Faced with a new generation of fine wine buyers seeking more of the “weird and wonderful”, let alone recent economic obstacles – Coronavirus keeping drinkers off the streets, US tariffs on European wines – Bordeaux can struggle to find space to thrive.
Bordeaux’s traditional image compared to more fashionable regions such as Burgundy, Piedmont, or Champagne means its prices are lagging behind. The silver lining is that Bordeaux appears excellent value for the high quality available in comparison.
Wine Lister’s dynamic buy recommendation tool currently identifies 219 Bordeaux wines as MUST BUYs – just 19 fewer than the original MUST BUY list from September 2019.
The above table shows each Bordeaux appellation by number of MUST BUYs, as well as average price and WL score of each MUST BUY appellation group. Marking the delayed opportunity presented by slow price evolution post-en primeur, 2016 is the most-featured vintage, achieving 40 entries out of the 219 Bordeaux MUST BUYs (or 18%).
Leading MUST BUY appellation Pessac-Léognan is made up of 28 reds and eight dry whites. Producer Domaine de Chevalier features particularly heavily, earning MUST BUY status for 1981, 2009, 2014, 2015, and 2018 for its red wine, and 2004, 2009, 2010, and 2013 for white. Its second red wine, L’Esprit de Chevalier, appears for the 2016 vintage.
Smith Haut Lafitte and La Mission Haut-Brion share the remaining white places between them, while Haut-Bailly, Haut-Brion, Latour-Martillac, and Malartic-Lagravière achieve multiple entries for reds only. Price-rising superstar Les Carmes Haut Brion features for just one vintage – the 2017.
Right bank appellations Saint-Emilion and Pomerol share second place, with 33 MUST BUYs each. They both earn slightly better average WL scores than Pessac-Léognan, but at prices 26% and 366% higher respectively on average than Pessac counterparts.
The large price difference is hardly surprising in Pomerol, given that its MUST BUY hoard includes five vintages of Petrus, and one of Le Pin. Without these, the average price of Pomerol MUST BUYs is £171, and there are still options at the more affordable end (such as 2016 Vray Croix de Gay).
Powerhouse Pauillac comes next, and includes 14 first growth entries. Mouton takes the lion’s share of these, featuring seven vintages from 1996-2018. Latour earns five places (including one much older vintage – 1964), and Lafite two. Pichon Comtesse also features heavily, earning five MUST BUYs for its grand vin, and one for the Réserve de la Comtesse.
In terms of pure value for money, the one MUST BUY from the Médoc appellation – Potensac 2018 – wins out, followed more generally by Saint-Estèphe’s 22 MUST BUY entries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its crowned king is Calon Ségur, earning MUST BUY status for five vintages – 2005, 2009, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Explore all 219 Bordeaux MUST BUYs here.
2017 was perhaps the most difficult of recent Bordeaux vintages. Looking back at our harvest report on this frost-ridden vintage, the Wine Lister team attended the annual UGC re-tasting with some trepidation last week.
Indeed, new president of the Union des Grands Crus Classés, Ronan Laborde, reminded us that 2017 had been a “vintage of challenges”, requiring “patience, determination, and energy” to battle against the frost. Even still, some producers lost their entire crop, and many that didn’t produced their “smallest quantities of recent years”.
Troubled though the vintage might have been, you wouldn’t know it from the hoards of London trade that flocked to taste Bordeaux’s latest deliverable vintage, nor indeed from many of the wines we tasted, which followed a general trend of being exceedingly approachable.
Out of some 120 wines tasted, the Wine Lister team highlights its selection of 17 top dogs, and four underdogs below.
The team’s highlights include five out of the six 2017 Bordeaux WL MUST BUYs (vs. 19 in 2018 Bordeaux), while the other 16 are those we felt showed the best of those in attendance at the UGC tasting, in the context of the 2017 vintage.
Saint-Julien was our top-performing red appellation, with exemplary wines such as “poised” Léoville Barton, as well as two great successes from Domaines Henri Martin: Saint-Pierre was a “real triumph in the vintage,”, while underdog Gloria was “lithe, lovely, and beguiling”. Elsewhere on the left bank, Margaux and Pauillac earn three highlights apiece, including “hedonistic” Giscours and Wine Lister’s top pick of the tasting, “magical, brooding” Pichon Comtesse.
Pessac-Léognan performed equally well for whites as reds. Domaine de Chevalier Blanc was “explosive yet precise”, and underdog Latour-Martillac Blanc showed impressive roundness and balance. Haut Bailly had “an incredible elegance”, while Les Carmes Haut Brion showed “purity and savoury spice”.
Saint-Emilion’s Figeac was the best of the right bank bunch – “muscular” in texture but balanced by “succulent fruit”. Pomerol was well-represented by “floral and velveteen” Clinet, and “powerful” Petit Village.
Other wines included in Wine Lister’s 2017 tasting highlights are: Rauzan-Ségla, D’Armailhac, Lynch Bages, Bouscaut, La Gaffelière, Canon, Beychevelle, and Malartic-Lagravière Blanc.
