Bordeaux’s 2009 ‘Vintage of the Century’ Falls Short of Hype

Chateau Leoville Langoa
The wine aging cellar at Chateau Leoville Langoa in the Saint-Julien region of Bordeaux. Source: Leoville Langoa via Bloomberg

Here we go again. Not 12 years into the 21st century and the wine industry and media are declaring another Bordeaux “vintage of the century,” this time 2009. They said the same about 2005 and some who have tasted barrel samples of 2010 are combing the thesaurus for even stronger superlatives.

Words like “spectacular,” “awesome” and “magnificent” have been bandied about for bottles that will not even be in stores till next spring or summer. Hyperbolic wine guru Robert Parker, who tasted the wines in barrel, declared that “for some Medocs and Graves, 2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.”

Bordeaux prices are already at all-time highs -- even the mediocre 2006 and 2007 vintages were expensive. Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy last year reported that London wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd pre-sold 700 cases of 2009s in the first hour they were offered, with the volume of online orders freezing its computers.

Having tasted many prestigious wines in barrel over the years, I have discovered that the contents of a barrel can differ considerably from the one next to it. Unless you work at the chateau and can monitor all the wines in every barrel from the beginning, finished wines are a much more sensible way to judge a vintage’s character.

I was therefore delighted to attend the annual Fete du Bordeaux at The Four Seasons restaurant in New York in October, where six examples of the 2009 vintage were tasted. Restaurant owners Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini brought in three notable Bordeaux vignerons, Anthony Barton of Chateaux Leoville Barton and Langoa Barton, Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateaux Lynch-Bages and Les Ormes-de-Pez, and Nicolas Glumineau of Chateaux Montrose and Tronquoy Lalande.

Wine and Song

Glumineau was so giddy about the vintage that he got up and sang an opera aria and “New York, New York” before declaring that the wines are “so powerful, so long, so expressive, as if I’m talking about the woman I love.” French guys tend to do that.

At my table of winelovers, which included one Master of Wine and one from the trade, opinion differed on the 2009s, though no one went into any fits of ecstasy over them. My own reaction was that this is indeed a very good vintage but one that also says a lot about how Bordeaux wines have changed over the past decade.

None was a first growth -- no Lafite, no Margaux, no Haut-Brion -- but they were all fine examples, including newly emergent estates like Chateau Tronquoy Lalande, which recently underwent a three-year, 10 million euro makeover. I found every wine surprisingly voluptuous (even at only 13 or 13.5 percent alcohol), very fruity, with tannins already quite softened and not as much acid as I’d hoped for.

Tasting Notes

My notes contain words like “huge,” “thick,” even the occasional “wow,” and I would happily drink any of them right now rather than wait five to 10 years to see how they develop. I thought the Tronquoy Lalande had exceptional depth and laudable tannins, with a bouquet that took a little while to open up. Les Ormes-de-Pez, a cru bourgeois, was actually sweet on the finish, with a caramel and oddly vegetal nose that blossomed quickly in the glass.

Chateau Langoa Barton, a third-growth from Saint-Julien, was, as expected, closer to the usual Bordeaux taste of restrained fruit and good mineral notes, though it seemed far forward. Lynch-Bages, a fifth-growth from Pauillac, was tight at first but opened up to reveal elegance very much in the Bordeaux tradition, while Leoville Barton was also tight and somewhat tannic, but there was a refinement here I’d expect from the second-growth Saint-Julien. This one has a bright, long future.

Thick and Bold

Montrose, a second-growth Saint-Estephe, was very thick, very bold, and held on to its big tannins; I’d keep these around for a while.

I was very happy with the wines, though I’ll hold my exhilaration at bay thus far. My concern is implicit in my scribbled note that “the 2009s taste like really good California cabernet blends.” That isn’t just because California blends are becoming more complex. Bordeaux winemakers, already troubled by global warming, are making their wines in a far bigger, more forward -- dare I say, overripe -- style that tends to impress the critics. This is not your father’s Bordeaux.

In the end, does it matter? The global market, fueled by the Chinese, is buying up all the classified Bordeaux vintages it can find, good or weak.

With first-growth 2009s selling for thousands of dollars and bottles from lesser chateaux fetching hundreds, another “vintage of the century” is pretty much a moot point.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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