Best of the best from the first tastings of 2015 Bordeaux wines in the barrel

Left bank/right bank split is so pronounced it’s almost as if there are two 2015 vintages, and with quality generally high there is value and ageing ability to be had without going to the top estates

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 12:10pm

The buzz had been building steadily for the Bordeaux 2015 vintage since the grapes were harvested last September. Now that the annual tasting week – which saw buyers and journalists from around the globe converge in Bordeaux – has concluded, it’s time to ask if it lives up to the hype. After four or five years of disappointing returns for buyers, is this the vintage that will justify putting your money down to buy something a year to 18 months before it is bottled and delivered?

I would say in many cases that yes, 2015 has lived up to expectations, but not across the board. The weather was fairly unusual, with an extended hot and dry period in the early summer, then a (much needed) rainy August, followed by a September and October that saw maybe 30mm of rain fall in Pessac Léognan, Saint Emilion and Pomerol, with up to 100mm in the more northerly spots of the Médoc.

In terms of style, this means that there are a few things to keep in mind. There is a bigger left bank/right bank split than I have seen in many years, but there are excellent wines on both banks. At times, it really does seem to be two vintages.

Eric Kohler, technical director at both Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Pauillac and Chateau L’Evangile in Pomerol, says, “2015 was like two very different but equally excellent vintages – with plump, rich fruit in Pomerol and precision and complexity in Pauillac”. Shaun Bishop of J. J. Buckley wine merchants in California made the same point in a different way, saying; “The left bank is a European vintage, the right bank is an American vintage.”

On the left bank, the wines don’t have the drama of 2010 or the voluptuousness of 2009. Instead, they bear comparisons to 2005, with touches of 2001. On the right bank, things are closer to 2009 or 1998 (with warnings, as ever, of certain wines in Saint Emilion that have gone all-out on extracting fruits and wrapping them up in new oak). There is a beautiful flexibility in the tannins of the best wines, and wonderfully juicy fruit underneath that really gives a mouth-wateringly seductive feel to many wines.

As ever with high-quality vintages, there are some excellent value options and you don’t have to go to the biggest names for pleasure and ageing ability.

Best first growths

The first growths, for me, have three easy winners in 2015 – Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lafite Rothschild on the left bank, and Chateau Cheval Blanc on the right. Margaux has all the perfumed denseness that this estate is rightly famed for, while Lafite has the most incredible precision. Cheval Blanc sums up why the right bank has had such a great vintage – perfect ripeness in both the cabernet franc (45 per cent) and merlot (55 per cent) that has given the florality and aromatic finesse of the very best vintages of this property.

Best second wines

Not always an easy year for second wines – in the case of Petit Cheval, because it wasn’t made at all; the grapes across Cheval Blanc were just so consistent that the winemaking team decided to make only a first wine. Over on the left bank, and particularly the northern Medoc, things are a little more up and down for the second wines, but I really enjoyed Le Petit Lion (Saint Julien) and Croix de Beaucaillou (Pauillac). The second wine at many of the best Pessac Leognan estates in 2015 could easily be better than their first wine in 2013 – this includes Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte and La Parde de Haut-Bailly. And over on the right bank, this was easily my favourite Aromes de Pavie.

Best merlot-dominated wines

There were moments this year when I fell in love again with the merlot-dominated right bank wines. Some of the big names produced their best wines since 2010, and maybe best ever – here I would count Chateaux Cheval Blanc, Angelus and Petrus but also Chateau Canon, Bellevue, Trotte Vieille, Quinault l’Enclos, La Dominique, Figeac and Clos Fourtet in Saint Emilion, and Clinet, L’Evangile and Vray Croix de Gay in Pomerol. On a general tasting of the right bank, there are some truly delicious bottles on offer. Get on board with the wines of Denis Durantou if you haven’t already; not only his L’Eglise Clinet in Pomerol, but Chateau Montlandrie in Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux, and La Chenade and Les Cruzelles in Lalande-de-Pomerol.

Best cabernet-dominated wines

The question for the northern Medocs is, are they better than the 2014s? Not always, and prices are likely to be higher, so be careful with buying choices. I would single out Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac for producing an excellent 2015, as well as Saint-Pierre, Gloria, Ducru-Beaucaillou and Leoville Las Cases (all from Saint Julien). Further down south, the Margaux appellation is a stand-out. It’s hard to go wrong here, but of particular brilliance are Chateau Angludet, Malescot St Exupery, Giscours and Cantenac Brown. Head further south and cabernet-dominated wines from Pessac Leognan that deserve special mention in 2015 include Chateau Haut-Bailly, Smith Haut Lafitte and Carbonnieux.

Best whites

The aromatic register in the 2015 white wines is closer to apricot and nectarine fruits than freshly cut grass or citrus – so clearly riper fruits than vintages such as 2013 or 2014. Perhaps my favourite white wines this year were Chateau Haut Brion Blanc and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. But you’ll find pleasure also in the whites of Domaine de Chevalier, Cos d’Estournel, Clos Floridène and Blanc de Lynch Bages. It’s worth mentioning also that Chateau du Tertre in Margaux has produced a white wine for the second time in 2015. Made with non-standard Bordeaux varieties (chardonnay, viognier, gros manseng and sauvignon blanc, and therefore bottled as a Vin de France) it is absolutely bursting with nectarine fruit and truly worth tracking down.

Most unexpected

Fronsac is the hidden surprise of the vintage for me, the stealth bomber. Wine after wine from this right bank appellation delivers pleasure and value – with the best being Chateau La Vieille Cure and Les Trois Croix.

Most improved wines

One clear winner here for me – Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion in Pessac Leognan. This property has the highest proportion of cabernet franc on the left bank, at 45 per cent, and is reaping the benefit of serious investment from new owner Patrice Pichet and talented winemaker Guillaume Pouthier. Also worth singling out are Chateau Clerc Milon in Pauillac, Chateau Olivier in Pessac Leognan and Chateau La Pointe in Pomerol.

Best value

As always, my suggestion during en primeur is not to look for investment potential but intrinsic value (wines that deliver pleasure at the price you are buying them at). Among the wines that I would personally be thrilled to own, and expect to be good value, include Chateau Le Pape in Pessac Leognan (from the Haut Bailly team), Clos Puy Arnaud from Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux, Chateau de Francs Les Cerisiers from Francs Cotes de Bordeaux and Chateau Cambon la Pelouse in the Medoc.

Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer