2009 JJ Buckley Bordeaux Report
Wines of a Lifetime, But Not Vintage of a Lifetime
Post by Shaun Bishop & Chuck Hayward | April 26th, 2010
We visit Bordeaux every year in March to taste the new releases, or en primeur, but even before we booked our tickets we knew this trip would be different. For one, after years of flying under the radar, JJ Buckley was the talk of Bordeaux. Representatives of the trade from across the globe stopped to say hello. Wine journalists also sought out our opinions and observations. (see article in Decanter.com)
They also wanted to understand why we had just flown in ten of our staff to taste and evaluate the 2009 vintage out of barrel— a larger group than any other US wine merchant and more than most contingencies from anywhere in the world. But it’s our job as one of America’s top Bordeaux merchants to wade neck-deep into each vintage and sort out what’s what, which wines to buy and what to pass on. And in the case of 2009, we wanted to see if the reality would live up to the hype.
We spent ten days there sampling 50 to 200 wines per day, often tasting the same wine two to four times over the course of our visit. We talked to owners, winemakers, negociants, competitors, vineyard managers and even to our own customers from the US and abroad. Buyers of this vintage will need guidance and we are fully prepared to answer all your questions, give thoughtful and educated advice, and provide a personal perspective on the hundreds of wines that we tasted.
So, what about the hype?
Many have talked about 2009 as another “vintage of a lifetime”. The truth is that term is starting to wear thin, as there have been other vintages that were more consistently excellent across all appellations and chateaux. 2009 did produce some very, very special, even brilliant wines, perhaps more so than any recent “vintage of a lifetime”. However 2009 required work, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Winemakers were dealing with some off the charts measurements that required expert skill to manage. The bottom line in ’09 is if you didn’t have a skilled winemaking team and if you didn’t invest in your vineyards, you were likely left with an unbalanced mess.
But those that got it right in 2009 got it very right. In fact, some made wines unlike anything we, and many other wine professionals we have spoken to, have ever tasted. Some wines transcended their humble appellations and some even hit it out of the park. The truly brilliant wines show a perfect balance between tannin, fruit, oak, alcohol and acidity. They are rich and round, fresh and powerful, with the mineral notes and structure that defines Bordeaux terroir.
There has also been a lot of talk about how great the First Growths are in 2009 and how expensive they may turn out to be. Of course, we will offer the wines for sale. But truth be told, we don’t find 2009 to be a ‘First Growth year’. If you want the wines that will knock your socks off, you will find them at the lower levels, from the super seconds to the values from Cotes de Castillon and Fronsac. Wines from St. Estephe, St. Julien and Margaux are some appellations in particular to keep your eyes on. (Some appellations, like Pomerol, we feel made better wines in 2008). The professional critics will ultimately provide you with the final quality evaluation, but we will be there to help guide your decision making with informed, first-hand knowledge.
The 2009 Vintage As Seen Through Its Weather
Bordeaux probably has the most analyzed growing seasons of any viticultural area. It produces some of the planet’s most popular wines, which means that harvest information is very essential to a large number of people. More importantly, this meteorological scrutiny has created a large database of weather conditions going back for centuries. In trying to find out what the wines in the barrel will be like down the road, looking at the weather is a way to see what the past may reveal about a wine’s future.
As the wine industry in Bordeaux has changed from farming to serious business, the wine trade looks increasingly at meteorological data collected by government agencies as well as less formal information gathered from wine estates. Fortunately, all of this is collected and analyzed by Bordeaux negociant Bill Blatch whose annual vintage report has become a must-read for Bordeaux cognoscenti. He summarized the year’s growing conditions thus: “In 2009, we seem to have reached the extreme limit of Bordeaux concentration. Yet it was not the hottest year by any means – that was 2003 – nor was it the driest – that was 2005. In 2009, there were no extremes, just good regular heat at the right times, with everything coming in the right order: the vine amply nourished by ground water during its growing period, then, as from 15th June, starved of water – very progressively – during the ripening and concentration of its bunches right through the rest of the vineyard year.”
