Bordeaux 2015 - A portrait of the vintage
On our return from the intensive 2015 primeur tastings in Bordeaux, the question which taxed us most was this: where or what exactly is the defining point of greatness? Part of the skill of the primeur tastings is to be able to shut your ears to everything going on around you, particularly the hype, and focus solely on what is in your glass – not just what it tastes like but the constituent ingredients (tannin, acidity, texture), and what these mean for the wine’s future. If you allow too much of the ambient buzz to filter through, you cannot help but find your opinion coloured and your notes embellished with comments which are not really yours. This, possibly like no other year, was one for selective hearing. Prior to the tastings, the bush telegraph from Bordeaux was humming with scarcely concealed hints of greatness and perfection, and comparisons to the stunning 2009s and 2010s abounded. The proprietors wanted it to be great, as did the négociants, but during the tastings the gap between fiction and reality became more apparent, despite the occasional burst of greatness.
So, what of 2015? In a nutshell, many of the wines are very good, exceptional in some cases, with some regions considerably more consistent than others. As to the question of what makes a great vintage? It has to be that consistency, the point at which you know that any wine you pick up from that year will tick all the right boxes, whether a Petit Château or a First Growth. And sadly 2015 is not one of those vintages, much as we would love it to be so. It is without doubt the best year since 2010, but it does not rival 2010, 2009 or 2005. Comparisons have been made to almost every vintage, but for us it most closely resembles the 2001 on the left bank (delicious wines, tragically underrated because of following behind the 2000) and perhaps 1998 on the Right Bank, a superb vintage for those who handled the conditions well.
The Growing Season
2015 was marked by a most unusual growing season, with many experienced vignerons saying they have never seen the like. After a wet winter, spring was incredibly warm and dry, with early budburst followed by a quick, even flowering in the first week of June, bringing with it the hope of a decent sized vintage. June and July were hot, exceptionally so between 30th June and 6th July, with no rainfall at all, leading many producers to fear that another 2003 was on the cards, with June notching up a 3°C increase on average temperatures. August however was slightly cooler and wetter, with much-needed rain at the beginning of the month kick-starting véraison, the process whereby the grapes change from green to red, and unblocking those few plots suffering from water stress. The rain continued on and off for much of the month, mainly in the form of storms – across the region it was nearly twice the 30 year average – but thanks to the hot July the thick grape skins kept the fruit healthy. September saw the fruit ripening well with sunny days and cool nights keeping everything on target, but the arrival of Storm Henry was a game changer between 11th – 17th September. The storm brought vast amounts of rain to the Médoc, striking particularly at the northern part, whilst further south in Pessac-Léognan and inland on the Right Bank very little rain fell, and that which did was far from unwelcome, giving a final push to the ripening fruit. In the northern Médoc, however, it was, in many cases, just too much at the wrong time, resulting in more dilute, less precise wines and dashing hopes of a legendary vintage.
Harvesting started relatively early, with dry whites from the end of August / early September and Merlots in Pomerol beginning on 11th September; the Cabernet harvests started in the last third of September, again relatively early. For Sauternes, the first trie was in the first week of September, almost a month before harvest would normally begin for the Sauternais, but the conditions were more than favourable, with the last tries in late October.
With such a hot June and July, as tasters we had expected to find big, almost blowsy, full-bodied, over-ripe wines. What we actually found were wines with fabulously fresh, pure fruit, reminiscent of a cooler vintage, with paradoxically broad, ripe tannins behind them; between us we couldn’t recall ever tasting a vintage which combined such ripe tannins with such fresh fruit as usually the heat required to ripen the tannins to this level also produces hot, jammy, black fruit flavours.
The challenge for the winemakers across the region was to allow this fresh fruit to remain at the forefront with the tannins very much in a support role; for most, this meant strictly controlling the amount of time the young wine remained in contact with the skins after fermentation had finished and reducing the amount of pumping over to extract less aggressively. Inevitably, however, there were some producers who could not believe their luck at these abundant yet supple tannins and sought to extract as much as possible, giving wines which had a bitter, astringent aftertaste which just was not necessary in such a vintage. These are wines to which we will be giving a wide berth as they will not make happy old bones.
Where the wines are good, there is a beautiful, seamless transition on the palate from ripe, fresh fruit to substantial, velvety tannins with lively acidity pulling the whole together; these are wines which were instantly alluring, temptingly drinkable already whilst hinting at more to come in the future with long, rich finishes – some persisting even beyond arrival at the next Château! In the northern Médoc and particularly in some smaller St Estèphe and Pauillac properties, some wines appear to have a hole in the mid palate – they start full and fruity but then drop away on the palate leaving nothing behind – as a result of the poor September weather. Perfectly pleasant, these are not wines for long term storing and we will not be offering them, given how many other delicious wines are out there.
Left or Right Bank?
Every year there is a rush to define it as either a Merlot or Cabernet vintage, Right Bank or Left; 2015 defies such simple pigeonholing, although there is no doubt that the early harvest along with the mid-September rain favoured Merlot and has therefore led many pundits to claim it a Right Bank vintage. However, the Cabernets reached full maturity with considerable ease, with growers able to choose the ideal harvest time in most regions, and even Petit Verdot, notoriously hard to ripen fully, had a bigger part to play this year than in many other vintages. Pomerol and St Emilion, but particularly Pomerol, have made some spectacular wines with a concentration and ripeness rarely seen: they could be forgiven for claiming the wines of the vintage as theirs; Pessac-Léognan, often overlooked, has had a particularly successful year, with incredibly consistent wines at all levels which we would highly recommend, both in red and white. The top wines of St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien were all, without exception, beautifully well made with bags of character, whilst some of the lesser wines were suffering a lack of focus; Margaux, with its large and varied area, was, as ever, less consistent but with some real successes at all levels. Even more exciting was the success of some of the Petits Châteaux which we regularly follow who managed to capture the freshness whilst having a light hand on the tannins – these are wines which will need a bit of cellaring, for 5 years or so, but which will give immense satisfaction at a fraction of the classed growth prices and which we cannot recommend highly enough.
The final word must go to the market; as we go to press, one or two early bird wines have been released registering slight increases over their 2014 prices – unsurprisingly as the vintage is good. However many Châteaux are suggesting that they will not release too early so that they can judge the economic climate; many are in particular worried about the implications of a possible Brexit on both the UK market and the international market; even more importantly, there is a concern by many that irresponsible pricing by a few could shut down the primeur campaign before it really gets going, but this will only become apparent in the coming weeks as the wines are released. We have no doubt that there is room for an exciting primeur campaign this year for the really well made, sensibly priced wines with an eye on the customer – the person who will eventually drink their wine – which is, after all, the whole point of the game!
Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
Director of Buying, April 2016
Andrew, Nicola and Laura after their tasting at Château Lafite. April 2016