Last week was hectic. I tasted over 1000 wines throughout the Bordeaux region. I was there to assess the 2009 wines, which were picked last September and October. This is an annual event, which takes place in early April. The wines are real 'babies' as they are still in early development stages. The wines have fully fermented and are at the stage when they are being aged in barrels. Many wines will age for another 12 or 14 months, so they will change and develop again. But this tasting of Primeur (or as the Americans like to say 'Futures') is a good indication of the future quality of the vintage.
2009 Viticultural Year
The Spring was quite late in 2009, with cooler temperatures and threat of disease in the vines until early June. However the Summer from mid June was great. A long dry spell, interspersed with occasional, but necessary, rain during July, August and September. High day time temperatures were complemented by cool nights (which are just as important for flavor and tannin development).
There were problems with two hail storms that effected vineyards in parts of Saint Emilion (Chateau Trottevieille in particular), extensively in the Entre Deux Mers and also in the southern part of the Margaux appellation. Hail is a very precise and frustrating enemy of a vineyard owner.
Generally the growing season was near perfect. The day time heat and the cool nights were the key factors.
At harvest time the grapes were abundant and in extremely good health. The only issue as Bruno Borie (at Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou) said:
'The grapes were analytically ripe at the beginning of September. They were healthy and full. But the pips were not fully ripe. We were helped by a light shower of rain in mid September, which washed the grapes, but did not effect the alcohol level. This purely held us back from the vineyard for a few days. When we started picking, we could not believe the quality and freshness of the grapes.'
Some people may say that is when the hype began for this vintage!!
But paraphrasing a top chef....you can only make good wine from good grapes.
Just got back to my hotel room at 2am.
Tasted some absolutely fantastic wines from Chateau Cheval Blanc, Lafite, Mouton Rothschild, Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet, Ausone. La Gaffeliere, Pavie Macquin and many many more.
Lets hope that I can gather my notes and post a coherent and incisive commentary on the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux, by this weekend. Many international buyers are tasting in Bordeaux and there are many stories to tell.........
What is 'en primeur? How does it work? Why?
The 'en primeur' or 'futures' are a method of buying wines, when they are not yet in bottle.
The wines are judged and assessed by tasting from barrels in the Spring following the vintage. The trade buyers and journalists taste, assess and critique the wines and then they either promote the wines to their customers or they write glowing reports.
The Primeurs started in the early 1980's. It serves two purposes.
1. For the Chateau owner it is a great opportunity to improve cash flow. Money will be received within the year after the harvest, as they still have to pay for barrels, storage and bottling over the next 18 months.
2.For the purchaser it is a great way to make sure that we get hold of the best wines direct from the Chateaux in the best condition. Many of the top wines are only made in very small quantities, therefore the Primeur offering may be the best way to secure stock. Eg Chateau Ausone in Saint Emilion produces about 2000 cases every year and Le Pin in Pomerol produce about 500 cases.
Many of the top wines of Bordeaux do not enter the secondary trading market due to small quanties produced, therefore if stock does appear it is usually at a premium...ie Chateau Petrus or Le Pin.
The majestic Chateau Haut Brion...I'll be tasting there next week.
The 2009 Bordeaux vintage will be tasted next week at the Union de Grands Crus tastings throughout the Bordeaux region. I will be there tasting at various Chateaux and seeing whether the undoubted hype for this vintage is real. Comparisons have already been made to the legendary 1947 vintage, but I treat this with caution as I am not sure how many of us have tasted extensively from 1947!! From everything I hear it is looking very good. The down side will be the quantities available....as there will be severe allocations of the top wines. And also inevitably the prices. It will be difficult for the UK and US market with the unfavorable exchange rate. But it will be an opportunity for French buyers and also the Far East.
If you are interested in buying en primeurs or hearing more about wines available please email me directly: email@example.com
Interesting article in the Telegraph here.
The current UK taxes are extremely punitive. The government will undoubtedly raise taxes further this coming Wednesday during the Budget. There is talk of a 5% rise or even more. So that would be c 30% tax increase in the last year.
It is difficult enough selling Australian wine (30% swing on the currency in the last 18 months) and also European wine (the Euro is strong against the Pound).
The recession also does not help...slow payments and bad debts and companies closing.
I am always positive and we are still trading away. We have to diversify here.
The next 12 months will see more rationalization and change in the wine trade. Survival of the fittest!
Whilst at the same time we are selling more and more fine wine from Bordeaux. There is genuine interest from the UK trade and collectors (and investors) for the 2009 Bordeaux wines, which I will be tasting thoroughly in the next fortnight.
