2019 Bordeaux: a value-for-money triumph
How better to spend a covid lockdown?
My Bordeaux en primeur tasting for 2019 can be very roughly divided into three categories. I wish I could call them the good, the bad and the ugly, but the good, the bargains and the ugly would probably be more accurate.
The good third are classic clarets, with great acidity, balanced tannins, and perfectly ripe fruit. I was very, very happy with these. I think it’s still far too early to say how they will compare to other years, but that’s the problem with en primeur tastings. A few good examples of this category are Chateau Magnol, Chateau Laroze, or Chateau Croix de Labrie.
The great third was the real surprise of the tasting. Not only were they fairly brilliant in taste, structure, potential, they were truly outstanding in value. The median price of my 5-star wines (‘outstanding’) was a lowly €15. Not bad at all for Bordeaux. The real bargain stars are Chateau Sainte Marie, Chateau Bourdieu, or the truly benchmark-Merlot Chateau Laurence.
The ugly third represents the excesses of the hot weather Bordeaux had in 2019. A lot of these wines were overly ripe, a little soupy in body, and didn’t have the acidity to balance their tannins or 15% alcohol. Most of them were still drinkable, redeemable even with some age maybe, with one or two exceptions - Chateau Auguste and Chateau Gaby that really must be singled out. Curiously they have the same owner, so I can only assume that their peculiarities are intentional and desired, however unpleasant that might make them.
Some distinction can also be made along the lines of variety and appellation. Saint-Estephe really showed well, with minerality and acidity to counter otherwise (often excessively) ripe dark fruit. It was definitely my favourite appellation this year and I didn’t taste a single St Estephe that would disappoint in a wine bar. The real surprise, however, were the (relatively) inexpensive single-varietal Merlots, many of which were not only under 15 euros but even 10, with a few retailing at 7! I’m not a fan of Merlot at the best of times (especially in rosé…), so it was surprising just how perfect so many (not all) of these wines were, regardless of price.
A quick note about my scoring system. There’s no point rating wines on a 80-95pt scale, especially as by the time you get to 92 or 93, the wine is so amazing it doesn’t really matter what the score is. Likewise, who really cares if it's 80 or 83? Either way I'm not drinking it. As a result I rank on a 1-5 scale.
1 is an instant pour down the sink or use in cooking. I don’t give out many of these, especially not for expensive wines that aren't so often flawed. These are absolutely undrinkable.
2 is a not nice wine that I would not drink. I might offer it to non-discerning guests if it has a fancy label, or cook with it otherwise. Thankfully, I taste fairly few of these.
3 is an ok wine. I wouldn’t throw it away and I’d drink it if there were nothing else in the house. It’s my expectation from most supermarket wines and cheap restaurant or bar wines. It’s my most used rating.
4 is a good wine. I enjoy them, drink them fairly frequently, and don’t give them to guests unless they know their wine. I would recommend them within their category, but probably not out of it.
5 is a great wine. At first I reserved this rating for outstanding wines, but with modern quality where it is, no wine is truly so outstanding that it deserves to be separated from 'merely' great wines. These are the wines I myself would buy or actively recommend to someone trying out a new variety or region.
I don’t take price into account in this rating - I expect a 5-star €100 wine to taste just as good as a 5-star €10 wine. In practice this means my rating isn’t “5 stars, for the price”. I do however have expectations - any wine over €60 that doesn’t score at least 4 stars is doing something wrong, and I’m fully aware that making even a 3 star wine for less than €10 is a real achievement.
Most wines I tasted haven't been included in this report - I probably didn't feel strongly about them one way or another
The good: classic clarets
These wines are classic en primeurs, showing fruit and acidity, with tannins for the most part not yet fully unfurled. They were fresh and vibrant, and while possibly drinkable quite soon, really showing potential. I think the key to their success was understanding and counteracting the heat and ripeness by emphasising fresh acidity and minerality, which seemed best managed in St Estephe.
Perhaps it was due to the selection of wines I got to taste, but I was a little disappointed at how few of the wines overall really screamed ‘classic Bordeaux’. Maybe styles are changing, maybe it was just the year, but in my mind that gives even more value to vineyards that are willing and able to continue producing in a traditional style. I gave all of these 5/5 or the odd high 4/5 with the expectation it will age into a 5.
