Southwold: 2015 Bordeaux under the microscope

Southwold: 2015 Bordeaux under the microscope

Friday 8th February 2019
by Tom Jenkins

It’s over thirty years since a group of pioneering British merchants first met in the small, seaside town of Southwold to assess a young Bordeaux vintage under blind tasting conditions. 

Luminaries such as the late John Avery and Bill Blatch, along with the likes of Clive Coates MW and our very own Hew Blair, were amongst the first tasters. Although the venue has changed, the name remains, as does the spirit and professionalism. The results are eagerly anticipated by Bordeaux Chateaux; this is the ultimate litmus test, affirmation of years of hard work or hard truths.

Now, here comes the caveat: this is perhaps not the most flattering time to taste these wines. In fact, in my experience it is one of the worst… Although barrel samples can be variable, there is an undeniable freshness and purity of fruit. Just after bottling, they are equally flattering, a year and a half after bottling, they are usually less gratifying. 2009 is a notable exception – these have always been gloriously easy to taste. The 2015s attracted comparisons to 2009 from barrel; however, on this showing, they are less flamboyant and more structured. There are very many notable successes, but it is by no means as uniform or as easy to taste as those spectacular 2009s.

Most critics had a simple message following barrel tastings: Pomerol, St Emilion, Pessac-Leognan and Margaux are all superb, but avoid the northern Medoc. There was a risk of dilution from two days of heavy rainfall just before the Merlots were about to be harvested. Sound thinking, but as ever, the proof is in the pudding. I, for one, found far more pleasure tasting the so-called ‘washed out’ St Estephes than the mighty Pessacs. Montrose, Calon Segur, Cos d’Estournel and Meyney speak of gorgeous Cabernet fruit; there is such purity and precision – they may not be the grandest wines they have ever made, but they offer such pleasure and clarity. Likewise, the wines of St Julien were outstanding. This doesn’t really come as a revelation, we rated these highly from barrel. The Barton brace were most impressive as was the brilliant Leoville Las Cases. Pauillac is usually one of the best performing communes at Southwold. The Pichons and Lynch Bages are mighty impressive, although overall we were left a little underwhelmed by some of the others. St Julien had greater consistency and slightly more polish.

Margaux was heralded as one of the star appellations and it certainly lived up to its billing. But even in a favourable Margaux vintage, there will be inconsistency… A Margaux vintage it may be, but we’d still only recommend a handful of the best properties. Rauzan Segla and Brane Cantenac are special wines, possibly the most profound wines these renowned Chateaux have ever made. They have all the hallmarks of great Margaux: fragrance, power and finesse. If you don’t already have them in your cellar, they are well worth seeking out. Palmer and Margaux are also spectacular wines; the latter is a worthy sign off from the late Paul Pontalier.

As I’ve already alluded, the Graves were not as thrilling as their initial billing had promised. In general, I felt there was a lack of clarity and precision. Smith Haut Lafite was the star, but this taster was disappointed by the commune as a whole. St Emilion was also a frustration. After their spectacular showing last year, we all had high hopes, but it feels like winemakers have been carried away with the natural richness of this vintage. Whereas 2014 displayed control and elegance, this felt like some estates had stepped back to a Parkerised style of St Emilion. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though – Figeac and Canon were thrilling, energetic wines with a tremendous future ahead. And Ausone was my highest rating of the whole tasting; this is an extraordinary, towering wine of enormous power and huge complexity. Natural order was restored, the Pomerols regained their position of authority on the right bank with a scintillating flight of consistent excellence and three towering examples that rank amongst the finest wines of the vintage: Chateau Lafleur, Petrus and Chateau L’Eglise Client. This is Merlot and Cabernet Franc at its most expressive and exhilarating.

So how does one sum up after two days of non-stop blind tasting? A look in the mirror confirms that this is a big vintage – stained teeth are evidence of the colours and extract in these wines. My conclusion is that this is a great, but maybe slightly irregular, vintage. There are some soaring efforts and some tremendous values, most notably Chateau Meyney, Acte 7, Capbern and Reserve de Leoville Barton, and a few disappointments along the way. As I’ve suggested, this is not the ideal time to taste young Bordeaux. A year ago, these were more expressive and more cohesive. They haven’t suddenly diminished as wines; we are just approaching them at the wrong time. I would recommend leaving these 2015s for at least five to ten years to see their undeniable potential.