Friday, 1 February 2019

2015 Bordeaux.....The 'Southwold' Tasting

Last week I had the pleasure of tasting over 260 Bordeaux wines from the 2015 vintage. The 'Southwold' tasting was hosted at Farr Vintners at their excellent, bright, naturally lit, spacious tasting room in Battersea, London. The cold and brown hued River Thames ebbed and flowed outside the windows, whilst we kept warm and concentrated on the task in hand. Two and a half days of serious tasting and evaluation.

I have been involved in this tasting group for the last few years, although the group has been running for 30 years. My main role, along with my colleague Bill Blatch, is to visit all the top Chateaux in Bordeaux and request samples. This takes a couple of weeks of logistics and planning as well as, once all the wines have been accounted for,  taking the wines in good condition from Bordeaux to London. There is also an element of diplomacy with some of the Chateau owners, as we are totally honest with our scores and opinions. ALL WINES ARE TASTED BLIND.
  Fortunately I have been offered a seat at this tasting and I write my notes and contribute my scores. It is always slightly nerve racking to give opinions and thoughts about wines within this group as we have some of the most respected palates in the UK wine trade in attendance. Jancis Robinson MW, Neal Martin and Steven Spurrier are the big journalistic presence. But there are at least a handful of MWs and the top buyers for Farr Vintners, Berry Bros & Rudd, Justerini & Brooks, Corney & Barrow, Goedhuis & Co, The Wine Society, Vinum, DBM Wines, Berkmann Wines and more.  The idea has always been to assess the Bordeaux vintage in bottle and on the market. Yes, the 2016 Bordeaux vintage was bottled in May and June last year and some critics have reviewed and re assessed the 2016s. But it is very difficult to assess a wine immediately after bottling. Some wines recoil into a bottle shock. But this debate is endless, as the 'Primeur' wines are tasted and assessed only a few months after alcoholic and malo lactic fermentation. Is that the perfect time?

Anyway back to the wines. We tasted over 260 wines in flights of 12. Over the last few years we have constantly improved the speed and efficiency of pouring, note taking and assessing. So everyone mucks in, but the team at Farr Vintners are second to none for keeping the momentum flowing. Stephen Browett, Tom Parker MW and Ben Browett are all totally dedicated to the smooth running of the tasting. Thank you.

Here are my general observations:

The Dry Whites
Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion and Smith Haut Lafitte seemed to be a step above the rest in this league. My personal top score was for Chateau La Mission Haut Brion Blanc. A delicate and elegant style with very fine balance between semillon and sauvignon blanc. Whilst Haut Brion blanc was the top score for the group; I found the Haut Brion beguiling as it gradually developed and broadens on the palate. Again beautiful delicate balance, but slightly more evolved than La Mission Haut Brion. Smith Haut Lafitte 2015 had that classic purity and beauty. I found a youthful, fresh element with spring flowers and energy. The oak was evident, but perfectly balanced with the delightful fruit.
Malarctic Lagraviere and Bouscaut were also clean fresh styles with green capsicum (Malarctic) and green leaf tea (Bouscaut). Domaine de Chevalier is always a tricky wine to assess at this time of its evolution. I enjoyed the bold style with concentrated slightly green apple fruit character, however the oak is slightly masking the fruit at the moment. Pape Clemnt blanc 2015 was also a striking wine. It has a ripe lemon freshness with good balanced slight toasty oak.
Gazin Roquencourt and Larrivet Haut Brion also showed well. GR has zesty lemon freshness, whilst LHB has a hint of smokey gunflint. Carbonnieux has a saline element which will calm down, whilst La Louviere is delicate with an exuberant potential.

Generally the 2015 dry whites were very enjoyable with good acidity and balance. No crazy use of oak and some delicate pleasant flavours. The irony that our top two dry whites are by far the most expensive wines that we tasted, shows that we might know what we are doing, as all the wines are tasted blind.

