2009 bordeaux vintage

First Impressions of the Big Five

First Impressions of the Big Five

Post by Chuck Hayward | Monday, March 29th

They are called the Premier Grand Crus, the First Growths— a Bordeaux Best of the Best, designated as such by the famed Classification of 1855 (with a certain exception made in 1973). These five revered wineries— Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild— produce some of the most sought after and coveted wines by enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe. And I was about to taste them all!

There has been much debate about the 1855 Classification and whether it’s

The JJB Team at Chateau Margaux

still valid today. Many wineries further down in the classification are now producing wines that are considered superior to those made by the Premiers— and you can be assured that the JJ Buckley staff have been hacking away at that old chestnut over the course of our visit! But this is not the time nor place to rehash the argument. I can say, though, that these wines are something special.

Interestingly, however, the ways these grand estates present themselves and their en primeur wines is sometimes anything other than grand. In the case of Chateau Haut Brion, we tasted the new wines in a beautiful salon. For Lafite it was an unadorned conference room and at Latour, we tasted quietly in a lab.

Whatever the setting, the wines from the “big five” were exceptional, each with its own, unique personality. Margaux stood out for its almost rustic qualities. Lafite impressed me with its restraint and elegance, while at the same time avoiding any unripe qualities or a sense of dilution.

For those who favor power, Latour, Mouton, and Haut Brion will be at the center of the First Growth conversation in this vintage. All three offered up rich, mouthfilling flavors that never ended. These are big wines but do not become cloying or ponderous thanks to fully integrated acids and the barest of tannins to support the thick fruit.

The key observation for all the Premier Grand Crus is that each wine, while being fully expressive, seems to offer a sense of restraint and the feeling that there is much, much more to come down the road. Tasting them young is like being in a boxing ring, knowing that my opponent is holding something in reserve that’s later going to put me on the ropes.

Well, if it’s going to be a Premier Grand Cru that clocks me, then just ring my bell.

Quel surprise! Dinner at Chateau Reignac

Quel surprise! Dinner at Chateau Reignac

Post by Alex Shaw | Sunday, March 28th

Sometimes wine has a way of really surprising you.

Even tasting dozens and dozens of wines in an average week at JJ Buckley, and easily 50 to 100 a day here in Bordeaux, occasionally we are taken completely unawares by some new discovery.  This happened to five members of the JJ Buckley staff at Chateau Reignac on Sunday night.

Reignac is an unclassified chateau in the parish of Saint Loubes, which makes

Tasting room inside the tower at Reignac

consistent wines many of us have tasted on several occasions back in the states.  At our visit to Reignac, owner Yves Vatelot boasted of the gravelly soil and fantastic terroir which produces the Reignac fruit, stating that if the classifications were done today, Reignac would certainly qualify.  And at dinner, he would prove it.

Following a tour of the spectacular grounds and barrel room, we tasted through the current vintages (2009, 2008 and 2006) of Reignac Blanc, Chateau de Reignac (2nd wine), Reignac and Balthus, their premier cuvee composed of 100% Merlot.  Our staff was impressed by the concentration of fruit, smooth tannins and overall complexity of the wines.  The 2006s and 2008s were developing very nicely, and the 2009 showed the potential to be stunning, high-scoring wines, able to compete with some of its finest classified Bordeaux brethren.

Cory Gowan, me, and Yves Vatelot

After the tasting we dined in the 16th century chateau with Mr. Vatelot and his wife, Stephanie.  Starting with 2001 Reignac Blanc (fantastic), we moved on to red for the main course, and two decanters emerged from the kitchen for a blind tasting.  We all agreed they were likely late 90s Bordeaux, but there was much debate about which wine showed better— one having the more complex and compelling nose, the other having a bit more structure and depth of flavor on the palate.  We got the vintage right— 1998, with the first being Reignac.  And the wine it was tasted against?  1998 Chateau Margaux!  The table had been split over their choice, and we were all shocked at how well the Reignac compared to this first growth.

