Monday, April 12, 2010

2009 Bordeaux - To Buy or Not to Buy?

Well I am back from having spent four days fully immersed in the semi-masochistic ritual of trying to assess several hundred young, tannic, unfinished Bordeaux wines and I can report that despite near permanent palate damage,  this is a very successful vintage. Every year in early spring members of the wine trade, the press, and aficionados of the wines of Bordeaux descend en masse to get a firsthand look at the previous year’s wines. This year, the excellent growing conditions the region experienced during the 2009 season added fuel to the speculative fire as reports of exceptional quality got the hype going early. On the street, there is talk of 2009 as the “vintage of the century” and “the greatest vintage of all time”. With the vaunted vintages of 2000 and 2005 meriting similar acclaim, one begins to see how the promotional and marketing machine works here, making this no less than the third time such pronouncements have been made in the first ten years of this current century. But this is Bordeaux, and wine is bought and sold here like no other place in the world. The question is should you be buying it for your own cellar?

The short answer is a strong yes – but selectively. It is an excellent ripe, powerful vintage, yielding wines with no lack of these characteristics. While a bit less consistent across the board than 2005 or 2000, this is an excellent year that produced some truly world class Bordeaux wines. Our approach will be detailed in an email to be sent shortly, and if you are interested in Bordeaux futures please email us at 56 Degree Wine and ask to be put on our Bordeaux Futures list.

Tasting Bordeaux at this stage is difficult, and in my opinion all one can really expect is a first impression: a rough draft of sorts that presents the overall character, weight, structure and balance of the wines, and these are clearly wines that have plenty of stuffing. If there were challenges in such an opulent vintage, to me it seems that managing this power was the key to success. Those who harvest at the right times, that kept alcohols and extraction in check, who got good physiological ripening and were able to preserve freshness, vibrancy and detail were the most successful.

This in fact leads me to the only rumbles of contention I experienced and observed over the ultimate quality of the 2009’s. Talk of too many wines being made in an “international” style was hard to miss, an observation taken to mean wines that went for it with sheer power, fruit and extraction and potentially higher alcohols, as opposed to wines where restraint, elegance and balance was the goal. In a warm ripe vintage such as 2009, these characteristics are naturally to be expected to some degree. Nevertheless, winemakers can either push or hold back to influence and accentuate these elements in the wine, and the criticism comes where some felt that there are wines that were pushed a bit too hard. Of course there is some degree of subjectivity involved in those types of observations, with some preferring more power and opulence and others leaning to more elegantly classic styles. To me, the most successful wines were those that fell into the latter category.

I think this is part of a change that has been happening not only in Bordeaux, but many other regions as well, yet perhaps here it is a bit easier to discern, given there is such a track record for these well known wines. Those who know my palate know I fall into the classic category. For my sensibilities I think that Alexander Thienpont said it best while we were tasting the stunning 2009 Vieux Chateau Certan, saying that “a wine needs to be composed, with a beginning, a middle, and exit, otherwise it is just a mass of flavors”. I would agree, and feel that the best wines of this vintage have the ripeness, structure and power of the year, but also presence and fluidity, with balance and harmony and detail. The most overdone wines I tasted were like an orchestra with no conductor, all the instruments blaring at once with no composition, just a wall of sound. They can be big, loud, and impressive even… but not really interesting, and you wonder if they will resolve at some time. (Some of the 2007 Chateauneuf du Papes’ did come to mind at times.)

These preview tastings are the first act in the futures campaign (known as selling en primeur) taking place over the next several months, during which time the wines will be offered for sale far in advance of being bottled and released for delivery. The Bordeaux market is unique in that rather than being matured and bottled and sold when ready for consumption or further bottle aging, the wines are here are treated almost like a commodity. Depending on a number of factors including perceived quality and demand, a large percentage of a top quality Bordeaux vintage is sold each year through a system of brokers, importers, and distributors collectively known as the Bordeaux Trade. This process takes place in the spring of the first year after harvest, when the those in the trade and the Chateaux owners complete their assessment of the quality of the wines, the conditions of the market, the economy, and anticipated demand. The Chateaux then set a price and release the wines in increments called tranches to the market. As each tranche is sold, they evaluate the demand and adjust prices and release the next. In great years when demand is high, this can result in a quickly escalating price, sometimes over the course of several frenzied hours or days, during which the process is repeated until the portion of production the Chateau has designated for sale en primeur is sold out. The whole process generally starts in mid-April when the smaller estates begin to offer their wines, followed by the better properties as the campaign continues. The top Chateaux tend to be among the latest to release, with anticipation building throughout the campaign until it concludes typically in late May or early June.

Merchants offer the wines to their private clients throughout this time, with payment typically due at time of sale in return for a contract to take delivery when the wines are shipped approximately two years after the harvest. All in all it is quite a commitment, and buying Bordeaux futures is not for everyone. One has to front money for wines that you cannot take possession of for several years, and in addition often require a further 5-20 years or more of bottle aging before they truly reach their optimum potential. Some buy for investment, others to mark special years such as birth of a child, a wedding or graduation. Many buy as a hobby, or simply for the pure pleasure of enjoying your own stock of well stored wines as they evolve and improve over many years. Buying futures can allow the purchaser the opportunity to lock in the wines at potentially the very best price, and to obtain wines that may be either difficult or too expensive to find later on. This is not only true of high end wines. Finding mature, less expensive Bordeaux that has been well kept is just as difficult if not more so than finding the collectables 5-15 years after the vintage. While reasonably easy to buy, wine futures are not risk free. Purchasing strictly for investment is a tricky proposition that takes some specific knowledge of the risks and costs involved. Changes in the economy can affect wine values just like any other commodity or investment, as can critical reviews of the wine, storage conditions and other factors.

Going about the business of buying futures begins by finding a merchant you trust and who will be able to guide you through the process. Only deal with those you are confident are financially sound and able to access, confirm and deliver your wines. Both in terms of advice on what to buy and for the security of your investment, this is perhaps the most important facet of buying futures. Preferably work with someone who has actually tasted the wines, and who has the experience to understand and make decisions about very young wines. The next is to determine your goals in terms of timeline for drinkability, quality level, price range and budget. First Growths are certainly great, but they are very expensive and need a long time to mature. Often, the less expensive (though not cheap!) 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Growths provide the best quality to value, with Cru Bourgeois and lesser known wines performing above their pedigree in great years like 2009. These excellent and affordable wines can offer guilt free drinking over a period of 5-15 years. Also, don’t forget to consider that these wines will have to be stored in temperature controlled conditions while they age in bottle after you take delivery.

Based solely on quality, I think this is a solid vintage and one I would like to have in my cellar – yet there is some variation, and it is not uniformly great for all producers. Some did a better job than others in my opinion, and selection will be key as to what I buy. Pricing is another major factor, as we still don’t know where these wines will be released price-wise. If the Bordelaise exhibit restraint in light of the still sluggish world economy and come out close to the initial pricing for the 2008 vintage, I think it could be a strong buy. If they are near or above 2005 prices, I think we will take a much smaller position and encourage our clients to buy with a little more caution. Enjoy!

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