Bordeaux 2009 by Armin Diel / Pekka Nuikki
Bordeaux – mid-March
The spring sunshine is beginning to break through the dark clouds covering Bordeaux. We are travelling towards the Château Lafite estate. The traffic is quiet and there is little congestion in the car parks of the vineyards we pass. The same is true of Lafite. The apparent peace and quiet are only on the surface, however, for under it is all hustle and bustle. This is due to the upcoming launch and market release of the 2009 vintage. The year is turning out to be perfect; according to the producers, it is the best so far in the twenty-first century. Two more weeks, and we can ascertain if that is the case, with the beginning of Bordeaux’s most keenly awaited annual event, en primeur.
We are visiting some of the top estates to survey the situation a few weeks before the en primeur period begins. The atmosphere at the wineries is impatient. The representatives’ faces reveal their great expectations of the vintage. They appear to have on their hands what is every wine producer’s dream. The boldest comments come from Mouton-Rothschild’s director Philippe Dhalluin, who would compare the vintage to 2005: “This kind of vintage will sell out in two hours,” he reckons.
Vineyard director George Chevallier of neighbouring Lafite is a bit more cautious with his words, but still full of praise: “It is a super vintage. The grapes reached the top maturity, and the picking occurred under ideal circumstances. We are now at the end of the blending process and in a few weeks there are people coming from around the world to taste the wines en primeur. It is not a secret to say that it is a really great vintage. Very well balanced, good fruit – everything is just at the right level. However, I don’t want to compare it to any other vintage because it is difficult. I prefer to do that after 10 years.”
At Château Margaux, expectations are also running high. The quality of grapes picked from various vineyards clearly exceeded any quality achieved previously. Pierre Lurton, director of Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion, admits that the year’s quality was a surprise even there. In tasting the wine, they found that its crisp fruity nature and exceptionally fine silky tannins, combined with a multilayered and strong character, make it a superb vintage.
The polestar of Sauternes, Yquem, also agrees that this was an exceptional crop year. The crop was harvested in one and a half months instead of the usual three. There were temperatures of up to 30 °C still in October. The harvest was two and a half times the average size. The grapes achieved a degree of ripeness that is being compared to the exceptional years of 1989 and 1947.
In two weeks’ time, the producers’ forecasts will be put to the test when more than two thousand journalists arrive at the en primeur event to taste the 2009 wines. Among them will be FINE’s Bordeaux expert, Armin Diel.
Bordeaux, the end of March.
Drawn by the news that the wine barons of the Gironde undoubtedly had the best vintage of all time in their casks, some six thousand expert visitors from the retail and gastronomy sectors, not to mention around two hundred journalists from all over the world, were making their way towards southwestern France. Of this number, no less than half had succeeded in being accredited with the Union des Grands Crus, the Association of Bordeaux Winegrowers, for the ‘Semaine de Presse’. This guarantees the privilege of separate tastings and accommodation in the chateaux themselves.
With thirty wine connoisseurs, or noses, the French formed the largest single contingent, followed by sixteen from England and eleven Americans. Conspicuous was the large number of journalists from China, ten in total, evidence of the growing interest in fine reds in the Far East. After three days of extensive tastings in the ‘Grands Jours de Bourgogne’, I set off from Dijon on the Saturday morning en route to Bordeaux. Awaiting me there were the wines of the 2009 vintage – already garlanded with advance praise. Amid the fatigue that accompanies such tastings, I sense something like happy anticipation and expectant interest – will these wines really be better than the legendary vintages of 1982, 2000 and 2005?
Full of expectation, this journey – diagonally across France – lasts seven hours; sufficient time to mull over the impressions of the past days and slowly reset one’s taste buds from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. And time is of the essence; I have to arrive in Saint-Emilion by six o’clock to pick up the key for La Mondotte where I will be staying for the first three nights.
With a pullover casually knotted round his shoulders, Stephan Neipperg opens the door for me. The count, from Schwaigern in Swabia, is someone I got to know twenty-five years ago, when he first awoke the Château Canon-La-Gaffelière estate – acquired by his father – from its slumbers. We greet one another cordially, drink a glass of champagne and chat about this and that. As the conversation turns to the effects of the worldwide economic crisis, he is clear about one thing
,“Anyone who claims that it has not had an impact is simply lying!” In the UK and the USA in particular business has fallen away, he asserts. “Thank goodness that Asia has compensated for some of this downturn.” His wife Sigweis discreetly looks at the clock, it is high time we set off.
