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The Empire Strikes Back 2009 Red Bordeaux from Bottle ?

Not A Myth, But Mythical


If readers go back and read Issue 188 (April 2010), my barrel tasting report on the 2009s was titled Once Upon A Time 1899, 1929, 1949, 1959, 2009. In it, I suggested that many chteaux had made the finest wines that I had tasted in over 32 years of evaluating Bordeaux vintages. After spending nearly two weeks there at the end of January, this is unquestionably the greatest Bordeaux vintage I have ever tasted. Of course, 2010 is not yet in bottle, and it is going to be another fascinating vintage. However, it will not have the early charm, appeal and opulence that the 2009s already possess. What was clear in the tastings from the bottle (and most of the wines except for the first growths and a few other wines were tasted two, three and sometimes even four different times) is the remarkable consistency of the vintage. Obviously the classified growths have produced extraordinary wines, but what is so striking about 2009 and I havent really seen this kind of excitement since 1982 is the quality of the cru bourgeois and the petits vins and generic Bordeaux that are available. Of course, everyone focuses on the top of the pyramid, the first growths, second growths, and a handful of very exclusive Pomerols and St.-Emilions, then complains about greed, absurd prices, market manipulation, and the self destruction of Bordeaux. However, the global marketplace, the tendency for Asian collectors, especially the Chinese, to pay record prices for these wines are the new reality, yet, truth be known, they only represent a small percentage of what Bordeaux produces, and there are hundreds and hundreds of reviews that follow of wines under $25 a bottle that represent absolutely compelling value. In short, 2009 is the greatest vintage I have tasted in Bordeaux since 1982, of which it is a modern-day version, but greatly improved. It is more consistent (many chteaux that were making mediocre wine in 1982 are now making brilliant wine) and of course, the yields are lower, the selection process is stricter, and there are any other number of factors, from investments in the wineries to impeccable, radical viticulture, that have resulted in extraordinary raw materials. The Weather Readers should look at Issue 188 to take a look at the details of the weather. I think the most important thing to remember about this vintage is that it was conceived under virtually perfect weather conditions. The famous professor at Bordeauxs School of Oenology, Denis Dubourdieu, has long maintained that there have to be five conditions satisfied in order for Bordeaux to have a great vintage. These conditions are: (1) an early flowering at the beginning of June, (2) a healthy and uniform fruit set, meaning hot, sunny, relatively dry weather, (3) the veraison, which is the change from green to red grapes, must begin early (in 2009 it started in late July, rather than August); (4) The grapes have to ripen fully, which means there must be warm weather with enough rainfall in August and September to prevent photosynthesis from shutting down because of drought and stress to the vines; and (5) September and October have to be generally dry, sunny, and warm, without excessive heat spells or excessive rainy periods. As Dubourdieu reported in his extensive, detailed analysis of the growing conditions of the vintage, all five conditions were satisfied easily in 2009, which is something that even 2005 couldnt boast. The unprecedented maturity levels, given the tendency for many chteaux to pick later and later, saw alcohols that averaged 13.5 to 15% in the Graves and Mdoc and 14% to 15% in St.-Emilion and Pomerol. One of the striking things is that despite these high alcohols and great ripeness, the pH levels (a measurement of the strength of the acid in the wines) are high but not excessively high, and by and large slightly lower than in 1990 or 1982. The level of polyphenols and tannins in the wines is one of the highest measured, eclipsed by some chteaux only in the subsequent vintage of 2010. While I thought the Mdocs were the cream of the crop when I tasted from barrel, it is now apparent that not only are the Mdocs historic, but so are the Graves, as are the Pomerols. St.-Emilion are more variable, although many profound wines were made there. Dont forget, this appellation is by far the largest, and tasting through several hundred St.-Emilions is going to result in some wines not showing terribly well in spite of the overall greatness of the vintage. 1982 Dj Vu All Over Again But Greater The one thing about these wines that I love is that the window of drinkability will be enormous. Just like in 1990 or 1982, the low acidity, the very ripe fruit, the high glycerin levels from the elevated alcohols, and the stunning concentration and fruit from low yields will give most of these wines incredible appeal in their youth, but at the same time will guarantee that the top wines last for 30 or more years, as the best 1982s have certainly done. I do want to reiterate that for as big, rich, and as high in alcohol as the 2009s are, they are remarkably pure, well-delineated and surprisingly fresh and vibrant a paradox, but a wonderful one at that.

