BORDEAUX 2009: How high can it go?
April 27, 2010
2009 Bordeaux: just how high can it go?
By Panos Kakaviatos
When Robert Parker issues his make-or-break scores on the latest ‘vintage of the century’ – the third in less than 10 years – wine shoppers will wonder how high both price and quality can go. The economy remains somewhat patchy, international demand coupled with hype could drive prices further north and, as of this writing, €1 fetches about $1.34. In terms of quality, Parker was bullish on 2008, with Lafite obtaining 98-100 points, for example. With his enthusiasm for 2009, how much higher can 2009 go? As you can read in my harvest report, most vintners patiently picked their grapes. 2009 was a much better harvest than 2008. But how much better than 2005? Or 2000? If 2009 futures prices are comparable with these prior ‘vintages of the century,’ will more Bordeaux lovers opt for currently available bottles from these vintages?
The ripeness gap
Such questions will be answered over time. But with the dust now settled after the 2009 barrel tastings, it is safe to say that one aspect of the 2009 vintage is a notable gap between fruit and phenolic ripeness, as pointed out by fellow blogger Miguel Lecuona. In 2005, this gap was small, and it was easy to decide when to harvest. But in 2009, picking times varied much more. An irregular bud break, which resulted in uneven ripening cycles, may explain this phenomenon to some extent. Many vintners told me during the harvest that they had never seen such variable picking times. As Lecuona said, the gap between fruit and phenolic ripeness was wider in 2009 than in 2005. Some tasters noticed less consistency on the Right Bank, at least in part because Merlot had more difficulty with this ‘ripeness gap’. On-the-spot observers and tasters – from highly experienced critics like Izak Litwar in Denmark, to celebrated wine journalists and authors like Jancis Robinson – point out that Merlot in some cases ripened too fast to maintain definition. It was a hot summer, followed by a fine Indian summer… with concomitant high alcohol.
A few Right Bank wines showed somewhat rough, perhaps not fully phenolically ripened tannins. Additionally, Cabernet Franc – a primary partner to Merlot on the Right Bank – proved to be rather fragile and sometimes not as successful as expected at some estates. At Cheval Blanc, Merlot was the majority grape with 60%. Same percentage for Angélus. Hubert de Bouard de Laforest of Angélus explained: ‘Cabernet Franc had a harder time dealing with extreme temperatures and then also with the sudden rainfall in mid September.’ Bordeaux enologist Nicolas Vivas agreed: ‘It is a variety of finesse and refinement, which does not react as well to extremes.’ Old vine Cabernet Franc at Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol was not ‘optimal’ either, owner Alexandre Thienpont said. The 2009 VCC has but 8% Cabernet Franc. It is an excellent wine in 2009, but may lack the lift some tasters recalled from the 2005 barrel sample. I share this point of view.
A year for Cabernet Sauvignon?
Taking all this into account, however, many wines – particularly in the Medoc – proved gorgeous. Perhaps Cabernet Sauvignon handled the lag between fruit and phenolic ripeness better because it did not as easily over-ripen as Merlot. In numerous cases, I think long hang time did wonders for Cabernet Sauvignon, resulting in extraordinary concentration and fruit balanced by some of the highest tannin indexes ever recorded. Furthermore, acidity proved adequate, given fresh nights (unlike in 2003). Merlot tended to be fragile in 2009 on the Left Bank, said the famous Bordeaux father-and-son consultants Jacques and Eric Boissenot. ‘You had to harvest [Merlot] pretty quickly to avoid getting too high alcohol,’ Eric told me over dinner. Several Medoc winemakers agreed. A superb Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac had not seen so much Cabernet Sauvignon since… 1978. Owner François Xavier Borie said his Merlots ‘were simply too high in alcohol’ so the 2009 blend is 80% Cabernet, 18% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. Same story at Calon Segur in St. Estephe, with 90% Cabernet Sauvignon. Calon Segur managing director Vincent Millet said that 2009 was ‘a year for Cabernet Sauvignon.’ At Pichon Comtesse in Pauillac – known for high Merlot content – winemaking director Thomas Dô Chi Nam only used 20% Merlot. Still, despite high tannin, the best wines delivered a palate texture akin to satin. The wines proved lush or silky, sometimes less ‘tannic tasting’ than their 2005 counterparts, prompting Jancis Robinson to say that she had never employed the word ‘Napa’ as much to describe Bordeaux en primeur… That could be the case for Cos d’Estournel, with 14.5% alcohol and a very sleek texture. Or Malescot St Exupery, in Margaux. But such seamlessness also hid substantial concentration. Bill Blatch’s comments about 2009 having ‘more in common with the silky concentration of ’82, ’47 or ‘29’ ring true particularly for the Left Bank.
