Bordeaux 2009: Alcohol?
James Lawther MW
Let’s not beat about the bush, alcohol levels are high in 2009 and an important feature of the vintage.
“On average there’s an extra half a degree more compared to previous years,” says Alain Reynaud, owner of Château La Croix de Gay in Pomerol and president of Le Cercle Rive Droite, an association of Right Bank producers.
And when you hear that Château Cos d’Estournel is 14.5%, Château Haut-Brion 14.3% and Château Latour 13.7% you know it’s not just a Right Bank phenomenon.
The alcohol degrees are natural without the legal artifice of chaptalization. Optimal weather conditions including a warm (but not scorching), dry, sunny summer (July and August were drier than in 2005) and clement autumn were responsible for high sugar levels aided and abetted by good vineyard management.
The harvest was not particularly late but the Cabernet was still harvested at 13-14% potential and the Merlot at 14% and more.
So what sort of effect has this had on the wines? Well, gustatively speaking a good percentage appear surprisingly balanced, the alcohol not overly conspicuous.
“I worked with high alcohols in Italy with Ornellaia’s pure Merlot Masseto so knew that the key was balance,” says Thomas Duroux, managing director of Château Palmer (13.9% in 2009).
The balance in 2009 comes from normal to good acidity levels (unlike 2003) and an important, possibly unprecedented, quantity of ripe tannins. There’s also an extraordinary freshness to the fruit which some growers put down to cool night time temperatures before and during the harvest.
In terms of winemaking, savvy producers realised it was not going to be expedient to over extract and were gentle with fermentation temperatures and pumping over.
Where this was not the case the alcohol tends to be more present as it does with overripe grapes or those picked with high sugars but not the requisite phenolic ripeness. The latter tends to be the case for some of the Right Bank Merlot.
In general the Right Bank wines with their dominance of Merlot do exude more power. There’s also a perception of sweetness to the fruit which is heightened by the level of alcohol. The more linear, Cabernet dominant wines of the Left Bank generally display a touch more freshness.
Aside the wine tasting analysis consumers should be aware of the general potency of the vintage.
Even if the wines appear balanced there’s a considerable difference between Bordeaux at 12.5% and 14%. Two or three glasses and the distinction will be clear.
Alcohol is only a problem if it dominates the wine.
Cos d’Estournel at 14.5 abv and Haut-Brion at 14.3 abv are certainly high alcohol wines in the history of Bordeaux, but both are balanced by high tannins and a refreshing acidity.
Twenty years ago, Bordeaux had to chaptalise (add sugar to the fermenting must to raise levels of alcohol to around 12.5 abv) almost every vintage.
In the present decade, chaptalisation has been rarely needed and the sugar merchants would have found few, if any, clients in 2009.
Thus, the alcohol is natural and with the highest levels of tannins ever recorded in Bordeaux, a high level of alcohol was necessary to surround them.
Acidity was there, particularly in the Cabernets and in the Merlots that were not picked too late, so all was in balance.
Even with high alcohols, there were very few wines in 2009 that came out over 14 abv.
In the Merlots and Cabernets of the New World, there are very few wines that come out under 14 abv.
2009 just happened to be a very ripe vintage and when Bordeaux gets it ripe, it gets it right.