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Flawed Beauty: 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux

Take a look back to the 1970s and you can see that things were not all going Bordeaux’s way. There were some fairly shocking vintages, the wines now long dead (I accept there are always exceptions to such ‘rules’, but as a generalisation this stands). Few vintages really excite any interest; I have tasted some 1975s, quite a few years ago now, and found them hard and ungiving. I have tasted fewer wines from 1970, and thought they were better, although they were certainly far from magnificant. The 1978 vintage also produced some decent wines although, perhaps strangely considering it is the most recent, my experience with 1978 is very limited indeed. In addition, the region was rocked by the Cruse scandal when vin de table was creatively ‘reclassified’ and sold off as Bordeaux (i.e. upgraded to the status of the appellation, thereby increasing in value, but obviously ripping off consumers). And, if you’re a Parker follower, you would be inclined to say all the wines were rubbish anyway, the châteaux coasting on their laurels rather than providing true quality, none of which came along until the guru of Baltimore shook the Bordelais by the lapels.

Look to the past decade, however, and it seems like things are really going Bordeaux’s way. The wines are better; I realise that’s a slightly dangerous statement to make, as I know there has been a change in style as well as quality, and I know there are some who see the modern wines as over-fruited, cropped too late, over-oaked, over-rich, inappropriately forced through early malolactic, too sweet and so on. And they hanker for the more savoury wines of the 1950s and 1960s; I understand this position, although I think I prefer the way we have things now. The hit rate is much higher. In fact, in dissecting the vintages of the past decade, I would do the opposite to what I did with the 1970s above; there I picked out two or three decent vintages which were distinct from the dross. But in the vintages since 2000 (I’m being quite liberal in how I interpret the word ‘decade’) there are only two or three questionable vintages among others which range from good to superlative.

Bordeaux vineyard

Why the wines are so much better cannot in my opinion be laid at the feet of one event or individual. The climate is more favourable (although that can’t last forever), there is a more robust approach to viticulture in many vineyards, the processes of winemaking is better understood, wineries are cleaner and better funded thanks to the influx of big-business proprietors, there has been impetus for change and better wine-making (and more profit-making) following astute appraisals from Parker and other critics, and with improved economic prosperity (which remains true despite the recent/current depression in many economies) markets have grown, and new markets are opening up. China remains hungry for Bordeaux despite also becoming aware of Burgundy and the Rhône, and Brazil rather than the oft-touted India may well be the next big market. Little wonder that prices have risen; you could say it was inevitable, regardless of how unpalatable the numbers might appear to cash-strapped consumers (that includes me by the way).

With such broad success it is perhaps worth teasing apart which vintages are merely good, excellent or legendary. Reports from Bordeaux are likely to be very positive these days, at least that’s the case if you’re a fan of the wines (as I am). Only in vintages such as 2011 and 2007 will the criticism outweigh the praise. It can therefore be difficult to figure out what the true ‘worth’ of a vintage is, and where our interest (and cash) should be directed. With that in mind I thought it might be worth putting down a few thoughts on my five favourite vintages of recent years, and where my preferences lie. The following vintages are ranked acccording to my personal preference. These words pertain solely to the red wines, not the dry or sweet white wines. There are several caveats; first, I didn’t taste all the vintages at the same stage in their evolution. More recent vintages were tasted en primeur, but earlier vintages were tasted in their youth (at two or four years of age) or even into maturity. Secondly, my assessments are based purely on aesthetics, and I don’t take prices (which will obviously drive purchasing decisions as much as quality) into account.

Favourite Vintages….

Bordeaux 2005: I think, despite the hyperbole from some quarters about the 2009 and 2010 vintages, this is probably my favourite from recent years. There is ripeness, balance, structure and composure from many of the wines. I haven’t tasted any for some time, but have some in the cellar for future assessments.

Bordeaux 2010: This is a difficult one, as in some communes I prefer 2009 to 2010, and both have flaws to their beauty. In particular, both have given us some problematic wines on the right bank which feel over-extracted, hot and alcoholic. Nevertheless the structure and composition (on the left bank especially) in 2010 appeals more to my palate than the seductive hedonism of 2009 I think. High prices for the second vintage in a row meant I didn’t buy, but there is yet time. I have an extensive report coming very soon.

Bordeaux 2009: A luscious vintage which feels like cream on the palate. That isn’t to everybody’s taste, obviously, but it dings the hedonistic dong, if you see what I mean. Some wines, again on the right bank, come out very alcoholic and extracted. Elsewhere there is a better sense of balance. Happily I have quite a lot of this vintage tucked away for future tastings, so we should see whether they pan out to be as good as expected.

Bordeaux 2000: This is an interesting vintage; certainly a good one, but recent tastings lead me to question the greatness that was attributed early on. The wines are ready or nearly ready in some cases, but a surprising number show a distinctive green streak – very prominent in some wines – which is surprising given the rave reviews the vintage received early on (I didn’t taste it en primeur). I should be able to publish a review of the vintage some time in the next six months.

Bordeaux 2008: Perhaps some would see this as an obvious inclusion, as it has been highly rated by some, but for me it just scrapes in. It was a relatively weak growing season, cool and wet like 2007, but saved by an Indian summer. The right bank is much better than the left, which shows the nature of the vintage more plainly. I feel that a comparative tasting of 2008 and 2006 or 2001 might throw up a few surprises, but I don’t have the money to put on either event….

