Château Prieuré-Lichine was free from major climate setbacks, resulting in a high-quality vintage.

After a very heterogeneous 2017 and an exceptional 2018 vintage, 2019 seems to have gone a different path with a lot of unprecedented climatic events that played on many a vigneron’s nerves throughout the best part of the growing season and into harvest time. Climate change imposed itself like never before and forced the most caring to stay near their vines, rather than going on their traditional summer beach holidays.

As Yohan Castaing, of the French wine newsletter Anthocyanes wrote, “Bordeaux 2019 was a difficult equation to solve that included several unknowns”.

Winter was warmer than the average, which resulted in an early budburst and with the frost-affected 2017 still in most makers’ minds, this caused some serious nervousness throughout the region. Thankfully there were very few frost episodes – besides 13 April and 6 May in Blaye, Northern Médoc and Fronsac, followed in the same areas by hail on 19 June, then on 6 July in Entre-Deux-Mers and Ste-Foy Côtes de Bordeaux.

Again, if we compare this new vintage to 2018 where rain was plentiful, 2019’s rainfall was 54% lower than the average from 1981 to 2000, and 21% lower than the average over the past 30 years. This caused some water stress later in the season, especially on vines grown on free-draining sandy and gravelly soils, when April and June rainfall failed to fill up the water tables.

Flowering began at the end of May, reaching its peak on 4 June. In relatively cool and rainy weather, this primordial stage of vine growing did not take place under the best auspices. Spread over time, the rain caused coulure (abortion of the vine flower), but also millerandage (hen & chicken, an imperfect fertilisation that gives small fruits and heterogeneous ripeness).

Without knowing the yield or the quality at this stage, vignerons had to plan for a series of successive passages in the vineyard to eliminate those troublesome berries. As Florent Genty, commercial director of Domaines Delon (Château Léoville Las Cases, Nénin, Potensac and Clos du Marquis), mentioned to me during his visit to Australia in March this year, Mother Nature had its own way of managing yields in 2019, and the passages in the vineyard to remove the green unfertilised berries were important to avoid green flavours later during fermentation.

Châteaux like Suduiraut faced difficult times for vintage 2019.

Then came the second denominating factor for this vintage: the heatwave from the end of June to the beginning of July. When I arrived in Bordeaux, it was intensely hot and dry, and I could see vines suffering already. While the weather had not been very good until then, it radically changed to a blue sky with very high temperatures, especially in July, making 2019 one of the hottest years of the decade.

This heatwave, coupled with a lack of water began to affect the least prepared vineyards on the least qualitative terroirs. Some vines (especially the younger ones) suffered defoliation due to hydric stress, something rarely seen in Bordeaux. The sun was so intense that it even burned bunches in some areas, especially on vines that had lost some of their leaves to hydric stress. Leaves play two important roles, protecting bunches from harsh sun rays and photosynthesising to help grapes ripen. More than ever, viticultural practices and canopy management had an important impact on the vintage as the various châteaux strive to better understand and handle the effect of global warming.

Etienne Charrier Magnolia and Lise Latrille of Château Prieuré-Lichine.

Veraison began on 6 August, helped by 25mm of rain that fell late July. This was three days later than the 30-year average and one week later than 2018. Many producers were thankful there was no mildew or black rot on any serious scale, even with organic and biodynamic producers such as Château Palmer and Château Pontet-Canet.

Veraison began on 6 August, helped by 25mm of rain that fell late July. This was three days later than the 30-year average and one week later than 2018. Many producers were thankful there was no mildew or black rot on any serious scale, even with organic and biodynamic producers such as Château Palmer and Château Pontet-Canet.

Fortunately, as local wine critics and negociants alike would say, attentive grape-growers were in their vineyards to manage their canopy, protect bunches from harsh sun rays and preserve the vines from the heat.

For several years, the climatic conditions at the end of summer have made it possible to produce excellent vintages in Bordeaux and 2019 was no different; however for all the reasons already mentioned, it is clear that each terroir reacted differently. Within the same property, maturity levels were different depending on the exposure, the terroir, but also the rootstock and the yield, all of which could either decrease or increase this gap. Interestingly, most châteaux opted against doing a green harvest at this stage, avoiding over-concentrating remaining bunches. I believe that it was the crucial factor that differentiated the elegant and balanced 2019 to the jammy 2003 vintage. From all the in-depth analysis and tastings, the research into better understanding and managing climate change, it is evident that the 2019 vintage is a result of advances in technology and winemaking techniques.

Winemakers then had to face another difficult decision: setting the picking date. While some had the skill to define a harvest date 15 days away, and still from the sandy banks of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat beaches, others were in the vineyard to taste every morning and start picking according to the optimal date.

