The 2015 Vintage Impresses at Bordeaux's En Primeur
The 2015 vintage in Bordeaux is very good, and in some specific places, very, very good. It’s easily the best vintage since 2010.
This has become evident over the last two weeks during which I’ve tasted more than 300 of the top wines in barrel. These wines are most likely to be sold as futures (two years before they’re on the market) at en primeur.
I’ve discovered standout wines from many appellations. All three styles of Bordeaux 2015 wine–reds, dry whites and sweet whites–are a success, which hasn’t been the case since 2005. But there are standouts—specifically Margaux, Saint-Émilion and Pessac-Léognan.
Why are these three especially good? Because the weather was just right in 2015. It was dry, like 2003, but without the excessive heat, and rain came at just the right time. This resulted in perfect harvest conditions and allowed producers to take their time.
There is one area where the conditions were just short of perfect, and that’s why this vintage as whole is verging on great, but not quite there. In the north of Pauillac and in Saint-Estèphe, the rain came at the wrong time, right around harvest in September. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but some of the top wines of Bordeaux are not as finely tuned as they could’ve been. That’s why the vintage score overall is a few points shy of great.
Put that aside and you have wines that are going to be a pleasure to drink. I’ve enjoyed tasting the wines from barrel in a way I haven’t since the 2010s. I project a positive future, as you’ll see in my ratings.
I score in a three-point range for two reasons: One, the wines are in barrel, not in bottle, which means they aren’t finished yet, and two, the blend is approximate. Although producers claim that what we taste at en primeur is the finished blend, that’s not always the case. As the wines age further, the blend can be adjusted. In fact, by law, producers are allowed to add 15 percent of wine from another vintage. That would certainly make a difference in the wine.
What producers do with the wine could likely depend on the reviews and the scores they receive as well as the purchase orders they anticipate.
Prices? That’s decided after producers assess the market, which can take anywhere from a few days to months after journalists and wine-trade taste the wines. If you want to buy en primeur, talk to your retailer. For now, read my ratings and reviews, appellation-by-appellation. It’ll help you discover your favorites.
There were several wines to consider when determining who will win my annual award, Wine of the Vintage. I started my search by tasting wines from three star regions of 2015: Margaux, Saint-Émilion and Pessac-Léognan, and then narrowed down to one: Pessac-Léognan.
The Wine of the 2015 Vintage is Château Haut-Bailly 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan). I rated the wine 95–97. It’s finely balanced with its ripe, dusty tannins contrasted by bold blackberry fruits. This is an impressive wine that has great structure, showing the quality of the Cabernet in the vintage.
Owned by American banker and philanthropist Robert Wilmers and run by Véronique Sanders, Haut-Bailly’s vineyard had nearly perfect growing conditions in 2015. From bud break in April right through harvest in September, the vines were healthy, resulting in great fruit.
The vintage continues Haut-Bailly’s run of consistently rich, dense wines. Their hallmark is the fine, structured expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. That makes it the best example of what has happened to the reds in Pessac-Léognan.
Throughout the appellation, quality has been getting better and better, certainly since the millennium. The depth of knowledge and experience in Bordeaux has been applied to its historic heartland. The oldest vineyards in Bordeaux are now some of the best.
The Haut-Bailly 2015 wine is a blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 36 percent Merlot and four percent Petit Verdot. The harvest started with Merlot on September 15 and finished with Cabernet Sauvignon on October 8. Vines have been grown on this estate since 1431. The estate does not produce a white wine.
Margaux is one of the three success stories of the 2015 vintage (the others are Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Émilion). It’s by far the best of the Médoc appellations. I’ve never tasted such a consistent range of wines from this sprawling appellation, which has a wide range of terroir.
“It has the charm and easy accessibility of 2009 but with greater precision and purity,” said Thomas Duroux, chief executive of Château Palmer. His wine is rich, with relatively high alcohol (up to 14 percent), but there’s such freshness that the alcohol is not noticeable.
Just across the vineyard, however, Château Margaux has produced a memorable 2015, one of the best ever—a fitting tribute to the late Margaux director Paul Pontallier, whose last vintage this was.
