Thursday, 21 April 2016

Bordeaux 2015 Vintage Report

A complex set of wines that, at their best, are entirely seductive and from a similar mould to the delicious 1985s.

Last week’s tasting of 2015 marked my 10th consecutive year of en primeur tasting in Bordeaux so, after 5 days and 400+ wines, you might expect some sort of authoritative opinion on the vintage. However, one thing I’ve learned from a decade of barrel tastings is that 5 day’s of sipping and slurping is far too little time to pass any sort of judgement on the product of a year’s work by a vigneron. These are wines we aspire to tuck away in our cellars for upwards of a decade; to expect to understand them after less than 6 months in barrel rather misses the point.

The wisest comment I’ve heard about 2015 is that it is not like tasting a single vintage and more like two or three that happen to have fallen within the same 12 month period. I wish I was clever enough to have said that myself! 2015 has produced a complex yet fascinating set of wines, the best of which I found utterly charming and which I’m entirely prepared to believe share much in common with the delightful 1985s. As ’85 has been a favourite vintage for claret lovers for as long as I’ve been drinking Bordeaux, the 2015s seem to be well worth your attention.

Heavy rain towards the end of 2014 had left the vineyards with plenty of water reserves in the subsoil which was just as well as the early part of the 2015 season was exceptionally warm and dry. Vines in St Emilion and Pomerol, in particular, benefitted from the water retaining properties of their clay-based soils. By late summer the temperatures were hitting blistering highs and, as the dry conditions persisted, premature rumours of another 1961 were replaced by nervous whispers about drought, stressed vines and a repeat of the difficult 2003 vintage. August saw some much needed rainfall and the mercury falling back to more manageable levels. Most of the Merlots were safely harvested in the latter half of September and the Cabernets in early October, so they were more heavily impacted by the October rains. Most producers I spoke with described a harvest of exceptionally clean fruit – the rain cooled and freshened the crop rather than bringing any threat of rot – and, at Haut Bailly, 2015 yielded some of the highest quality grapes in memory. In Sauternes, producers were blessed with a very fine botrytis vintage and 2015 is an outstanding year for these wines.

In some ways, 2015 is a Merlot vintage, in that the grapes from clay soils and harvested before the heaviest onslaught of rain clearly had an advantage, but this is too simplistic a generalisation. Another view is that this is a year in which Margaux excelled, and there are undoubtedly some extremely exciting wines from a commune that is notoriously fickle and inconsistent. For the first time since 2005, this is a vintage in which Margaux shines from top (Chateau Margaux) to bottom (Chateaux du Tertre and Labegorce). It may well be that the slightly warmer, more southerly, commune ripened its Cabernet that bit earlier and escaped the worst of the rains. This would also explain the success of Pessac Leognan, where the wines are ripe, generous and flattering. For what it’s worth, I’d put Haut Brion at the head of the first growths.

As you move north up the Medoc it would be wrong to assume that quality drops away, but it certainly becomes less consistent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in St Julien – usually the most consistently successful of communes, in 2015 the quality see-saws up and down. Usually, the disappointing wines show a lightness and even a dilution of character, betraying the effects of the rain. However, as is ever the case, good producers make good wine and St Julien, Pauillac and St Estephe are studded with stars such as Chx Montrose, Grand Puy Lacoste and Leoville Barton who have produced tremendous renditions of the 2015 vintage.

One of the exciting elements of this vintage is that quality is not bunched up towards the upper reaches of the hierarchy. For the first time in some years I tasted any number of junior wines - Cru Bourgeois and wines from the satellite appellations - that I would happily have in my cellar. On the flight home I sat with a negociant and it struck me that never once did we discuss our favourite 1st growth, or whether we preferred Petrus or Cheval Blanc. Rather we nattered about delicious, juicy little Fronsac wines and mid-tier Cru Classes; bottles that are deliciously accessible, that people buy, drink and – hopefully – will thank us for in the years to come. Carefully chosen, I suspect that 2015 will offer more pleasure amongst the lower orders than any year since 2005.

‘Charming’ is an adjective often used to damn with faint praise yet there is something genuinely charming about 2015 Bordeaux. The reds have a succulence and flesh that you find in beautifully ripe Merlot, tempered by a freshness that makes them mouth-watering and crisp. They are less opulent than the extremely rich 2009s and their structures much less imposing than those of the 2010s. In fact, the 2015 fruit is often so appealing and the tannins so supple that you could almost drink some of these wines now. This might raise questions about the wines’ potential longevity and suggest that they are ‘charming’ in an early drinking and somewhat insubstantial style – recalling 2007, perhaps. Look at the technical analyses of the 2015s, however, and the IPTs (the measurement of tannin) are extremely high. At our tasting in Libourne, Edouard Moueix told me that these are some of the most tannic wines he has ever produced, yet they are structurally silky and caressing rather than searingly dry. This is another resemblance between 1985 and 2015 – I remember John Avery telling me that the ‘85s have always been soft and attractive wines, and Michael Broadbent has written that it has always been a deliciously open vintage, yet 30 years on the ‘85s continue to drink well. Given the balance between high tannin levels and beautifully ripe fruit in the best wines, I cannot see any danger of 2015 being a vintage that won’t age.

The final aspect of 2015’s charm is the sheer drinkability of the wines. This has been hinted at in the discussion of their structure and tannins but it goes a little bit further. Bordeaux’s most classical and traditional wines can often be rather hard and angular at such an early stage, with a marked austerity in wines like Chateaux Rauzan Segla, Leoville Barton, Haut Bailly and some of the early-picked Moueix St Emilions and Pomerols. Time and time again I noted a generosity and sweetness in these wines this year. They are not New World in style, or lacking in structure, just with a generosity of spirit that lacks a stiffly starched collar and promises huge enjoyment in the drinking.

Sauternes and Barsac had a potentially exceptional 2015, producing some magnificent sweet wines. My impression is not only of very intense botrytis character in the wines – giving an intoxicating spice and saffron note to the nose – but of extremely clean noble rot. The process of working with botrytis grapes can yield wines with a marked volatile acidity, adding a hint of acetaldehyde to slightly clumsy barley sugar characters. In 2015 the wines are pale in colour and perfumed, with very pure, floral and spicy aromatics. At the top, Chateau d’Yquem was extraordinary and one of only three 19/20 wines I tasted but Chateax Coutet, Doisy Vedrines, Guiraud and others have all made magical sweet wines that will be stunning as they age and develop.

At Chateau Margaux we tasted with Thibault Pontallier whose father Paul, who oversaw every vintage at the 1st growth since 1983, had passed away just 10 days previously. Thibault told us how his father had believed that great wines are like great people: easy to understand, not complicated; fun to be around; giving great pleasure to all who spend time with them. Paul undoubtedly had it right. His final vintage of Chateau Margaux is one of a number of great wines from 2015 and I look forward to enjoying time with them and taking pleasure in sharing them with friends as we follow their development over the years to come.

Matthew Hemming MW

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