Top recommended wines are:
Chateau Tour de Pez Saint Estephe Cru Bourgeois 2019
Some woodiness, some fresh, juicy red fruit with a hint of blackcurrant, ribena cassis. Wonderful heavy body, more cassis, very ripe, almost cordial. Strong, powerful tannins that are well integrated and soft. Acidity a touch on the disappointing side but still lurking in the background. Pencil shavings, woody, a little cranberry and red fruit acidity on finish. Benchmark Bordeaux in my opinion, I really like it. Really wonderful sour, sour berries, sour cream on finish. After opening up, incredibly intense sourness, more sour cherries, outstanding acidity. Very different, maybe not so benchmark and a little unusual? Maybe just too young. In which case will age beyond outstandingly. Goes extremely well with very salty, umami, hint of creaminess parmesan. I really loved finishing the sample bottle as-is today as a mid-afternoon apéro.
Chateau Laroze Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2019
Very ripe, fresh red fruit, a little malty, toasty, nutty. Lots of raw oak on palate, very very structural. Bold, oaky, lots of perfectly ripe fruit. Great fresh acidity, lovely tannins, well integrated. Very classic Bordeaux, nutty. Definitely one for aging for a long time to soften up, has enough fruit to keep going. One of the few vineyards to provide a top-notch vintage report on the situation in the vineyard, which really instills confidence in the winemaker’s ability. The Merlot was harvested quite a bit earlier (by a good two weeks - more than I would have expected) than the Cab Franc and Sauv (60/30/10), which I think was really gave this wine the balance between fresh structure from the Merlot and the ripe fruit from the Sauv. Really top notch and one of this year’s outstanding wines.
Croix de Labrie Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
Lovely ripe fruit, a hint of oak, a hint of vegetal. More ripe jamminess. Plummy, great phenolic ripeness, tannins really very extensive and red fruit. Great fresh acidity, fruit curd. Plenty of oaky vanilla, very well structured, elderberry curd, ribena, cassis, balanced and fresh. Beautiful, classic Bordeaux, actually really grows on me - needs a year or two to evolve but really perfect on body. While this was definitely one of my favourites of the vintage, I would caution potential buyers that it was an €80 bottle - which is hard to justify, no matter the quality, especially with differences so minimal between all the top notch Bordeaux this year, many of which go for less than half that…
Chateau Jean Voisin Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
Fairly ripe, jovial fruit. A little floral, very fresh. Fresh, mineral, easy, pleasant. Wonderful sharp, piercing mineral acidity, tannins a little underdeveloped and a bit jarring but otherwise very pleasant, saline, hints of liquorice and cooked plums. Not perfect - but how could it be improved? Four stars today, a few years of oak to deepen and enrich the fruit, soften the tannins and allow the salinity to shine through - five stars. Definitely a top candidate for long-term ageing.
Chateau Magnol Haut Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2019
Some cinnamon, warm winter spice. Ripe red fruit, pencil shavings. Really nice acidity, structure and tannins a little too subdued already, fruit almost sickly over-ripe which really needs age to subdue, but not 100% convinced that the tannins (albeit present and chalky and sharp and lively) have enough weight to carry on. Not sure though - I actually quite like it and see potential. Classic Bordeaux - won't rock the boat but classic.
Chateau La Fleur de Bouard Le Plus 2019
Made from 60yo Merlot vines, this was definitely one of the wines to convince a Merlot hater to reconsider. A little smoky, almost verging on bbq, some plumminess, jamminess, nothing too stand-out. Shockingly smooth, round, perfectly balanced body. Incredibly drinkable. Outstanding - but at €60+ a bottle, value for money is difficult to justify. Perfect really - can't see how to change anything. Balanced wood, a little spice on finish, warm but not excessively, a little bit of coconut creaminess. Wonderful - would caution that it’s perfect now, en primeur - I would be wary of an extra year or two in oak that might upset that perfect balance and then require decades of ageing to get it back - why bother when it’s perfect now?
Clos des Jacobins Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
Very complex on nose - not quite sure what I'm smelling, but it's nice. Dark fruit, a little mintiness maybe. Lots of red fruit on palate, some oaky nuttiness, liquorice, very saline liquorice. Actually quite nice for the liquorice - but at €25-35 a bottle, struggling value for money when compared to a few others on this list that are less unusual and more immediately drinkable. Tannins still a little rough and chewy, very tight. Needs time but should be interesting.
