Bordeaux 2019: The Southwold Tasting


A vintage becomes entwined with our personal lives, sharing the same twelve months. Concerning 2019, well, that’s a strange one for this writer. As the vines flowered full of expectation, I was a guest at St. George’s hospital, wondering what my future held. I had recovered sufficiently to taste the 2019 barrel samples belatedly that September, my first notice that this season was top drawer. When appraising the 2019s from barrel the following spring, the gravity of a global pandemic was beginning to dawn, the shutters of daily life closing, en primeur presumably canceled… 

Or was it?

At that moment, we began to seek signs of continuity. The unexpectedly successful campaign that ensued was a salve amongst the turmoil. A few months later, when the 2019s were in bottle, the world remained upended, though now vaccines offered light at the end of the tunnel. Relaxed travel restrictions meant that the vintage could be assessed in Bordeaux instead of the outskirts of Guildford.

And now?

Now, the world has mostly moved on from the pandemic. Instead, we endure sleepless nights over saber-rattling superpowers and economic stagnation. That should not preclude reappraising the 2019 vintage a second time, crucially, lined-up blind at the annual Southwold tasting.

One or two bottles tasted.

Before I continue, readers may wonder about the 2017 and 2018 Southwold tastings held in September 2021 and January 2022 respectively. They just became swamped by the post-pandemic workload. Hopefully, they will see the light of day in the near future. Wishing the 2019s not to meet a similar fate, I worked to turn around these notes with haste, notwithstanding that they provide a neat juxtaposition to the recently reviewed 2020s. Acknowledging that 2019 is already a heralded vintage, the salient question is whether it represents the summit of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 triumvirate.

“Yes” is the answer. I have always felt that is the case. The Southwold tasting confirmed this view. Tasting blind means the wines are assessed in tougher circumstances than at the château. Though double-decanted, wines predisposed to open reluctantly instead of coming out with all guns blazing can be disadvantaged, while shortcomings tend to be exposed and magnified by juxtaposition. The taster is denied context, meaning wines that are gawky or even a little herbaceous in their youth can be misinterpreted. Winemakers endeavor to create more approachable Bordeaux wines, but however much you try, you cannot alter their DNA. Longevity is what makes claret so special. Nevertheless, the Southwold tasting, now almost four decades old, provides a unique opportunity to assess wines against their peers. Bottles come directly from properties; the only occasion châteaux willingly do this. Only one or two decline, but when you have some of the country’s largest Bordeaux merchants in one room, well, gaps are not exactly difficult to fill.

Blind tasting en masse inevitably means there will be discrepancies. Statistically, given the subjective nature of assessing a mutable entity, only some wines may correspond exactly to their showing in barrel or after bottling. You can misread them. In cases where that is glaringly obvious, then it is unfair to present a score, though they are small in number. The exercise involves joining the dots, validating prior observations and questioning others. A priori, examining every tasting note and explaining discrepancies is mandatory rather than presenting unexplained alterations in scores or sentiment.

Bottles are being poured for the next flight. Everyone chips in. One must judge the exact pour so that everyone gets an equal amount.

This latest edition of Southwold took place between 16 and 18 January. This year there were around 18 participants, mainly from the trade. It’s akin to an unruly class of schoolchildren disciplined by our éminence grise, Bill Blatch, who undertakes the herculean task of collecting dozens of samples. Wines are organized into flights and briefly discussed after scores are handed in, just like you used to do in classroom tests. Then the ensuing exchange enables you to learn as much about your palate as the wines themselves.

Let me broach the wines appellation-by-appellation, starting with the dry whites.