2009 began uneventfully with normal budbreak followed by a balanced flowering period devoid of rain or frosts. Some hail storms hit vineyards in St. Emilion and near Margaux but did not cause major problems. The quality of the vintage began to take shape during the dry summer with record amounts of sun and just a few showers that arrived at the right time to replenish the vines. The temperatures just prior to picking were high, but not overwhelming as winemakers began the traditional hand-wringing that occurs in anticipation of bringing in the year’s harvest.
Harvest time in Bordeaux traditionally sees a change in weather patterns to cooler temperatures and more frequent rain showers. This creates a rather anxious situation, in which the need for the grapes to finish ripening in cooler temperatures is balanced against the need to get the fruit in before wet conditions create rot and mildew. The unique attributes of 2009 were warmer temperatures as the harvest progressed, combined with only one wet period of any consequence. Everything seemed to be in place to pronounce the vintage as successful, if not ideal.
As the wines have settled, many observers have noticed that this is not a uniform vintage, with many peaks and a few valleys to be found. The most obvious example of this is the difference in how merlot and cabernet each responded to the warmer weather at harvest. Merlot, being an earlier ripening variety, achieved very high alcohols thanks to the extended harvest conditions. This led many Right Bank wines to achieve alcohols over 14% with many easily over 15%. How winemakers handled the merlot component of their blends became an important factor in the success of an estate’s wine. In the Medoc, the more structured cabernet portion in the wines helped to balance the riper merlot.
Equally important was the tannin component of each wine’s composition. At almost every estate we visited, winemakers noted that the tannin levels were high with many quoting a statistic called “IPT”, or Indice des Polyphenols Totaux, or in English, Total Phenolics. In layman’s terms, this is a measure of a wine’s tannin levels. IPT readings for 2009 were off the charts, with many properties seeing their highest scores ever. Whatever the numbers, tannins are an important aspect of the vintage in 2009, especially on the Right Bank where some winemakers had coarse, roughly textured tannins while others were finely grained and smooth as silk.
In tasting the en primeurs, it’s important to remain as objective as possible.
There may be styles which we personally dislike or properties we have favored in the past, but as professionals we try not to be influenced by these factors. It’s also important not to allow the “white noise” of the vintage, e.g. the observations of the press or comments overheard in the tasting halls, to affect what we see in each wine. Nowhere was this more important than in assessing two of the most controversial aspects of the 09s—tannins and alcohol—especially in the examples from Pomerol and St. Emilion. The best wines were as thrilling to taste as a high-wire act it to watch— you almost expect them to go overboard but they never do.
Early observers were quick to note the ripeness found in the wines of the Right Bank, especially St. Emilion. It is here where the merlot plantings achieved unheard levels of alcohol approaching 15 to 16%, with ripe and juicy mid-palate textures and soft, round finishes. While these may not be favored by those who prefer a more traditional approach to the Right Bank, it is what Mother Nature gave the grower and not the result of some attempt to make “uber-wines” designed to score points. We all agreed the best examples shared two common traits of freshness and elegance thanks to clean and bright acids. These wines avoided a ponderous character and were livelier on the palate and longer in the finish thanks to this integrated acidity.
Elegant, integrated acids were not limited to St. Emilion. The best wines of the Medoc, especially in Margaux, St Estephe, and Saint Julien, had rich textures from ripe cabernet, but that avoided becoming too thick or unbalanced thanks to this unique attribute of the 2009 vintage. The ability of the top estates to keep acidity in their grapes came from the cool nights of late September and early October, which also allowed for the extended hang time producing ripe fruit. It is an exciting aspect of the vintage that bodes well for both immediate appeal and some time in the cellar.
Where the acids of 2009 gave the best wines a sense of refinement, poor
tannin management had the ability to ruin a wine completely, giving the consumer an unbalanced product. Winemakers and their consultants were not only required to control the shape of the tannins, but also the amount of tannin in the finished wine. A frequent topic of conversation with winemakers centered on record-breaking tannin levels, but high tannin levels do not necessarily create a better wine. If not managed properly, the mid-palate fades quickly and the wine will end with a substantially tannic finish.