For supper my path leads to the door of ‘L’ Envers du Décor’ in Saint-Emilion, a first class wine bistro with hearty regional dishes and a superb wine list. At the neighbouring table a cheerful wine-imbibing group is in full flow, in whose midst I recognise François Mauss. Some fifteen years ago now this go-getting Luxembourger, now settled in Bordeaux, established an international tasting company with the imposing name of ‘Grand Jury Européen’ whose members include the two Germans Markus del Monego and Otto Geisel. Since we know one another from many joint wine tastings, François Mauss asks with an understanding wink, “What are you doing tomorrow? Would you like to come along with us to Ausone, Pavie, Angélus and to Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt?”
The enticing prospect of a glass of some of the best wines before the actual tasting week has even started causes my vague plans for a relaxing Sunday to be rapidly cast into oblivion. I accept.
Sunday morning begins by exercising the palate at Château Haut- Carles in Saillans above Fronsac. It is here that the ‘Cercle de Rive Droite’ has set up quarters for the presentation to the press of some eighty red wines from the right bank of the Garonne river, i.e. from Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and other localities in the area. The cold function suite is divided into two halves by curtains. On the left-hand side sit those who – for whatever reason – wish to carry out a blind tasting, on the right everyone else.
Although, to all intents and purposes, only the second division of the respective appellation is represented here, it is soon evident that the 2009 vintage certainly includes wines of exceptional quality. Never before have I tasted anything matching the concentrated red wine of Château Barde-Haut from Saint Emilion. Excellent too are the wines of the host Château Haut-Carles and of Moulin-Pey-Labrie from the neighbouring Appellation Canon-Fronsac. Not to mention Silvio Denz of Switzerland, whose wonderful, sandalwood fragrant Peby-Faugères would be one of my greatest discoveries of the week. After modest refreshment from a cold buffet it is on to the appointment with the Grand Jury at Château Ausone. It is indeed astonishing that François Mauss has managed to induce proprietor Alain Vauthier to welcome his assorted tasting troop on the Sabbath, moreover to an enormous building site where hardly a stone has been left standing.
The 2009 wine is pretty damned good. It is true that black cherry and cranberries still predominate in the bouquet, but on the palate the wine does indeed reveal structure and great finesse.
The next port of call is Château Pavie, where proprietor Gérard Perse greets the guests. In the first years following its acquisition by this Parisian businessman the wines, which tend to have an opulent character, aroused a lively controversy in international wine circles. On the one hand, for the American Robert Parker, whose opinion is keenly echoed, he has prompted a change of style amongst a whole generation of winemakers with his fondness for the all too sumptuous droplets – out with elegance and restraint, in with opulence! This stylistic preference does not meet with requited love everywhere however, particularly amongst his British counterparts who for many years have favoured the more elegant Bordeaux type.
Respected English wine writer Jancis Robinson countered the tide boldly when she gave the 2003 vintage of Château Pavie, one of Parker’s favourite wines, a real dressing down, conceding only 12 of 20 possible points. Two years later, she raised the heat even further. The 2005 Château Pavie she characterised as “over-concentrated beefcake”, sardonically asking who would want to drink a second glass of it.
The 2009 Pavie is once again a very impressive wine whose full-bodied taste and silky tannins will quite possibly be united one day in a superb symbiosis. “It can ripen happily for fifty years and more”, says Gérard Perse. What will Jancis Robinson make of this?
The Château Angélus is only a few kilometres away. Today, co-owner Hubert de Boüard awaits an expanded group of thirty members of the Grand Jury. As is customary, the tasting begins in the sampling room on the principal floor of the property with the constantly high quality of Lafleur de Boüard, a fifty-acre estate at Lalande de Pomerol. From the 2009 vintage the more powerful Prestige Cuvée Le Plus de Boüard stands out. Practically all the tasters are agreed that this 2009 wine from Château Angélus has a splendid career ahead of it. Admittedly, this very dark wine loaded with black cherry and abundant, new wood will demand a few years of patience before it has attained its optimal maturity.
