April 10th, 2010

2009 Bordeaux Update: an objective view

I continue to receive a large number of questions regarding the 2009 Bordeaux vintage and I will do my best to summarize a series of thoughts and questions of my own regarding this anticipated year. With the en-premier tastings of the last few weeks, I believe a sharper (riper?) image of the vintage has come into focus for many.  Instead of forcing something upon 2009 that it does not possess (Vintage of the Century, etc), let's look at it objectively.

To reiterate my opinion of 3-4 weeks ago when I compared 2009 in Bordeaux to the 2007 Southern Rhone vintage, this is not a year for classicists... or is it? What makes a "classic" wine and what defines a wine that could become classic in time - what about 50 years from now? What if the notion of classic Bordeaux moves severely off center - where 14.0-15.0% alcohol is the norm?  2009 could be revered as the vintage that started it all (like 1947 or 1929) and a wine such as 2009 Cos d'Estournel (a controversial, potentially failed concoction in my opinion) would be held up high as a beacon of change.  On the other hand, a year such as 2008 (a classic vintage by today's standard), would be considered lean and insufficient - too light. Fantasy aside, what about today, What About Now?

The world is lying in wait for a definitive proclamation on 2009 and it appears a big, giddy love-fest is in store for us. The economy's bad, times are tough, but 2009 Bordeaux appears to be ripe to pull all of us into a party mood.

So, what's the problem? Why do I always have to take the fun out of everything?

The problem is that the hype over 2009 Bordeaux is a potential sham. In some way, 2009 isn't really Bordeaux at all. Save but for 20-30 wines (out of hundreds), this vintage could be from anywhere, or more distressing, everywhere. Yes, we have a legendary 2009 Latour, Lafite, Lafleur, Calon-Segur, Pontet-Canet, Pavie, VCC and maybe Margaux in store for us (many will argue Mouton and Haut Brion as well, not to mention Petrus and Le Pin) but, unlike the Mas des Agrunelles offer from last week, where that "everywhere" character had soul and a purpose, 2009 Bordeaux has little of that. Many of the wines could be from Napa or Chile or (gasp) the Barossa. While you will read excuse after excuse from highly educated palates with decades of experience on why this may be the greatest vintage ever, I am betting that the most important critic to the Bordelaise will not make that statement. I am betting that a cooler head will prevail and reality will set in. There will be the above mentioned 20-30 very high, mind-boggling scores and verbiage but that is exactly what happened in 2003 - what about the rest of the wines? In 2009 there are plenty of potential big misses on the Right Bank (just like 2003) with poor results at Le Conseillante, Monbousquet, Troplong-Mondot and a number of others. The difference with 2009 is that the lower register has some stunning examples that were pulled up to a level rarely seen (much like 2005). In 2009, it's not the "village" wines that disappoint, rather it's many of the famous Chateau that have let the vintage down and have kept it from being considered a great overall year.

For discussion's sake, 2009 may be a defining "new style" vintage.  Its relation to 1982 must be considered, but in a modern sense that modernity includes a full degree or two of higher alcohol (La Mission Haut Brion is close to 15%, Haut Brion is 14.5% and La Tertre Roteboeuf is nearly 16.0%!). It also includes spinning cone technology, extract enhancers, more profit motives and LVMH - all new to Bordeaux since 1982 and all have had their effect on decisions that used to be made strictly by nature and the process of simple fermentation.  There's an argument that if 1982 were a vintage today, it would be considered a "classic" vintage compared to 2009. If we stay on that track, when 1982 debuted it had the same stigma as 2009 - too ripe, too blowsy, not enough acidity.  See where I'm going with this? Maybe in today's terms 2009 appears extreme but, upon maturity (25+ years on), maybe it will be considered "classic"?

As far as my opinion, it has not changed since last month and it's become more concrete - if you like 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape or 2007 in Napa...you will like 2009 in Bordeaux. If you prefer 2005 in Chateauneuf du Pape or a vintage like 1995 in Napa, your purchase decisions need to be highly scrutinized (that is, if you are buying to drink and not as an investment). With 2009 Bordeaux (in general), it's a matter of choice - if your palate runs toward the present accepted notion of what classic Bordeaux is and you are looking for relative value, then 2008 is for you (both Right and Left Bank).  If you enjoy riper, more showy wines with higher alcohol and a noticeable sweetness and sultry (but still tannic) character to them, then 2009 may be more suited to your preference.  If you are buying as an investment, I believe both vintages will have many buyers down the road - albeit a different buyer and 2008 may actually have more investment potential due to a much wider gap in 1st tranche pricing versus eventual values.  Make no mistake, very high bottle scores are set to debut for many of the finished 2008's and absurdly high barrel scores should follow many of the 2009's around for the next few years before they are finished wines.  

