See what Decanter's experts have to say about this vintage...
Médoc & Graves: Keep
Very ripe wines with fairly low acidity raise concerns about ageability. Big, hedonistic wines, like 1982 but more consistent.
St-Emilion & Pomerol: Keep
Luscious wines with high alcohol, but the best don’t lack tannin. A few overripe wines, but generally superb.
Sauternes & Barsac: Keep
A swift harvest in early October as botrytis spread fast. Very high sugars.
James Lawther & Steven Spurrier discuss the key themes of the Bordeaux 2009 vintage
Even right at the start of the growing season things were looking promising, with temperatures slightly above average and 220 hours of sunshine. This was tempered by a mild but rainy April, until May saw the return of fine weather with excellent sunshine, leading to swift and even flowering in late May and early June.
The only issues really were some violent hailstorms that fell on several occasions in May, affecting up to 20,000ha of vines, or one-fifth of overall output.
Summer turned out to be extremely warm and even, with 293 sunshine hours in June, 262 in July and 270 hours in August. This meant that veraison, like flowering, was relatively uniform, although there were some issues with lack of rainfall, particularly as things headed into September and the sunshine kept on coming. This month had 50 hours more sunshine than average, with just 48mm of rainfall compared to the 30-year average of 90mm.
The Merlot-dominated right bank has produced strong, powerful wines in 2009, many with an explosive and generous amount of fruit. For those seeking balance over power, the left bank will come out ahead.
There is perhaps more variability on the right bank compared to the left bank, and the May hailstorm clearly made life difficult for certain producers in St-Emilion, Castillon and Francs.
Hydric stress in some of the sandier zones of St-Emilion and Pomerol also resulted in high alcohol and drier tannins, while there were some producers that pushed the maturity too far, although not as many as we saw in 2000 or 2005. St-Emilion perhaps did a little better than Pomerol, as the Merlot ripened so early, whereas the limestone of St-Emilion kept things a little more in check, as did the addition of Cabernet Franc. Be wary of over-oaking though.
A number of top performers have a fair amount of Merlot in the blend, including Issan (40%), Léoville-Poyferré (29%), Palmer (52%), Pichon-Longueville (33%) and Rauzan-Ségla (42%) not to mention many of the good value offerings such as Haut Condissas (60%) from the northern Médoc.
Dry white harvest began in late August, and there were some excellent results, although acidity was fairly low due to the heat, producing delicious but not especially long-living white wines in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations.
One of the best successes for white wines this year came from Sauternes, where botrytis set in with astonishing rapidity after a perfect run of heat, sunshine and showers. The resulting wines are luscious, but have retained acidity.
This was a great year for the smaller appellations in many cases, such as Fronsac, Castillon and the St-Emilion satellites. Over on the left bank, the smaller appellations also really shone, and there is huge ageing potential for the big four of St-Julien, Margaux, Pauillac and St-Estèphe.
The Haut-Médoc appellation starts in the south, encompassing the cru classés of Cantemerle and La Lagune, and travels north to beyond St-Estéphe, so as in St-Emilion, the styles are very varied.
Cabernet Sauvignon still dominates, though Merlot is increasing and Cabernet Franc is in places being phased out in favour of the more robust Petit Verdot. This is probably the most reliable appellation in Bordeaux in the sense that the soils are favourable, yet the wines still have to try their best to gain attention against their classed growth neighbours. 2009 was a boon for the Haut-Médoc: it allowed the chateaux to express themselves well and – for the better ones – very well indeed.
Listrac-Médoc & Moulis-en-Médoc
The wines of Listrac are getting better and better. More concentration on the fruit and less on the tannins has brought an elegance to what in the past was a rather rustic Médoc. As a result they are approachable younger and, while rarely possessing the fleshy charm of their neighbour Moulis, they retain a good firmness. 2009 suited Listrac well and while there are few candidates for long ageing, they do have fine precision of fruit for the medium term.
In Moulis meanwhile, with plumminess from the Merlot and structure from the Cabernet, and vineyards just a touch warmer than those of Listrac, 2009 was very much in the Moulis mould. Yet while the wines are for the most part supple, rounded and full of Médoc fruit, I found fewer high points here than in the past – they are attractive, true to their appellation and will give much pleasure over the medium term.
More Merlot has been planted up in the northern Médoc, which suits the quite clayey soils, and complete ripening helps the Cabernets which historically have been quite lean, but not so in 2009. Overall, it’s a good to very good range of wines which show well the investment and effort the committed owners are making.
These wines will open up after a year in bottle as the tannins are ripe, yet will surprise by how well some of them will develop. Overall, a confident performance, especially from gravelly soils with a view over the Gironde Estuary.
With 1,100ha in the appellation and a wide diversity of soils, Margaux has often been described as ‘all over the place’ when compared to the homogeneity of St-Julien. It was still all over the place in 2009, but in the positive sense that almost every wine tasted of where it came from. Brane-Cantenac and Boyd-Cantenac might share a name, but their soils are very different, and so are their wines. The steady improvements in overall quality in this commune have come to splendid fruition in 2009.