Dry Whites (Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes) – Many were picked before the September rains. That means there is a clutch of excellent dry whites from Pessac-Léognan: Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Carbonnieux and Olivier. At the same time, I find this category of Bordeaux frustrating in terms of consistency and variability in bottle which underlies why many consume them young. I don’t begrudge that, though it precludes the joy of drinking these Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillons with 10-20 years on the clock. The flight fell just a little short of expectations in terms of complexity and tension – fewer thrills than anticipated. For the first time, we included the dry wines from Sauternes. These have divided winemakers, some arguing that it risks diluting the appellation’s association with sweet botrytized wines, others making the valid point that consumers shun them, and diversification might be the only way they can survive. Again, these were a bit variable, though the Asphodèle de Climens and Opalie from Coutet are worth seeking out, implying that perhaps Barsac’s limestone soils impart that extra soupçon of tension. 

Saint-Estèphe – Starting with the most northerly Left Bank appellation, this was a very solid showing crowned by a fabulous, almost otherworldly Montrose that flirts with perfection. Unsurprisingly, it achieved the highest average score across the group. Don’t be surprised if a bottle reaches three-figures down the line. Quoting Radiohead, everything is in its right place. This year, Montrose has its nose in front of its sparring partner, Cos d’Estournel. But there are a few others to keep your eye on. Meyney often sparkles at Southwold, and this year was no different. It is a wonderful Saint-Estèphe that surpasses previous assessments, while Calon-Ségur, as great as it is, was more introspective and didn’t quite reach the heights I found a few months ago. Another standout is Phélan-Ségur, the 2019 possibly the best wine ever from an estate that has the bit between its teeth, perchance starting to make creditable claims that it belongs with the top tier of the appellation. It represents great value for money, and readers can expect a vertical in the not-too-distant future.

The First Growths in 2019 all delivered where it matters – in the glass.

Pauillac – There is no question that Pauillac is bejeweled with wines that will be spoken about in hushed tones for many years. Lafite-Rothschild seems to have addressed its former lack of body without sacrificing elegance and classicism. A priori, the 2019 is an absolute gem, every atom suffused with mineralité. The 2019 Latour is stupendous, though wine lovers will have to wait before this is eventually released onto the market. It won the flight in terms of average group score. Mouton-Rothschild is just one step behind, though partly because it was atypically more backward on the nose, clearly a long-term First Growth. But these are certainly not in a class of their own.

Nicolas Glumineau conjured the best Pichon-Comtesse de Lalande ever, and yes, I include the feted 1982 in that statement. This is a magical wine that is going to be glorious when it is 15 or 20 years old. I hope I’m still around to enjoy it. Pichon Baron is less outgoing at this early stage but is endowed with impressive detail and structure. At the same time, Lynch-Bages, once traduced as “the poor man’s Mouton”, is up there with the legends overseen by Jean-Michel Cazes in the late-1980s (if you want to know why Cazes enjoyed a purple patch in that decade, stay tuned for a future article). Grand-Puy-Lacoste is akin to a modern-day 1982, while Haut-Batailley may represent one of the best values along with Batailley. Pontet-Canet was yet again a divisive wine. It was easy to identify: much more exotic and almost reminiscent of great Syrah. I found it very attractive, but it left me scratching my head about why it sings from a different hymn sheet to its peers. I wasn’t the only one. A disparity of scores meant that it came 10th in the flight of twelve.

Saint-Julien – Well, “team Saint-Julien” will not allow their neighbors over the border to take all the acclaim. The appellation galvanizes its status as one of the most consistent in Bordeaux with a collective effort that means you cannot go wrong in 2019 if it says Saint-Julien on the label. Of the three Léovilles, the one with the surname “Barton” triumphed, possibly the finest wine they have ever produced. The fact that their new winery will become fully operational bodes well for the future. The much-missed Anthony Barton would have been immensely proud of the 2019 that won the flight in terms of average score. Léoville Las-Cases, which was tasted twice, is neck and neck and Léoville-Poyferré within touching distance. All three are worth a berth in your cellar. Quality abounds in the appellation. There are sublime wines from Gloria, Lagrange, a rejuvenated Gruaud-Larose, and a fabulous performance from Beychevelle. There were one or two questionable showings – I couldn’t quite get my head around the slightly garish opulence of Talbot, so atypical of that estate’s wines. Maybe just that bottle? Otherwise, Saint-Julien delivers, perhaps without the premium you often have to pay for Pauillacs.  

