Over the past two decades, The World of Fine Wine’s annual reports on the Bordeaux en primeur tastings have become definitive statements on the latest goings on in the region.
For the first 17 years of the magazine’s existence, the reports were written by the globally respected author and wine educator, Michael Schuster.
As Schuster hands the reins over to his successor as WFW’s Bordeaux en primeur reporter, Simon Field MW, we are taking the opportunity to publish each of Schuster’s masterly vintage reports going back to 2003 on worldoffinewine.com.
Together they provide a detailed record of the region’s development since the turn of the Millennium, an informal first-draft history of Bordeaux wine in the 21st century, and an invaluable reference tool for wine collectors.
Today’s instalment takes us back to the 2015 vintage, and a revision of Schuster’s original en primeur assessments first published in WFW Issue 66, based on the performance of the bottled wines, tasted in 2019, by Schuster and Andrew Jefford, with additional notes on Sauternes by Stephen Brook.
“A great vintage? It’s too complicated for that, which is why I call it “beautiful but malleable—you could make of it what you wanted. But there are numerous great wines, red and white.”
That was how I summed up the 2015 vintage in the spring of 2016.
The following were the “headlines” for my 2015 en primeur report in June 2016 (WFW 52, p.166), followed by a summary of my original review, and then a look at how the wines are tasting four years on from the vintage.
- Great white wines, reds less absolutely consistent.
- Outstanding reds on the Right Bank.
- Mostly outstanding reds on the Left Bank, but September rains adversely affected the Médoc north of Margaux.
- All varieties performed well. Semillon the trickiest, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc exceptional.
- The finest reds are qualitatively up with the best of 2005, 2009, 2010.
- Such ripe and robust grapes, you could make good wine whenever you picked, in whichever style you chose—and there are many. Hence “malleable.”
- First-rate Sauternes: a relatively large crop, fresh, refined, and complex.
- A very hot and very dry April to late July; a wetter than usual August; a cooler than usual September, which was also drier than normal except for the northern Médoc. But for most of the region it rained just enough, and just at the right junctures, to ensure perfect development of the grapes.
- Prolonged and predominantly ideal conditions for harvesting fruit in perfect health.
- Harvest size: 5.432 million hl.
The 2015 growing season was relatively simple and, with the exception of the late-August and mid-September rainfall, relatively consistent across the region.
The year was defined in particular by being very dry and very hot, and a pitch-perfect spring allowed for an ideal, early, and rapid flowering and fruit-set in warm, dry, sunny conditions.
It was a year where the rains seemed to come, providentially, at just the right moments and in just the required quantity, for most communes. But its comparative excess in late August and mid-September in the northern Médoc, meant three to four times as much rainfall there, varying of course according to exactly where you were.
The thick-skinned grapes were mostly in such robust health that it had little negative affect, but of course it did entail a certain amount of dilution in these communes, and an occasional touch of herbaceousness.
At the end of the first week of June there were four days of rain, perfectly timed, with flowering complete, to increase the size of the nascent grapes.
And at the end of July, with very little rain for most of the month, there were again three or four days of rain relief across the region, impeccably timed to reinvigorate the ripening process.
It was the wettest August for many years, but in this particular vintage this was the vines’ salvation, since it prevented drought-stress shut-down.
Dry though the year was overall, across the growing season the rainfall was sufficient and largely beneficial for healthy grape growing. Indeed, a notable feature of the year was not only the exceptional condition of the grapes at harvest but the unusually healthy and magnificently green state of the vineyards at harvest time, too.
September was overall cooler than usual, pleasantly warm during the day, chilly at night—perfect weather for slow, continued ripening and keeping the acidities fresh.
With the grapes in perfect health, thick-skinned and uniform in quality, there was no pressure to pick from a fruit-health point of view, and little from the weather.
You could wait until the grapes were as ripe as you wanted them to be, for the style and quality of wine you had in mind.
Red wines: picking dates/styles
Picking fruit at what you considered optimum ripeness offered an almost limitless choice, especially as the good weather and healthy state of the grapes made this possible.
Many properties had one of their longest harvests ever. Red grapes were being picked in Bordeaux over nearly eight weeks—from the first week of September, to the last week of October.
With no pressure to pick at any particular moment, the question became at which stage of the “physiologically ripe” spectrum to pick. Red fruit, black fruit, fig-like, or raisin-like?
