Bordeaux 2009: The Best Ever?

Rarely has a young Bordeaux vintage been so much fun to taste as 2009. There’s a lot to be said for not having the enamel stripped off your teeth during a long day’s tasting of hundreds of young wines. Actually, with 2009 Bordeaux, the challenge was to resist drinking the samples, as they were that flattering and sweet.

The hallmark of this outstanding vintage, which many experts (though not all) have gone on record as describing as the greatest of all time, is the unique combination of fine ripe tannins and sweet creamy flesh offset by lively acidity. It’s the acidity of the ’09s that makes the wines of this vintage so different from any recent great year (think of an ideal blend of 2005, 1990 and 1961). If anything, the best wines of 2009 have a vaguely Burgundian quality to them, as difficult as that may be for the Bordelais to stomach! In my experience, this Burgundy quality is only to be found in great vintages. While it’s not too difficult to get powerful, balanced wines from cabernet and merlot in good vintages, it is a much rarer thing to unite the brute force those varieties are capable of achieving with the dainty, almost ethereal aromatics and gentle tannic architecture of 2009. And the best Bordeaux of 2009 are indeed wines of uncommon power, charm and perfume.

But 2009 is not a runaway success, as there are many disappointing wines and overall quality is lower than, for example, 2005, the other great recent vintage to which ’09 is being widely compared. The 2005 wines are big and sometimes brawny, with impressive tannic structures, and the vintage is essentially a major success across the board: one famous vigneron, who asked not to be named, recently told me that “you would have had to be a complete idiot not to make a great wine in 2005.” But the 2009s could not be any more different in style. They have just as much strength lurking beneath the surface, but they are infinitely more charming and flattering wines. In fact, all that glossy, ripe, creamy fruit in many cases can make the ’09s seem almost too easy to drink and lead people to question their aging potential. But while 2005 produced many more good to very good wines than 2009, the latest vintage may well have yielded more superstars, with numerous estates making some of the finest wines in their history.

What the proprietors and the winemakers say. Of course, such distinctions are lost on the Bordelais, who have a new vintage to sell. Jean-Louis Triaud of Château Saint-Pierre joked about the fixation wine writers and collectors have with great vintages: “Sure, 2009 is better than 2005. But of course it is: I have ’09 to sell now! And let me tell you,” he laughed, “next year’s vintage will be even better.” In fact, nearly everywhere I went during the two weeks I spent tasting the 2009 Bordeaux, the song remained the same, with nearly everyone agreeing that ’09 will go down in history as one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of all time. According to Jean-Philippe Delmas of Château Haut-Brion, “The ’09s are the richest wines we have ever made, but despite this richness the wines are balanced and fresh. That is the key. Making a big, rich wine is now possible for almost anyone, but to make one that is also balanced is another story. And that to me is the real magic of 2009.” Pierre Lurton at Cheval Blanc echoed those words: “In 2009, even though the wines are very powerful, there’s a cashmere-like feel to the tannins. It was the long growing season, with cool nights and dry fall weather, that allowed our grapes to reach optimal ripeness.”

At Château Margaux, Paul Pontallier felt the same way: “I remember being very impressed with the first vats of cabernet sauvignon. They reminded me a lot of those of 1990, although in 2009 there was much more concentration. On the contrary, the merlot had me worried, because I thought it was a little rustic and too alcoholic. But by judiciously blending the two varieties in the right proportion, I feel we made excellent wines of great breadth and length.” Michel Rolland, the renowned winemaking consultant and owner of estates like Châteaux Le Bon Pasteur and Fontenil on the Right Bank, put it bluntly: “Quite simply, 2009 is the best Bordeaux vintage I have ever worked with.” According to Frédéric Engerer, estate manager at Château Latour, “It’s important that those of us lucky enough to have tasted these wines early as futures offerings fix them in our memory, because 30 years from now this will still be the vintage by which all new ones are measured.”

Denis Dubourdieu, renowned enologist and owner of a number of Bordeaux estates, told me, “The grapes in ’09 were so spectacular I actually called my father out to the vineyard to see them, and he said he had never seen such beautiful grapes before in his life.” Still, Dubourdieu cautioned, “It wasn’t all great, though: while I was happy with the Sauternes vintage from the outset, I can’t say the same for the reds. There was a lack of water at times, and those dry spells caused physiological stress in some vineyards that led to the formation of dry, rustic tannins.” Another dissenting voice in the general hoopla over the ’09 vintage was that of Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville-Las Cases: “The harvest date was critical this year, and the farther north you went in the Médoc the more difficult it was to ripen fruit properly.” Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam, technical director at Pichon-Lalande, put another spin on it: “This was a year in which you needed to be very selective in order to make the greatest wine possible, but the vintage allowed you not to be.” This is a critical point when analyzing why some 2009 wines are just very good instead of stellar: some producers were so enthusiastic about the quality of the grapes, they may have put too much of their fruit into their grand vin.