This enjoyable exercise continued as two more decanters emerged from the kitchen.  We again settled on possibly late 90’s or 2000, and the table was again split over which wine they preferred.  This time it was 1999, and the two wines turned out to be Reignac… and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!  We now sat with several glasses in front of us, sipping on two fantastic first growths and two stunning vintages of Reignac.  Just amazing.

The charming and gracious M. Vatelot continued the evening by blind tasting us on two more wines, which turned out to be 2001 Lascombes (also under the guidance of M. Vatelot and stunning) and 2005 Pape Clement, a 98-point Parker wine that many have called THE wine of the vintage.  All of the wines that evening were just fantastic, and the Reignac easily stood shoulder to shoulder with its more famous (and significantly more expensive) neighbors.

Sometimes it’s very good to be surprised.

Pack Your Good Liver: Tasting With A Negociant

Pack your good liver: Tasting with a negociant

Post by John Perry | Saturday, March 27th

I thought that by coming to Bordeaux for the tasting of the 2008 vintage last year I would feel more hip to the experience on my sophomore trip. But it’s still an impressive (and intimidating!) sight to enter a room with hundreds of bottles of wine lined up on a table – all to be opened and tasted.  This is how we spent a couple of hours on Saturday evening on a return visit to one of our negociants. The sheer volume of what was presented to us I remembered all too well from the previous year. Believe me, it takes some strength to come out of one of these on top!

This year we started in a tasting room dedicated to wines from the 2009 vintage, with a handful of 08s thrown in for comparison.

At Barrieres Freres

"Take one down, pass it around, 99 bottles of wine on the wall..."

Although there were hundreds of bottles, it was not quite as jam packed as last year. There were spaces on the table for 2009 samples that had yet to arrive, and more space in the location in general, allowing for a slightly more relaxed experience.  Corks were popped and we dug right in.  Of all the 2009 wines that we tasted, I was particularly impressed with the offerings from Margaux (d’Issan, Brane Cantenac, Malescot) as well as St. Julien (Beychevelle, Lagrange).  Phenomenal aromas, big and round on the palate, terrific structure and length- whether this is indicative of the vintage in general remains to be seen, but for me things were getting off to a fantastic start.

An American wine writer happened to be visiting the negociant at the same time we were there and he was welcomed to join us in tasting.  It was a pleasure to get a perspective from outside our group, and as things often do around here the discussion boiled down to quality and price.  What will the market for 2009 Bordeaux be like?  Whatever the outcome, there was the sentiment that Americans don’t want to get burned by the Bordelais…we don’t want to see the wines we purchase now on the market for the same price or less two years down the road when they come stateside. I had a similar feeling last year, though having a child born in 2008 made me desire the vintage regardless of quality and where the pricing would go. I have a similar stake in 2009 as I would like to document a unique moment in my life with this vintage. Fortunately, the quality that I’ve experienced thus far makes these a very compelling purchase.

After wrapping up in the first room, we were invited into the second tasting room, smaller with a semi-circular table.  At least we presumed there to be a table as every square centimeter was covered by our evening’s work. It was an intense experience last year when there were just four of us there to taste.  This year, there were eleven of us crammed together like kids in a candy shop.  We had bottles on the table from the mid-90s through 2007 and what a blast! One person would try something they really liked and I would rush over to try it too.  Then I would hear about another amazing wine across the room and I had to rush over and try that one!  Of course, not every wine is the most amazing thing ever, but even when we came across average bottles or outright duds it was still very enjoyable to get that much palate education in one fell swoop.

By the time we were finished we were all famished and in need of some serious food. None of us had really eaten save for a baguette, prosciutto, pate and cheese at a tasting eight hours earlier and it was definitely time to go.  So without further ado, we were off with yet another successful and wonderful tasting at this negociant in the books!  Au revoir, see you next year!

Haut-Brisson & Tertre Roteboeuf – Bordeaux Day 2

The mission begins: Ch. Haut-Brisson & Tertre Roteboeuf

Post by Andy Frieden | Saturday, March 27th

Following a good night’s sleep after our turbulent flight from SFO, we set out on the road for our first look at the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. Hitting the Right Bank in a convoy of three rental cars, Saturday began auspiciously with a negociant tasting (see John Perry’s post “Pack Your Good Liver” for that adventure!), followed by visits to Chateau Haut Brisson and the venerable Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf.

