Bordeaux 2019 by appellation: Saint-Estèphe

Much of the early talk about Bordeaux 2019 suggested that, rather like 2014, this was going to turn out to be a northern Medoc vintage. Expectations for Saint-Estèphe were then particularly high, writes Colin Hay.

That idea I think came from the long-held notion, a truism of sorts, that the more clay-based soils of the Northern Medoc, St Estephe in particular, have a greater capacity to deal with a long arid summer. Clay terroirs, in effect, offer better protection against hydric stress.

That, in a sense is true. But I was always rather skeptical of the idea that this would necessarily afford some kind of competitive edge to the wines of St Estephe in 2019. That impression was only reinforced by a number of chateau visits throughout the Medoc in January and February 2020.

Those visits were hardly exhaustive nor were they especially representative, but time and again I found that it was producers in Margaux, St Julien and (above all) Pauillac who were talking up their 2019s; whilst their St Estephe counterparts were just a little more reticent and cagey.

The reason for that, as I suspected at the time, is I think relatively simple. Whilst clay does indeed mitigate the risk of hydric stress, there is a catch. For in protecting the vine from drought, sugar (and hence potential alcohol) levels continue to rise in conditions that would otherwise see the plant shut down. In the context of climatic change, that effect is all the greater.

Put slightly differently, Bordeaux’s new normal poses a particular kind of challenge to those making their wines on the clay soils of St Estephe. That challenge was, in fact, if anything more extreme in 2018 than it was in 2019. With one or two (notable) exceptions, alcohol levels in the former were typically higher than the latter.

But they remain extremely high by historical standards and, even in a vintage whose signature is freshness, they are quite noticeable in a number of the top wines.

The effect is in fact two-fold. The first and most obvious trace is a slight hint of alcoholic heat, typically on the wine’s finish. And if it is discernible en primeur, it is unlikely to resolve itself later.

It is perhaps worth noting that the elevated alcohol of many St Estephe wines in 2018 is more obvious now after a further 12 months in barrique than it was en primeur.

The second symptom is less direct but just as significant. Alcohol is, of course, a solvent and, as solvents go it is very effective in the extraction of colour and, crucially, tannin – from grapes and, indeed, from barrriques too. Elevated alcohol, then comes with the risk of over-extraction and the associated loss of mid-palate definition and delineation.

Though less present in 2019 than in 2018, and rather more unevenly distributed, both effects are palpably present in at least some wines – but certainly not all.

Cos d’Estournel is, by some distance, my wine of the appellation in 2019. It is suave, elegant and poised, with dark clear fruit, cashmere tannins and wonderful restraint and balance (no hint of alcohol and a very delicate and sensitive extraction). Pagodes, too, is stylish and attractive, offering an accessible introduction to the grand vin at a fraction of the price. It is highly recommended.

Calon-Segur, too, is excellent in this vintage. The alcohol level, though at 14,5% hardly modest, is lower than 2018 and the wine is more balanced and harmonious as a consequence. It is not perhaps my favorite Calon, but it is very well made and will age gracefully.

The prize for the most improved wine of the appellation must go to the striking and compelling Phelan-Segur. Whilst I have always liked this wine, its singular personality was very much defined by the interaction between the toastiness of its oak and the minerality of its terroir.

This is much more refined, much less marked by the oak and with greater precision, focus and delineation. It has become a much more direct and immediate expression of its terroir. There is a lot of wine here for the money.

The same can be said for Meyney. This has become rightly famous, in recent years, as a kind of ringer for its illustrious second growth neighbour – often being placed first in the Southwold (blind) tasting due to a combination of its sheer quality, its accessibility and its remarkable similarity to its immediate neighbour, Chateau Montrose.   This is “set to cause further embarrassment in blind tastings of this vintage in years to come”.

So whilst there is a certain need for care in selecting one’s St Estephe in 2019, there are some fantastic wines to be found – and many of them represent extremely good value.

Wine of the appellation:                           Cos d’Estournel

Second wine of the appellation:               Pagodes de Cos

Most improved:                                        Phelan-Segur; Lafon-Rochet

Quality/price ratio (St Estephe):               Meyney; Le Crock; Phelan-Segur

Quality/price ratio (other appellations):    Branas Grand Poujeaux; Goulee; Potensac; Poujeaux

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.

