Confusion over Bordeaux’s latest “great” vintage

2015 has excellent barrel samples. If priced too high, seek 2014

Update! Best bargain wines #Bdx15

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com 

25 April (to mid-May) 2016

Tasting notes by appellation/region (watch for updates!):

Mad about Margaux – Pomerol panache! – Subtle, smooth, successful Saint Julien – Pessac-Léognan (and Graves) pizzaz – Merlot al Dente (and other tales from Saint Emilion #Bdx15) – Intriguingly Pauillac Sauternes satisfaction

Greatness?

Internationally acclaimed flying winemaker Michel Rolland reportedly complained about wine journalists during en primeur week as quoted in this Drinks Business story: “For me 2015 is a great vintage. Too many arseholes [that’s us hacks] won’t notice of course. We’ll see in 10 years though, as always.”

He could be on to something. Blend barrel samples with (sometimes overly) proud wine writers and you get premature pronouncements. Definitive assessment comes in a bottle and – even better – 10 years down the road, as one can experience HERE.

With wine critics Yves Beck and Elin McCoy at Bordeaux stadium, tasting #Bdx15 from barrel.

But let’s get real. Barrel samples tend to define the vintage, rightly or wrongly. My conclusion? 2015 is often excellent, but in a lower key to the all encompassing “great” – especially for people expecting large-scaled wines à la 2010.

Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier in Léognan and president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which represents over 150 estates, agrees. Well, sort of. “This is not like 2010,” he said. “But it is a great vintage.”

On April 17, writer Will Lyons tweeted something quite accurate, methinks: 2015 in Bordeaux is a 4* vintage with 5* wines. Anyone serious about fine wine will want some of these wines in their collection. #bdx15 

A “5 vintage” straddling 1985 and 2005

2015 ends in “5” and most readers know that since 1975, the “5” vintages of Bordeaux have been rather good (1975) to fantastic (2005). Of course we also have the dismal 1965, but excellent 1955 and legendary 1945. So what about 2015? The growing season up to and throughout the 2015 harvest was generally smooth, albeit with a few hiccups. As usual, some winemakers worked better than others, some regions shined more than others. Overall, 2015 made me think of a modern version of the charming 1985 vintage: softer (than 2010) tannins – and with lots of elegance. The best samples showed 2005 like structure, too. However, if the Bordelais raise prices too high, smart buyers should turn to 2014, which can be comparable in quality to 2015. The two vary in style (more acidity in 2014, for example) but I was just as enchanted with 2014 from barrel, in many cases.

Weather factors 

Bill Blatch’s superb 2015 harvest assessment – Rapport_mill_2015 – brought up some key factors, such as dry heat in early summer, that led to thick skinned grapes and some stress on the vine for certain terroirs – and this was confirmed in my tastings and from conversations with winemakers. It also stressed August as just cool enough – with welcome rainfall – to relieve summer stress. Finally, variable later summer and autumn rainfall affected wines differently according to how much rain fell. For example: more rain in Saint Estèphe than in Margaux. When I compared wines from both appellations on three separate occasions, most Margaux barrel samples were brighter and riper, especially at the cru bourgeois level – and that’s taking the general character of Saint Estèphe into consideration.

As Bill Blatch wrote:

The reds range from OK to very good to outstanding, depending on a whole pile of factors, not least of which being the amount of mid-September and early October rain and how the grapes reacted to it; also how stressed they got in June-July. Generally speaking, Left Bank Merlots are lighter, less fleshy and solid than their Right Bank counterparts, Left Bank Cabernets gain in intensity from North to South, meaning that Margaux and Pessac-Léognan did very well, Right Bank Merlots range from a more delicate style on the thinner cooler soils to an extremely impressive dark, thick, powerful style on the St Emilion Côte and parts of the plateau, especially in the micro areas of lesser rainfall.

CarteUltraSimp2012_UK

Map courtesy of Bordeaux.com

I cannot emphasize enough that Bordeaux spans 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) with 57 appellations producing about 900m bottles of wine annually. Geography and weather vary far more than in, say, the Côte d’Or – and for any given vintage. 2015 proved that point.

Stylistic perceptions to the fore

How can we define the vintage stylistically? Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate has not been tasting from barrel these last two years and his replacement Neal Martin – made official this year – has a more “English palate” as some in Bordeaux say. One negociant told me that winemakers may have been trying to “anticipate” his palate, making wines that are less extracted, less oaky and, well, less large scaled. Sounds like a good thing, but noteworthy English wine writer Tim Atkin MW remarked as follows:

This is not a great vintage. It’s very mixed. Some great wines, but plenty of thin (northern Médoc) and over-ripe ones (Right Bank) too. Prices need to be reasonable. The “vintage of the century” line won’t work.

Is 2015 a “European vintage”? Softer tannins, elegance and charm pleased long time Belgian taster Hugo van Landeghem just fine, he told me. “I really love many 2015s,” he said. But these traits do not “excite Americans,” said Shaun Bishop of JJ Buckley, an important U.S. wine importer.

