My conclusion from my 2019 Bordeaux en primeur tasting was that a lot of them were shockingly fruit-forward high-alcohol smashers. About as delicate as I might expect from a mid-range Californian Zinfandel, which is odd given that I think of Bordeaux as a restrained, cool-climate style. I expected vibrant acidity, strong vegetal tannins, and a healthy amount of ripe fruit. What I got throughout the en primeurs was, all too often, excessive ripeness, high alcohol, and lack of restraint. I assumed it was youth and a hot year. Until last week that is, when I got to taste a large selection of 2018 St Emilion satellites at a wine competition, and then a few from older vintages.
As usual during a blind tasting, I at least try and guess what we're drinking. The first flight of 2018 left-banks had great fruit, really ripe, high alcohol, medium minus tannins, fairly low acidity, and medium plus to high alcohol. My first guess was Grenache, then I figured probably Garnacha, and Spanish. (to be fair, I'm going through a phase of thinking every red is grenache)
I gave more or less comparable notes for a handful of other Bordeaux flights, from a mix of 2017, 2018 and 2019. They were all surprisingly high alcohol, fruit-first, low acidity, and fairly uninteresting. Some of these high-alcohol ripe-fruit wines were lovely, with a bit of spice and acidity to match, and I liked them. Most, I didn't like. There were still a handful (notes to come as soon as I've finished typing them up) of 'classic' Bordeaux, that stood out - I described one, Chateau La Croix de Moulin as 'a real breath of fresh air' - but they were the minority
At first, I was quite harsh in my criticism of these new-style wines. They couldn't possibly be Bordeaux. And then it hit me. What if it's me that's wrong, not the wines? I took a break from tasting French wines around 2016, focussing more on rosés and international wines. Could it be that Bordeaux has moved on without me, and I'm now a dinosaur still judging wines by decade-old standards?
What if my impression of Bordeaux as an acidic, lean, vegetal, pencil-shavings wine (to exaggerate a little) was actually just a few bad, cool, years, and now we're back to warm summers and 15%? Has new-world winemaking taken over, even in France, or is this simply down to climate change and global warming?
I suspect there's a bit of truth to all of these. I could be looking for something that never existed save in my imagination or a few top chateaux. I think uneducated consumers might be asking for 'bigger' wines, thinking that means quality, or maybe winemakers are just not able to undo record-breakingly hot summers. I suspect the latter primarily, but no doubt both play a part. Either way, with global warming, high alcohol and ripe fruit are here to stay.
Which begs the question - how should a winemaker make Bordeaux from now on? How should I, as a professional or a consumer, adapt my purchasing or advice?
Do I seek out the ever-dwindling supply of what constitutes, in my mind at least, classic Bordeaux, even as its quality is a hard-fought bottle against the climate in every vintage, or do I embrace new-style Bordeaux, which plays along with the weather rather than fighting it - potentially enabling higher quality wine?
In all my tastings, I've tended to prefer even the odd old-style wine, but there's a growing handful of over-powerful wines that I'm ok with. I may have no choice but to get used to them.