This is the prevailing mood in Bordeaux, after a month and a half of general confinement:
- the day after the presidential address on 12 March, all "Futures 2019" tastings, i.e. those organised for journalists, wine merchants and professional buyers from all over the world, were cancelled.
- The free movement within a 100-km radius from 11 May will allow Bordeaux's wine merchants to resume the tasting cycle but individually, as gatherings of more than 10 people are currently banned.
- Journalists and foreign buyers will only discover the Bordeaux 2019 wines later (this autumn or next year?). Many producers are currently sending samples of their wine to the 4 corners of the world, but the fragility of these wines during the maturing process will make judgements random.
- Under these conditions and in the hope that the deconfinement will take place as planned, there is a consensus for a "Futures 2019" between next June and July.
- this shortened campaign will not concern 400 to 500 crus as every year, but only about 100 to 200 crus.
- Among these 100 to 200 crus, about 40 (the most prestigious and/or the most fashionable) will be the usual success, the 2019 vintage being of high quality (see below).
- for the other vintages, we expect spectacular price reductions, similar to what happened with the 2008 vintage which came out of the banking crisis. All the more so as they will not have the ratings and support of the critics.
Contrary to 2018 (mildew damage), the winter and spring of 2019 had no particular impact on the vine's vegetative cycle until flowering in early June.
It was then that the conditions were set up for a great Bordeaux vintage. To be convinced of this, just compare the 2019 figures with the average for the 3 crucial months from 1981-2010 (Météo France data):
• temperature : July +3,1°C, August +1,3°C, September +1,5°C
• sunshine : July +31%, August +12%, September +10%
• precipitation : July -17%, August -40%, September -19%
The summer of 2019, once again warmer, sunnier and drier than the norm (as in 2018, 2016, 2015...) attests to the high quality of the vintage.
At the end of the season, the weather was perfect for an easy harvest: daytime temperatures between 20 and 25°C, plenty of sunshine, rainfall spaced out and immediately dried up. This allowed everyone to harvest without stress, from 26 August for the dry whites, 16 September for the Merlot, 30 September for the Cabernets and early October for the sweet whites.
By the arrival of the first autumn rain (26 mm on October 14), the grapes were already in the vats.
The two primary quality factors for dry white wines from the Gironde are health (fear of grey rot) and the preservation of freshness (fear of a lack of acidity in relation to the richness in sugars).
These two factors were perfectly fulfilled in 2019 :
• the sanitary state was not at any time in question as the climatic conditions were permanently dry, including the harvest.
• the preservation of acidity was ensured thanks to a month of August without a pronounced heat wave or nights that were too hot. Moreover, still in August, the hydric constraint remained moderate and did not cause any wilting of the grapes.
Particularly expressive, complex and balanced, with the liveliness of the 2017 but more density and length on the palate, the dry white wines of 2019 that we have tasted so far have enthused us, in the great growths of Léognan as well as in the small châteaux of Blayais or Entre-Deux-Mers.
Moreover, the quantities are good because, in the absence of frost, hail and disease, the yields were satisfactory in 2019 (after a small half harvest in 2018).
The low rainfall in September favoured a slow and progressive development of noble rot on the bunches kept after a "cleaning" sorting (elimination of green, damaged or acid rot affected grapes).
At the beginning of October, there was a sudden acceleration in the concentration of the berries due to the morning fog. It was necessary to be reactive in order to harvest immediately, and most of the châteaux picked most of the 2019 vintage in a single sort between 8 and 13 October. The rain of October 14 and the following rains definitively diluted the grapes that remained on the vine.
This harvesting of the 2019 sweet wines in a single sorting, a rare occurrence in Sauternes, had two consequences:
• aromatic purity because the grapes were all simultaneously botrytised and immediately harvested,
• low yields, most often below 10 hl/ha in the grands crus classés, as only grapes harvested between 8 and 13 October were of good quality.
2019 is undoubtedly a new fine vintage for sweet wines, with wines that are clean, fresh, harmonious, intense but without heaviness, reminiscent of the style of the more refined 2015s. Only the volumes produced are a problem, and with them the financial balance of the châteaux, once again.
We have always given you a faithful and sincere account of our opinions, avoiding the systematic overbidding where each vintage is necessarily better than the previous one and where the extraordinary rubs shoulders with the sublime.