Confused?

“This was a confusing vintage,” Bishop added. He stressed the uncertain Parker-less era, and that barrel samples “varied more this year than in previous years”. His overall impressions? Samples were “very good, but not excellent” and “elegant and easy to taste” but sometimes “lacking structure and significant mid palate” and that “although they have decent length, there is not enough going on to get you excited; that’s how I felt,” he said. “These will be more on the earlier side of a drinking window than 2010.” To conclude, Bishop told me:

Why would you go and buy these wines today? That does not create urgency; we all came in with the idea that this is going to be a great vintage, and I saw references to 2005, 2009 and 2010. Maybe some to 2005, but this is no 2009 or 2010, by a long shot.

Chuck Hayward and Shaun Bishop, right, of JJ Buckley, at a great dinner hosted by Château d’Issan during en primeur week.

Mark Wessels of MacArthur Beverages echoed Bishop’s comments:

I’m afraid that I came back a bit disappointed with the 2015s – for 2 reasons – perhaps I had higher expectations that I should have had, and there was more unevenness with the wines than I had hoped for. While there were many “excellent” wines – there were a lot of “just good” wines – and some “not very good” wines for my taste. That seemed to be the general tone of talk this year from the buyers I spoke with. The vintage is certainly at its best in Pessac – Margaux – Pomerol. It gets uneven the farther north one goes in the Medoc and I found some of the wines from St Emilion a bit too aggressive for my taste. The lack of “greatness” of some of the 1st & 2nd growths surely pulls down the overall greatness of this vintage. This will make the 2015 en primeur campaign much more difficult than I had hoped.

Finally in a more recent posting from fine wine retailer Calvert Woodley, Michael Sands wrote: 2015 looks to be a very good vintage in Bordeaux. Am I prepared to call it the next “Vintage of the Century”? In a word, no. These wines may not rival 1947, 1961, 1982, or even 2005, 2009 and 2010 (the three most recent VOTC) in the annals of Bordeaux lore, but they aren’t too far behind.

Yes, some barrel samples prompted circumspection. Take Cos d’Estournel, for example. Lighter than expected. Subtle perhaps, but lacking enough mid palate power. The 2014 Cos gave me a more compelling impression. And what about Latour? As refined as it was, I missed its typically gutsy Pauillac power. Was it trying to emulate Lafite Rothschild? I tweeted about how it may remind (older) Led Zeppelin fans of In Through The Out Door, a softer – and somewhat unexpected style – after previous heavy guitar LPs: going from When the Levee Breaks to… All of My Love.

With enologist from Latour

With Latour technical director Hélène Génin: new style in 2015

Latour technical director Hélène Génin explained to me that the style is changing due to biodynamic winemaking. I liked this new style, but perhaps Latour is a metaphor for 2015, in terms of expectations. Once again, the first growths lead the way…

Then again, many wines from Left Bank more obviously excelled, including Château Margaux, as among the best that I have tried from barrel from that storied estate. Indeed, Margaux as an appellation enjoyed a superb vintage in 2015. As did Pessac Léognan. Outstanding performances came from Léoville Las Cases and Ducru Beaucaillou and both Pichons further north, too.

Right Bank shines

JJ Buckley’s Bishop and others said that Right Bank estates known for their bigness “dialed back just a notch”… So you ended up with very balanced wines – Bishop said – with both structure and softness in some of the tannins, Cabernet Franc that was ripe, with good tannin, good structure and great length, but not over ripeness of typical blockbuster Right bank wines. Pomerol was exceptional and consistent as a group. Saint Emilion a bit more variable. 

I also found the Right Bank, particularly Pomerol, to be very consistent. Colder soils handled the early- to mid-summer heat stress well on the Right Bank, so you have much to love with economical pricing in, say, Fronsac.

Ausone is in the zone

With Pauline Vauther of Château Ausone, which was truly in the zone in 2015

Indeed some estates known for bigness “dialed back” on new oak (85% at Pape Clement and at Ausone instead of 100% for example) and soft-pedaled extractions. 2015 has less “spoofilated” wines that many of us love to hate.

So 2015 offers lovely, bright and ripe wines from expensive brands to cru bourgeois level, especially on the Right Bank. You have a vintage that may offer fine price/quality ratios – even if the main brands are likely to increase prices over last year.

Whites excellent overall

I was pleased that the hot early summer was indeed “saved” by August because most whites were neither heavy nor flabby. While 2014 (when picked ripe) generally offers more laser like focus, with higher acidity, the best 2015s seemed well structured due to optimal ripeness. Vintners like Olivier Bernard, who waited for ripeness, were rewarded. Overall, the dry whites of 2015, based on these early barrel samples, are not like, say, 2000 or 2005, which can be a bit too heavy.

