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Bordeaux 2019 by appellation: Pessac-Leognan (reds)

Pessac-Leognan is a large and diverse appellation producing significant quantities of high quality wine, typically at very affordable prices. With reductions in price relative to the 2018s of around 20-30% (a little less for the cheaper wines), en primeur 2019 presents an opportunity to pick up some excellent wines with  ageing potential that will drink well relatively young – while they remain at their cheapest price point. Indeed, there is an embarrassment of riches here, writes Colin Hay.

My two wines of the appellation in 2019 will come as no great surprise – a truly spectacular La Mission Haut-Brion and a profound and profoundly age-worthy Haut-Brion. Neither of these wines can, of course, be regarded as affordable to most consumers. But, for those fortunate enough to acquire them at their initial release price, both represent excellent market value.

Of the two, my mild preference is for La Mission Haut-Brion, a wine of staggering richness, depth, freshness, elegance and finesse and a wine that I find, at this very early stage, just a little more engaging, a little more expressive and with a slightly more mid-palate delineation and definition (coming in part from the higher proportion of Cabernet in the blend) than its stablemate.

More remarkable in a way are the two wines that would be my wines of the appellation in the absence of Mission and Haut-Brion – Carmes Haut-Brion and Haut-Bailly. These two stand out for me in 2019 – more so than they have in any previous vintage.

Though very different in style and personality they are both very much characterised by the same combination of freshness, intense minerality, chiselled mid-palate delineation and restrained elegance and finesse.

Guillaume Pouthier and Gabriel Vialard, their respective wine-makers, have taken these properties in my view to a previously unattained standard in this vintage. Both now provide very serious competition, at still reasonable prices, to all of the leading wines of the left bank, including La Mission and Haut-Brion themselves.

In so doing, for me, they nudge the excellent Domaine de Chevalier and Smith Haut Lafitte down a notch. But don’t be mistaken. In 2019 both of these wines are just as good as their superb 2018s and, in the context of the wider left-bank market, they remain under-priced relative to their quality.

In C de Carmes and Haut Bailly II we also have two of the best quality and best value second ‘labels’ (I use the term advisedly as C de Carmes is not a ‘second wine’ in any conventional sense of the term). Each offers an exciting and, above all, affordable introduction to both the wine-making and the style of their respective grands vins (albeit, in the case of C de Carmes, in a wine sourced from a very different terroir – though that is very much part of its appeal).

And finally, it would be remise not to single-out for mention my remaining value picks: Bouscaut (a wine better known for its white, but whose red is on a steep upward trajectory and which deserves greater attention); de Fieuzal (bright, spicy and engaging) and Picque-Caillou (unpretentious, unmistakably Pessac and simply as good a bottle as one can put on the table for the price).

Wines of the appellation:                               La Mission Haut-Brion; Haut-Brion

Outstanding:                                                  Carmes Haut-Brion; Domaine de Chevalier; Haut Bailly; Smith Haut-Lafitte

Second wines/labels of the appellation:        C de Carmes Haut-Brion; Haut Bailly II

Most improved:                                             C de Carmes Haut-Brion

Quality/price ratio:                                         Bouscaut; C de Carmes Haut-Brion; Domaine de Chevalier; de Fieuzal; Picque-Caillou

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 further appellation profiles in the coming few days.

Detailed tasting notes

All tasted from samples supplied by the chateau unless otherwise stated. Samples tasted, at least twice, from Zalto, Grassl and Reidel stemware over a two-month period from early May to early July. Around 5% of samples were rejected as damaged and/or unrepresentative of the barrel from which they were drawn.

Bouscaut (50% Merlot; 43% Cabernet Sauvignon; 7% Carmenere). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Garnet/ruby. Gentle extraction. Pronounced peppery Merlot-rich nose, indeed almost hints of freshly crushed fresh green peppercorns; walnuts, a hint of vanilla and smoke. Very much the enticing nose of a warm vintage. A wine that is often a little under the radar and better known for its white, but which is making impressive strides. This is all about the quality of the Merlot. Lovely plump, energetic lively red-berry fruit – cherries, redcurrants and raspberries.