However, without falling into over-emphasis and simply by looking at the above-mentioned weather averages, we recognise that 2019 is unquestionably one of the great vintages for red Bordeaux, following on from 2018, 2016 and 2015.
4 great vintages practically in a row (a series barely interrupted by 2017 itself of excellent level) has never been seen in Bordeaux and can only question once again the ongoing global warming.
Even if they are remarkable, raw weather data alone cannot summarize the quality of a vintage and as such 2019 has not been a restful year for red Bordeaux producers.
The first pitfall was two brief periods of extreme heat between the end of June and the end of July, which caused the grapes to be feared toasted: 37.3°C on 26 and 27 June, 41.2°C on 23 July (an absolute record in Bordeaux, beating the previous record of July 1990 by more than 2°C) and 38.5°C on 24 July. This was at a time when metropolitan France exploded its all-category record with 46.0°C in the Hérault region on 28 June.
Fortunately, the month of August saw regular but not excessive heat, with only one day exceeding 35°C (35.2°C on 24 August).
The second pitfall was a continuous drought throughout the summer, barely punctuated by a few thunderstorms.
Since the wetter than average summer of 2013, 2019 is the sixth vintage in a row to be affected by the lack of rainfall. Although less rainfall is a necessary condition for obtaining a great vintage, a too marked drought is on the contrary unfavourable due to the differences in or even blockages of maturity that it causes.
Independently of the localised and random watering of summer storms, four criteria determine the impact of drought on the vines in the Gironde:
• the state of the water table at the end of June. Luckily, June 2019 had a surplus of rainfall (+37%) and the water tables were full at the beginning of the dry period.
• the vigour and especially the age of the vine, knowing that the older a vine is, the deeper its root system is and the less sensitive it is to surface drought.
• the capacity of the subsoil to retain water. Soils with a clayey foundation (the heart of Pomerol), limestone (the hillside and plateau of St-Emilion, Pauillac and St-Estèphe) or clay-limestone (the right bank as a whole) are favoured while the more draining terroirs of pure gravel (southern Médoc and Graves) are penalised (and vice versa in rainy years).
• the proximity of the Gironde estuary, the Atlantic Ocean and the Landes forest (thus the Médoc and Graves), which is beneficial due to a hygrometry that is always higher than that of the right bank.
The third pitfall was the high sugar content - especially merlot - which rose very quickly in September as soon as the first showers arrived.
It was necessary to subtly choose optimal harvest dates, the right balance between a good maturity of the pips and contained potential alcoholic degrees (this year, for example, we noted a 9-day difference in harvest dates between two neighbouring properties in St-Emilion).
High alcohol levels, recurrent in all French vineyards (even northern ones), are a real problem today as European consumers are looking for fresh, elegant and fine wines. We were delighted to learn that in 2019, a number of Bordeaux great growths, mainly on the Left Bank, had remained below 14° (as at Domaine de Chevalier red = 13°, Lafite-Rothschild = 13°4, d'Issan = 13.4°, Pédesclaux = 13.6°, Duhart-Milon = 13°7...).
In the end, if 2019 gathered on paper all the characteristics to obtain great wines, the climatic hazards and their interpretation by the producers induced a great variability in the results of each one.
To date, we have only completed half of our visits and tastings because of Covid-19, but everywhere we find the same qualities of maturity, richness and density that are the hallmark of the vintage. However, some wines are magnificent in their softness and smoothness of texture while others have more angular or even abrupt tannic structures, with an already sensitive alcohol.
Among those who have fully succeeded, not necessarily the greatest vintages but those who have known, thanks to their terroir and their know-how, how to make the most of the vintage, 2019 reminds us of the 2009 vintage, with its deep robe, its intense aromas of black fruits, its ripe and voluptuous mouths, its perfectly coated tannins.
As in 2009, the left bank highlights the aristocratic length of its Cabernet Sauvignon while the right bank is proud of the smoothness provided by its Merlot.
To continue the stylistic comparison, we would compare the 2018-2019 pair with the 2009-2010 pair, but in reverse:
- to 2018 Bordeaux classicism, with straight, racy, precise wines with great ageing potential,
- to 2019 the generosity, velvety and seductive hedonism of a more rapidly appreciable hedonism.