Bordeaux 2009: in vino veritas?

POSTED ON 22/02/2010

Not a shot has been fired yet, nor a glass lifted in anger, pleasure or uncritical assessment, but the hype has begun. Welcome to Bordeaux 2009 en primeur and the annual circus that now seems routinely to surround a new Bordeaux vintage when there's a sniff of something interesting in the air. And there's no doubt that Bordeaux 2009 looks like being every bit as interesting in its own way as the other three successful vintages of the noughties, 2000, 2003 and 2005.

In the 80s, it was Peter Sichel who supplied us with the most authoritative report on the new Bordeaux vintage. Sichel was perceptive and charming, sometimes whimsical even, but he was always scrupulously accurate in his reporting, so much so that what he said was lapped up by the trade and press alike before their annual pilgrimage to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. Sichel's death left a vacancy, one that's been more than adequately taken up by Bill Blatch, also a Bordeaux negociant, but like Sichel, not parti pris in his judgments and therefore as scrupulously fair and authoritative as Sichel himself once was.

Bill Blatch's Report

Blatch begins his 'preliminary report' by noting that the decade of the noughties has been exceptional in that there have been no bad vintages. To say that 'all have been successful' is slightly overegging the pudding however, as no-one lauded the 2007 vintage, and while it may not be quite as mediocre as some of the real shockers of the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't up to much either. On 2009 however he is on firmer, er, terra firma, asserting from the start that with 2009, 'this final one has turned out to be the most concentrated of them all' going on to say that as a result of 'no extremes, just good regular heat at the right times, with everything coming in the right order', the vintage year 'functioned perfectly, creating sugar levels in the grapes that we have never seen before, together with a build-up of massive but gentle tannins for the reds and a complexity of flavours for the whites. 2009 is in an altogether gentler, softer, fatter style, something in the ilk of 1970 or 1982'.

Vintage Weather Conditions

What was the weather like? Taking us back to the previous winter he notes that it was cold without being unduly severe, unlike (and this is a nice touch) 'the two months at -20°C in 1709 and in 582 when starving wolves invaded the city of Bordeaux'. He's good on detail, mentioning also the hurricane on Saturday morning 24th January which knocked down trees and had the Bordelais 'out in force on their roofs that day checking the tiles, but the vines were OK'. The cold winter, with good rainfall in January and April, 'prepared the vineyard for a textbook budding and a good flowering, and then the dry, hot, and above all sunny summer and autumn just did the rest, all nice and easy, without any excess. This vintage goes to show, just as in ’82, that gentle conditions make for gentler wines'.

His next point is on 'the year’s great disparity in the ripening cycles between the warmer and the cooler soils, a disparity that would later get increased by differences between these two soil types’ reaction to the coming drought'. After an above average warm and sunny May and June, two stormy days of hail caused extensive damage especially in the central Entre-Deux-Mers and the vineyards immediately North-East of St Emilion, where 'the landscape afterwards looked like Verdun'. After more hail, the only districts that were totally spared were the Médoc above Cantenac, Pomerol, the western part of St Emilion, the eastern side of the Entre-Deux- Mers and Sauternes.

The summer wore on with exceptionally stable, mild and progressively drier conditions for South-West France. 'Bordeaux’s weather patterns have been changing dramatically…but this year we were not complaining, and maybe that’s the way Bordeaux will continue to benefit from the gradual warming of South-West France, which is currently warming up at twice the speed of the rest of Europe'. By the end of June, 'there began to be a realisation that we could have a shot at a truly great vintage if the weather would hold. And hold it did' , as July and August continued in the same vein, with gentler conditions than some of the more scorching summers like 2003 and 2006, 'further evidence that if extremes produce very good vintages, the great ones generally seem to come from gentler conditions'.

Despite daily rain forecasts from the beginning of September to the 21st, there was little rain and 21st September right up to the end of the harvest was dry with temperatures gradually rising. 'This is a most unusual phenomenon while the days are getting shorter and is a further explanation of this most unusual vintage', a phenomenon that resulted in 'heaping yet more concentration on already concentrated grapes, and it was this period that was to account for the exceptionally high alcohol levels that we would see in the finished wines'. Interestingly, with a disparity between technical ripeness and actual ripeness around 21 September, it seems that it was when it turned warmer at the end of September that the tannins softened.

The Wines

By the end of 'a textbook perfect vineyard year, the big question was: what to do with all that potential alcohol?' because 'The high alcohol levels are of course the main defining feature of the vintage. These are strong powerful wines, stronger than any Châteauneuf-du-Pape and as strong as any Oz Shiraz'. Good news one might think then for the Americans, one's tempted to say, perhaps less so for the British and the rest of Europe, or at least consumers who like their red Bordeaux to be 'classic' and not overendowed with alcoholic strength. 'Generally the Merlots came in at around 14° on the Left Bank and 15° or more on the Right Bank, whilst the Cabs were around 13° and 14° respectively. Generally, this was considered to be the absolute limit of what Bordeaux red wines can or should achieve in terms of concentration – but then we said that in 00, in 03, and again in 05'.

Blatch goes on to tell us that there's more to 2009 than mere alcohol however. The tannins are high, in some cases the highest on record, and the acidity is reasonable, not as high as the perkier and fresher 2005s but certainly higher than 2000 and 2003. The effect, he says, is that 'the 09s seem to have a “togetherness” that will make them at once approachable in their youth but also probably, as for the ‘29s, unexpectedly long-lived. The wines are far too young to be sure of that but certainly that is the impression they give right now. They will be lovely young and certainly lovely old'. Other commentators seem equally taken by '09. According to Michel Rolland, 'The wines are as we hoped they would be. Fruitiness is superb, they are full-bodied and concentrated on the palate, the tannin is silky and elegant, ready for ageing, and the finish is powerful and long: 2009 is the ideal example of an outstanding vintage'.

