The 2010 Clarets: A Modern Classic

After tasting a few hundred 2010 clarets, I'd have to say that this vintage is a modern classic:  classic in the sense that the wines have sound acidity and serious tannic support, but modern in that the successful wines--and they are legion in 2010--are dense, glossy, high-alcohol and fruit-driven.  They rarely show the austerity that characterized most classic Bordeaux vintages a generation ago.

If anything, the wines have gained in sweetness, without loss of clarity or energy, since I began tasting them from bottle in January.  Surprisingly few of the 2010s I've sampled in recent weeks were painful to taste, even if they were quite restrained.  Of course, I should note that the better wines of the vintage simply have too much phenolic material not to go through a sullen stage at some point.  The major question is when this will occur, and how long it will last.  But the best 2010s will be cellar treasures.  This is a vintage in a quality league with such past years as 2009, 2005, 1990 and 1982.

A quick recap of the 2010 growing season.  As Ian D'Agata reported in his early coverage of this vintage in the spring of 2011, the growing season of 2012 was characterized by three main climatic factors:  dry conditions, lower-than-average temperatures, and exceptionally sunny days.  There were virtually no disease pressures in 2010.  The following paragraphs are a summary of D'Agata's early comments:

A dry, cold winter led to a late start to the growing cycle.  Bud break was ten days behind schedule but occurred in a uniform way.  But the flowering period in late May and early June was disrupted by days of cold and rainy weather, yielding significant flower abortion (millerandage) and widespread failure of the fruit to set, or berry shatter (coulure).  This set the stage for a small crop, as well as for uneven ripening.  Merlot suffered more than the two cabernets, which usually flower later and did so in 2010 under somewhat better conditions. 

The end of June saw a spike in daily temperatures; drought conditions set in and continued through July and August.  The veraison (the color change of the berries) happened evenly and quickly in early August.  Rain totals in July and August were much lower than in previous very strong vintages like 2009 and 2005.  The July heat led to water stress, in many sites slowing the progression of physiological ripening and reducing the potential body of the wines.  There was also little rain in September--in fact, barely one-quarter of the average monthly total for the previous ten years.  In other words, Bordeaux had its driest July-through-September period of the last decade and one of the driest of the last 30 years.

Some light showers in early September actually helped to kickstart the vine's metabolic machinery again, permitting anthocyanin (grape pigment) build-up and polymerization.  These favorable weather conditions helped the grapes ripen, but the persisting cool temperatures prevented some fruit from reaching optimal maturity and delayed the harvest.

The very dry summer conditions concentrated the berries, while the low daytime temperatures and cool nights of August and September helped preserve acidity and enhanced the synthesis of aromatic precursors, allowing for wines of potentially great power and freshness and pure aromatics.  Berries were small, as were the number of grapes per bunch, and the high skin-to-juice ratio was another factor explaining the concentration of anthocyanins and tannins in the 2010s.

The generally low crop levels in 2010 went a long way toward ensuring phenolic ripeness.  Since water stress leads to decreased photosynthetic activity and less physiological ripening of the grape polyphenols, this can result in green, harsh tannins.  But the small yields and the leisurely harvest allowed much Right Bank merlot to ripen properly, especially those vines planted on water-retaining clay-rich soils.  In the drier gravelly and sandy soils of the Medoc, merlot grapes had more of a tendency toward dehydration.  Many top estates upped the percentage of cabernet sauvignon in their grands vins because they were less enamored of their merlot.

Of course, the best estates took steps during the summer and at harvest-time to narrow the range of ripeness in the finished wines, either by manual passes through the vines or by careful sorting in the vineyards and in the wineries at harvest.  And they could always declassify their less-successful fruit.

The 2010s in the bottle.  The 2010s are clearly very rich wines with considerable aromatic complexity and energy.  While some concentration was simply a function of dehydration of the grapes, much of it was due to the vintage's high skin-to-juice ratio and leisurely harvest.  Some wines show signs of water stress in their moderate ripeness and body or in their slightly astringent tannins.  But even the wines that miss out on the sweetness and pliancy of the best 2010s are still generally unusually concentrated owing to low yields.

Alcohol levels are higher than usual--sometimes much higher--across the board in 2010.  In the Medoc many wines are 14% or more, which is hardly classic by normal standards; on the Right Bank, 15% is not rare.  These are not your fathers' clarets.  Ultimately there was more dehydration in the merlot than in other varieties, yet some Pomerols manage to be outsized without coming across as overripe.