Nature dealt red Bordeaux winemakers a pretty good hand in 2015, and like any card player, they played it in a great variety of ways.
There are clearly wines that reflect all of these harvesting choices. Choices that, inevitably, have as much to do with a conception of style, as to do with that currently maligned notion, the reflection of a terroir.
2015 was a year in which it was completely practicable to select a style, so to speak, and run with it. Hence the idea of Le Millésime Malléable.
You could, almost literally, make of it what you would, according to your red-wine ideals. And the broad range of “styles,” as distinct from “quality,” is quite striking.
Red wines: style and quality
If 2015 is often a vintage of considerable power, it is also a vintage of great beauty. You can find these two virtues, either in combination or separately in numerous wines of very high quality. That’s the most important message to take on board.
The tannins are, for the most part and for the moment anyway, superfine in texture, a wonderful feature of the vintage. How will they develop in bottle? Who knows.
A particularly sweet core of fruit and a delightful freshness of acidity are also most attractive characteristics of the red wines.
2015 was a year in which alcohol levels not infrequently impinged on the style of the wines and it is, as one might expect, more a feature of Merlot-dominated wines.
But there was a great variation, from 12.5% (Lafite) on the Left Bank, to 15.5% (Troplong Mondot) on the Right, to take only two examples. The important thing is to be aware of these considerable differences in style and alcohol level. You pays your money and makes your choice.
Grapes in brief
All the grape varieties did well. The best Cabernet Sauvignons, from the Médoc especially, are remarkable in their refinement; the Cabernet Francs, too, are excellent, often particularly concentrated from some of the smallest grapes ever.
Merlot in this hot, dry year was powerful and impressive, notably on the Right Bank.
The year also saw the continued interest in using more Petit Verdot, mainly on the Left Bank, though still in relatively small quantities. It is beginning to be regarded as a possible partial alternative to Merlot, needed less, in today’s climate, to round off Cabernet’s edges.
The communes in brief: red wines
A most successful year here, with few wines in the extreme style. The top Pomerols are outstanding, but there are delicious wines across the board, in Lalande de Pomerol, too.
Bordeaux’s great “varied styles” Right Bank showcase. Many really splendid wines in this vintage—from the more restrained Cheval Blanc and Canon (for example), to the extremes of Troplong, Pavie, and Valandraud, via a couple of standout “middle-ground” wines this year, Angélus and Figeac.
Bordeaux’s Left Bank “varied styles” showcase commune. This is a beautiful year here. If the Haut-Brion wines are a mite too powerful for my taste, there are plenty of very fine alternatives.
The standard is very high across the board, and it is probably the most completely successful Pessac-Léognan red-wine vintage ever.
Margaux was notable in 2015 for its low rainfall, and as a commune it is the Médoc’s “across the board” success story in this vintage.
There are first-rate wines from bottom to top, and some particularly attractive second wines well worth looking at in due course.
The first of the three more northerly Médoc communes affected (very unevenly) by more September rain than in the other communes.
The wines here are good to very good, rather than 2015 grand or special.
In some wines you do notice a comparative lack of concentration, but as in St-Estèphe, I think the effect has probably been overstated; winemakers adjusted their blends accordingly, and some wonderful wines have been made here.
Mouton’s wines are outstanding, as are those of Grand-Puy-Lacoste; Lafite is a great Lafite in the more delicate style of yore, and so on.
The three top St-Estèphes—Cos, Calon, and Montrose—are fine wines by any standard. And if you were to taste many of the St-Estèphes without knowing about the September storms, I doubt rainfall would come to mind.
The best wines of this vintage will stand comparison, qualitatively, with 2010, 2009, and 2005. Stylistically they have something of both ’09 and ’10, but they are different from either.
They are less tannic and less “structured” than 2010, less overtly “sunny” than 2009. Assuming they don’t harden up too much in bottle, the tannins of the top wines will be “finer” than any of these three great vintages.
How are the red wines showing?
First the annual reminder, from Andrew and from me, to consider our notes with more care than our scores, and that we appreciate it is almost impossible to separate the absolute from the relative, and vice versa.
Like it or not, this particular Pandora’s box has been open for 40 years or more, and we live with what I call its “anarchy of numbers” consequences.
