Bordeaux en primeur 2020: latest releases
Now that we are three weeks into the 2020 en primeur campaign, some interesting patterns are starting to emerge, finds Colin Hay, who rounds up this week’s releases.
Following the well-received release of Cheval Blanc at a price very close to that of its 2019 (€380 per bottle, +4%), the second week of the campaign saw something of a bifurcation of strategies.
In one camp were a number of wines (the slight majority of releases, in fact) following Cheval Blanc’s lead with prices close to, at or below their 2019 release price in euros. This included Langoa-Barton, Pavie and the other key releases from the Perse stable – Pavie Decesse, Bellevue Mondotte and Monbousquet.
In the other camp, with release prices significantly above their 2019 release price, were Angélus (€260 per bottle ex négoc., +11%) and Léoville Barton (€60 per bottle ex négoc., +16.3%).
Both wines appear to have sold reasonably well in London, due to good support from a range of those critics whose scores are already published combined with the long-established reputation of Léoville-Barton for offering value en primeur and the sense that 2020 marks something of a change in style for Angélus.
But what is interesting is that the third week of the campaign has seen few properties being as ambitious as either Angélus or Léoville-Barton in their pricing. Indeed, the evidence of the first three weeks of the campaign taken together suggests that prices, for the most part, are now likely to remain very close to those of the 2019 – with perhaps a modest increase in euros producing price stability in sterling-equivalent terms (due to the slight appreciation of sterling over the last year).
The exceptions amongst this week’s releases – with increases in price of over 10% – are Branaire Ducru and Laroque. Each is worth exploring in a little more detail, as the analysis shows clearly those kinds of wines likely to buck (successfully) the more general trend.
Branaire Ducru was released last week at an ex négoce. price of €31.20, an increase of 10.6% on its 2019 release price of €28.20. In sterling-equivalent terms that translates into an increase of 6.9% (£372 for a case of 12 bottles in bond as opposed to £348 for the 2019). That may seem like an ambitious price until the secondary market performance of Branaire is considered – as it is still below the current market price of the 2019 and most previous releases.
The wine is well-backed by a range of critics (JA 93; JS 93-94; LPB 91-93+) and its release has been well-received in London. Liv-ex’s analysis [https://www.liv-ex.com/2021/05/branaire-ducru-2020-en-primeur-unfussy/] suggests that with a score of 93-94 points from Neal Martin it should be regarded as ‘fair value’.
Laroque is a different kind of story. Here we have a property on a steep upward ascent that is now starting to attract the attention of the international critics, with a very impressive (and in my view richly deserved) set of commentaries and scores, (JA 92; LPB 94-96; JS 94-95; JD 95-97; JL 94-96; JR 16.5+; CH 95-97). At an ex négoce. release price of €18.50 per bottle (up from €16.80 in 2019, an increase of just over 10%) it still looks like excellent value. The best confirmation of that is that négociants and brokers have been scrambling to increase their allocations.
Most of the other notable releases this week are closer to following Cheval Blanc’s early lead. Batailley, for instance, has released at an ex négoce. price per bottle of €26.50. That represents a modest increase of just under 4% compared to its 2019 release price (€25.50). The sterling-equivalent price is the same (at £337for 12 bottles in bond). It, too, is well-supported by the critics (JA 94; JS 94-95; JL 93-95; JR 17). With a similar score to the 2019 from Neal Martin it would clearly represent ‘fair value’.
Batailley’s stable mate Lynch Moussas has also been released at an ex négoce. price of €24 per bottle, up just under 7% from its 2019 price of €22.50; that produces a modest sterling-equivalent price rise of 4.7% (at £288 in bond for a case of 12 bottles). This is wine that has somewhat divided the critics (JA 91; LPB 87-89; JS 94-95; JR 16). But it is likely to find a market at this price.