A touch of graphite and a hint of cedar. Attractive toasted walnut notes too. This is not especially deep or concentrated, but it is pure, precise, focussed and nicely delineated. The tannins are very fine, with that signature argilo-calcaire chewiness imparted by the Merlot from the higher elevation plots around the chateau itself. Excellent value. This will age nicely but drink young too.

C de Carmes Haut-Brion (62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 3% Petit Verdot; 35 hl/ha; alcohol 13,8%; pH 3,59). Tasted at the chateau with Guillaume Pouthier. This is not a second wine in any conventional sense of the term; indeed, it comes from a very different terroir – a relatively small part of the former vineyard of Le Thil Comte de Clary in Leognan. Carmes itself is pure Pessac; C de Carmes is pure Leognan. And they are very different – if both fantastic in this vintage. This has no Cabernet Franc and is grown on a combination of Gunz graves, sand and clay. It is more vertical in the mouth than the grand vin. But like Carmes itself, the salinity is a core element in the structure and personality of this wine.

This, too, is a product of very sensitive and accomplished wine-making – with great care to reduce alcohol levels, to tie in all the freshness of the vintage, and to achieve, through a process of gentle infusion (think of making a cup of tea), the passive extraction of colour and tannin. The result is glorious and the likely quality-to-price ratio extraordinary (the wine will not be released en primeur). Cranberries and blackcurrants, toasted walnuts and wild thyme. Remarkably fresh, bright, energetic and lifted, this opens beautifully in the mouth. But then the palate is, effectively, re-charged as the saline minerality kicks in to release a second wave of juicy, sappy fruit. The finish is remarkable and very long indeed – a little like forming one’s lips into the shape of an ‘O’ and then slowly closing one’s mouth to form a whistle. The quality of the tannins is extraordinary.

Carbonnieux (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Rich, plump, dark and full. Smokey. Peppery, with nice cedary notes. Plums and damsons. Quite refined and elegant. Plump. No great mid-palate density, but good quality. Tannins a little harsh on the finish. Quite extracted. Nutty – walnuts.

Carmes Haut-Brion (42% Cabernet Franc; 31% Cabernet Sauvignon; 27% Merlot; alcohol of only 13,3%; pH 3,56). Tasted at the chateau with Guillaume Pouthier. A remarkable wine. A black core with a radiant violet/purple robe in the glass and considerable viscosity. Very floral on the nose – peonies, lilacs, irises. There is something just a little Pomerol about this. In the mouth, this is simply glorious. So pure, fresh and lifted. Here we find brambles, creme de cassis, cranberries again, walnut and hazelnut shells; and, with more air, almonds and cherries, lovely notes of cedar and graphite and spices – cloves, cinnamon and all spice.

So dynamic, so energetic, so lithe, so complex. Here the salinity combines with the chalky tannins to produce little juicy ripples of freshness on the ever-so-long finish. All the freshness, energy and potential complexity of 2019 but with just 13,3% alcohol – in part due to the combination of the most gentle extraction (only through infusion) and 30% whole-bunch fermentation (allowing the stalks to reabsorb through osmosis some of the alcohol from the fruit). Just brilliant. Every bit as good as you hope it’s going to be – and then just a little bit more. Wow.

La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion (50,1% Merlot; 45,5% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4,4% Cabernet Franc). Tasted at Haut-Brion. Really superb, with great complexity on the nose and palate. It is difficult to think of this as a second wine. Blueberries, sloes and fruits of the forest, with crushed green and red peppercorns, this is big, deep, rich and plush with great amplitude. Slightly serious in personality and cool in the mouth (from the super-svelte tannins). Juicy and fresh with a long rippling finish, the oak already seamlessly integrated.

Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (72,8% Merlot; 16,3% Cabernet Franc; 10,9% Cabernet Sauvignon). Tasted at Haut-Brion. A shade darker than La Chapelle. Unusually high percentage of Merlot, as in the 2011. Plush, full, rich and, if anything, more sombre and serious than La Chapelle despite the rather lower proportion of Cabernet in the blend. Lots of graphite minerality giving this a sense of austerity; floral too – privet, verbena and wild thyme, maybe even a hint of sage. Super-svelte and remarkably fine-grained tannins. The effect seems to be to slow down the progression of the wine on the palate, with a very long gentle, soft opening before the tannins build in the mouth and we pass to a second phase of rippling juiciness, sustained all the way to the finish. This is a little less explosive than La Chapelle but has more low palate rumble.

Clos Marsalette (50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 49% Merlot; 1% Cabernet Franc; aged in 35% new oak; yields of 54 hl/ha). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Smoky raspberry nose, with wild thyme, touch of bracken and dried grass. Nice lifted fruit. Pure and precise. Juicy, sappy and with a silky mouth-feel. Not big but it fans out rather nicely on the palate. Not terribly long either. But there is a simple accessible charm about this. Unpretentious. Energetic, fine and nicely balanced. Good value too.

Domaine de Chevalier (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; alcohol just 13%). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Limpid, glossy dark but translucent blue-purple in the glass. Radiant and enticing. Gorgeous nose – very Domaine de Chevalier – cherries, plums, damsons, wild blueberries, dried rose petals and heather. Delicate background hints of Christmas spices, cinnamon and cloves, and a very gentle and very natural sweetness; Pessac smokiness and a lovely earthy minerality; almost a hint of truffle.

Liquid cashmere. Cool in the mouth. The finest of fine-grained tannins that slowly release little ripples of fresh fruit acidity in a gathering crescendo to a stunning juicy, sappy finish. Restrained, elegant yet with an under-stated opulence and all the energy and poise of this great vintage. Just as good as the superb 2018. Rather special; a study in harmony.

L’Esprit de Chevalier. Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Bluey purple, nice limpidity and viscosity in the glass. Black raspberries. Very pure nose. Nice nutty notes – hazelnuts shells. Thyme and wild herbs. Soft tannins. Quite gentle at first. Refined and elegant. A lovely freshness arrives on the mid palate and serves to reinforce the sappy juicy finish. Good length and a nice shape in the mouth. The tannins are very fine. Simple elegance and harmony.

De Fieuzal (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot; 5% Cabernet Franc). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Aged in a combination of new 225 and 400l barriques for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, older barriques for Cabernet Franc and Merlot with the additional use of foudres and amphorae. Ruby with purple highlights. Medium extract. Quite oaky and very dry, but the use of oak here is more restrained and tempered than it used to be. Pure cherry, plum and berry fruit. Fruits of the forest coulis.

Slightly autumnal notes – leaves, sous bois and damp earth. Herby notes too and that cinnamon spice and saline minerality of the 2018. Gentle tannins. Nice kick of fresh acidity lifts this. Bright and well-defined. Nutty. Tannins quite substantial on the finish imparting an impressive sappy chewiness, but no harshness. Raspberries, wild strawberries and fruits of the forest. Interesting and quite distinctive. On a par with the excellent 2018.

Haut Bailly (56% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 4% Petit Verdot; alcohol 13,7%; yields of 49 hl/ha; aged in 50% new oak). Tasted twice, first over Zoom with Veronique Sanders and then at the chateau, also with Veronique Sanders. A classic blend for Haut Bailly – very close, says Veronique Sanders, to the 2015, 2016 and 2018. Analytically, it looks even more like the 2009, but the character of the two wines is very different. This is truly excellent. Richer, deeper, and more profound than Haut Bailly II, as you might expect, but cut very much from the same cloth. This is radiant on the nose, especially once it’s had a little chance to breathe.

