No hyperbole here, believe it or not. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also A Southwold summary for more detail and our guide to coverage of Bordeaux 2019.
I have good news for those who took advantage of the relative bargains that were Bordeaux’s 2019s offered en primeur. Now that the wines have well and truly settled into bottle, on the basis of tasting 270 of them blind two weeks ago, I can report that the vintage is looking very good indeed, perhaps the best I have ever tasted at this stage.
As usual, the vintage was offered en primeur, meaning long before it was bottled, in the spring following the harvest. What was unusual with the 2019s however was that this was just as the world had been locked down by the pandemic, so Bordeaux did not experience the usual influx of media and merchants to do the sales job for their en primeur campaign. It was therefore in spring 2020 a bit of a puzzle for the Bordeaux wine trade to decide how to conduct it. In the end, concerned about this blocked channel of communication, they chose the best option possible for consumers: a price reduction of about 20% on 2018 (virtually unheard of in recent times).
Prices have of course risen since then so that the 2019s already cost about the same or slightly more than the 2018s and quite a bit more than the 2020s. This is a highly significant trio of Bordeaux vintages, all marked in various ways by summers that were much hotter than in the past. But the 2018s, when there was wide variation in picking dates, are much less consistent than the 2019s. And when I tasted most of the 2020 classed growths in November, some of them seemed worryingly low in acidity and just a little too sweet for refreshment.
The great thing about 2019 is its consistency and the fact that it seems to have masses of ripe fruit, but lots of tannin to keep the wines going for many a long year (longevity is a classic bordeaux attribute). And miraculously in view of the weather, the 2019s also have quite enough freshness to make them alluring.
I happily reached these conclusions at the end of this year’s so-called Southwold tastings. Named after their initial location, these involve blind-tasting all of Bordeaux’s most famous wines (including all the first growths and equivalents) during a three-day marathon organised by fine-wine traders Farr Vintners in London and Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch.
By tradition about 20 of us – a mix of bordeaux specialist merchants and critics including 10 Masters of Wine – gather every January to assess the vintage harvested three and a half years before. As you can see from the image of this year’s tasting above, we take it very seriously. The theory, I think, is that at that stage the wines are not so expensive or rare that the château owners would be loath to supply us with samples, and by now the samples should give us a decent idea of how the wines are likely to develop (unlike en primeur samples from cask, which may only approximate to the final blend).
We tasters all know both each other and the châteaux well and there has developed many a running joke as we taste – in theory in silence – and then present our scores before discussing the wines. Only then are identities revealed. When we are tasting less-than-successful wines or vintages there can be a sotto voce chorus of snide comments.
What was remarkable this year was how quiet we all were when tasting – silenced perhaps as the sheer quality and majesty of the vintage revealed itself. We started with the dry white wines which, as in 2018 and 2020, were so much more impressive than they used to be. Most producers really seem to be trying to make interesting, appetising dry whites and to pick the grapes – the majority Sauvignon Blanc nowadays with increasing proportions of Sauvignon Gris as well as the traditional Sémillon – considerably earlier than the red wine grapes before acidity levels fall dangerously low.
We had a special flight of dry whites from Sauternes grapes for the first time this year as this category has been expanding, not least because demand for sweet wine has been shrivelling as markedly as a nobly rotten grape. Most of them tasted like works in progress but Ygrec, the dry white wine that was first made at Ch d’Yquem in 1959, was an obvious exception, and much less heavy than it used to be.
As for the sweet wines, they were varied but there were some excellent wines here, even though the summer was so hot, dry and protracted that noble rot arrived in the vineyards only very late in the day.
We then proceeded to the red 2019s, starting as usual with wines from some of the less famous properties on the right bank, with appellations such as Castillon and Côtes de Bourg, before moving on to some of the less celebrated St-Émilions. Until very recently these were the sort of wines that elicited the loudest groans from the tasters, lovers of classic bordeaux rather than the heavily oaked, alcoholic style that was fashionable around the turn of the millennium on this side of the Gironde. But these 2019s were widely, if slightly grudgingly in some quarters, admired.
And so it went on, even if there were a few posher St-Émilions and lesser Pomerols that were still marked on the finish by drying tannins, perhaps the result of over-extraction of phenolics from the grape must. But whereas many 2018s were marked by rather dry tannins, perhaps the result of excessively thick grape skins after the very dry summer, in general the 2019s tasted as though their tannins were ripe and round. This was presumably partly because the rain was better-timed during the 2019 growing season, but also probably because winemakers in Bordeaux are very skilled and continue to refine what they do.
The top wines of the right bank were absolutely sensational – and I should stress that tasting lots of wines blind is to put them under the cruellest spotlight. It is rare to enthuse so readily over an unidentified wine as I did over these 2019s, enthusiasm being wildly boosted by a glimpse of a famous label.
We moved straight from these top St-Émilions and Pomerols to some of the less expensive Pessac-Léognan reds and were expecting a substantial letdown but that was not the case. These fresh Graves reds were lovely too.
The wines from the left-bank Margaux appellation were also outstanding – almost all of them displaying the perfume that used to characterise these wines but which seemed to be lost during the oak’n’alcohol era.
St-Juliens shone, with Gloria a particular bargain. The only real disappointments were in some of the less lauded Pauillacs, although the famous ones were glorious. The St-Estèphes tasted considerably riper and fleshier than the appellation’s stony, slightly austere stereotype (which I personally like and enjoyed in 2018).
All three of these hot vintages have produced deeply coloured reds but the 2019s seem the best balanced – in fact some of them have so much fruit, as well as structure, that they already seem unusually approachable.
At the end of the Southwold tastings, if we have the stamina, we try to place the vintage we have just been tasting in a ranking of the most recent years. Those who stayed behind long enough reckoned only 2016 rivals 2019 and 2019 is probably more consistently fine.
But hold on for the 2022 publicity machine. This most recent vintage, which I expect to taste for the first time at the end of April, is already being touted by the Bordelais as the best ever!
Some 2019 bordeaux bargains
Ch Bouscaut Blanc 2019 Pessac-Léognan 14%
£48.86 Great Wines Direct
Ch Doisy-Daëne 2019 Barsac 13%
£28.80 Four Walls Wine Company
Ch Beaumont 2019 Haut-Médoc 13.5%
£18.75 Lea & Sandeman, £19.75 Mumbles Fine Wines, £22.65 Connolly’s, £24 Caviste
Ch Paveil de Luze 2019 Margaux 13.5%
£165 per case of 12 ib Farr Vintners
Ch Grand Village Rouge 2019 Bordeaux Supérieur 15%
£19.50 Ellis Wharton Wines, £20.49 The Wine Library, £23.75 Vagabond Wines
Ch Les Cruzelles 2019 Lalande-de-Pomerol 14.5%
£22.48 Lay & Wheeler, £97.50 per case of 6 ib Lea & Sandeman
Ch Meyney 2019 St-Estèphe 13.5%
£26.08 Lay & Wheeler, £27.94 Berry Bros & Rudd, £29 Laithwaites/Averys, £34.20 Four Walls Wine Company
Ch Moulin St-Georges 2019 St-Émilion 13.5%
£132.50 per case of 6 ib Justerini & Brooks, £265 per case of 12 ib Farr Vintners
Ch Les Ormes de Pez 2019 St-Estèphe 14.5%
£28 Laithwaites/Averys, £32.10 Four Walls Wine Company
Ch Gloria 2019 St-Julien 14%
£38 Laithwaites/Averys, £300 per case of 12 ib Farr Vintners
Tasting notes and scores on whites, right-bank reds and left-bank reds in the relevant articles and in our database. Some international stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.