2019 Bordeaux: A Long, Strange Trip

BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JUNE 18, 2020

Left Bank: Saint-Estèphe | Pauillac | Saint-Julien | MargauxMédoc | Pessac-Léognan | Graves | Bordeaux Supérieur | Satellites

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Sauternes | Satellites

“You must really like your wine,” the FedEx delivery person said as he dropped off yet another stack of boxes shipped from Bordeaux. The global lockdown that began in March ended any hopes of en primeur tastings in the spring. After weeks of indecision, the Bordelais finally moved ahead with a summer en primeur campaign, setting in motion a flurry of shipments across the ocean and a series of equally fast releases. Do the 2019s live up to the early hype?


Tasting a range of 2019 barrel samples at home provided an opportunity to revisit wines over time, something that is not possible in Bordeaux.

Is 2019 Truly A Great Vintage? 

It’s the million-dollar question, I know. There is no doubt 2019 is an outstanding vintage, clearly an important vintage. What stands out most about the finest 2019s is their exceptional balance. Ripeness is high, but not exaggeratedly so. Tannins are also elevated, but there is virtually no sensation of tannin in so many wines, an example of where analysis based on perception can vary significantly from what is written on a lab report. The 2019s are also, in many cases, remarkably fresh, which is hard to believe given the intense heat and drought of the summer. I tasted phenomenal wines in every appellation, although there are some places that appear to have done exceptionally well, such as the north of Pauillac and into Saint-Estèphe on the Left Bank.

In tasting, the 2019s combine the textural creaminess of the 2009s with the vibrancy of the 2010s and the slightly linear construction of the 2014s. With a few exceptions, these are not huge, bombastic wines. Although the 2019s share some attributes with 2009 and 2010, they are much more finessed wines built on persistence and length more than opulence. This is partly the vintage speaking, but also a question of style. Just ten years ago, we were still living in the era of hyper-extracted wines. Today’s mindset is totally different. That is obvious now and it will become even clearer as time passes.

In my view, a truly great vintage has to have something more than just high quality and consistency across the board. And that is the visceral thrill factor. Of course, that is hard to quantify, but it exists. One of the questions I get often from readers is: What is the difference between a 98, 99 or 100-point wine? Well, for starters, I think there are differences between those ratings. All wines are not 99-100. The value of a scoring system should be precisely to define those gradations.

Of course, one of the challenges in evaluating 2019 as a vintage is that a number of top châteaux did not submit samples. Perhaps those wines will cause me to change my opinion. They will certainly make an accurate comparison with other recent vintages both possible and meaningful. But for me, today, 2019 is a superb vintage that falls just short of being truly epic. I think of some of the truly monumental young Bordeaux I have tasted in recent years, wines like the 2015 Canon, 2016 Pichon-Comtesse, 2016 Vieux Château Certan and others. And I ask: Are there any wines in 2019 that made me feel the same way? The answer at this moment is No. I have to qualify that because there is no real way to know if and how transportation altered wines, even just a bit. That is simply the way it is at this stage.

Tasting 2019 Bordeaux Barrel Samples During a Global Pandemic

For obvious reasons, this has been a very challenging vintage to taste. We decided very early on we would taste barrel samples shipped from Bordeaux. First and foremost, our job is to provide insight on wines in the market. Even with unprecedented uncertainty in the world, we felt strongly about tasting and writing about the wines to the extent possible. Some believed barrel samples would not travel well. In my view, the only way to know that is to have actually gone through the exercise of tasting them, and I wanted to have an informed opinion. Of course, I wasn’t sure how wines would respond to travel, and at the time I was not even sure we would publish reviews at all, in the event wines arrived compromised. I can now state, unequivocally, that if prepared properly and shipped expeditiously, Bordeaux barrel samples taste just fine in New York, and surely elsewhere too. Ultimately, the wine business is a big business, and it is moving ahead, even in a time of crisis, surely differently than in the past, but still pushing forward. You don’t have to take my word for it. Think about all the Napa Valley estates that employ European consultants. You can be sure they have been shipping barrel samples from the US to Europe, refining their blends, and doing their work, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, I wanted to make sure the wines were chronicled at this stage for consistency in our database, which simply can’t be missing an entire vintage of en primeur notes.

I have to say I was positively surprised by how most wines showed. In many cases, top châteaux pulled samples on a Monday, shipped them that same day and I had them in New York two days later. That’s almost as good as being in Bordeaux. Of course, not all samples arrived in such a timely fashion, but those, too, provided a fascinating learning experience. One of the reasons I am optimistic about 2019 is precisely because the samples held up so well. In a few instances, wines got stuck in customs and had to be sent twice, but the older samples were also interesting to taste for further context. Tasting barrel samples at home also allows for revisiting wines after a few hours or even days, something that is not at all possible in Bordeaux.