Very pure, very precise and very focussed – very much the style of Haut Bailly in recent vintages, but arguably taken to yet previously unattained heights. Glossy, creamy and silkily textured but with oodles of lively, bright, energetic fresh fruit – raspberries and blackcurrants, red cherries, violets and heather, a succulent graphite minerality, a pinch of fleur de sel and lovely earthy, cedary undertones. Long and composed with the freshness coalescing with the tannic spine of this wine to give a very impressive if subtle perception of depth, power, density and structure. Very beautiful and as good an Haut Bailly as I can recall. Exquisitely elegant and utterly harmonious. A stand out wine in this vintage. Really very close to the top of the tree.

Haut Bailly II (60% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; yields of 49 hl/ha). Tasted twice, first over Zoom with Veronique Sanders and then at the chateau, also with Veronique Sanders. Delightfully soft and very engaging. On a par or exceeding the quality of many a first wine of the appellation in this vintage and representing excellent value as a consequence. It has a lot of the first wine about it, including hints of its signature minerality. Gloriously svelte tannins, a lovely bright, energetic and pure raspberry and bramble fruit, an impressive, tight spine of freshness which gives definition and length and a slight hint of juicy and chewy grape skins on the finish. Very harmonious and nicely tense.

Haut-Brion (48,7% Merlot; 43,2% Cabernet Sauvignon; 8,1% Cabernet Franc). Tasted at the chateau. Black/purple core; glossy and viscous with violet highlights on swirling. Rich and deep on the attack with a panoply of red and black berry fruits – red fruits initially but then they are counter-balanced by darker fruits – redcurrants and red cherries and then black cherries and blueberries, damsons too. Very lifted and aerial; pure and precise for such a big wine. Creamily textured with the estate’s signature cashmere tannins. The tannins are just a little crumblier than in La Mission. An eternal finish. Profound.

Larrivet Haut-Brion (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20% Merlot; 15% Cabernet Franc). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Lighter and less extracted than Cabonnieux (and tasted immediately afterwards). Darker and deeper in terms of the fruit profile. More subtle. Berry fruit – redcurrants, red cherries. Attractive and lifted. A nice sappiness. Tannins just a touch dry. Fine.

Latour Martillac (72% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20% Merlot; 8% Petit Verdot; alcohol 14,2%; yields of 45 hl/ha; pH 3,7; aged in 40% new oak). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Garnet/purple; pronounced fuzzy pink/purple rim. Another property that has been on a steady upward trajectory in recent vintages. Very Pessac, but with a slight whiff of alcohol on the nose. Baked plums and damsons, fresh thyme and autumn flowers; Christmas spices (from the Petit Verdot) – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and some pepper too.

Soft and lithe on the entry and with lovely plump but silky tannins. Fans out nicely in the mid-palate; impressively concentrated; rippling, chewy tannic finish but with lots of character, quite a lot of substance, and a long fresh finish. Again, just a little hint of the alcohol (some of the Merlot was picked before the rain in September). Not perhaps the most elegant, but impressively punchy. Good and likely to be excellent value, but I preferred the 2018..

Lespault-Martillac (70% Merlot; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon). Tasted from a sample supplied by the chateau. Marginally less extract than L’Esprit de Chevalier. Blue-purple again. Translucent; nice limpidity. Blueberries and raspberries, mulberries and brambles – the fruit a little darker; more obvious oak presence – with subtle hints of vanilla and ground coffee beans. Smoky notes too, but not over-powering. Very creamy tannins. Quite restrained. Soft, harmonious and elegant and the tannins, which are very fine, take their time to pierce the fruit on the palate. Excellent length and a nice chewy red cherry skin finish. Hints of walnut and almond from the ripe pips. Very accomplished.

La Louviere (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 45% Merlot). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. More simple and basic on the nose than many of these mid-range Pessac-Leognans in 2019. Touch of wood smoke. Cassis and plum. Marked acidity, almost slightly spikey. Cassis and cranberries. Upright on the palate, very vertical and linear. Croquant fruit. Juicy. Good if a little monotonic.

