Monday, October 12, 2009

Bordeaux's 2009: California Dreamin'

Everyone in Bordeaux is throwing out lofty comparisons for the 2009 vintage.

Most bypass 2005, considered the best vintage of this decade, and are comparing it instead to 1989 or even 1982, the superb year that established Robert Parker as the world's pre-eminent critic because he was the first to say the wines were great.

Christian Moueix, who runs Petrus and a number of other great properties on the Right Bank, even invoked 1947, one of the most legendary years of the last century.

I'm a professional skeptic. In California, every year we hear about what a great vintage it's going to be, and you have to filter the hype to hear the real message. But I believe the Bordeaux vintners for a number of reasons. It's clearly a good year, and likely a great one. The question is just how good/great/life-changing.

The second question is, what will that do to prices? Bordeaux wineries, unlike almost every other winery in the world, don't really set their own prices. They will wait for Parker to rate their nascent wines next spring -- I'm sure he's licking his chops already about tasting these wines -- and then most will turn the job of selling over to negociants.

In 2005, a very good year, prices were set so high that the wines didn't sell as quickly as everyone expected. Prices were lower for the next two vintages, for good reason, but those wines are also selling slowly because the '05s, even if more expensive, are clearly better than the '06s and '07s. Pricing the '09s will also be complicated because '08 appears to be a better vintage than the previous two years.

But I digress. Back to quality.

Early Saturday morning, rain fell fairly hard in Bordeaux for the first time in almost a month. But the rain had been forecast for a week, and most vintners were well-prepared. The summer and early fall have been so warm -- it was t-shirt weather all last week -- that a great deal of Merlot, which is much more susceptible to rain than Cabernet, has already been picked. Right Bank vintners who have high proportions of Merlot are going to have great '09s regardless of what happens weather-wise the rest of the year.

That said, the universal view of a Bordeaux vintage is set by the first-growths in the Medoc, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king. From their perspective, '09 is looking good but still not done. The rain Saturday wasn't long or hard enough to cause serious problems, but a few more days might.

However, Bordeaux wineries have come a long way technologically, and in knowledge base, from the way wine was made in 1989.

Yes, they've known on which soils to plant which grapes for decades. But vineyard management was really lackadaisical -- and chemically based -- in the '80s even on top properties. Organic and biodynamic techniques are now widespread, even at non-certified vineyards.

And in the winery, comparing today to the '80s is like comparing a flat-screen high-definition TV to a giant cathode ray tube model. Places that use cement tanks for fermentation today, and there are many, do it by choice, not because "that's what we've always done" or "we don't have the money to change."

I saw the most amazing sorting device I've ever seen employed at a half-dozen wineries, something so incredible I plan a separate post just about it. But even the idea of careful sorting and gentle handling of grapes wasn't universal 20 years ago.

The one burr in all this optimism for the '09s is alcohol level. The summer has been long and warm, with plenty of sun. The '09s will be good/great/super?, but many will be over 14 percent alcohol and some outliers will top 15 percent, even if they don't admit it on the label (there's a 1 percent fudge factor before penalties set in.)

In fact, if you want a quick comparison that no Frenchman made, Bordeaux had a near-California summer in 2009. It's a wine fan's intellectual dream to imagine Cabernet on Bordeaux's outstanding soils with Northern California's excellent weather. This year it may have actually come to pass.


Jack Everitt said...

"Organic and biodynamic techniques are now widespread,"

That's news to me. Which of the top producers are now following this path?

W. Blake Gray said...

Alan Moueix is probably the biggest name I spoke to, the cousin of Christian. He's a biodynamic true believer and making some good wines. The winery I posted on Facebook, Grand Corbin-Despagne, is certified sustainable. I made an amazing find with a small biodynamic producer I plan to highlight in a post soon (wait for it!). But the wider situation is that everyone is aware of organic/biodynamic farming, and even those who aren't planning on getting certified have adjusted their techniques. You just don't see many pristine straight rows with nothing but dead soil beneath them anymore.