“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
(Declaration often but wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill)
When I published a harvest report last fall comparing Bordeaux 2019 to a mathematical equation presenting several unknown variables, I had no idea that this vintage and the subsequent, almost rushed, futures campaign would hold so many surprises and uncertainties. The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe has dealt a new set of cards for an annual week of tastings that launches the futures campaign every year, an event that is usually run like a well-oiled machine. This time round, the wines could not be tasted by the press and wine merchants until more than a month later than usual. This unforeseen delay had an important impact on the tastings that only began in May and lasted through early June and beyond. This is a period when the oak influence from barrel aging is less demonstrative, the aromatic profile is more expressive, and the tannins are better integrated into the wine. As such, the wines are more appealing and have greater precision while also presenting a closer resemblance to the ones we will enjoy from the bottle, which is not usually the case during the usual late March / early April futures tastings. Rather than tasting wines dominated by their tannic structure, we were able this time round to appreciate wines expressing not only a certain delicacy but also stronger terroir identity markers.
2019 has turned out to be a vintage that is all the more remarkable and unique in its character when one takes into account how challenging the early growing season was. Volatility in the weather made it imperative for wine growers to remain on alert at all times. Nevertheless, the two main factors that left their stamp on the vintage are ample sunshine and heat. Both June and July were hot and dry, leading some to fear that the vines would struggle to ripen their fruit. The saving grace for the vines were the rains that came at crucial times: at the end of both July and August as well early September. They kick-started the ripening process that had come to a halt in the hot, dry conditions. What’s more, these rains, coupled with cool nights in August, preserved the freshness and fruitiness that the grapes retained in the final stages of ultimate and optimal ripening while avoiding the dreaded scorching of grapes that can occur in such hot conditions. Such climatic conditions enabled wine growers – at least those who had practiced the sort of demanding, meticulous and pinpoint viticulture often described as an “haute couture” approach that includes careful canopy management to enhance air flow in the vineyard and protect the grapes from sunburn – to pick their grapes selectively.
Choosing the dates for picking based on ripeness was less evident this year, because the grapes themselves had a less pronounced taste than in 2018. Nevertheless, as soon as this raw material went into the vats, the juice was fruity and aromatic, color extraction was marvelously easy to achieve, and each vat reserved for specific vine plots expressed its singular terroir character. Very quickly, the most conscientious producers realized that they needed to apply a light hand in the winemaking process, particularly when it came to the extraction phase. When that was the case, the magic could take place, and the resulting wines possessed remarkable precision and dazzling purity as well as energy. The malolactic fermentations proceeded without a hitch. As soon as the wines were in the barrel for aging but ready for tasting as a primeur wine, they were organoleptically enticing. Merlot proved to be of exceptional quality, combining fruit and vivacity to a degree rarely equaled in the history of Bordeaux wine. Cabernet Franc also ripened well, albeit with less pronounced aromatics than last year. As for Cabernet Sauvignon, it tended to be precise in its expression but could be rather tannic in character, with at times some rigidity.
This 2019 vintage provides me with the opportunity to state clearly my personal convictions when it comes to evaluating young wine. 2019 is for me an extraordinary vintage, singular and particular, one that rewarded the efforts of the most demanding wine growers and those of the most sensitive and astute winemakers. Wines produced in 2019 by these rigorous professionals reveal terroir character in all its splendor to the point that one can say they have never been more rooted in their site of origin. The result of my tastings is a plethora of high scores that may surprise my readers, but I sincerely believe that the top scoring wines are of a heretofore unequalled quality. Never have I tasted Bordeaux primeurs that were so fresh and fruit-driven while possessing such well-integrated tannins and a density of texture without any heaviness whatsoever. This is due in large part to the impressive but stealthy acidity that can make the wines seem almost light-bodied when in fact they are full of tension and rectitude.
Never before in my experience have young Bordeaux wines attained such a high degree of quality. The best of them are absolutely brilliant, vibrant and vivacious, while possessing the DNA of Bordeaux that we often struggled to perceive during the periods of the 1990s and 2000s. Bordeaux is truly back with a welcome stylistic transformation that is confirmed by this game-changing vintage. It heralds the end, once and for all I hope, of dense, heavy, oaky and soulless wines that had gone astray from their terroir.
The often-attributed phrase of Winston Churchill that I use as an introduction to this article echoes this sentiment. Bordeaux has experienced in recent years a certain decline when it comes to consumer interest, and for some observers, there is no end in sight. However, such setbacks are not necessarily fatal, because positive, revitalizing energies can turn the situation around and set things right. Such energies can be found among a new generation of forty-something, even fifty-something, wine professionals who have brought refreshing winds of change and cleared the path to a new era. However, the hardest part is now confronting them. They must have the courage to continue to maintain this haute couture viticulture and their delicate vinifications favoring fruit and tension as well as precise and expressive aromatics. They have to direct their reservoir of vital energy in a way that will put Bordeaux back at the center of the game. They will need to have the courage to maintain their convictions in challenging, even difficult, vintages so that we can be able to judge all their efforts over the long run. With such a scenario, Bordeaux will set the hearts of wine consumers beating once again and make wine connoisseurs all the happier.
As for the economic context, we know that Bordeaux is suffering. The cellars are filled with wines from vintages such as 2015, 2016, 2017 and soon 2018. Prices for them were too high and the markets can no longer absorb so much wine. Fortunately for consumers, prices for 2019 are falling. Of course, this has the added effect of lowering the value of stocks still waiting for buyers in the cellars from the aforementioned vintages. But for wine lovers, that is, for those who buy to drink, the 2019 vintage is an opportunity not to be missed. Prices have fallen to levels that are sometimes lower than those of wines from the 2016 vintage, which should reinvigorate the market for Bordeaux primeur wines. It should be pointed out, however, that the vintage is heterogeneous in quality, so it is necessary to cherry-pick to some degree, but I can only urge consumers to buy wines from the 2019 vintage. The quality can be extraordinary, and the prices are attractive. Concerning this latter aspect, the phoenix Bordeaux is molting its feathers. Speculation has had a devastating effect on the market for its fine wines: consumers turning elsewhere, buyers and sellers exuding arrogance, all in the context of increased market fluctuations. By returning to a more affordable level, the prices for 2019 primeurswill favor a distribution focused on real consumers and not on speculators. This will put Bordeaux back in the sights of discerning buyers and consumers. Such are the just rewards of the 2019 vintage, from both a qualitative and a commercial point of view.
Let’s welcome these winds of change and seize the tantalizing opportunity lying within our grasp.