As ripe, healthy grapes are being picked across Bordeaux, winemakers are anything but shy about the potential of the 2018 vintage. “2015 and 2016 are five-star vintages, but 2009 and 2010 are five-star plus,” said Olivier Bernard, president of the Union des Grands Crus Classés de Bordeaux. At his own property in Pessac-Léognan, Domaine de Chevalier, “2018 has 2009-2010 potential,” he declared on Wednesday morning, just as the red harvest was beginning.
Bernard is not the only Bordeaux producer daring to hope that the region has another great vintage on its way into the cellars. Part of the Wine Lister team is just back from four days in Bordeaux, where we visited châteaux on right bank and left, from Saint-Estèphe in the very north to Pessac-Léognan south of the city. We tasted lots of berries, spoke to oenologists, and even picked some grapes.
Members of the picking team at Petrus during the 2018 harvest
Producers’ smiles were big, and all the signs were promising, but after such a rollercoaster growing season, can 2018 really match up to the historic pair of 2009 and 2010? I asked straight-talking winemaking consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt if this comparison was justified. “More 2010,” he confirmed, adding, “There are going to be some delicious wines.”
Spring in Bordeaux was interminably wet, and mildew a serious threat throughout the region. “We thought there might not be a harvest at all,” recalls Nicolas Audebert, Managing Director of Châteaux Canon and Rauzan-Ségla. “It rained non-stop, and with high humidity and the high temperatures in June, it was almost tropical,” he said. Some members of Audebert’s team had never seen mildew so rife in 40 years of working the vines in Bordeaux.
Many top producers were affected, especially those practising organic or biodynamic viticulture and therefore unable to treat the vines systematically to protect from the fungus. In Saint-Estèphe, at the top of the Gironde Estuary nearest the Atlantic Ocean, Lafon-Rochet, organic since 2010 (though uncertified), abandoned the practice this year, and for good, in order to fight the rain.
However, mildew “is primarily a problem for quantity, rather than quality,” explained Axel Marchal, consultant and researcher at Bordeaux University, because the affected grapes are easily removed and discarded. “Badly hit vines can see a slight quality impact too, if the stress caused to the plant is enough to delay maturity,” he clarified.
At Canon in Saint-Emilion, quantity lost to mildew was recouped by less green harvesting later in the season. Its larger Margaux sister property, Rauzan-Ségla, was not so lucky, and yields will be lower than average. The two properties are organic (again not certified), allowing them to treat the vines when “really necessary”. However, many strictly organic or biodynamic estates will produce much smaller quantities of wine this year, meaning yields will be very varied from château to château, ranging from around 15 hl/ha to 50 hl/ha or more.
Grapes ripe for picking at Petrus
Potential quantity started off high, with the rain acting as “a signal for the plant to produce lots of fruit,” explained Bernard. The incessant spring downpours had another positive effect: they left the ground full of water, helping the vines to withstand the hot, dry summer that unfolded from 20th June onwards. “Looking at our vines, it’s hard to believe it’s been one of the driest summers in 50 years,” marvelled Bernard.
Audebert thinks the 2018 Canon will be soft and rounded, but livelier than 2005 or 2009, with phenolic potential above that of the 2010 (which of course is renowned for its intense colour and high levels of ripe tannin). When I asked if it could be as good as 2010, my question was met with silence and a roguish smile.
La Mission Haut-Brion Rouge 2017 released at €240 ex-négociant (29% down on 2016), which will likely result in a UK release price of c.£247 (c.25% down on 2016), and a lower Quality score: 949 (vs 981).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet La Mission Haut-Brion Rouge 2017
Haut-Brion Rouge 2017 released at €348 ex-négociant (17% down on 2016), which will likely result in a UK release price of c.£358 (c.14% down on 2016) and a lower Quality score: 945 (vs 991).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Haut-Brion Rouge 2017
Haut-Bailly 2017 released at €72 ex-négociant (14% down on 2016), with a UK release price of £74 (11% down on 2016), and a lower Quality score: 921 (vs 964).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Haut-Bailly 2017
Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge 2017 released at €67.20 ex-négociant (13% down on 2016), with a UK release price of £68.69 (12% down on 2016), and a lower Quality score: 937 (vs 959).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Smith-Haut-Lafitte Rouge 2017
Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2017 released at €54 ex-négociant (4% down on 2016), with a UK release price of £56 (flat on 2016), and an almost identical Quality score: 931 (vs 934).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Les Carmes Haut-Brion 2017
Domaine de Chevalier Rouge 2017 released at €42 ex-négociant (20% down on 2016), with a UK RRP of £43.20 (also 20% down on 2016). Its Quality score was down 10% on 2016 (859 vs 951).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Domaine de Chevalier Rouge 2017
Pape Clément Rouge released at €61.20 ex-négociant, (7% down on 2016), with a UK RRP of £63.24 (9% down on 2016), and a lower Quality score: 868 (vs 926).
You can download the slide here: Wine Lister Factsheet Pape Clément 2017.