Fine Cuvee Caroline

Fine 2015 whites #Bdx15

In Sauternes and Barsac I came across some lovely samples, too. For example, Rieussec, Fargues, Raymond-Lafon and Yquem all did very well, reflecting their respective styles. Fargues was superbly balanced, bright and sumptuous: one of the best I have ever had en primeur. Raymond-Lafon was refined and tightly wound, holding back its energy. Rieussec was very rich, as one would expect, almost bordering on over rich – but lovers of the estate will find much glee. Yquem was excellent, but not the best I have ever had. It seemed to lack just a bit of the brightness of, say, 2001 or 2010. But it was darn good.

For top brands, load up on 2014

Most are saying that prices will be higher than 2014. But given the current economic situation (Brexit, China’s diminishing growth, an enduring fatigue with Bordeaux en primeur in general, unsold negociant stocks from previous vintages), I wonder how much higher Bordeaux pricing can go. According to UGCB president Bernard, some brands that have obtained high critical scores, like Château Canon in Saint Emilion, will likely up its futures price, “especially since Canon has always been quite reasonable,” Bernard said. “But we will see some people going too far,” Bernard added. “I just hope that they come out later in the futures campaign,” he stressed.

Decanter’s Jane Anson wrote an excellent insider piece on 14 April on this very subject, bringing up the issue of unsold stocks and the trade. The key line in Jane’s story?

No vintage exists within an island. The Bordeaux merchants might want to buy, but they are still tied by their available funds. And after four or more years of stocks piling up and in many cases depreciating in value – even at low interest rates – banks are going to be unwilling to extend credit indefinitely, no matter how good 2015 is.

In the likely price hike scenario, savvy consumers seeking top brands should look to 2014, because barrel samples from last year were sometimes more impressive or at least just as impressive to me when compared to this “5” vintage (an obvious selling point, as mentioned above). You can read more about that in my tastings notes, coming soon.

As friend and fellow wine writer Adam Lechmere wrote, 2015 may be great for some people, but it is a year of choosing carefully and for multiple reasons: from stylistic preferences to price.

My notes are coming soon. Thanks for checking back. But please, do subscribe, to get e-mail alerts :-).

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4 Comments on “Confusion over Bordeaux’s latest “great” vintage

  1. I seriously tried to find some diluted wines in Pauillac and Saint-Estephe but with no luck. Montrose, who was supposed to be diluted, kicks a.. or is an iron fist in velvety glove! Maybe people are forgetting that rain isn’t always a danger if soil is well-prepared to let it “swim” away or at growing period of vines is finished!

    It’s true that 2015 isn’t as stunning as 2005, 2009 and 2010. I’m not that sure that Right Bank, taking ALL appelations in account is better than Left Bank.

    Michel Rolland maybe is right, maybe he’s not. Walking in tasting room at La Dominique on Sunday the 3rd April, I tasted barrel samples with extremely and I say extremely much oak. I’m used to much oak in wines, but maybe it was just too much this time and maybe therefore some journalists got tired/sick of excessive tannin. Next time please less oaked samples, thank you Rollands!!

    My two cents.

  2. I read some tasting notes already. And every “expert” seems to have a different opinion. Scores are low as 84-86 to 94-96 for the same wine! What shall the interested consumer do with such a spread of opinions? It is almost impossible to get a picture when you don´t know the likes and dislikes of the writer / critic. And one funny story beside this: I read tasting notes to a well known Right Bank wine when taster A meant this is a balanced and traditional made wine in need of time in the cellar and taster B states it´s an upfront wine with a very modern approach that will please the US palate. Everything clear?

    Only one thing seems to clear among a big majority: The sweet spots of the vintage can be found in the Southern Left Bank and in Pomerol / Fronsac.

  3. Thanks for posting Izak and Jürgen. Nothing seems clear in 2015 because so many varied voices, yes. Don’t you miss Parker already? Wait, there’s Neal Martin, who spoke of “Martinized” wines recently. I think bottom line is that, yes, based on the barrel samples, southern Medoc, Pessac Leognan are strongest globally on the Left bank, but you find some gems elsewhere in the Medoc, too. As for the Right Bank, Pomerol is the most consistent, albeit with higher alcohols than in 2014 (sometimes I just like the lower alcohol balance of last year, but that’s my own palate), but you also find excellent wines from Saint Emilion as well as the aforementioned colder climate satellite appellations. Overall, an excellent vintage.

  4. We can probably all agree, that Chateau Margaux is the wine of the vintage in red, followed by Ausone, Petrus, Pichon Comtesse, Mouton R, Montrose, Pavie, Pavie Macquin and Tertre Roteboeuf. I don’t have any belief in Fronsac/Canon-Fronsac, Castillon and satelite appelations of Saint-Emilion being capable of striking wines in 2015. Lalande de Pomerol did on contrary very well.

    Jürgen is right – there will be diametral opposite ratings. Hope Neal Martin won’t be too English in his TNs.

    I’ve tasted some 2014s too together with 2015s some places and this stunning acidity is still there. The question is if 2014s will outlive 2015?

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