The Bordelais are not the only ones licking their chops as they offer the 2009 vintage for sale. Burgundians too are smiling as they taste their 2009s currently aging in barrels. In the words of Philippe Prost, the technical director at Bouchard Père et Fils, the wines are, “La beauté du Diable,” a French idiom that roughly means “too good to be true.”
The 2009 red Burgundies are luscious and opulent with silky tannins. Despite their ripe flavors, the wines are not high in alcohol because it was a year in which the tannins ripened faster than the sugars developed. Hence, the grapes developed perfect physiologic ripeness at reasonable sugar levels. Indeed, despite the ripe tannins, some producers still needed to chapitalize (add sugar during fermentation) to some wines to achieve adequate alcohol levels.
Frédéric Barnier, the winemaker tapped by Maison Louis Jadot to replace Jacques Lardière (Jadot’s legendary winemaker of 40 years who is set to retire following the 2012 vintage), attributed the perfect balance of phenolic and sugar ripeness to lots of sunshine without excessive heat. He noted that the ripeness did not obliterate the wines’ origins, “There is good definition of terroir despite the ripeness, unlike 2003.”
Alex Gambal, head of the eponymous firm, was enthusiastic, noting that “the measured tannins are very high, but you don’t feel it on the palate because they are so ripe and sweet and fine.”
My own assessments are based on visits to Burgundy in November 2009 and June 2010 and tastings over 200 wines in the cellars of the Hospices de Beaune, four of the major négociants–Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Louis Latour–and one small négociant, the aforementioned, Alex Gambal.
It’s impossible to recommend specific wines from the 2009 vintage at this point because they are still aging in barrel and winemakers have not assembled the final blend. Even without assessing individual wines, tasting at this stage is worthwhile because it allows an overall assessment of the vintage, especially when tasting wines from the large négociants whose own vineyards and those of their suppliers encompass virtually all of Burgundy. Despite the inherent problems of tasting unfinished wines, an early appraisal of the 09s helps determine an overall buying strategy: Buy ‘07s and ‘08s currently on the market? Scour the retail shops for remaining 05s and 06s, or save your money for the ‘09s? Indeed, some major retailers, such as Zachy’s in Scarsdale, New York, MacArthur Beverages in Washington, DC and Marty’s in Newton, Mass. have already released “futures” prices for the ‘09s from Maison Jadot.
The Whites: Excellent, but Lacking Consistency
While no one in Burgundy to whom I spoke was willing to proclaim it “the vintage of the century,” everyone agreed that some fabulous wines would emerge. With candor not usually heard from winemakers, Rolland Masse, the cellar master at the Hospices de Beaune, told me that he believed that the wines from the 2009 vintage would fall into two categories, “superb and good.”
It was a prognostication I heard repeatedly. Louis-Fabrice Latour, head of Maison Louis Latour and president of the négociant organization, believes “the best of the 2009 reds will truly be fabulous,” but that “the vintage as a whole lacks the consistency of 2005 because it was too large a crop.” He noted that at Latour they rejected one-third of the samples brokers presented to them in 2009 compared to a rejection rate of near zero in 2005.
Prost echoed that assessment, telling me that, “the vintage was not as consistent as the 2005, which was good across the board. In 2009 there is a big difference between great wine and medium wines.”
Despite those caveats, I found the reds to be consistently lush and ripe, yet well balanced and reflecting their origins. (The differing assessments are likely due to my sampling far fewer wines than they do during the winemaking process). Wines from both the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits showed equally well. Perhaps the enhanced ripeness of the vintage helped the Côte de Beaune wines slightly more than those from further north, with particularly impressive showings from the wines of Beaune itself.
“A present of nature,” was how Jérôme Faure-Brac, enologist at Maison Joseph Drouhin, described the 2009 vintage.” Barnier agreed, “95 percent of the wines’ quality is determined in the vineyard. We are totally dependent on the weather.” He remarked that they at Jadot could perform a long maceration to achieve maximum levels of the mature tannins and flavor without worrying about extracting off flavors because the grapes were clean and in perfect condition.
Prost, in his usual mild and understated manner, noted, “it was a nice harvest. There was no rot.” There was no rush to pick. After August 15th, the weather was perfect. It was warm and sunny without rain.” Bouchard brought in a crew of 30 to work the sorting table the first day of harvest. Yet, by day two, it was clear that the grapes were in such superb condition that they could dispatch most of the crew to other tasks.