Beyond my top five vintages, things start to get a little hazy. I think I would probably go for 2001, 2006, 2004, 2002, 2003 and 2007 in that order. I do wonder, with a strong performance on the right bank, and decent wines on the left bank, whether 2001 shouldn’t be above 2008. But I haven’t tasted the wines for so long, I couldn’t say. I have plenty of 2001s in the cellar, but almost all Sauternes. Maybe it is time to see if I can uncover any reds?

6 Responses to “Flawed Beauty: 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux”

  1. Hi, Chris,

    Very interesting stuff, thanks. I wondered what you thought about a couple of points.

    First, you have been quite lukewarm about 08 on the left bank before. I hae had some very nice middle ranking wines from both 01 and 04 both of which you put below 08. Do you think the 08 left bankers will be better in time or are you putting 08 in among your top vintages on the basis principally of the right bank performance?

    Second, where do you think 94, 95, and 96 fit into the order? Some people seem to take it for granted that 21st century claret will just be better than all but the best old vintages (82, 90, 61 etc), or at least are reluctant to make comparisons as if judging apples against oranges.

    Would be really interested to hear your views.

  2. Great questions Dominic, thanks.

    I really wish I had tasted some 2001s more recently than I have. I’m not sure 2008 deserves its place there but haven’t tasted enough from 2001 (or maybe 2006) to rank this vintage above 2008. The right bank in 2008 is certainly good though, and so that kind of justifies its position there. The left bank I do hope will improve, but don’t think it will ever be much more than ‘good’ on that side of the Gironde.

    I think there is a gap between 2000 and the next vintage down, whichever it is. Perhaps choosing five as a number to list was unwise, as it implies these five are ‘apart’ from the following vintages, but the real gap comes after the top four I think. I did think about cutting it from five to four when I wrote it but felt it was a bit mealy-mouthed not to commit to a fifth vintage.

    Of the three vintages you mention I think 1996 is really good on the left bank, less so on the right bank, but the left bank style is one I enjoy a lot. I think it would come pretty high up the list based on that, mixed with the 2008 – 2001 – 2006 level. I have had some really good wines from 1995, but more recent tastings have been less exciting. I think the vintage has a better right bank reputation although I haven’t encountered too many so find it difficult to rank on that basis, but would put it below 1996. 1994 would be at the 2002 – 2003 level; I like the vintage as a whole, as the wines have the structure of a cooler vintage to them, they are evolving quite slowly, and they have always been cheap. But they aren’t very exciting or complex, so I think it would be appropriate to be down at this level. Great value in some cases though (as can be said of many wines from 2004).

  3. Thanks very much for that, Chris.

    I am rather hoping that most of the more recent vintages are going to turn out better than the 94s, and maybe quite a few of them better than the 95s and 96s as well. But then I also rather hope that some of the good wines from 95 and 96 (perhaps not so much 94) are also going to get better.

  4. Dear Chris,

    may I ask your thoughts about 2003?

    Especially on left bank I found lots of full bodied ripe and delicious wines (and most of them start to open now).

    It may not be the most classic or traditional vintage and perhaps some wines are overextracted but I would see this far away form a really poor vintage as 2007, which you classify next to it.

    Looking forward to reading your view…

  5. Hi Edgar

    Thanks for popping in and raising that point. It’s an interesting one.

    I do rate 2003 rather low, and it is an example of why a simple vintage rating (whether ranked as here, or when vintages are assigned a ‘score’ as they are in many vintage tables) is a very blunt tool. Some vintages, such as 2003, are just too complex for that to be applied.

    First there are great wines in 2003, although I have limited experience of them. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up the vintage at four years and so missed out on a number of wines that are said to have set the reputation of the vintage, especially in St Estèphe, i.e. Montrose and Cos d’Estournel.

    Then there are the wines at the bottom of the spectrum, and I found that those on the more gravelly terroirs fared quite poorly. I have memories of some Pessacs, tasted sveral years ago now, that even at that early stage were already mature, leafy and browning. The vines don’t seem to have produced fruit that can age. That really brings down the overall ‘rating’ (acknowledging my point above that this is flawed) somewhat.

    In the middle you have, I suspect, although I haven’t tasted extensively for many years now, some very decent wines. Those on heavier clay soils did better I think, so St Estèphe as above, also some St Emilion estates. In terms of quality they seem pretty good, but with lower acidities, fatter substance, a rather top-heavy feel in some cases, and rather robust tannins in others, whereas I rcognise they have made technically good wines which will appeal to some, these wines are less appealing to me than wines that are fresher, more structured, more energetic in the mouth – the sort of wines you get from 2010 and 2005.

    Hence I end up rating it quite low. But as always, you drink the wine, not the vintage, and there are great wines in lesser vintages (and vice versa, sadly!). If somebody gave me a bottle of 2003 Montrose as a gift I wouldn’t be in the least bit upset! 🙂

    It would be worth me revisiting this vintage as it is one I caught glimpses of early on but never had the chance to revisit properly. There is a UK merchant that does ten-years-on Bordeaux tastings for the press but they aren’t well advertised or written up, to the extent I’ve forgotten who does them. It may be Bordeaux Index. I will have to see if I can find out more and talk my way in……

  6. Hi there Chris,

    thanks for your feedback and sharing your thoughts!

    Indeed, especially the St. Estephe’s are the wines I was referring to – Montrose is without a doubt an outstanding wine… but just try Phelan Segur 2003! An explosion of mature back fruit, tabacco and delicious spices in the glass – mature now.

    With St. Emillion I didn’t find wines that impressed me from 2003. I’m sure there are some very good wines (maybe out of my tasting/price-rage) but all tasted wines were simply too much for me.