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The Greatest Vintage Ever…? 2009 Under the Microscope

by Giles Cooper (Head of Marketing & PR)

For many, it is almost as if the ‘Bordeaux 10 Years On’ tasting was designed for the 2009 vintage. It is however a total coincidence that the first of BI’s 10-year retrospectives was itself held in 2009, with the 1999 vintage; of course, given the timing of that event right at the start of the year, the very grapes that formed the wines of 2009 had not even sprung forth on the vines yet. And yet it remains a point of interest that our 10 Years On tasting, 10 years on, should champion such a famous vintage.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the facts. 2009 was a benevolent Bordeaux vintage in both conditions and volume. All five of the late, great Professor Denis Dubordieu’s ‘conditions’ for a great red wine vintage were met: 1. Early flowering; 2. Healthy, uniform fruit set; 3. Early veraison or colour change; 4. Full ripening of the grapes, and 5. Dry, sunny and warm conditions at harvest. All the main critics found plenty to enjoy at the outset – although they weren’t all entirely convinced, with fears of overripeness playing on the minds of the cautious.

Neal Martin: “at the top end, there are a clutch of spectacular, dare I say legendary wines in the making. These were simply a joy to taste: pure, delineated, fresh, silky in texture, achieving that elusive combination of intensity and finesse. Perusing my notes, it is probably the Left Bank that provides the most pleasure, the Cabernets handling the alcohol far better than the more rapid ripening Merlots.”

Jancis Robinson: “I have never given so many really high scores when tasting en primeur anywhere. I have not yet had a chance to do a final tally but I do know that I gave at least eight, very possibly more, wines a score of 19 out of 20 – unprecedented generosity and enthusiasm on my part. Mind you, Nature doled out unprecedented generosity and enthusiasm during the growing and ripening season too.”

However of course the marker was laid down by the pre-eminent Bordeaux reviewer of the time, one gentleman by the name of Robert M. Parker, Jr, who stated the following after his in-bottle tasting, published in February 2012:

“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 châteaux 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 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.”

So the time had finally come to put these famous wines to the test. And what an extraordinary test it was – not purely in pleasure terms (although there was plenty of that) but for sheer fascination.

The venue, for the first time, was ‘off-site’, in the elegant Nash and Brandon Rooms at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall in West London. Amidst tables heaving with fine cheeses, Gilpin’s Gin and tonics, and Dom Perignon 2009 en magnum (for refreshing the palate post-tasting, of course), stood 67 wines representing an incredible breadth of styles and maturity. Given the significance of the year there was no option but to dive straight in and take every wine as it came – and the recommended order began with St Emilion and Pomerol, then via the Graves and Pessac into the Left Bank, working south from Margaux to North at St Estephe. The final table took on the role of ‘high altar’, supporting the combined weight of the five First Growths and the leading wines of the Right Bank (including both Petrus and Le Pin).

It is worth mentioning that earlier that day back at ‘HQ’, a select group of professional tasters and critics - Neal Martin, Jancis Robinson, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Jane Anson of Decanter, Alice Lascelles of the FT, Ella Lister for Club Oenologique, Stuart Piggot for, and BI favourite Michael Schuster – all approached the same set of wines for their relevant publications. You can expect to see notes and scores from many of these fine folks over the coming days and weeks.

For this reason I will not go into too much detail on specific wines – my colleagues across BI will put forward some of their favourites later in this piece – but I will attempt to capture some of the key themes uncovered on the night.

  1. Not all the wines are a complete success; but when they are good, they are spine-tinglingly astonishing.
  2. Maturity is more varied than in any vintage I can recall tasting in this horizontal environment; some wines are well into their (long) race, a few (not many admittedly) arguably won’t have far left to run, whilst for some the starting pistol hasn’t even been loaded yet.
  3. Despite the somewhat extreme conditions that created it, this is not a vintage which tastes of ‘heat’ (which could be said of the 2003s, for example); at their peak of quality and maturity, each estate has harnessed these conditions to express a side of its vinous personality which is both entirely honest and yet completely unique.

