Bordeaux 2010: All That Glitters...

At the recent en primeur tastings in early April, many producers and critics were gushing with praise about the reds, calling 2010 another vintage of the century for Bordeaux, even better than 2009.  Considering that 2009 has been widely judged to be not just great, but possibly the greatest vintage of all time, that was high praise indeed for the new crop of wines.  In fact, from very early on the 2010 Bordeaux vintage was being talked up as outstanding.  Even in late summer, more than one producer I visited mentioned that 2010 was likely to be one of the best vintages ever due to the excellent growing season.  This despite the fact that in many of the vineyards I walked through last August in numerous appellations, the foliage showed a kaleidoscope of shades of yellow, a sure sign of photosynthetic blockage, usually a consequence of water stress.  Then, by December, some producers were stating flat out that the vintage was superior to 2009. 

I am not in their camp.  After spending 13 days in Bordeaux in late March and early April tasting hundreds of wines at the Primeurs (most of them at least twice), I believe that claims that 2010 is another vintage of the century are overstating the case.  Certainly, the 2010 vintage is a very good one, even excellent, and the source of some fantastic wines; in fact, a few estates have probably made their best wines ever, but they are a small minority.  In general, the 2010s are all about structure, acidity and freshness.  They are polar opposites of the 2009s, which are characterized by supple, often opulent texture and perfumed, creamy charm.  The best 2010s also show great purity and finesse, and their higher total acidities combined with firm, ripe tannins should give them superb aging potential, although this does not necessarily mean that they will outlive the 2009s.

In the end, 2010 produced wines more similar in structure to the 2005s and to the 1986s of the Médoc--and in complete contrast to the 2009s and 1982s.  However, I am not yet convinced that 2010 is in quite the same quality class as any of those earlier vintages.  It is safe to say that the 2010s will live and die by their tannins:  the best wines are those that haven't been overextracted and whose tannins are velvety and rich; these are far removed from the many 2010s that are marred by angular, astringent tannins.

So why the many accolades bestowed on 2010?  No doubt 2010 has benefited from the knee-jerk reflex on the part of early tasters to deem great all vintages of full-bodied, highly structured wines with apparently limitless aging potential.  For example, most people initially preferred the serious, more classic 1983s to the softer, more voluptuous 1982s.  I was also reminded of the 1975 Bordeaux, another vintage of brawny, tannic wines that was supposed to age spectacularly.  However, many 1975s have failed to live up to their billing:  they have not aged gracefully, remaining tannic and hard all their lives.  My fear is that many 2010 Bordeaux will begin to lose their fruit before their tannins resolve.

The 2010 growing season. Three main climatic factors characterize the weather in 2010:  dry conditions, low temperatures, and exceptionally sunny days.  It follows that there was virtually no disease pressure in 2010, so that is one problem producers did not have to face.  The very dry summer conditions helped concentrate the berries, while the low daytime temperatures and cool nights of August and September helped preserve acidity and enhanced the synthesis of aromatic precursors, allowing for wines of potentially great power, freshness and pure aromatics.  Berries were small, as was the number of grapes per bunch, so yields were limited, and the high skin-to-juice ratio was another factor explaining the concentration of anthocyanins (grape pigments) and tannins in the 2010s.

After the mild, rainy autumn of 2009, rainfall in November was heavy, but then the first months of 2010 were exceptionally dry, with temperatures roughly 2.1°C below the seasonal average.  This caused a late start to the growth cycle, which helped protect the vines from spring frosts (seven episodes of frost in the first two weeks of March alone, an occurrence seen only in March of 1971) but also caused the vegetative cycle to fall behind.  Ultimately, all of the major phenological steps in the life cycle of the vine (budbreak, flowering, color change and harvest) would be later than average. 

Budbreak was ten days behind schedule (a warm spell in April allowed the vines to catch up partially), with budding taking place uniformly, especially on the Right Bank.  Fertilization, however, was disrupted by days of cold and rainy weather, which resulted in an extended flowering period (mainly in two successive waves, in the latter half of May and in early June) that witnessed significant flower abortion (millerandage) and widespread failure of the fruit to set, or berry shatter (coulure), which greatly reduced potential yields.  All varieties were affected to a degree, but merlot suffered more than the two cabernets, which usually flower later and did so in 2010 under better conditions.