The visit to Michel Rolland, incidentally a long-term friend of Robert Parker, can only be regarded as a noteworthy event. Not far from his spacious laboratory operation in Maillet, the most influential oenologist in the world grants us a private audience at his vineyard of Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. Flanked by his wife Dan, the jovial Rolland is in excellent form and introduces his dapper son-in-law as the Dirécteur-Général of the Rolland Collection. The 2009 wines are from reliable vineyards indeed! But why does the master not take steps to elicit any more interesting drops from his own vines?
Soon afterwards we meet Stéphane Derenoncourt, who embodies the new school of oenological wine consulting in Bordeaux. Unlike Rolland, he constantly strives to carve out a more elegant style of wine; certain estates of which he is in charge work their vineyards in accordance with ecological principles. On the occasion of the En Primeur Week he gathers his customers for a joint presentation at Château La Gaffelière in Saint-Emilion.
Three wines stand out this afternoon: Château Larcis-Ducasse has a highly concentrated fragrance, yet seems very invigorating and reveals an almost dance-like elegance. While the bouquet of the Pavie-Macquin highlights a fine sandalwood sweetness and the fruit forms a perfect equilibrium with the tannins, the Clos-Fourtet wine is a true bundle of joy when it comes to Cabernet Bouquet and black cherry.
Monday morning begins in radiant sunshine with one of the most important tastings of the En Primeur Week, and is held at the home of Jean-Pierre Moueix who controls a large part of the trade on the right bank, which, since 1964 has included the distribution of Château Pétrus.Escorted by his son Edouard, the elegantly attired Christian Moueix welcomes the guests in a highly personal style. Although not every inquiry was covered in the appointed period, the wine tasters now crowd into the wood-panelled room. But where is the Château Pétrus? Hitherto it always stood at the end of the Moueix wine collection, this year for the first time one had to arrange a separate appointment in the winery, something by no means all of the wine noses had realised. Oh dear! At Pétrus the visitors are expertly enlightened on the merits of the 2009 produce by Jean-Claude Berrouet, the long-haired cellar master of the estate, and Olivier, his son and successor. “Yes, it is really a great vintage”, says Papa Berrouet, who after forty five years is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement and has taken on a more advisory role to his son.
The wine itself is really superb! – how indeed could it be anything else? The smooth sweetness forms a pleasurable counterpoint to the fine aromatic tannins. A wine for the treasure chamber!
Just a couple of hundred metres from Pétrus I run into Jacques Thienpont and we partake of a sample of Le Pin 2009. Twenty years ago the Belgian owner was only seldom to be seen during the En Primeur Week. Even afterwards one had the feeling that he was ready to welcome only a handful of selected tasters. This time, however everything is different. Right at the start of the narrow track a small signs points us in an unfamiliar direction to ‘Degustation Le Pin’ and not to the former simple farmhouse that for three decades was home to the most famous old wines or vieilles vignes and which has now been pulled down to be replaced by a spectacular new building. Instead, the tasting occurs in an improvised little building housing the wine press that Jacques Thienpont, two years earlier, had prepared as alternative accommodation for the vinification of his extremely expensive red wines. The 2009 Le Pin is the prime example of a perfect Merlot, wherein the invigorating freshness is married with the exotic fruit components in a most exquisite way.
Monday evening sees the Dîner d’Acceuil at Château La Dominique, the first event for the selected journalist corps. This function is a true Vanity Fair and almost always follows the same pattern. The wine growers attempt to direct the supposedly most important writers to their own tables, where they then
–surprisingly proffer their own wine from the multitude of available bottles.
The dinner is of the finest quality: Scallop Carpaccio, Millefeuille of Veal with Mushroom Tapenade and, alongside the obligatory cheeses,
also a lavish dessert. As if on command, the company rises just after ten in the evening as the tasting is to continue early the following day.