Our scores give you a rough indication of a place in the overall hierarchy, and that we liked this wine better than that—on the day.
2015 is not a great red-wine vintage. To rate it thus would be to lower the bar and devalue the accolade in a way that simply doesn’t make sense.
And it appears even less so four years on than its supporters would have had us believe while the wines were still in barrel.
The northern Médoc is far from a great year, and even if we take that very large, and important, chunk of Bordeaux out of the equation, the rest remains too inconsistent.
We have only to look at the very high, and largely consistent, quality of a single commune, Margaux across its hierarchy, to see how far the others fall short by comparison.
When we look at it like this, it is just implausible to call it great. This does not mean there are not great wines in the year—indeed, there are many.
But a tidy, clear-cut view of 2015 is complicated by the difficulty of disentangling style from quality.
Andrew sees it as a “finer,” “classical mid-weight, mid-length vintage,” but from my perspective many of the wines are, in terms of their alcohol presence, actually quite “weighty,” even if they are not that concentrated.
To take just one notable example: Haut-Brion is not a particularly concentrated wine; it is delicate in flavor, pure, and transparent. It is also 15% ABV.
Ticklish, then. And many of the wines are “big” in that sense at least; it is a relatively high-alcohol year. Something to consider in relation to your taste preferences if you are buying.
A huge area, of course, but to the north of Margaux, anyway, wines of moderate concentration, with some leanness from the rain dilution, fresh, brisk, crisp acidities, fine tannins, many for relatively early drinking. La Lagune stands out in the south.
I think you taste, you sense, most markedly, that this is generically a “different” vintage here. Lively acidities, red-fruit-dominated flavors, not dilute but mostly moderately concentrated, and what you miss is the sunny ripeness and fruit core of the many successful 2015s.
Cos d’Estournel is outstanding.
Good, and some very fine, but mostly firm. They lack the juiciness that makes the best of the year so attractive. Taut acidities, which also render the tannins firmer and mean many will need time, if without the substance to make them really long-term wines.
Lafite and Mouton are exceptional.
Here, too, especially in the 2015 context, you do taste the effect of the rains to a greater or lesser extent and here, too, as in Pauillac, acidities firming the tannins and longer-term balances.
These epitomize, for me, Andrew’s “mid-weight, mid-length wines.” But there will be plenty of classic St-Julien drinking pleasure.
Likely to be some good value here.
By some way the standout commune of the year. After struggling with the northern Médocs on our first day these wines were really cheering to taste, making me feel that, from time to time, this is a really rewarding job to do.
It was impossible not to be hugely enthused by these, and I said to Andrew at the time, “Lucky people who will have these in their cellar.”
The lesser wines, many second wines included, are supple, juicy, and likely to have very pretty bouquets in due course; many are delightful already.
The top wines have a delicious fruit-core succulence, great class, length, and completeness. Their tannins are so ripe and fine (Andrew’s “impalpability”? We often differ in quite what we like in this respect.) that they will also be accessible early but with sufficient matter to last well, too.
With the exception of Château Margaux (tasted separately and actually a firm, long-term expression), my top wine from our two days tasting was also Palmer.
A very successful commune. The year’s ripe fruit is clear here, the great variation of style, too, dependent on your vision and your consultant.
Many juicy lesser wines, fuller than usual (under 14% ABV is the exception), accessible early, and likely plenty of affordable drinking pleasure.
Haut-Bailly is a star.
Also a very successful commune. Mostly rich, generous, wines with plenty of power on offer. Many, but by no means all, are fairly large-scale but without the textural excesses of many of the St-Emilions.
Numerous successes, among which I think Beauregard is likely to be very fair value.
Generosity, power, and ripe fruit in abundance. Lots of lesser wines that will give much exuberant pleasure, without too much tannin, but plenty of very muscular girdles, too.
Much that impresses to taste may not be exactly easy drinking. Angélus and Figeac are two beauties.
Alongside Margaux, this is the year’s other standout commune.
As both Stephen and Andrew record, a happy hunting ground pretty much across the board, with excellent value to be had among the proliferating second wines.
All are absolutely delicious young, many probably at their most rewarding in youth.
The most exciting young Yquem I have tasted since the 2001.
Margaux apart, then, not a “great” red-wine vintage, but a fair number of great wines. And one of the year’s most attractive features remains, namely the very fine tannin textures.