Historic Prices, But Also Great Values There is no doubt that when first growths are going for anywhere from $1000 to nearly $2000 per bottle (compared to $30 per bottle for the 1982's in 1983), insanity seems to be the norm. This is especially true to those of my generation who bought first growths in 1982 for $350 for a 12-bottle case. Many of the first growths dont even offer 12-bottle cases any more, which tells you that the number of people demanding these wines has jumped exponentially. However, rather than focus on 30-50 classified growths and limited production Pomerols and St.-Emilions that are priced in the stratosphere and have become prestigious brands, much like haute couture, Berguet watches, or Rolls Royce or Bentley automobiles, there are hundreds of reviews that follow where the wines cost well under $25 and represent some of the finest quality money can buy for wine consumers. This hasnt changed, and many wineries, particularly the cru bourgeois of the Mdoc, are actually suffering trying to sell their wines because everyone thinks all Bordeaux is overpriced, when in fact, the reality is just the opposite. The Real Reality or Inflated Wine Critic Scores? There will be a tendency, looking through the following report, to suggest (1) I have somehow changed the way in which I judge Bordeaux, or (2) I have fallen victim to inflationary scores. I think I have laid out the case, in previous issues of the Wine Advocate, as well as in many of my books, about what has actually happened not only in Bordeaux, but in the top viticultural areas of the world, especially, California, Frances Rhne Valley, Spain and Italy. When I first tasted Bordeaux professionally in the late 1970s, there were probably no more than 6-12 great wines, and another 25-50 that could be recommended without hesitation. By the time 1982 was conceived, that had risen to probably three dozen or more truly world-class, great, great wines, and another 75 to 100 that were top-flight, and worthy of readers interests. By 1990, this had grown to around 50 to 75 great wines and approximately 200 other top wines. This number continued to soar, and by 2000, there were probably 100-125 great and compelling wines and another 250 to 300 worth buying. By 2009 and 2010, we are in a situation where the wine quality in Bordeaux has eclipsed anything that has ever been done in the past. Some of the old-timers I talked to on this last trip truly feel that 2009 may well go down, when all the dust settles 25 or 50 years from now, as the single greatest vintage ever produced in Bordeaux since records have been kept. Thats a long time. The selection process that goes into making these wines, the investments in the wineries, the extraordinary, concerted effort by entire teams of winery personnel to produce the best wines possible, the practice of culling out the finest lots, and declassifying the rest into either second wines or selling off in bulk, using less SO2 , protecting the wine from bruising with the utilization of what are called soft techniques such as movement of wine by neutral gas and gravity, and much less fining and filtration if it all, has resulted in smashingly high quality that has never existed in the past. Take also the radical viticultural techniques that were never used 30 years ago. Christian Moueix was the first, at Petrus, to crop thin in the mid1980's; now virtually every classified growth crop-thins, prunes for low quantities, and does intensively detailed work in the vineyards such as shoot positioning and selective harvesting based on the different exposures within the vineyard. This has all resulted in irrefutably higher and higher quality, explaining the increase in world class wines from the 1980s through the 1990s, and now through the first decade of the 21st century. Despite the complaints about overpriced Bordeaux, and Bordeaux has lost its soul, Bordeaux wines today offer more diversity, more quality, more aging potential, and offer more different flavors, aromas and characteristics than ever before in its history. This is an irrefutable fact. So has there been careless scoring inflation? Of course not. The same standards that gave what looked to be super conservative and very modest scores 32 years ago, are the same criteria that are in play today. The problem is that 2009 is the greatest vintage I have ever tasted in Bordeaux. I am willing to say it loudly, and stake my reputation on it. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about 2009 is that there is no buzz. We are all tired of the newest Vintage of the Century, but when the real one happens, it has to be recognized, and someone has to point it out. That is not called hype, but accountability, fairness, and independent professional reporting. I have always said that a workable definition of greatness in wine includes a number of elements: (1) the ability to please both the palate and intellect, (2) the ability to hold the tasters interest, (3) the ability to offer intense aromas and flavors without heaviness, (4) the ability to taste better with each sip, (5) the ability to clearly improve with age, (6) the ability to display a singular personality, and (7) the ability to reflect the place of origin. On all accounts, the 2009s more than satisfy these requirements. The wines reflect an ongoing passion and commitment of the producers that is unprecedented, and has never existed to this extent in the past. I cant tell readers what to do about the pricing of some of the first growths and other exclusive and limited production wines, but there is an ocean of high quality wine at very fair prices that will be found in the following report. This vintage represents the pinnacle of Bordeaux savoir faire. About The Tastings

Everything in the report was tasted in the last few weeks of January as I flew home on February 1. Except for the first growths and a handful of super seconds and other wines, where the only way to taste them was to visit the property, virtually all of these wines were tasted two to as many as four separate times. I always seem to luck out when I go to Bordeaux, and perhaps it is part of my destiny in becoming a wine critic, my trips have usually been accompanied by extraordinary weather. I always love to taste on sunny, low humid weather days, even though, of course, I have no control over mother nature. I had twelve perfect days that were more like springtime than late January, with low humidity, sunny conditions, and no rain. The tasting conditions were perfect, and the wines performed brilliantly.