Margaux – This is an appellation certainly going places, and if Pauillac and Saint-Julien were not so strong, I think it would be getting more attention. This is one of those occasions where Palmer out-pipped Château Margaux, though both Thomas Duroux and Philippe Bascaules have overseen majestic wines that will age supremely well in bottle. Usually, Rauzan-Ségla is challenging up there, which I expected given its impressive showing from bottle. It just didn’t turn up on the day, more surly than it has shown previously, hence my lower score. That may be corrected in the future. But their second label, Ségla, has the propensity to shine at Southwold, which was no different. One of the best Deuxième Vins out there? Probably. Ditto the 2019 Pavillon Rouge de Margaux – just marvelous. The one I missed is Brane-Cantenac. In its youth, it often has a slightly herbaceous trait that is assimilated into the fabric of the wine with bottle age and imparts complexity. That can throw you off in blind conditions, one of the shortcomings of tasting without context.

Pessac-Léognan – As I suggested in my previous report on the vintage just after bottling, there is more variability than other appellations; perhaps its proximity to the city creates slightly warmer micro-climates that make sugar accumulation more difficult though not impossible, to control. As if to prove that, the 2019 Haut-Brion is one of the standouts of the vintage and do not be surprised if it waltzes away with the wine of the vintage. Like Montrose, this is without touching distance of perfection, and La Mission Haut-Brion is just a hair’s width behind. Amazingly, it achieves such crystalline purity at relatively higher alcohol levels. Winning the bronze medal is a divine Domaine de Chevalier, quite Médoc in personality with a precision-tooled finish. There are superb wines from Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Smith Haut-Lafitte, though I felt that on this occasion, the Haut-Bailly did not tally with previous examples tasted and deferred scoring based on that bottle. Also, buyers should seek commendable wines from La Louvière, Bouscaut, and a particularly very fine Château de Fieuzal.

Pomerol – Let’s start with the Pomerol that stole the show, and we are not talking about the “big three”. No, Vieux-Château-Certan is the wine you need in your cellar this year. Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont oversaw a Pomerol that you can put on the mantelpiece alongside the legends of the post-war period, a heaven-sent elixir destined to make many wine lovers smile. The father-and-son team has given this stalwart new impetus. Alternatively, there is the monumental, take-no-prisoners 2019 Lafleur. However, it is a shame this does not come with a DMC DeLorean refitted with a flux capacitor so that wine lovers can fast-forward to the year 2050 and enjoy it in its pomp. The Pétrus is flamboyant and slightly peppery in style, multi-dimensional, just as you want your Pétrus to be. (Now, if we did have a DMC DeLorean, we could use it to travel back in time and buy up Pétrus when it was far less costly.)

The 2019 l’Eglise-Clinet, the last vintage fully overseen by the late Denis Durantou, is tensile and more pliant than I expected, to the point where I guessed it might be Le Pin, just a bit behind the pace on this line-up. The l’Eglise-Clinet is a brilliant wine. There were also strong showings from Hosanna, La Fleur Pétrus, Gazin and Le Gay, though the l’Évangile vindicates my tepid reception out of barrel. Still, again, the newly-installed team has reset the estate in a positive direction. A couple of bottles didn’t quite deliver the goods, perhaps beginning to close down, namely Clos l’Eglise, Clinet and La Conseillante – it happens. Lastly, I have thrown some barbed comments the way of Pomerol’s largest estate, Château de Sales, something I never like doing. So, it was great to see their 2019 performing better than expected.