On reflection one would say that these are wines of an era. Indeed they are possibly the defining wines of the Parker era; 2009 was arguably the best possible vintage in which to fashion exactly the kind of fruit-powered, low acid (although more on this later), softly structured wines which tended to flatter the senses of the sage of Baltimore. However, not everyone got their recipe right – and some did not make the best of the specific conditions, perhaps adhering too rigidly to their ‘hang time’ methodology which made more sense in cooler vintages. This was apparent most frequently in the Merlot-based wines, especially those in St Emilion, where the ‘garagiste’ style was still clinging on. That’s not to say there weren’t some knock-out wines here: Angelus was a particular star, as was the controversial Pavie, and Canon was pretty excellent too. Pomerol was a little more consistent with the dark spice and energy of the Cabernet Franc giving rise to some beautiful wines, of which La Conseillante and Le Gay were just two very fine picks.

Consistency was higher on the Left Bank where the later-ripening Cabernets had the opportunity to reach their peak – and boy did they do just that. Not since 2005 have I tasted such a set of powerful, pure, relentlessly satisfying wines, across all price levels; from the humble Poujeaux (~£300/12) to the majestic Leoville Las Cases (£2100/12 on LiveTrade) these are wines of remarkable energy which taste not solely of the vintage – a pre-tasting worry – but also of the precious land that produced them. Some of the wines here will undoubtedly live up to the reputation of the 2009 vintage and go on to take their place at the very top table of vintages. There are too many to list but Gruaud Larose, Pichon Longueville, Ducru Beaucaillou, Leoville Barton, Grand Puy Lacoste and Montrose are all worth a sturdy mention in dispatches. Margaux may be the only region that doesn’t quite reach the peaks, although Rauzan Segla defied its ‘controversial’ Karl Lagerfeld-designed label to be a very stylish wine indeed.

At the top table there were few surprises. These are wines of mesmeric character and monolithic ageability. If you have them, rejoice. If you don’t, get some now before the prices move in a significant way. If I had to pick a winner it would be for once not Latour but Lafite – which can be defined in a single word: “Regal”. In fact, if money were no object, this was my wine of the night… although if I were offered 5 cases of Pichon Lalande with enough money left over for a serious dinner at The Ledbury, I might take that instead…

It’s important to pick up a point raised earlier, one which I think may get lost in the constant diatribe about fruit. The best wines of 2009 undoubtedly have the freshness and focus to match and balance their incredible fruit intensity and generosity. It does take time to come to the fore; indeed, the fruit richness is such that it can be overwhelming for at least the first 2 hours after opening. One could go further than this. Many of the team who took opened bottles away at the end of the tasting enjoyed them over the course of the next few days and as the fruit settled into a more gentle stride the true expression of the wine really started to come through. The bottle of Petit Mouton which I finished on Sunday night had been open (albeit with the cork back in) for 72 hours by that point and it was still getting better, with a mandarin freshness and gravelly minerality to support the rich blackcurrant fruit. These are wines with a long way to run!

Here are some thoughts from across the BI team:

Matt O’Connell, Head of Wine Investment: Montrose 2009. One of the top scoring wines from the vintage, the quality was clear but I was intrigued by the wine’s combination of approachability but also clear long life ahead; it is said that the very best wines are delicious at any point in their development and this seemed spot on here. If it is set to become a more reliable version of the 1990 then I also think the current price is more than defensible.”

Tom Chadwick, UK Sales Director: “Poujeaux 2009. Alongside Chasse Spleen, these are the top two ‘power’ wines in Moulis. Often over looked and drunk too young this 2009 was absolutely stunning. Whilst there were an abundance of ‘superior’ and more lauded names on offer this head turner is one to look out for - especially at En Primeur, enabling you to to select your desired format. Pronounced and showing development, there is no mistaking this is ‘proper’ Bordeaux in all but price. Cedar and integrated oak, some spice and lovely maturing - almost sweet - fruit in the mid palate. Ripe and finely balanced this still has gas in the tank. Little stock remains in the market and the habit for wines like this is for early consumption… however 10 years in a good vintage is the minimum to keep your hands off the corkscrew. Now just imagine if you had bought this in magnums?”