I recently tasted the 2004 (not the 2006 pictured above)Chateau La Gaffeliere in Saint Emilion and then back in the UK at a trade tasting. Some wines really stay in your head! This one was an absolutely fantastic wine. The nose was intense, dark, brooding and seemed to have layers of spice and cedar. The merlot style was ripe and concentrated with silky smooth deep harmonious velvet textured oak. The wine just went on and on and on and on and on .......it was so well balanced and just coming into the drinking stage. However with the concentration of fruit and the depth of oak ageing this wine will benefit from another 10 years storing.
I am tempted to buy some myself just to keep for another while. I can get hold of some stock from the Chateau and the price would be +/- £50 per bottle.
We have been snowed in down herein the Minervois for 3 days. Thank God we have still had electricity and water. The vines are in their dormant phase at the moment, so the snow is no problem.
It is certainly interesting times in the wine world. Some distributors in the UK and USA are finding business tough and exchange rates crippling. It does not help in the UK with an insecure and unsure government, who seem to be indecisive. Maybe the general election in May will at least clear the air.
What is definitely sure is that wine taxes will rise in the forthcoming budget on March 24th. So it really is an opportunity to stock up on wine if you have parties, functions planned for the coming weeks/months.
The World of wine is also changing with new areas developing and some areas being effected by natural disaster...Chile's recent earthquake and the ongoing water shortage in Australia.
Sometimes investment and wine consumption turns to recognized 'brands' and known names when times are tough. That is why our Bordeaux sales have been so strong in the last year. We have introduced many people to the delights of Chateau de la Riviere in Fronsac as well as Chateau La Gaffeliere in Saint Emilion and a host of other excellent Chateaux. It is bizarre that these wines are more expensive than the average UK bottle price, but maybe people turn to safe areas rather than trying to explore in a recession.
That is why this article is interesting. Warren Buffet is a very shrewd investor. He normally looks at long term investments. So he has analysed wine and seen an opportunity. Lets hope we have more optimistic news in the wine world over the next few months. 2010 is proving challenging, but there are areas to grow and develop.
Bill Blatch has been living and trading in Bordeaux for many years.
He is passionate about the wines and he has a particular fondness for the wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
I have had the privilege to taste with Bill Blatch at many of the Chateaux during the en primeur week in early April every year. The knowledge of each Chateau and of the key personnel is staggering.
So every year Bill writes a very detailed report:
Bill Blatch’s Preliminary Bordeaux 2009-vintage report Dec 2009 / Feb 2010
2009: The first decade of the 21st century goes out in a blaze of glory
A decade with no off-vintages – Bordeaux has never experienced that before - even
those all-time great decades, the 1920s and the 1840s had a few misses. In this first decade of
the new millennium, all have been successful, four made by end-of-season sunshine (2001-
02-07-08), two by heat early in the season (04-06), and four of highly concentrated wines
from a combination of good summers as well as good autumns (00-03-05-and now 09, each
receiving more acclaim than the previous one). That is a total all-time record.
And this final one has turned out to be the most concentrated of them all. In 2009, we
seem to have reached the extreme limit of Bordeaux concentration Yet it was not the hottest
year by any means – that was 2003 – nor was it the driest – that was 2005. In 2009, there
were no extremes, just good regular heat at the right times, with everything coming in the
right order: the vine amply nourished by ground water during its growing period, then, as
from 15th June, starved of water – very progressively - during the ripening and concentration
of its bunches right through the rest of the vineyard year.
As a result, it 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. In this sense, 2009 bears little resemblance to the more
extreme scorching build-up of concentration as in 1990 or 2003, nor to the drier build-up of
the more vigorous and harder tannins of the 2000 and 2005. 2009 is in an altogether gentler,
softer, fatter style, something in the ilk of 1970 or 1982. But, as soon as the harvest was under
way, it was to the 1947 that comparisons started to be made - difficult to challenge because
not everyone has been drinking that many ‘47s recently. Technically, however, the sugar
build-up was reported as being similar in 1947, (not bad considering France was 1.1° colder
then), but often some of it is said never to have fermented out, making the wines slightly
sweet, and in addition 1947 seems to have been a very irregular vintage, especially on the Left
Bank, some wines glorious, some disastrous. 2009 has some of this irregularity, but is clearly,
if only for reasons of technical expertise, more of an across-the-board vintage. Maybe
everyone was just thinking of the legendary Cheval Blanc 47 rather than of the vintage as a
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.
Of course there were problems along the way, and we spare a thought for all those
growers who caught the massive hail in May, and who were thereafter reduced to being
spectators rather than players. There was also some storm damage, and some parcels of vines
that got stressed and blocked during the summer, yielding grapes that failed to develop
properly. But overall, the whole thing was a quite remarkable success story.