More importantly, the lesser examples had tannins that were rough in texture and often had burnt and bitter qualities. These traits deterred from a smooth, soft finish and will require a bit of work in the cellar to clean up, but at the risk of stripping the wine from fining and filtration. The most exciting wines had such integrated tannin structures they nearly stole across the palate unnoticed. The key to this vintage was finding the perfect type and amount of tannin and it is here where the best wines really shine.
The Role Of The Consultant
From the time of Emile Peynaud and over the past half-century, the
consulting winemaker has become an agent of change in Bordeaux winemaking practices. Today’s superstars such as Stephane Derenoncourt, Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu have made a definitive imprint on the wineries of their clients. Rolland, especially, through his work in the cellar, has done much to elevate the concentration of fruit on the palate of many Bordelais estates.
One observation we made during the en primeur tastings was that certain estates consistently showed ‘above their place’, so to speak. Towards the end of our stay as we gathered to discuss our favorites, many of the same wines rose to the top and they had a bond amongst them that surprised us: Stephane Derenoncourt was the consultant to many of those estates. This should have been obvious, as Derenoncourt’s wines have always been some of our most admired. His recent success has led him to expand his influence from the Right Bank properties of Pomerol and St. Emilion to the grand vins of the Medoc working with Chateaux such as Talbot, Prieure-Lichine, and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, as well as properties as far way as India, Turkey, and Lebanon.
One of the things that makes Derenoncourt so unique in Bordeaux is his detailed work in the vineyards. Where much consulting work in Bordeaux has centered in the cellar, Derenoncourt is working to increase the use of organic and biodynamic vineyard methods in an area that has traditionally avoided those techniques due to difficult weather conditions. A self-taught winemaker, he credits his 15 years as a vineyard laborer for informing his approach on the importance of the grape and how it is grown.
But all of this is no good if the wines aren’t pleasing to drink and the Derenoncourt style was easily evident in the wines we preferred. In a vintage that could produce wines that were jammy and over-the-top, his wines demonstrated beautiful acidity, giving the flavors precision and elegance. And where many wines had tannins that were chunky in texture and substantial in quantity, Derenoncourt’s tannin profiles were silky and smooth— almost imperceptible on the palate. From the less-well known properties of the Côtes to the premier estates of the Medoc, Derenoncourt’s wines are the cream in an excellent vintage and deserve your attention.
We have obviously asked our suppliers in Bordeaux about pricing and there is little doubt that the prices will be higher for this vintage than for the 2008s. The real question is, by how much? Ultimately, the market as a whole will decide, but the initial release prices are likely to be up 10% on lower to mid-tier wines and up as much as 100% on the top wines as compared to 2008, while down maybe 10% to 25% from 2005.
The current marketplace as a whole is also somewhat in turmoil. On the one hand, we have a US market that has quite frankly disintegrated— large suppliers like Diageo Chateau & Estates, Southern Wine & Spirits and other big players are no longer participating in the Bordeaux en primeur campaign. This is contributing to limited access for many end consumers and ultimately may limit the total demand from the US.
On the other hand you have emerging markets such as countries in Asia (as well as established ones like Japan). For now, the demand coming from Hong Kong and China seems limited to the ‘brand names’— in particular Chateau Lafite and about ten to twenty other ‘big names’. We feel that Asia’s demand for the top names will certainly help make up for lack of US demand for these wines, but ultimately it will not reflect overall market health.
All wines were tasted non-blind. Most tastings took place at negociants or at
the Chateau with additional tastings conducted at the appellation-designated UGC events (also in non-blind format). Most wines were tasted more than once. If we missed a wine, it’s because it was not shown at any of these tastings.
Our scores reflect our opinion of the wines, but its important to note that it can be very difficult to assess quality in the tasting environments in which they are presented. Large UGC tastings are not the best place to attempt disciplined tasting— there are too many distractions, too many people, and in some cases, too many non-vinous odors!
