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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Tuesday, 27 April 2010 11:24

Feature: En Primeur 2009 Wines from the Master’s Palate

Vintage ‘09 has been proclaimed as a great vintage, and therefore half the world of wine descended upon Bordeaux for the En Primeur tastings this year.  Many people everywhere are comparing it to the fine 2005 vintage and in many cases announcing it to be superior.  However this is not the case universally as John Salvi MW who tasted with Jancis Robinson and Decanter team discovered.

Indeed the technical statistics of the red wines  in many cases were very similar and lend support to that pronouncement, but technical statistics- tannins, acidities, sugars etc., do not necessarily produce similar bouquets and flavours.  Some people like Berry Brothers and Rudd, for example, were rather more objective and critical, saying that some of the white wines were too plump and generous and questioning whether they would last long; also saying that in some cases the Merlot was left on the vine too long and produced wines with harsh and high alcohols and that some of the lesser wines were not as soft and yummy as the 2005.  Is this so?

I was fortunate enough to taste the First Growths and many of the top wines with Jancis Robinson and the Decanter team.  Their expert tasting notes are up on their websites and many of you would have read them, together with others, including Parker’s rather enigmatic and short first report. 

For those who wish to have the 2009s summed up in one sentence, and do not have the patience to read any further, I would say that the best of the 2009s are truly magnificent wines, veritably the products of a great vintage, but that this is not so right across the board As is almost always the case, and you have already seen the less complimentary comments above, careful selection is needed.

Not a Bank vintage but winemakers’ vintage

I do not think that this is a left bank or a right bank vintage, although some say that they find the left bank superior to the right bank and describe the right bank as being in many cases over extracted.  While I do not necessarily agree with this, you will see below good reasons why it might be so.  I do not think either that it is a Cabernet or a Merlot vintage, but read the Berry Bros comments on the Merlot above.  If one has to give it a term, and I am always reluctant to do this, I would call it a “terroir” vintage or a “winemakers” vintage.

It was not an easy vintage, which is why I have given it the “winemakers” term.  The first half of the year did not lead us to expect anything of note or particular merit.  We had some ferocious cold during the winter, which was good.  We had over 100 millimetres of rain- less than the average from November to March, which proved not as good. 

March was magnificent with no frost.  April was mild and wet.  May was a fine month, albeit with some devastatingly destructive hail storms for some vineyards.  June was overall hot and the second half dry.  It rained during the flowering causing both shatter and “millerandage” and reducing the crop somewhat.  July was hot and dry.  August was very dry.  There is a French expression “aout fait le mout” or “august produces the must” and this year August was crucial indeed and the true heart of any problems. 

What many growers failed to realise was that, due to its extreme dryness, the vines in many vineyards shut down.  This was not obvious, as it was in 2003, when the vines could clearly be seen to be suffering because the leaves drooped and wilted and even some grapes wilted.  This year the heat was not excessive and the vine looked perfectly healthy to the naked eye.  What this stoppage did however, was to delay the ripening of the phenolics (mainly the tannins) so that when the maturing process got going again after the long dry spell, which lasted until the sorely needed rains of 15th – 20th September, the phenolic ripeness lagged behind and tannins were often not ripe when the sugars and acidities had reached ideal levels. 

Thus, not realising this, many growers picked before the tannins were fully ripe and have produced wines with hard, tough and sometimes abrasive tannins.  If this was the case then it would explain, as I promised to do above, why this would have exacerbated the problem for any over-extracted wines on the right bank.  Great winemakers, fully understanding this problem, waited patiently for full phenolic ripeness.  Less great winemakers, only half understanding the problem, may have waited a little too long for the Merlot and picked with super-high alcoholic strengths.

The sad part about this is that there was no need to pick before tannins were perfectly ripe.  The dry August, first half of September, and almost perfect last 10 September days (those 10 days were the sunniest for the last 63 years) followed by a truly Golden October (only 33.8 millimetres of rain all month and 50 hours sunshine above average) had totally dried out any mildew or other fungi and the grapes in 2009 were perfectly, totally and phenomenally healthy – a rare happening in the humid climate of Bordeaux. 

