Bordeaux’s Annual Binge Highlights Great Wines, Plus Chinese

Pierre Lurton, CEO of estate Chateau d'Yquem
Pierre Lurton, chief executive officer of Sauternes estate Chateau d'Yquem, displays a barrel sample of the opulent 2009 at a sneak preview of the wine at Chateau Cheval Blanc during "en primeur" week in Bordeaux, France. Lurton is convinced this is the best d'Yquem he has ever made. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

Last week at Chateau Pichon-Lalande in Bordeaux, director Gildas d’Ollone and winemaker Thomas Do Chi Nam looked set to share a fist bump despite driving rain outside. Body language usually tells the tale during the region’s annual “en primeur” tastings, and the chateau’s 2009 is that good.

The latest harvest, once again, is being hyped as the region’s “vintage of the century.”

I raved about the last great one, 2005. This year I sampled barrel samples of more than 400 wines over six days to see if the 2009s are as good -- or even better. Pichon-Lalande is; some others are not.

While the 2005s were more consistently terrific, the best of 2009 are stunners, with textures like soft cashmere or silky taffeta, deep concentrated fruit flavors, aromas of violets, vibrant freshness, and loads of tannins that promise long aging. Many estates produced delicious wines, especially those that use a higher proportion of cabernet sauvignon.

Yet, for a great year, a surprising number of producers didn’t get it right.

On day one, at the Cercle de Rive Droite tasting at Chateau de Carles in Fronsac, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, I was put off by wines with raisiny overripe flavors, excessive 15 percent alcohol, and harsh bitter tannins from overextraction in the cellar.

The next day though, after handing in my invite to enter legendary Chateau Petrus in nearby Pomerol, I was wowed by this fabulously rich and complex red with everything in harmony. Even at 9:30 a.m., I didn’t really feel like spitting it out.

Fruity Trotanoy

The same goes for the silky La Fleur Petrus and suave, richly fruity Trotanoy and many of the 14 wines I sampled an hour later at the J.P. Moueix offices in Libourne.

“Choosing the right date to pick was tricky,” explained President Christian Moueix.

The long, warm growing season encouraged some producers to wait too long. That allowed the sugar content in the grapes to build up, resulting in high alcohol in the wines.

Two days later, in the doorway of first-growth Chateau Margaux’s new cellar, technical director Paul Pontallier, in tweed jacket and sunny yellow tie, called 2009 “a totally unique vintage, with the texture of 1990 and the ripe flavor of 1989.”

I split my days between tastings organized by the Union des Grands Crus, whose 132 members are the top Bordeaux estates, and appointments at the first growths and others that only show their wines at the chateau. By 6 p.m. each day my teeth looked purple-black and my palate felt battered.

Chilly Rainstorms

It’s always tough to assess unfinished wines that will age another year and a half in barrels before bottling. This year, samples poured at the press tastings were surprisingly variable. One winemaker told me the problem was atmospheric pressure because of chilly rainstorms.

I found both excellent wines and disappointments in every appellation.

Across the board, the first growths shine. My top marks go to Petrus, Lafite, Cheval Blanc, Margaux and a very grand Latour. Prices will be, I’m sure, very high.

My wine-stained notebooks show a couple of dozen wines that will be more affordable, including: rich, fruity Figeac; elegant, classic Canon; plush-textured Vieux Chateau Certan; pure, sensual Palmer; smooth, polished Le Pin; sensual Pichon Lalande; as well as Batailley, Pichon Baron, d’Issan, Lagrange and Le Petit Lion, a new third wine from Leoville Las Cases.

Luckily there will be a few good buys as futures, such as spicy Chateau Corbin, plummy Greysac, rich-textured La Tour de By and savory d’Angludet.

Staggering Yquem

Sweet whites from Sauternes are luscious, with great liveliness, depth and purity of fruit. The Yquem is staggering (and will be priced accordingly).

A few wines are controversial, like Chateau Cos d’Estournel in St. Estephe, which I sipped in their dimly lit two-story tasting room with antique wooden wall carvings from India on red walls -- a fine backdrop for a distinctly over-the-top wine. Manager Jean-Guillaume Prats describes it as “baroque.”

I much prefer St. Estephe’s other second growth, seamless, classic Montrose, another in my Top 10. If Montrose is Paris, another taster quipped, Cos is Las Vegas.

Top chateaux are counting on Asia to finally get into the purchasing-wine-as-futures game. At Lafite-Rothschild, flyers in Chinese were stacked next to those in English. Smooth-talking Herve Berland, managing director of Mouton-Rothschild, told me 12 percent of its 1,800 visitors are Chinese, while only 10 percent are American and Canadian.

Will Asia Buy?

But will Asia buy? Yes, predicted an ebullient Alan Lee of Shanghai’s Fortune Tree International trading company, whom I meet in a chateau parking lot. Laurent Ehrmann, general manager of negociant house Barriere Freres, is bullish too, citing handfuls of wish lists from Asian investors. Simon Staples of London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd e-mails me that almost 1,000 wish lists from customers worldwide arrived over Easter weekend.

U.S. wine lovers bought big in ‘05, but that was in a different economic universe. “For ‘09 we only began to see excitement a month ago,” said Chris Adams, president of New York’s Sherry-Lehmann. Prices, he concedes, will be very, very important.

No one in Bordeaux wants to talk about that.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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