© Michel Guillard
2009 Bordeaux: How High Can It Go?
August 27, 2010
Bordeaux experienced almost perfect weather in 2009, and the vintage is already enjoying great critical acclaim. On the other hand, several vintages have already been blithely dubbed "of the century" in less than ten years: first, 2000, then 2005, now 2009. Not to mention the mightily hyped vintage of 2003, a year whose torrid heat resulted in some great wines, but also some jammy ones. Then there is price. Despite continued economic troubles, will anything stop skyscraping price tags for top Bordeaux wines? The wines of some 15 estates have become like Rolls Royces: playthings for the ultra rich. But mere mortals like most of us can still enjoy 2009 Bordeaux. Wonderful wines can be found among the middle and lower echelons, proving the adage: grande année, petit vin; petite année, grand vin. So for the wines of 2009, buy the less heralded estates with confidence, because it was difficult to make bad wine.
Über-influential American wine critic Robert Parker has issued his make-or-break scores on 2009, with almost 20 wines given potentially perfect 100-point scores. While not as enthusiastic as Parker, other critics, including Jancis Robinson in the UK and Bernard Burtschy in France, also heap praise on 2009. International demand, particularly from Asia, coupled with hype, is driving prices north. There's also some good news: the dollar's rise against the euro could lessen the impact of price increases. But some 2009 prices already surpass those of 2005 or 2000. Only time will tell. As Robinson says, "I think 2009 pricing is a very sensitive issue. If the Chinese buy en primeur and get their fingers burned, it will take a very long time to lure them back into the primeur market. And the US market is very sluggish."
The vast winegrowing region of Bordeaux is roughly divided into the Left Bank of the Garonne and the Gironde, where the blends tend to contain more cabernet sauvignon; and the Right Bank, with more merlot. Vintages sometimes favor one area or the other, but in truly great vintages both excel. After the 2009 barrel tastings this past spring, it is safe to say that although there were many great wines from the Right Bank, many tasters noticed less consistency there. It was a long, hot summer in 2009—although not as hot as 2003—followed by a fine Indian summer, with concomitant high alcohol. Cabernet sauvignon grapes, notes Robinson, "seemed to thrive, with the unusual freedom to ripen slowly until late into the season". Other observers point out that in some cases the merlot ripened too fast to maintain definition. In general the Right Bank registered the highest alcohol levels, with several wines showing rough and not fully ripened tannins.
The Médoc mix
Summer in the northern regions of the Médoc was gorgeous. Long ripening worked wonders for cabernet sauvignon here, resulting in extraordinary concentration and fruit balanced by some of the highest tannin levels ever recorded. And, unlike 2003, cool nights ensured adequate acidity. Merlot cultivated on the Left Bank tended to be fragile in 2009, say Bordeaux father-and-son consultants Jacques and Eric Boissenot, who advise such châteaux as Léoville Barton, Brane Cantenac, Lafite Rothschild and Latour. "You had to harvest [merlot] pretty quickly to avoid getting too-high alcohol," Eric told me.
Médoc winemakers agreed. A superb Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac has not contained as much cabernet sauvignon since 1978. Owner François-Xavier Borie said his merlot "was simply too high in alcohol", so his 2009 blend includes 80% cabernet. "It was a year for cabernet sauvignon," said Vincent Millet, managing director of Calon Ségur in Saint Estèphe, whose 2009 contains a whopping 90% cabernet. At Pauillac's Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, known for high merlot content, winemaking director Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam used only 20% for 2009.
The high-alcohol merlot prompted Robinson to say that never before had she used the word "Napa" as much to describe Bordeaux en primeur. That was the case for Cos d'Estournel in Saint-Estèphe, with a sleek texture and a whopping 14.5% alcohol content—and where the winemaking techniques seemed more noticeable than natural terroir-driven character. The Cos d'Estournel proved to be one of the most controversial wines of 2009. Robert Parker loved it, but Robinson dubbed it "a very exaggerated wine".
