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"A Thrilling Vintage"

By W Peter Hoyne

This year unfolded in an unusual fashion with the global pandemic. As events and gatherings were canceled around the world, time also stood still in Bordeaux, France. Usually in late March, a pilgrimage of over 6,000 people, most of whom are wine professionals and journalists, converge on Bordeaux for an early preview tasting of wines that are still resting in barrels. In this case it was the wines from the 2019 vintage. Referred to as en-primeur, this glimpse of quality sets the tone for worldwide interest as scores are assessed and prices are etched in stone soon afterwards. Due to Covid-19, this year’s en-primeur venue in Bordeaux was placed on pause.

Of course, I was disappointed that I could not attend this notable event as I had religiously done so for the past 15 years. I reflected on the weather conditions surrounding this vintage. So perhaps it wasn’t terrible that I was missing primeurs this year considering the weather for 2019 was somewhat challenging, In addition, there have been several heralded vintages from Bordeaux over the past decade that were very attractive. Included are 2010, 2015, and 2016 along with the most recent 2018 vintage. In the end, I realized that missing an opportunity to taste these wines might be extremely regrettable.  

Under normal circumstance, the only way to taste barrel samples of Bordeaux is to request an invitation and sample them at the chateau. The reasoning behind this is that the chateau prefers to showcase the wine under ideal conditions, as it may be fragile during this early stage of development. Yet, with the pandemic these were anything but normal circumstances and it may be a lost opportunity for owners and consumers alike. In an unprecedented move, some Bordelais who were forward- thinking decided to ship samples of their 2019 vintage in advance for review.

This unprecedented move caught me off guard as I was approached by requests from estates in Bordeaux to sample the 2019’s. I humbly accepted the invitations. In a few instances, as with Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Cos D’Estournel and Chateau Leoville Poyferre, I had the opportunity to participate in a virtual tasting of the wines together with the technical directors. Afterwards, I assembled the wines together with a group of colleagues and writers in order to evaluate the vintage. Collectively the group had over 150 years of experience tasting wines from Bordeaux. This would confirm or invalidate my own impressions.

Before we move too quickly into dissecting the wines, as typically occurs during tastings, let’s begin with an overview of the vintage. The weather in 2019 began with a mild winter followed by a cool, wet spring with a slight decrease in flowering and uneven fruit set.  From June forward there were sunny, hot conditions with vineyards experiencing heat spikes at the end of June and July. Thankfully on July 25th and 26th rain fell, enabling the vines to recover and become refreshed. The temperature in August was close to average with warm days and cool nights that allowed grapes to retain their vibrancy. The middle of September from the 13th to the 17th was hot once again with light rain providing a welcome relief to the vines. Harvest for the whites began near the end of August, while the reds were picked from the end of September through October.

There was guarded optimism about the 2019 vintage, but in the end the prolonged and dry summer resulted in grapes of vibrant black colors, intense aromatics and finesse. During an hour-long discussion with Philippe Dhaullin at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac he explained that “the cool nights kept the freshness.” The wines are easy to taste with good maturity of tannins and energy. Philippe finds the wines to be silky with a velvety mouth-feel. The softness of the tannins makes the wines easy to taste.

Dominique Arangoits of Chateau Cos d’Estournel believes “the key in 2019 was to avoid over extraction and to keep the balance. In 2019 the vines read the terroir more intensely. The vintage has an early sophistication.” The Merlot from this vintage added sweetness while the Cabernet Sauvignon gave energy resulting in wines of classic elegance.

 On the Right Bank Merlot exceled, especially in Pomerol.  At Chateau La Pointe in Pomerol, Eric Monneret professed, “the vinification of these quality grapes was to reveal an aromatic wine boasting an intense color. The round, supple palate offered a promising cocktail of ripe fruit, excellent tension and a pleasant freshness that is the mark of the greater vintages. “

To my delight I found this vintage captivating right out of the gate. The consensus is that these wines will continue to remain vibrant and attractive for 10 to 20 years or much longer for the leading chateaus. There have been a few comparisons with older vintages, although personally I found these wines to be structurally similar to the heralded 2015’s, but with more elegance. Directly from the barrel some young wines can have a raw edge, as your palate can be sacrificed to dry tannins.  Yet, to my amazement these wines were extremely approachable and rather sensuous in their demeanor. They were sensuous with heady floral aromatics wrapped between layers of sumptuous black fruits. The core was flattering with ripe, finely grained tannins and a touch of vibrant freshness.

I concluded that the reds and whites from this vintage are equally alluring with the whites having a touch less acidity than other years. Even given the heat spikes of this vintage, the resulting wines were balanced with alcohols varying between 13 to 14.5%. 2019 was an exceptional vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with both achieving celebrity status in vineyards situated on great soils. These wines continued to intrigue me for days after they were opened, revealing a sophisticated personality that was easily accessible. I am among the first ambassadors for  Bordeaux’s 2019 vintage and given the modest pricing of some of these wines, there are many worthwhile opportunities to purchase them as futures from retailers. If you tend to be impatient and want immediate gratification from a young wine, this vintage will offer you pleasure at many levels. In summary, I found the 2019 vintage to be irresistible from the minute the bottle was opened and they will indeed be age-worthy if you can resist.

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