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2009 Bordeaux: Voluptuous Wines
By Michael Apstein
Feb 7, 2012
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They’re here!  The much-praised 2009 Bordeaux, the region’s priciest vintage, has arrived.  Representatives from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) were in New York this past week as part of their nationwide tour to give the trade the first comprehensive look at this much-heralded vintage.  Unlike a barrel tasting where tasters swirl and sip unfinished wines, the UGC tastings give representatives of the press and trade their first major chance to sample a broad array of finished, bottled wines, which will be appearing on retailers’ shelves shortly. 

The UGC is an association of 132 grands crus estates located throughout all of the major Bordeaux appellations:  Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes, Barsac, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.  Importantly, the principals--owners, technical directors, or winemakers--pour the wines and are available for in-depth questions and discussions. 

The tasting was beautifully organized by Balzac Communications and held in spacious surroundings--a necessity considering the number of wines and the crowd of attendees--at the Marriott Marquis. 

Rave Early Reviews

The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux has received rave reviews based on initial barrel tastings conducted two years ago.  Calling it the vintage of the century has little meaning since that term is used in Bordeaux at least twice a decade.  But producers and critics have been effusive with their praise and the market responded with frenzied buying of “futures” despite stratospheric prices. 

Longtime Bordeaux merchant David Milligan told me that he had initially not purchased these wines as futures for himself because of his age and a cellar full of older Bordeaux vintages, but after tasting them again, he decided that, despite the increased price, they were so outstanding that he was diving in--and hoping to live long enough to enjoy them.

Indeed, although the wines are available at the wholesale and retail level, the vast majority of them have been sold out and are no longer available at the producer level.  “It shows the long term view that the Bordelais have of the market,” noted Paul Wagner, President of Balzac Communications.  “These producers have no wine to sell, yet they are here at considerable expense to promote them and their region.”

A Lack of Consistency

Did the wines live up to the hype and expectations?  Yes and no.  And it depends very much on the style of wine you prefer.  The 2009s are perfect for those who favor voluptuous ripe powerful red wines.  In contrast, word on the street is that those who favor more classically proportioned vigorous reds should embrace the 2010s, which producers and critics are also trumpeting, based on barrel samples.

John Kolasa, managing director for both Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in St. Emilion, remarked that 2009 was an “American” vintage, while the 2010s were a “British” vintage, meaning that the ‘09s would be for earlier drinking, while the more classic ‘10s would be for cellaring for the children.

There’s no question that there were some spectacular wines and there were more successes than failure in 2009.  But some wines were overblown and over-the-top.  There was a lack of consistency, unlike 2005 when you could literally close your eyes and point to select a terrific wine. 

The character of the wines is always determined by the weather during the growing season, which in 2009 was perfect.  Sun and warmth with just enough rain at times allowed the grapes to ripen perfectly.  Ideal weather during the harvest meant the grapes were in superb condition, without rot or disease, when they arrived at the press.  Those ideal harvest conditions may explain why some of the wines are overblown.  Growers could wait, and wait, and wait to harvest because of glorious weather without the threat of rain.  Indeed, some grapes came in over-ripe, resulting in big, overblown wines with high levels of alcohol.  And wines high in alcohol extract more oak while they age in barrel than do lower alcohol wines, according to Kolasa.  Producers who exercised restraint, perhaps picked a little earlier, and were prudent with barrel-aging in 2009 made superb wines.  Those who didn’t were left with over ripe, alcoholic and overly oaky wines.

Lush and Fleshy Reds

The reds are ripe, lush and fleshy wines with very supple tannins and low-ish acidity.  Many are powerful but quite forward and approachable now although, like the 1982s, which were also easy to drink soon after release, I suspect the well-balanced 2009s will also develop nicely.  The ripeness and fleshiness of the vintage blurred and, in some instances, obscured the lines dividing appellations.  The wines from St. Estèphe, for example, did not have their usual earthy, slightly grainy tannins that distinguish them from the rest of Bordeaux.  Many of the wines from Pessac-Léognan lacked the distinct and engaging burnt ash quality I associate with that appellation.  On the other hand, the communes of Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac seemed to be particularly successful in 2009, with the best wines reflecting their origins.  On the Right Bank, many of the ones from Pomerol and St. Emilion were boisterous, but still with glossy tannins.

Under-Appreciated Sweet Wines

The sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes are under-appreciated.  These wines keep extremely well for at least a week--and often longer--after they’ve been opened, which means you can easily enjoy just a glass with cheese or after and recork the bottle for later.  The 2009s showed very well, with richness tinged with apricot skin flavors.  Coutet ($75), with its cutting and vibrant acidity led the pack with Lafaurie-Peyraguey ($54) and Suduiraut ($93) not far behind. 

 Pricey Stuff, but Value Exists

While the top names from 2009s are priced in the stratosphere--Lafite is selling for about $2,000 a bottle--there are fabulous buys at the lower ends of the prestige ladder.  Less revered appellations benefited enormously from the ripeness, eliminating under ripe grapes and green tannins.  And who really cares if the appellation lines of Bordeaux Supérieur are blurred?  Look for traditional over achieves from Moulis or Listrac or wines from the more humble Haut-Médoc and Médoc appellations for good value.

I’ve listed my favorites below, divided into three groups, based on the UCG tasting, a tasting of finished wines, not barrel samples, at VinExpo in Bordeaux in June 2011, or at other venues.  The wines are listed alphabetically within each group because they are very close in quality.  Indeed, the difference between my top and second tier is also small.  The third group represents particularly good values, wines $25 or less, although there are a few outstanding values in the other groups as well.  I would be happy to have any of these wines in my cellar. 

95+ Point Red Wines

Branaire Ducru ($71), Brane Cantenac ($73), Domaine de Chevalier ($79), Conseillante ($237), Figeac ($269), Léoville Barton ($104), Pichon-Longueville [a.k.a. Pichon Baron] ($145), Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande [a.k.a. Pichon Lalande] ($207).

90-95 Point Red Wines

d’Armailhac ($54), Angludet ($35), Batailley ($44), Belgrave ($35), Canon-la-Gaffelière ($96), Cantemerle ($38), Clerc Milon ($65), Clos Fourtet ($111), Dauzac ($58), Durfort-Vivens ($40), Gazin ($93), Gloria ($46), Gruaud Larose ($84), d’Issan ($66), Lagrange ($63), La Lagune ($68), Langoa Barton ($70), Rausan-Gassies ($55), Rausan-Ségla ($106), Smith Haut Lafitte ($114),

Excellent Value Red Wines ($25 or less)

Citran ($22), Coufran ($24), Greysac ($25), La Tour de By ($25).

The Angludet, Batailley, Belgrave and Dufort-Vivens also represent outstanding value, albeit a higher price point.

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I’d like to hear your thoughts about the 2009 Bordeaux.  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com