Saint-Émilion – As customary, there were more châteaux from Saint-Émilion than others, simply a reflection of the sheer number of estates. That number could easily be doubled or tripled if not limited by 24 hours a day. Without question, there is more diversification of styles. It is erroneous to portray an appellation whereby every winemaker is like a murmuration of starlings, swarming in the same direction, picking earlier, using less oak, prioritizing terroir over concentration, etc. Many have, but not all, and that’s a good thing. What pleases me will not necessarily please you.

Perhaps the most notable success is the spellbinding 2019 Figeac that, as I write in my note, is “effortless and classy.” Ausone is splendid, and I scored it higher than Cheval Blanc. That was more austere and “grouchy”, though give it time, and I am certain it will evolve into a superb wine. The 2019 Angélus revels in its Cabernet Franc-driven nose – one of their finest in recent years, eclipsing the conspicuously more lavish Pavie that comes across as a tad alcoholic against its peers. The 2019 Troplong Mondot has wonderful composure and poise, facets that you would not have found in the wine a decade earlier, prior to Aymeric Gironde taking the reins. There are also great wines from L’If, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Larcis-Ducasse, Bellefont-Belcier and Bélair-Monange. Elsewhere, the wines could occasionally come across as a bit chewy and rustic, but overall, choose carefully, and you can have a delicious Saint-Émilion on your hands. That said, if I had to choose one Right Bank appellation in 2019, it would be Pomerol.

Sauternes – The 2019 vintage is strong for the sweet botrytis-affected wines. This should be considered an achievement because they had to contend with more rainfall than the rest of Bordeaux. They were plagued by acid rot in early September, while October rains predicated short picking windows. There are quite sensational performances from Château de Fargues and Suduiraut, eclipsing the Yquem that I failed to spot, unlike in other years. Also, kudos to La Tour Blanche, Rieussec, Raymond-Lafon and Rabaud Promis. Climens was included in the line-up, but I am convinced the bottle was not perfect.

Final Thoughts

I departed with no doubt that 2019 is a truly great vintage for Bordeaux. That was the consensus shared across the group. One caveat is higher alcohol levels, but they are lower than the previous year, and the wines contain more freshness. Tasting the 2018s at “Southwold” a year earlier, I was exhausted by the end of the day. But my palate was still asking if there was more after roughly the same number of 2019s, evidence that they are less heavy and ponderous than their 2018 counterparts. Don’t forget that these will shed some of their baby fat as they mature and can even attain more structure. There is the misconception that an approachable wine is predestined to always be as such, yet some vintages swerve in an unexpected direction and gain more backbone. It’s the DNA of the terroir imposing its influence over the winemaking.

The question is, where 2019 stands within the pantheon of recent vintages? Interestingly, where the entire group’s scores were totted up compared to 2016, they were slightly higher. The two vintages will jostle for supremacy in coming years, the 2019s more opulent and bigger, the 2016s more sleek and pure. Time will tell. What is certain is that for all the complaints about en primeur, those who bought 2019s on the first release have profited for their foresight. Release prices were more restrained as they entered an economically and socially tumultuous world and are likely to increase in value. Compared to Burgundy, they can seem like absolute bargains!

Before I go, I wonder if a wine lover in the next century will look back at 2019 and 2020 vintages with the historical context of being born during a global pandemic? Maybe they will be thought of in a similar way to 1945 – a vintage inextricably bound to the end of the Second World War. As I said at the head of this piece, vintages become associated with coeval history and culture. In decades to come, I will not be around. But the 2019s will be.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Bordeaux 2020: Saving the Best for Last, Antonio Galloni, February 2023

Thrice Is Nice: Bordeaux 2020 in Bottle, Neal Martin, February 2023

2021 Bordeaux En Primeur: Back to Classicism, Antonio Galloni, May 2022

2019 Bordeaux from Bottle: The Two Towers, Antonio Galloni, February 2022

2020 Bordeaux En Primeur: Almost Back to Normal, Antonio Galloni, June 2021

Vingt-Vingt Vins: Bordeaux 2020, Neal Martin, May 2021

2005 Bordeaux: Here and Now, Antonio Galloni, April 2021