Finally, we have another still modestly priced but up-and-coming St Emilion with Lassègue. This was released at an ex négoc. release price of €16.50 per bottle (an increase of 3.7% in comparison to the 2019). It is extremely well supported by both Jane Anson (95-96) and James Suckling (94-95) and there is already quite a lot of interest in London as far as I can tell.
Other interesting releases include:
Barde-Haut (£264 in bond for 12; the same price as the 2019; JA 94; JS 94-95)
Belle-Brise (£990 in bond for 12; the same price as the 2019, an exclusivity of Fine & Rare).
Bouscaut blanc (£246 in bond for 12; 4% less than the 2019; JS 92-93; JR 17)
Bouscaut rouge (€18.6 in bond for 12; the same price as the 2019; JA 93; JS 91-92; JR 16+)
Domaine de L’Eglise (£332 in bond for 12; an increase of 5%; JA 94; JS 96-97)
De Ferrand (£204 in bond for 12; JA 92).
Grand Pontet (€17.4 ex négoc. per bottle, the same price as the 2019; LPB 90-92+; JR 17).
Séraphine (£1050 in bond for 12; LPB 93-95; CH 94-96).
My tasting notes for each new release:
Barde-Haut (St Emilion; 16,89 hectares on clay over limestone that forms a natural amphitheatre on the St Emilion plateau to the East of St Emilion next to the terraced vintage of Chateau La Tour Saint Christophe; 80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc; aged in oak, 60% new for 18-24 months; 14.5% alcohol). Dark in hue, this is garnet/indigo at the core, but light in extract and it captures the light beautifully. The nose is fresh and herb-tinged, giving this a very natural and slightly wild personality, with deep, dark autumnal berry and stone fruit and dried autumn leaves. Quite plump and rich on the attack but the limestone tannins rein this back nicely, refocussing this through the mid-palate. It perhaps lacks a little complexity, and the tannins are slightly dry if never drying, but this is elegant if simple expression of the vintage.
Batailley (Pauillac; 70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 26% Merlot; 2% Petit Verdot; 2% Cabernet Franc). This is lovely and not only redolent of the appellation, but redolent in fact of Batailley itself – it’s quite an easy pick. On the nose this has the floral component of the vintage – here, lilacs and peonies – but there is also that smoky, gamey almost slightly feral note that I associate with Batailley and a little signature that comes from the way oak is used her.
Finally, there is a delicious new season walnut element that combines so well with the plump rich cherry and dark berry fruit. This is slightly cool on the entry and that serves to prepare the palate well for a lovely gracious unfurling of the bright yet elegant cherry fruit in and through the mid-palate before the fine grained by nicely textural tannins seem to grip hold of the fruit and draw it back to the mineral spine of the wine to produce an impressive tapered juicy finish. In short, this has a lovely mouthfeel and an impressive structure. Very fine indeed, this is a wine that is now reliably excellent.
Belle-Brise (Pomerol; 80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc; average age of the vines is 65 years; aging in 400 litre oak barrels, a third of which are new; an impressive moderate 13.5% alcohol). It’s always exciting to taste this singular wine. Very dark in colour at the core, intensely viscous and limpid in the glass with a lilac rim. This takes a little time to come together on the nose with interesting notes of horsehair, leather accompanying the baked plums and damsons. On the palate there is quite a pronounced saline-ferrous minerality which helps bring interest and definition alongside the fine grained and slightly crumbly tannins to the rich, plump mid-palate. Very long and quite charismatic.
Bouscaut (Pessac-Léognan; 63% Cabernet Sauvignon; 31% Merlot; 6% Malbec – I think, as the fiche technique figures don’t add up to 100; a final yield of just 30 hl/ha; 14.5% alcohol). This is slightly baked on the nose – plums, damsons, blackberries, with a welcome note of cedar, a twist or two of the pencil-sharpener, tobacco leaf and wood smoke, a slight gamey note and a hint of sous bois. On the palate this has a nice sense of lift and a certain amount of freshness, but the fruit and floral notes feel just a little wilted and the palate a little more lifeless for that. The fine-grained tannins are nicely managed and bring some definition and focus to the mid-palate, but I still miss a little precision and detail. This is slightly disappointing in the context of recent vintages, but an indication of quite how hot, dry and challenging it was here in the late summer.
