Bordeaux 2015: Drum Roll, Please
St.-Emilion takes center stage in a successful vintage
Bordeaux, France’s preeminent wine region, is on a serious winning streak. The 2015 vintage is the second excellent year in a row following the quietly successful 2014—and it’s positioned just ahead of the potentially classic 2016 and promising 2017.
Growing conditions in 2015 were ideal for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Bordeaux’s leading red grapes. The extremely warm growing season was also among the driest on record, yet cold nights offset the warm days and a solid reserve of water from the previous winter buttressed vineyards against the drought during the first half of the season, letting the grapes maintain balance. Then well-timed rains around a quick veraison gave the vines a second wind and allowed for even ripening through a generally ideal September. The resulting wines are ripe and vibrant, sporting freshness without the firm tannins typical of hot and dry years (when grape skins can become thick and pruny and tannins astringent).
“The rain in August made it possible to complete ripening,” says Guillaume Pouthier, director at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan. “An alternation of dry phases and moderate rains relaxed the grape skins, and great thermal amplitude [the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures] was favorable to the aromatic freshness.”
The Les Carmes Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2015 (95 points, $68) is the best vintage yet for this resurrected estate, which is located next door to Château Haut-Brion. Owner Patrice Pichet hired Pouthier in 2012, and since then the vineyard has been partially replanted and converted to organic practices. Pouthier has also shifted winemaking to include some whole-bunch fermentations.
Les Carmes is one of the most dramatically improved estates in Bordeaux today. But it is not alone in its ongoing pursuit of excellence, whether that means adapting to changing climate conditions or raising quality through precision farming and winemaking. When good vintages come along, Bordeaux is ready and able to take advantage.
The high spots for quality in 2015 are St.-Emilion and Margaux, both of which are electric, rivaling the appellations’ 2010s, the current benchmark vintage for the region. Pomerol, Pessac and St.-Julien are superb, as are the sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes, while the year’s dry whites are a delight. The inconsistencies lie in the upper Médoc, primarily in Pauillac and St.-Estèphe, where September rains were heavier than elsewhere, knocking the stuffing out of the wines.
Since first tasting the vintage from barrel in the spring of 2016 (“A First Look at 2015,” June 30, 2016), I have reviewed nearly 700 bottled 2015s via blind tastings in Wine Spectator’s New York office as well as in Bordeaux, including nearly 550 reds and more than 125 whites. The results confirm the initial impression I had following my barrel tastings, with the vintage delivering exceptional quality across the region. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices is available.)
For the Right Bank, I give the 2015 vintage an overall rating of 97 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, led by the stunning success of St.-Emilion but also bolstered by Pomerol and a bevy of values from Fronsac and Castillon.
A trio of St.-Emilions—Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2015 (98, $781), La Mondotte St.-Emilion 2015 (98, $305) and Château Pavie St.-Emilion 2015 (98, $351)—show just how compelling the vintage is in this Right Bank appellation.
THE RIGHT BANK
In the spring of 2016, during the en primeur tastings, Château Cheval-Blanc turned heads when it announced that it would not produce a second wine from the 2015 vintage. (Typically the estate culls 25 percent or more of its crop for its second wine.) Now that move seems prescient.
St.-Emilion is the epicenter for quality on the Right Bank in 2015. Atop the limestone plateau that fans out from the town itself, a number of châteaus made classic-scoring reds. The Château Canon St.-Emilion 2015 (97, $228), Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse St.-Emilion 2015 (96, $112), Château Bélair-Monange St.-Emilion 2015 (96, $155), Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion 2015 (96, $105) and Château Beau-Séjour Bécot St.-Emilion 2015 (95, $65) are among the many highlights of the vintage. Marked by vivid, racy cassis- and raspberry-laden fruit flavors lined with fine minerality and backed by long, enticing finishes, these wines will open up over the next two decades and then carry on well from there.
In fact, the 2015 vintage seems to provide a nearly foolproof buying opportunity in St.-Emilion. Of the 117 St.-Emilions reviewed in this report, 84 earn 90 points or higher. Spreading out farther from the plateau, the wines of châteaus Angélus, Canon-La Gaffelière, Figeac, Pavie Macquin, Pavie-Decesse, La Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, Monbousquet, Peby Faugères, Troplong Mondot and Valandraud also earned classic ratings of 95-plus.