What happened, or didn’t happen, in Margaux to make the wines so tasty? In short, it was the rainfall in August and lack thereof in September. Temperatures in September were cooler than average, with cool nights—just right for producers to leave the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vines until they were perfectly ripe.
“There was no pressure,” said Sébastien Vergne, technical director of Château Margaux. “We could take our time.”
Further north in Médoc, things were more complicated. Rain affected the vineyards in September in some of Pauillac town (the rest was spared), to the north, and in Saint-Estèphe. Here the wines are lighter than usual. To the south, the wines have some wonderful Cabernet fruit, increasingly dominant in the traditional blend with Merlot and some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
“It is such a seductive year,” said Christian Seely, managing director of Château Pichon-Longueville, a Pauillac estate on the right side of the rain line. “At first you don’t think there can be much tannin—that’s because of the luscious fruit—but they are there, more even than in the structured 2005’s.”
“The 2015’s are great Bordeaux wines,” said Jean-Eugène Borie, owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in Saint-Julien. “The vintage is a classic.”
Here are my top 2015 Bordeaux en primeur wines from Médoc:
Château Margaux 2015 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 98–100 points. This is a wonderful, subtle, sophisticated wine that has hidden power as well as great fruit. The Cabernet gives a pure black currant character to this intense wine, with its firm tannins hidden inside a fruity exterior. The balance is just right.
Château Latour 2015 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99 points. Seriously structured and yet also so smooth, this wine has great concentration and powerful tannins. There is wonderful juiciness here as well as dense, dusty tannins that are never hard, always velvet. It is going to be a great wine when it is released in maybe 10 years time. The wine comes only from vineyards that are biodynamic.
Château Palmer 2015 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 97–99 points. This wine is structured and extraordinarily dense. Powerful tannins and a hint of chocolate from extraction give the wine concentration. The richness of the wine is right there, just suggesting alcohol. There is freshness at the end that brings a final, delicious lift.
Château Léoville las Cases 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Julien); 96–98 points. Seriously structured, this is a dark, brooding wine. Layered plums, blueberries and blackberries are enveloped in a dark structure of tannins and wood flavors. This will be a wine to age over many years with its concentration and density.
Château Pontet-Canet 2015 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98 points. This is an opulent wine, very generous with forward blackberry fruits. Behind an accessible exterior, there is a dark core of tannins, as well as a wonderful, rounded structure. There could be more acidity, though the wine is finely balanced. It shows immediate fruit but will age well and long.
Château Ducru Beaucaillou 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Julien); 95–97 points. This wine is powerful with a smooth texture that masks dark tannins underneath. The fruit is sensual and generous with a fine, precise texture. This has so much fruit that it could be drunk young, but it certainly will age.
Château Pichon-Longueville 2015 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 95–97 points. The increasing quantity of Cabernet in this top wine from Pichon-Longueville shows in the purity of fruit and in the firm, dark tannins. It is dark, dense and concentrated with very fine acidity and a pure line of black currant fruits. Despite its fruitiness, it will certainly age well and long.
Château Durfort-Vivens 2015 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 94–96 points. This is a seriously structured wine, although one with great fruit potential. It has a dense texture, dusty tannins and powerful fruits that will develop into a long-lasting wine.
Château Giscours 2015 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 94–96 points. This wine is firm and rich, with ripe black-plum flavors and dense tannins. Firm and concentrated, this is an impressive wine that will age well.
Château Rauzan-Ségla 2015 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 94–96 points. Already showing a fine balance, this is going to develop into a ripe, fruity wine. Currently, the tannins are at the service of the shining black fruits and bright acidity.
“It has been a pleasure to sit behind the bottles and pour these wines,” said owner Jonathan Maltus of Château Teyssier in Saint-Émilion, who also produces top single-vineyard wines, such as Le Dôme and Vieux Château Mazerat.
And he’s right. The 2015 vintage is a success in Saint-Émilion. It was less so in the Merlot-dominant Pomerol.
In Saint-Émilion, ripe and luxuriant wines came from the magic Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend.
“It was such an easy vintage to handle, I’m not surprised to find such beautiful wines,” said Pauline Vauthier, whose family owns several estates, including top-growth Château Ausone, which she also manages.
