The 2009 Clarets

It's a subject of great frustration to veteran American claret lovers that Bordeaux prices reached record levels for the outstanding 2009 vintage.  Due in part to strong demand in China and other increasingly wealthy countries relatively new to wine collecting, opening futures prices were through the roof for the top classified growths and Right Bank equivalents.  But don't make the mistake of skipping this wonderfully rich vintage just because the first growths cost a thousand bucks and up.  The fact is that beyond the top hundred or so wines, most properties still sell their wines at very reasonable prices, and many of these chateaux made the best wines they've turned out in a very long time.

The nearly ideal growing season of 2009 yielded fleshy, ripe wines with glossy textures, ripe tannins and enough acidity to maintain energy.  Very few wines will hurt your teeth right now, and a surprising percentage of 2009s are appealing already or will be drinkable within the next three to five years.  There’s a silkiness of texture to many of these wines that is downright Burgundian.

Think of a much more pliant version of 2005 with suaver and more harmonious tannins; a considerably fresher version of 2003; wines every bit as good as the 1990s, if not finer.  The best 2009s are uncommonly ripe and rich without heaviness; compared to the watershed 1982s, to which they are similar in their fleshy appeal and sweetness of fruit, they were made from lower crop levels and under more modern conditions.  Even wines that are normally green and austere boast extra texture and seductive appeal in 2009. 

The growing season and harvest of 2009.  I have paraphrased below Ian D’Agata’s original report on the growing season published in Issue 151: 

The 2009 season was preceded by the fifth coldest winter of the last 20 years, but ultimately January and April were the only two months of the year with significantly above-average rainfall.  March was very dry and sunny, while May brought a series of hail storms, which caused significant damage in some areas.  A very sunny June then allowed for a quick and even flowering.  July recorded an average number of sunlight hours for that month, while temperatures were a hair warmer and rainfall slightly lower than long-term averages.

It was only in the last ten days of July that a sustained dry spell begin, and this ultimately led to water stress for some vines, especially in gravelly soils planted to young vines.  Drought conditions were potentially more severe on the Left Bank than on the right, as less than 20 millimeters of rain fell during the entire month of August, while the Right Bank enjoyed some liquid refreshment on both August 1 and 8.  But even though August of 2009 was the sixth warmest August on record, nighttime temperatures descended below 68 degrees on all but three nights, and afternoon highs were not nearly as extreme as those of 2003. These day/night temperature swings were essential to preserving the acidity in the grapes, as well as to assuring good pigment concentration in the skins and aromatic complexity in the subsequent wines.

September and the first half of October were nearly perfect (save for the showers that hit the Right Bank from September 18 through 20), with the latter month comparable to both 1985 and 1990, two other outstanding vintages.  In fact, the rain that fell in mid-September (up to 40 millimeters in some areas) helped revive the metabolism of the vines.  It also caused some estates to prolong the harvest of their merlots in an effort to avoid picking diluted grapes, but in delaying they often set themselves up for the production of overripe wines.

Harvest dates were critical in 2009, as physiological maturity of the polyphenols in the skins often trailed the build-up of sugar in the grapes.  Picking too early could have meant unripe tannins and astringent wines, while picking too late could yield overalcoholic, overripe wines.  And though it may have been obvious to most, but not all, estate managers not to pick the merlot too late, identifying the ideal time for harvesting the cabernets—, especially the cabernet franc on the Right Bank—, was not so easy.

A consistently outstanding set of wines.  Success was spread widely in 2009.  Without exception, the first growths performed brilliantly.  Most other top "collectible" chateaux performed up to their potential too.  I was struck by the consistently glossy textures and concentration of wines from Pessac/Leognan and Pomerol, but there are many stunning wines from the Medoc as well, not to mention Saint-Emilion.  Perhaps most exciting for consumers who would like to be able to drink Bordeaux, as opposed to worshipping labels, there are many great successes from less Olympian appellations.  Many Moulis and Haut-Medoc wines, for example, achieved a level of density and ripeness--not to mention pliant, mature tannins--that they reach at best every decade or two.

Time and again, as I tasted through the 2009s, I found myself writing "best wine from this chateau in year" or even "best vintage I've ever tasted here."

Of course, even in the most consistently excellent years, some wines disappoint.  I tasted numerous wines that show a rusticity of tannins from water stress or insufficient ripeness; some chateaux may have picked too late (or too early) while others should have eliminated more of their fruit.  Other wines miss out on the concentration of the vintage.  Some properties may have picked merlot too late, and the resulting wines can be chocolatey and high in alcohol without being especially fruity or sweet.  And, of course, as in all warm years there are wines whose jammy or even roasted aromas suggest that they will evolve rapidly.

Most of the notes in this article are from bottles I tasted in New York in recent weeks.  For some wines that I missed, including several first growths, I asked Ian D'Agata to provide his notes.  I have denoted these with an (ID) at the end of the note.  There are a few key Pomerols missing from this article today, such as Petrus and Lafleur.  By chance, on the day this issue went live Ian is back in Bordeaux, and we will add more notes to this coverage in the next few weeks.

Also recommended:  Chateau Le Boscq Saint-Estephe (86), Chateau La Cabanne Pomerol (85), Chateau Citran Haut-Medoc (86), Chateau Fayat Pomerol (86), Chateau Ferrande Graves (86), Chateau Grand Barrail Lamarzelle Figeac Saint-Emilion (86), Chateau de Lamarque Haut-Medoc (85), Chateau Marquis d'Alesme Margaux (85), Chateau Rahoul Graves 86), Chateau Reysson Haut-Medoc (85), Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion (85), Chateau Villa Bel-Air Graves (85).  Other wines tasted:  Chateau Beaumont Haut-Medoc*, Chateau Cordeillan-Bages Pauillac*, Chateau Coufran Haut-Medoc, Chateau Croizet-Bages Pauillac, Chateau Fourcas-Dupre Listrac*, Chateau Fourcas-Hostens Listrac, Chateau Larteau Bordeaux Superieur, Chateau Malescasse Haut-Medoc*, Chateau Maucaillou Moulis*, Chateau Tour de Pez Saint-Estephe, Chateau Verdignan Haut-Medoc.