Bouscaut blanc (Pessac-Léognan; from a clay over limestone terroir at Cadaujac; 68% Sauvignon Blanc; 32% Sémillon; aging in oak barrels, 25% of which are new; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; 13% alcohol). Interesting and quite distinctive on the nose, though less marked at least at this stage by the oak than it often is. There is a nice juicy fresh acidity to this on the nose that is very clean and pure, almost crystalline – lemon sherbet, lemon sorbet, white grapefruit, Galia melon, a little peach and perhaps even a touch of Mirabelle alongside passionflower and jasmine with a hint of green tea.
On the palate this is quite savoury and nicely defined by its notable saline minerality. It is big in the mouth, quite ample and rich and I love the grip and pick-up of the tannins through the mid-palate which helps contribute to a nice, long almost rippling tapered finish. As that implies, this is quite structural – and almost more like a red-wine in that respect, the tannins playing a key role. That helps this remain fresh and bright and not to become weighed down by the density of the fruit. Impressive, though at this stage the fruit is zingier on the nose than on the palate.
Branaire Ducru (St Julien; 58% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 7% Petit Verdot; 3% Cabernet Franc; a final yield of 40 hl/ha; 13.55% alcohol). This is quite big, rich, broad-framed, ample and generous, yet it’s also very open-textured. The effect is to create an interesting sense of tension and interest and, in effect, to shine a clear and luminous glow on the mid-palate which is nicely detailed.
Branaire in 2020 seems very true to its terroir and appellation, with a rather pleasing wild streak – I find notes of heather and plenty of wild herbs alongside the deep, rich, dark berry and stone fruit. It’s perhaps a little sweet in the mid-palate, but that seems somehow very natural here, even if it suppresses a little the equally natural lift and freshness of the vintage. An honest, unpretentious and very accessible wine that will surely give lots of pleasure.
Domaine de L’Eglise (Pomerol; 96% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc). Another Pomerol that is very much towards the magenta/indigo/purple end of the chromatic spectrum, this is also very glossy and limpid in the glass catching the light beautifully. A lovely fresh lifted floral nose – peonies and lilacs and rosemary and thyme too alongside the quite pure blueberry fruit. This has a lovely sinuous mouthfeel, the softness of the tannins deceiving one into thinking this is lacking in density or concentration when in fact it’s quite the opposite. This has lift and tension and energy and, crucially, lots of freshness. Shimmering, luminous and crystalline.
De Ferrand (St Emilion; a comparatively large vineyard of 32 hectares a top the argilo-calcaire plateau at Saint-Hippolyte at an altitude of over 100 metres on a mix of clay, sand and limestone soils; 74% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Franc; 1% Cabernet Sauvignon; with a final yield of 44 hl/ha; 14.5% alcohol). The progression here is constant and this is quite simply the best wine that I have ever tasted from this property. Tasted blind there aren’t actually many wines this could be (though that is, of course, easy to say). But instantly, and from the nose alone, we know this is calcaire-rich high altitude St Emilion – Laroque, perhaps, or de Ferrand itself.
The fruit is searingly vertical and fantastically fresh and pure – cassis, red currants, raspberry and even wild strawberries with a lovely crumbly chalkiness (or at least the aromatic profile one associates with that) and a wonderful wild heather moorland note and spring flowers too. On the palate this is impressively rich and plump, but the crumbly, grainy calcaire tannins act like an exoskeleton, stopping the fruit from fanning out and instead driving it forward along the mineral spine of this highly architectural wine. It’s like a gothic limestone cathedral! Yes, patience will be required but the potential here is extraordinary.
