by Sarah Abbott MW

Bordeaux 2009 revisited: plush, lush, but no shoe-in

The annual Bordeaux tasting by the Institute of Masters of Wine brings together 100 or so of the best wines of Bordeaux four years after the vintage. Most of the Médoc Cru Classés (including 1st growths) are there, as well as top producers of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Sauternes and Barsac. Four years on is a useful and relevant stage to taste, as the wines – though young –  have settled into their final skin. The market is driven by En Primeur tasting scores of infant (foetal?) wines, but tasting at this stage is much more relevant for wine lovers.

On release in early 2010, the 2009 vintage was celebrated by producers and merchants as not merely the best of “the decade”, nor even of “the century”, but rather “EVER!!!!!!”. This was the year of that glorious and benign summer that arrived promptly and turned Indian well into October. Ripe grapes made concentrated, intense, generous wines which were a joy to taste En Primeur, and received high scores from Parker.

Last year’s tasting of the 2008 vintage saw tasters gliding serenely around Vintners Hall. This year’s was packed, with the epicentre of the bun fight at the “First Growths” table. This enthusiasm is driven by the desire to taste great wines (sharpened by the impossibility of ever being able to afford them). But there are also reputations and returns at stake, as  2009 was definitely an ‘investment’ vintage.

Overview of wines

The best are heavenly: very ‘together’, and already beguiling. They are big but balanced, and gorgeously polished. Alcohol is high, but in the best wines it is balanced by fine, compressed tannin, good acidity, and very concentrated fruit. The star wines retain nuance in the notably sweet fruit, and a sense (as Michael Schuster would put it) of “scent as flavour”.

It is very seductive and enveloping – this combination of warmth, depth, concentration and tannic resistance. Despite some very big wines, there are many superb examples not at full throttle. But I heard many comments on variability. This vintage is not a homogenous shoe-in. Less successful wines were very uncomfortable. Some wines were green (some Merlot vines did shut down in the summer heat-spikes), and in others dry, clumsy tannins and bitter oak trampled over enervated fruit.  In some the fruit was too sweetly simple for interest, and was dominated by high alcohol. Alcohol in itself is not a problem. There are many good, and some great, wines at 14% and above. It is a matter of holistic balance, and not obsession with the numbers.

Communes and star wines

Saint Estephe is concentrated and emphatic, with a dark well of sweet, spicy fruit. Montrose is rich and confidently extracted, and is also much more pacy and nuanced than Cos d’Estournel, which seems these days to be more of a fetishistic performance than a drink.

Calon-Ségur is a total star: vigorous, exuberant, and finely grainy, with ripe but lively fruit. (You could buy 4 cases of this for the price of 1 case of Cos, incidentally. I’m just saying.)

Saint Julien was impressive and consistent. (The northern Médoc Cabernets benefitted from their later ripening, and retained acidity while on the longer road to ripe phenolics.)

My star wine was Léoville-Poyferré, which is sumptuous, complex, pacy, rich and assured. Léoville-Barton is understated but very good, with firm restraint and savoury, inky, graphite fruit. Brainaire-Ducru has that same savoury, fresh fruit but with a bit more heft and plumpness. Léoville-Las-Cases was tight, tense, and obdurate. Leave that one alone for a while.

Overall, Saint Julien 2009s had more space and restraint than in Pauillac, and were less obviously driven by concentration.

Beychevelle had lovely clarity of black fruit, and fine, restrained tannin. It was supple, charming and unforced, as was Langoa Barton, which seems to be going great guns recently.

Gruaud Larose and Lagrange shared a more overt, party-party style, with loose, grainy tannin and overt oak. They were balanced, in their way, by warm, spicy fruit. I have learned that these are the wines that one can easily dismiss as too overt in tastings, but guzzle with utter delight over dinner with mates.

Pauillac is more punchy and obviously concentrated than Saint Julien. These wines were a bit more of a tussle, and tannins were more prominent – to variable persuasive or uncomfortable effect.

