Back in April 2020, Covid prevented the wine trade’s annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux and effectively put a stop to en primeur barrel tastings. Eventually, large numbers of samples were sent to merchants and critics around the world. In the UK many tastings were held outdoors, in the spring sunshine, in people’s gardens. In my case we tasted, socially distanced, around my dining table.
Tasting remotely threw up problems:
Even with these limitations, it was immediately clear that 2019 had produced some really exciting wines and the vintage held lots of promise. What was harder to achieve was a close look at the bigger picture, to really understand what the vintage had to offer. This is the reason that 2019 was the vintage that nearly got away: it was nearly allowed to slip under the radar without any of us quite realising what we had on our hands.The Southwold tasting is usually the time when we confirm or adjust our initial en primeur impressions of a vintage, once the wines are bottled. This year, Southwold provided my first deep dive into 2019 Bordeaux. Talking about the red wines, every expectation I had was exceeded.
I have tried to distil what I so admire about 2019 red Bordeaux into three key points:
I find the fruit expression in the 2019s to be vivid. This is a word I use to indicate something a notch or two beyond ‘pure’. Whether the fruit is red or black, plums or blackcurrants, there is something about its clarity and definition that elevates it above other vintages. At some degree this is about the acidity that accents and highlights fruit characters. Acidity is also a component of the textural expression of fruit – the sense of fleshiness and succulence. Ultimately, this is about balance.
There are some hefty tannins in 2019 but I rarely found this a particularly hard-going tasting as the quality of tannin is fine and polished. The wines have no lack of tension but the structural elements are beautifully buffered by the fruit. In this way, and this is sometimes echoed in terms of the alcohol, 2019 might be thought of as a re-boot of 2010, showing how far Bordeaux winemaking has come in the last not-quite-10 years. I love the best 2010s but too many of the wines are punishing, even austere, in their structure; in 2019 producers have better tamed the tannins, enveloping them into their wines’ flesh and texture. As before, ultimately this is about balance.
And so we come to balance, which I found to be pin-point in so many of the 2019 reds. Whatever the technical sheets might read about alcohol, tannin and so forth, the 2019s tended to feel cool, compact and poised. Intensity rarely gets in the way of elegance and many wines have a compelling sense of harmony and resolution on the finish. Once again, ultimately it all comes down to balance.
In terms of the reds, there is no stand out region in 2019. My top 10 includes wines from Pomerol, Pauillac, Saint Julien and Pessac Leognan. Chateau Suduiraut even snuck into the top 10 to wave the flag for Sauternes, even though I do not believe this to be a great year for sweet wines or dry whites.
In general Margaux is the least consistent commune of the Medoc, with a huge diversity of terroirs, and is often one of the hardest appellations to taste. I cannot remember tasting a better line up of Margaux, from any vintage, than I did from 2019. I doubt that any member of the group would dispute that 2019 is into ‘best ever’ territory for the wines of Margaux.
Similarly, the modest right bank wines were better than I can remember at any Southwold tasting.
My colours are nailed to the mast: they’ve been put to the test under blind tasting conditions and the 2019s have emerged as the best young red Bordeaux I have ever tasted. 2016 runs them close but the ‘19s are just that bit more exciting, maybe a bit more dramatic, than the more classical and intellectual ‘16s.
Numerous vintages have individual wines that will rival their 2019 counterparts but, as a group, the average quality is simply higher in 2019. Overall, for the Southwold tasters there is some debate as to whether 2016 or 2019 takes the prize but I suspect we are leaning toward the latter. There might be a couple of specific highs that are higher in 2016 but you cannot judge an entire year by the performance of a few top wines and the bigger picture shows more better wines in 2019.
Before I get into details, a word on the scoring. For myself and when tasting for work, I rate wines on the 100-point scale. Southwold, being a UK wine trade institution, uses the 20-point system. This year I experimented with giving each wine two scores, simultaneously using both scales.
There is no equation whereby 18.5/20 consistently corresponds to 96/100 or similar so the parallel scoring threw up some interesting questions. If two wines got 18/20 I was able to differentiate between them for my own purposes if I felt one was better than the other. Conversely, it might work the other way if I wanted to rate a wine, say, 17.5/20 against its peers but, on its own merits, give it a higher score – this was really useful where I found wines I thought were delicious but maybe they lacked typicity for their appellations.