Barrel room at Ch. Haut Brisson

Tasting in the barrel room at Ch. Haut Brisson

First stop: Chateau Haut Brisson in St. Emilion. On a roll of late with their “La Reserve” garnering accolades from Robert Parker, the main vineyard for Chateau Haut Brisson shares the same gravel soil profile with Chateau Monbousquet. Since employing Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker, the winery has grown from their initial eight hectares to 13, with plans to purchase three additional hectares in St. Emilion in just a few months.

The vineyard is planted to about 80% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 5% cabernet franc. Three cuvees are produced here – an entry level wine called “Les Graves,” the estate blend Chateau Haut Brisson, and the “La Reserve”. We tasted three vintage verticals of each of these wines and each perfectly represented Right Bank terroir, with dark purple color pretty perfume of black fruits and some crushed flower blossoms along with Michel Rolland’s signature silky texture.

I had an interesting discussion with the director of the Chateau, focusing on how soil profiles affect flavors and texture in wine. Haut Brisson has three distinct soil profiles and each leaves its mark in the finished product. Gravel rocky soil seems to impact flavors and aromas, giving rise to graphite, fresh pavement, and pencil lead notes, whereas sandy soil imparts power and clay soils give rise to a wine’s density.

Our next stop was at Tertre Roteboeuf where we met owner and winemaker Francois Mitjaville, a true Renaissance man and one you are not

Tertre Roteboeuf

Tertre Roteboeuf

likely to forget having met.  As we arrived, a sudden rain shower halted our plans for a vineyard walk, so Francois ushered us inside to a parlor room filled with antiquities and a coffee table stacked high with art books. We sat for awhile and listened as he spoke fervently about the emotional aspects of winemaking, contrasting this with what he sees as a focus on making powerful wines by the “new guard” of Bordeaux winemakers. His philosophy and passion for both wine and life are as captivating as the 150 year old paintings that adorn his walls.

Francois looks at wine from a completely different perspective than any vintner I have met in my 20 years in the business. He calls his philosophy of winemaking ‘emotional’, again in contrast with a ‘power’ approach. His young wines aren’t super dark, black, or inky purple in color. Rather, they are more ruby red or mahogany, with a savory perfume and soft tannins. He makes wine that reveals the terroir of each vintage and allows the wines to express this terroir as naturally as possible with little manipulation.

Two wines are made at Tertre Roteboeuf, the estate wine being the Chateau labeling and a Cote de Bourg wine called ‘Roc de Cambes’.  The estate vineyard is on the backside of the Pavie Hill, protected from the north and westerly winds that come with cold and wet weather. This sweet spot offers a gentle, even growing season and allows for a harvest two weeks later than his neighbors. Both wines show a more feminine finesse and possesses nuances rarely seen in a Right Bank wine today.

Francois Mitjaville & Alex Lallos

Francois Mitjaville shows Alex Lallos how to gesture in French.

As we began our tasting, I noticed that his wines are indeed lighter in color as Francois indicated. The delicate perfume and the body and texture of his wines alludes more to a fine Grand Cru Burgundy than the dark, inky purple color of wines made in the modern Right Bank style. They are distinctly delicate, supple and fleshy in the mid-palate. Francois says he has no problem with lighter color and thinks nothing of what anyone says about the choices he makes in producing his wines. This is in direct opposition to the prevailing trend toward dense powerful wines that get the attention of wine writers. Francois refers to his wines as ‘rustic’ and certainly there is a certain spicy savory component of dried tobacco leaf and black tea, along with an earthy truffle note.

