2009 Red Burgundies

While some Burgundy snobs are already insisting that the 2010 reds are the real article whereas the '09s are too New World, enjoying these vintages need not be an either-or proposition.  Yes, 2009 has a very ripe and sometimes even roasted side, and many wines appear to be best suited for drinking over the next dozen years or so.  But it's also a vintage with outstanding succulent appeal.  And although many wines stand out for their sweet fruit, fleshy texture, easygoing acidity and lush tannins, there's no shortage of more classically styled wines with restrained sweetness, good flavor definition and vibrant finishes.  In short, it's a more heterogeneous vintage than the naysayers would allow, its wide range of styles largely due to variations in vine yields, harvesting dates and extraction during vinification.

A number of growers I visited in November believe that the 2009s are for drinking at virtually any time during their lives in bottle.  They feel that the '09s will always have an approachable side, and will never really go into a shell.  They prize these wines most for their easygoing sweetness and sheer drinkability.  A minority of growers, however, are convinced that the '09s will close down at some stage of their evolution--perhaps soon.

The vintage's reputation for overripeness is exaggerated.  The warm, dry growing season was not nearly as extreme as 2003.  It's true that some 2009s come across as a bit ponderous, but even wines that show a candied sweetness often possess adequate supporting acidity and avoid coming off as roasted.  They also frequently have the concentration and ripe tannins to support mid-term aging.  But few of them possess the tightly coiled springs with which so many 2010s will begin their lives in bottle.  Only the most concentrated and best-balanced 2009s will be long-distance runners.

There was generally plenty of juice in the grapes in 2009.  Some growers picked too early, prior to real phenolic ripeness, and there is a dusty or even green edge to the tannins of these wines.  But the risk associated with waiting was the possibility of losing too much acidity or getting aromas of surmaturité.  Numerous '09s are chocolatey or even a bit liqueur-like, though not in the style of the 2003s, which were from a much hotter year.  High alcohol and overripeness dull the more delicate treble notes of terroir--the flowers, minerals, spices and brisk red fruits I associate with classic red Burgundies.

Sugar ripeness often arrived before phenolic ripeness in 2009, so potential alcohol could reach high levels before the skins and stems were ripe.  Actually, a dark secret of the 2009 vintage is that with elevated crop levels, some growers had too many bunches, and some of their grapes were not fully ripe.  But some growers were tempted to skimp on sorting because the grape skins were healthy, and the early hype on the vintage was already indicating that prices would be high.  One grower in Gevrey-Chambertin told me that phenolic maturity in his grapes was lower in 2009 than it had been in the three previous vintages.  Without careful extraction, he said, the tannins could take on a harsh character and overwhelm the fruit.  (Please refer to Issue 154 of the IWC for a detailed description of this warm, dry growing season and the conditions during the harvest.)

Vinifying with a percentage of whole clusters was often constructive in 2009, as the stem components gave needed grip to the wines, and the pungent herb, pepper and spice notes contributed by stems gave many wines an element of aromatic lift that they would not otherwise have had.  But clearly other winemakers were hesitant to vinify with stems because they were not convinced that they were sufficiently ripe.

During my November  tour to taste 2010s from barrel and 2009s from bottle, a few producers insisted that I taste their 2009s first.  (Normally I'd start by tasting the new vintage from barrel and then the bottled wines.)  Their reasoning, which was in most cases correct, was that the 2009s, rich as they might be, would come off as a bit roasted and heavy, even tired, after the bright, sappy 2010s.  In fact, in a number of cellars I visited in November, I had a clear preference for the 2010s.

But the best 2009s, tasted on their own, betray little in the way of cooked character.  A few examples of estates whose wines avoid the warm, chocolatey side of 2009 and show plenty of inner-mouth tension and clarity include Barthod, Chandon de Briailles, Anne Gros, Jadot, Mugneret-Gibourg, Perrot-Minot, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Roty and Rousseau.  Later racking often preserved the freshness of the wines, but this was not always possible in cases where the malos finished early.

The happiest campers in 2009 were typically growers who could pick thoroughly ripe fruit on the early side.  But many of my favorite wines of the vintage come from cooler, later-harvested terroirs where the grapes ripen slowly and steadily while retaining acidity.  I also give the edge to the Cote de Nuits in 2009.  On the Cote de Beaune, some growers picked their chardonnay first, and then had to rush to bring in their pinot before potential alcohol levels spiked too high and acidity levels plunged.  Others on the Cote de Beaune admitted to seeing some hydric stress.

My notes in this issue include hundreds of wines I tasted in Burgundy in November.  I also sampled another 100 to 150 wines from 15 or so producers in January and February chez moi.  Interestingly, because I did not have to taste these latter wines directly before or after the 2010s, relatively few of them came across as obviously overripe or dulled by alcohol.  On the contrary, many of these wines were silky, welcoming beauties.  Two thousand nine is a vintage that will have many admirers.