As between Left and Right Bank, there is little in it according to Blatch, who adds, as an aside, that the Northern Médoc, with its predominance of Merlot on heavier soils has produced some very concentrated wines which hopefully will become the best values of ’09. The whites meanwhile are fat and rich with a roundness of peachy fruit, as one would expect after such a summer.And the general conclusion on Sauternes and Barsac 'is that this is indeed a great vintage: The extreme richness is nicely balanced by acidity, with final blends typically at 14° alc, 7 to 9° of residual and a refreshing 3.8 or so g/l total acidity'.

But, and it's to Bill Blatch's credit that there is a but, not everything in the garden of Bordeaux came up trumps. First of all he warns of some uneven ripening and a panic among some growers over the high sugar levels who picked earlier than they might have before true ripeness set in. These growers will have tried to compensate with longer macerations, resulting in unnecessarily hard and bitter tannins. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the habitual late pickers will have made wines 'that will be incredibly alcoholic, very dryly tannic, ultra low in acidity and maybe prone to brett'.

Yet overall, he concludes, 'of all the great vintages of the last 100 years, ’09 seems to have more in common with the silky concentration of ’82, ‘47 or ’29, rather than the more robust tannic balance of ’05, ’00 or ’28'. Praise indeed. Is the concentration of the ’09s the result of global warming? 'The answer is quite clearly yes: The average temperature in South-West France has risen by more than 1°C over he past 50 years, and, as we have seen, the changes in the trans-Atlantic air currents are
provoking wetter springs and drier summers'. At the same time Blatch points to other cycles at work, with the possibility in the future of a battle between global warming on the one hand and a return to a natural cool period on the other'.

The Market

Conspicuous by its absence from Blatch's preliminary report is any mention of the market. It was always one of the defining perspectives of Peter Sichel's vintage reports that he went on to talk about the state of the market, and from that you could get some idea of how it would most likely affect the prices of the new vintage. Perhaps Bill Blatch doesn't want to be seen muddying the pristine waters at this stage because if it's true that 2009 is going to turn out to be a great vintage, any mention of the market needs to take account of a number of elements, from recession, exchange rates and the emerging Far East to stock levels and the state of mind of the Bordelais, before any rush to judgment is made. As Union des Grands Crus director Sylvie Cazes has said, 'this is going to be a difficult campaign to judge, because there are so many elements like the state of the economy to take into account.'

Recession and weak exchange rates of the $US and £UK apart, there is at the same time the cautionary tale of the American importer Chateau & Estate Wines (DC&E), a subsidiary of Diageo, which aggressively liquidated its warehouse stock in a market already affected by recession because of large quantities of unsold stocks to the tune of US$28 million (£16.8m). The market had become overheated thanks to unrealistic prices being asked for the average vintage of 2006 and the unsaleable 2007. A number of Bordeaux estates, among them Gruaud Larose and Pétrus, have been reported as acquiring unsold stock to prevent discounted cases undercutting prices. They may also use the 09s by tying it into sales of earlier, unwanted stocks.

Yet judging by the hot air now issuing forth from parts of the UK trade, maybe this is just a blip. Gary Boom of Bordeaux Index has been reported as saying that 'the surge in interest in Bordeaux suggests that China might become a serious player in the en primeur market during 2010. This could be the first great en primeur campaign for the Far East. They've never bought sizeable quantities, but I think they're ready for this one.' In a press release on 18 February, Bordeaux Index went further, saying that 'wine experts are hailing 2009 Bordeaux as the vintage of the century. With excitement about the fine wine reaching fever pitch, interest in the en primeur has extended beyond its traditional buyers. A combination of the economic climate, the rapid rise in popularity of fine wine in the Far East and the growing hype about the 2009 vintage has resulted in record levels of interest in the vintage'. If wishful thinking is translated into action, the aptly-named Mr. Boom stands to net £25 million in this campaign, with 20% of it coming from the Far East.

Simon Staples from Berry Bros & Rudd, is another voice already hyping Bordeaux 2009 to the skies.'What is clear is that we are onto something spectacular again... but with an ever-increasing demand, especially from Asia, it won't be cheap. Early indications are that the vintage will be worth turning off the heating and selling the car for. What we have tried so far are all superb, rich, powerful, sexy beasts with great structure, depth and almost magical promise'. In a recent report suggesting that the first growths may release at prices approaching 2005, or up to €300 a bottle for the first tranche (somewhere around £4000 - £4,500 a case), Decanter Magazine said that some wine merchants in contrast were urging restraint, one such (probably Farr Vintners) saying 'The Bordelais are excited enough about 2009 as it is, we don't want them to put prices up too much.'

No we don't, of course we don't. The fires are already being stoked however and the Bordelais are no doubt watching from behind the net curtains of their châteaux, rubbing their hands with glee at prospects for 2009 with the music of Boom and Staples and their ilk in their ears. To be fair however, the UK is only just one player now in a global market and the Bordelais my be greedy but they're not stupid. If exchange rates militate against the British and to a certain extent the Americans, countries with a strong euro and others with rapidly-growing economies are less price sensitive. Then there's Parker of course, and this looks to be exactly the sort of vintage to make Parker salivate and drive his points count through the ceiling. If this does turn out to be an expensive vintage, and there's little indication it will be anything but, the exorbitant prices will most likely be those charged for the top three to four dozen hottest properties. If the vintage is the rising quality tide that's being widely predicted, the good news for wine lovers who enjoy quality claret that's neither overpriced First Growth nor immodest supersecond is that there should be more than enough to go round.

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