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Bordeaux 2019 vintage: Clues on what to expect

Jane Anson provides an in-depth report on how the growing season affected the vintage, and gives her first impressions on the wines, based on barrel sample tastings so far.

I have now tasted around 160 en primeur samples from the Bordeaux 2019 vintage, on top of many vat and barrel samples in the months between last September’s harvest and the beginning of lockdown in France, when cellar visits became impossible.

So far, my tastings include Cru Bourgeois wines, St-Emilion Grands Crus, Graves and Pessac-Léognan samples, and those of certain classified estates on both banks.

This does not include wines that are normally shown at the official Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) tasting; the group is holding back until it is once more safe to organise collective tastings.

My garage has become like the demilitarised zone; there is a drop-off system that respects safe distancing, where I then leave the bottles for 24 hours. This gives the barrel samples a chance to settle. I then give the bottles an extra clean before tasting.

The publishing of scores is being held back until we know more about the Bordeaux 2019 en primeur campaign timing, and there is an opportunity to taste UGCB members’ wines.

That said, I now feel more confident to tell you a little bit about what to expect from the wines.

Below, you’ll find the sort of overview that I like to do for every vintage, usually a few weeks before en primeur begins, identifying some of the early key characteristics of the wines.

There will also be a follow-up piece to talk about some of the major changes in Bordeaux over the past year, from ownership and consultants to winemaking style and viticulture.

Weather in the Bordeaux 2019 growing season

Overall, 2019 was a hot vintage with all the potential successes and pitfalls that this style of year brings with it; rich fruits, concentration, high alcohols, plenty of tannins.

The top wines on the Left Bank seem less lush but more structured than in 2018, so closer to 2016 in style. But, I have so far found there is less consistency as you move down the rankings than in 2016.

The top Right Bank wines seem closer to 2018 in style. They are rich and lush in many cases, although with slightly higher acidity levels than in 2018.

The Bordeaux Institute of Wine and Vine Science (ISVV) has given 2019 a 3.5 to four-star rating – out of five – in its annual report. Where estates sits on that range depends heavily on soil type and location.

That would make Bordeaux 2019 an extremely high-quality year, but not up with the 4.5 to five-star vintages of 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015 or 2016.

To give you an idea of the scale, 2013 didn’t even make it to one star, and 2014 was at three.

The ISVV assesses a vintage by measuring:

  • flowering
  • fruit set
  • hydric stress before veraison (colour change)
  • drought during ripening
  • general weather conditions during harvest

In 2019, early budding was followed by a sporadically wet and cool April, May and June. This meant uneven flowering in early June, but from mid-June onwards the weather turned dry and hot, leading to successful fruit set.

July was mainly dry but with some storms. This meant the gravel terraces of the Médoc and limestone soils in general had no problems getting the right kind of hydric stress, but more water-logged soils found it tougher.

August and September were hot and dry, so ripening and harvest were successful, except for certain cases of extreme water stress on the driest soils, which saw some bunches shrivel in early September.

June right through to October saw higher temperatures than average.

Rain from 20 September onwards allowed the Merlots to ripen, often with high alcohol, and Cabernet did particularly well because the rains meant their ripening could go on for longer, lowering alcohols and allowing for more ‘normal’ development after the hot weather.

Some estates saw gaps between technical and phenolic maturity, as is often the case in hot vintages, and this had to be managed carefully.

Month by month:

February 2019: The sunniest in Aquitaine since regular testing began in 1991, with temperatures 4°C higher than average.

March: Temperatures were 1°C above average, and the month saw 35% more sunshine than average, with 70% less rain. Bud break was around one week earlier than in 2018.

April: Cool and wet for first half of the month, and frost on 12 April saw localised damage.

May: One of the four coolest Mays for the past 30 years, but rain was not excessive. The region saw 51mm, compared to 80mm on average between 1981 and 2000.

June: Also cool with frequent storms, and around 5°C cooler than average, with the coolest nights in Entre-deux-Mers during this month since 1978. There was 37% more rain than usual, but the mid-point of flowering was 4 June, except on really late-ripening soils, which was the same as 2018 and pretty much in-line with the 30-year average.

From 23 June onwards, summer arrived and the ripening really got going.

July: Among the sunniest of the past three decades, with 319 hours versus an average of 249 between 1991 and 2010. Uneven storms saw 40mm rain in the northern Médoc, and 100mm in Sauternes.

August: hot despite two cool rainy days on the 10th and 11th. Overall an excellent month, and the best drained soils easily achieved the right amount of water stress. The most vigorous plots had a little more trouble. Average temperatures were 28.4°C, compared to an average of 21.7°C between 1981 and 2010.

Summer round-up: Overall, summer rain varied per area. Pauillac saw 197mm from June to the end of August, while the Libourne area near to St-Emilion and Pomerol saw 176mm, and Sauternes in the south saw 254mm. That compares to a Bordeaux-wide average of 164mm between 1959 and 2017.