In summary, 2019 was a vintage in which winemakers needed to be in close proximity to the vineyard. The key influences that made the 2019 vintage so unique formed a difficult equation that only one factor could help solve: common sense.

The next difficult question for the châteaux to solve will be their release prices in a less-than-ideal economic climate. Brexit has now happened, but there are a lot of unresolved issues regarding tariffs and the like, and although the British pound is predicted to improve, it offers little guarantee that the oldest Bordeaux market will be buying. Then comes US President Donald Trump’s 25% tariff that hit many European wines late last year and having somewhat slowed the US thirst for claret. Hong Kong and China’s downturn in importing Bordeaux over the past few years is also playing a big part, amplified by the continual troubles in Hong Kong. Last, but certainly not least, the coronavirus has affected share markets and currency exchange rates the world over. It also forced the Union des Grand Crus, organisers of the traditional en primeur tasting week, planned for late March, to cancel this event for the first time in its history. As a negociant said to me, not even world war stopped the en primeur from going ahead, but this year the châteaux must listen to the market and adjust their prices accordingly as nobody outside of the Bordeaux trade will be able to taste the latest vintage.

We shall wait and see…

Axelle Courdurié is winemaker and owner at Château Croix de Labrie.

Vintage Report

Due to châteaux being closed for tasting, I have relied on top-performing producers to share their views of their latest embryonic wine.

Château Prieuré-Lichine, 4th Growth Margaux

In 2019, the great terroirs of the plots making up the Château Prieuré-Lichine vineyard once again combined harmoniously to produce aromatic, fleshy and velvety wines, of hallmark Margaux style. Free of major climatic setbacks and with a welcome episode of weather at the end of the season, the vintage was both generous and of high quality.

Following a quite mild and dry winter, the 2019 vine cycle at Château Prieuré-Lichine began with a bud-break in normal conditions at the end of March. The potential crop size was large, with good and even vine-shooting. The few episodes of frost experienced in the Médoc had no effect on the potential volume of the crop. Particularly rainy spring weather in April and June ensured sufficient water reserves for the vines. Vine disease pressure was at a reasonable level. The flowering process benefitted from the good weather conditions.

Summer weather suddenly set in at the end of June with a heatwave, followed by a second and more intense one in late July. Just as the net shortfall in the season’s rainfall was starting to challenge the end of the ripening process, a welcome downpour arrived in late September, the trigger for the harvesting to start in the young merlot vines, whose grapes had by then re-swelled thanks to this welcome rain.

Because the plots of the Prieuré-Lichine vineyard are spread across the whole of the Margaux appellation, the ripening and harvesting dates were staggered accordingly over more than three weeks. The last cabernet sauvignon showed fabulous balance.

The vinifications went very smoothly with long macerations for the vats destined for the first wine. The merlot was ripe and displayed great roundness on the palate. The cabernet sauvignon, which benefitted from the mid-September rains by reaching full ripeness levels, offered juicy grapes with noble pedigree that would perfectly contribute to their energy and their dense, silky texture in the blend.

Château Pichon-Baron, 2nd Growth Pauillac

2019 was marked by a rainy spring and start to June, followed by a hot, dry summer. Cool temperatures alleviated the virulence of the mildew, and the year’s favourable weather conditions created an environment free from the threat of cryptogamic infection.

The rapid warming of the soil at the end of winter led to steady and even budburst, with slow growth. Unfortunately, these cool conditions were not favourable to flowering and caused moderate coulure, except in the earliest-ripening terroirs. The last 10 days of June gave way to hot and dry summer weather, punctuated by some rain in late July and early August. The sunshine and heat stimulated the fruit aromas of the cabernets and the concentration of polyphenols in the skins.

Limited water during ripening accelerated sugar concentration and the breakdown of acids, and increased the grapes’ phenolic potential. These conditions were also favourable to the quality of the tannins.

Mid-veraison was reached early August on the early-ripening plots and ended quickly and evenly a couple of weeks later.

The grapes became particularly rich in mid-September due to the hot, dry conditions, then the first rains in late September weakened the skins and accelerated the harvest. This very welcome moisture stabilised the sugar concentration and allowed us to continue the harvest more serenely.

2019 was characterised by high potential alcohol content and low total acidity (little malic acid). The harvest took place from 18 September to 11 October, with merlot a little earlier. Vinification was done plot-by-plot with intra-plot selection forming the backbone of our approach.

This year we paid particular attention at the sorting stage to remove the withered berries whose prune-like character favours promote premature development. Temperature control during vatting was made easier by cold stabilising. The alcoholic fermentations started quickly with yeast from our vineyard. Temperatures were kept at 25-29 °C.

Maceration times ranged between 15 and 23 days. Malolactic fermentation in vats took place rapidly, allowing the wine to be steadily transferred to barrels on fine lees in separate batches. The wine was transferred to barrels by the end of November.