The Sauternes
Within the 27 wines that we tasted there were some absolutely sensational quality wines on show.
My joint highest scores were for Climens, Doisy Daene, Rieussec and Yquem. But I felt that La Tour Blanche, Coutet, Fargues and Doisy Vedrine were only a shade behind.
It was great that we all felt that Yquem was the stand out wine (that does not always happen!!), Yquem is quite a lot more expensive than all the others.
For me the Yquem is a beautiful multi layered wine, with a pure citrus, fresh approach, excellent balance with a dusting of sherbert and a grand style that evolves in the palate. The tropical elements will evolve gradually but at the moment the wine expresses balance with pitch perfect acidity.
Climens 2015 was also a stand out wine for me (but not my fellow tasters). I adored the honey roast element and extra spice component, Great finesse too.
Doisy Daene was a smooth honeyed style, whilst being very clean without any quirks.
Rieussec 2015 is a little more evolved but the orange pith and zest added freshness.
Guiraud 2015 has a lovely apple and cinnamon spice character and freshness.
Coutet 2015 is a bold style of Coutet. I had to concentrate for the nose, as I initially found it synthetic and ugly. However I liked the lime zest and tension running through the wine....and great finish.
Fargues 2015 was also on the richer full style. there seemed to be a molasses and honey element which detracted from the definition.

2015 is an excellent and consistent year for Sauternes.

Saint Emilion 
We tasted 55 Saint Emilion wines (out of a total of 264 wines).
Perhaps the issue for Saint Emilion is that it is difficult to draw the line for who to accept and who to reject for when we gather the samples. It is important to taste the Premier Grand Cru Classe wines(18) and perhaps all the Grand Cru Classe(64) wines but that is immediately 82 wines.
The Saint Emilion appellation has so many variations in terroir and winemaking, so sometimes it is difficult to generalise about the quality. Saint Emilion is undoubtedly a beautiful village with sensational rolling countryside but it is also one of the most dynamic and transitional areas of Bordeaux. 25% of the 82 Grand Cru Classe Chateaux have changed ownership within the last 5 years. So new investment, new ideas and new styles are being produced.
The absolute peaks for the Saint Emilions were Chateau Ausone and Chateau Angelus.
Ausone 2015 is a very classy wine. It has a dark intense velvet core, great lift and elegance.
Angelus 2015 is slightly more intense with a touch of spice and herbaceousness. A silky smooth expression of quality fruit and winemaking.
But I also enjoyed Pavie 2015 very much. It was near opaque in the glass with evident viscosity and thickness on the glass. But the wine had some class as well as depth. The acidity and oak were in perfect harmony.
Valandraud, Canon and Figeac also exude class and style. The Canon 2015 in particular had a wonderful clean red fruit element and tension throughout.

We tasted a lot of good Saint Emilions from 2015. The class from the Premier Grand Cru Classe wines really shone through. Ausone was the top selection for many for the whole tasting.

Often Pomerol spars with Saint Julien for the most consistent appellation for quality in Bordeaux, so hopes were high for this selection of 26 Pomerol 2015 wines.
My top picks for the Pomerols were consistent with everyone else in the group, Chateau Lafleur and Petrus
Lafleur 2015 is deep, spicey and elegant. The tannins are firm and reassuringly assertive. This wine has excellent ageing potential.
Petrus 2015 has a delicate violet nose leading to dark plums and the wine evolves and builds significantly on the palate. Delicate use of oak balanced with perfect ripe fruit. Acidity offers freshness, but again in balance. A truly delicious wine.
Very close behind Lafleur and Petrus I rated La Conseillante, Vieux Chateau Certan, L'Eglise Clinet, Gazin and Trotanoy all at the same score.
La Conseillante 2015 has a very clean element of sweet ripe fruit initially. The ripeness has a beguiling allure. The palate has great freshness and balance. Tannins are youthful but balanced, as they should be. A perfumed elegant style of La Conseillante.
Vieux Chateau Certan 2015 is a more plummy rounded style than previous with excellent freshness.
L'Eglise Clinet 2015 has excellent ripeness and a touch of cassis concentration. The wine has intense berry fruit and firmness.
Gazin 2015 is a velvet smooth expression of Pomerol. A hint of ferruginous iron rich earthy character. A wine of great balance and polish.
Trotanoy 2015 has an intense iodine concentration with floral violets, damsons and veneer.

