This is a longer version of an article published by the Financial Times.
See this guide to our extensive coverage of Bordeaux 2015, including tasting notes on 620 wines.
First off, for the first time in five years, in 2015 the Bordelais have a vintage worth making a fuss about.
Secondly, it is by no means the vintage of the century. No one I met in Bordeaux made that claim, which is significant in itself. It is super-charming. Tom Hudson of Farr Vintners summed it up nicely as a modern version of 1985, 1985 being a vintage that was always pleasing to taste but not a particularly long-lived one. (Michael Broadbent MW of Christie's was a huge fan of 1985 when it was released, saying it reminded him of 1953.)
Unlike 2005 and 2010, 2015 does not have massive concentration and a particularly firm backbone. The acid levels are fairly, occasionally dangerously, low. Nor did 2015 deliver the uniform ripeness of 2009 – particularly in the northern Médoc where rainfall towards the end of the growing season was so much higher than in the southern Médoc and on the right bank. (The summer could be generalised as extreme heat and drought followed by an August and September with considerable but very geographically variable rainfall. For more detail, see Gavin Quinney's detailed weather report.)
In fact one of the most pleasing aspects of the 2015 vintage for long-term Bordeaux observers was how successful it was in Margaux, the southernmost of the four famous Médoc communes that has so often in recent history been disappointing.
Although they were far from the only over-performers in the commune, both of the most famous châteaux in Margaux, Ch Palmer and Ch Margaux itself, were particularly successful in 2015, respective tributes to Palmer's current incumbent Thomas Duroux and the much-missed Paul Pontallier, whose funeral interrupted the primeurs programme this year. He would have celebrated his sixtieth birthday yesterday [22 April] and left us, far too early, with another glorious memorial in the second wine of Ch Margaux, Pavillon Rouge – now dominated not by Merlot but by the Cabernet Sauvignon that is Ch Margaux's pride and glory.
Another trend that pleases this reviewer is the continued return to more balanced wines on the right bank: in Pomerol and, especially, in St-Émilion, which for a while produced far too many wines with exaggerated oak, alcohol and extraction. In fact Pomerol is another hot spot of quality in 2015 with a particularly outstanding wine produced at Vieux Château Certan – so much so that the usually reserved Alexandre Thienpont of VCC could not contain his enthusiasm. He is particularly thrilled by the input of his well-travelled son Guillaume, who has injected even more precision into surveillance of the vines. This sort of technical development and a happy family succession are two current leitmotifs of Bordeaux's continuing qualitative evolution.
Petrus and Lafleur were other standouts on the tiny plateau of Pomerol. As Baptiste Guinaudeau of the latter reported, 2015 saw the return of the Merlot grape. 'It's the first time I've seen such potential in it.'
But so ripe were some Merlots that those of us on the primeurs tasting circuit were deprived of a chance to taste Pomerol's other jewel Le Pin this year because there was still some unfermented sugar in a couple of their seven vats. Rumour has it that Le Pin was not the only right-bank property to experience this phenomenon, underlining how unrepresentative some of the tasting samples may have been.
The condition and accuracy of Bordeaux primeurs samples has been a long-running issue. We are served samples of wines drawn from barrels that may not truly represent the final blend – quite apart from the fact that the wines have well over a year's more development in barrel before being bottled. We cannot know whether the tasting sample was drawn from a particularly flattering barrel, nor whether the sample was gussied up to look especially good at this early stage.
The two properties owned by the Wertheimer family, who also own Chanel, Chx Rauzan Ségla and Canon, both of which produced particularly fine 2015s, solved this problem by offering individual visitors the chance to choose which barrel(s) they wanted to taste from. I tasted a couple of barrels, from different coopers, at Canon and was struck by the difference between them. One party apparently tasted from 12 different barrels.
Because the Bordeaux château owners stand to gain from favourable reviews of their wines, those of us publishing our impressions of individual wines are in an invidious position. A widespread rave about a wine helps to legitimise a high release price. So those of us who see our primary role as helping consumers rather than the trade are in a particularly difficult position until prices trickle out over the next few weeks. Because of that, my list of particularly successful 2015s below (in alphabetical order) concentrates not on potentially overpriced classed growths but wines in the lower ranks that may not even need to be bought as futures at all.
That said, primeurs week must be the most exhausting for individual proprietors. Alexandre Thienpont, who makes only about 5,000 cases of wine a year and presents just about every sample himself, was expecting a record 300 visitors in one day during primeurs week at the beginning of April. Production at the first growths can be as much as 40,000 cases a year. They refuse to show their wines other than at the château (thus precluding any comparative tasting) but have to receive literally thousands of individual tasters during the week.
There were far fewer potential Asian buyers in evidence this year than five years ago, but several locals volunteered that the number of Germans and Americans was rather higher than it had been recently. (My picture shows the group from J J Buckley tasting on a Saturday afternoon at Ch Pavie Macquin.) The British trade and media tend to troop round every year, although the Bordelais have learnt that this does not necessarily correlate with sales.
Annoyingly for those of us counting the minutes and miles, the number of châteaux insistent on tasting sur place has been increasing every year. But samples of probably a thousand other wines are available at the many group tastings all over Bordeaux's wine regions and even in the new football stadium on the outskirts of the city where the association of classed growths chose to show their wines this year – rather a change from the usual châteaux drawing rooms.
One of the ways Bordeaux's famous courtiers or brokers, the middlemen (almost all of them men) who are now so busy mediating between château owners and merchants/négociants on pricing, earn their two per cent commission is by delivering the samples to all these tastings. To maximise the freshness of these samples, I hereby put in a plea for them all to be dated.
SOME POSSIBLE (RED) BARGAINS OF 2015
Ch Angludet, Margaux
Ch de Bel-Air, Lalande-de-Pomerol
Ch Belle-Vue, Haut-Médoc
Ch Le Boscq, St-Estèphe
Ch La Brande, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Dom de Cambes, Bordeaux
Ch Camensac, Haut-Médoc
Ch Charmail, Haut-Médoc
Ch Les Cruzelles, Lalande-de-Pomerol
Ch La Fleur Peyrabon, Pauillac
Ch Fourcas-Borie, Listrac
Ch Fourcas Dupré, Listrac
Ch de France, Pessac-Léognan
Ch Grand Village, Bordeaux Supérieur
Ch La Gravière, Lalande-de-Pomerol
Ch Lanessan, Haut-Médoc
Clos Louie, Louison et Léopoldine, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Ch Malescasse, Haut-Médoc
Ch Picque Caillou, Pessac-Léognan
Ch de Pitray Cabernet Franc, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Ch La Prade, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Ch Puygueraud, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Ch du Retout, Haut-Médoc (already released at €7.20 a bottle from négociants)
Dom de la Solitude, Pessac-Léognan
Ch Sénéjac, Haut-Médoc
Ch Siaurac, Lalande-de-Pomerol
Ch Villars, Fronsac