At another one of the top Saint-Émilion estates, Château Cheval Blanc, technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet, showed me a chart that mapped out the rain patterns and temperatures of the vintage. The vital months of August and September gave some insight as to why the vintage turned out so good.
Two rainstorms in August produced just the right amount of water for the vines. The dry, yet never-too-hot September completed the ripening process in a leisurely way that meant parcels could be picked when they were ready.
“It was the recipe for a great vintage,” Clouet said.
Lovers of wines that are both sumptuous and structured will appreciate these wines. Alcohol levels above 14 percent may be the new norm in Bordeaux, especially in these Right Bank vineyards.
This was evident nowhere more so than in Saint-Émilion’s neighbor, Pomerol. The dominant Merlot produced high alcohol levels in many of the wines, and there’s considerable variation in quality. In some cases, the alcohol is noticeable, resulting in a typical burnt-pepper character.
In top-rated Château Pétrus, the alcohol (14.6 percent in barrel) is only apparent in the richness of the wine.
“We’ve been surprised by the acidity and freshness of the wine despite the very ripe Merlot,” said winemaker Olivier Berrouet, who pinned it down to the cold nights in September.
At neighboring Vieux Château Certan, owner Alexandre Thienpont uses more Cabernet Franc than other Pomerol producers. He has made another of the appellation’s top-rated wines. His verdict on the wine and the vintage is simple: “It is a very fine wine in a great year.”
Here are my top 2015 Bordeaux en primeur wines from Saint-Émilion and Pomerol:
Château Pétrus 2015 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 98–100 points. This is a nearly perfect wine. There is a balance of fruit character and impressive acidity on the palate, coming across as gorgeous and opulent while never missing a beat of style and elegance. The touches of wood will fade into the great fruit as the wine ages, slowly and well.
Château Ausone 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 97–99 points. With only 21,000 bottles for the world, this will always be a rare wine, yet its quality is not in doubt. Beautifully structured and with tannins that are sweet, generous, as well as firm, it is packed with the ripest blackberry fruits. It is a complex wine, dark and with great potential.
Château Cheval Blanc 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 97–99 points. In a year when no second wine (Petit Cheval) was produced, this wine has come from most of the parcels that make up the Cheval Blanc vineyard. It is sumptuous and rich, with fine acidity and impressive fine tannins. It is a beautiful, rich wine that is already well balanced.
Vieux Château Certan 2015 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 97–99 points. This is a beautifully fragrant wine that has power along with an elegant acidity. It has wonderful juiciness that cuts through any of the tannins to give great freshness, a silky texture and fruitiness at the end. Perfumed and stylish, this is a very fine wine.
Le Dôme 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. This is a densely concentrated wine with dark plum and spice flavors. It has so much perfumed character from the dominant Cabernet Franc. It will develop into a beautiful wine with charm and richness yet for now it will need to age.
Clos Fourtet 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. Full of dusty tannins, this is an impressive, powerful and structured wine that will develop nicely. It has great presence with its dark fruits, solid texture and concentrated berry flavors.
Château Valandraud 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. This is a sumptuous wine, with dark tannins and powerful fruits. It is concentrated and dense, with sweet acidity, fine spice and luscious berry flavors that are framed by fine, lasting tannins.
Château Canon 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. Made from beautiful Merlot that’s spiced by a quarter of Cabernet Franc, this is a finely balanced wine. It has wonderful juicy fruit that is dark and structured. The wine has power along with style, showing good integration already—rich and tense with tannins. This will develop into a very fine wine.
Château Belair Monange 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. Dark tannins and a dense texture define this wine. With acidity and black fruits shining through this firm structure, it shows immense developments at this estate. This wine will be long-lived.
Château Angélus 2015 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98 points. This is a concentrated wine that has a sense of style, showing wonderful fruit and structure. It is powerful in tannins while the acidity also gives it lightness and poise. The quality of the Merlot in the blend this year has given the wine concentration while the Cabernet Franc has added its fragrance. This is a wine for long-term aging.
In 2015, it was the best of both worlds for Pessac-Léognan, the only Bordeaux wine region selling both red and white wines at en primeur.