September: Overall, it was a hot, dry month with 69mm of rain in the first three weeks, compared to an average of 84mm between 1991 and 2010. However, there was more rain than in 2018, and it fell mainly in two spots, with 10mm on 10 and 11 September, and 30mm on 22 September.

October: The rain arrived around the 13th of the month, by which time pretty much all grapes had been harvested.


Yields

Lower than ideal, but better than expected might be the headline for yields in 2019.

The overall yield for 2019 was a little more than five million hectolitres, not far off the 10-year average.

A largely dry summer meant small, concentrated berries. The rains at the end of September helped the vines enormously in recovering lost ground, however, and the final yields were reasonable –  even plentiful in some cases.

This year saw hail and some frost affect around 5% of Bordeaux vineyards, far less than the 40-50% of losses seen in 2017.

As ever, yields differ widely per appellation and estate. The cru classés of Sauternes, for example, saw yields of just 10hl/ha. Up in St-Estèphe, the average yield stood at 50hl/ha.

Both have some brilliant quality wines, but clearly the difference in terms of bottle numbers is going to be stark.


Raised alcohol levels

As per the last few years, you are going to see raised alcohol levels in 2019.

On the Left Bank, they are lower or the same as 2018 in most of the top wines.

On the Right Bank, Merlot was generally at least as high as 2018, and higher in some cases.

Looking at the technical measurements, the ISVV recorded Merlot average sugars at 244g/l,  compared to 233g/l in 2018. Bearing in mind that it’s around 17g/l for every 1% of alcohol.

Average sugar for Cabernet Sauvignon came in at 233g/l, compared to 230g/l in 2018. This is close to figures for 2016 and 2010.

According to Enosens consultancy group, the average alcohols in 2019 were around 14%abv.

Below, you’ll find a summary of what to expect from wines in each area.


The Right Bank 2019 wines

Merlots generally began to ripen fully by mid-September, with harvest starting 16 September and becoming widespread on 25 September after some light rainfall.

This is around one week to 10 days later than 2018, with berry size generally determined by whether picking took place before or after September rains.

Alcohol and acid levels are both a little higher than in 2018. There were thick skins and lots of colour compounds, but the pips were generally less ripe than in 2018 due to blockages of ripening on some soils.

Overall, the Merlots were very successful with plenty of berry fruits and plenty of tannins, but high alcohols meant vinification was not always easy.

Good acidity means a more classic style than in 2018. I have certainly seen less of the gourmet richness that made 2018 St-Emilion wines so immediately appealing, but there is still lots of plump fruit on offer in 2019, and there were many successes in the samples I have tasted so far.

Consultant and Fronsac winery owner Dany Rolland said that 2019 was ‘more serene’ that 2018, despite frost risk in April that saw her estate burn fire pots for the first time, and the water stress that later caused headaches with some young vines.

‘Aside from some spring mildew, there was almost no rot pressure throughout the summer, which means very few vine treatments,’ Rolland said.

‘[There was] low acidity in many cases but good pH levels that have kept freshness, and balance even with high alcohol, as there has been in all great vintages since 2000.’

From my tastings, Pomerol seems to have delivered another excellent vintage, with plentiful black fruits and the chocolate edging that makes this such a desirable appellation. However, yields are around 35hl/ha at many estates, due to small berry size.


The Left Bank

The Cabernet harvest began straight after the Merlot nearly everywhere, and most grapes were in by mid-October under ideal conditions.

There was around 20°C difference between the day and night temperatures, with plenty of sun and a southwest wind that meant any rainfall dried out in a few hours.

The berries were smaller than in 2018 with at least as much sugar but more acid, more colour and more tannins. There is great aromatic intensity, and pips achieved better ripeness than in 2018, even if they took their time.

Consultant Eric Boissenot, who has 150 clients, mainly in the Médoc, said this week that 2019 was ‘a contrasting vintage, with a cool beginning then a hot dry summer.

‘Most vines did a good job in resisting issues, as they have had to cope with similar issues for the past few years,’ he said.

Vines were generally well-prepared for the summer drought because of the rain earlier in the year.

Many only began to show water stress in early September, and the rain at the end of the month was particularly useful for the Cabernets. It allowed the alcohol to reduce a little, in contrast to 2018; you might remember that alcohol was a particular issue of mine in appellations such as St-Estèphe in the 2018 en primeur samples.

Petit Verdot is sensitive to drought and didn’t always do as well as it has in recent years, because the vines suffered too much from water stress.

Boissenot also made the interesting point that it was only after the blending that he really began to get a feel for the vintage, because there were some high-alcohol Merlots and more classically-balanced Cabernets.