Of course, when it comes to wines made in an area as large as Bordeaux, with myriad exposures and soil types, generalizations never quite work out. For example, the month of August was considerably drier on the Left Bank than on the Right, and differences such as this one, along with countless other elements, including the human variable of work in the vineyards, go a long way to explaining why some appellations, and some estates, were more or less successful than others.

In fact, rarely before has a top vintage been so dependent on terroir. Simply put, in 2009 the best wines come from the best sites, provided there weren’t any major human blunders made (and of course there were). Thanks to the ability great terroirs have to auto-regulate their water supply and feed it to the root systems of the vines when they need it most, grapes from the best sites were far less likely to struggle to reach full maturity, and the vines suffered less water stress. Clearly, in a hot year with some drought issues, sandy or gravelly soils allowed water to drain away too quickly, and in many instances precluded making wines with outstanding depth of flavor. Human mistakes can obviously nullify the advantages of great terroir and in Bordeaux, as elsewhere, overripeness and overextraction are still problems, though happily less so in 2009 than in some recent vintages. If you consider that some properties started picking their merlots when others had essentially finished harvesting their cabernets (normally it’s the other way around), you can understand why quality can be all over the place. Still, the hierarchy of terroir was never more obvious than in the wines of 2009. In this respect, 2009 may well be remembered as the most undemocratic of all Bordeaux vintages.

The weather in review. The 2009 growing season satisfied all the requirements for making great wines, and this was why people were already talking about a “vintage of the century” even before the wines had been tasted. In fact, though, the 2009 season did not begin quite so auspiciously. But following the fifth coldest winter of the last 20 years and a brutal wind storm in late January, the weather settled down and, ultimately, January and April were the only two months of the year with significantly above-average rainfall. March was very dry (56% less rainfall than average for the month) and sunny (23% more sunlight hours). May was significant for hailstorms that fell on the 9th, 11th, 13th and 25th, affecting more than 25,000 hectares of Bordeaux vineyards (roughly 60,000 acres), with disastrous results in some areas. June then saw 30% more sunlight hours than usual, and this allowed for a rapid and homogeneous flowering. July recorded an average number of sunlight hours for that month, while temperatures were a hair warmer and rainfall slightly lower than long-term averages.

In fact, only in the last ten days of July did a sustained dry spell begin, and this ultimately led to water deprivation-induced vine stress, especially in gravel-dominant soils planted to young vines. Though many wine writers and bloggers have gone on record that 2009 is a great cabernet sauvignon year and hence a Left Bank vintage, such generalizations are, at best, superficial. After all, it was on the Left Bank that the drought conditions continued right through August (less than 20 millimeters of rain fell during the entire month), while the Right Bank enjoyed some liquid refreshment on both August 1 and 8. Even though August of 2009 was the sixth warmest August on record, nighttime temperatures descended below 68 degrees on all but three nights, and afternoon highs were not nearly as extreme as those of 2003. These daytime/nighttime temperature patterns were essential to preserving the acidity in the grapes, as well as to assuring good pigment concentration in the skins.

Finally, September and the first half of October were nearly perfect (save for the showers that hit the Right Bank from September 18 through 20), with the latter month comparable to both 1985 and 1990, two other outstanding years for the wines of Bordeaux. The rain that fell on September 18, 19 and 20 (up to 40 millimeters in some areas) helped revive the metabolism of the vines. It also led to some estates prolonging the harvest of their merlots in an effort to avoid picking diluted grapes, but in delaying they often set themselves up for the production of overripe wines.

In the end, a comparison of 2005 and 2009 shows that sugar and acidity levels in the grapes were not so different. However, more so than in ’05, harvest dates were critical in 2009, as physiological maturity of the polyphenols in the skins often trailed the build-up of sugar in the grapes. Picking too early could have meant unripe tannins and astringent wines, while picking too late could yield overalcoholic, overripe wines. And though it may have been obvious to most, but not all, estate managers not to pick the merlot too late, identifying the ideal time for harvesting the cabernets—especially the cabernet franc on the Right Bank—was not so easy. As Michel Rolland told me, “It was always a tradition on the Right Bank to complete the harvest once it started, without waiting. And so today many still pick the cabernet franc immediately after the merlot. But in 2009 this could not be done, as the cabernet franc wasn’t ripe yet.” As a general rule, and with exceptions based largely on altitude and soil type, those who picked their older merlots in the last third of September and their cabernets during the first half of October did best. Although winemaking is not an exact science, it’s no accident that there were very few estates that made really great wines by picking merlot in mid-October.

Some critics question whether the ’09 wines, with their great concentration, high alcohol levels and very ripe fruit, are really typical of Bordeaux. After all, they argue, 14.5% alcohol and early accessibility are not what fine Bordeaux is about, even allowing for climate change. Some experts have even gone as far as to describe the 2009 clarets as Napa-like, but I do not feel this is an apt comparison. As I mentioned earlier, the best 2009s are almost Burgundian in style, and the Napa analogy, if used in a pejorative sense, may be on the mark in the sense of borderline-overripe and overly alcoholic wines, but only applies to the less successful wines of this vintage.

Finally, these weather conditions also explain the superlative quality of the 2009 vintage in Sauternes. I’ll offer more information about this subject, as well as notes on the best early prospects, within the next few weeks.