For once Bordeaux enjoyed what the Americans call “hang time”.  Being perfectly healthy they could be left to mature gently and peacefully and relaxed growers could pick plot by plot at perfect phenolic maturity.  In Bordeaux the “picking window” is usually extremely narrow and of vital importance.  This year it was wide and generous.  Also the August stoppage had helped to maintain good acidity levels and, although alcoholic levels were high, they were not monumental or detrimental except in the case of some Merlot, which the best wines left out of their final blends. 

Rarely have such perfect grapes been harvested in Bordeaux by knowledgeable and experienced winemakers, and although it is true that you cannot make fine wine with poor grapes, there is very little excuse, with today’s superb wine making techniques, facilities and know-how, for making poor wine with perfect grapes.

This rather long-winded explanation is therefore, in my opinion, the principal reason why not all of the wines are as great as they might have been.  It also explains why I earlier called it a “terroir” vintage, that mysterious and indefinable term.  Clearly those soils with better water retention composition fared much better than those that could not retain water and the less dry and cooler expositions also suffered less.  It is not for nothing that the First Growths and Great Wines chose the best soils and locations so many centuries ago!

However, the best of the 2009s are truly great wines.  It is perhaps somewhat unfair to pick out a few names among many, but Chateaux Lafite, Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc and Margaux are sublime.  Latour is back to its magnificent, massive self, monumental and imposing. The wines possess that wonderful suppleness, which is one of the major advances of the last 15-20 years, due to our better understanding of those tannins and phenolics.  The wines have that stupendous and beautiful purity of fruit, vibrant, fresh and full of flavour, like biting into perfect, fresh grapes.  I personally believe that the best are definitely better than 2005.  An outstanding feature is that the IPTs (the tannin index) are incredibly high, among the highest on record.  Yet those fine winemakers have achieved voluminous, but ripe, silky and integrated tannins that give the wines both power and ageing potential without losing a scrap of elegance. 

As always we seem to concentrate on the reds, so let us have a few brief words about the Whites.  Dry white wines in 2009 can also be superb, and as an example the Haut Brion and the La Mission Haut Brion White are almost sublime.  The one criticism exists, which I have mentioned earlier, but there is little excuse for this.  Fresh, crisp, vibrant and deeply fruited are the hallmarks of the best.  Picking began at the end of August and was mainly completed by 10-12 September, under perfect weather conditions, and before those mid September rains.  Sauvignon, Semillon and Muscadelle were in perfect health and each gave its full quota of its classical characteristics in the blends.  Yes, some lack a little acidity and these must be carefully watched and looked at by potential buyers.

Finally, the sweet white wines of Bordeaux.  These also enjoyed a splendiferous vintage, although they had a worrying time.  Because of the dry weather the botrytis was not developing and in early September growers were starting to worry and fret.  However, after those much needed 15-20 September rains, it developed fast, evenly and relatively massively.  Most fine sweet winemakers picked with 3-4 "tris" and brought in beautifully and nobly botrytised grapes.  There was almost NO other fungus disease on the grapes and no attacks of the acid fly, so that very few grapes had to be discarded. 

Some Chateaux were able to put as much as 90% of the crop into the fine wine and it was therefore one of those rare and happy years where producers achieved both quality and quantity.  Sugars were at perfect levels, ranging on the whole from 130-150 grams, and with beautiful, crisp, lemon acidities to give the rich and deeply sweet wine that rare and sensuous light and airy feel in spite of the weight and density.

For once I agree entirely with Robert Parker and finish by quoting him without shame or reservation.  "2009 is an incredibly exciting vintage of opulence, power and richness, yet the better and best wines have a precision and delicacy that is unprecedented”.  For me, in 2009, precision and purity of fruit are two of the greatest attributes of this latest vintage!

John U Salvi MW


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