In a world where consensus is elusive and where good taste is fiercely subjective and deeply contested, there is a remarkably broad conformity about what is probably the biggest wine story of 2010: Bordeaux 2009. Wine critics from around the world who have done their spring trips to the world's most famous wine-growing region have been ecstatic about the vintage.
Fruits of the Bordeaux hype machine which goes into full throttle during this annual ritual? Highly unlikely. The consensus seems much too firm to be manufactured and the euphoria has infected critics whose opinions are generally measured and well-considered.
Comparisons have been drawn with other outstanding vintages such as 2005, 1961 and 1947, but it hasn't stopped there. For instance, the redoubtable Jancis Robinson wrote that overall Bordeaux 2009 can offer “more sheer pleasure” than any other she remembers. Another famous British critic, Steven Spurrier, who was in India after an extended tasting in Bordeaux, says that this vintage could be “the best Bordeaux in living memory”.
The hugely influential American critic Robert Parker has not yet gone public with his opinion. If he joins the chorus of praise, the impact on the prices of Bordeaux 2009, when released, and in the En Primeur or futures market will be considerable. Parker, of course, has been known to sing his own tune about Bordeaux. He got very excitable about 2003 and 2008 when others were much more lukewarm, and was relatively unenthusiastic about 2005, which many regard as the last great vintage.
Global warming is routinely attributed as the cause for creating conditions that led to the harvest of ripe, mature and flavourful grapes. But wine critics are not climate scientists and global warming should be read as a euphemism for perfect wine weather — a warm summer followed by a cool, dry September. By the time the first red grapes had begun to be picked on that month last year, it was apparent that 2009 would be a great year.
Spurrier says that while previous Bordeaux vintages are typically viewed as being better on the Left Bank (of the Gironde river, where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blend) or Right Bank (where Merlot rules), 2009 has been kind to the entire region.
However, he does think there have been “some man-made disappointments”; some growers, alarmed at the high sugar readings in the grapes picked them before they attained true phenolic ripeness, others went too far the other way, producing highly alcoholic and dryly tannic wines. “But these are exceptions to the majority,” he says.
As you may expect, first growths such as Chateau Lafite-Rotschild and Chateau Haut-Brion have earned high ratings (19.5 out of his scale of 20). But what is really interesting is his observation that the improvement in quality is truly secular and that the “simple appellations” of Bordeaux — such as the neglected Cotes de Blaye and Cotes de Bourg — have truly arrived. “Such wines are the new Bordeaux,” he says.
Good affordable wine is an oxymoron when it comes to red Bordeaux. But if what Spurrier says is true, we may look forward to drinking a much better range of basic Bordeaux in the years to come.
This is not such a bad thing at a time when high-end Bordeaux promises to get even higher thanks to the Asian market, led by the insatiable Chinese. China is already the largest market for Bordeaux outside of the European Union; its buyers have descended in record numbers to taste the 2009 vintage and will be big players in the primeur market. An improvement in the “simple appellations” is something that the average budget-conscious wine drinker will look forward to.