Château Suduiraut, 1st Growth Sauternes

2019 was marked by a rainy late autumn and early winter, very mild temperatures and just one week-long cold spell during this period. Particular vigilance was required to prevent any damage from mildew after rainfall at the beginning of the growing cycle in April. The weather conditions during flowering, at the beginning of June, were mixed and we observed some coulure in certain plots. From mid-June onwards, temperatures rose sharply and we were faced with two heat waves, at the end of June and the end of July, which the vines fortunately bore well.

A heavy thunderstorm late July with more than 100mm of rainfall brought temperatures down and restored some water reserves to the soil. Ripening resumed in August, which was largely dry. The entire vineyard was very healthy.

At Château Suduiraut the harvest began on 17th September and ended on 30th October, with a total of three selective pickings. The very dry weather in September favoured passerillage rather than botrytis at this stage. A first vineyard clean-up lasted a week and we finished on 24th September with 32 hectolitres harvested. Around 30mm of rainfall at the end of September triggered the start of botrytis cinerea. Its development in our sector was slow and concentration was long in coming.

As we resumed harvesting on 10th October, the highly satisfactory quality of the different batches, worthy of the finest vintages, was evident. As the selection was very meticulous and slow, and in view of the forecast rainfall, we decided to concentrate our efforts on our vineyard’s great terroirs. This picking ended before heavy rains set in – more than 50mm.

We were able to resume after this for a third and last picking, before more rainfall. Ultimately the yield was 7 hectolitres per hectare, with some very fine batches from the second picking.

Château Coutet, 1st Growth Barsac

After the month of March was close to normal, April and May were marked by significant rainfall. This allowed a good development of the vine and the start of the flowering in good conditions at the beginning of June. The beginning of summer was marked by an early heatwave, with record-breaking temperatures.

A month-long drought followed, ending with a salvaging thunderstorm that produced 81mm of rainfall at the end of July. The sunny month of August, interspersed with light rains, ripened the fruit to perfection; a dry and hot September goldened the grapes, however, the botrytisation process was delayed. The fogs eventually arrived allowing the harvest to start on 3 October with a small cleaning pass. These climatic conditions generated a harvest of indisputable quality.

The first picking pass took place in early October. For two and a half days, a team of 40 picked 3.5 barrels of remarkable quality. After a rapid evolution of the botrytis cinerea fungus, thanks to very ripe grapes as well as an ideal climatology, the second pass started on 9 October. This pass allowed us to pick 90% of our grapes over the course of 11 consecutive days. The resulting lots represent the best from Coutet, with alcohol potentials between 21.5% and 24.7%. Finally, after a break of one day, we finished the harvest with a third pass that provided a very interesting lot for its freshness and its aromatic qualities.

The tasting of the 2019 vintage brings out Coutet’s signature nose, marked by notes of pear, ginger and exotic fruits. The palate is particularly fresh this year, offering a very modern Coutet.

Château Croix de Labrie, Grand Cru Saint-Émilion

Each vintage is unique and 2019 will also be, with its historic summer temperature records. It is a vintage of contrasts: a fair and rainy winter, a mild spring with frost episodes on the right bank, and a heterogeneous flowering due to weather conditions.

Summer arrived with a scorching July, some weeks over 40 °C – unheard of for that time. Our clay-limestone soils did not suffer because the clays played the role of a sponge. This was fortunate because on the gravel soils, the vines suffered, and we could see evidence of strong water stress on these parcels. Finally, the rain arrived, and veraison occurred, a little longer than usual due to the heatwave of July slowing vines down.

But as usual, ‘September makes the wine’, as the ancestors use to say. Sunny days with cool nights, a few scattered rain showers, to refine the maturities will reveal 2019 as a great vintage for ageing in Bordeaux.

At Croix de Labrie we were one of the first to harvest, from 20 September for merlots on the clay limestone plateau with asteries. The cabernet sauvignon was harvested at the beginning of October, just after 10mm of rain, thus making it possible to re-inflate the berries and bring more balanced juices to the cabernets.

The yields from 2019 are equivalent to those of 2018. The heatwave brought very thick skins, deep colours but little juice that resulted in rich, fruity, fleshy and charming wines. A great vintage at Croix de Labrie and we think it will be one of the best ones for ageing produced at this estate.

Already the wine is expressing itself with an intense and very aromatic nose, complex and magical. The palate is exceptional: fresh, spicy, black fruit, blueberries, licorice notes, fresh plum, mint; an enchanting, charming, full and round mid-palate with an interminable finish of length and fruit. All up – very big wine.

Obviously, this is the result of all the work, in organic and biodynamic viticulture done by Axelle on our exceptional terroirs. Yes, 2019 Château Croix de Labrie is a magical vintage.  

Daniel Airoldi imports Bordeaux wine via