The Southwold Group has tasted the top wines of Bordeaux from the latest physically available vintage together for over 40 years. This used to take place – as the group’s name suggests – in Southwold in Suffolk, but it has now moved to Farr Vintners where we taste in a purpose-built modern tasting room. This is now my seventh Southwold Group tasting, with 2019 my tenth vintage tasted En Primeur (albeit in strange circumstances due to COVID restrictions).
This year’s panel included 10 Masters of Wine, wine writers Neal Martin, Jancis Robinson and Lisa Perrotti-Brown, and the buyers of the leading British wine merchants. We spent three days delving deep into the best wines the vintage has to offer, tasting over 300 wines.
2019 will always be framed by the pandemic and lockdowns. Initially it looked like there would be no campaign at all with such uncertainty in the market combined with the seeming impossibility to taste the wines themselves. Eventually solutions were found and we tasted most wines in our Chairman Stephen Browett's garden in socially distanced conditions. The wines were brilliant and matched by release prices that offered buyers real incentive to invest in the vintage. Now settled in bottle, would the vintage live up to the hype?
2019 is the real deal. The consensus among the group after a gruelling week is that it may just be the best vintage we have ever tasted. Overall the belief is that it exceeds 2018, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2000 - though the peaks in 2010 and 2009 can be equal to this vintage. 2019 looks to be the equal of 2016 in the Northern Médoc, although it is quite different in style. The 2016s are classically structured, introverted, cooler, fresher and have more need for bottle age whereas the 2019s are more fleshy. However, in other regions of Bordeaux the group found 2019 to be even better than 2016. In many ways these two vintages represent "High Definition" versions of their 2010 and 2009 counterparts, showcasing the leaps producers have made in a short space of time in a changing climate and the shift towards balance, freshness and precision rather than power, ripeness and extraction.
Comparisons have been made to the 1982 vintage, much like the 2009s. These wines offer a succulence and approachability, yet critically have balance and freshness that takes them, for many, above 2009. We do not expect many wines outside the very biggest names to shut down like the 2000, 2005, 2010 or 2016 vintages. The balance is impeccable, you will find pure, fleshy fruit and ripe tannins yet a balancing core of freshness. The balance of alcohol and tannin makes them fresher and more appealing than the sturdy 2018s, and they are more approachable than the brilliant but tight 2016s.
Below you will find a breakdown by appellation and the best wines of the vintage, but to summarise:
The transformation in this appellation in recent years is admirable, as producers move away from forceful extraction, over-ripeness and heavy oak use. The change has not been universal, but these flights are vastly more enjoyable than they were a decade ago. At the top, Cheval Blanc's Cabernet influence led it to victory in the appellation, and the joint lead in the entire right bank. Ausone and Figeac rounded out the top three, but there are great wines at every price point. Canon and Troplong Mondot were real highlights, the wines reaping the rewards of the work done in their respective vineyards and wineries. From the Vauthier stable, Moulin St Georges is outstanding and very good value for money at just £265 per dozen.
Pomerol's naturally seductive profile matches the 2019 vintage to make for fleshy, pure, rounded wines. The best examples tempered the flesh with structure, bright acids and impressive balance. Vieux Château Certan tied Cheval Blanc for the top score on the right bank. This was closely followed in a three way tie between Pétrus, Lafleur, and my personal Wine of the Vintage, Eglise Clinet. Structured and quite backward for the vintage, the density, balance, energy and complexity made this a perfect wine in my view, and one that will keep for half a century. The smaller wines from the Durantou stable, particularly Montlandrie and Les Cruzelles, were also brilliant and offer outstanding value for money.
Haut Brion took the top spot this year, edging out its sibling La Mission Haut Brion. Both are deep, rich wines that lean into the ripeness of the vintage. Domaine de Chevalier was brilliant as always, rounding out the top three with a different personality of purity and freshness. Les Carmes Haut Brion is now one of the most identifiable wines in this blind tasting due to the winemaking processes here - those who are fans of the style will absolutely love this version. This is the highest set of scores Péssac-Leognan has ever received at Southwold, there are so many wines to enjoy from the appellation in 2019.
