular vintage for American wine lovers, and the more structured 2010, perhaps with a little light 1999 thrown in.
The impact of the weather has rarely been felt more starkly and simply than in 2019. After spring hail, two heat spikes and a dry end to the summer, producers were reconciled to high-alcohol, tannic wines. Much of the Merlot was picked in those dry conditions.
On September 22, rain began to fall for two days, which caused the Cabernets and the rest of the Merlots to change. Sugar levels fell, grapes swelled and acidity rose. It was as if there were two harvests. That’s why there’s so much freshness, balance and attractiveness in the 2019 offerings.
The profile of the vintage is still to be determined. The wines have been described variously as “very elegant even delicate” and as “the greatest vintage ever.”
“The wine is unique in the sense that it has accessibility and charm, even with density,” says Philippe Bascaules, managing director of Château Margaux.
“It’s precise, pure, with length,” says Justine Tesseron of Château Pontet-Canet’s offering. “It is rich, with fine aging.”
That’s why my highest scores go to Château Margaux, in Margaux (98–100 points), and Château Valandraud in Saint-Émilion (98–100 points). These two very different wines sum up the vintage with their luscious fruits combined with restrained power.
Whatever they may feel about their wines, Bordeaux producers need to sell them. Négociants, who buy the wines to sell worldwide, aren’t willing to pay top dollar in a difficult market. So far, prices are lower than the 2018 vintage.
“Our prices will go down, which means it is going to be a great bargain for such a fine wine,” says Véronique Sanders, director of Château Haut-Bailly in Pessac-Léognan.
Like many estates, prices for Mouton-Rothschild, Pontet-Canet and Cheval Blanc are all 30% lower than the previous vintage. Estates that have cut their prices by less than 20% seem to be outliers. This all points to bargains.
How easy will it be to buy these wines in the U.S.? Importers come to Bordeaux normally for first tastes, but that didn’t happen. The 25% tariffs that went into effect on October 18 and reduced French imports by almost half remain an issue. Due to business slowdowns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurants and hotels are not currently able to increase their wine inventory, especially with wines that will not arrive for at least a year and a half.
Clyde Beffa of K&L Wines in California, a regular buyer at Bordeaux En Primeur, says he will be selective. Others, like Dan Greathouse of Heidelberg Distributing in Ohio, have purchased more offerings than anticipated, and could buy more when the wines are bottled in 18 months.
Our Wine of the Vintage
It’s shockingly rare to say that tasting brand-new Bordeaux is a pleasure, but that’s the case with the 2019 vintage. I certainly enjoyed what I consider the wine of the vintage: the red from Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan. With its exuberance, sheer enjoyment of its fruits and dark dense structure all in great balance, this is what Bordeaux 2019 is about.
Top 5 Red Wines
Château Margaux 2019 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 98–100 points. This wine, packed with Cabernet Sauvignon, is dense but shows a majestic structure. By contrast and equally stunning, it has such perfumed fruits that are poised between power and elegance. The balance of this magnificent wine is there, bringing together black currant fruit and rich, sumptuous tannins. There is amazing aging potential here.
Château Valandraud 2019 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 98–100 points. This is a dense and luscious wine, the best yet from this estate. Its great structure and tannins show a style that is powerful but all within. This is a magnificent vintage from this Premier Grand Cru Classé estate, and fully deserves to be aged for many years.
Château Calon Ségur 2019 Barrel Sample (Saint Estèphe); 97–99 points. This estate continues its stately quality progress with a vintage that brings out great richness as well as a serious, structured side. The blueberry flavors are shot through with tannins that contrasts with the wine’s succulent fruitiness. As the wine matures, that fruit will shape the wine’s future as much as the tannins. This is for the long term.
Château Mouton-Rothschild 2019 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99 points. Made from 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a sumptuous and powerful wine that is built by considerable tannins and immensely rich fruit. At the same time, there is a perfumed charm that balances all that power. The wine’s structure and richness are harbingers of enormous aging potential.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. This sophisticated, rich wine is full of dense blackberry fruits. It is an exuberant celebration of organically grown fruit, and also shows the firm structure to age well in the cellar.
See the full list of red wines here.
Top 5 White Wines
Château Haut-Brion 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. The richness of the Sauvignon Blanc in this wine is outstanding. Combined with a tight mineral texture and the purity of the fruits, the wine is on the cusp of something seriously great. It will certainly age over many years.
Domaine de Chevalier 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. This legendary wine, always made in small quantities is, once again, impressive. The balance of white fruit, citrus fruits and oak tones is already just right, indicating how well it will develop in barrel and bottle. The wine’s long life is assured.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. In a line of great white wines from this estate, here is a superb vintage. It has all the richness of ripe fruit, but that has been channeled into structure, density as well as intense acidity and freshness. All the signs are this wine will age for a long, long time.
Château de Fieuzal 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. Famed for its white wine, this estate has produced another impressive vintage. It has great poise between lusciousness and a tight mineral texture, giving balance and longevity. Nutmeg flavors come from the wood aging. It should cellar well.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2019 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. Lush Sémillon dominates this wine giving richness and a texture that is at times taut and mineral and at other times ripe and packed with great white fruits. There is a green edge to this wine that just needs time to fully integrate into great intensity and longevity.
See the full list of white wines here.