Vintage Update: Bordeaux 2015


Just a few short weeks before Bordeaux En Primeur 2016, I found myself back in Bordeaux to re-taste the 2015 vintage. Bordeaux’s 2015 vintage is proving to be quite fascinating. Some are shouting from the rafters that it is the best vintage since 2010, and even possibly 2005, while whispers of trepidation persist in dark corners. Furthermore, the ballyhoo over the price increases is provoking equally mixed responses. With all the chatter, what do wine consumers really need to know about the 2015 Bordeaux vintage?
What exactly is En Primeur?  

The simplest answer is wine futures. Each spring the Grand Cru Classe chateaux produce barrel samples from the previous year’s vintage, in this case 2015. These wines are not ready for market, in fact they won’t be released for 1-3 years. Members of the international wine trade descend upon Bordeaux for a week to taste these samples. Upon conclusion a so called “buzz” is created. Is it a great vintage? Poor vintage? Average? Best in decades? How was the overall en primeur of the vintage received? At this point prices are determined and wine brokers, known as négociants, begin to sell the “futures.” This process is good for the chateaux because their risk of a poor vintage is spread out by the négociant; meaning a poor vintage still equals profit. Furthermore, the chateaux receives cash before the vintage is ready so they do not have to wait for barrel and bottle aging to profit from each vintage. The négociant is in a tough situation because in order to maintain their allocation they must buy their fully allotted amount in good vintages and in bad. If they chose to not take their full allocation in a poor vintage year they risk losing the allocation in a potentially good vintage year.

How does Bordeaux’s En Primeur affect wine consumers?

Interestingly, the average American wine consumer seemingly knows little or nothing about En Primeur. If you are an oenophile who seeks to stock your wine cellar with some of the highest quality Bordeaux from the best vintages with little concern of price, chances are you are well aware of En Primeur and have a wine merchant to supply you Bordeaux futures. If you are a wine consumer who enjoys Bordeaux and is constantly seeking a bargain En Primeurs has little to no effect on your wine buying and consumption. There used to be a discount for buying En Primeurs but it has diminished over the years. European wine press and consumers, especially in the UK, seem to be more attentive to En Primeur than their US counterparts.  

Bordeaux 2015 vintage

In the weeks leading up to En Primeur there was some hype building around the 2015 vintage. As part of my En Primeur experience I attended a lecture on this vintage by Dr. Laurence Geny and Professor Denis Dubourdieu of the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences of Bordeaux University, Oenological Research Unit. They declared the 2015 vintage to be outstanding in terms of both quality and quantity because it met the five conditions established by Bordeaux that are necessary for a great red wine vintage. These conditions are: 1 & 2: early and quick flowering and fruit-set during sufficiently warm and dry weather, ensuring pollination and predisposition towards simultaneous ripening; 3: gradual onset of water stress to slow down and ultimately stop vine growth during veraison; 4: full ripening of various grape varieties due to dry warm weather in August and September; 5: dry and slightly warm weather during harvest resulting in the grapes being picked at optimal ripeness without running the risk of dilution or rot. The last vintage that achieved all five of these conditions was 2005.

In the weeks following En Primeurs the 2015 vintage resulted in high praises for lush, terroir driven right bank wines from Saint Émilion and Pomerol. Margaux seemingly rebounded with a much talked about performance after years of lackluster wines. Graves was noted not only for some elegantly balanced red wines but also some high performing whites and Sauternes. There was speculation northern Médoc, an area that received higher rainfall than to its south and the right bank, may pull down the overall esteem for the vintage. Furthermore, there was speculation of a price increase, resulting in overall caution for the vintage.

At En Primeurs in April, 2016, my personal tasting reflections aligned with the greater assessment. I found the right bank wines from Saint Émilion and Pomerol lush and elegant, Margaux wines showing very well, and Pessac-Leognan and Graves intriguing. Returning to re-taste the 2015 vintage in March, 2017 at Millesima’s Panorama en Primeur Tasting resulted in some further assessments of the overall vintage and specific regions. Overall, I find the 2015 vintage to be living up to its hype. Generally speaking the wines contain the grippy tannins and high acidity to make them cellar worthy, a goal for an exceptional Bordeaux vintage. The wines were well structured, balanced, and showed good fruit and color, all indicators of age-ability. Although Margaux remained a star, truly outshining all the other regions if only slightly, Pomerol moved ahead of Saint Émilion in terms of structure and balance. While Haut-Médoc and Pessac-Léognan continue to impress, I was surprised by the elegant structure and poise of San Julien and Saint Estèphe, two regions affected by increased rain levels.

The one looming issue regarding the 2015 vintage is price. 2011 through 2014 vintages of Bordeaux were lackluster, resulting in decreased sales and price drops. 2015 puts Bordeaux back at the front of the line, but they have some sales losses to recover and are hoping 2015 will be an increased revenue vintage as well. Overall the price increase is only 15-20%; however, some regions such as Pessac-Léognan are seeing some chateaux increasing their prices as much as 37.5%. Fabrice Bernard, General Director of Millesima, a key wine merchant of Bordeaux and one of the five largest purchasers of En Primeur wines, addressed the price increase in a phone conversation with me. He explained, “The 2015 vintage is a combination of the best of ‘09 and ‘10; offering all the characteristics of a classic Bordeaux. Yes, the price is increasing but compared to the best wines of Burgundy, Italy, and Napa Valley, the 2015 Bordeaux vintage is still the best quality for the lowest price.” Furthermore, he highlighted Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, Saint Émilion, and San Julien as some of the best sub-regions of the 2015 vintage. I also reached out to Lionel Labat, Bernard Magrez Export Director of Europe, Africa, and the Americas to get his perspective of how the 2015 showed for Magrez’s four Bordeaux chateaux. He responded in an email stating, “For Bernard Magrez vineyards, 2015 is a great vintage; best since 2009 and 2010. More than that, 2015 is a vintage than might allow us to bring back to Bordeaux the American consumers because we have offered very reasonable prices En Primeurs. Chateau Pape Clément, Chateau Fombrauge, Chateau La Tour Carnet and Chateau Les Grands Chênes to name a few are great values on vintage 2015.” Mr. Labat’s response makes clear, while Bordeaux does hope to profit from the 2015 vintage, they are conscious of controlling the price in hopes of winning back the consumer. If Bernard Magrez’s attitude holds true throughout Bordeaux, the 2015 vintage will certainly be something both the consumer and the producers can celebrate!

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