Katie Withers Green, Private Sales: 2009 Angelus really took me by surprise. Sometimes Angelus can be a bit bold but the 2009 was extremely elegant with silky tannins and a beautiful long finish. A wine which makes you stop, sip and take a moment to appreciate all its gloriousness. Definitely the wine I woke up thinking about the next morning.”

Oliver Sharp, Purchasing: “2009 was the last full vintage the legendary Thierry Manoncourt bore witness to (he died in September 2010) and the year in which he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Chateau Figeac has been in the Manoncourt family since 1892 but it was Thierry who, after the war, set about the renaissance of this historic estate, rebuilding and replanting to return it to St Emilion’s top table. The 2009 represents the end of an era, a grand vin from Bordeaux’s ancien regime– the wine itself is less flashy and obviously opulent than its near neighbours, retaining, as it does, its sense of place, an appealing herbaceous quality and the spice and smoke of its unique terroir. Certainly this wine sat tacitly in the background behind many more garlanded Cru Classés but its discrete charms and noble pedigree brought a smile to my lips.”

Joe Haynes, Wine Investment Analyst: La Mission Haut Brion 2009: After having a taste of the 1998 earlier in the day I was expecting something similar at the tasting in the evening but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The 2009 was a massive wine, full to the brim with forest berries and chocolate liqueur – yet shot through with the most incredible freshness and minerality.”

Ellie Roberts, Marketing: “Ormes de Pez 2009. Having tried a few vintages of this wine I am always impressed at its incredibly high quality/value ratio. I was similarly taken with the ’08 at last year’s 10 Years On tasting but, perhaps unsurprisingly, even more so with the ’09. It undoubtedly was (and still is) a big wine but with 10 years of age the tannins have softened leaving a very smooth, velvet mouthfeel. It has spice, blackcurrants and a light smokiness and drinks so well... This is almost certainly one of, if not the best, 2009s under £300 a case.”

Catherine Bauer, Private Sales: The first wine of the tasting, usually a humble ‘benchmark’ to get the palate prepared, was the Grands Murailles 2009 – except this year it was a real pleasure to drink! This vineyard was recently purchased by Clos Fourtet, which is next door, and the quality has shot up. It had low acidity which beautifully balanced with the fresh earth, blackberry and cherry characteristics. This is a very smooth, elegant St Emilion at a very fair price.”

An Investment View on the 2009s (Matt O’Connell, Head of Wine Investment)

Perception is that despite the quality and high ratings, the price performance of 2009 has been poor, and clearly a number of top wines are below original release prices. However there is no shortage of more positive stories: pronounced examples like top-scoring Super Seconds, but also Lynch Bages, Pichon Baron, Leoville Barton to name but three.

Whilst there is no doubt an understandable reluctance from initial buyers to sell at a loss, the frequency of trade (it is consistently one of our most traded vintages) and time elapsed since EP suggests that many of those that bought for investment have already traded out and the wines are now more heavily dispersed amongst drinkers and collectors than for comparable vintages.

Risk/reward for the vintage seems skewed - market lows have been well tested and are unlikely to be challenged further. The question is more around time horizon than price direction.

One can build a good case for being/getting long 2009s in preference to 2005s or 2010s:

  • It is likely to be the earliest consumed of the three, given its naturally ‘open’ profile
  • It will always remain Parker’s “second 1982” type vintage, especially now that he is no longer scoring Bordeaux

The risk factor to this thesis is if critics universally score down the vintage (both Neal Martin for Vinous and Lisa Perrotti-Brown for the Wine Advocate will release updated scores following this tasting), though there is a strong argument that the market focus on true/original “RP” scores remains undiminished.

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