Tuesday morning is overcast with scudding rain clouds. The group of journalists has the opportunity to taste Château Cheval-Blanc of 2009 –the Union des Grands Crus presents the wines of their one hundred and thirty-two members in regional tastings. Since, however, the most famous estates are missing, it is also necessary to take the trouble to arrange individual tasting appointments at the chateaux outside the official programme.
Three renowned estates – Mouton-Rothschild, Yquem and Cheval-Blanc – nevertheless
, assume a special status in the Union as honorary members and consequently offer the journalists a co-ordinated form of tasting. For me, the Cheval Blanc is unquestionably one of the best wines of the 2009 vintage. This gem of a red wine reveals silky tannins and an extract sweetness that one recognises only from the very best years. The legendary 1947 Cheval-Blanc automatically comes to mind!
Now, however, it’s time for the real work to start! During the following days the one hundred and twenty journalists, divided into five groups of twenty-four tasters each, work through the different Bordeaux regions in accordance with an ingenious system.
I end up in group three, together with some old acquaintances such as the influential and intelligent Peter Moser, editor-in-chief of the Austrian Falstaff Magazine, and Didier Ters, the former wine expert of the newspaper Sud-Ouest, who every morning turns up last and struts through the tasting halls in his checked jacket. Also here is Reva Singh, the elegant publisher of a wine magazine from New Delhi, together with her son Shiv who lives in New York, as well as Niko Dukan, a gangling good-humoured character from Zagreb.
Enveloped in light rain, Wednesday morning finds us in the Médoc, where the Cabernet-Sauvignon-Traube is predominant. And 2009 is set to be a very great Cabernet year, as Denis Dubourdieu confirms at the press conference of the University of Bordeaux at Château La Lagune. Five preconditions are necessary, the Professor proclaims, in order to produce really great red wines in the Bordeaux region: an early and swift flowering, dry weather up to the end of the fruit, sunny days to accelerate the change of colour of the grapes, warm and dry weeks in August and – last but not least – fine autumn weather during the gathering of the harvest.
While all these parameters were supplied in an almost ideal way in 2009, this is no quality guarantee however, according to Dubourdieu. “The risk in years of good weather is indeed somewhat greater, as one is tempted to prolong the harvest far too long, particularly if your neighbour still has not harvested”, he states roguishly. The fruit characteristics are dependent on the time of the harvest, and in 2009 it was also possible to harvest cooked fruits throughout. Spontaneously, these words recall to my mind certain excessively rich Merlots from the right bank, whose alcohol content should not be much above fifteen per cent by volume. Furthermore, the character of the tannins is very much influenced by the making of the wines, says Dubourdieu, who himself owns two vineyards and, at the same time, advises numerous Châteaux.
For the white grapes and in particular Sauvignon Blanc, by contrast, it has been almost a little too hot to retain the aromas and above all the freshness. The perfect quality of many Sémillon grapes in the Sauternes region has, however, enabled the production of exceptionally good sweet wines. Of this fact one could satisfy oneself immediately following the press conference.
In the setting of the Opéra of Bordeaux, Château d’Yquem had extended an invitation for the presentation of the new vintage, to be attended in Tenue de Ville (business dress) befitting the occasion. On the parquet circle of the Grand Théatre guests are welcomed by attractive young ladies, whose black suits are entwined by a golden ribbon. They accompany the guests into the Salle Boireau on the first floor of this imposing building. The anticipation grows!
In the midst of the large ceremonial room illuminated by four giant chandeliers, on whose ceiling great composers such as Beethoven, Gluck and Mozart are immortalised, sommeliers with white gloves serve the new vintage: “what a silky richness, coupled with noble rot (Botrytis), almost as elegant as your Rieslings in Germany”, rhapsodises Michel Bettane, the most famous wine critic in France. And what a difference to the similarly served 1989 Yquem, a wine dominated by the wood and alcohol that lies rather mournfully in the glass.
In almost endless waves small delicacies are served up from the repertoire of the Parisian three-star chef Yannick Aléno (Le Meurice), who acknowledges the honour in person: Gelée de Boeuf au Caviar, Mascarpone à la Truffe, lobster ravioli with seafood sauce, crab roulettes and much more. Le Tout Bordeaux luxuriates in sheer enjoyment!
