The annual “Ten Years On” tasting has been a fixture in my diary for over a quarter of a century. The first of these marathon blind tastings that I attended was back in 1992 when we tried the still youthful 1982s. I remember being blown away by that vintage’s Mouton Rothschild – a wine that was brilliant even when young and has continued to deliver the goods ever since. The tastings were frequently held at The Mill – home of the great and much missed Bill Baker and sometimes at The White Horse at Chilgrove with our old friend, the incomparable Barry Phillips. More recently they have been hosted by Farr Vintners.
This year’s tasting was of the 2009 vintage and was attended by the usual group of wine merchants and writers – Neal Martin, Jancis Robinson and Steven Spurrier. The vastly experienced tasters are aged from 29 to 78 years, with seven Masters of Wine. We tasted 168 wines over two days that were divided into 14 flights of 12.
2009 was described as being “the deckchair vintage” at the time, as conditions in the vineyards were ideal. There was virtually nothing for the vignerons to do but wait until they felt that their perfectly healthy grapes were ready to be picked. Consequently, it was not a year when nature forced a picking date on the wine-makers, but one when they could choose exactly when they wanted to harvest their fruit. The young wines were full of promise when we tasted them from barrel in the Spring of 2010 and the en primeur campaign that followed was the most successful of all time for Farr Vintners. We compared the vintage to 1959 – a fabulous year that provided ripe and attractive wines that were able to be consumed in their youth, but which have stood the test of time and are still drinking well today. So, how did 2009 perform? Was it as good as we anticipated? Was it even as good as Robert Parker said? You may recall that he declared it the greatest vintage of all time and handed out 100 point scores like confetti at a wedding.
We started off on the right bank with our first stop being Saint Emilion. There was a great variation in wine-making styles here and one imagines that picking dates were varied too. The wines were certainly not uniformly great and there were some issues with volatile acidity, over-ripeness and oxidation at a few Chateaux. The clear winner here was Cheval Blanc, a wine that tastes like it is wrapped in cashmere, silk and velvet. Beautifully smooth, unforced and refined. Ausone was excellent too, with seductive and opulent fruit tamed by a great depth of ripe tannin. These two First Growths could actually be served and enjoyed tonight even though they will continue to age well for decades. At a more modest price level our star performer was Canon. This was a wine that, on release, was a little under-estimated by the critics and a little over-valued by the proprietors so it remains available in the market today at pretty much the same price as which it was offered on release. It’s a fabulous expression of St Emilion with great purity of fruit and refinement of tannins that allows the richness of the vintage to shine through where others had forced the natural opulence from the vineyard to excess. Not far behind in the votes was a similarly styled Belair Monange and the more powerful (but undeniably impressive) fruit bombs of Pavie and Troplong Mondot. Though we have often warned against the excesses of Pavie in recent years, there is no denying the 2009 is a hedonistic success, where the underlying terroir increasingly takes over from the winemaker as it ages in bottle.
Next stop was Pomerol. This is normally one of our favourite communes, but I think it’s fair to say that our group’s conclusion is that 2009 has turned out to be a Cabernet Sauvignon vintage - and you won’t find much of that grape variety here. Nevertheless, there were some magnificently plump and sexy Merlots on display. Personally I scored Petrus and le Pin equally with Lafleur just behind. The group’s average scoring was very similar with Petrus just a hair’s breadth ahead. Whilst still on the riper side, this found a savoury, earthy complexity and a glossy, silky texture to envelop the powerful fruit at the core. A big surprise was the excellent performance of Le Gay which beat all the other top names with a wine that found a freshness few could achieve, with a spicy wasabi note over fresh hedgerow fruit and bright acidity.
In Pessac-Leognan there was simply no disputing that Haut Brion was top of the pile. I very rarely ever score a wine 20/20 but this absolutely blew me away. I think that it might be the finest young Haut Brion that I have ever tasted. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a legend in the making that will equal or surpass the epic wines made here in 1953, 1959, 1961 and 1989. Deep in colour with a brooding, ripe nose of cassis, it had explosive power on the palate, with great intensity of fruit and mouthcoating, ripe tannins. Despite the sheer weight and power, there is perfect balance, all elements building to a long crescendo of a finish that was minutes long. A smoky La Mission Haut Brion was not far behind it, showing a more savoury edge, with a satin-like elegance on the finish. Apart from these two classics, my own favourite was Smith Haut Lafitte which was very popular with the group but behind Pape Clement. The Smith was wonderful silky and classically Graves in style with notes of tar, wood-smoke and barbequed meat. Despite that, the fruit still dominates with blueberry and blackberry ripeness and an almost creamy, milk chocolate sweetness on the finish. It’s not hard to see why Robert Parker gave this wine a perfect 100 point rating.
We ventured into the Médoc with a flight of the less big names. My own favourite here was Cantemerle. A fine claret that can be enjoyed now but which will continue to evolve nicely for a couple of decades at least. Certainly the best wine made here since the lovely 1989. This is a modestly priced wine that has everything you want from a Bordeaux. A touch of oaky spice, ripe fruit with structure, grip and balance. For the best value for money it’s hard to look past 2009 Bernadotte. This is a wine that sells at under £15 per bottle in bond but it out-performed many classed growth that sell at higher prices.