Malartic Lagraviere (55,9% Cabernet Sauvignon; 41,3% Merlot; 2,8% Cabernet Franc). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. I like this. Precision in specifying the blend to 1 decimal point and greater precision in the wine-making too. Smoky and oaky, as always, but more reined back. Saline/marine notes. Deep dark fresh berry fruit. Peppery. Better on the palate where it is more harmonious (and where it matters more at this stage). Fresh and lifted. Gentle use of the toasty oak, giving attractive sweet notes of vanilla. Chewy, grippy tannins. Long. Nice lifted finish. Sappy. This is very good and much more to my taste than it used to be.

La Mission Haut-Brion (53% Merlot; 39,5% Cabernet Sauvignon; 7,5% Cabernet Franc). Tasted at Haut-Brion. A very pronounced pink/purple robe; blue-black at the core; very viscous with a lovely glossy sheen and silver highlights on swirling. It somehow looks expensive in the glass! So rich and radiant on the nose, though it takes its time to build quite gradually. A profound, grand and sombre elegance. The fruit is very dark – a couple of shades darker than in Haut-Brion. Blackberries, brambles, fruits of the forest, sloes too.

So fresh and yet perfectly so ripe, with a lovely hint of new season fresh almonds (before their skins have darkened). With air, black cherries and just a hint of cedar. This has a lovely earthy, loamy, graphite minerality and just a hint of sous bois and truffle. Sublimely textured, succulent and intense. Velvet. Cool. Sappy and with a hint of sel et pouvrefleur de sel and cracked black pepper corns! This is still quite closed and it rewards patience even at this early stage. Ro refined, so restrained, so beautifully harmonious and balanced. For me this has the edge over Haut-Brion, but only just.

Pape Clement (50% Merlot; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Pure, Plump. Full and rich. A bit reductive on the nose, but attractive nonetheless. Blackberries, ripe apples, apples skins. Soft on the entry. Super-svelte in fact. Power nicely masked. More reined back in style and a continuation of the evolution of this wine, though with a little more personality than the 2018 I find. Pure, precise and nicely focussed, with good mid-palate delineation. Deep, dark damson and bilberry fruit.

Touch of stony minerality. Graphite. Hint of cigar smoke. Quite classic. Cassis notes appear with a little more air. Fresh new season walnuts. Nice rolling, rippling tannins imparting a juicy refreshing sappiness and giving life and energy. More textually interesting at this stage than it is complex. Good quality ingredients, needing time to coalesce.

Picque Caillou (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 25% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). Pure cassis nose. Simple but attractive. Nutty too. Hint of wood and spice – fresh oak (like walking through an old forest), with a little hint of the forest floor too. Decent depth and concentration. Nice balance and poise. Peppery. Simple but lovely. Very good. Unpretentious. Excellent value and well worth looking out for.

Smith Haut-Lafitte (59% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; certified organic in 2019 and biodynamic; yields of 60% new oak). Picking: 17th September to 10th October. Ruby/garnet and glossy with purple highlights; almost opaque. Quite extracted. Distinct, lively, intense nose of heather, hedgerow flowers, black and red cherries and mulberries, with walnuts and Smith’s signature oak smoke, tobacco and vanilla (the barrels come from their own cooperage).

With aeration the cherries become more prominent. One of those wines in this vintage where you can sense the creaminess to come on the palate without actually putting the glass to your lips. When one finally does, those impressions are confirmed – this is opulent, sumptuous and so silkily soft on the entry. Very Smith. A touch of vanilla, again, a hint of smoke and lovely spicy, cedary notes and a grippy ferrous-saline minerality that seems to coat the filigree tannins.

Big and bold, but layered and complexly structured. Powerful, but never massive; perhaps a little more subtle than previous vintages. A lovely tension and balance. Finishes on grated dark chocolate and black cherries. Rather lovely. Its personality reminds me of the 2015 more than other recent vintages, though texturally it is more like the 2016. Better than the 2018. Just a hint of alcohol on the finish.

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