And what accounted for it all? I was hoping you would ask. Back in December 2008,
the meteorological stations had noticed a cooling of the North Equatorial current in the
Atlantic, probably a chain reaction from the termination of La Nina in the Pacific. They
consequently predicted – correctly - that the US hurricane season would be mild, and that the
North Atlantic low pressure systems would come over further North than usual. This too was
correct up until June, and accounts for all those cooler more stable Northerly and Easterly air
flows over Bordeaux during winter and spring, rather than the more usual, warmer and
unsettled Westerlies. Then in July, a mild El Nino system unexpectedly started up in the
Central Pacific, quite a surprise to everyone, and upsetting the whole Northern hemisphere’s
jet stream patterns. Hence the record hot dry summer in Oregon and the wettest July on record
for Rhode Island, hence too a more Southerly flow over the Atlantic, causing all those
continuous rain-storms over Ireland and England during the summer. These rarely affected
Bordeaux because it was protected by a further phenomenon from the same cause: an
elongation of the Azores high pressure system over the whole Atlantic rather than over just
the European side; hence the gently warm and fine July and August in Bordeaux coming from
the milder West rather than from the more usual and more scorching South and East.
During the winter, however, the air flows came in from the North-East round the
continuous Mediterranean high pressure systems, making for conditions that were colder than
usual, and the first frosts came early, on those grey foggy icy mornings of early December.
This is never a bad thing for getting the sap down early to the roots and ensuring against pests,
further assured by a freezing – but not a white – Christmas.
There were the normal number of frosty nights during the winter – 25 over the 3
months compared to the average of 22 – but none were very severe. The lowest temperatures
were in early January, when it froze on 13 consecutive nights, three of them at -6°C, very cold
but nothing that would stress the vines at all like the record frosts of January 1985 or of
February 1956, of the two months at -20°C in 1709 and in 582 when starving wolves invaded
the city of Bordeaux.
With the sap down so early and spring coming late, pruning could be done at leisure.
Most got it out of the way by the end of February, mainly because it’s more pleasant to do it
in the dry than in the rain that was forecast for early March.
There were long dry periods during this winter but the rainfall had come early, the
November rains spilling over into December, and this ensured enough ground moisture for the
soil to get through to the next band of rain in the second half of January (128mm), which in its
turn was more than enough until the showers of early March (23mm) and above all until the
high rainfall of April (116mm). All this high winter rainfall was of paramount importance in
preparing the vines for what was to come.
One other noteworthy event had no incidence on the vintage. This was the freak
winter hurricane that slammed into the region early on Saturday morning 24th January. It was
exactly the same phenomenon as the December 1999 one, the Atlantic jet-stream catapulting a
deepening low pressure area in the Bay of Biscay, of the same intensity (172 km/h on the
coast) and once more knocking down all the trees in the forest. The Bordelais were all up on
their roofs that day checking the tiles, but the vines were OK.
Spring 2009 and the budding
The cold and relatively dry winter ensured that the vines wouldn’t wake up from their
hibernation quickly. Even the 23mm of early March rain and the ensuing 10 days of 17-24°C
afternoons (50% over normal) didn’t stir them. It was only towards the 23rd that some Merlots
and Sauvignons started to swell and even sporadically burst, but the main bud-burst had to
wait until after the near freezing night-time temperatures of late March had put off any further
activity. Now we were in early April and it was getting late. The Merlots of the earlier
vineyards like Pomerol and Pessac were out to 4-5 leaves by 8th, but the later ones, and most
of the Cabernets, were only just slowly bursting. This was the beginning of 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
This irregularity was to stay with us all year, even when the mid-April showers,
followed by the sudden warmth of 18th-24th ensured that it partially caught up. It rained hard
the final week of April (61mm) so that by early May, in spite of the irregularities, we were
generally back on schedule.
For once, there was never a hint of spring frost during the whole of April and May –
the average number of frosts for April is 4. This year zero: A great relief after all the frost
angst of the previous year that had especially afflicted Sauternes and the Graves.
Early Summer 2009, hail-storms, and the flowering
May and June became progressively warmer and sunnier: May 1.9°C over the average
and June 2.0°C over, with 235 sunshine hours in May (average is 221) and a whopping 293 in
June (average is 224). Encouraged by the still damp subsoil from the April rain, and egged on
by a further 78mm in May and 75mm in June, the growth galloped ahead and the shoots and
foliage looked vigorous and bright-coloured. They were clearly having no trouble feeding the
quite substantial amount of embryo bunches that the budding had provided.
