It's still way too early to tell, but many Bordeaux vintners believe 2009 could be a great vintage, on par with 1989. This is particularly true on the Right Bank because Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the dominant grapes there, ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, and many have already been picked.
The shadow on the vintage forecast is rain expected on Thursday night. Wineries are deciding today whether or not to finish picking beforehand.
The region has had warm weather most of the summer, but without the oppressive heat that roasted the grapes in 2003. So far rain has not been a problem during harvest, though Thursday is circled in red on everyone's mental calendar. But some wineries are already finished harvesting.
Jean-Francois Quenin, owner of Chateau de Pressac, is one who is waiting. Quenin, who is also president of the Conseil des Vins de Saint-Emilion (a thankless job), says he can be patient because his winery is not owned by an outside company.
"If you have to answer to somebody, you pick now," Quenin says. "You don't take the risk. It's still warm, and if it rains, I could lose 30% of my crop (to rot) in a day, just like that. But I want it to get a little riper. Nobody can fire me if I'm wrong."
Over at Chateau Cheval Blanc, now controlled by the LVMH luxury corporation, enologist Pierre Olivier Clouet scoffs at the idea that picking decisions will be made safely.
"The pressure here is for quality," says Clouet (left), who is just 29 years old.
That said, the weatherman is still king. Clouet says, "We want to wait on one plot of Cabernet Franc until Friday. But we are going to get 20 mm of rain on Thursday. So we will not wait."
It's not corporate pressure, Clouet says, but a quality decision: "If you wait two days for more ripeness and it rains, you have to wait two more weeks." That said, Clouet is also very high on the '09 vintage, saying the fruit picked so far is so perfect, "We don't even have to sort it." But they do anyway, of course. The photo at the top is of Cheval Blanc workers doing just that, and those grapes do look round, ripe and, well, perfect.
I must add that one's definition of how great this vintage is may depend on how big you like Bordeaux. At Troplong-Mondot, where half the Merlot (but none of the Cab Franc) has been picked already, I tasted a sample of just-crushed grapes that tasted like sugar water. Proprietor Xavier Pariente says it has potential alcohol of more than 16 percent, which would be outrageous even for a property known for big wines. He plans to lower the alcohol percentage of the overall blend, but it may end up over 15 percent.
But Troplong-Mondot is always big: "We are the latest to pick," Pariente says. "Last year we picked on the first of November."
I haven't yet run into a vintner who doesn't think '09 will be excellent, and I believe them: Bordeaux's problem in bad years is getting the grapes ripe enough, and that's not going to be a issue for anyone. Pariente, though, was the most enthusiastic of all: "Climatically, this year is a dream. These conditions have never been seen before. It's perfect in every way. When we needed water, we had water. The days were warm, the nights were cool. We needed a little bit of rain in September, we got it. We needed some wind, and we got it. Every condition where we needed a little bit of a shift, we got it."
It is still too early to tell. But this just might be a very special year in Bordeaux.