Normally, weather dictates either a great white-wine vintage or red-wine vintage. But the 2015 climate conditions favored both. Olivier Bernard, who runs his family’s Domaine de Chevalier in Léognan, explained why.
“We had a cool August, which meant that the white grapes, full of sugar from the hot July, were able to keep their acidity right up to harvest. Then we had no rain in September, so we could just sit tight and wait for the red grapes to mature” he said, adding, “The Cabernets in 2015 are superb.”
The weather resulted in rich, opulent white wines dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, with a crisp edge. The reds feature balanced Merlot as well as ripe Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère may also be in the blend.
This vintage matters to the region. The wines are always well-priced, and the reds generally mature more quickly than the big Cabernet-centric wines of the Médoc. Here, many estates have a red and a white wine of equal quality.
Pessac-Léognan, the northern section of the larger Graves region, has seen an enormous increase in quality. Once the first-growth Haut-Brion and its stable-mate La Mission Haut-Brion stood apart from the rest. But now there are many chateaus, especially among the classed growths of the classification of 1953 (Crus Classés des Graves), snapping at the heels of these two estates. The 2015’s reinforced that even more, as my reviews reveal. This is a region to buy.
Here are my top Bordeaux en primeur wines from Pessac-Léognan:
Château la Mission Haut-Brion 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. While the wine is solid and firm, there is the sense that it also has a more opulent side. That comes from the powerful black fruits that are lying under the dry, solid tannic structure. It is a concentrated, impressive wine with a long future.
Château Haut-Bailly 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. This wine is finely balanced with its ripe, dusty tannins contrasted by bold blackberry fruits. This is an impressive wine that has great structure, showing the quality of the Cabernet in the vintage.
Château Malartic-Lagravière 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. Rich and opulent, these grapes basked in the ripeness of the year. It is balanced and beautifully perfumed, with citrus and crisp apple acidity, just hinting at wood at the end.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. Ripe and full, this wine is also finely balanced. Its generous yellow and white stone fruits are cut with tight acidity and an intense fragrance. It will age well.
Domaine de Chevalier 2015 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. This wine is ripe and smooth, with a concentrated blueberry character. It is a powerful wine with excellent rich fruitiness sustained by dense tannins.
Château Haut-Brion 2015 White Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. This is a magnificent wine with its tight acidity and beautiful citric character. The ripeness of the Sauvignon Blanc is remarkable while, for now, the texture of the wine is all minerality.
Château Malartic-Lagravière 2015 White Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. Rich and opulent, these grapes basked in the ripeness of the year. It is balanced and beautifully perfumed, with citrus and crisp apple acidity, just hinting at wood at the end.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2015 White Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. Ripe and full, this wine is also finely balanced. Its generous yellow and white stone fruits are cut with tight acidity and an intense fragrance. It will age well.
Château la Mission Haut-Brion 2015 White Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. This wine is beautifully ripe yet does not losing the mineral side that is so characteristic of this wine. Pure citrus flavors are forward, cut with tense acidity and an impressive nervy texture.
Domaine de Chevalier 2015 White Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 93–95 points. While it is a little subdued at this stage, it is obvious that this will be an opulent, rich and generous wine. Hints of pear and yellow fruits are cut with tight citrus at the end.
The succession of great sweet-wine vintages from Sauternes and Barsac continued with the 2015 vintage. Every year since 2010, with the exception of 2012, has been brilliant. These are sweet, noble-rot wines people love to drink, but never buy. The 2015 wines, with their light touch of botrytis and ethereal freshness, really should be a game-changer.
“It was such a clean vintage, with just the right sort of rot, perfect acidity and beautiful wines,” said Bordeaux-based Bill Blatch, who specializes in Sauternes. “The wines are like spring flowers and meadows.”
It’s the acidity that sets the 2015 vintage apart. It may seem strange to write about acidity with sweet wines, but without that backbone, the wines would be heavy and cloying. Not this year—I found plenty of honey and the dry texture that came from the noble rot. I also found apple and lemon in abundance.