He said that he found more freshness than expected in the subsequent blends, with the two grape varieties complementing each other well.

Overall, the Left Bank in 2019 seems fairly classic in style. The wines may not be as exuberant as 2009, 2015 or 2018, but more elegant, with concentration levels that are clear.

That puts them towards 2016 or 2010 in terms of depth of colour and extraction potential, although less powerful than either of those vintages.

There is great persistency and typicity in the Médoc. My own tastings to date have shown that the best terroirs have given wines that equal the very best vintages, but the further you get away from those deep gravel terraces, the more variation you find.


Whites and sweets

The 2019 vintage saw a fairly early harvest for the whites, to avoid too much hydric stress.

Picking was underway in Graves and Sauternes by 26 August for Sauvignon Blanc, and one to two weeks later for Sémillon, finishing before the rains started around 26 September.

The berries had almost no rot, as with the reds. High alcohols were balanced by high acidity. Despite the heat, which usually would be bad for whites, there was very little hydric stress – at least not until very late in their growth cycle – so the balance was excellent, with enough acidity and not too much sugar. I found great aromatics, and the wines had a good composition overall.

Because of this relatively early harvest, alcohol is a touch lower than in 2018, down by 0.1% to 13.7% abv on average. The pH levels were 3.2 on average, versus 3.1 last year, which means the perception of acidity is a little lower but the wines still offer plenty of freshness and definition.

Overall, there are excellent dry whites. The wines are intense and appetising, with texture and supple, exotic fruit notes in the Sémillons.

In Sauternes, noble rot again came late, because of the hot, dry weather in August and September.

There were two main weather-related issues to deal with.

First, July storms followed by temperature spikes caused localised outbreaks of acid rot. One particular storm at the end of July brought 100mm of rain in one day, which weakened grape skins.

Second, some bunches shrivelled due to water stress in late August.

This required some careful berry sorting, but the region was able to benefit from a rapid installation of botrytis cinerea in mid-September.

There was an extremely high-quality round of picking between 10 and 14 October. Most estates were finished by mid-October, and rain meant that anything picked much later than 20 October was not used.

Overall, we have a vintage here with low yields but pure, aromatic and high quality wines.


The Market

Finally, what kind of a market are these wines going to be released into?

At the lower end of Bordeaux, quite apart from current challenges, the bottom has already fallen out, and it’s looking tough.

Bulk prices are way below €1,000 per tonneau (equal to 900 litres), which is seen as the benchmark for ‘just about acceptable to make a living’.

That figure was around €1,300 for much of 2018, and is now down as low as €600 or €700.

Classified estates are always more resilient, but even Cru Bourgeois and equivalent-level producers are suffering from low bulk prices, and inevitably it has an impact on general market confidence.

This is also true when you look at how overall sales were standing at the end of 2019, before any of the current issues came along.

Bordeaux wine sales as a whole were down 12% in 2019 compared to 2018, with 56% of sales in France, 10% in China and Hong Kong, 5% in the US, and 4% each in Belgium, the UK, Germany and Japan.

The biggest falls were seen in France, which is why bulk prices have suffered so badly – sales were 10% down in volume and 9% in value compared to 2018.

Exports were down 4% in volume but remained steady in value at €2 billion, despite shipments to China dropping by 18% in volume and 12% in value.

Exports to the US actually rose by 5% for the year, although France’s wine and spirits export body warned that orders for all French wines fell in the final months after import tariffs were introduced.

This week, UK merchant BI Fine Wine & Spirits reported a resurgence in sales to China-based buyers in March, driving a 25% in its sales in Asia for the month.

It’s worth noting, too, that Liv-ex reported recently that there are still relatively healthy stock levels of recent Bordeaux vintages.

Against this backdrop, what should estates do with their 2019 en primeur prices? And how long should they wait to release?

Clearly, this is putting the cart before the horse; scores have not yet been released. Plus, we all know châteaux hate to price from a place of weakness.

But, I would point out that low release prices for the 2008 vintage in a difficult economic environment – albeit in a very different context – provided a springboard for recovery, at least from a château coffers point-of-view.

Even once the lockdown ends, it’s hard to imagine economic conditions getting better before the end of the year.

Bordeaux wines are holding an online auction in June, with 100% of proceeds going to local hospitals fighting Covid-19.

This initiative, just announced by the Bordeaux Wine Bureau this week, also points the way, in my mind, for how the en primeur campaign could be approached.

Things are not normal this year, and there is no point pretending otherwise. Building confidence and loyalty has to be prioritised above all else in my opinion.

Professor Axel Marchal wrote in the ISVV vintage overview, ‘COVID-19 will inevitably always be associated with this vintage, but should not overshadow the skill of winemakers who have once again worked all year to bring out the very best of their terroir.’

From my tastings so far, I would say the wines are going to make it worth your while.


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