Negociant tastings are better, but palate fatigue does occur from exposure to acid and tannin that can make accurate assessments more difficult. In addition, there can be a high amount of variability in barrel samples. We had some mixed experiences with certain wines where they clearly showed differently depending on the sample. (One Chateau owner told us that different barrel samples of the same wine leads some to think each is a completely different wine.) The weather can also impact the way a wine tastes on any given day. During our trip, the barometric pressure was generally low, which can suppress aromatics and flavors.
Top appellations in 2009 will be St. Estephe, St. Julien, and Margaux. Pauillac also fared well, but we believe the top estates could have made better wines. In all, the Left Bank performed better than the Right Bank, although both banks did produce some monumental wines. Cabernet (both franc and sauvignon) was the king in 2009 and the wines from the Left Bank, generally speaking have a greater percentage of cab in the blend than the Right Bank. Merlot is used more on the Right Bank and some estates certainly made some great wines with their merlot. However, others harvested their merlot at very high sugar levels and those wines may have turned out a bit sweet or overly alcoholic.
Top 2009 Bordeaux Wines
The top wines of the vintage are rich and round, fresh and powerful; with the mineral notes and structure that defines Bordeaux terroir. These include, in no particular order of preference: Ausone, Beausejour Duffau, Clos l’Eglise, Cos d’Estournel, de Fargues, Ducru Beaucaillou, La Mission Haut Brion, La Violette, Larcis-Ducasse, Lascombes, Latour, Leoville Las Cases, Lynch Bages, Malescot St Exupery, Margaux, Montrose, Mouton Rothschild, Palmer, Pavie, Pontet Canet, Rauzan Segla, Tertre Roteboeuf, Troplong Mondot, Trotanoy, Valandraud, Yquem. (We did not taste Petrus, VCC, Le Pin, or Lafleur.)
Wines That Outperformed Their Price Point
Bellevue, Berliquet, Calon Segur, Feytit-Clinet, Fleur Cardinale, d’Aiguilhe Querre, Gironville, La Tour Figeac, Le Bon Pasteur, L’Estang, Le Thil, Lilian Ladouys, Louis, Lucia, Pavillon Rouge, Pagodes de Cos, Pedesclaux, Petrus Gaia, Rol Valentin, and St Pierre.
Despite many of the more critical observations detailed above, there is no doubt that the 2009 vintage was one of the most pleasurable vintages we’ve tasted from barrel. The best wines had an immediate appeal and a sense of harmony that allowed them to be almost ready to drink today. While many people compared these wines to great years such as ’82, ’61 or ’47, we can’t really tell you what those wines were like out of barrel (and we doubt that there are many people left who can!) What we can tell you is that the best wines gave us a sense of exuberance and excitement that we haven’t felt in many vintages. We were almost giddy as we tasted one fantastic wine after another. Yes, there are some clunkers but there will be some unbelievable wines at all price points. They are wines that will be a great introduction for the Bordeaux novice and a reminder to the Bordeaux enthusiast about why we love it. Enjoy!
-Shaun Bishop, Proprietor – Bordeaux Buyer
-Chuck Hayward, Fine Wine Specialist – Wine Buyer
The JJB Advantage
We want you to know that before you make a decision to buy these wines, that you can count on the following:
As a licensed importer, wholesaler and retailer, JJ Buckley buys directly from Bordeaux, bypassing third party wholesalers and/or importers. This gives us and you a significant pricing advantage.
In order to secure large allocations of the most sought after and highly rated wines, JJ Buckley has worked hard over the years to build strong relationships with the most respected negociants and other suppliers. We are in Bordeaux at least twice a year to ensure we stay informed and well connected.
Our sales team has a broad and deep understanding of the vintage. Please call, email, or stop by and discuss the wines with our sales team who have just returned from Bordeaux. Over the past few weeks, they have analyzed, lived, breathed, practically bathed in the vintage, so no question will go unanswered.