Calon Segur (73% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14% Merlot; 12% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; 14,5% alcohol; pH 3,85; yield of 40 hl/ha; aged in 100% new oak). Tasted from a sample provided by the Chateau and at the UGC in Paris. Impressively effervescent on the nose – this is powerfully aromatic. Floral – petals and stamens, almost hints of saffron, jasmine (as in Marquis de Calon) and black tea. Brambles, blackberries, blueberries – dark berry fruit. Walnuts and brazil nuts. Graphite and cedar on the palate – lovely.

Opulent. Gloriously soft velour tannins. Black cherries, damsons, a touch of pepper and those distinctive cloves of Calon. Very pure and layered – the fruit ripples on the palate, enrobed in these very glossy tannins which never become chewy or grainy. Very fine. Much more elegant than Marquis de Calon; quite opulent in fact. Less feral. Less meaty. More precise and linear, but there is a great deal of power and mid-palate density and concentration. Perhaps a little more monotonic than some of the other grand vins of the vintage and, indeed, of the appellation. But very impressive once again. The alcohol is more moderated than in 2018 (when it was just a shade below 15%).

Capbern (69% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 1% Petit Verdot; alcohol 15,1%; pH 3,9; yield of 40 hl/ha; aged in 60% new oak). Tasted from a sample provided by the Chateau. Garnet purple. Quite extracted. High alcohol for a wine with nearly 70% Cabernet Sauvignon (it was 14,6% in 2018). More gravel, less clay than Calon itself. Very floral on the nose – hedgerow wild flowers. Wild heather too – think Scottish moor-side! Charcuterie and gamey notes. Plum and bramble fruit. Rich. Big and plump. Svelte tannins.

Searing acidity and impressive structure. Quite massive though it tapers down on the mid-palate and towards the finish leaving a fresh fruity spine. An inverse fan. Saline minerality, a touch of iodine. Pure. Precise. Quite burly and not yet totally comfortable with itself. Needs time. Ambitious and not as elegant as the 2018. The alcohol is also a bit noticeable on the finish. I will need to re-taste this; others will like it more than I do.

Le Crock (46% Merlot; 44% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6% Cabernet Franc; 4% Petit Verdot; alcohol 13,99%; aged in 30% new oak; pH 3,73; alcohol 13,99%; yield of 45 hl/ha). Tasted from a sample provided by the Chateau. Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel since the 2018 vintage, and boy does this wine deserve that status! This has been improving with each successive vintage for a number of years and this is the best I’ve yet tasted. A wine that deserves much more recognition than it gets. The alcohol is listed as 13,99% indicating, presumably, both that they were keen to keep it below 14% – and that they succeeded, just! It is much less perceptible than in many of the leading wines of the appellation in 2019.

Made very much in the style of Leoville Poyferre, Sara Lecompte Cuvelier is bringing something distinctive and original to this excellent St Estephe terroir (just behind Cos). Garnet, with deep purple highlights. Pure deep, almost slightly sombre, fresh dark fruity nose – blackberries, blueberries and brambles, with a touch of oak smoke and fresh mint. Soft entry yet crisp, fresh and energetic – a bit like biting into a fresh apple. The sappy tannins release little ripples of juiciness, accentuating the sense of structure. Very accomplished, with great integrity and depth. Very elegant.

Cos d’Estournel (65% Cabernet Sauvigon; 35% Merlot; alcohol 14,02%; pH 3,77; aged in 55% new oak). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. More Merlot than in 2018 and no Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot – the synergy between the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was so good that anything else would have disrupted the balance, according to Dominique Arangoits. This too is nicely gentle in terms of the extraction and also a little firm and closed at first. But it sings with a little air. Very appealing. So beautifully integrated even now.

The power is there but it’s deceptive and wrapped in the velour of the gentlest of tannins. Elegant, delicate even. Dark berry fruit – brambles, plums, a bit of black raspberry too. Cool on the palate from the almost imperceptible tannins. Heather and hedgerow flowers. Spices – cinnamon, fennel seed, turmeric, cumin and a touch of white pepper. That distinct saline-ferrous minerality of the Cos terroir. Exceptionally long and with considerable (if slightly hidden) mid-palate depth and density.