Clos Bertineau Merlot Montagne Saint-Emilion 2019
Restrained, very. A little saline, mineral. Quite enticing, a little black fruit, a hint of floral, some violets, dark plummy, a little yeasty. Actually quite pleasant. Saline, good acidity. Top notch actually - a wine to make a non-Merlot drinker change their mind. More black fruit and salinity on finish, just a hint of wood maybe? One of the most outstanding wines of the tasting - however, a struggle to recommend as only 1800 bottles are made (a microcuvée par excellence), and seemingly not available anywhere online (at any price), which is a real shame.
Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse Pauillac Grand Cru Classé 2019
Surprisingly muted, a little cassis. Chalky, pencil shavings, cloves, thin body with great acidity and very tough tannins. Really needs time. Doesn't seem it at first but fairly quickly screams 'classic'. Rich, herby, fantastic minerality, chalkiness, tannins well integrated but still a little tough. Needs time, but otherwise very very nice. Classic for the price - is what all €40 Bordeaux should at the very least aim for - so much so that Le Figaro consider it the best Bordeaux of 2019 under €30 (although it's only under €30 en primeur - expect up to €70 for good previous vintages).
Chateau Mayne Lalande Listrac Medoc 2019
A little floral, some black fruit, a little dull. Really shockingly ripe, savoury, juicy, warm fruit on palate. Tomatoes, vegetal, raspberries, lots of fruit. Fantastically bright tannins, acidity keeps up very well. Fantastic body, good structure, really holds up as a heavy, structural, mineral wine. Doesn't need much more age, but should benefit well from it - plenty of fruit, structure is already there. Very very nice - almost a 5 star. Reasonable value for a solid, fairly classic Bordeaux at about €26.
The bargains: value-for-money
Some of these could probably fit into the first category as they were often classic Bordeaux in their own right. But what really set them apart is that they were offering the same refined claret experience, at €7, €10 or €15 a bottle, rather than €40. These aren’t just ‘decent budget wines’, they’re great Bordeaux, that happen to be unbelievable value for money. There are two possible ‘yes, buts’ that I can envisage explaining this - I may well just have a very cheap palate, but rather more likely (I hope) is that they show better now as en primeurs, being very almost ready to sell, rather than more expensive wines that are not intended to taste so good so young.
The median price of the vintage was just over €20. The median price of 5-star wines was just €15. This means that cheaper wines were actually better than the more expensive wines.
Top recommendations are:
Chateau Sainte Marie Bordeaux Superieur Vieilles Vignes 2019
12 months barrel. Digestive, biscuit, toasty, apple crumble. Dark jammy red fruit. Very well integrated, softened tannins. Slightly tucked away, hidden but balanced acidity. Soft, easy to drink, a little bit more bruised apple, some quince, just a very tiny hint of mineral leafiness on finish. More quince as it lingers. Outstanding - and unbelievable value for money at €7.50. Probably the best in terms of value of the whole tasting. A few days after the tasting, I tried a glass of this and was blown away at how good it was compared to what I’d been drinking in the meantime. Tannins, although fairly soft, feel like they might stick around for a while - I wouldn’t be afraid of ageing this. My biggest complaint - the label makes it look like a supermarket wine and doesn’t do it justice.
Chateau Bourdieux N1 Cotes de Blaye 2019
Dark, some red fruit, a little plummy, some greenness, a little old carpet. Some more peppery, tomato stalk greenness and earthy minerality on palate. A little ribena, cassis, wonderfully well integrated tannins, very nice. Strong chalky tannins but that go down smoothly, bright fresh red fruit acidity. Tasted 2020 but current vintage 2016. Would not be upset being served this at €7-8 a glass in a wine bar. Retails for about €12. Despite the name, this is actually their second wine - stupid, I know.
Chateau Laurence 2019
Rhubarb? A little cooked, crumble. Benchmark plum cake actually. Jammy, ripe, bursting with fruit. A hint of leafiness, tannins giving structure without taking over, really grows on the palate with a bit more biscuit, more structure. Serious, malty, biscuity, toasty, nutty. Very drinkable while still being serious, perhaps unlike Lamothe-Bergeron which while also very drinkable was so by being light and delightful, whereas this is strong and stable. Tricky to rank - although not outstanding as one of the world's best wines (that I would choose to buy - important), flawless and can't see how could be improved.