Of course, there were some challenges. Delivery dates were impossible to predict, especially in the midst of the pandemic. I received huge deliveries on some days and next to nothing on others. I did make a point of tasting every wine within 24 hours of its arrival, which on some days was a pretty monumental task of both tasting and unpacking box after box. The latest news is that more wines are on the way, so expect an update to this article in the very near future.

The hardest part of tasting the 2019s at home is a loss of context. When I am in Bordeaux, a typical schedule on the Left Bank might start at Montrose and then take me to all the neighboring properties in Saint-Estèphe within a relatively short time. I always taste the three Léovilles back-to-back. In Pomerol, my visits are always carefully sequenced. None of that was possible this year. There was no choice but to taste the wines as they arrived. A number of châteaux opted not to ship samples. As I have written previously, that does not bother me personally at all. In the regional summaries that follow, I have noted which properties did not send samples not to call them out or be critical, but simply to give readers as much context on what I tasted and how those wines inform my views.

One thing that is important to note is that I (and most critics) tasted the 2019s a good two to two and half months later than usual. Typically, proprietors grumble about their wines being evaluated too early when en primeur rolls around in the spring. To be sure, two more months is a significant amount of time for wines that are only eight or nine months old to begin with. In theory, that extra time allows wines to be more expressive and complete. At the same time, readers should be aware that many wines have had an additional racking and bump up of sulfur since March/April, when the wines would have been tasted en primeur. So, this year’s tastings are not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison with previous years.


One week's worth of recycling, cardboard only, during tastings of 2019 en primeur.

The 2019 Growing Season 

Readers will want to take a look at Neal Martin’s article Uncertain Smile: Bordeaux 2019 for an in-depth look at the major climatic events of 2019. What follows is an abridged version of key events.

Two thousand nineteen is a growing season marked by two very distinct halves. The first part of the year was mostly cool and wet. Flowering was generally uneventful. There was some coulure and millerandage, especially on the Right Bank. The issue of heterogeneity within bunches is a fascinating topic. In some regions, like Burgundy, a slight variation of berry size is considered a positive, as it is seen as adding complexity to the wine. We see the exact opposite in Napa Valley, where the focus is often in seeking extreme consistency. In Bordeaux, attitudes seem to be shifting a bit, from the latter to the former.

Heat arrived in dramatic fashion at the end of June and then in mid-July. As it turns out, I was in France during these heat waves. The June event was severe enough to cause serious scorching of grapes in Champagne. During both events, temperatures remained high even into nighttime. It was the sort of oppressive heat that pushes hotel air-conditioning units past the limits of what they can handle. In Bordeaux, owners reported heat stress in young vines and sites on lower slopes or where soils do not retain moisture. A major rain event in late July helped restore a measure of balance before another heat spike arrived in late August.

This led to what essentially turned out to be two approaches to harvesting. The Merlots, where the window for optimal ripening can be narrow, were picked early in order to preserve as much freshness as possible. Aided by the September rain and favorable fall weather, growers were able to let the Cabernets achieve full physiological and sugar ripeness. I believe that this contrast is one of the aspects that makes many 2019s so complex and intriguing. “It was the first time I was actually happy to see rain during harvest,” Jean-Philippe Delmas told me as we tasted the wines from Quintus. The total sunlight hours were the highest ever recorded. “Two thousand nineteen was our warmest year ever,” Veronique Sanders told me during our tasting of the 2019s at Haut-Bailly. “Of course, I said the same thing the year before,” she added.

What’s In a Number?

Over the last few years, Vinous readers have become increasingly concerned with alcohol levels. Health, greater awareness of climate change, US tariffs and generally more thought about what we put into our bodies are all factors. In general, most 2019s hover in the 14-14.5% range. While that is higher than historical norms, especially on the Left Bank, alcohols are quite a bit lower than in 2009 and especially 2010, when they often surpassed 15% and even approached 16%. Oops, I am not supposed to say that last bit. An example is Angélus, which in 2019 clocks in at 14.4% as compared to the 2010, which was 15.6%, but Angélus is hardly alone. Troplong Mondot is another example.

This year, there seems to be a lot of focus on IPT, a laboratory measurement of tannin. I suspect the reason for that is that many wines have elevated tannins, and yet manage to hide all that structure so well. Readers will have seen IPTs popping up in a number of articles and reviews. Here, too, it is important to recognize context. At a property like Château Margaux, a reading of 75 IPT is historically high (surpassed only in 2018), whereas at Pavie Macquin 75 is considered quite normal. For this reason, I try to put numbers into context, to show what the numbers actually mean. 