Yet so refined and elegant – a very Cos kind of a tension. More engaging and energetic than the 2018. Lovely fruit precision. Intellectual wine that is very complex in the mid palate and on the nose and invites you back to pose of it new questions and to search for new dimensions. Racy and energetic with a croquant fruit a little reminiscent of 2017 but with a structure and intensity that is more 2016. Finishes on grape skins. Dominique tells me that the grapes tasted of the wine; and wine tastes of the grapes. A rare and special equilibrium. A harmony of fruit and wine, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, clay and gravel terroirs, depth and precision, power and refinement. Truly excellent.

Lafon Rochet (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot; 6% Petit Verdot – the new consultant here is Jean-Claude Berrouet from Petrus). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Slightly toasty notes and a gentle oaky sweetness on the nose. Sweet spices, vanilla accompanying the palate of dark red and black berry fruit, with little hints of graphite and a gently herbyness.

A very mineral-rich personality as ever on the palate – very ‘northern’ Medoc with a vivid undercurrent of saline and ferrous notes. Rich and soft in the mouth, with a (new) elegance and refinement that grates, just a little, with the burly physicality and minerality of the terroir at this early stage. Wild and elemental, with blackberries, brambles and hedgerow flowers. A very strong Lafon Rochet and a marked step upwards, but I suspect it’s never really going to be my favourite.

Le Marquis de Calon Segur (54% Cabernet Sauvignon; 41% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; alcohol 15,1%; pH 3,85; yield of 40 hl/ha; aged in 30% new oak). Tasted from a sample provided by the Chateau. A lot less oak than Capbern, but it’s more noticeable on the nose. Dark, extracted. Looks brooding and powerful – and it is. Spicy and smokey and gamey – very St Estephe as it should be.

Salty, earthy, with a pronounced iron minerality. Very floral – and that’s lovely. Rose petals and, again, peonies, even a little hint of jasmine and black tea. Lovely soft tannins on the attack, but they are very present and considerable on the mid-palate. Fans out in an almost mirror image of the way the Capbern closes in on itself. Big and rich and broad, but not perhaps as long as that breadth makes you expect.

Plump. Nice cassis fruit emerges with a bit of air, but the sensation of fruit is a little muffled and blurred, lacking a little delineation. A hint of alcohol heat on the finish – my issue with Calon in recent vintages. Feels like a wine from a hot vintage. Just a bit monolithic, with notably less finesse than 2018. Burly, if not at all brutal; slightly feral (which I quite like).

Meyney (planted to 60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Petit Verdot). Tasted from a sample provided by the Chateau. Garnet with crimson highlights. Lovely classic cedary cassis nose, touch of mint, quite a lot of gamey, smoky savoury notes too, with earthy undertones which are actually absent from a lot of the big names in the appellation in this vintage.

Quite big and rich and slightly sombre and burly. Instantly we are in St Estephe – the heart and soul of the appellation. Big and gutsy, but with a fine, chewy tannin and a bright, floral-tinged fresh blackcurrant fruit finish. Saline, almost rusty, minerality and lovely graphite notes too. Not quite at the same level as the 2016 or 2018. But very good indeed and approachable already. Set to cause further embarrassment in blind tastings of this vintage in years to come (apparently it is often a ringer for Montrose in the Southwold tasting)! 

Pagodes de Cos (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 36% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 4% Petit Verdot; alcohol 14,03%; pH 3,77; aged in just 20% new oak). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. Pink/purple. Gentle extraction. Richer and a little broader than Goulee. Refined and elegant. More blackcurrant and cedar notes from the Cabernet; heather and wild mountain flowers; black tea.

Hints of that Cos spice-box – fennel seeds, a touch of cinnamon, liquorice root. Firm and closed at first – rare in a second wine. Needs time to come to life, but impressively broad shouldered when it does. Yet at the same time very nicely focussed, precise and linear. Lovely vein of acidity. Croquant. Excellent value – there is lots of quality here. Nice iron-tinged saline minerality. Very Cos.