Chateau Leroy Beauval 2019
Ripe red fruit, a little jammy, some leather and game, fairly ripe red fruit continues, more leatheriness. Leather and red fruit continue on palate, a little elderberry curd, jammy, actually really pleasant and grows on me - definitely a wine that shows that it will improve with age as the fruit softens, and the vibrant acidity yields centre stage to the soft but well defined tannins. Really like it.
Chateau Tour Perruchon - Alain Pascal Lussac Saint Emilion 2019
Take my note with a large pinch of salt, because the bottle wasn’t as squeaky clean as I might have liked, but it showed well nevertheless. Possibly corked. A little cassis, some ripe black fruit. Some woodiness. Really fresh, thin blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries, really good acidity. LIke it a lot. A littlew leafiness as the tannins come on, a little pepperiness, really nice. Very nice. Really long lasting acidic, tannic, fruity finish. Outstanding value for money at €7
Chateau Bourdieu 2019
A little dark fruit, restrained. On palate, very ripe, creamy, a touch over-extracted perhaps. Good acidity, albeit nothing special, nice tannins, fairly well integrated. Tannic but soft. A little lean at the back of the palate, structure not quite as deep as it could be. Overall nice, would drink especially given the ludicrous price of €7 a bottle, but definitely a step backwards from their Numéro 1.
Chateau de la Commanderie Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
50% in cement. A little restrained, some myrtille, creamy, smooth, easy drinking. Nice tannins, ok acidity, cement minerality really coming through. Very good value, very pleasant. A little tomato vegetal, pleasant enough. Not totally my style but good value if €10-15. I served what was left of the sample bottle at an evening apéro with a bunch of snooty French - they LOVED it, even when they were quite dismissive of some my other 5-star choices. I think the name and the label may have had an impact.
Chateau Lamothe-Bergeron Haut Medoc 2019
Fairly deep, dark, a little mysterious black fruit. Hint of barnyard again? Very clean, red fruit, cassis, great juiciness, bursting with fruit actually, almost a touch confected. Nice clean surprisingly thin body, hint of spice, wood, and toffee on finish, smooth tannins, clean fresh acidity. Very pleasant and easy-drinking. Can't see how it could be improved. On the more expensive side of ‘budget’ at €17.
Chateau de Chantegrive Graves Rouge 2019
Dark, plummy, sheep's cheese creamy. Dark fruit. Chalky, mineral, a little red fruit on the quite strong, untamed acidity. Tannins very much taking a back seat - present, not overly structural. A little pepperiness but otherwise surprisingly lively, young, fruity. A little woodiness on finish. Pleasant, but at €17 definitely on the lower end of the category’s value for money.
The ugly: name-and-shame
Part of the magic of the Bordeaux name is the ability to buy any wine and be assured that it’s had at least some measure of quality control, which makes it all the more important to name the undrinkable wines, who I feel betray the customer’s faith in Bordeaux standards.
Curiously, a lot of the wines I disliked were from the same wineries, which leaves me to wonder whether the characteristics I disliked were actually winemaking policy. The cheapest 1-star wine retails for €6ish, while the most expensive was over €100 (and, in the US, its key market, over $240!). This for wines that me and my tasting panel of 3 literally spat out in disgust.
A lot of these wines represented the hot overripe excess of the vintage, which I suspect might reflect the fashion in the new world for high alcohol, fruity, jammy wines. Regardless of whether this was successfully achieved (usually it was not), this is Bordeaux, not California.
Chateau Auguste 2019
A little dark fruit, restrained, nothing special so far. Harsh, lean, nothing nice about it at all. A little dark fruit but otherwise fairly watery and supermarket disgusting. Shockingly, unusually bad. The worst wine of the vintage.