On Thursday the sun is shining again at last. Besides the tastings of the Union, the spotlight is today on the Premiers Crus des Médoc as well as certain Super Seconds des Médoc. And after Dubourdieu’s lecture, expectations are now running particularly high. In the case of Château Mouton Rothschild it is an established tradition that the journalists are conveyed the four hundred metres from the vinothèque to the tasting room by golf carts, and this somewhat impromptu performance was readily enacted.
For the first time in twenty years both the Cinquièmes Crus of Château d’Armailhac appeal to me far more than the Clerc Milon, which is a hint too alcoholic. Nothing of the sort can be alleged against the Mouton Rothschild. With its broad aroma palette ranging from black cherry to Cabernet Bouquet together with a well-structured body, this wine demonstrates considerable development potential.
Owing to building work under way in the Château, on this occasion the En Primeur tasting of the Lafite Rothschild takes place at the neighbouring Duhart Milon Rothschild estate in the heart of Pauillac. The 2009 Lafite immediately discloses a very robust tannic structure, which, then dissolves on the palate in radiant fruit.
Nowhere else in the Bordelais is a greater fuss made of admittance to the Holy of Holies as at Château Latour. At the approach to the estate terrain there is a small attendant’s hut in which a poor fellow bides his time. He may only open the barrier when he has checked the number of occupants of the car against those of the original registration. Next time I would not be at all surprised if we had to present our ID papers! Thank goodness all this jumping through hoops has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the wine.
As far as the 2009 Château Latour is concerned, the ripe tannins and almost exuberant fruit results in a symbiosis that in Bordeaux is readily characterised as “an iron fist in a velvet glove”. This is the just the wine that Professor Dubourdieu may have been thinking about when he spoke of a gorgeous vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon.
From Pauillac it is a mere stone’s throw to Château Cos d’Estournel, which lies on a small hill above Lafite. After a two-year conversion phase, for the first time Cos now presents its new tasting room from which there is a spectacular view of the cubic tanks of the new fermentation cellar. Seldom before have I tasted a better wine here than that of 2009. Apart from bursting with strength it imparts, above all, great finesse. Like many other wine estates in the Bordelais, at Château Montrose too the silhouette of a construction crane dominates the landscape, in this case marking the emergence of a new barrique cellar. This is urgently needed; only a few days previously the acquisition of 52 acres (21 hectares) from Château Phélan-Ségur for almost twenty million euros was signed and sealed. As a result, the total vineyard area now extends to 223 (90 hectares)! The 2009 Montrose remains absolutely faithful to its style as a robust red wine of the Médoc: a long-lasting classic through and through.
As in 2000, Château Margaux must once more be Primus inter Pares of the Premiers Crus in the Médoc. Courtesy of the otherwise so level-headed estate manager, Paul Pontallier, we entice a hymn of praise for the 2009 vintage: “Since 1982 I have been responsible for Château Margaux, however I have never, ever had such a perfect wine in the cask!” Could this indeed be the wine of the year? That remains to be seen.
On Friday the party finally reaches the Graves, the only Bordelais region where both white and red Grands Crus Classés are to be found. In both categories three vineyards stand out at the Union tasting: Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clément and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and I have a weakness for the latter in both disciplines. Whereas the red scores with its great full-bodied character and perfectly integrated tannins and extract sweetness, the white, together with its note of opulence, also displays an astonishing elegance.
A visit to Château Haut Brion is essential to draw matters to a satisfactory conclusion. Since building work is in progress there too, this year’s tasting takes place in the neighbouring estate of La Mission Haut Brion. While the wine merchants and sommeliers sample the wines in a large dégustoir on the ground floor, managing director Jean-Philippe Delmas, who has managed both estates since taking over from his father in 2004, receives the journalists in a somewhat discreet setting on the first floor.
Major changes have occurred for La Mission Haut-Brion and the associated labels. The red wine that until 2005 was sold under the independent label of Château La Tour Haut-Brion is now a fully integrated component of La Mission and its second wine La Chapelle de La Mission. Since 2009, the white Laville Haut-Brion has traded as La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, a label that incidentally was used between 1925 and 1930. The third novelty is a white second wine under the name of La Clarté, in which selected quantities of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are married. Whereas the sweetish 2009 Haut Brion Blanc is an ideal wine for power drinkers, the white wine from La Mission is considerably more elegant. Both red counterparts are incredibly dense and complex. Owing to their tremendous tannin structure they certainly require quite a few years before they can be drunk with pleasure.