It was now that for some growers the axe fell. Late in the afternoon of Monday 11th
May, a nasty little low pressure formed over the Bay of Biscay – just like for the January
hurricane – and convected into a major hailstorm when it made landfall over the Charentes,
wreaking havoc on 3000 hectares of the Cognac vineyards. It then moved slowly South,
devastating 500 hectares in Bourg- Blaye before crossing the river and decimating the
Southern Médoc, Cantenac, Arsac and Labarde in Margaux, then dispersing over Léognan
and the Southern Graves, only fizzling out when it got to Barsac.
As if that was not enough, early next morning another storm departed from Arcachon,
and started convecting over Castres and Portets in the Graves, growing into a veritable two kilometre wide hail front that swept across the Entre-Deux Mers then crossed the Dordogne
into the Eastern part of St Emilion before dying out over Montagne and Castillon.
Never since 1935 (when hail devastated the entire Right Bank) has there been such
extensive hail-damage. Usually hail is very localised, but this time, it was two broad swathes
moving over a vast area. The worst-hit areas were the Central Entre-Deux-Mers, especially
Créon, and the vineyards immediately North-East of St Emilion. In these areas, the landscape
afterwards looked like Verdun. Overall at least 18000 hectares are estimated to have been
damaged. Then the Central Entre-Deux-Mers region got hit twice more, on 25th May and 1st
June, and Fronsac and the Northern part of Bordeaux were hit, less seriously, on 8th June. The
regions that were totally spared could consider themselves very fortunate indeed: the Médoc
above Cantenac, Pomerol, the western part of St Emilion, the eastern side of the Entre-Deux-
Mers and Sauternes. All the rest had damage ranging from minor to total, had to heal their
battered vines as best as possible and hope for a counter shoot that often never came, and if it
did, it flowered much too late to produce anything worthwhile.
Now it was time for the vines to flower, and, with some extra moisture in the ground
from the mid-May showers, followed by a hot spell from 27th May to 4th June, the Merlots and
most of the whites flowered fast and efficiently. The Cabernets then got a bit spun-out by the
showers of 5th – 10th June, but the temperatures remained steady and they completed it, as
always, satisfactorily. We were now on course for a good-sized harvest, and also quite an
early one, the flowering having finished in good time around 14th June. This is usually more
like the date of the mid-flowering rather than the end-flowering. So we were now a bit early,
and also some of the irregularity at the budding had now been caught up.
As soon as the flowering was through, the weather patterns started to change. In place
of the first half of the season’s largely dry Easterly air flows, interspersed with weak fronts
every ten days, the winds now went round to the West, circling round the lows that were
beginning to come in further South than before, over Ireland. The highs that had been
positioned over Europe moved out West into the Atlantic, where they stayed almost
motionless for 2 months, expanding in a big oblong, often right over to the Eastern US
seaboard, and providing exceptionally stable, mild and progressively drier conditions for
South-West France. Such conditions are most unusual – as are winter hurricanes! 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.
The final 10 days of June were 2.2°C over the average, with a record 119 sun hours
(the average is 72), and every day over 25°C. The foliage looked magnificent and the bunches
started to swell nicely. It was about now that 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. All of July and August continued in the same vein, dry and above all,
sunny: 532 sun hours for the two months, compared to the average of 484, the heat gradually
building up over July and the first week of August. This was not the brutal scorching heat of
the previous record years 2003, 2006, 1990 and 1921. There were 13 days of 30°C or more,
and the average is…13 days. In 1921, there had been 21 in July alone, and in 2003 there had
been 20 in August alone. This was altogether a much gentler summer. And, as in 1982, July
was tempered by just enough showers (1st-2nd and 17th July) to keep the vine active: further
evidence that if extremes produce very good vintages, the great ones generally seem to come
from gentler conditions.
Rainfall became rarer during August (a total of 23mm, confined to 1st and 9th), a little
heavier inland and on the Right Bank; in the Médoc non-existent. Also the middle of the
month started to get seriously hotter, spiking up to 5 days over 30°C, with the hottest day of
the year, 36°C, for the National Holiday of 15th - a nice day for the beach but suffocating for
those who stayed in town - after which the temperatures slid back to where they had been for
the last part of the month. Here and there, blocking had occurred during these hot, dry days,
and, especially on the lighter sub-soils, the ripening process was arrested temporarily, or, as
we would see later, in some cases permanently. But generally the vine was to revive quickly.
