Our Bordeaux 2019 Vintage Report
In the midst of these disconcerting times, we are lucky to be blessed with yet another superlative release from Bordeaux, and indeed the fifth in succession: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and now 2019. Our accompanying spring trip to Bordeaux is traditionally a highlight in the calendar at Armit Wines, but alas, not this year. For the 2019 vintage, we rely on the judgement of the vignerons we work with, such as Omri Ram at Château Lafleur, and the daily updates and interviews shared by the wine critics. Now more than ever before, Armit Wines’ historical relationship with our négociants and producers proves not only to be important, but indispensable. The trust and personal connection that forms the heart of our business is vital. The Bordeaux 2019 releases are going ahead – in joyful defiance of the exceptional situation we all find ourselves in.
The 2019 growing season
The 2019 vintage began with a mild and dry winter. Early budding, as much as 2 weeks early for some producers, was followed by intermittently wet and cool periods throughout April, May and June. Cool nights in April brought the threat of frost, but for most producers this was avoided, whilst May proved to be one of the coolest on record for 30 years, slowing vegetative growth in the vines. At the beginning of June, flowering was uneven, but from mid-June the weather improved significantly, leading to healthy fruit set. Water reserves in the soils, from the previous months’ rain, meant that vine growth was not halted. The finest soils are well draining but retain water reserves for when required. Even in Bordeaux, terroir is everything. On 26th June, summer well and truly arrived, with the help of warm air from Africa.
The greatest challenge in 2019 was the intense drought that arrived in July and followed into August and September. These dry summer months saw considerably higher temperatures than average: according to Laurence Geny’s vintage report with colleagues from the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux University, July alone saw 17 days above 30 degrees, and 5 days above 35 degrees. The record was a scorching 41 degrees on 23rd July. According to Omri Ram at Lafleur, the number one priority was how to “accompany your vines” in such heat. The sun could easily burn fruit that was overly exposed, and some foliage protection was essential.
September came as a relief. As Laurence Geny and the team at Bordeaux University explain: “After a relatively cool start to the month, a wonderful Indian summer set in from the 11th to the 20th of September, marked by hot daytime and cool night-time temperatures and the absence of significant water stress. The red grapes gradually developed good colour and tannin, characteristic of a great vintage.” Whilst a challenge for some, the rain which arrived on 20th September was a great help. Dominique Arangoits, technical director as Cos d’Estournel in Saint-Estèphe, tells James Suckling: “If we didn’t have the rain in September, we would have lost some quality right away… The water brought a freshness. It is part of the miracle of the vintage.” Furthermore, the rain helped extend the ripening period of Cabernet Sauvignon, which benefits from a gradual ripening process.
Merlot was harvested mostly before the rainy spell, from 16th September. Sugar levels and total acidity were higher than in 2018, although acidity did vary between producers. Cabernet Sauvignon was harvested after the rain, in early October. Grapes were smaller than in 2018, but “just as sweet, more acidic and deeply-coloured with richer tannins”, according to Geny’s report. Geny concludes: “[the] grapes' aromatic intensity was nevertheless remarkable, featuring complex notes of fresh red fruit.”
The white and sweet wines
It was also a fine year for Bordeaux’s white wines. Sauvignon Blanc was harvested first, beginning on 26th August, which was a little earlier than in 2018, in order to prevent too much water stress. Sauvignon Blanc produced wines of generous body but with balanced acidity and good freshness. Sémillon, which is highly susceptible to noble rot, can be more tricky but was harvested in perfect conditions in the second week of September. As Geny explains, “Despite an exceptionally hot summer that was sometimes incompatible with the greatest dry white vintages, the absence of early and excessive water stress produced perfectly balanced, aromatic grapes with good acidity and not overly high sugar levels. Their composition is ideal for producing wines with outstanding ageing potential.”
For sweet wines, 2019 was a lesser year. Sauternes received significantly more rainfall in the summer, in comparison to the rest of the Bordeaux. Grape skins were weakened, particularly the thin-skinned Sémillon, and the intense heat of August caused the onset of sour rot and raisining (passerillage) to all but the finest vineyards. Vignerons removed the affected fruit, resulting in significantly reduced yields. The little that was harvested, mostly between 10th and 14th October, was good quality, but subsequent passes through the vineyards resulted in diluted fruit due to wet weather.
A taste of the vintage
Speaking to Armit from Château Lafleur, Omri Ram describes 2019 as “another great vintage – a beautiful year”, highlighting the clear succession of vintages from 2015 to 2019. For Omri, 2019 yielded “amazingly complex, intense, and if you work correctly, very elegant wines”. With regards to the broader Bordeaux region, Omri is quick to point out how this run of fine vintages, including 2019, has been “marked by drought”. He highlights how in “historically great vintages, the vines have to suffer”. Drought causes hydric stress, which encourages vines to produce high quality fruit with concentrated sugars.
Bordeaux expert Jane Anson at Decanter describes 2019 as “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.” She points out how wines from the Left Bank “seem less lush but more structured than in 2018, so closer to 2016 in style”, but suggests there is less consistency amongst the lower rankings of the Bordeaux classification. Meanwhile, she remarks how the finest Right Bank wines are closer in style to the 2018s: “They are rich and lush in many cases, although with slightly higher acidity levels than in 2018.”
For the dry white wines, it was also an excellent year. As Laurence Geny explains in the report from the University of Bordeaux: “The 2019 vintage produced dazzling dry white wines. Their aromas are intense and attractive, dominated by grapefruit, mango, and lemon notes, characteristic of ripe Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is fresh on the palate, with Sémillon contributing a smooth, full-bodied texture, culminating in hints of tropical fruit on the finish. A great year for dry white wines!”
James Suckling is the first major critic to have tasted a wide variety of samples, sent to him in isolation in Hong Kong. He writes on his website: “I was happily surprised with the quality of the samples – the wines are outstanding quality, from simple Bordeaux to cru classe.” He enthuses over the very “Bordeaux” character of the wines: “so many of the 2019 wines are at the same level of quality as 2018, albeit with less exuberance and plushness in fruit and tannins. The wines seem more typical for Bordeaux – which is a good thing – with a balance of alcohol, cool and blue fruits and fine linear tannins that are refined and driven. From Suckling’s report, we may conclude that the 2019 vintage is similar in style to the super 2010 vintage, “but without the austerity and intensity”. The Cabernet Sauvignon berries, with intense colour and tannin, were the smallest recorded since 2010.
Bordeaux 2019 with Armit Wines
Armit Wines is confident that 2019 will offer extraordinary quality for a fair price. Many of the 2019 releases are superior in quality to the 2018s, but we do not expect to see an increase in price. For five years now, Bordeaux has enjoyed a run of dry vintages, and vignerons have been adapting – to the heat, drought and other challenges thrown at them by the changing climate and weather conditions. The wines are getting better and better. Producers have had the chance to fine-tune the harvest date, with optimal precision regarding grape maturity, canopy management and vinification. We are now seeing wines of less extraction and less concentration, and never before has there been a greater focus on balance, freshness and tension. For Eric Kohler, Château Lafite Rothschild’s technical director, this balance is key. Speaking to James Suckling via video link, Eric describes the 2019 vintage as “a great classic vintage with a modern profile”, concluding: “You have all the parameters of a classic vintage but at the same time it is very accessible. Everything is here. Everything is in a good position, the harmony, the precision.”