The 2015 vintage in Bordeaux – Three sides to a vintage
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For whatever reason, there seems to be an effort to ink in Bordeaux 2015 as a ‘homogenous vintage’ even though a cursory glance at the weather patterns across the region would tell you otherwise. To be clear, if you have drought conditions, expect variation. If rainfall varies in timing and volume across the region at harvest, expect variation. While 2015 is undoubtedly the highest quality Bordeaux vintage we have seen since 2010, I would not term it a ‘great’ vintage as the necessary consistency is not on show. That said, there are some dramatic highs among the wines produced this year, but they are not as commonplace as you might be led to believe.
In many ways, we could argue that 2015 is almost like three vintages in one, so different are the resultant styles from different regions. After all, Bordeaux is a vast region from north to south, east to west, and Left Bank to Right. Consequently, variation is more the norm than homogeneity. There are vintages that are almost uniformly successful such as 1982, 1989, 1990, 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010, but they are very much the exception rather than the rule.
2015 benefited from a dry but cool March, which tended to delay bud-break across the region. However, as April commenced accompanied by rising temperatures, bud-break was able to occur almost uniformly. At the end of May, flowering followed in a similar vein; it was rapid and uniform.
There was little rain across May and June and, as June progressed, there were some dramatic spikes in temperature. The fruit, therefore, developed well and without any pressure from disease.
However, the latter half of July was markedly hot and dry, and water stress was common across the entire region. Terroirs that hold valuable moisture handled these conditions best as they were able to ease the risks of hydric stress. Certainly, this arid period served to delay veraison (the moment when the berries change colour). Châteaux such as Latour cite the closeness of mid-veraison dates for both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as an indicator of just how advanced phenological (tannin) ripeness was in 2015. Other Châteaux, such as Cos d’Estournel, commented that the pips, themselves a valuable source of tannin, ripened early as indicated by a brown rather than green colour. This suggests advanced phenolic maturity and consequently that the tannins will be ripe rather than austere.
As July progressed concerns started to rise as vines in certain areas – perhaps younger vines – were on the verge of closing down as conditions were so dry. August rains were timely and gave the vines the necessary nudge, which allowed veraison to occur in a matter of days, a comment echoed across various regions. One saving grace in the hot summer of 2015 was the fluctuation between day and night time temperatures, as cool evenings preserve freshness and aromatics. Oddly, rain is often talked of in negative terms, but without moisture at critical moments fruit development would be hindered. As harvest approached, the fruit was in good condition and remarkably healthy.
It is at this point in the vintage that we find some meaningful divergence and where my comment about ‘three vintages in one’ finds its justification. In September, there was some significant rain; whereas it was much needed in August to propel the vines to maturity, rain that occurs close to harvest can cause berries to swell, split or at least can give rise to dilution. Comparing rainfall from Lesparre to the north of the Médoc down to Pessac-Léognan in the south is telling. The rainfall varied from 90 millimetres in the north to 18 millimetres in the south, with somewhere like Pauillac acting as a mid-point between extremes with around 60 millimetres. This is a significant difference and it shows in the wine’s resultant depth and concentration. The lower level of rainfall in Pessac has led to a vintage of great depth and power – arguably a great Graves vintage – yet in Pauillac or St.Estephe that same sense of concentration is not in evidence. The vintage here comes across as a mid-weight and more classical although still a success given the quality of the tannins.
Across on the Right Bank, there was little rain towards harvest and subsequently the fruit was brought in during a period of fine, cool conditions. The only issue here was the choice of harvest date and there is a suggestion that some waited too long, as we tasted some overtly heady Merlot. In St.Emilion and Pomerol I am reminded of the power and opulence of 2010, as 14.5 to 15 degrees of alcohol is comparatively commonplace in 2015. One of the great features of 2015 on the Right Bank is the aromatic freshness. This is due to the diurnal variation and the cool, yet unproblematic conditions running up to harvest.
To give a few comparisons, at Cheval-Blanc they experienced the second lowest accumulated rainfall figure in twenty years, with just 535 millimetres – only 2005 was drier with 501 millimetres. In the northern Medoc, rainfall statistics are not shown as clearly in the literature handed out by the Châteaux, but we know the timing and volume had an impact on the resultant style of the vintage. Despite a Bordelais sensitivity on the topic, it is certainly the norm for there to be rain in the run up to harvest. This is one reason why the leading Châteaux have invested in reverse osmosis machines to concentrate the must. I asked about the usage of such machines in 2015 – a vintage ideally suited to such intervention – but no-one was forthcoming, as such technological intervention is often frowned upon. Years in which a crop was admirably ripe before rain are ideally suited to reverse osmosis as otherwise there is a risk of concentrating the bad along with the good. If there was an underlying greenness in the fruit, this would only be accentuated. Some Châteaux confirmed that they practised the more accepted technique of saignée – running off some pale juice prior to fermentation – in order to concentrate the must.