Grand Pontet (St Emilion; from a well-situated vineyard of 19 hectares not far from Beauséjour-Bécot and Clos Fourtet on the approach from the north into St Emilion itself on a thin clay and sand over limestone soil). Beautiful in the glass with a lovely translucent limpidity and very expressive on the nose too. Blueberries, blackberries and black cherries with a very slight hint of kirsch and very fine dark black chocolate.
Gloriously soft on the gentle cool entry but what I particularly love about this is the combination of fresh explosive vibrant fruit which seems to want to break the shackles of the calcaire tannic frame and yet a certain sombre austerity and opulence too. This is a wine with great tension and loads of energy, but also a certain classicism and elegance. Altogether lovely and quite the best wine I have tasted from here.
Laroque (St Emilion; a superbly situated 61-hectare vineyard on one of the highest parts of the appellation on a combination of red clay over limestone and blue clay over limestone terroirs; aged in oak barrels and larger foudres; 14.5% alcohol). More crimson/purple than garnet/purple at the core with a remarkably radiant shocking pink rim. Heather and hedgerow flowers on the floral nose with all the lift that comes from the calcaire terroir and lovely ripe plump blueberries.
Succulent and savoury on the palate with the most remarkably accessible silky soft filigree tannins and then lovely sappy, juicy waves of fresh berry fruit rippling and intermingling with the grains in the calcaire tannins. Another exceptional wine from David Suire at Laroque that is rather different in personality to the also excellent 2018 and 2019. This is a little more opulent and richer on the palate, very much in the style of the vintage and, I think, his best yet.
Lassègue (St Emilion; 60% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Franc; 5% Cabernet Sauvignon; aged for 12 months in 52% new oak; a final yield of 43 hl/ha; pH 3.6; 14.5% alcohol). Another beautifully limpid and glossy en primeur sample with a radiant and almost fluorescent pink/lilac rim. Open, expressive and fragrantly fresh on the nose with a lovely combination of deep purple flowers (peonies perhaps), blue and purple berry and stone fruit and a traditional classroom full of pencil shavings (if that is the appropriate collective noun!).
Bright, light, aerial and almost gravity-defying on the palate despite the considerable density and intensity of the fruit, this is one of those deceptively powerful wines because of the sheer quality and compactness of the grain of the tannins. There has been a sharp and steep progression at Lassègue in recent vintages and this is perhaps their best yet. Exquisitely joyous and exquisitely complete.
Lynch Moussas (Pauillac; 72% Cabernet Sauvignon; 28% Merlot). Once this settles in the glass it has a very attractive, naturally sweet and floral nose – spring flowers, eucalyptus oil, freshly turned damp rich earth, black cherries and a little cassis (but not much and, crucially, without much of the fresh acidity that cassis typically brings). We could almost be in Margaux. On the palate this is svelte, quite rich and opulent, but sinuous too with a nicely open texture and a slightly luminous quality in the mid-palate. Yet I miss a sense of layering and delineation here – it’s almost as if the layers have melded together into one. Consequently, this lacks just a little mid-palate definition’ though I am being extremely picky here for this is a very fine wine.
Séraphine (Pomerol; from a little vineyard of 2.2 hectares comprised of three parcels – two at Mazeyres on gravel and sand, gravel and blue clay, the other at Plince on sand over clay and gravel; just 3200 bottles; 100% Merlot; aged in French oak barrels and a 1000L clay amphora; 14% alcohol). Ultra-viscous and glossy – purple/black at the core and with a radiant violet rim.
This has a sleek yet very stylish classic Pomerol nose of blueberry compote and hedgerow flowers, with a hint of cloves too. Succulent and supremely svelte in the mouth, with plush, opulent black cherry and blueberry fruit, a hint of walnut oil, freshly roasted coffee beans and a cool slightly menthol finish. Long and undulating on the palate this, too, is the best wine made yet by this up very promising and highly ambitious estate. Bright and energetic yet at the same time really substantial and with the most glorious mouthfeel. This is going to be fabulous.