The end of June saw a spike in daily temperatures; drought conditions set in and continued right through July and August.  The veraison (the color change of the berries) happened evenly and quickly, taking place in early August.  Rain fell on only 11 days in July and August combined, and very little at that.  Daily temperatures were 1.5°C higher than average in July:  in fact, July 2010 was hotter than 2009, 2008 and 2005 and much drier than 2009 and 2005.  The warm, parched July led to water stress and in many sites slowed the progression of physiological ripening, which sparks the concentration process in the berries.  The earlier this process starts, the more full-bodied the final wines will be.  However, it's not so cut-and-dried:  the water stress must continue gradually, allowing the vines to adapt to the new conditions, something that was not always the case in 2010.  Furthermore, the arrest of the vines' metabolism and physiological growth was broadly seen in 2010 (as opposed to in 2009, when it was gradual and limited to only a few specific soil types).  In 2010, there was also little rain in August and September, respectively one-third and one-quarter the monthly totals for the previous ten years.  In other words, Bordeaux had its driest July-through-September period of the last decade and one of the driest of the last 30 years.

Another important contributing factor to the style of wines made in 2010 is the fact that August and September were not hot.  August of 2010 was cooler than both 2000 and 2005, and September 2010 was cooler than September 2009.  More importantly, 2010 recorded pronounced differences between day and night temperatures, with cooler nights than both 2005 and 2009.  These cool temperatures help explain the high total acidities and freshness the 2010s display.  Much like August, September 2010 was also dry, with 50% less rainfall than in 2005 or 2009.  There was light shower activity in early September that was very beneficial, kickstarting the vine's metabolic machinery again, permitting anthocyanin build-up and polymerization (hence the deep colors of the 2010s).  These favorable weather conditions helped the grapes ripen, but the persisting cool temperatures prevented some fruit from reaching optimal maturity, and delayed the harvest.

Understanding the wines. Not all of the requirements for making great wine were satisfied during the growing season of 2010.  For starters, due to the cool, rainy weather, the flowering was neither even nor rapid.  Problems at flowering can result in berries of wildly different ripeness levels within the same bunch at harvest, often leading to green, vegetal flavors.  The widespread coulure and millerandage that affected the merlot more than the cabernets explain why many critics and producers consider 2010 to be a cabernet year.  In fact, never in recent decades have the Médoc first growths used as much cabernet sauvignon in their grand vins.  This also explains why many of the Left Bank wines with relatively high percentages of merlot in their final blends may be disappointing, although this is not universally true:  for example, Lafite's Carruades contains a high percentage of merlot, as does Clerc Milon, and they're both very successful in 2010. 

The millerandé grapes were problematic, because if they were not eliminated (an extremely time-consuming manual task), the wines can show varying degrees of herbaceousness.  Clearly, those estates with vibrating sorting tables were at an advantage in 2010.  Merlot presented another problem in 2010:  due to the less compact bunches and smaller number of berries per bunch, the vine's metabolism involved fewer grapes, allowing for greater buildup of sugars and potentially very high alcohol levels, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that the merlot grapes generally dehydrated roughly 20% more than the cabernets.  Paul Pontailler told me of vats of merlot at Château Margaux that weighed in at 16% alcohol and could not be used for the grand vin.  The much higher quality of the Right Bank's merlot, which is usually the case anyway, can largely be explained by the clay-rich soils of those appellations, which are perfect for merlot, allowing for better water retention (hence less water stress) and more metabolic activity during the dog days of summer.  Of course, high alcohol levels were a problem on the Right Bank as well, but at least these merlots possess smoother, riper tannins.

For many reasons, it's not possible to speak of 2010 as a Left Bank year.  In the dry conditions of 2010, water stress could be too severe, especially in fast-draining gravel-rich soils.  For example, at Latour there was water stress and a stop to physiological growth at the end of July, with the stress pronounced on some of the estateʹs sandy and gravelly plots.  While moderate water stress can be a net positive, when it turns into water deprivation--as was the case in 2010 in many vineyards--the vines shut down and the quality of the wines can be negatively affected.  The Left Bank is especially blessed with gravel soils, and unless these rest on clay-rich subsoils (as is the case in parts of Pessac-Léognan), some vines might have suffered from the drought.  Clearly, young vines with superficial roots planted on mainly sandy or gravelly soils were at a greater disadvantage.

Under such conditions, it is important that yields be reduced.  Since water stress leads to decreased photosynthetic activity and less physiological ripening of the grape polyphenols, limiting the vines to fewer bunches allows them to concentrate what little photosynthetic capacity they might be capable of on a smaller number of grapes.  Baptiste Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur told me that some experts estimate that in severe drought conditions (such as those of 2010), it is difficult to avoid green, harsh tannins at yields of more than 30 hectoliters per hectare.  And yields, of course, were higher in many Left Bank appellations.  But though low yields are necessary, they are not the whole story.  As Denis Durantou of Château L'Eglise-Clinet pointed out, "small yields by themselves are not always synonymous with quality; think of 1984 and 1963."