During these two summer months, the by now usual vineyard work had been
performed: beginning with a first de-leafing in early July, very cautiously (bunches left too
exposed could et scorched if these dry hot days were to escalate into an August like 2003),
together with an even more conservative green harvest (after last year’s small crop, and with
even a big crop looking so healthy this year, there was no point in eliminating too much,
especially in the hail-damaged areas). In August, most did a second run-through to expose the
bunches on the other side – again conservatively – and to weed out the few laggard bunches
they could find. But in general, the mood this year was not for over-indulgence in greenharvesting.
That irregularity of bunch formation we had noticed after the budding, and which had
been partially caught up at the flowering, returned for the véraison (the colour change phase
of the grapes) which happened in a progressive, quite spun-out sequence, between the final
week of July and the third week of August. It was early - but nothing like as early as the three
previous records of 1997 (a vintage of record early mid-véraison - 31st July – but all to no
avail because of the damp August that was to follow), 1952 (3rd August) and 1990 (6th August
– by far the most successful of the three).
September-October and the harvest
As usual, the Atlantic high pressures that had provided such a great summer began to
deflate in September. The Lows were still coming over the Atlantic on the same quite
southerly track as in July and August – providing plenty of flooding for Northern England –
but, with deflating European Highs, the fronts spinning off them over France now met with
less resistance. This is presumably the reason that from the first of the month right up to 21st,
the daily forecast was for rain. There were sudden fears of a replay of 2006, when autumn
rains had taken the edge off a truly great potential, but, apart from a few light showers 2nd-4th
September (total of 6mm), all these fronts in the end stopped just short of Bordeaux. This
allowed the dry white harvest to be almost totally completed in ideal conditions by the time
the heavier traditional Equinox rain arrived 15th ,18th,19thband 20th September.
Some Right Bank growers on earlier soils had decided to harvest their Merlots just
before this rain on 14th, but many, after a first day of rather inconclusive trial picking, decided
to leave it another week – in the end just as well as these four days provided more
precipitation here than elsewhere - and they would have picked in the rain. However at this
time, some picked their Merlots, often those that had got blocked by the summer heat and
were going nowhere, but also several who started to panic because of high sugar readings.
From 21st September right up to the end of the harvest, there would be no more rain,
and temperatures would gradually rise. This is a most unusual phenomenon while the days are
getting shorter and is a further explanation of this most unusual vintage. The maximum daily
temperature for the last 10 days of September was 25.8° (cf average 23.7°), and for the first
10 days of October a whopping 24.6° (cf average 18.8°), providing ideal conditions for the
final concentration period. Last year, such conditions – although much cooler – had saved the
2008s, giving them just enough constitution to balance their otherwise hard tones. This time,
it was rather a question of 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.
Different vineyards have different time-cycles, but generally, in spite of these high
sugar readings, it took yet another week before “technical ripeness” (high sugar, low acidity)
became “phenolic ripeness” (totally ripe tannins). During the week of 21st, many were talking
about “Languedoc ripeness” (high alcohol but difficult tannins). The mornings had been very
cold mid-month, serving as “ripeness arrestors” and it was only when it turned very warm
again that the tannins started to soften, putting the vintage more in the fatter vein of a 1982
than the harder style of a 1975 (when the tannins never really reached absolute phenolic
ripeness). Most put the turning point at 28th-29th September.
This hot spell was caused by an unusual high pressure over England sucking warm air
up from the South and expelling it into a stationary mid-Atlantic Low. Such Lows normally
move West fast, which accounts for all the forecasts for rain at this time – rain that finally
never came, apart from a few insignificant showers 8th–11th October, because the Low refused
to budge. All this frayed many nerves and encouraged a few growers to harvest some plots
maybe a touch earlier than they should have done, but the main body of the harvest was
brought in now, the Merlots during this hot period up to 9th October, the Cabernets during the
much cooler week of 12th. This cooler period was perfect, with its near-freezing early morning
temperatures ensuring that the totally ripe bunches didn’t deteriorate.
The harvest was just about over by 16th, red, white and Sauternes (see chapter on
Sauternes later), but a few die-hards kept some parcels back and picked sporadically into the
rainier week of 19th.
So ended a textbook perfect vineyard year. Nobody could have wished for better.
Now, with the grapes crushed and the musts in the cellar, the big question was: what to do
with all that potential alcohol?