My inquisitive question as to how the quality of this exceptional wine will affect the anticipated En Primeur price
, remains unanswered here, as in all the wine estates around the Gironde. Prices were a subject on which nobody wished to comment at all during the week.
Let it be said that any forecast is laden with risk. Many more obscure chateaux, that in 2009 have produced their best wines for a long while, will have to settle for price mark-ups of between ten and twenty per cent on the previous year. Thereby they confer their wines with an exceptionally attractive price-enjoyment ratio. At the forthcoming Vinexpo in Hong Kong, the more famous estates will attempt to raise their prices to at least the level of 2005. And despite the persistent economic crisis nobody should cherish the slightest illusion that in the case of cult wines such as Lafite, Latour or indeed Pétrus, it is possible to pick up any kind of bargain.
Bordeaux – end of June
The temperature surpasses 30 °C. Bordeaux has recovered quickly from the previous day’s thunderstorm, and from a record en primeur period. The event proved to be a success in terms of sales and quality alike: record scores and prices will be seen and everyone agrees on the vintage. The biggest factor affecting prices, Mr. Parker, has published his scores, and we are left to await the final selling prices of the wines.
Parker’s verdict was a relief: “It may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux,” he said. Eighteen wines received scores of 98 to 100, which is remarkable even in a great vintage. Out of the first growths, Parker rates Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Margaux from 98 to 100. Mouton-Rothschild received lower scores of 96–98, although this is naturally still very good. And Robert Parker is not the only one to praise the vintage.
Jancis Robinson was also highly positive: “In all my years of immersion in tasting Bordeaux en primeur, I have never written the word ‘Napa’ so often in my tasting notes. Come to think of it, I had never written the word ‘Napa’ at all when trying to describe the latest vintage shown off to wine media and trade in Bordeaux every spring. Nor have I ever had so much fun tasting young Bordeaux as I did the week before last. Perhaps these two phenomena are related.” It appears that after a few highly eventful years, the most important critics of Europe and the U.S. agree on the quality of the ’09 vintage.
There is also accord as to prices. Despite the highest prices on record, the world is clamouring for 2009 futures. In the last week, all five first growths have released their first tranche or allocation, at prices that many experts call crazy. Traditionally, chateaux release their en primeur wine in tranches. The first tranche is a toe in the water. They want to see how the market behaves and price the following tranches accordingly. Château Haut-Brion released its first tranche at 500 euros per bottle from the cellar, before négociants and retailers add their mark-up. That matched the price of Latour’s first tranche.
Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux and Château Mouton-Rothschild released their wines at 450 euros a bottle. In Sauternes, Château d’Yquem came out at 440 euros.
Négociants – the middlemen to whom the chateaux sell the wine – announced they would sell Château Lafite to merchants at 550 euros. It should reach the market at around 8,000 euros per case. In fact, as négociants did not receive a lot of wines in the first tranche of their 2009 en primeur, they will have to wait for the second and perhaps the third tranche, by which time the idea of buying a Lafite at 550 euros per bottle will be history.
This represents a jump of over 300% from the price of the 2008 vintage, and over 50% from the release price of the previous legendary vintage, 2005.
Comparing the prices of the 2009 vintage to the record price tags of 2005, most other classified estates have also raised their prices by a staggering 20–50%, and Château La Mission by a huge 146%, Montrose by 69%, Pontet-Canet by 61%, Canon by 55% and Lynch-Bages by 42%.
When we visited Bordeaux before the en primeur sale, several top estate directors openly admitted to us that they “now have a lot of money”, and many are undertaking expansion projects requiring major investments. They can now complete the work without worry, as the 2009 vintage will provide enough funds to cover the bill. By now, if not before, the wines produced by these very wealthy wineries have become luxury products that the whole world thirsts after, regardless of the price. We will go into that in more detail in our next issue, where we look in depth at “wines as luxury items”.