The strength of the vintage in St.-Emilion means that there are scads of cellar-worthy wines at much more modest prices as well, including the Château Les Grandes Murailles St.-Emilion 2015 (93, $55), now owned and run by Clos Fourtet; Château Fonplégade St.-Emilion 2015 (92, $41); Sophie Fourcade’s Clos St.-Martin St.-Emilion 2015 (92, $75); and Olivier Decelle’s Château Jean Faure St.-Emilion 2015 (92, $40). Also worth tracking down are the wines from châteaus Bellevue, Berliquet, Laroque, La Dominique and more. (For a list of smart buys in 2015 Bordeaux, see the chart.)
While Cheval-Blanc chose only to produce a grand vin in 2015, many of the St.-Emilion estates that did produce second wines made outstanding bottlings that deliver great value. All earning at least 90 points, the second wines from châteaus Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse, Canon, Figeac, Larcis-Ducasse, Pavie, Pavie Macquin, Troplong Mondot, Quintus and Valandraud should provide delicious drinking over the next decade—ideal while you wait for their bigger siblings to fully mature.
Stretching east into neighboring Castillon, which shares a swath of the region’s limestone plateau, additional values abound. The wines of Domaine de l’A, Château d’Aiguilhe, Clos Puy Arnaud, Château Joanin Bécot, Château Montlandrie and Château Clarisse are delightful, and they typically check in at less than $40—or even $30—per bottle. Located even farther afield, the Château Puygueraud Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2015 (90, $16) is a buy-by-the-case value.
On the other side of St.-Emilion lies Pomerol, centered on a clay plateau that also provided fertile ground for quality in 2015. Like the limestone in St.-Emilion, Pomerol’s clay soils mitigated the effects of the heat, while their water-retentive properties helped ward off a maturity blockage during the drought. Of the 52 Pomerols in this report, 32 earned 90 points or higher.
In general, the top Pomerols in 2015 are dense and fleshy wines, laden with dark plum and blackberry fruit and driven by a swath of graphite through the finish. The Château Le Pin Pomerol 2015 (97, $3,075) and Vieux Château Certan Pomerol 2015 (97, $320) lead the way, with the Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2015 (96, $250) and Pétrus Pomerol 2015 (96, $2,900) just a step behind. Châteaus La Conseillante, L’Évangile and La Fleur-Pétrus round out the classic-scorers.
Among the year’s notable sleepers are the Château St.-Pierre Pomerol 2015 (92, $55), where Stéphane Derenoncourt is now consulting, along with the Château Nénin Pomerol 2015 (93, $64), Château Montviel Pomerol 2015 (92, $44) and Château La Pointe Pomerol 2015 (91, $45). La Pointe is particularly eye-opening in 2015, as director Eric Monneret fashioned an elegant and perfumed wine from the estate’s sandy soils, a terroir that tended to struggle in this warm and dry vintage.
Nearby Fronsac is an area to plumb for values. The appellation, which sits across the river from Pomerol at a higher elevation, shares more in common with the breezier exposition and limestone soils of St.-Emilion. The Château Dalem Fronsac 2015 (92, $34), Château Les Trois Croix Fronsac 2015 (92, $28) and Château La Vieille Cure Fronsac 2015 (92, $23) are savvy choices.
Consumers who bought 2015 en primeur made a shrewd move. Since then, the exchange rate has slid toward the euro, nudging prices upward. Recognizable names have seen their prices increase—Château Lynch Bages from $115 to $124 and Château Beychevelle from $72 to $87—while some of the hottest wines of the vintage have shot up even higher, with Château Canon rising from $143 to $228 and Vieux Château Certan from $195 to $320.
Crop size in 2015 was ample, so there is wine to be had for those who want to go back and double dip or for those who sat out the en primeur, waiting for the wines to be bottled before deciding what to buy. But with the vintage’s burgeoning reputation fueling interest, expect the wines to move quickly as they hit U.S. retail shelves in the coming months.
“Even with a less favorable exchange rate now, the euro is still around 20 percent cheaper to the dollar than in 2011 when the 2009s were delivered,” says Mathieu Chadronnier, general manager of CVBG, one of Bordeaux’s largest négociants. “The opportunity to get top names at the top of their game at really attractive prices, but also to be a little more adventurous and discover up-and-coming wines from true terroirs in appellations off the beaten track is fabulous. If you look at 2015 and 2016, Bordeaux has probably never been this exciting.”
Chadronnier and his wife, Anne-Laurence, also produce their own Château Marsau Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2015 (90, $19), a top value in the vintage. It’s yet another wine that shows how France’s biggest wine region has something for everyone.
Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Bordeaux.
For the complete Bordeaux tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Bordeaux 2015: Drum Roll, Please,” in our online magazine archives.