It was a fascinating vintage to taste given the factors that shaped the outcome. I should stress that meteorological factors are not the only determinant. A given vineyard may have a greater propensity to deal with rain due to its soil composition or structure. A vineyard with deep gravel – such as that of Château Latour – has an advantage as it is a free-draining gravel based soil. The converse can be said of hydric stress where the most successful terroir may well be those cooler sites with a proportion of clay in the subsoil. Reasons for success are many and varied – and that is before we consider any human actions in the form of the strategy employed.
So despite the fact that conditions were not homogenous, the vintage has turned out some absolute gems. In no particular order, the areas that benefited most in 2015 are Pomerol and St.Emilion on account of the favourable conditions at harvest. A key feature here is the role of Cabernet Franc in creating poise and balance. It may reach equally as lofty degrees of alcohol as Merlot, but it brings much needed freshness and tension. The best of 2015 are reminiscent of 2010; they exhibit opulence, concentration and power. It is, however, comparatively rare to have Merlot and Cabernet Franc of such quality on show in one vintage. If the pitfalls of headiness have been negotiated, there are some truly great examples on show here.
Margaux succeeded in producing a bevy of fascinating wines – some of the finest I can recall in many years. The rain did not trouble Margaux and the best examples shows terrific concentration, yet still retain that tell-tale freshness and aromatic profile. They are seemingly light on their feet. These are silky fine flowing wines with such detail and precision, and quality of the tannins is hugely impressive.
Pessac-Léognan is also a joy to behold. Far lower rainfall here has resulted in a vintage with great concentration, yet still fresh, detailed and fine-tuned. The general tannin quality really impresses. I was taken aback by a number of wines that I tasted this vintage. They look set to be reference points for various estates; a vintage to place alongside 2010 and 2005…and yes, with some echoes of each – dare I say it. There is a good sense of concentration allied to a classical structure on show in the best of Pessac this year.
As to the northern Médoc and the appellations of St.Estèphe, Pauillac and St.Julien, the results are more mixed and probably reflect the individual strategies and terroirs of each estate. In general, they are more mid-weight and resemble an elegant, streamlined vintage. Tasting in St.Estephe on our first day in the region was never as easy as the tannins were finely ripe. In these northern districts, there is no excess on show, though the wines suggest a more middle-ranking vintage. Some Châteaux alluded to 2006 or 2001 and perhaps those comparisons are fair. It is, however, clear that it would be foolhardy to compare to a great vintage such as 2005 or 2010.
It would be tricky to maintain that conditions resulted in anything other than wines of markedly different natures. ‘Greatness’ is an overused term and should be reserved for those years with remarkable consistency and homogeneity, which allow generalised terms to be employed. 2015 is no such vintage, although undoubtedly there are some great wines. Call it a difference of semantics if you will, but I am not keen on generalisations in most vintages and in this one such an approach certainly does not fit.
There are a sufficient number of successes in the vintage this year to incline me to make a broader offer – more so than we have in any of the last four years – but while there were a great number of Technical and Winemaking Directors on hand to field our questions, I did not once meet a Commercial Director! It would have been instructive to have gained some insight on where and at what level they believe this vintage can be commercialised. Once more, Bordeaux has the chance to re-engage with the market with a much more interesting vintage on hand, but it will need to be priced at an attractive level to ensure its success. If the Châteaux owners get caught up in the hype and push price too far, I will be happy to sit back and wait until the wines are in bottle to find the right opportunity to buy. All the woes of the Bordeaux market have not disappeared and the resurgence of interest that we have picked up on recently is fragile. I will not go into the background of the Bordeux market here as I have another article written to bring you up to date. However, given the uncertainty in the market, the looming Brexit vote and the fact that Sterling has weakened against the Euro, I hope that common sense prevails. The UK market remains important to Bordeaux and while the top Châteaux may constrain UK volumes further to limit exposure, it would be a great shame if this chance to get Bordeaux back on the forefront of consumer’s minds was spurned.
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Simon Larkin MW.
Managing Director of Atlas Fine Wines