Bordeaux 2019: the ‘miracle’ vintage meets the market from hell
The 2019 vintage in Bordeaux is unique and exceptional. In general, it is less heterogeneous and of a slightly higher quality on both left and right banks than 2018. But rarely does it scale the magisterial heights of 2015 and 2016. It is offered to the market in exceptionally challenging conditions that will arguably make or break the en primeur system.
All Bordeaux vintages – and all of the en primeur campaigns to which they give rise – are unique. But, as George Orwell might have put it, whilst all are unique some are more unique than others! Bordeaux 2019 is arguably the ‘uniquest’ of them all.
Three factors have contributed to the extraordinary and unprecedented character of Bordeaux 2019: the climatic conditions and the challenges they posed in both the vineyard and the cellar; the turbulent and challenging market situation into which these wines are released; and the resulting character of the campaign that has ensued (and which is, of course, still very much in its infancy as I write).
In this, my second of a series of pieces on Bordeaux 2019 (the first can be read here), I consider each in turn in presenting some general reflections on the character of the vintage itself and context in which it is released. Individual appellation profiles with detailed tasting notes will follow in subsequent articles, as the flow (literal and metaphoric) of tasting samples permits.
The climatic challenges of 2019: the ‘miracle’ vintage
Like 2017 and 2018 before it, 2019 is a vintage defined by its climatic challenges. But unlike each of its immediate predecessors, those challenges were more safely negotiated – with little or no loss to overall yield (as the following table makes very clear).
|10 year av.
|% change on 10-year av.
Average vineyard yield by appellation (hl/ha)
Source: calculated from @GavinQuinney, Duane/CIVB
That this was so, was itself due to a serendipitous succession of benign weather events coming just at the right time. Many wine-makers and proprietors to whom I have spoken, talk of 2019 as a ‘miracle’ vintage (the term was used, quite independently, by both Dominique Arangöits at Cos d’Estournel and by Frederic Faye at Figeac). This is what they mean. There was no systematic hail damage (as in 2017) and no systematic threat of mildew and rot (as in 2018).
But there was the intermittent, systematic and growing challenge of hydric stress and, in some vineyards, extreme hydric stress. But at each and every time that this threatened to become vintage compromising (as it did, especially in the second half of September throughout the Medoc, the Graves and the right-bank) the heavens opened, delivering just enough rain to re-set and reinitiate the growing cycle.
Crucially, the significant rainfall that fell on September 22nd on the left and right bank alike averted a potential disaster. For it allowed the grapes to achieve full maturity and at more moderate levels of alcohol – at precisely the point when it seemed that this was no longer possible.
2019 is, then, a hot vintage. It is characterized, in all appellations, by high tannins coming from concentrated and, in some cases, partially desiccated grapes; high alcohol (although not in general as high as in 2018); and high degrees of fruit concentration with the all-important potential for mid-palate density that it confers. But it is also a vintage defined by high acidity and the associated freshness that brings.
Like the rains which fell on the 22nd of September, this is 2019’s game-changer – the single most important factor making the difference between the average-to-poor vintage that 2019 could have been (indeed, would have been) and the exceptional vintage that 2019 turned out to be.
Other than in a handful of very early- or very late-picked, over-extracted and over-worked St Emilion properties (my tasting notes for which might amuse you, but which I will try to spare you from) and in some white Bordeaux on less hallowed terroirs, freshness is everywhere in this vintage.
Overall, the wines are more structured than the 2018s and have greater aging potential. They are, in general, more refined with greater textural depth, layering and variation across the palate. It is again, their greater acidity and freshness that gives them (or at least the best of them) this added delineation.
They are typically brighter and more energetic – with an almost crunchy (the French say ‘croquant’) juicy, sappy, fresh fruit presence. Indeed, in this respect they are more reminiscent of 2017. But, significantly, this croquant fruit is accompanied by the softer, deeper tannic structure and understated power of 2018 or even 2016.