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. Modern vinification know-how and temperature-control have seen to it that the sugars
got totally fermented out, in itself a big difference from 1947 when the famous Cheval Blanc
is reported to be slightly sweet and some of its peers didn’t make it into bottle. 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
Yet there is much more to the 09s than just alcohol. Indeed it would seem that there is
so much else in these wines that all this alcohol even appears necessary to balance all their
other components. The tannin levels are extraordinarily high, often registering at well over
100 pts on the IPT scale, sometimes as far as 135, especially on the Médoc Cabernets. This is
way more than we have experienced in any previous reported vintage, and all this in spite of
the vinifiers’ generally gentle maceration policies. Then, the acidity levels are quite
reasonable – not as high as the more robust 05s but in stark contrast to the considerably lesser
acidities of the softer ‘90s and ’03s. 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.
Of course there will be the annual contest between Left and Right Bank. It’s a difficult
call to say which is better. The wines of the Right Bank, by dint of its heavier soils (which are
said to have made it the winner in ’21, the hottest, driest vintage of them all) and
predominance of Merlot, are clearly more powerful in all aspects, especially in alcohol, whilst
those of the Left Bank balance the equation through the most concentrated Cabernets they
have ever experienced; these Cabs got more blocked by the aridity of the Médoc and Graves
summer than their Right Bank Cabernet Franc equivalents, but then made a wonderful comeback,
after most of the Right Bank Merlots were in, during the end-of-season October heatwave,
often ending up with alcohol as high as their Merlots. Finally, 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.
So much for the positive aspects of this extraordinary vintage. But the story would not
be complete without mentioning the significant variations within it. First, we have already
noted the disparity between the earlier- and later-budding vines, which got assimilated to a
certain extent during the summer –especially on the moister clay and chalk soils - but still
accounted for irregularly ripe bunches at the end. Then there were many growers, mostly in
lesser areas, who got frightened by the abnormally high September sugar readings and who
picked there and then, before true phenolic ripeness, often realising their mistake afterwards
and trying to catch up with longer macerations, which just made it worse. There will be some
examples of these rather hard and bitter wines in the spring tastings. Then, at the other end of
the scale, the habitually very late pickers, especially on the Right Bank, have certainly
sometimes made wines that will be incredibly alcoholic, very dryly tannic, ultra low in acidity
and maybe prone to brett. We just have to hope that the counter-trend that we have noticed in
our tastings of the bottled wines of such estates since the 2004 vintage towards more balanced
wines will have continued.
Overall, 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. Yet it does not seem to have all the warm, exotic softness of the
extreme heat-wave vintages ’03, ’90 and ’21, nor the more traditional style of the ’45 and ’61
(which got their concentration primarily from the tiny yields caused by freak late May frosts)
Comparisons to other vintages are proverbially difficult to make, but maybe we can say that
’09 is what ’82 or ’85 would have been if the vineyard and the yields had been managed as
today, or what the ’47 would have been if the vinification had been controlled as today. All of
those historic vintages seem to share the same sweetness of concentrated fruit as the ‘09, but
in those days, 12°5 for the Cabs and 13°5 for the Merlots was the absolute maximum. These
‘09s have, in addition, far higher alcohol levels which make the vintage - so far – unique.
Better? We’ll see.
2009 dry whites
These are totally different wines from last year. The ‘08s had been steely and citrus
flavoured, whereas these ‘09s are fat and rich with a roundness of peachy fruit, as one would
expect after such a summer. The alcohol levels are high, but Bordeaux whites rarely go as
high as the reds, and, like the reds, their acid balance and strength of fruit seem to demand
such a strong base. Their acidity is generally lower than in ’05 but greater than in ’00 and
especially than in ’03, giving the wines a gentle balance that should make them approachable
very early but certainly capable of holding that balance for many years.
Everyone seems just as pleased with their Sauvignons as with their Sémillons, except
as regards the yields which were generally lower for the former. So expect more Sémillon in
the final blends. The aromas of both are already well-evident yet complex and will certainly
respond well to oak.
Then we have to spare a thought for all those Entre-Deux-Mers, Blayais and Graves
growers, often the same ones who suffered from the Spring frosts of ’08 and who, in ’09,
were at the centre of the devastating May hail-storms. There are many with less than half a
normal crop, and supply shortages are already appearing, especially for Sauvignon.
These hailed white vineyards and many red ones in the St Emilion, Blaye, Southern
Médoc and Graves produced a very small crop, sometimes even none at all. A few estates on
both banks also lost yield by excessive green harvesting in early summer, but, for all the rest,
the crop was quite large, usually at or close to the maximum permitted yield
Last year, the Sauternais had caught the thick end of the wedge with that nasty spring
frost, but this time, after such a summer, by mid-September, the prospect of a great and
plentiful vintage was at last within their grasp. There had been more water in the 3rd August
showers than elsewhere (45mm in Sauternes, only 5 in Pauillac) and, as elsewhere, the
showers of 2nd-4th September had re-invigorated the vine, so the hot 30°C days of 6th-10th sent
the ripening galloping ahead. The grapes were already going golden and at 14° potential by
mid-September. All that was needed was some botrytis to finish the job off.