Pontet-Canet and Pichon Baron are superb wines, with inherent concentration and depth of beautifully nuanced flavour. Both have a lovely sinuous line through the palate. Pontet-Canet is more exuberant, vigorous and determined. Pichon Baron is firm but suave, polished, enticing and scented. Pichon Comtesse is good, but much tighter, with more compacted tannin. All 3 are big but balanced. Duhart Milon also stood out. It is fleshy but toned, with lovely purity and grip. Château Lafite is really quintessence of this firm, polished style: it is nuanced, opulent, firm and very determined. Mouton was plush, plump and spreading, driven by unabashed sweetness of fruit. It reminded me of that line from Sideways: “a whole ton of fun.”

The rush to ripeness showed in some Pauillacs with simple sweet fruit, overt oak, and loose tannic weave. But at their best these less concentrated wines were good fun. D’Armailhac and Clerc Milon fell into this style, and Lynch-Bages was their spicy, front-loaded velvety daddy. These three were already drinking well. Yet another interpretation came through in Haut-Batailley and Grand Puy Lacoste, which were understated but gorgeously pure, with lovely freshness and scent. They are courteous and restrained, with delicious intrinsic balance and depth.

The less successful wines in Pauillac had stalky, green tannin with empty fruit, and protruding alcohol.

Pessac Léognan was the least impressive of the left-bank communes, but it should be said that the number of wines submitted was much lower. Fruit is sweet but murky, and many wines are just too easy-going. Some were decent Cabernet, but not good Bordeaux. The two exceptions are at the top: La Mission Haut-Brion distinguished by nuance and tension alongside sweeping, dense fruit and enveloping tannin. There’s a lot of alcohol, but there’s so much of everything else that I didn’t notice. Haut-Brion is a quintessence of hedonism, and you either take it and adore it on those terms, or feel it’s a bit OTT and atypical. I heard both responses.

Margaux has a clutch of very decent, balanced wines, with creamy textures and pretty fruit. And a couple of stars. Brane Cantenac was excellent, and is very good value: savoury, unforced and finely tannic. This is the style of classic, ego-less Bordeaux that is heaven with a fine French dinner. Lascombe had taken full advantage of the 2009 sunshine, and was sporting the equivalent of an orange suntan alongside its customary cleavage. A big, bouncy ton of fun, but not particularly Bordeaux like, never mind Margaux.

Rauzan-Ségla is delicious and stylish, with pristine, aromatic, cassis and disciplined ripeness. Palmer was the Haut Brion of Margaux. It’s on full throttle: super intense, super ripe and super concentrated. But it was like trying to get inside a beautiful mansion and finding all the windows and doors are just painted onto the stucco. Maybe it’s just too young. It’s had some rave reviews. But I preferred the understated intensity and aromatic definition of Ségla. Château Margaux is lovely, walking a courtly line, with notably refined, sleek tannin, pure fruit and delicate perfume.

Saint Emilion has a heterogenous range of styles and quality. Some wines were horribly uncomfortable, with astringent tannin, pruney, enervated fruit and brutish alcohol. A couple of wines were pushed to the point of bitter, steroidal, inarticulate dollopness. Several wines were marred by Sweaty Bretty. (And I say that as a brett liberal).

But the Saint Emilion highs are really high. Château Canon is restrained, sanguine and elegantly resistant. Figeac also has that scented, savoury purity, but in a tighter, focussed frame. Both sing its true intensity, and not forced extract. Cheval Blanc is a joy, singing with violet-scented fruit. It is silky and undulating, generous but refined. Angelus luxuriates in tannin and fruit, but retains its vitality. It’s more obviously plush than Cheval, and goes with the hedonistic quality of the vintage.