Although there are many superb second wines in 2010, it's worth noting that this is also where some of the overripe, underripe and otherwise sub-par fruit ended up (to be fair, many top estates now have third wines or simply sell off their lesser material).

Early tasters disagreed on the nature of the tannins in 2010.  With total polyphenol numbers generally very high, some wines will inevitably be out of balance.  Owing to the thick grape skins and small quantities of juice, 2010 was a year that did not require vigorous extraction, but some producers may have overworked their fruit (others may have extracted too gently).  Still, the better wines have the mid-palate stuffing and sheer ripeness of fruit to support their tannic spines. 

While relatively few wines, even the ones that began totally closed, seemed out of whack in my recent tastings, with time in the glass and in the recorked bottle many of them showed more dominant or even slightly astringent tannins.  In others a slightly tart acidity became obvious.  But the tannins in the better wines are sweet, velvety and fine-grained.

Some professional tasters claim that numerous wines, especially those based heavily on merlot, tend to be overripe.  I certainly did taste wines that I would describe as a bit chocolatey or even roasted in character.  But these were the exceptions, and even these wines rarely lacked for structure.  Still, with a few noteworthy exceptions, the best cabernet sauvignon-based wines of the Medoc excited me the most: they offer a remarkable combination of density, sweetness of fruit and inner-mouth energy.   But there are exceptional wines from every appellation in 2010, especially from cooler sites and soils that often struggle to ripen their fruit.

The 2010s were offered en primeur in 2011 at record prices, but the international market (read:  Asian) for collectible clarets quickly cooled thereafter, and much less wine was sold as futures than was the case with the 2009s.  Even so, the top classified growths and Right Bank collectibles remain outrageously expensive today.  But 2010 is also a year in which normally underperforming sites and microclimates could make wines of atypical ripeness and density:  wines that in past years have been weak and weedy are often pliant, ripe and satisfying in 2010.  As these wines have never commanded price premiums in the marketplace, they can offer compelling value. 

Note that quantities of 2010 purchased by U.S. importers, distributors and retailers were quite limited; most importers and distributors brought in very little wine beyond the cases they pre-sold, so many of the top wines will barely reach retail shelves.  And the wines are only slowly entering the marketplace.  Many of the vintage's top examples will not be available at the retail level until the fall--or even later.  Incidentally, as was the case last year, Ian D'Agata will be visiting Bordeaux again shortly after this issue goes live, and in the next few weeks we will fill in some key Right Bank wines that I was unable to taste in New York in time to include them in this issue.

Also recommended:  Agassac Haut-Medoc (86), D'Aiguilhe Querre Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux (85), Beaumont Haut-Medoc (85), Bellevue Saint-Emilion (85), de Braude Haut-Medoc (86), La Cabanne Pomerol (86), Citran Haut-Medoc (85), Clarke Listrac (85), Clos La Boheme Haut-Medoc (86), Desmirail Margaux (86), Deyrem Valentin Margaux (85), Ferriere Margaux (86), Fonreaud Listrac (86), de France Pessac-Leognan (86), Gressier Grand Poujeaux Moulin en Medoc (85), Greysac Medoc (86), Hanteillan Haut-Medoc (85), Haut-Beausejour Saint-Estephe (86), Lamothe-Bergeron Haut-Medoc (85), Laroze Saint-Emilion (86), La Louviere Pessac-Leognan (86), Lynch-Moussas Pauillac (86), Malescasse Haut-Medoc (86), Maucaillou Moulis (86), Pedesclaux Pauillac (86), Picque Caillou Pessac-Leognan (85), La Pointe Pomerol (86), Rolland-Maillet Saint-Emilion (86), Saransot-Dupre Listrac (86), Le Thil Comte Clary Pessac-Leognan (86), La Tour de Mons Margaux (86).

Other wines tasted:  Bel-Ormer Tronquoy de Lalande*, Biston-Brillette Moulis en Medoc, Caronne Ste. Gemme Haut-Medoc, Coufran Haut-Medoc, Le Crock Saint-Estephe*, Dutruch Grand Poujeaux Moulis en Medoc, L'Ermitage Listrac, La Fleur d'Amelie Bordeaux, Fleur La Mothe Medoc*, Fourcas Hosten Listrac*, Lusteauneuf Medoc*, Magdeleine Bouhou Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux, Mongravey Margaux*, de Pez Saint-Estephe*, Poitevin Medoc, Preuillac Medoc*, Reverdi Listrac, Simard Saint-Emilion, La Tour de By Medoc*, Tour des Termes Saint-Estephe, Turon La Croix Bordeaux Superieur*, Vieux Robin Medoc.