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21st April 2020

Bordeaux 2019 – a small sneak preview from Château Monlot in St Emilion.

One of the multitude events that have been postponed or cancelled this year as a result of you-know-what is the annual Bordeaux En Primeur tastings, which usually happen at the beginning of April each year.
It is a chance for buyers, journalists and experts to assess the new vintage (wine from the previous year). Its original purpose was to allow the Château to sell the wine on a ‘futures’ basis, not only before they were bottled, but before they were even finished. These embryonic wines will see a further time in barrel – sometimes as much as another sixteen months (on top of the six they have already had) which will change them immeasurably, so assessing them takes experience and skill to be able to determine what they will evolve into.

However, it is curiously levelling - and more enjoyable that you might expect - to taste these wines before the fruit has become occluded by oak and the tannins rasping and dry.

The motive for the châteaux to sell in advance is gone. Originally because of a lack of financial stability, the need was for money to allow them to continue to make and store the wine from the next vintage, and partially because – in particular on the gravelly hard-to-dig Left Bank - there was no significant underground storage, so the wine needed to be shipped out to make way for the next year’s stock.

Well, these days the top châteaux especially, and all those that take part in the En Primeur system, are not in any way short of cash - as the manicured gardens, lavish vehicles in the car-parks, and immaculately restored buildings handsomely attest. And storage no longer needs to be underground, there are plenty of enormous air-conditioned warehouses dotting, and occasionally blotting, the landscape as you drive around. So the circus comes to town each year, but with rather less commercial need than previously.
It also used to be that purchase at this stage could make the canny buyer a lot of money because when the wines were finally released onto the market, they, or the good ones at least, would sell for far higher prices than the En Primeur release price had been. This is no longer true, either, because the chateaux – understandably – were increasingly upset that the money was being made by middlemen who lacked fidelity, rather than by the people who actually owned and worked the land. Some top châteaux, Latour perhaps most notably, have withdrawn from the whole thing.

Anyway, it was a highlight of my professional year, and just another thing that has fallen by the wayside. But a couple of places I taste at have sent me samples of their 2019 wine to try.
Obviously it will not be possible to assess the quality of an entire vintage on the basis of a few wines, but from what I have heard throughout last years’ growing season and ever since the crop came in, 2019 is shaping up to be a very good vintage indeed, and certainly equal and possibly superior to the very good indeed 2018 (an exceptional year, but with the odd bump of unevenness) and definitely better than the very good in places, but a little patchy, 2017. Will it be the equal of the stupendous 2016? Only time will tell, and the judgment will be some time coming.

Château Monlot is a St Emilion property with plenty of heritage and prestige, royal connections in history, and then two centuries of ownership in the same family, until 1990. Briefly owned by another French family in the interim, it was sold in 2011 to the famous Chinese actor and singer Zhao Wei, who among many other things is noted for her love and knowledge of wine. Following a comprehensive - indeed total - restructuring of the vineyards and cellar, and restoration of the charming property itself, the first vintage released with much fanfare was the 2018. If you are going to make a go of revitalising a St Emilion property then you could do a lot worse than employing the services of Jean-Claude Berrouet, the erstwhile winemaker of Pétrus, as consultant. And so it proved. I was impressed with the 2018 wine, in a vintage where, frankly, Merlot and tannin were the most difficult things to get right. In fact, I scored the second wine ‘Heritage de Monlot’ the same as the Grand Vin, because, reading back, I found a freshness in the former – probably as a result of being from the younger vines in this warm sunny vintage.

Château Monlot St Emilion Grand Cru 2019
75 M 25 CF
Bright, deep, but not saturated youthful purple colour. Intense vibrancy of black and blue fruits: summer berries and blackcurrant. Some ground spices and roasted coffee underneath all this powerful aroma. It’s rich and lush with a palate flooding depth of fruit, but still manages a freshness to the acidity and some mintiness from the Cabernet component. It does not quite have the creamy silkiness of texture of the greatest wines, but this will come I am sure with extra vine age. There is no obvious dominance by oak at this stage, suggesting that what was employed was only in part new barrels (a good thing in my opinion). This is a very commendable and well structured wine and a considerable step up from the very good 2018.
I would provisionally score it 89-90 (and I score conservatively).


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