To buy or not to buy 2009 Bordeaux futures. Last year, there was concern on the part of some buyers that many châteaux might delay or forgo a 2008 en primeur campaign altogether. But it took place, more or less successfully, thanks to the better than expected quality of the wines. There will be no such worries with the 2009 vintage, and demand for the top wines is expected to be high. Unfortunately, prices for futures will also be high, probably on a par with, or even slightly higher than, those asked at the outset for the 2005s. The only thing that will change is the demographic makeup of the buyers: many Bordeaux insiders expect upwards of 80% of the wines from the top estates to end up in the Far East, especially China, which will likely become the major market for top classified-growth Bordeaux over the next few years. For this reason, many feel that futures prices for the most important wines will not be announced until the Vinexpo Asia-Pacific tour in late May.

Is there a reason to buy ’09 futures given the slow economy and difficult global situation? The short answer is yes, whether you plan to buy for investment purposes or for the sheer pleasure of drinking these wines. As far as investors are concerned, the greatest Bordeaux wines from the best vintages usually increase in value over the longer term, no matter how expensive they were upon release. Moreover, wine drinkers who want to buy now so that they can lock in favorable early prices for wines they plan to enjoy can also go ahead: as most of the buying frenzy will be concentrated on the first growths, a few super-seconds and a handful of scarce Right Bank items, wine lovers should have the opportunity to pick up many excellent if not outstanding wines at very interesting prices.

In general, the 2009s will be more approachable early on than the wines of other comparably outstanding vintages, though clearly those readers who do not think they’ll be drinking much wine in 10 or 15 years may just want to buy the odd bottle for the sake of curiosity.

Undoubtedly, speculators will be keen to snag what they believe will be the best investment vehicles of 2009, but whether they’re able to get much of those wines remains to be seen. Some European wine merchants say they already have thousands of wish lists on their desks from eager customers. Whether this is true or just part of the usual futures hype is hard to know for certain, but it underscores a potentially very serious problem. That is, some merchants may be tempted to take your orders—and your money—for wines that they then won’t be able to deliver. Thus, more than ever before, I would caution readers to exercise extreme care when choosing whom to buy from.

I should point out that the second wines of numerous top estates are quite special in 2009, and some of these will offer relative bargains. Wines like Les Forts de Latour, Petit Cheval, Carruades de Lafite, La Chapelle d’Ausone, and especially Margaux’s Pavillon Rouge and Haut-Brion’s Le Clarence are, as never before, equivalent in quality to most top cru classés. I view this phenomenon as another sign of the very high quality of 2009.

Moreover, for claret lovers who simply want to drink well, there are many very successful vintages of Bordeaux still widely available—2008, 2006, 2001 and 2000 all produced some excellent wines—and doing a little research may help you find top wines at surprisingly reasonable prices.

All the wines described in this article were tasted in late March and early April in Bordeaux. Virtually all wines were sampled at least twice (blind, wherever possible) and many three or four times during my two weeks in the region. I have limited my full notes to the most promising wines in each appellation, and have made a point to highlight numerous potential sleepers and other items that may offer relative value. But please note that my lists of “Also Recommended” include many more very good wines that may ultimately merit outstanding ratings if they improve during their final year or more in barrel.

I should also mention two important caveats for wine lovers to consider when reading the following notes and considering the scores. First, you will find that a number of chronic underachievers have garnered higher than usual scores. Though these scores may indicate that some of these estates are finally making better wine (and I should note that some properties had already done unexpectedly well in 2008), it may also simply be a consequence of the potentially superlative quality of the 2009 vintage. Only a taste of future vintages will tell us if these excellent ’09s are signs of real improvement at their respective châteaux—or one-hit wonders.

Second, you may also wonder why some wines that have been rated very highly by some other critics have received lower scores here, in spite of the quality of the vintage. To a large degree, this is a matter of taste. Some of the wines in question have been made from fruit pushed to the limits of ripeness, and I suspect that others were overextracted. Many of these wines are carrying 14.5% or even 15% alcohol, and in most cases these high-octane levels are already noticeable or will eventually act to the detriment of the wine. In rare instances, superrich wines can be so well balanced that their extreme alcohol levels really do seem to remain in the background—and the alcohol may even be necessary to keep all the other components in harmony—but those wines are the exceptions, not the rule. Without question, the 2009 vintage has delivered some remarkable wines that are also quite high in alcohol. Readers who are tolerant of 14.5+% alcohol and enjoy very ripe, fleshy wines characterized by low acidity and high pH will likely score such wines higher than I did.

Ian D’Agata, director of the International Wine Academy of Rome and the author of numerous in-depth reports on Italian wine in past issues of the IWC, also has a passion for the wines of Bordeaux. The veteran of dozens of visits to the Bordeaux region dating back more than 25 years, D’Agata has published extensively on the wines of Bordeaux in the food and wine magazine Cucina e Vini, including annual coverage of the primeurs in recent years, and is currently writing a book on the wines and people of Bordeaux.