“Absolutely perfect” was how Alex Gambal described the weather during the growing season. The ripening of the Pinot Noir coincided with the end of the growing season, which is in itself an excellent sign. Gambal believes that the 2009 reds will be similar to those from 1990, a highly acclaimed vintage. “We could harvest at our leisure,” noted Gambal. “There was never the sense of “let’s get going to beat the rain.’”
Jean-Charles Thomas, the winemaker at Louis Latour, cautioned that “there was a risk of over ripe flavors” in the wine because the heat and perfect weather in late August and September allowed growers to leave the grapes on the vines as long as they wanted. Those who were not careful wound up with slightly over-ripe grapes.
The whites, while very good, were less exciting than the reds. The prices at the Hospices de Beaune auction last November reflected the perceived quality of the vintage and the difference between the reds and whites. While the reds were up by 30 percent over the previous year, the prices of the whites were actually down by 3 percent. Barnier made the astute observation that, “it is rare to have a superb vintage for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes need different climactic conditions to achieve grandeur. Chardonnay did better in 2004 and 2008, whereas the Pinot Noir enjoyed the sun and warmth of 2005 and 2009.”
Gambal agreed noting that, “the whites will be very good, but not to the same level.” “Fortunately,” he continued, “we’ve had a string of great years for whites so it is hardly a problem.”
Not everyone agreed. Prost describes the whites as having “explosive flavors” because the grapes were very ripe. “The skin of the Chardonnay started to turn pink, which is a sign of great ripeness.” He, like others, felt the wines had lowish acidity as a result of their ripeness, but did not think that it presented a problem because they retained “typicity of place.”
Faure-Brac touched on the only potential problem with the vintage when he noted that, “it’s a ripe vintage. The difficulty is keeping the freshness.” Which is just another way of saying that the wines have low acidity. Still, the whites at Drouhin were every bit as exciting as the reds, which makes it hard to generalize. The extra ripeness harmonized nicely with Drouhin’s lacey, delicate style. And these wines had plenty of vibrancy. That said, all the winemakers to whom I spoke–Lardière, Prost, Thomas, and Geraldine Godot at Alex Gambal–all agreed that the level of acidity was about 10 percent lower in 2009 compared to 2005.
Will They Age?
The reds are so engaging and supple at this stage that they pose the question, will they age? The tannins and fruit are beautifully balanced, yes. But do they have sufficient acidity for the long haul? Opinions were divided–not surprising in Burgundy–with Thomas thinking the reds would be best consumed within the first five or ten years of their life. Lardière, on the other hand, feels that the top wines will develop beautifully. I couldn’t help thinking of the 1982 Bordeaux which were charming to taste upon release, had lowish acidity and have developed beautifully into one of the greatest vintages of modern times. I also remember what Louis-Noël Latour, Louis-Fabrice’s father and the former head of the firm, told me years ago: “Great wines always taste good.”
The weakening dollar will just amplify the increase in price reflected at the Hospices de Beaune auction. The 2009s will not be inexpensive because the demand will be high. But, with a smile reminiscent of the Cheshire cat, Louis-Fabrice noted that the pricing would look reasonable compared to the Bordeaux. “Customers can buy one bottle of Château Latour, or a case of Château Corton-Grancey.” (Latour’s flagship grand cru Corton)
1) Save your money and buy the 2009 reds, which are absolutely stunning. The demand will be strong so you may be forced to buy “futures” for the upper-level wines–that is to say, premier or grand cru–which means that you may not be able to taste before you buy. So rely on producers you trust and whose wines you’ve liked in the past.
2) The wines with less pedigree, such as Bourgogne Rouge or Côte de Beaune Villages, should be particularly attractive given the additional ripeness. Again, look to producers whose wines you’ve enjoyed in the past. At this and at the village level, supply should be ample and should allow for tasting before purchase.
3) If you like more opulent, fleshy white Burgundies whose charm will be immediately apparent, follow the recommendation in #1, above.
4) If your tastes run to more focused and leaner whites, stock up on those from the 2007 and 2008 vintages, which are fantastic. The best will develop superbly.
November 16, 2010