As a study, let's take one of the wines gone wrong in 2009 - the above mentioned Cos d'Estournel.  In 2009, Cos is a poster-child for the vintage and it just received a 97-100pt rating from James Suckling (who I consider to be a friend so this is not a knock on James) with the following review: "This smells like Harlan a bit. Supercharged in fruit, with intense aromas of tar, spice, cardamom, clove, blackberry and black pepper. Crazy nose. Full-bodied, with masses of fruit, yet focused and in form. Chewy tannins, with great length. This goes on and on. 97-100 pts". My question follows - is this wine really Cos d'Estournel? Does it matter that it's not really what most would associate with Cos d' Estournel or, taking this further, is this the "new" Cos d' Estournel (i.e. a wine that is almost indistinguishable from Amon-Ra Godolphin crossed with Harlan?) The dilemma here is that Bordeaux is (was?) a sacred cow - through centuries of winemaking a style emerged that was "Bordelaise", a term that is used more than any other in the wine-trade to describe another wine - "Oh, that's really Bordelaise."  Use the term Bordelaise and everyone (well, nearly everyone) knows exactly what you're talking about. If that notion moves significantly to one side or the other (as it has over decades - compare 1950-2009 and each decade has had a slight shift in style that has defined its era), then what are we to do with the term? Will "oh, that's so Bordelaise" mean "oh, that's so Harlan?" Unanswered questions that will certainly be debated over the coming decades, as it appears to be getting warmer in Bordeaux, not cooler.  While it's likely the 2009 Cos will get a massive score from The Emperor of Wine (it's made in a style that he prefers and enjoys), I just don't see it.  Excuses that name 1982, 1929, 1947, et all as a references are moot - wine was not "made" in 1929 and 1947 the way it is created today, nature and the vintage made the wine and it aged in a singular fashion dictated by the confluence of the elements and the natural yeast present in the winery and the vineyard.  In 2009 wine is manufactured by many Chateau to a style and it may not age in the same way as its predecessors (regardless of how delicious is is to drink today). In truth, references to years prior to 1985 (when Lynch Bages ushered in a new era in Bordeaux where technology became an important factor) are not apples to apples.

As an aside, I urge all of you to subscribe to Jancis Robinson's Purple Pages - it is one of the most informative, detailed and reliable voices out there.  She tastes with a set of principles that includes classicism but does not overlook the exotic - she is balanced in a similar way to Tanzer but with an even wider net of reference: <a href="http://www.jancisrobinson.com/">www.jancisrobinson.com</a>

Her review of the 2009 Cos d'Estournel (from a few days ago) closely mirrors my own: "Ch Cos d'Estournel 2009 St-Estephe Drink 2024-2040 - IPT (total polyphenol index) 99 is volunteered, along with 14.5%, TA 3.1 g/l (sulphuric, i.e. 4.75 tartaric), pH 3.69. 56% of the crop went into Cos. 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 80% new barrels. Prats: 'A bit like 2003, average yield 33 hl/ha. We had to reject all the south-facing parcels where the vines shut down. It's a very atypical, baroque Cos.  Very dark indeed. Blackish crimson. Not much scent though obviously very ripe. Firmer than some of the more obvious Napa Valley-style wines in 2009 with the tannins much more obvious. But a coolness on the finish. This may come round eventually. It is much more demanding than most 2009s and will need SO long. A very exaggerated wine with a bit of a hole in the middle. A definite lack of freshness. Does remind me a little bit of Pavie 2003. To be generous, I'm assuming that in the far distant future it may resolve itself but I can't quite understand why they let the grapes get so ripe. Harvest dates are pretty similar to Ch Latour but the results are very different. 14.5% alcohol - 16.5/20.0pts" (the wine may be labeled as 14.5% but my palate tells me it's actually closer to 15.0% - yes, in St. Estephe. If you multiply the 16.5 x 5 to equal potential out of 100pts, that's 82.5pts - a slightly different read than the above 97-100 review -  JR)

And so it goes ...opinions will differ but facts don't lie and the 2009 Cos is more of an ambassador for the controversial nature of 2009 than the Bordelaise would have you believe. Don't believe it - if you enjoy fine claret and are buying to drink on a regular basis, stick to 2008 or the inexpensive Haut-Medoc and the lesser wines of the 2009 vintage from both Left and Right Bank - there, 2009 sparkles and rarely fades (thanks Art). If you are buying as an investment, we will have to wait and see what the opening prices are but I stress again, don't forget about 2008 - it's a terrific, transparent, mineral-rich year and the prices have remained the most enticing since the 2002's debuted. For comparison, 2008 is somewhat of a better 1988 (its a cross between 1988, 1995 and 2001) with a light-handed, magical style that will really impress those looking for something Bordelaise.