Many estates had some pickers out as early as 14th, cleaning up the bunches rather
than actually picking (they call this “nettoyage”), but all the same a small quantity of freshscented
and beautifully sweet wine could be made from the occasional botrytised or shrivelled
bunches. Compared to the volume that was to follow, this was almost nothing, but at the time,
remembering what had happened in 2000 (when that was all they would get), at least now
there was some must in the cellar.
The First Picking proper didn’t start until after the quite heavy rain (33mm) of 18th-
20th. This brought a surge of botrytis development but it took a few more days for it to
progress from “pourri plein” stage to “rôti”. The nights had been just too cool and the
afternoons too hot and dry. However, there had been some foggy mornings, creating the
perfect medium for this to happen, and on Monday 28th, all estates were out. That day, the
pickers took their time, but the botrytis was concentrating so fast that the musts were already
too rich, and this First Picking had to be accelerated in order to keep the sugar at a reasonable
level. The concentration continued apace, and the Second Picking kicked in immediately, with
no let-up for the weekend of 3rd-4th October.
With the musts now averaging 22 – 26° potential, and with little hope of averaging the
sweetness back down on the later pickings, some decided to call in all their reserve troops for
the Monday and to spend the whole week harvesting whole bunches: everything, rôti, pourri
plein, half-botrytised, golden grapes, the lot. This week of 5th October became one of
explosive activity in the vineyard accounting for ¾ of the harvest by the Friday night. It
reminded everyone of those 3 other vintages where the same thing had happened: 11th-21st
September 1990, 15th-26th September 2003 and especially 12th-17th October 2001.
With the days getting hotter and the nights warmer, there were a few outbreaks of bad
rot and mould, which slowed pickers down over the weekend of 10th-11th. But by then most
had finished. Just a few estates lingered on into two final pickings during the much cooler
week of 12th – there was even a light frost on the Friday morning – and there were still some
die-hards out up to the rainy period starting 20th, but these final pickings were of botrytis that
had not really evolved for some time due to the cold nights.
The general conclusion 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. This suggests a very different kind of wine to the fatter,
softer but similarly very sweet vintages like 2005, 2003, 1990, 1976, and (I am told)1947,
1929 and 1921, and a similar style of wine to the more vibrant but just-as-sweet and complex
wines of 2001, 1989, 1975, 1959, and I am told, 1858 and 1847…
The aromas are already very interesting, with beautiful complex flavours of all sorts.
Many châteaux – and not the least - managed to balance out their sweetness by doing a bigger
early pick, so obviating the need to pick non-botrytis grapes later. Maybe these will turn out
to be more true-blue Sauternes than the rest. We will see.
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
the past 50 years, and, as we have seen, the changes in the trans-Atlantic air currents are
provoking wetter springs and drier summers. However, there seem to be other cycles at work
too: The 50s, 60s and 70s were cooler in Bordeaux, and the 80s, 90s and 00s warmer. So it’s
quite possible that for the next 30 years, there could be a battle between global warming on
the one hand and a return to a natural cool period on the other. Wine makes for optimism but
let’s not forget those two decades of poor vintages from 1901 to 1919, which followed the
two legendary vintages 1899 and 1900.
Bill Blatch, Bordeaux, 4th February 2010
This is an interesting article in 'The Drinks Business'.
It was fascinating to see that the 2001 was actually performing better as an investment vintage than the 2005. However there are too many caveats when quoting statistics for wine pricing. Wines such as Chateau Lafite have seriously skewed statistics due to the Asian demand.
I still think the 2005 Bordeaux vintage was exceptional and will be proven as a great vintage over the next 10-15 years.
I like tasting and drinking wine. If the wine happens to improve in price then, that is also positive, but certainly not the main reason for buying.
We have been very lucky with the weather conditions for the Bordeaux wines throughout the last 10 years. With the possible exception of 2002 there are some stunning quality wines to be enjoyed.
I am still extremely optimistic for the 2009 wines, which we will be tasting in 6 weeks time in Bordeaux.
If you are looking to purchase certain Chateaux then please email me a list of wines you require and I will have allocations. there will be no obligation to purchase until the prices appear and the deals are confirmed later in May and June.
Sometimes I receive requests for amazing quantities of wine to be supplied to far flung countries......in fact I am currently quoting an exciting project in China for 500,000 bottles.
But with any large quote or with any volume of production one always has to have honesty and integrity. If there is not enough wine to supply then that is it. You can not re label or re invent wine for the market.