And, finally, it comes with something of the accessibility, attractiveness and sheer joyousness of 2015. In short, this is a multi-faceted and very distinct vintage which belies simple comparison with any other. But what is clear, for me at least, is that it richly deserves a place in the pantheon of the greats, continuing the post-millennial sequence: 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018 … 2019.
That is the good news. But before we even get to the horrendously challenging market conditions in which these wines are now being released, there is some not quite so good news too. For like 2017 and 2018, though for rather different reasons, 2019 is quite heterogeneous in quality, certainly in comparison with other great vintages like 2015 and 2016. In 2017 the problem was frost and, for the most part, the better terroirs were the most protected from it. So whilst quality was variable, the climatic challenges tended to be terroir-reinforcing.
The leading crus on the better terroirs typically fared well. In 2018 the problem was mildew and rot. This was a threat practically everywhere and (with a few exceptions), regardless of the quality of one’s terroir. It was to prove particularly destructive in organic vineyards like those of Palmer and Pontet-Canet. In 2019, however, it is much more difficult to generalize.
One of the reasons for this is that the qualitative heterogeneity of 2019 comes at least as much from human choices as it does from the uneven impact of the forces of nature. There are a number of dimensions to this, some of which I will explore in more detail in my profile pieces on the wines of each appellation.
But, at the risk of over-generalising, the big issue is about sugar and alcohol – and the relationship between the two. Grapes did not lack sugar in 2019. And sugar is, of course, potential alcohol. Early-harvested wines, though often with some compensating freshness from their higher acidity, are high in alcohol – in some cases, excessively so. Yet there are problems in later-harvested wines too – of sur-maturité in some cases and of a lack of freshness in others.
And, almost regardless of picking dates, there are a number of wines which, for my palate at least, are marred not by alcohol but by the presence of residual sugar. This is in fact more common in the lower alcohol wines, but by no means confined to them. Sometimes it comes from the toastiness of oak, but just as often it seems to come from problems of partially stalled vinification (and the inefficient conversion of sugar into alcohol); it may also come from the choice in some cases of cultivated yeast strains less efficient in converting sugar to alcohol.
It raises some future concerns about brettanomyces (and the associated elevated risk of volatile acidity) in some wines. Interestingly, I noted 3 or 4 brett-tainted samples at the recent UGC retasting in Paris of the 2017 vintage. Brett, it seems, is an ever-more present risk as average temperatures in both the vineyard and the cellar continue to rise in a context of global warming.
As this suggests, 2019 is a vintage made in a context of metereological excess (itself born of climate change) and saved only, and at the very last minute, by the good fortune of timely rainfall. Bordeaux, in all candour, got lucky. But the metereological excess that defined the growing season is still discernible; it leaves a trace for those who are prepared to search for it. Whilst some of the very best wines of the vintage may serve to help reinvent classicism in Bordeaux, very few of these wines are classical in a traditional sense.
From climate weirding to market weirding
2019 may well have proved a challenging – or at least an extremely stressful – vintage in the vineyard. But those challenges and anxieties are as nothing when compared to the challenges and anxieties associated with the market conditions in which these wines are now being released.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the market conditions surrounding the Bordeaux 2019 en primeur campaign are more inauspicious than they have ever been. Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal at Angelus has likened them to those in 1930 for the release of the 1929 vintage. That might sound hyperbolic – and it is perhaps intended to sound hyperbolic; but it is not a bad analogy at all. It really is that bad.
Indeed, at this point in my now annual profile of the vintage and the campaign I normally feel as though I struggle to make the case for the importance of the prevailing market conditions in understanding the en primeur campaign. This year, for once, and very sadly, there is no such difficulty. For it would be extraordinary to suggest that the demand for 2019 Bordeaux en primeur, and the sensitivity of that demand to price, is not profoundly influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and the global public health crisis through which we are still living.
The difficulty of that is not lost on the properties themselves. And what is also clear is that they have come under a barrage of pressure, in this context, to reduce prices (if not to suspend the campaign altogether). That pressure has come from the negociants and courtiers (or at least some of them) of la place de Bordeaux, from international commentators and critics (including in the pages of the The Drinks Business) and, most forcefully of all, from international brokers and merchants (particularly those based in the UK).