Overall, most tasters universally praised the 2009 Médoc, from an affordable cru bourgeois like La Tour de Mons in Margaux to the ultra-expensive Château Margaux itself.
My own Médoc favorites include a velvety Calon Ségur and a smooth and powerful Léoville Las Cases (Rolls Royce category, alas). At the pinnacle are the two superbly elegant great châteaux, Lafite Rothschild and Margaux. Most other high-level Médoc wines lived up to their reputations too, including a delectably fresh Château Palmer and a potent, yet smooth Château Montrose. For budget-conscious consumers there's also a slew of fine crus bourgeois, including Pibran in Pauillac, Sociando Mallet in Haut-Médoc, Poujeaux in Moulis and Labégorce in Margaux. They will not cost a pretty penny, but are plentifully pleasing.
The Right Bank
Among the better wines on the Right Bank, high on the list is an elegant and supple Château Canon in Saint-Emilion and especially a beautifully layered Château Trotanoy in Pomerol, a must for any top ten list. Other producers, using the freshening balance of cabernet franc in their blends, also made excellent wines, notably Pomerol's Château La Conseillante.
The cold soils of Fronsac worked well for merlot, and these wines will be affordable. In Pessac-Léognan, farther south on the Left Bank and slightly hotter, the reds were very good, particularly Domaine de Chevalier, but few reached the heights of the Médoc—with the one very expensive exception of Château Haut-Brion. The dry whites of Pessac-Léognan were also very fine, retaining freshness and body overall.
Some critics are calling the 2009 Sauternes the best ever. My impression was that it was a good, rich year for these sweet "dessert" wines. But as good as 2007 or 2001? I wonder. Sauternes are hard to judge from barrel, so let's wait. That advice could hold for the entire vintage, because barrel aging does essential work, and we cannot truly judge the wines before they are bottled. "In great vintages, the difference between the very best and the lesser terroirs is more pronounced in barrel tastings, giving the impression of heterogeneity," says enologist Nicolas Vivas. "When the wine is sold in bottle two years later, the heterogeneity will disappear, and 2009 will make a deep impression on people. It will be among the very best vintages ever, better than 2005." I am not sure. Let's just hope that some prices prove reasonable.
As wonderful as 2009 is, the hype machine is revving up. This list is conservative, with no potential 100-point scores given to barrel samples. Definitive judgments can be made only after the wines are bottled.
Excellent value (prices expected to be under $35)
Bernadotte (Haut-Médoc), Bonalgue (Pomerol), Fonplégade (Saint-Emilion), Fonréaud (Listrac), Greysac (Médoc), Haut Ballet (Fronsac), de Laussac (Bordeaux), Pey La Tour "Réserve" (Bordeaux), La Pointe (Pomerol), La Tour de Mons (Margaux), Montviel (Pomerol), Pibran (Pauillac), Poujeaux (Moulis), Vieux Maillet (Pomerol)
Expensive (expected to be $40-$60)
Batailley (Pauillac), Beychevelle (Saint-Julien), Branaire Ducru (Saint-Julien), Brane Cantenac (Margaux), Certan Marzelle (Pomerol), Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac-Léognan), Ferrière (Margaux), Giscours (Margaux), Grand Puy Lacoste (Pauillac), Gruaud Larose (Saint-Julien), Léoville Barton (Saint-Julien), Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan), Malartic Lagravière (Pessac-Léognan), Smith Haut Lafitte (Pessac-Léognan), Sociando Mallet (Haut-Médoc), Saint Pierre (Saint-Julien)
Ten dream wines (in order of preference)
Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), Margaux, Latour (Pauillac), Léoville Las Cases (Saint-Julien), Pétrus (Pomerol), Trotanoy (Pomerol), Palmer (Margaux), Calon Ségur (Saint-Estèphe), Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac), Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan)
Panos Kakaviatos writes regularly on wine. Visit his website.
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of France Today.
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