In Bordeaux, 2009 was a great vintage — as long as you didn’t pick too late. That’s the consensus after the week of en primeur wine tastings organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. Each year Bordeaux invites wine journalists, critics and buyers to sample the newly made but as yet unaged wines, still in barrels, to determine the quality of the vintage and put in early orders. To the uninitiated, it’s a bit like visiting a kindergarten to figure out what the kids will be like as grownups. In great years, there’s a definite advantage: Wines from the top chateaux can be quite expensive; buying them in their infancy can be a very good investment.
To help understand the potential of these new wines, the vegetative cycle of the 2009 vintage was explained by Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University and a sought-after consultant winemaker for top-ranking chateaux such as Cheval Blanc, Yquem, Haut-Bailly and Pichon Comtesse de Lalande. He’s also a wine producer at his family’s five estates in Barsac, Graves and the Cotes de Bordeaux.
Professor Dubourdieu is an articulate and imaginative speaker, as his description of why the 2009 vintage was such a potentially great one makes clear. He gave a two-hour presentation in the elegant vinification cellars of Chateau La Lagune, a Medoc Grand Cru Classe, accompanied by anonymous but representative barrel samples from the several distinct winemaking zones that comprise Bordeaux: Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, the townships of the Medoc that include Pauillac and Margaux, and the areas south of Bordeaux city in Graves and Sauternes.
“Last year heralded the return of hope in the world after the crisis of 2008,” Dubourdieu began. “Business in Asia picked up, and we were blessed with a magnificent summer and autumn here in Bordeaux.” A lively speaker and generous educator, Dubourdieu looks younger than his 60 years. He uses colourful imagery to portray the vine’s growing cycle.
“I’ve always considered the vine’s journey towards the harvest to be like a show-jumper’s course,” he said. “For example, if you want to produce great red grapes, there are five obstacles to get over safely.”
The first hurdle to clear is the flowering season, which ideally should take place early and in sunny conditions so the fruit will set in good weather. “The second,” said Dubourdieu, “is nouaison, the formation of the berries after pollination, which must happen in dry weather in order to fix their tannins.” The 2009 vines sailed over these two obstacles and then faced a tough third challenge.
Dubourdieu explained: “La veraison is what we call the period when the berries change from green to purple, usually in mid to late July in Bordeaux. This is a crucial moment in the winemaker’s calendar. For the best results, the veraison should take place in dry weather, when the vine is under slight water stress. With a little rain in some areas, the bar seemed to wobble at this point, but overall the dry weather held and the berries changed color without being over-watered.”
The fourth phase was an easy one to get through last year, as it calls for an August that is warm and dry, yet not excessively so. “There should be no risk of summer drought to cause the plants to go into too much stress, and 2009 was perfect in this regard, especially in the Medoc,” continued Dubourdieu. The grapes ripened evenly and well throughout the Bordeaux area, with the only exception being the vineyards that had been severely hit by violent hailstorms in mid May, whose yields were drastically reduced.
The final phase in the grape-growing cycle is the period leading up to the harvest and the harvest itself, when the grapes ideally should be picked in dry conditions. Here 2009 got top marks with dry, perfectly warm sunny days, and cool nights. “Both 2008 and 2007 had benefited from similarly fine weather for their harvests. So you could say they had passed their fifth hurdles too, but they had been less fortunate earlier in their growing cycles,” Dubourdieu said. “A perfect harvest does not a vintage make: you need great conditions throughout the entire growing cycle.”
Professor Dubourdieu then explained that, for Bordeaux’s whites, 2009 had been a good but not excellent vintage. “In order for most white grapes to retain the maximum amount of aromas and balanced acidity, they need a cooler month of August than 2009 provided. One exception is Semillon which, like the red grapes, benefits from full, slow, ripening in a warm August.
“The only danger of such brilliant weather,” he concluded, “is the temptation to wait too long to pick the red grapes. That can lead to sensations of overripe and cooked fruit, which are not characteristics we like to see in this area’s wines. Bordeaux stands out, yes, is inimitable, for the fraicheur of its reds, which is why, even in a perfect vintage such as 2009, it is ultimately the winemaker’s experience that makes a wine as much as the climate. Knowing how to work the soil and when to pick the grapes are important too.”
Indeed, the barrel samples we tasted at chateaux throughout the Bordeaux region, as well as the anonymous samples presented by Dubourdieu at his conference at La Lagune, confirmed his views. At their best, the 2009 red wines showed great precision, density and charm, with the ever-important fraicheur keeping the palate fresh and wanting more. Beyond that, each area represented its particular terroir. The clay and gravel at Pomerol produced wines of very intense color, with pure notes of wild strawberries and cassis; they were powerful, taut and tight, while the limestone sectors of Pomerol offered more linear, leaner wines that maintained the same purity. None were aggressive or drying in the finale.
The anonymous sample from Leognan, in the Graves winemaking area south of the city of Bordeaux, was a wine of 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon that revealed the floral side of this varietal. It was closely knit in the mouth, with fine balance and a long silky finish. Professor Dubourdieu said it reminded him of the sobriety and elegance of Bordeaux’s architecture. In the heart of the Medoc, the wines of the greatest crus of Pauillac showed extraordinary definition, with bursting fruit; they were dense, tightly formed and powerful, developing out into long finales of noble tannins that will soften over time. At Saint-Estephe, the wines revealed the power of their clay soils in intense, deep color (due to very high levels of polyphenols, the component in the grapes that determines their color and tannins), yet the wines maintained their vibrancy. At Margaux, the colors may have been less intense, but these seemingly more facile wines revealed great complexity and depth, with a soft touch that only the greatest terroirs can provide. All in all, very much a vintage to explore, enjoy — and invest in.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photos, from top:
The first tasting of the unaged 2009 vintage Bordeaux wines at Domaine de Chevalier.
In the vinification cellars of Chateau La Lagune, professor Denis Dubourdieu explains what made the 2009 vintage such a potentially great one.
Credits: Carla Capalbo