For all its much-touted and (I can now attest) undeniable quality, Bordeaux 2019 will almost certainly be remembered as the COVID-19 vintage.
Without making light of the pandemic, the dramatic changes it has wrought on the wine industry had an upside in this instance. As somebody who doesn’t normally travel to Bordeaux for en primeur week, I recently found myself able to taste 100 wines (all sent from the same source) in one tranquil, neutral and safe setting (only eight tasters were allowed per session) thanks to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux’s decision to hold a tasting in Hong Kong. It was about 10 years ago that Bordeaux started to cede its pole position to Burgundy among collectors in Asia. Now, however, with 2019 building on the enthusiasm for the excellent 2018 vintage, I was certainly not alone in taking up the chance to taste at Hong Kong’s Rosewood hotel this week.
En primeur campaigns have often struggled in Asia but pressure to drop prices, and the acquiescence of many châteaux, has energised Asian demand. Based on conversations with merchants active in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, the overall mood is cautious optimism relative to expectations.
Demand in Asia depends on price discounts from 2018, plus high scores (though some observed that high scores across the whole region generated enthusiasm, but only 100-point scores boosted individual wines’ sales). Several merchants pinpointed 30% as the key discount level to open customers’ wallets, except in the case of a few highly coveted names.
Wines in the top echelon (Médoc first growths, super seconds and tiny Right Bank châteaux) “flew off the shelves,” according to Richard Sutton of Phoenix Fine Wines and Vineyards, while “a handful in the middle sold reasonably and some have barely moved at all.” Nicholas Pegna, global sales director for Berry Bros, noted regional differences, with Hong Kong reacting quickly and focusing on “big names,” Singapore more interested in niche wines and rising stars, and Japan more likely to buy post-campaign once the overview had clarified.
Others were less sanguine. Jo Purcell at Farr Vintners noted that though demand had picked up, customers in Asia were still less interested than those in the UK. Smaller distributors in mainland China and Taiwan said they were disinclined to participate this year, feeling en primeur is too risky an investment in uncertain times.
Kenichi Ohashi MW noted that while some Japanese importers were drawn by the discounts, others were holding out in light of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on nightlife, a key channel for classed growths in Japan.
A key frustration among merchants was a dearth of stock. Customers around Asia are newly enthused about en primeur but merchants were unable to secure allocations, with the top names especially tough to track down; the campaign is a “missed opportunity”, both Guy Ruston of BI and Thibaut Mathieu of Corney & Barrow said. Still, several merchants were pleased the campaign went ahead in June despite the complications, since for a while there was talk of delaying until September. I share their sentiment. Going forward, I feel the Bordelais’ effort to bring EP to the market rather than the other way around should pay handsome dividends.
The vintage had a jackpot combination of good fruit set, dry warm summer and sufficient rain around harvest to allow complete phenolic ripening. This has yielded wines of tension and extremes: the fruit is expressive and generous, the acidity forthright, the tannic structure vigorous but rarely overbearing. Alcohol is warm on certain wines, particularly Right Bank reds, but padded with sufficient fruit and girded with enough structure that outright flabbiness is rare. Winemaking influence on reds, whites and sweets is generally understated, with few showing a surfeit of new oak, possibly thanks to truly exuberant fruit and much to the relief of my barrique-shy, Italophile palate.
However, stylistic variability is considerable. The roughly 65 wines I tasted ran the gamut from tart red cherries to deepest cassis in Cabernet blends, and punchy strawberries to unctuous black fig in Merlot blends. The Right Bank offered more softness, the Left more freshness. Overall, these bottles struck me as remarkably pleasurable for wines barely out of the cradle.
The selection from St Estèphe was limited, but those I tried showed more muted fruit and less palate density than their neighbours, with wiry tannins but also less apparent acidity. Overall these comparatively subtle wines strayed farthest from the “wine of extremes” mould.
The Pauillac offering showed a marked variability, from the stolid, purple and blocky to the bright, red-fruited and charming. Elevated acidity was ubiquitous, ranging from vivacious to nearly searing in those few wines that actually felt like unfinished tank samples. Tannic structure was also more apparent than elsewhere.
Given the uniformly lofty reputations of the producers present, Saint-Julien appeared the most consistent within the Médoc, with universally luscious black fruit with varying degrees of earthy savour (Leoville-Poyferré) and floral lift (Beychevelle). Structure was comparatively less assertive here, with perhaps the softest acidity and most polished texture of the Left Bank.
Despite considerable variability of fruit expression (with everything from red cherry to black plum, sometimes in the same wine), a through line of seductive perfume and elegant translucency – without sacrificing concentration – links the wines from this commune, actually delivering that textbook Margaux “grace.”
Though too few wines were available to make conclusive remarks, those on show were quite homogenous, with dark purple fruit, robust tannic structures and possibly less aromatic intensity at this stage than their near neighbours.
Moulis en Médoc + Listrac Médoc
Between these two communes there was a notable consistency of style, with an effusive charm that promises immediate pleasure on release. Generally lighter on tannins and body, these delivered an ample dose of soft red berry fruit with nuances of tea leaf, graphite and tobacco, and crisp acidity that reminded me (favourably) of Chinon.
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Even among the top names, there was a marked divide between the strawberry-fruited and the figgy and dark, with successful examples in both camps (e.g. Valandraud and Canon La Gaffelière respectively). Generally the former shone more for their vivacious acidity – and were a more natural fit with my own freshness-seeking palate – while the latter enticed with their velvety tannic caress.
Although the best wines were outstanding, with plump fruit and opulent tannins, a few samples showed a stewy flatness, particularly those with high alcohol and soft acidity. As a whole, the wines were more yielding in texture than even the Saint-Émilions, though the top examples had the necessary acidity to compensate.
Graves + Pessac-Léognan
The whites provided few consistent traits to hang a vintage description on, apart from quality, which was universally high. Everything from the linearity and poise of Domaine de Chevalier to the buxomness of Pape Clement was underpinned by fresh acidity, likely attributable to a fairly early harvest. Oak was deftly applied, only overstepping the fruit in one or two cases and providing a spicy base note for brighter fruit and floral tones.
The reds were a more mixed bunch, with clearer delineation between the top names and the rest. A few wines’ tannins and fruit felt out of sync; others were marred by earthy reductive notes that muted their fruit. This mixed performance was somewhat unexpected given the purported strength of gravel soils vs. heavier soils this vintage.
Sauternes + Barsac
Fragrance was intense, pure and clean across the board, but the sweets seemingly lacked the high acid of 2019, perhaps because botrytis only hit late in the season and followed a period of hydric stress. Mouthfeel was unctuous and indulgent, with even the “tarter” noses quickly devolving into honeyed palates that delivered ample pleasure if somewhat less balance.