The August rains saved the vintage, which was threatened by the droughts of July and August. The primary grape is Sémillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle in the blend. The skins became thinner, essential for the development of the rot that gives Sauternes and Barsac their sweetness. Harvest was earlier than usual, finishing in early October. (Often the harvest continues into November.)
The quality ranged from the fragrant, easy wines to those at the top that are so memorable and beautiful. Barsacs are lighter, with great intensity; Sauternes are richer, with a creamy character.
These are all fruity, gorgeous wines. Don’t just serve them as dessert wines. Serve them as aperitif wines. That’s how the folks in Bordeaux enjoy them.
Here are my top 2015 Bordeaux en primeur wines from Sauternes and Barsac:
Château d’Yquem 2015 Barrel Sample (Sauternes); 96–98 points. This wine is ethereal. It certainly offers attractive honey and bitter orange flavors but also a fresh character that gives the wine lift and crispness. It is, of course, going to age magnificently, although it is so delicious and refreshing now.
Château Coutet 2015 Barrel Sample (Barsac); 95–97 points. The wine is ripe yet stylish and pure. It has a great balance between bright acidity and rich fruitiness. It is a very fine wine with great aging potential, as it hints at the more opulent future to come.
Château Suduiraut 2015 Barrel Sample (Sauternes); 95–97 points. Naturally rich, but with fine acidity and a lift of freshness, this is a ripe and perfumed wine. The honey and orange marmalade flavors are there along with lemon jelly and a sense of structure. It is a balanced, poised wine from a fine vintage.
Château de Fargues 2015 Barrel Sample (Sauternes); 94–96 points. This rich wine is opulent, spicy and full of the richest orange jelly and marmalade flavors. The acidity that shows so well this year is what sets this wine on track to a beautiful future.
Château Guiraud 2015 Barrel Sample (Sauternes); 94–96 points. This wine is packed with dry botrytis flavor, but also a bright freshness. Together they give an obviously sweet wine good structure as well as ripeness. The tension between the fruit and the mineral texture will allow this wine to age for many years.
En primeur has been a major factor in the sale of top Bordeaux wines since the 1980s.
In the spring following harvest, 3,000 buyers and journalists from around the world taste barrel samples. Buyers make their decisions by anticipating prices, which are decided weeks and months after the event. The purchased wines stay in barrel for two more years before being bottled and shipped.
It’s been an important way for producers to get their money upfront, and for customers to get the wines at the best price and with the best provenance.
At least that’s been the theory. The system is threatening to break apart because the price factor has diminished, certainly for the top 50 wines, dubbed “the magic circle,” which mainly consist of wines form Médoc and Saint-Émilion.
For example, the 2011 vintage was overpriced and prices didn’t come down sufficiently in subsequent vintages for buyers to take much interest in the wines. Now with 2015, the top 50 are threatening price increases of as much as 30 percent.
This vintage—the first good vintage without American critic Robert Parker—has left producers confused. They don’t know who to look to for guidance on how much money they can get.
Here is my guidance to owners: Want to be better than Burgundy? Keep those price increases low. The wine world won’t take great price hikes for a vintage that’s not quite perfect, even if it’s close.
American trade buyers like Dan Greathouse, president of Ohio importer and distributer Heidelberg Vineyards, are pragmatic. They look for value in Bordeaux wines, since the U.S. is Bordeaux’s biggest foreign market.
Greathouse has long made a specialty of Bordeaux en primeur. He says he buys as a consumer first, with a craft-beer mindset.
“Craft-brew people want to experiment, they drink to discover,” he said. These gen-xers and millennials may buy first growths but there’s a stopping point.
“A 20–30% increase is too much,” he said.
Greathouse is betting on wines like the Crus Bourgeois. And I agree. If top wines are too expensive, look elsewhere. Crus Bourgeois, and wines like them, represent a great quality-to-price ratio. But whatever you decide, go for it, because 2015 is the comeback vintage.
- 1The Wine of the 2015 Vintage
- 2In Médoc, Margaux is the Masterpiece
- 3The Right Bank is Right on Point
- 4Pessac-Léognan: A Tale of Two Colors
- 5Success in Sauternes & Beauty in Barsac
- 6Bordeaux at What Price?