Where not overextracted or overoaked, these have not hardened noticeably. And both “classicism” and sunny abundance are to be had.
As regards the latter, though, one aspect that you often miss in 2015 is a sense of place—Bordeaux’s very individual mineral/gravel, “temperate climate” impressions, that is—all within moderate proportions.
Because ripe fruit and alcoholic generosity can be had from innumerable origins today. In the Gironde’s more climate-equable past, the “great” Bordeaux vintages were indeed the hot, sunny ones, but in future we may well be turning that view on its head and valuing instead the rare relief of cooler, milder years.
Indeed, as I write this, in early November, I have just received the first email announcing 2019 as “amazing […] with all the characteristics that define the greatest Bordeaux vintages.”
Should I rejoice or wring my hands? We shall see. For in the context of our ceaseless search for the “great,” I’d like to reiterate Pauline Vauthier’s very sensible comment to me during the 2015 primeurs at Ausone:
“Just because it isn’t outstanding doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.”
Bordeaux 2015: Michael Schuster’s top wines
- Château d’Yquem 98/99
- Château Lafite Rothschild 97+
- Château Margaux 97
- Château Mouton Rothschild 97
- Château Palmer 97
- Château Trotanoy 96
- Château Cos d’Estournel 95
- Château L’Eglise-Clinet 95
- Château Haut-Brion 95
- Château d’Issan 95
- Château La Violette 95
- Château Angélus 94
- Château Brane-Cantenac 94
- Château Canon 94
- Château Cheval Blanc 94
- La Conseillante 94
- Château La Fleur-Pétrus 94
- Château Léoville-Las-Cases 94
- La Mondotte 94
- Château La Mission Haut-Brion 94
- Château Pichon Baron 94
- Château Troplong Mondot 94
- Château Valandraud 94
Bordeaux 2015: Andrew Jefford’s verdict
As always, I need to begin by pointing out that Bordeaux scores are doomed always to be “too low,” because the large cohort of wines and the region’s vintage variability means that all Bordeaux scores need to be strictly calibrated to the 100-point scores of the greatest wines in the greatest vintages.
The result is that far too many wines over a huge quality spectrum are shoe-horned into a 15- or 20-point scale, and the practical effect of this is to gear most scores down to a level rather lower than the standard applied more generally to the wines of other regions.
An 88-point score for a Bordeaux wine often equates to a score of 92 or 93 in another region.
My top wine (Palmer ’15) has a score of 96 from me, but it would certainly merit 100 points in other Cabernet-growing regions.
I am never sure if consumers are aware of this or not.
And so to the vintage. I realized as I tasted the Médoc red wines (at least prior to tasting Margaux) that I had always conceived of this vintage in the wrong way.
I didn’t taste it en primeur, and I had managed to derive the impression from the various reports that I read that it was “almost” a big vintage in general, whereas on the basis of today’s tasting it seems very much a classical mid-weight, mid-length vintage.
These are not in general big, super-ripe, or masterful wines, though they are not petite either. (When, on the Right Bank, they are sometimes arm wrestled or frogmarched into bigness, the results aren’t always happy).
The key to their nature lies in their balances.
On the Left Bank, they have relatively soft tannin profiles, sometimes almost to the point of impalpability, compared with prominent acid profiles.
The acidities are not sharp, austere, or challenging; in fact they are relatively ripe and rounded.
Nonetheless, it is acidity rather than tannin, richness, wealth, or power that sets the tone for the wines.
This is broadly true of St-Emilion, too, though the general wealth of the wines, together with their fruit intensity, is lifted a notch or two here.
Balances are slightly plumper in lower-lying Pomerol than in St-Emilion, but levels of concentration and “vintage interpretation” vary considerably in Pomerol this year.
The weather difficulties that led to this profile are most acute at the northern end of the Médoc, and it is the lesser wines of St-Estèphe that seem to struggle most for balance and concentration; Pauillac and St-Julien are more satisfactory in general, and the grander properties were obviously those best in a position to make the sacrifices required for outstanding quality.
Margaux is clearly the star commune of the Left Bank, and the best Margaux wines do indeed approach “great vintage” quality (though they are still fresher than most great vintages of the ’82/’90/’09 ilk).