With vineyards running from St-Julien in the south to St-Estéphe in the north, the style of Pauillac is varied but in most cases dominated by the briary depth of Cabernet Sauvignon that gives a firmness that needs ageing. Alongside the habitual Pauillac vigour, this year was a depth of ripeness that stayed on the palate, rather than being overwhelmed by firm tannins – although structure and grip was necessarily present for the long term. Many very impressive wines.
For long regarded as the commune for meaty, robust wines, St-Estèphe has been achieving more and more elegance over the last decade, the Merlots ripening well on the more clayey soils to add flesh to the sometimes over-firm Cabernets. Once again, 2009 has brought ripeness and richness to this commune, which offers open cassis fruit on the lesser wines and complex vineyard expression from the more classic terroirs. Overall very successful.
Described by the great Bordeaux buffs of the past as ‘quintessential claret’, St-Julien manages to live up to its reputation in vintage after vintage. In 2009 the extra concentration from low-yielding ripe Cabernet Sauvignon has added richness and depth for long ageing, while fragrance, harmony and balance remain the hallmarks.
Thanks to the perfect conditions at harvest time, picking dates were consistent throughout the appellation, taking place between 22 September and 8 October. The chateaux are very true to their soil and style, with a vigour and energy not found in lesser vintages. The best will improve over three decades, perhaps more.
Graves & Pessac-Lèognan
The northern Graves, Pessac-Lèognan, often falls between the two stools of the Libournais, with its early ripening Merlot, and the Mèdoc, with its late-ripening Cabernet. Sometimes there is a hint of greenness to the reds due to the higher proportion of Cabernet Franc than in the Mèdoc, which ripens less well on the cooler soils of the left bank.
2009 brought ripeness for both the Cabernets, which kept their elegance to blend well with the more earthy Merlots, producing wines with vigour and freshness.
Fronsac & Canon-Fronsac
Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac always perform in the type of warm, dry conditions seen in 2009. It suits the clay-limestone soils and majority Merlot. They even escaped the May hailstorm that hit other right bank communes. Rain fell in mid-September but there was no rush to harvest, no dilution and a steady breeze that followed helped concentrate the grapes.
The Fronsac brand is still a hard sell (the bulk– en vrac – price is the same as generic Bordeaux and half that of a St-Emilion satellite) but be assured, some of the best value wines have been produced here, particularly by leading growers.
St-Emilion can revel in the splendour of the 2009 vintage. However, as is always the case in an appellation of 5,500 hectares with a medley of soils and perhaps greater diversity in winemaking, there’s more variety in quality and style.
Taken as a whole, the wines have the fruit, concentration and rounded tannins that mark 2009. Alcohol degrees are high (as they are throughout Bordeaux) but what counts is the balance. It was easier to find this with Merlot grown on clay-limestone soils than in some of the sandier zones where the vines suffered from the dry conditions in July and August (it was not just a case of late harvesting).
The 12 May hailstorm also did considerable damage to vineyards just north-east of the town of St-Emilion. Yields are considerably down here and extra work in the vineyards was needed to assist quality. The Cabernet Franc was very good in 2009 so this has been a positive factor in many wines.
This is a great year for Pomerol, continuing a sequence that includes 2005, 2006 and 2008. The wines have everything one would expect: voluptuous fruit, fragrance and plentiful but supple tannins. Alcohol degrees, as in most of Bordeaux, are higher but the wines show balance.
What is also pleasing is that it’s not just the leading chateaux that have performed well. The quality flows further down the scale, offering, one hopes, some reasonably priced wines.
Some chateaux (Lafleur, Trotanoy) harvested before the 19/20 September downpour (100mm of rain), the majority (including Petrus) after, clement conditions allowing growers to pick at will.
My early enthusiasm for Pomerol was based on a good showing from the elite (Lafleur, Petrus, Le Pin, VCC, etc) and progress from some of the ‘second tier’ châteaux like Nénin, Petit-Village, Le Pointe and Vray Croix de Gay. However, further down the scale the quality is uneven and vintages like 2008 and 2006 could prove more successful.
Sauternes & Barsac
2009, as soon as the wines were made, was greeted by all Sauternes growers as one of the most perfect – or even the most perfect – vintage they remember.
An exceptional summer, rich in many sunny and luminous days and relatively fresh nights, was completed in perfect fashion for this area by 45mm of rain in the middle of September, allowing an immediate and complete invasion of the famous ‘botrytis cinerea’ on perfectly ripe berries.
Most properties picked their entire crop with just two or three passages through the vines, and got juices far above 20 degrees of potential alcohol, which is an absolute record! As the yield too is a record (25hl/ha or more), the general enthusiasm is easy to understand.
The wines are reminiscent of the 1990 vintage with more body and definition, or for older growers, 1949 and 1921. The overall level of my tasting marks is unmatched.