There’s something very relaxed about Pomerol in 2009. There were few harsh, pushed, astringent wines. The less impressive were just a bit too plump and comfy for greatness. But their sweet, juicy core makes them an unashamedly indulgent drink, for relatively early consumption. One of the stars was La Conseillante, for its lift and balanced generosity, and flavoursome, suedey tannin. Clinet was really beguiling, with intricate, floral aromatics and plush, satiny textures. L’Eglise Clinet was my favourite, combining the trademark vintage hedonism and lushness with a really intense core of sweet but firm fruit. These 3 wines were already harmonised, and you could have drunk any of them with dinner with pleasure. La Fleur Petrus was much more restrained, and obviously youthful. It had the nervier pace of a young, unready wine, but with a promising intense core.

In summary

You didn’t really believe that “Vintage of a Lifetime” stuff, did you? Go this showing, 2009 is a great, ripe, generous vintage, but it is not the effortless shoe-in of the En Primeur hawkers. That price-inflating hype has taken the greatest, most renowned, wines out of the reach of even moderately affluent wine-loving humans. Relative bargains remain. I don’t mean relative to the asset-class hysterics at the top end of Bordeaux. That would be annoying. In the big beautiful world of full-bodied ageworthy reds, the following wines really are great value:

  • Pauillac: Duhart-Milon (for power), Grand-Puy-Lacoste (for nuance), Haut-Bages-Libéral (for classic style at great price)
  • Saint-Estephe: Calon-Segur (with knobs on)
  • Margaux: Brane-Cantenac (for elegance), Giscours (for grunt)
  • Saint-Julien: Langoa-Baron (for courtliness), Lagrange (for spicy fun)
  • Saint Emilion: La Tour Figeac (for balance and focus in a sea of loucheness)
  • Pessac and Graves: Fieuzal (for this Christmas, and possibly next)