In the commune of Margaux there was no surprise to see Chateau Margaux itself on fantastic form. In fact this was another wine that I scored a perfect 20. It finished in second place overall in the group’s average scores. With a nose that was surprisingly dense and powerful, the true expression of the wine came through on the palate, where there was lift, florality, and impossibly refined tannins that gave a unique edge to a wine that tamed the fleshiness of the vintage. I then had Palmer and Rauzan Ségla in a tie for second place. They were highly rated by the group as well, but the winner this time was Issan. A real crowd-pleaser, this was spicy and smoky on the nose, with seductive brambly fruits and seamless tannins on the palate. A special mention too for Ségla. This second wine was served twice – once under cork and once under screwcap – and both times it out-scored 15 classed growth Chateaux from the commune of Margaux. The cork still showed remarkably youthfully, but had a floral lift and chalky palate, showing pure blue fruits and good vibrancy. By contrast the screwcap showed slightly riper, with more brambly black fruits, and a resolved, silky tannic structure. Both were drinking superbly now.
Things were hotting up as we entered Saint Julien. There were some fabulous expressions of truly ripe Cabernet Sauvignon here and a wide range of wine-making styles. From the forward and gluggable Talbot to the big, burly Léoville Barton – a strongly cassis fruited wine with an almost atypical tannic structure that (rare for 2009) needs to kept in the cellar untouched for a few more years yet. My own winner of this flight was also that of the group as a whole. Another Parker 100 pointer that really was performing brilliantly. Step forward the fantastic 2009 Léoville Poyferré. This is a wine that sums up the best of 2009. Gorgeous ripeness and exoticism married with cassis and cigar box “claret” character. It might be sexy but it’s still very much Bordeaux. In second place was a big surprise, with Saint Pierre producing probably its greatest vintage ever. With its spicy new oak and polished structure that allowed the ripe, yet restrained fruit to show through, this wowed everyone and just pipped Ducru Beaucaillou, another 100 pointer that showed extremely well, all incense, liquorice and sweet blueberries.
In Saint Estèphe there was an absolutely outstanding performance by Montrose. This is certainly one of the greatest wines ever made here (and there have been a few…). Completely black with glass-staining colour, huge legs and great viscosity. An absolute tour de force. This uncompromising wine was as much about the Chateau’s style as the vintage, and managed to harness the best elements of both. Not surprisingly, second place went to Cos d’Estournel. This received huge scores from many us (similar to Montrose) but some found the level of decadence to be just a notch too high. For me this is a great wine that – whilst verging on tasting like it’s from the Napa Valley- holds back and stays on its terroir. This, like Montrose, is a wine with a long life ahead and I think that it will become more Bordeaux-like as it ages. For now it’s an opulent fruit bomb but there’s no denying that it’s a controversial show-stopper of incredible richness and density. Whilst these 2 heavyweight superstars fought it out for top spot, there was an incredible performance by plucky little Les Ormes de Pez – a wine that’s still available at a very modest price – to finish in 3rd place. Less exuberant than the Cos and less structured than the Montrose, this harmonious yet seductive St Estephe showcased just how open and moreish this vintage can be at a decade old. You can drink this now, but it is in no danger of fading over the next decade.
And finally to Pauillac, for me the heart of Bordeaux. There were some awesome wines here but one clear winner – not just of this commune but of the entire tasting. Chateau Latour 2009 is simply a stunning wine that averaged an incredible score of 19.24 – this is possibly the highest score that any wine has achieved ever in the history of these tastings. It must be said that all the First Growths are truly magnificent in this vintage but Latour really was the greatest. This is a wine that will rival the legendary 1959 and 1961 produced here. It is a wine of breath-taking concentration, as black as the darkest night with great intensity of ripe, pure blackcurrant and graphite. Though the entry is initially silky, the true density of the wine reveals itself through the mid palate, with mindboggling concentration of black fruit and mouthcoating, chewy tannins. Though there is unrivalled power to this wine, a savoury, spicy subtlety adds layer upon layer of complexity, and the tannins still find great refinement to prevent any sensation of over-extraction. The finish is extremely long, with flavours that seem to build long after the wine has been spat (or, more likely, swallowed). Without doubt one of Bordeaux’s future legends. Latour’s performance shouldn’t take anything away from the brilliant Mouton and Lafite which are also superb. However special mention should go to Grand Puy Lacoste which tied in a dead-heat with Pichon Baron as top Pauillac after the First Growths. Bear in mind that you can buy a case of GPL for less than the price of a bottle of Latour! Whilst many of the Pauillacs focused on power, this forged its own path of elegance, vibrancy, and purity. Lifted and elegant, this was perfectly in proportion, with a weightless intensity and savoury, moreish, spicy finish. Pure class. If you own any Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet or Les Forts de Latour rest assured that these too are brilliant wines in 2009.
My conclusions on the red wines in 2009 is that they are at their best in the Northern Medoc where there is a strong percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Pauillac is the top commune. The First Growths are all truly brilliant and quality can be found across the board at all price levels. I would place the vintage ahead of 2005 and 2000 but maybe overall just behind 2010 – we’ll see when we taste it this next time next year. My best wines of 2009 would be :-
We also tasted the 25 top Chateaux of Sauternes. Whilst this has been touted as a truly great vintage, the wines slightly disappointed overall. Whilst there was no lack of power, ripeness and sweetness, many wines seemed further advanced than expected, with more caramel and toffee than honeyed fruit. The best wines harnessed the ripeness of fruit yet found freshness through bright acidity and complexity through the marmalade and dried mushroom characters of botrytis. Guiraud was most successful at doing so, coming out top and beating many more highly priced wines in the process.