Whether it has made a difference – and, if so, what difference it has made – is something of a moot point. I suspect that negociants and courtiers have played quite a significant role in convincing some chateaux of the need to reduce their prices, whilst international commentators and the UK trade have had a much more modest impact.
It is not unusual in May for the UK trade, as I put it in a recent tweet, “to ‘suggest gently’ what la place de Bordeaux should be doing … and it’s not unusual for la place de Bordeaux not to take much notice”! 2019 may not be much of an exception in this respect at least. And, for what it is worth, my own view has consistently been that the campaign should take place; but that there is really only any point in it taking place if prices are at least 30% lower (in euros) than they were for 2018.
Some optimists, myself included, imagined a campaign rather similar to that for the 2008 vintage (which took place in the immediate wake of the global financial crisis). Then, to remind you, the first growths released early and together, slashing release prices by over 40% in euros and disciplining, in effect, the rest of the Bordeaux market.
The campaign was a surprising success – a product of market-leadership by the first growths and market discipline by the other leading chateaux, helped out by Robert Parker’s (initially) very favourable impressions of the vintage which were published half way through the campaign. But the institutions of la place de Bordeaux don’t quite work like that any more; and Parker has retired.
When Lafite released its 2019, even if it sold through without much difficulty (on the basis of a much smaller release), the mood music in the market was one of palpable disappointment – of an opportunity for Bordeaux that had been missed. At present, and as I write, the en primeur campaign dances on the edge of the precipice. Will Cheval Blanc’s more significant drop in price be emulated? Even if it is, will that be enough? How much potential demand is there out there for Bordeaux 2019 even at the right price? And what is that price anyway?
These are impossible questions to answer definitively. But the more one thinks about them, the more one’s pessimism mounts. The principal effects of Covid-19 in all of this are, in effect, to accentuate risks that have been present in the en primeur market for a long time, whilst drastically diminishing demand.
The risks are essentially two-fold: the exchange rate risk associated with any global (cross-currency) futures market; and anxieties about the terms of cross-border trade in a context of Brexit and the return to an age of trade wars.
The point is a simple one, whose importance for whether the Bordeaux 2019 en primeur campaign will succeed or fail can scarcely be over-stated. Buying en primeur is, and always has been for those not thinking in euros, to engage in a form of foreign exchange speculation.
The greater the potential for a within-currency return on one’s investment between the moment of sale en primeur and the moment of delivery of the finished wine, the less the exchange rate risk; and the more stable foreign exchange markets prove to be, the less the exchange rate risk.
But, as we know, average within-currency returns on en primeur investments have fallen steadily and significantly since the 2009 campaign. Those who buy en primeur tend not to see a significant immediate return on their investment, even in euros. Or, put differently, any return that they do see is more likely to have arisen from exchange rate movements than it is from a within-currency rise in the market value of the wine itself.
Moreover, and crucially, that exchange rate risk has grown and is growing further – first with Brexit and now with Covid-19. A second wave of Covid-19 infections hitting the UK alone (or disproportionately) after the campaign is over might make one’s (sterling) investment in Bordeaux 2019 look like good value for money.
But a second wave hitting disproportionately the Eurozone (or economies within it) would have the opposite effect. Similarly, the failure to negotiate a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal might make one feel better about one’s Bordeaux 2019 en primeur purchases (if, perhaps, little else). But, by contrast, the successful conclusion of a UK-EU free trade agreement (whatever its compensating benefits) might make one wish one had waited to purchase one’s Bordeaux 2019 once it was in bottle!
The implication is clear. For Bordeaux 2019 en primeur to work, the prices have to be so good as to both take the exchange rate risk fully out of the equation and to take account of the drastic reduction in demand associated with the economic disruption (short, medium and long-term) that Covid-19 has caused. Put like that 30% may well not look like enough.
Colin Hay is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of la place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally. His Bordeaux 2019 coverage will continue with a series of appellation profiles in the coming weeks.