We tasted the 2008 and 2009 vintages of both wines. The ’08’s are showing great now and will be bottled

Pavie Hill

Tertre Roteboeuf vineyard, backside of Pavie Hill

in August. The 2009’s are more powerful and just finished primary fermentation eight days ago! All of Francois’s wines have a silky texture to them that is alluring and provides a refreshing alternative to wines that are darker in color.  As a treat, Francois went into his cellar and brought out a 1985 vintage to show us how well his wines age.  This 24-year old wine is still showing a vibrant ruby red color with Francois’ signature savory bouquet of fresh red currant, cigar tobacco and tea leaf with subtle notes of cedar, saddle leather, and black truffle.  The palate was surprisingly fresh and juicy with a core of cherry fruit along with cigar box and earthly truffles and an absolutely fantastic way to conclude our visit here.  Cheers!

Thuning Up The Palate – Bordeaux Day 2

“Thuning” up the palate

Post by Alex Lallos | Saturday, March 27th

Here we are in Bordeaux once again! As I sit here with some (extremely rare) spare time, trying to recall what little French I can, it feels good to be back for my third go-round of en primeurs tastings. Especially so considering that there has already been a lot of talk about the 2009 vintage as compared to my previous two trips for the ’07 and ’08 vintages. These should prove to be an excellent reference point going into this highly touted (and frankly heavily hyped) vintage.

After arriving in Bordeaux around 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday we settled down to regain our bearings (read: 30 minutes to throw our luggage down and grab a shower) following our bumpy ten-hour

Bad Boy

Bad Boy - Good Merlot

flight before heading off to taste some wines with local friends and have a casual dinner. (See “Eating Here Is Half The Fun”.)

Day Two (Saturday the 27th) was jam packed right from the get-go.  Our group of ten (up four more people from last year!) ate a quick breakfast at our hotel and sped off with alacrity to our first official tasting of the trip at Thunevin. Here we tasted a dozen or so wines made by Jean-Luc Thunevin, the official self-proclaimed “bad boy” of Bordeaux. (Just a note: This guy is on his game for sure, currently making some of the best and most highly sought after wines in Bordeaux.) We started our visit with Jean-Luc by tasting through a few of his non-St Emilion wines, including Bellevue Tayac (Margaux), Clos de Beau Pere (Pomerol), and Thunevin-Calvet (Roussilan, Southern France).

We then headed to Jean-Luc’s house in downtown St Emilion where we were received by his wife, Murielle. We were there to taste Valandraud (Thunevin’s baby), which debuted in 1991 and recently has been on a tear, being one of the most consistently high scoring and sought after “garagiste” wines in St Emilion.  The property is a minuscule 2.7 hectares planted to 75% merlot with the remainder cabernet franc and a tiny bit of malbec. No expense is spared on this wines and it shows.  We also tried the 2009 Virginie de Valandraud (the 2nd wine of Valandraud) along with 2009 La Dominique (Thunevin consults since 2006) and 2009 Fleur Cardinale (maybe the best bang for the buck in Bordeaux). Last but not least, we tried the 2009 Valandraud, which was absolutely stunning.

I won’t get into tasting notes quite yet but I was ultimately surprised to find that the 09s were (as reported) dense and concentrated yet fresh with all the stuffing (tannins, structure, length, color, fruit, and all the rest). Jean-Luc assured us that it was important not to over extract in 2009 because the wines will have extraction given the pedigree of the fruit itself. We will see over the next week who got it right and who dropped the ball. Stay tuned!

Eating There Is Half The Fun – Bordeaux Day 1

Eating there is half the fun

Post by John Sweeney | Friday, March 26th

After a rather turbulent flight from San Francisco to Paris and a short layover we finally arrived in Bordeaux at around 3:30 in the afternoon this past Friday.  Pleasant weather and a bit of adrenaline got us quickly to our home base in Libourne, about 30 minutes from the center of Bordeaux and a quick ten minute drive to the center of beautiful St Emilion.  After a shower and change of clothes we headed out for a bite to eat.