2019 Bordeaux: Blow by Blow

The following is a breakdown of 2019 by appellation, with highlights for each region. I chose to add technical details about the harvest, winemaking etc. to the reviews themselves so that readers can easily access the relevant information for those wines when searching the database.


Managing Director Philippe Bascaules at Château Margaux in pre-pandemic times.

The Left Bank

Saint-Estèphe

Stars: Calon Ségur, Cos d’Estournel, Phélan Ségur

Sleepers: Lafon-RochetLe Boscq, Lilian Ladouys, Meyney

Not Yet Tasted: Montrose

Bordeaux barrel samples don’t travel well. Haven’t you heard? Apparently, no one told that to Calon Ségur, Cos d’Estournel, Lafon-Rochet and other estates that turned out stunning wines in 2019. Let’s start with Calon Ségur, which is monumental and potentially epic. Yes, it is rich, but wow, what a wine. The second label Marquis de Calon Ségur is a terrific option for dipping into the vintage. Cos d’Estournel is dramatic and moving. In fact, all of Michel Reybier’s reds are fabulous in 2019, from the Haut-Médoc Goulée to Les Pagodes de Cos to the Grand Vin. Technical Director Dominique Arangoits and his team nailed this vintage. 

In Lafon-Rochet readers will find a Saint-Estèphe that prizes finesse above all else. It is one of the most understated and elegant wines of the year. The 2019 is the best young Phélan-Ségur I think I have ever tasted. It is a superb effort from Estate Manager Veronique Dausse and Technical Director Fabrice Bacquet. These days, Meyney is a bit less brutish than it was a few years ago, and that's a good thing, while Lilian Ladouys is both delicious and easy on the wallet. Montrose chose not to send samples. Given the showing of its neighbors, I expect it will be a strong performer.

Pauillac

Stars: Lynch Bages, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Pontet Canet, Pichon Baron

Sleepers: Grand Puy Ducasse, Duhart Milon

Not Yet Tasted: Grand Puy Lacoste, Latour (not offered en primeur),

Moving south, Pauillac reveals a treasure trove of fabulous wines. The northern sector seems especially privileged. Two wines stand out because of how they showed relative to the recent past. Those are Lynch Bages and Pichon Baron, both of which are truly magnificent. Pontet Canet is impressive in the way it marries richness with elegance. Lafite Rothschild is dizzyingly beautiful, while the other Pauillac wines in the Lafite range are noteworthy. They should be, given their reputation. The Mouton stable is also superb. I admit the wine that impressed me most was the Petit Mouton. Grand Puy Ducasse is much improved, more finessed and less heavy than in the past. I was super-impressed. Pichon Comtesse is, in my view very fine, even if it does not quite reach the stratospheric level of the very finest recent vintages.

Saint-Julien

Stars: Léoville-Poyferré

Sleepers: Branaire-Ducru, Gloria, Saint-Pierre

Not Yet Tasted: Gruaud Larose

Saint-Julien offers the consumer incredible breadth of choice at all price points. Sara Lecompte Cuvelier turned out another stellar wine at Léoville-Poyferré. Impressive. Léoville-Barton is not too far behind. Léoville-las-Cases is a bit more reticent in the early going, as it often is, but there is plenty here, too. Branaire-Ducru is such a lovely surprise. The 2019 has an extra bit of flesh that adds sultriness and raciness. Among wines that aren’t talked about as much, Langoa-Barton is especially fine in 2019. It, too, has just an extra kick of depth that adds real character. Gloria and Saint-Pierre are the kind of wines readers should buy by the case. Gloria is the more delicate of the two, while Saint-Pierre will appeal more to readers who prefer a more powerful, structured style. I did not taste Gruaud Larose, but the château does not typically send samples.

Margaux

Stars: Château Margaux

Sleepers: Giscours, Marquis d'Alesme, Paveil de Luze

Not Yet Tasted: Palmer, Rauzan-Ségla

Château Margaux is the head of the class in 2019. As it turns out, my first set of samples was delayed in customs. By the time those bottles finally arrived, the wine should have been completely gone. My review is based on the fresher samples that were sent later and that I tasted with Estate Manager Philippe Bascaules in one of many Zoom calls. I could not resist opening the first set. The wines? Tremendous. Giscours is arguably the most improved estate in Margaux. The quality of recent vintages is driven just as much by a renewed focus on quality than it is on the vintages themselves. Even so, it must be acknowledged that the team headed by Alexander Van Beek and Lorenzo Pasquini turned out two beautiful wines at Giscours in 2019. Marquis d'Alesme and Paveil de Luze are two lesser-known Margaux that are well worth checking out.