Phelan Segur (56% Cabernet Sauvignon; 42% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc [the first time this is in the blend since 2013]; 14,5% alcohol; aged in 55% new oak). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Toasty, as ever, but much more in moderation than it used to be. There is a new elegance and refinement here. Very classy and more classic than it once was. Good progression and moving a little towards Calon-Segur in style – more precision, more focus, more delineation and a more direct expression of the terroir and the appellation.

This is bright and energetic and, although it is still very evident, the St Estephe minerality never dominates or threatens to suppress the articulation of the fruit, making this feel more lively and lighter on its feet that some of the other leading wines of the appellation. Powerful, certainly, but with no heaviness. Good crunchy dark berry and cherry fruit. A nice sappy juiciness. Nutty and a little spicy on the finish– nutmeg and cinnamon, but all in moderation. In short, very good indeed and likely to represent fantastic value.

Other Medoc appellations

Branas Grand Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Medoc; Vignobles Onclin). Tasted from a sample provided by the chateau. Garnet/purple. As in 2018, this is very impressive. Svelte, polished tannins. Nice pure and bright plummy fruit. Good freshness and lift and significant mid-palate concentration. Nice herb and floral notes too and a very fine-grained tannin. Not perhaps terribly complex, but very attractive and very well made. This confirms the excellent impression made by the 2018, consolidating the large step up in quality noted then. Very close to the top of the appellation once again. This deserves to be better known.

Goulee (86% Merlot; 13% Cabernet Sauvignon; 1% Cabernet Franc; alcohol 13,5%; pH 3,74; aged in 20% new oak). Tasted over Zoom with Dominique Arangoits. From the extreme North of the Medoc where the Atlantic breezes meet the mouth of the Girdonde. Smokey. Lightly extracted. Garnet/pink. Very Merlot-dominated on the nose.

Red berry fruit – primarily raspberries. A whiff of smoke and perhaps of sea salt too (even samphire); herby – thyme. Nice purity and more finesse than this wine used to have. Rather sleek and elegant. Fresh. Quite energetic – reminiscent a bit of some 2017s. Svelte tannins. Very impressive. Pure and precise cassis fruit, with some wild herbal notes, quite peppery. Linear. Not much complexity but plenty of lift, poise and tension.

La Lagune (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot). Tasted at the UGC in Paris. Intense, slightly briney ferrous minerality (that makes one think one’s a lot further north in the Medoc). Rich and soft, with seductively cashmere-coated tannins. Long. There is a freshness here but it really only appears right at the end. Black cherries and their skins.

No harshness. But aside from the minerality, not a great deal of discernible complexity at this stage. I am very aware that others clearly loved this and I may well be in a minority, but I find this somewhat lacking in mid-palate delineation. I have a mental note to re-taste this in six months’ time.

Poujeaux (50% Cabernet Sauvignon; 45% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; alcohol 14%; pH 3,8; aged in 33% new oak). Tasted from a sample provided by the chateau. Purple/garnet with pink/purple highlights on swirling. Beautifully aromatic – I love the progression of this wine in recent vintages. It tends to be a little under-appreciated and it needs to be dropped into a few more blind tastings.

Lovely nose of cedar and graphite but also intensely floral – violets and peonies. It hints strongly at the natural creaminess on the palate. You don’t need to taste it to know it’s going to have that texture. Blackcurrant and raspberries. Pure, precise, with good breadth on the palate. Cool and svelte. Very dark textured. Rolling and rippling black cherries and brambles – the cassis from the nose has all but gone. Nice mouth-feel – cool, with a very fresh seam running down its spine, giving length and definition. Not immensely complex, but the ingredients are impressive and the balance finely poised.

Potensac (47% Merlot; 36% Cabernet Sauvignon; 16% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot; alcohol 14,05%; pH 3,54). Tasted at Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. A nicely balanced wine with high acidity and moderate alcohol for the vintage. This is a good introduction to the wine-making of Domaines Delon. Briary fruit, lots of freshness, a pleasing focus and linearity on the palate and good concentration and density coming, especially, from the excellent Merlot. Eric Boissenot is the consultant here. This is very fine, possibly the best yet from here. The punchy tannins, however, mean that a certain amount of patience will be required.

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