Assembled at a quaint and beautiful Chateau on the banks of the Gironde River, we began our evening with a glass of 1996 Henriot Champagne – a

Normandy Oysters

Who's eating who in this scenario?

wine of amazing complexity, tremendous youthfulness and a terrific way to start off any wine tasting trip.  After savoring this delicious bubbly, we sat down to dinner with what has to have been the largest plate of oysters I’ve ever seen! These Normandy gems were like kissing the ocean…just a squeeze of lemon and you were in for a real, French-styled Atlantic treat. Along with what must have easily been two hundred oysters, we tasted three spectacular bottlings of 2007 William Fevre Chablis – the Mont de Millieu, Bougros, and Vaillons.  Each bottle is from a different single vineyard in Chablis and is the perfect wine to accompany fresh oysters.  This was definitely my favorite part of the evening as Fevre’s Chablis are incredible examples of what can be done with the chardonnay grape when it is not masked by the over-use of oak and malolactic fermentation.  Of the three, the ‘Vaillon’ stood out for me, with notes of lemon, lime, pineapple, an ever so slight touch of oak, and a beautiful shell-like minerality that persisted on my palate for close to a minute.  My tasting note said, “really incredible!”

Following the onslaught of oysters, we were treated to fresh baked French bread, perfectly grilled ribeyes and homemade au gratin potatoes – totally to die for.  To pair with this simple but heavenly meal we tasted a flight of newly released 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, figuring these would get our palates warmed up for the 2009 Bordeaux ahead. As anticipated, these young gems from the Southern Rhone Valley were totally delicious. Standouts for me were the 2007 Chateau Vaudieu Chateaneuf du Pape, 2007 Grand Veneur ‘Les Origines’ Chateauneuf du Pape and the 2007 Domaine Durieu Chateuneuf-du-Pape.  But my favorite of these was the 2007 La Bastide Saint Dominique that was out of this world delicious! It showed incredible complexity for such a young wine with an intoxicating perfume on the nose, along with superb purity of fruit with notes of cassis and licorice. Powdery-soft tannins made this my favorite wine of the flight.

As if a dozen CdP’s was not enough, we opened a few young Brunelli from the great 2004 vintage, including two of my favorites, the 2004 Fanti and Collemattoni.  These both showcase how complex and delicious the sangiovese grape can be, showing copious amounts of red raspberry, blackberry, black pepper, and vanilla flavors.  Incredibly silky textures, tremendous length, well integrated oak and balanced tannins. I was surprised how well these wines showed this evening and what incredible potential they will have in 5-10 years.

I guess I’m ready for the onslaught of 2009 Bordeaux…all 750 wines or so we’ll be tasting over the next week! But hey, someone’s gotta do it.

Bordeaux 2009 Is Thirsty Work

Bordeaux 2009 Is Thirsty Work

Post by Chuck Hayward

The first day of tastings in Bordeaux saw the JJBuckley wine staff dodging in and out of typical March rains as we made our first visits to wineries and negociants. We had a great opportunity to get familiar with our surroundings by spending some time in Pomerol and St. Emilion but also to begin to familiarize ourselves with the young 2009 vintage, the reason for our trip!

We’ve tried a  smorgasbord of Bordeaux at various quality levels and price points and it quickly becomes apparent what’s what, even at this

Bottles arranged for negociant tasting.

Do we get an "I Survived T-Shirt" if we taste them all?

young stage in a wine’s evolution. What we’re looking for at this point is not so much specific flavors or textures, but an overall  impression of a wine’s aromas and palate. Some of the wines have displayed very rough tannins or overripe fruit flavors while the best have been very complex, almost ready to drink, thanks to more stringent fruit selection and meticulous care of the wine in the cellar.  Favorable assessments are given to those wines that display multiple layers of fruit, a softer finish and more integrated acids while chunky and/or bitter tannins on the finish are assessed less favorably.

As much as we are here to listen and learn, the Bordelaises are also curious about our take on the current state of the wine industry in America. There have been many changes in the channels by which Bordeaux is coming to market in the U.S. (see my post entitled “JJ Buckley Lands In Bordeaux!” for more info.) and  JJ Buckley owner Shaun Bishop was the subject of an intensive interview by Decanter regarding the current market conditions in the US for Bordeaux.

What clearly is exciting for me is the opportunity to taste many of these wines two or three times during the course of the week, which will give us all the opportunity to reassess and/or confirm first impressions. Those tastings will be coming up midweek – can’t wait for that!