Chateau Haut Brion 2015 was my top selection for the Graves and Pessac Leognan wines. The Haut Brion has a great concentration of dark fruit, whilst also having an etheral earthy charm. I found a mineral generosity with good layers of soft, delicate silky fruit. The wine has extraordinary length.
My tasting colleagues slightly prefered the La Mission Haut Brion which has a slightly tighter dark spice concentration and more evident fresh acidity. LMHB has very fine oak and will last a long time.
I rated Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clement and interestingly Larrivet Haut Brion just below the top two wines, with Haut Bailly and Les Carmes Haut Brion very close behind.
Domaine de Chevalier 2015 is so elegenat and precise. It is not 'over the top' with structure. A great potential.
Pape Clement 2015 has an elegant attack and stylish feminine elegance. The wine is multi layered and the new oak is evident without being over powering. A showy wine. (I thought this was Smith Haut Lafitte!).
Larrivet Haut Brion 2015 has an excellent delicate freshness. The wine has an intense savoury character and clean, elegant finish. (I thought this was Haut Bailly....the next door neighbour)
Les Carmes Haut Brion is slightly more muscular in style with good deep spicey cabernet franc core. A really smooth wine.
Haut Bailly 2015 has a plummy soft intense attack. It is a wonderfully elegant wine without being opulent. It has class, grace and elegance, but is a subtle expression at the moment.
Interestingly the group rated Smith Haut Lafitte slightly higher than my score as I found the SHL a little bit tarry with heavy oak style. Although I liked the dark spice very ripe cabernet character I felt it was too dry afterwards and lacked freshness.
But the difference between the top Graves 2015 red wines was very small.

Saint Estephe
Generally I scored these wines a fraction below the top Graves wines.
However the top terroir and winemakers were evident with the result for these wines.
My top rated wine was Chateau Calon Segur. I found this to have a dark intense core of autumnal fruit. There was a crunchy classy intensity to the fruit on the palate. Freshness afterwards exuding class.
But the fractions between the top wines were very small. Montrose, Meyney, Calon Segur, Cos d'Estournel and Lafon Rochet were all excellent.
Chateau Meyney always astounds our tasting group. Although only being a humble 'Cru Bourgois' it consistently outperforms wines with much higher reputations. This must be one of the best bargains in Bordeaux. Meyney 2015 has a deep cassis character with a touch of salinity. There is an intense weight of fruit that builds and fills out the palate. The oak is a litklle youthful and dry at the moment, but the fruit is well balanced.
I was intrigued to taste the Chateau Lafon Rochet 2015. This was the first wine made in the amazing new cellars at the Chateau. The old stainless steel cellars had been ripped out and new double lined stainless steel and cement tanks had been installed. Would this change the character of the wine? Or would the wine stay in a simnilar vein?
The 2015 Lafon Rochet is an excellent wine. In my view it has an excellent classic cedar spice cabernet style and a broad mid palate. The wine has a richness which balances well with the oak. It will age very well.
The group consistently felt that Montrose 2015 was the top wine. This is a stunning wine with deep spice and a hard core of ripe cabernet fruit. The wine has lurking power and elegance.

This appellation can be an iron fist in a velvet glove. Often the most power packed styles of cabernet sauvignons with the best ageing potential.
The twin peaks were the Pichons in this area. However I rated Lafite Rothschild a fraction higher.
My rankings were:
Lafite Rothschild