Much like Pessac-Léognan, the wines from Margaux were the highest scoring we have ever seen. Château Margaux came out top but Palmer was just a whisker behind and is extremely impressive in 2019. Deeply coloured with a full-bodied, layered profile it offers hedonistic and cerebral pleasure in equal measure. Rauzan Ségla came third, and looks great value for money in a style that will appeal to classicists with its measured, subtle brilliance. The second wine, Ségla, must be one of the best value wines in the vintage, harnessing the juicy fragrance of the vintage. Margaux is often quite variable in quality, but there is real depth in the appellation this year.
St Julien is always a strong and consistent appellation and so it proved again in 2019. Léoville Barton is one of the wines of the vintage; an outstanding wine that may well be the best ever here. Léoville Poyferré was very impressive from barrel and its second place finish cemented the quality achieved here this year. The shock result of the appellation and arguably the entire tasting is Gloria's third place finish. An approachable, moreish, supple wine, it will drink well young and provide excellent drinking pleasure over the next decade or more. Strong performances abound here, but Langoa Barton - a Farr favourite in 2019 - put in a particularly strong effort, especially considering its modest price point.
Though we will have to wait for its release, Latour 2019 is an absolute superstar and was the Wine of the Vintage for the group. Pauillac may have been slightly less consistent than St Julien, but the first growths were all outstanding. Nevertheless, Lynch Bages, Pichon Baron and Grand Puy Lacoste ran them close - all offer outstanding quality for the money, particularly the incredibly good value GPL, currently at £600 per dozen. Lynch Bages and Pichon Baron are both dense, powerful, brooding wines that will require significant ageing before reaching their peak. In the northern Médoc the top names all need cellaring for at least five more years, but there are approachable wines that can be enjoyed much earlier than their 2016 counterparts. A quick comment too on Haut Batailley; a strong performance in a star-studded flight is credit to the Cazes family's work here in recent years. It is becoming one of the value stars of Pauillac and this is surely one of the greatest wines ever made at this estate.
Montrose is one of the wines of the vintage in 2019, rivalling the first growths in quality due to its deep structure complementing the fleshy nature of the vintage. Supremely balanced and destined for the long haul, it is absolutely outstanding. Cos d'Estournel and Calon Ségur rounded out the podium as expected here, with the latter continuing its impressive run of form. Tronquoy Lalande and Meyney will both offer outstanding value for money in a more approachable guise than the big names that retain the typical Saint Estèphe structure.
2019 is clearly an outstanding vintage that lives up to the hype. Highly refined, fresh yet fleshy and perfectly blanced, these are wines that will be delicious fairly young yet will age gracefully in the cellar. Along with 2016, it may be the best vintage of the modern era. The greats of 2010 and 2009 are close behind. There are outstanding wines at every price point, and in a multitude of styles. Below are just some of our top recommendations, alongside the winners in each flight.
The Southwold Group's Champions of 2019 :-
Recommendations from across the appellations :-
Carignan - This modestly priced claret (under £100 per dozen) received some impressive scores. You won't find a better 2019 Bordeaux for less.
Montlandrie - The star wine of Castillon and the greatest wine ever made here. A fitting tribute to the late, great Denis Durantou.
Cantemerle - A fantastic showing by the lowest priced Classed Growth - this is the best Cantemerle since the legendary 1989. Forward and delicious.
Cruzelles - The winner of the "satellite appellations" which scored higher than over a dozen "proper" Pomerols. A Denis Durantou masterpiece.
Moulin Saint Georges - We tasted over 60 Saint Emilions and this is the clear winner on a quality/price ratio.
Gloria - Without doubt the "Best Value Wine of the Vintage". A recipient of some massive scores and 3rd in a brilliant Saint Julien flight.
Haut Batailley - The greatest vintage ever at this château - now owned by the Cazes family of Lynch Bages. Some first growth scores here.
Langoa Barton - Outscoring three of the big-name "super-seconds" in Saint Julien. This is archetypal claret, still very reasonably priced
Berliquet - The best Berliquet that we have ever tasted and a tribute to the renaissance of this property under new owners, Chanel.
Domaine de Chevalier - Outside the twin peaks of Haut Brion and La Mission this was the winner in Pessac-Léognan.
Troplong Mondot - A massive change in style and quality here and ranked close to the right bank first growths. Best ever?
Léoville Barton - A masterpiece that won the great Saint Julien flight. This is what great claret is all about. Needs time.
Rauzan Ségla - 3rd in Margaux but still a magnificent wine that was up against hefty opposition in Châteaux Margaux and Palmer.
Please note that many of these wines feature in our 2019 tasting cases including a new "Southwold Tasting stars" mixed case.