Chateau Blaignan Cru Bourgeois Medoc 2019
Odd - maybe slightly chemical, soapy. Not pleasant. Saline. Warm body, soapy, gross. Like walking into the wood section of a DIY shop. Oaky, strucutral, harsh, unsanded, crude. Disgusting. A little leafiness and red frut on palatge - might have shown promise
Chateau au Vignoble Revelations Bordeaux Superieur 2019
Fairly restrained, some minerality, a little black fruit, some jamminess - needs to open up.Bitter, sour, mineral, unbalanced, unstrcutred, disgusting. Tannins on the end don't really let go or forgive - might be made to age but if so fruit really not showing enough.
Chateau Moine Vieux Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
A little malt, yoghurt, biscuit, dark fruit, not unpleasant at first. Really steely, chemical, mineral on palate. Not pleasant. Really disjointed, tannins don't work. Really dislike it.
Chateau du Paradis Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
Very ripe, juicy, jammy, sickly. Very closed tannins, acidity and freshness really lacking. Might well evolve in a few decades, but until then a sweet sickly soup with no acidity and very closed body. Nice label and branding though.
Chateau Gaby Canon Fronsac 2019
Fairly ripe fruit, a hint of vanilla? Lean, bitter, weirdly austere. Doesn't seem that bad at first... and then it hits. Disgusting. Somewhat redeemed on finish with some good acidity, nice sour tannins - but still irreedemable overall.
Chateau Gaby Princess Gaby Canon Fronsac 2019
Ripe dark fruit, not too bad. A little woodiness, some fresh juiciness, better than the previous, but still weirdly unpleasant - disjointed acidity, tannins that are rough and coarse and ambush you at every swirl, excessively ripe, jammy fruit, especially on finish. Disgusting, albeit less so than the previous.
Chateau Gaby Cuvee Canon Fronsac 2019
Muted, a little ripe fruit. Again, fruit excessively ripe, but acidity coping a little better in the background. Tannins again disappointing, but not disgusting like the first two. Not even worth talking about. Short of a miracle, won't age to anything other than a slightly ripe mess.
Chateau Haut Surget Lalande de Pomerol 2019
A little waxy, woody, hint of fruit. Acidic, fairly tannic, weirdly bitter. Not particularly nice. Bitter and chemical. Label from the 80s - so is the wine.
Those were the worst wines. Dishonorable mentions (2 stars, so unpleasant but not undrinkable - I am only including the 2 stars that retail for over €30 as I can forgive an €11 Bordeaux for not being great or even good in a way that I can’t at €30) include:
Chateau Arnauld Haut Medoc 2019 Chateau Villemaurine Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2019 Chateau Clos de Bouard Montagne Saint Emilion 2019 Chateau du Cheval Noir Saint Emilion Grand Cru Cuvée de Fer 2019 Chateau Monlot Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2019
Appellations & varieties
I didn’t taste enough wines from every appellations to come up with a serious report, but I will say that while most appellations had good and bad, St Estephe really stood out this year for having mostly good and better, especially in terms of freshness and ageing potential - in my mind the two things to look out for in any Bordeaux vintage, but the former especially in 2019.
Chateau Tour des Termes, Chateau Haut-Beausejour are two St Estephes with decent ageing potential, but Chateau Meyney really stood out as a benchmark spicy-yet-fresh St Estephe. I really enjoyed Chateau Tour de Pez as well, but it was a little more original and less benchmark.
In terms of varietals, on the whole I was surprised by the single varietal Merlots in the St Emilion satellites, especially Chateau Jean Voisin, Chateau Laurence, Clos Bertineau and La Fleur de Bouard’s Le Plus. Chateau Maillet and Chateau des Francs’ Infini also deserve an honorable mention. These wines all achieved a clean minerality, solid structure and somehow great fruitiness without going overboard on jammy fruit and soupiness. I think they all showed great potential for ageing.
There were a handful of 100% Merlots I disliked, noticeably different from the others in that their fruit was a little more cooked, a little more ripe, with a structure either far too unyielding that overshadowed even the jammy fruit, or that was nowhere near up the task and let itself be forgotten, lacking the balance and acidity of the more successful wines.
My recommendation in a nutshell
St Estephe had a good year, and don’t be afraid of 100% Merlot.
High prices did not mean high quality, low prices do not mean low quality. There are plenty of brilliant wines this year at ludicrous prices. St Marie Vieilles Vignes is possibly the best of Bordeaux for value for money and doesn't feel like an €8 wine.
Check before you buy - there were a handful of disgustingly undrinkable rip-offs at every price bracket.