Finally, when it comes to great wines, the human element counts a great deal.  Basic vineyard work, such as the right amount of debudding, the correct timing of green harvests, and dome thinning and leaf-stripping on the eastern side of the rows in plots on cooler, later-ripening soils are also critical.  Even more important are vinification and the cellar techniques employed.  Or rather, in some cases, the lack thereof:  gentle extraction was key in 2010.  Pauline Vauthier of Château Ausone told me that in 2010, "it was better to go slow and soft than fast and hard."  With thick skins and little juice, there was no need in 2010 to work the skins hard.  Many estates reduced the number of daily pump-overs (rémontages); draining of the tank (délestage) was also unnecessary; and very little punching down of the cap (pigeage) was done, if any.  Those estates that blindly followed a winemaking recipe risked making tough, overextracted wines.  But getting the balance right was tricky:  it is also quite likely that some estates, in an effort to be as gentle as possible with their grapes, may have underextracted, and produced wines with relatively hollow mid-palates.

At many estates fermentation temperatures were also reduced by a degree or two, though Jean-Claude Berrouet of J. P. Moueix pointed out that "unless you routinely go for temperatures above 30 C, a decrease was not that important."  Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer told me, "We have lowered our fermentation temperatures enough in the last few years that we didn't need to go lower in 2010."

To buy or not to buy. Is there a reason to buy 2010 futures in the current economic climate?  That depends on your ultimate objective in buying.  If you are planning to invest for the longer term, then the short answer is yes, but I would limit myself to only the top 30 or so wines.  The greatest Bordeaux wines from this vintage will likely increase in value over time, no matter how expensive they are upon release.  But for collectors who want to buy wine now to enjoy much later, the more expensive but superior 2005s may be a better choice.  And for consumers who want to buy Bordeaux now for enjoying over the next 10 to 15 years, it may make more sense to look at very good previous vintages still in the marketplace, such as 2001, 2006 and 2008.

Prices for 2010s are likely to open high and remain high.  For whatever reason, many in Bordeaux (and not just there) seem to feel that the U.S. economic slump is over, which might come as news to many IWC readers.  True, many in the American trade were back at the Primeurs in 2010, and the Asians were present in droves.  However, the ability of châteaux and négociants to move the wines will depend on the willingness of the market to accept them.  Will consumers be willing to accept another "vintage of the century," especially when the majority of the wines do not, in my view at least, appear to be in that league?

Due to the highly tannic and sometimes overextracted style of many wines, handicapping their future development is also particularly difficult in 2010.  The harvest was very late, so the wines presented in early spring were even younger than they usually are.  Their strong tannins and acidities, and the fact that the malolactic fermentations had in many cases barely finished, contributed to the difficulty of tasting and judging these wines.  Furthermore, the press wines had not yet been added to many samples; when they are, this should improve the wines (at least at those estates that extracted with a light hand).  I have tried to take these factors into account when scoring the wines for this article.

As to highlights by region, there are many wonderful wines available from Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Julien, not to mention Pomerol.  If I had to pick and choose, and had limitless financial resources, I would limit my futures purchases to the best wines of the vintage which are, in no particular order:  Calon-Ségur, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, Lafleur, Trotanoy, Ausone, Tertre Rôteboeuf and Cheval Blanc.  There are also many wonderful, less expensive wines as well to choose from, such as Cantenac Brown, Haut-Marbuzet, Haut-Bages Libéral, Larcis Ducasse, Bourgneuf, Domaine de l'A, and others still.

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), but this year, due to my larger number of individual estate visits, I was unable to taste most wines three or four times, as I have often done in the past.  I have limited my full notes to the most promising wines in each appellation, and I have made a point of highlighting numerous potential sleepers that may offer relative value.  But please note that my lists of "Also Recommended" include many more good wines (those scoring 85-88 especially) that may ultimately merit even higher ratings if they improve during their final year or more in barrel.

Finally, as I noted in the introduction to last year's coverage of the 2009s, readers may notice that some wines that routinely are rated very highly in other publications do not score quite as well here.  To some extent, this is due to our ongoing attempt to avoid grade inflation.  But it's also a matter of personal taste:  although I try very hard not to let my own preferences get in the way of my judgment and scoring, I am less a fan of highly alcoholic, very showy and soft wines that convey little sense of somewhereness or lack balance.  In brief, if I am tasting a Margaux, I want that wine to remind me of that appellation, and not of Pomerol, and vice-versa.  Frequently, though, I will make it a point in my tasting notes to tell readers that the wine is not my idea of a classic Bordeaux, but that others may prize the wine more for its considerable sex appeal. 

Ian D'Agata, director of the Rome International Wine School 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 his book on the wines and people of Bordeaux will be out next year.  D'Agata covered Bordeaux 2009 in Issue 150 of the IWC last spring.