Bordeaux 2009 – The Vintage That Came In With The Gold

Claret’s 2009 opening prices were the most expensive Bordeaux ever launched.  Spine-chilling was the fact they were two to three times the price on average of the 2008s just a year before, the year of the Lehman Brothers crash and the start of the recession we are still in.  After a mere dribble to whet the tastebuds, the subsequent tranches of the first growths were over £1000 per bottle.  Amongst the top chateaux, only 1982 still gets prices as high as current 2009s.  Yet deep-pocketed wine lovers went to town.  The en primeur market boomed and sold out.  Farr Vintners, the biggest turnover UK claret specialist, sold twice in value what it took for the 2005s; not far short of £60m.  The hype, and was there hype, banged on about 1982, 1947 and 1929 as the nearest great years with which to compare 2009 for style.  And slightly more discerning commentators picked out 1959 and 1961 as the touchstones.   These debates will go on and evolve as the wines mature.  But make no bones, this was a very good year indeed.  If after 1982 a lot of new winery buildings with bright orange tiles sprung up in Bordeaux, expect gold leaf after 2009.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux showed 2009 in London last week, the first chance for most of the wine trade to taste these wines now they are bottled.  It needs to be said that the very top wines, the first and second growths by and large, do not deign to attend these jamborees.  Their wines are shown to wine journalists and the trade who dutifully trek to their chateaux or, perhaps it’s the case these wines speak for themselves and don’t need to get their shoes dusty in the same street as the hoi polloi.

But goodness me, there were many august wines to taste nevertheless and it’s a chance to recommend a few from each of the key communes. 

With so many superlatives applied to 2009, you might think the weather was perfect right through the growing season to harvest, but that was not quite so.  It was a good summer, but not quite as hot as 2003 or 2005.  There had been a cold winter and in January it had frozen thirteen nights in a row, three of them at -6C.  Viticulturalists tend to think tough winters can be good if the varieties are reasonably hardy; it ensures a proper dormancy for the vines carbohydrate stores and vigour for the Spring.  Then there was hail later, damaging some 18,000ha of vines particularly in Entre-Deux-Mers and the eastern side of St Emilion, but avoiding the premium appellations.  There were no intense heatwave periods after a wonderfully even flowering but it was steadily warm to hot with the odd showers as important relief.  What really made a wondrous vintage was a persistent Indian summer into October.  The tricky part was dealing with soaring sugars and therefore potential alcohols, acidity dropping in the grapes but the skins ripening more slowly than these other two parameters.  Getting tannins right on the vine and then a gentle extraction of the very dense tannins in the winery was critical.  There is certainly no shortage of tannin in this year, and plenty of alcohol but those who picked late wanting overripe flavours probably got too much hot alcohol and those who macerated too hard and long probably got tannins too tough and dry.  Put the two together and you have the few failures of the year.  By and large, for me, the Left Bank looks best, with too many wines on the Right Bank too plump and alcoholic for my taste. 

But there are many, many successes.  And the good news is that the high quality stretches often across the whole range of status and price.  Here are some highlights for me, looking just at the red wines.  I’ve not included any Margaux, which were a little ’big’ for me given the classic expressiveness there usually; but some key wines were not being shown.  Prices are current average, dozen (in bond) but do shop around.  The wines are not yet delivered but should be imminent:  end of the year or early 2012.

Batailley, 5eme cru.  Gorgeous sweet fruit and tobacco note.  Very fine tannin.  So elegant.  £300
Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5eme cru.  Lovely line and definition, compact and restrained but fine in its energy and poise. Really gathers on the palate.  £595
Lynch-Bages, 5eme cru   More obviously structured than many in vintage but very fine and needs time.   £1200
Pichon-Longueville Baron, 2eme cru  Terrific definition of grip, fruit and acidity, power and elegance.  Terrific length.  Very impressive.    £1100
St Estephe
Cos-Labory, 5eme cru.  Perfumed and enticing, but with drive and detail; long.  Not tops for depth and complexity but a very charming and fine wine.  £240
Phélan-Ségur, cru bourgeois.  Big structure with chocolate and pruny fruit, slightly exotic but attractive.  Rather flamboyant and with plenty of stuffing.  Very well-mannered but dense tannin.   £260
St Julien
Branaire-Ducru, 4eme cru.  Fresh, bright annd driving with lots of firm structure but bursting with full fruit.  A keeper but very complete.  £470
Gloria, cru bourgeois.  Rich and ripe, savoury and sappy, very collected and intense.  Lacks depth of more senior wines but this is very good value and will delight.   £285
Lagrange, 3eme cru.  So opulent and gorgeous, bright and silky tannins but masses of them.  Slightly heady and exotic; medium weight.  £400
Léoville-Barton, 2eme cru.  For me, the wine of the tasting.  Powerful but taut and controlled.  Very classic but opulent in this vintage.   £750
Langoa-Barton, 3eme cru.  Not quite the excitement of Léoville, but a vey good wine.  Slightly quiet and under the radar but the power shows though on the end.  Spicy and enticing.   £450
Chasse-Spleen, cru bourgeois.  Impressively structured but with a lovely balance.  There’s power and sinew but very polished and a beguiling concentration and cedary character.  Very good for its status.   £210
Smith-Haut Lafitte, cru classé.  An impressive savory and stone character to the fruit, warm and smoky.  Great energy and finesse.   £720
Right Bank
Canon La Gaffelière, grand cru classé.  Real savour and tar and black fruit.  Very well extracted; enveloping and dense but fine grain tannin.  A big ample wine but with plenty of saving detail and complexity.   £700
Larmande, grand cru classé.  A lovely silky, pretty wine given the massive right bank company.  Lots of interest and beautifully ripe but detail and subtlety too.  Not quite in the character of its brethren but none the worse for that.    (No price available)
Troplong Mondot, 1er grand cru classé B.  Dense but brilliantly extracted.  Truffly and licorice but smoke and deep complexity.  The oak just in check.  Outstanding.    £1050
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