My scores

  Wine Vintage Commune Cru £ case £ bottle Score
1 Bouscaut 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves   22.00 88
2 Carbonnieux 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves 254 26.00 88
3 Fieuzal 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves   29.00 90
4 Malartic-Lagravière 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves   40.00 90
5 La Mission Haut Brion 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves   500.00 95
8 Domaine de Chevalier 2009 Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé de Graves   45.00 91
12 La Lagune 2009 Médoc 3rd Growth 430 40.00 93
13 Boyd-Cantenac 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 340 28.33 89
14 Brane-Cantenac 2009 Margaux 2nd Growth 480 40.00 93
15 Dauzac 2009 Margaux 5th Growth 300 25.00 90
16 Desmirail 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 270 22.50 89
17 Durfort Vivens 2009 Margaux 2nd Growth 270 22.50 89
18 Ferrière 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 260 21.67 90
19 Giscours 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 420 35.00 92
20 d’Issan 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 450 37.50 91
21 Kirwan 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 390 32.50 92
22 Lascombes 2009 Margaux 2nd Growth 520 43.33 88
23 Marquis de Terme 2009 Margaux 4th Growth 300 25.00 89
24 Palmer 2009 Margaux 3rd Growth 2100 175.00 95
25 Prieuré Lichine 2009 Margaux 4th Growth 339 28.25 90
26 Rauzan-Gassies 2009 Margaux 2nd Growth 330 27.50 88
27 Rauzan-Ségla 2009 Margaux 2nd Growth 850 70.83 96
29 Calon-Segur 2009 Saint-Estèphe 3rd Growth 650 54.17 94
30 Cos d’Estournel 2009 Saint-Estèphe 2nd Growth 2400 200.00 93
31 Cos Laboury 2009 Saint-Estèphe 5th Growth 270 22.50 90
33 Montrose 2009 Saint-Estèphe 2nd Growth 2386 198.83 96
34 Beychevelle 2009 Saint-Julien 4th Growth 680 56.67 93
35 Branaire-Ducru 2009 Saint-Julien 4th Growth 500 41.67 93
36 Gruaud Larose 2009 Saint-Julien 2nd Growth 540 45.00 92
37 Lagrange 2009 Saint-Julien 3rd Growth 360 30.00 91
38 Langoa-Baron 2009 Saint-Julien 3rd Growth 440 36.67 92
39 Léoville-Barton 2009 Saint-Julien 2nd Growth 750 62.50 95
40 Léoville Las Cases 2009 Saint-Julien 2nd Growth 2190 182.50 96
41 Léoville-Poyferré 2009 Saint-Julien 2nd Growth 1600 133.33 97
42 Talbot 2009 Saint-Julien 4th Growth 440 36.67 90
43 d’Armailhac 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 330 27.50 92
44 Batailley 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 350 29.17 92
45 Clerc Milon 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 450 37.50 91
46 Croizet-Bages 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 250 20.83 89
47 Duhart-Milon 2009 Pauillac 4th Growth 700 58.33 95
48 Grand-Puy-Ducasse 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 330 27.50 91
49 Grand-Puy-Lacoste 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 550 45.83 93
50 Haut-Bages Liberal 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 280 23.33 89
51 Haut-Batailley 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 280 23.33 91
52 Lynch-Bages 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 1100 91.67 92
53 Lynch-Moussas 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 322 26.83 88
54 Pedesclaux 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 281 23.42 87
55 Pichon Baron 2009 Pauillac 2nd Growth 1250 104.17 96
56 Pichon Comtesse 2009 Pauillac 2nd Growth 1200 100.00 96
57 Pontet-Canet 2009 Pauillac 5th Growth 1600 133.33 97
58 Angelus 2009 Saint-Emilion 1st Growth 2900 241.67 98
59 Cheval Blanc 2009 Saint-Emilion 1st Growth 7500 625.00 99
60 Haut-Brion 2009 Pessac-Léognan 1st Growth 6300 525.00 97
61 Lafite-Rothschild 2009 Pauillac 1st Growth 7600 633.33 98
62 Margaux 2009 Margaux 1st Growth 6700 558.33 96
63 Mouton-Rothschild 2009 Pauillac 1st Growth 6200 516.67 96
64 Balestard La Tonelle 2009 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé 450 37.50 89
65 Beauséjour-Bécot 2009 Saint-Emilion   520 43.33 88
66 Bélair-Monange 2009 Saint-Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classé B 1200 100.00 92
67 Bellevue 2009 Saint-Emilion   450 37.50 88
68 Canon 2009 Saint-Emilion   1000 83.33 93
69 Canon la Gaffelière 2009 Saint-Emilion   666 55.50 90
75 Figeac 2009 Saint-Emilion   1700 141.67 96
78 Pavie Macquin 2009 Saint-Emilion   780 65.00 89
80 La Tour Figeac 2009 Saint-Emilion   323 26.92 89
81 Troplong-Mondot 2009 Saint-Emilion   1200 100.00 90
85 Clinet 2009 Pomerol   2500 208.33 96
86 La Conseillante 2009 Pomerol   1300 108.33 95
87 l’Eglise Clinet 2009 Pomerol   3300 275.00 97
88 Fleur-Petrus 2009 Pomerol   1800 150.00 95
89 Gazin 2009 Pomerol   1000 83.33 94
90 Nenin 2009 Pomerol   440 36.67 89
91 Petit Village 2009 Pomerol   445 37.08 91
93 Clos Réne 2009 Pomerol   220 18.33 88
94 Domaine de l’Eglise 2009 Pomerol   300 25.00 88
95 Climens 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 820 68.33 97
96 Coutet 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 550 45.83 95
97 Doisy-Védrines 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 2nd Growth 250 20.83 91
98 Filhot 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 2nd Growth 168 14.00 89
99 Guiraud 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 400 33.33 92
100 De Myrat 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 2nd Growth 213 17.75 90
101 Rayne Vigneau 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 325 27.08 92
102 Rieussec 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 550 45.83 95
103 Sigalas Rabaud 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 365 30.42 91
104 Suduiraut 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 630 52.50 94
105 La Tour Blanche 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 450 37.50 92
106 Clos Haut Peyraguey 2009 Sauternes and Barsac 1st Growth 432 36.00 93