My Medoc favorites include an ultra velvety Calon Segur; a smooth, powerful and spherical Leoville Las Cases (perhaps my all-round favorite ‘high end wine’ on the Left Bank, taking into consideration price); a pair of superbly elegant marathon runners in both Lafite and Margaux. Though impressive, Latour requires special sporting equipment to scale its mighty mountain of foreboding tannin, but its more supple second wine, Les Forts de Latour, is probably the best second wine in Bordeaux in 2009. Mouton Rothschild straddles the power of Latour and the elegance of Lafite. Other high-level Medoc wines lived up to their ‘Super Second’ monikers including a delectable and fresh Chateau Palmer, with less alcohol than in 2005; a suave, yet Pauillac-styled Ducru Beaucaillou and a potent, yet smooth Montrose. For the budget conscious consumer, what really impresses is a slew of fine cru bourgeois, including Pibran in Pauillac, Sociando Mallet in Haut Medoc, Poujeaux in Moulis and Labegorce in Margaux. Such wines should not cost consumers a pretty penny, but will please plentifully.
But before we get too comfortable with Cabernet Sauvignon, we must turn to the successes on the Right Bank. Many achieved great wines with Merlot, from an elegant and supple Canon in St Emilion to a beautifully layered Trotanoy in Pomerol. Others felt justifiably confident with their Cabernet Franc, such as a successful La Conseillante in Pomerol. The cold soils of Fronsac worked well for Merlot wines as well. And if the Medoc did so well, what can one say about the lesser – albeit very good – performance in Pessac Leognan? Did it not handle the heat as well? I found the reds very good, but few truly exceptional, Haut Brion being the one. And what about the notable difference between Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion in Pessac? Both have high proportions of Merlot, but La Mission’s high alcohol (14.7%) was in evidence, with slightly tough tannins. Certainly barrel aging will tame these traits, but Haut Brion exuded greater balance and symmetry. The dry whites proved better than expected, retaining freshness and body overall. For the dessert wines of Sauternes, some are calling 2009 the best ever. My overall impression was that it was a very good year – a year of richness. But is it as precise as 2007? As harmonious as 2001? I wonder. Sauternes are very hard to judge from barrel, so let’s just wait and see. Such advice may be needed for the entire vintage, in fact, because barrel aging will do essential work, and we cannot truly judge the wines before they experience ‘birth’ in bottle. So it may be wise to heed the advice of enologist Nicolas Vivas who does not sell wine, but works with some top Bordeaux chateaux: ‘In great vintages, the difference between the very best and lesser terroirs is more pronounced in barrel tastings, giving the impression of heterogeneity,’ he said. ‘Curiously, without any surprise to me, when the wine will be sold in bottle two years later, this heterogeneity will disappear, along with some of the more severe comments we hear today. 2009 will make a deep impression on people; it will be among the very best vintages ever, better than 2005.’ Well, I am not sure. But, in the meantime, let’s hope that prices will be at least somewhat reasonable…
As wonderful as 2009 will likely prove to become, the hype machine is revving up. My scores are purposely on the conservative side, because I do not give 100 points (or even close to 100 points) to barrel samples. Sample variation is one reason. Experience and stylistic preferences are others. Definitive judgment can be found only in bottle.
A peek at the Parker numbers: Some are bit craaaaazy, but I am far less experienced. Still, I cannot understand how he likes La Mission Haut Brion just as much as Haut Brion, giving each near perfect scores: 98-100. Certainly Haut Brion is a better wine, with greater balance, and I can understand his enthusiasm. I find it interesting that we share enthusiasm for certain underrated wines like Bonalgue in Pomerol or Beausejour Duffau in St Emilion. But other notations leave me perplexed. He grades Leoville Poyferre slightly higher than Leoville Las Cases (both potentially perfect, by the way!) for example.
He has assigned plenty of near 100s, and his semi swipe at ’400 journalists and wine traders descending on Bordeaux in March, and the huge hype machine the Bordeaux wine trade has perfected’ rings oddly when he himself grades no less than 18 barrel samples with near perfect scores! Now I would agree with his assessment that Cabernet based wines are fantastic, especially in the Medoc, but I am not so sure about Graves being as good. He is right to call the Right Bank more patchy, and it is very good that he sticks to his 2008 guns – urging savvy Bordeaux lovers to look to 2008 for better deals, because 2009 will be expensive. C’est la vie.