Apparently this is what has been happening with some producers in the Languedoc in order to supply a large American brand.
Read more here.
It has always been said that you should buy two cases of the best wines in the best vintages. This always gives you the option to sell one case and drink the other.
I have followed the fine wine market for a number of years and always been relatively confident that it is a diverse, interesting and potentially profitable investment choice.
This article in the Financial Times estimated that there is over £1.2 billion worth of wine in UK warehouses. I would think that this estimate is conservative.
Now I am in the fortunate position to be able to get the best prices (ie the first release prices) for most of the best Bordeaux wines, when the Primeur prices are released. This is similar to a new release of a share price or a company flotation on the stock market.
Sometimes it is good to get in early and secure the best price.
The other thing to bear in mind is that wine is finite. There is only a certain amount produced at each Chateau in each vintage. You can not duplicate or replicate the best wine in the World.
We will shortly be having tastings to assess the quality of the 2009 Bordeaux vintage and then the prices will be released from the Chateaux in May and June.
If you are interested in buying wines 'En Primeur' then please contact me directly. firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the new label for Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2007. Every year since 1946 the owner of the Chateau has selected an artist or sculptor to incorporate some of their work on to the label.
Some of the most famous and infamous artists have featured: Salvador Dali 1958, Henry Morre 1964, Joan Miro 1969, Pablo Piccasso 1973, Andy Warhol 1975 and even Prince Charles in 2004. The artists do not receive a formal payment. But they do receive a quantity of (cases) of two different vintages (obviously the current featured vintage as well as a drinking vintage).
The paintings for the label are a novel creation with some reference to wine, Mouton Rothschild or enjoyment. This obviously leaves the artists to be as whacky as they want. Some of the labels are particularly weird. You can see all the labels from 1945 until 2004 here.
I like the 1999 label by Raymond Savignac, the controversial naked lady from 1993 by Balthus and the great 1982 by John Huston.
Some years the Chateau dedicates the wine to certain people such as The Queen Mother (who stayed at Mouton in 1977).
It is a master stroke of marketing and innovation to use these fabulous artists.
There is talk that the 2008 label will be the first Chinese artist to be on a Mouton label. This could be a coup as the Asian market is becoming more powerful for Bordeaux sales.
There has been very positive comments regarding the 2009 harvest in Bordeaux. Now that the initial hype may have calmed slightly, there seems to be some concerns about the alcohol levels (relatively high). But these richer fuller wines are similar to 2005,2003 and 2000 which all had higher than normal alcohol levels and produced some of the best wines of the last 10 years.
I was fortunate to be able to pick some Merlot at Chateau de la Riviere in Fronsac.
Xavier Buffo, (the winemaker) and James Gregoire (the owner) were both very confident for this harvest. The pure ripe quality of the grapes bodes well for the wines, which will be produced.
I will be in Bordeaux in January for business meetings as well as tastings, so I should be able to get a clearer picture from various respected Chateaux owners and tasters.
The crazy week of 'Primeur Tastings' in April should be an interesting time. The exchange rate is still not favorable for UK or US wine buyers, but if the wines are top quality people will always want to buy them .The efforts and energies of many negociants have shifted to the exciting markets in the East. Will these relatively new markets of Russia, India, Singapore, China and Hong Kong be the new future for Bordeaux wines?
I am looking forward to 2010 to spend more time at the top quality wine estates in Bordeaux.
Here are some interesting observations from Stephane Derenoncourt, who is one of the top consultant winemakers in the Bordeaux area. (Click on Stephane's name to read the interview.)
Recently I was fortunate enough to fly in a helicopter over Saint Emilion. We hovered over the village and then went to explore various Chateaux. This picture is the fabulous Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Cheval Blanc. It is an un assuming Chateau, but it produces some of the finest wines of the World. It is interesting the sight from the air, where we could see the earth and the patchwork of exploratory works in the replanted vineyard.
One of the best wines that I have ever tasted was the Chateau Cheval Blanc 1983. I enjoyed this wine at the Jockey Club in Newmarket, whilst celebrating my 30th birthday (10 years ago). I remember the wine. My wife organised a surprise birthday party so I was surrounded by friends and family and enjoying very fine wines. What a treat. And the memories of the wine and the fabulous evening are still vivid 10 years later.
Gary Vaynerchuk is an interesting character who has embraced social media and the internet in order to communicate about wine.
It is well worth having a look at his recent presentation at the Wine Future conference in Rioja. It is a 25 minute talk (without notes) but shows an insight to this modern style of wine communication. Click on the link here.