A few words from Jean-Baptiste Bourotte, owner of Château Bonalgue, on the 2019 vintage.
The 2019 growing season was incredibly dry and hot. How did you cope with the drought and heat spikes and other climatic pressures during the growing season?
The beginning of spring (and especially the beginning of June) was rainy: water reserves had been built up, which the blue clays of Pomerol, thanks to their elasticity, were able to exploit later in the season. It is this ability to "smooth out" climatic accidents that makes great terroirs.
In addition, with the exception of two short episodes of heat wave (26-27 June and 22-25 July), the nights remained generally cool, allowing the vines to rest (and promoting aromatic development). Only the plots of very young vines (less than 5 years old), saw their cycle disturbed by the lack of water and in some extreme cases blocked. They have of course not been included in the blends of the first wines.
Rainfall was quite localised during veraison in Bordeaux in 2019. Were there any specific climatic episodes that affected veraison and/ or harvest and how did you cope with these?
At the end of July, we had rains on Pomerol, which came at the right time and made it possible to standardise veraison. The berries, however, remained small (this is due to the water deficit in the summer). However, we had to do a lot of green harvest to limit the number of grapes as too many grapes could have had an impact on the density of the wines and their mid-palate.
The harvests were “cut” in two by the rains at the end of September: the early plots, harvested before, show density in the mid-palate, lots of shine and liveliness (low pH); the later plots, harvested in October, are less compact on the palate, but with higher pH values which give roundness and charm. The blends had to deal with these two realities to find their balance.
Were there any events this season that were of particular note?
The year was fairly early and the harvest start dates reflect this (18 September at Château Bonalgue). However, they were spread over several weeks to take into account the specificity and state of maturity of each plot (grape variety, age of the vine, exact composition of the soil, rhythm of the vegetative cycle, climatic conditions during the harvest , etc).
Based on the specific climatic conditions of 2019 did you have to modify any of the winemaking – for instance how did you manage grapes coming in with high potential alcohol?
The level of alcohol was generally similar to those during vintages such as 2018/2016/2010. The question is more to know if, with fairly high degrees (for Bordeaux, because other regions have long been accustomed to even higher degrees), we still find balance and elegance, that is “Bordeaux style”.
On the early-picked plots, the liveliness has been maintained (the pH is around 3.60), the tannins are ripe and in good quantity (thanks to a significant green harvest which helped to mature a reduced number of bunches): this allows not to have an alcoholic perception on the palate and to find very “Pomerol” balances in these 2019.
Tannins play such a vital and defining role in the quality of Bordeaux red wines. How did you manage tannin extraction in 2019 – was this normal or modified based on the vintage?
Complementing our plot selection, our densimetric sorting system allows us to carry out another sorting of the berries, based on the state of maturity of each one (via the density): even if they come from a same plot, the berries inside the grapes, for example, have seen less sun than those outside, and we must work differently with them. Since 2016 vintage, it has become for us a fundamental tool in our winemaking process: each tank is thus more homogenous and our extraction can be adapted to each one. In addition, the work of recent years has clearly softened in the way of processing berries and their tannins. We are more into infusion techniques than forced extraction.
Can you tell us about the specific blend you used for the 2019 vintage?
100% Merlot (the plot of Cabernets Franc is not in production).
Can you tell us about the final wine?
The colour is deep, the nose bursting with fruit. The mouth is, as often in Bonalgue, very sweet, typical of Pomerol velvet. But this year there is an extra liveliness, a more tense side that is not always found on these terroirs. This is undoubtedly one of the great successes of Bonalgue over the past decades.
What is the most distinct element that makes the wines different to other neighbouring Châteaux?
Few things makes Bonalgue standing out:
- the terroir offers early maturity (with an important vein of gravels), within an appellation which is also of early picking
- Rootstocks produce small berries and have withstood the dry conditions of summer (thanks to deep rooting)
These two elements allowed us this year to harvest already ripe, before the rains at the end of September and to have wines with a good density. Lots of shine.
How does 2019 compare to other vintages?
Many points bring the 2019 season close to several fine vintages of recent years: the early degradation of vegetal aromas (as in 2005, 2015, 2018), a moderate but extended water deficit (more than 2018, a little less than 2010 or 2016) involving maturation of polyphenols and fairly high degrees of alcohol, very good concentrations of anthocyanins (2010).
The rains at the end of September undoubtedly lowered degrees and “relaxed” certain musts: there is a clear bottom of 2016/2018, but less density, demonstration and power. Wines will probably be accessible earlier.
Do you have a special memory related to this year vintage?
2019 was the first harvest of my son Paul, 5 years old, and his friend Etienne, under the watchful eye of my father, Pierre, who has 59 harvests to his credit. Obviously, I cannot count on the trio to fill my tanks: they eat more grapes than actually bring to the cellar…!
For you, what continues to make top Bordeaux wine so unique, so age-worthy and so relevant in today’s fine wine market?
We always come back to balance, the keyword of great wines and so relevant when we talk about great Bordeaux. Ripe fruit, but not only... Structure, but not only... Acidity, but not only! It is this blend, so difficult to model or reproduce, this "balance" as it would be said of a piece of music, which gives a real perception and sense of harmony in the mouth. This harmony lasts over time since and can be found after 6, 10 or 20 years, although the tasting is very different (in aroma, color, power...).
The entire industry was saddened by the postponement of En Primeur Week, such a key event in the fine wine calendar. What does the event mean to you and the Château? What aspect of the week do you most look forward to?
This is obviously a highlight for us, the first presentation to experienced tasters of our "newborn". With the expectation, the excitement... and the feedback from customers that confirms our work or makes us think about different aspects or new horizons.
But the Primeur remains one of the times of the life of a wine; the purpose is above all in the pleasure that the amateur can find when opening the bottle. This is the moment that justifies all our efforts, and that one, nothing will take it away from us: the pleasure of the 2019 vintage, in five years, in ten years or in twenty years... is ahead of us.
It is the strength of a product like wine to put time in perspective. When I open a Clos du Clocher 1961, my father tells me about the difficulties of those years, but the wine tells us something else, about the necessary resilience and the permanence of beautiful things.
Read the full report: Bordeaux 2019 A Vintage Preview