For the Southwold group the wine of the vintage was Chateau Latour 2019. True to type, it is dark-toned, brooding and mineral. On my 20-point scale, this was amongst my top-scoring wines with 19/20 but because I found the nose really quite tight, introverted and hard to pin down, I only reached 97/100. This means that I actually had two wines ahead of Latour, both with 98/100: Le Pin and Chateau Montrose. In addition, level pegging with Latour, on exactly the same score, I had Vieux Chateau Certan.
My wines of the vintage:
|Vieux Chateau Certan||19/20||97/100|
Chateau Montrose was one of the group’s stars of the vintage and one of our highest scoring Medoc wines outside of the 1st growths. Indeed, I am convinced it is of 1st growth quality in 2019. For my palate, it was the level of precision, mineral drive and dynamism of the palate that had it just edging Latour (at this early stage, of course!). Similarly, the group scores had Vieux Chateau Certan at the top of the right bank scoreboard so I am broadly in line with my colleagues on this one.
Whilst VCC 2019 is all about the energy and vibrancy, its Thienpont ‘cousin’ Le Pin is devastatingly seductive. My note throws up a contradiction in that the wine pulls off the trick of having a character of spiced and roasted plums whilst having nothing ‘roasted’ or cooked about it whatsoever! It is an amazing, complex wine that is at once endlessly rich and strikingly mineral.
From each individual commune, I have selected both the outstanding wines and some potential value plays.
I have never seen a finer line up of Margaux wines at Southwold. At the highest level, it is hard to get a cigarette paper between Chateaux Margaux and Palmer. Both have high degrees of elegance, symmetry and sophistication. The group had Margaux ahead by a nose but I would go the other way and give Palmer the prime position (my rating: 18.5/20 & 95/100).
Whilst my scores suggest it sat a whisker behind Palmer, with 18/20 & 95/100, I believe Chateau Brane Cantenac should be considered alongside the outstanding wines of 2019 Margaux. Brane does not quite have the impact and drama of Palmer but the harmony, equilibrium and fine tannins put it into the premier league for my palate. The group was not unanimous on Brane Cantenac but I see 2019 as a continuation of their stunning run of form in recent years and, given the relative value, would very happily find this a home in my cellar.
I cannot leave Margaux without mentioning Chateau Rauzan Segla’s brilliant second wine, Segla. Tasting blind I rated the 2019 17.5/20 & 93/100, putting it ahead of several classified growths. It is impossible to look past the value and quality of Segla and I do not think I am alone in believing that recent releases probably eclipse the Grand Vin in vintages from not too many years ago.
This is always the commune of both quality and consistency and so it proved in 2019. Overall, the appellation performed perhaps a fraction of a point ahead of 2016 but it is probably too close to call. The wealth of fine estates in Saint Julien ensure it can be hard to go wrong within its boundaries.
Here, my top scores mirror those of the wider group, with Chateau Leoville Barton in the top spot and its cousin Leoville Poyferre in number two. The flamboyant, fleshy style of Poyferre frequently sees it winning in these tastings, and the 2019 epitomises the vivid quality I find in this vintage, but the classicism, structure and cassis purity of Leoville Barton won through this year.
Given their market prices, below the likes of neighbours Leoville Las Cases and Ducru Beaucaillou, both Leoville Barton and Leoville Poyferre qualify as value contenders in 2019. Further down the orders, the supple and fleshy Chateau Gloria deserves a mention and I also rated (17.5/20 & 93/100) the elegant and mid-weight Lagrange.
Finally, in a typical blind tasting surprise, I found I had put Chateau Gruaud Larose in third place. For a long time I have considered this the most disappointing chateau in Saint Julien, capable of brilliance in 982 and 1986 but rarely re-capturing such success today. The 2019 is a big wine – with plenty of muscle, bass and dark-toned fruit – but it finds balance on the finish. If you enjoy a bolder, fuller style then Gruaud Larose 2019 is worth a look.
The success of Chateaux Latour and Lynch Bages has already been discussed. Pauillac’s other two 1stgrowths – Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild – both fielded excellent 2019s. The group favoured Mouton over Lafite by a very small margin; my own preference was the other way around, by a similarly small margin. The reality is that these two thoroughbreds will likely continue to exchange places and run each other close for many decades. The real fun will be in watching the race and following the wines’ development in your cellar.
Rather than trying to split hairs amongst the 1st growths, I would prefer to shine a spotlight on the outstanding performance of Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste. For the group, GPL came in just behind Pichon Baron and just ahead of Pichon Lalande – meaning it out-performed the far more expensive Forts de Latour and Pontet Canet. My own rating was 18.5/20 & 96/100, meaning that I placed GPL ahead of Lynch Bages and gave it a score that places it in the realms of the 1st growths.
Chateau Montrose 2019 is a contender for wine of the vintage, as previously mentioned.
I agreed with my colleagues, that Cos d’Estournel sits in second place, and I rated it 18.5/20 & 95/100. Cos 2019 is led by red fruit characters and beautifully layered, with mineral tannins on the finish. The contrast with the wines of a decade ago was marked and this chateau has really left the body-builder style of winemaking in the past.
The Southwold group completed Saint Estephe’s triumvirate with Chateau Calon Segur in the bronze position, but here I deviated from the consensus. For my palate there is just too much creamy mocha oak on Calon, dominating the texture and obscuring the fruit.
At this point, I turn to regular Southwold favourite Chateau Meyney (17.5/20 & 93/100). It did not come out in front this year but Meyney delivered a silky and seamless texture supporting supple and insistent fruit that is going to give huge pleasure within a few years. As ever, Meyney is very keenly priced for the quality.
Unsurprisingly, Chateaux Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion led the pack here, both for me personally and for the group. As an aside, La Mission Blanc was my top scoring dry white – 18/20 & 94/100 with an unmistakable charge of Semillon minerality and acid – in a challenging year for the whites.
Pessac-Leognan is a hotbed of winemaking talent and this was reflected in the wines we tasted. Behind the two Clarence Dillon reds there was almost a dead heat for the group:
Personally, with 17.5/20 & 94/100, I rated Chateau Haut Bailly very highly. I loved the resolutely savoury character of this 2019, with layers of tobacco and spice.
For my value tip I will go out on a limb and highlight the red from Chateau de Fieuzal. This is the most striking Fieuzal I have tasted since the 1989. It has a cool, compact profile, beautifully integrated oak and plenty of floral and spice details. I doubt it will last a long time but Fieuzal 2019 should deliver charming mid-term drinking at a very fair price.
The 2019 wines of Saint Emilion are a significant notch ahead of 2016. The quality of winemaking here is on a steep upward curve and Saint Emilion is one of the most exciting regions of Bordeaux right now. Gone are the days of brutal extraction, turbo-charged ripeness and excessive oak. Of course, there have always been classically-styled producers but the general tide has now turned away from the full-throttle style previously championed by critics.
Chateau Cheval Blanc was the undisputed champion of Saint Emilion for the group, with the cool blackberry spice of Cabernet Franc shining through strongly. Personally, I had Chateau Canon just a whisker ahead – 18/20 & 95/100 vs 18/20 & 94/100 – on the basis of its razor-sharp definition and precision.
Aymeric de Gironde’s new wave Chateau Troplong Mondot put in a very convincing performance and was highly rated both, by the group and on my own scale; once again asserting its place amongst the top wines of Saint Emilion. It is juicy and lifted with great focus and a sense of mineral tension: 17.5/20 & 94/100. This continues to represent impressive value on release.
Echoing the performance of stable-mate Segla, Croix Canon lays a compelling claim to be the value play in Saint Emilion. Canon’s second label out-performed a number of Grand Vins. With 16.5/20 & 92/100 I rated it ahead of wines including Larcis-Ducasse and even Petit Cheval.
Pomerol supplied an embarrassment of riches in 2019 and I have already discussed Le Pin and VCC – it is worth noting that Pomerol, the smallest commune, supplied two of my top four 2019s!
Beyond the top pair, the Southwold tasters had a tie between Chateaux l’Eglise Clinet, Lafleur and Petrus. An honourable mention also needs to go to Chateau La Conseillante as our top-scoring Pomerol outside of the 1stgrowth equivalents.
The Pomerol magic of almost Burgundian textures married to decadent fruit interlaced with truffle aromas delivers some magical 2019s. It can be challenging to find value in this celebrated appellation but I would suggest:
It can be hard to find, and is not technically in Pomerol, but as a final tip it is worth looking out Les Perrieres from the Guinaudeau family…Lafleur on limestone, for those in the know!