FAITH, HYPE, CHARITY
Cynics might point out that 2010 is Bordeaux’s seventh ‘vintage of the century’ in the last 30 years, but the experts all agree that it genuinely is something special. Tim Atkin MW picks out his stars of the en primeurs and considers what a second stunning year will mean for prices and the Bordeaux bubble.
Here we go again. The 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, currently being offered to the market as en primeur barrel samples, or futures, is the latest in a string of excellent harvests in the world’s leading fine wine region. Some commentators, myself included, consider it possibly the greatest ever for red Bordeaux.
Unless you suffer from amnesia, you will recall that 1982, 1989, 1990, 2000, 2005 and 2009 were touted, just like 2010, as ‘vintages of the century’. The Bordeaux hype machine has engaged fifth gear once more, but for once the high praise is justified. The best wines really are sublime.
What makes 2010 so good? It’s partly the weather, of which more in a moment, but it’s also a reflection of several other factors: better viticulture, climate change, riper grapes and (certainly at the grander châteaux) lots of spare cash to invest in technology in the cellar. For all of these reasons, Bordeaux is making better wine, more consistently, than at any point in its history.
But even here, in a region that has benefitted massively from global warming, it is unusual to have two such great vintages standing shoulder to shoulder. Bordeaux watchers cite 1928 and 1929 or 1989 and 1990 as other impressive duos, but 2009 and 2010 are in a different league.
The two vintages are very different in style. The 2009s are plush and opulent, even as young wines, while the 2010s are more structured and restrained, built for the longer haul. It’s a bit of a generalisation, but the former is more likely to appeal to ‘New World’ palates, particularly in America, while the latter is more classic: an English vintage, if you like.
The character of the wines reflects the growing season, as it always does. The summer of 2010 was very dry – one of the driest on record, in fact – but considerably cooler than in 2009. The result was a long growing season during which the grapes ripened slowly and evenly. The resulting wines combine tannin and fruit power with fresh acidity and high alcohol levels.
They are unique in the history of Bordeaux – like the 2005s, but with even greater intensity.
That they will be overshadowed by the red wines is inevitable, but the dry whites are pretty special, too, thanks to that combination of freshness and concentration. The only (slight) disappointment is the sweet wines, which are nothing like as good (or as consistent) as the sumptuous 2009 stickies.
PROS & CONS
For all its undoubted quality, the 2010 vintage is not uniform by any means. How could it be otherwise in a region of 120,000 hectares and 10,000 châteaux? Some of the wines are too high in alcohol, too tannic, too acidic and sometimes all three, although it’s worth remembering that most of them won’t be bottled for at least another year and will develop in barrel. The wines are less consistent than the 2009s, especially at the cheaper end, where the tannins can be rough.
That said, the top wines are more evenly distributed between the Left and Right Banks than they were in 2009, which was very much a Cabernet Sauvignon year. The Médoc was the star in 2009, but in 2010 it has had to share star billing with Pomerol as well as parts of St-Emilion, where Merlot is the dominant grape.
If money is no object, my outright stars of the vintage are Vieux-Château-Certan, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Cos d’Estournel, Ausone, L’Evangile, Le Pin, Pontet-Canet and Mouton-Rothschild.
For all its undoubted quality the 2010 vintage is not uniform by any means
I’m writing this at a time when many of the leading châteaux have yet to release their prices. (By the end of June, it was already the most drawn out en primeur campaign ever.) My crystal ball is no more accurate than the next man’s so I really have no idea how expensive the likes of Pétrus, Margaux, Lafite and Latour will be. But I think we could be looking at upwards of £10,000 a case.
Top Bordeaux has become a luxury product and, in difficult economic times, an investment opportunity. At some point – and it may happen sooner than many people are prepared to concede – prices will surely come down, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s worth remembering that most of the 2009s haven’t gone up in price since they were released en primeur, but history suggests that they will. There are a handful of wines that are in demand in 2010 – Lynch-Bages, Pontet-Canet, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Vieux-Château-Certan are good examples – but in many cases you can afford to hang onto your cash for at least another year.
Prices have generally increased by 10% or more over 2009, partly because the crop was smaller at most châteaux in 2010, but also because the Bordelais are convinced that the market is prepared to pay the premium. Very few of them have dropped their prices, and those that have, such as Cos d’Estournel and Ducru-Beaucaillou, were over-valued in 2009.
The exorbitant prices of young, blue-chip châteaux, has focused attention on older vintages. As a rule of thumb, it’s only worth buying 2010 en primeur if it is available at the same price as bottles from previous great vintages such as 2005 and 2000. Certainly restaurants might be better off concentrating on recent, under-priced vintages: 2001 and 2004, both of which are drinking well, are a source of comparative bargains right now.
TIME TO MATURE
The other point to consider is the amount of time the 2010s will need to come round. These are far less accessible in most cases than the 2009s, which is a much better restaurant vintage, at least for now. We are talking a decade or more before the 2010s are even approaching drinkability and much longer for some wines. One colleague sadly lamented the fact that he probably wouldn’t be alive to drink the 2010 Latour at its peak, sometime around 2040.
If you are still keen to buy some, you don’t have to spend a fortune. There are plenty of delicious wines available at £250 a case or less en primeur, such as Cantemerle (£250 per case), Les Ormes de Pez (£240), Poujeaux (£215), Goulée (£180) and Capbern-Gasqueton (£145). Slightly further up the price scale, I’d be tempted by Batailley (£300), Réserve de la Comtesse (£300), Moulin-St-Georges (£310), Phélan-Ségur (£320) and Grand-Puy-Ducasse (£330). All these wines would look good on a restaurant list in five years’ time.
Another good tip is to consider purchasing the second wines from the best châteaux, many of which are very impressive in 2010 and considerably cheaper than the grand vin from the same source. Buying the likes of Chapelle d’Ausone, Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, Les Forts de Latour, Petit Cheval, Alter Ego, Clos du Marquis, La Dame de Montrose, Le Petit Mouton, Pavillon Rouge and La Chapelle de La Mission-Haut-Brion is a reasonable way of adding a whiff of glamour to your list.
For glamour is, increasingly, what Bordeaux is all about. Many of the top wines have now become so expensive that they are beyond the reach of all but the super rich, the only people who can afford to actually drink them, rather than trade them like so many stocks and shares.
The emergence of new markets such as China, Singapore, Korea and the former Soviet Union has stoked demand for these top wines to the point where few restaurants can afford to buy them.
The big question is what happens next? Back in the 1970s and 1980s, very good, if not great vintages were the exception. Now, that no longer appears to be the case, because of hotter summers and less rainfall during harvest. 2011 is already looking like yet another promising vintage, although a lot could still go wrong between when I’m writing this and the harvest in September.
The other imponderable, which has an even greater impact on the fortunes of Bordeaux than the weather, is the world economy. If Greece and the euro crisis pulls it into the abyss or – less dramatically – interest rates start to rise, there could be an awful lot of people with bottled 2009s to sell when they appear on the market in the spring and summer of 2012. The investment bubble could burst – and that could be good news for restaurants.
But let’s not worry too much about that. For now, we should rejoice that Bordeaux has had another exceptional vintage, one that may never be equalled in the Gironde for longevity and quality. Whether you want to buy some now, or wait until the reds have softened in bottle, will depend on the size of your cheque book. But these are wines that will stand the test of time.
For a more in-depth review of the vintage you can buy Tim Atkin’s en primeur report for £10 at timatkin.com/specialreport