Pessac-Léognan

Stars: Haut-Brion, Haut-Brion Blanc, Smith Haut Lafitte (red), Pape Clément (red), Domaine de Chevalier (red)

Sleepers: Le Petit Haut Lafitte (red), Larrivet Haut-Brion (red)

Not Yet Tasted: Les Carmes Haut-Brion 

Pessac-Léognan is another appellation in which many wines are brilliant. The ranges at Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion are off the charts, in both reds and whites. The reds are super-classic, while the whites gain tremendously from the decision to pick the Sémillon a bit earlier than in the past. Pape Clément is another wine that benefits from a move away from the heavily extracted style of the recent past. Domaine de Chevalier and Haut-Bailly are wines that privilege finesse above all else. Florence and Daniel Cathiard, along with Technical Director Fabien Teitgen, turned out a gorgeous collection of 2019s. Sure, the Smith Haut Lafitte Grand Vins, both red and white, will get most of the attention. But the second wines; Les Hauts de Smith and Le Petit Haut Lafitte, in both colors, will delight consumers in search of more affordable choices. Larrivet Haut-Brion, with its strong Cabernet Franc accents, is another super-distinctive wine in 2019. Sadly, I was not able to taste Les Carmes Haut-Brion, but I have very high hopes for it.

Constance and Noemi Durantou during our tasting of their 2019s via Zoom. 

The Right Bank

Pomerol

Stars: La Conseillante, L’Eglise-Clinet, Hosanna

Sleepers: Bourgneuf, Feytit-Clinet

Not Yet Tasted: Lafleur, Le Pin, Petrus

It’s hard not to love Pomerol. Even in the presence of considerable wealth, Pomerol is the region in Bordeaux that is most like Burgundy, Piedmont and other places in the world where wine is made on an artisan scale at small properties. 

With the caveat that I have not yet tasted Lafleur, Le Pin or Petrus (all of which did not send samples) three wines really stand out. The first is  L’Eglise-Clinet. What is left to say? In his final vintage, Denis Durantou left us with a monument to his passion for the land. La Conseillante is a stunning Pomerol that has tremendous energy and all of the vertical lift of a Giacometti sculpture. In a word: magnificent. And there is Hosanna, a big, plush Pomerol with a personality that seems tailor-made for 2019.

I have long been a fan of Bourgneuf. Recent vintages have been particularly impressive. The 2019 is a truly stellar wine that offers the trademark elegance of this cru with just an extra kick of richness. It is a terrific effort from Frédérique Vayron. Feytit-Clinet is a much more potent, virile wine that deserves a share of the spotlight. If there is a weakness in Pomerol, it is that some wines are very much on the riper end of spectrum. La Fleur Pétrus and L’Évangile are examples. Vieux Château Certan balances the natural intensity of the year nicely, but it is a rich, heady wine, to be sure.

Saint-Émilion

Stars: Angélus, Figeac, Clos Fourtet, La Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, L'IfTroplong MondotValandraud

Sleepers: Laroque, Les Grandes Murailles, Millery, Pressac

Not Yet Tasted: Canon, Cheval Blanc,  Ausone (and the Vauthier stable)

Saint-Émilion is a very big appellation, so in a strong vintage there are, not surprisingly, many superb wines. Valandraud is epic. Rich and soaring in intensity, Valandraud is nothing less than truly stellar. Figeac is stately, elegant and utterly profound. Larcis Ducasse is the least showy of Nicolas Thienpont’s big three, but the most refined. Angélus, Clos Fourtet and La Gaffelière all showcase the sublime beauty of 2019 at its best. I was once again deeply impressed by L'If, the tiny estate of Jacques Thienpont and Fiona Morrison MW. No wine exemplifies the stylistic shift that is currently taking place in Bordeaux more than Troplong Mondot. Among lesser known names, Les Grandes Murailles is especially fine in 2019. It has just an extra measure of juiciness and striking purity of fruit that elevates it so eloquently. Estate Manager David Suire continues to do brilliant work at Laroque. Pressac is a wine that remains shockingly under-appreciated. And then there is Millery, the Manoncourt family’s once-secret tiny Saint-Émilion property. That’s just scratching the surface.

Value Plays

So much of the attention in Bordeaux centers around thirty or so names, especially at this time of year. But Bordeaux is much more than those highly coveted wines. Readers will find a number of truly delicious, affordable bottles in the satellite appellations. Haut-Médoc, Fronsac, Lalande de Pomerol and increasingly, Montagne-Saint-Émilion, are just full of wines that deliver tremendous character at affordable prices.


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