The Margaux cohort was the most consistent overall, too, and rather than saying it is a Right Bank or Left Bank vintage, I could almost say that it is a Margaux vintage, with everywhere else rather confusedly struggling to keep up.
The weather difficulties are also apparent in the very variable quality of the second wines, which should be approached with some caution in 2015 (save in Margaux, where they are more successful).
In the Médoc, I found some of the aromatic profiles rather soft-contoured and imprecise, and some of the lesser wines seem to lack excitement and are best avoided.
I would not advise aging the 2015 Médocs (Margaux aside) for longer than middle age unless you particularly relish acidity in red Bordeaux, and over the long term I suspect many will become sharp, fleshless, and gaunt.
Those who relish “classicism,” freshness, and lift in Cabernet-based red Bordeaux will, though, find much to enjoy in many of these wines over the short or medium term.
There are more successes on the Right Bank perhaps, but the margin isn’t great and there are more ways of failing than on the Left Bank.
On the Left Bank, you failed if nature wasn’t kind enough to your parcels and your wines lack fruited density. That could happen on the Right Bank, too, in places, and there are incidences of dilution and herbaceousness.
But there is also a distressingly large cohort of Right Bank wines whose producers seemed to have decided in advance that it was going to be a big vintage and who planned their extractions and organized their oak purchases accordingly.
But nature didn’t deliver, and the results are laborious, overoaked wines that are already beginning to dry out.
This style of wine is particularly unpleasant when acid levels are a little higher than anticipated, as they often are in high-altitude St-Emilion.
The best wines of Pomerol and St-Emilion, by contrast, are exciting, dense, perfumed, and vivacious, but not oaky, clumsy, or torpid.
It was an exciting tasting, requiring a lot of concentration, calibration, and recalibration, and it’s great to see Margaux triumphant in this way.
There are wonderful wines here. It’s not, though, a great red-wine vintage, and buyers would be best advised to proceed with caution.
Sauternes, by contrast, has enjoyed an exuberant vintage in 2015, often with generous sugar levels, ample botrytis, and a luscious, allusively rich character. They have developed relatively swiftly and are tasting well already.
It’s heartening to see how many Sauternais properties are now producing second wines, which I know from personal buying experience can offer fantastic value for money.
2015 is a vintage to have fun with in Sauternes
Bordeaux 2015: Andrew Jefford’s top wines
- L’Extravagant de Doisy-Daëne 97
- Château Palmer 96
- Château Canon 95
- Château Raymond-Lafon 95
- Château L’Eglise-Clinet 94
- Château Figeac 94
- Château Léoville-Las-Cases 94
- Château Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 94
- Château Nairac 94
- Château Rauzan-Ségla 94
- Château Rieussec 94
- Château Suduiraut 94
Stephen Brook’s verdict on Sauternes
Exceptional summers are good news for producers of red Bordeaux, as in 2015, but problematic for Sauternes growers anxiously awaiting botrytis.
July was just as hot as 2003 and as dry as 2005, although there was some welcome rain in mid-August to refresh the grapes.
Botrytis didn’t really make an appearance until mid-September but was soon followed cooler, drier weather.
Most botrytized grapes were picked at the end of September and early October, with further pickings throughout that month, though dates varied considerably from estate to estate.
There was no gray rot, Yquem reported, so the botrytis was, so to speak, very healthy.
Xavier Planty of Guiraud claims that the wines are homogenous in quality, though they vary in style, from racier early-picked wines, to richer wines picked later in October.
The hot summer gave fully ripe grapes, and botrytis, eventually, was widespread. And indeed the wines are lovely, both sumptuous and charming.
The best are opulent but not to excess, and marked by fine acidity. They are balanced and harmonious. They should age well.
There were no great surprises; the properties long acclaimed for their quality produced excellent wines, and some of the lesser estates (judged on past performance), such as Filhot and Myrat, also made wines at a very high level.
What was surprising was the high quality of some of the second wines. This surely reflects the consistency of the vintage, and the best of the second wines offer quite exceptional value, given that Sauternes is underpriced in the first place.
Bordeaux 2015: Stephen Brook’s top wines
- Château de Fargues 96
- Château Coutet 96
- Château Climens 96
- Château Suduiraut 96
- Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 95
- Château Rieussec 95
- Château Doisy-Daëne 94
- Château La Tour Blanche 94