Pichon Baron
Pichon Comtesse

Mouton Rothschild
Pontet Canet

Lynch Bages
Grand Puy Lacoste

This is almost identical to the (original) 1855 classification!!!
The 2015 Pauillacs are very good at the top end, but slightly more patchy at the lower end.
Lafite Rothschild 2015 has a graphite dark spicey fruit element, whilst not being overpowering. I liked the elegance and finish.
Latour 2015 has an elegant attack, but quite a heavy rich pruney mouthfeel with dark spice and ripeness. Latour is a rich style of wine and defeinitely a wine for the long haul.
Pichon Baron 2015 is near opaque in colour. The wine has a creamy smooth texture with a boldness of beefy structures. Great classy potential. A wine to follow.
Pichon Comtesse 2015 has a wonderful vibrancy. The cedar spicey cabernet notes are classic Pauillac. A wine with a solid backbone.
Mouton Rothschild 2015 has a delicate attack (sometimes Mouton can be very obvious on the nose). There is some classy integrated oak lurking behind the fruit and a youthful vibrancy. But the Mouton is a little closed at the moment.
It was great to taste Pontet Canet 2015 and realise that this wine has a very perfumed floral elegance. It was a very classy elegant style (that I thought was Grand Puy Lacoste). The ripe tannins were in balance and will age well. Pontet Canet is back on track.
Lynch Bages 2015 is all seductive, intense fruit.
Grand Puy Lacoste 2015 is very elegant with a ferrous core of intense fruit. A charming wine with great heart and potential.

Saint Julien 
The three Leoville Chateaux were closely joined by Ducru Beaucaillou for this most consistent quality appellation.
Beychevelle seems to be on a continuous upgrade in quality too.
But Langoa Barton, Branaire Ducru, Gloria and Gruaud Larose are not far behind.
Leoville Barton 2015 is a very pure style of wine with deep spice. It is a powerful wine with sweet ripe cassis and a great finesse whilst still being very elegant.
Leoville Poyferre 2015 has its distinct classic dark mocca intensity and a very rich broad mouthfeel. A bold polished style.
Leoville Lascases 2015 has more delicacy and elegance than normal. The oak is evident at the moment, but this will age well.
Ducru Beaucaillou 2015 has a bright fresh youthful charm. There is an intense mouthfilling dark spicey character with subtle brambles. A very fine style. (I thought this was Leoville Barton!)
Beychevelle 2015 has a deep, dark cassis core with multi layered intensity. Red and autumn fruits in harmony.

Generally the Saint Julien wines were exceptional in 2015. Consistent across the board.

By the time we came around to tasting the wines from the Margaux appellation our expectations were very high. Chateau Margaux created a special black label, only for the 2015 vintage, to pay hommage to Paul Pontallier,(managing director) who passed away in March 2016. Subsequently Chateau Margaux was rated 100 points by a few wine critics and the price has leapt up to £12000 per case (12).
However the expected peaks were not achieved.
Chateau Margaux 2015 has a warm, rich style with fresh acidity. The wine has a medium weight of fruit rather than being a blockbuster. there is a hint of green youthfulness. My score was the same as Pichon Baron, Pichon Comtesse and Leoville Barton.

However I adored Pavillon Rouge, Palmer, Rauzan Segla and Brane Cantenac.
In fact Brane Cantenac shone for most people in the group.
I found the Rauzan Segla 2015 to be incredibly elegant, with ripe sweet fruit and perfect balance.
Palmer 2015 has a darker plummy intensity and is very ripe. There is a good fleshy balance afterwards.
Brane Cantenac 2015 is pure class. Cedar spice, classic cabernet with a good dry mid palate and a core of dark cherry and spice. A wine with a refreshing lift after. A true classic.

So, the Margaux fared OK. Similar to the variations of Saint Emilion the Margaux appellation has the good, the bad and the ugly. There are certainly excellent wines in Margaux in 2015, but I do not think it is the best appellation.  For me, the Saint Julien appellation just surpasses Margaux.

Overall thoughts on Bordeaux 2015

Chateau Ausone 2015 is sensational
Saint Julien is a fantastically consistent quality appelation.
Although the talk has been for a Margaux and Left bank style, the top rated wines were from the Right bank.
The 2015 is a fantastic good quality vintage. It is certainly better than 2011, 2012 and 2013 and slightly better than 2014. It probably sits just below 2010 and 2009 in quality.
If I could compare the vintage to prvious years it would probably be 1985. This vintage was consistent across Left and Right bank and had some outstanding wines.

Wine to buy:
Haut Brion
Lafite Rothschild
Brane Cantenac
Leoville Barton
La Mission Haut Brion
Pichon Baron
Pichon Comtesse
La Conseillante
Vieux Chateau Certan

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