Friday, 1 February 2013

Southwold 2013 – Great Bordeaux Tasting 2009 Vintage

By Mattew Hemming
Fine Wine Manager

Each year a small group of UK wine merchants and journalists decamp to the Suffolk coast to immerse themselves in the most recently shipped Bordeaux vintage.  Everything is tasted blind, in appropriate peer groups, and scored out of 20 by each taster before identities are revealed and the wines discussed.  I’m not going to pretend it isn’t enormous fun to spend two whole days tasting some of the most thrilling (and expensive) wines in the world but it’s also quite an intense experience – working through 100+ extremely tannic young wines per day, concentrating madly so as not to wildly under-rate something posh in front of a playfully boisterous crowd of colleagues / friends / competitors.

The eagle-eyed, and those who receive lots of wine E-mails, will have spotted that various reports of the event are starting to circulate.  Jancis Robinson is publishing her notes this week and Neal Martin will doubtless post his on Robert Parker’s site in due course.  Although this was my first year attending Southwold I’m keen to jump on the bandwaggon, however I’m also keenly aware that many of my clients have already filled their boots – some to over-flowing – with 2009 claret...  For this reason I’m going to make this a bit of a vintage report of my own.  There’s a small offer to follow but, for those of you who have cellars bursting at the seams with 2009s, I thought a ‘progress report’ on the vintage of the century of 4 years ago might be of interest.

I’ve restricted myself to the major communes, as I suspect these are the areas that will be of most interest.  And I don’t have that much time to type, as I doubt you have that much time to read – if you do, take a look at Jancis’ report and overview in the FT this weekend.  Please note that, below, all scores are my own, excepting the odd reference to that fellow in Baltimore.

St Estephe
On paper, the cooler clay-rich soils of St Estephe should excel in a warm vintage like 2009, easing the stress on the vines.  The Southwold veterans commented that this was one of the strongest St Estephe flights they could remember, although I did note a slightly coarse edge to the tannins of some of the wines there was also plenty of crisp, fresh and spicy fruit.  At the less expensive end of the spectrum, Lafon Rochet really impressed with attractive blackcurrant fruit and a sense of precision on the palate.  At this level, however, it was Phelan Segur that shone for me, with a cool profile and a lovely texture: 17/20 from me.  The focus of this part of the tasting was always going to be the comparison of Montrose with the controversial Cos d’Estournel (one of Parker’s 100/100 wines).  Cos didn’t fail to split the room: some tasters were in raptures, others found the massive structure and concentration too much.  For me, it was impressive and classy but not compelling: 17/20.  Montrose, on the other hand I adored.  It was very closed and brooding but with fabulous layers of intense fruit at the core.  Really quite Latour-like, this was perhaps the stand-out wine of the Medoc for me, scoring a huge 19.5/20.  I re-visited it several times to check and I stand by this, for me, unusually high rating.

The profusion of great estates in this commune meant that our expectations were extremely high and the wines did not disappoint.  The top 2009 Pauillacs provided one of the greatest tasting line ups I’ve ever seen, albeit rivalled by 2009 Pomerol.  At the highest level, 2009 delivers such pure, ripe and glossy fruit that it’s just a joy to taste.  Several people mentioned that it was remarkable that, with many wines tipping the scales at 14%+ alcohol, this was never mentioned as a criticism or problem of balance.  Similarly, the tannins are huge and imposing, but so ripe that they feel silky as the wine glides across the palate.  Amongst the more modest chateaux, Lynch Moussas had a superb showing (17.5/20), with a wonderfully clear Pauillac signature.  Both of Xavier Borie’s wines were delicious, with Grand Puy Lacoste holding its own and performing at top super second level in my opinion.  It’s no surprise that the 1st growths excelled.  What was surprising, was just how good Clerc Milon, Petit Mouton, Duhart Milon and Carruades de Lafite were.  It’s become a bit easy to sneer at Carruades as little more than a brand for investment...tasted blind the 2009 is so rich, spicy, ambitious and impressive that I wondered if it might be Pontet Canet.  Anyone who managed to bag an allocation of Forts de Latour is in for an absolute treat (18.5/20)

St Julien
A really interesting group to taste blind, especially considering some of the huge scores awarded by Parker and the now correspondingly high prices.  True to form, I found St Julien consistent in 2009: across the board finer than St Estphe yet not as outstanding as the greatest wines of Pauillac.  Reviewing my notes, I’ve shown a predictable preference for the fresher and more traditional styles – maybe because this was the first flight of the day and I found these wines more invigorating in the morning.  For example, I was out on a limb in really enjoying Talbot which I found particularly elegant, cool and sleek – giving it 18/20 which may be over-cooking things.  Similarly, I really enjoyed the silky delicacy of Lagrange (17/20) and Beychevelle (17.5/20), and the brisk tannin/acid balance of Branaire Ducru (17./20) which I found particularly ‘grown up’ claret.  Langoa had a very good showing, getting positive comments all round, and I rated it the equal of t’other Barton for once.  I should admit that I found the Parker darlings, Poyferre and St Pierre, a bit much.  Leoville Poyferre in particular seemed broad and dramatic but lacking in refreshment value and acidity (16/20).  It’s undoubtedly very impressive though and has many fans more influential than I.  Both Ducru and Las Cases are superb although very different, Las Cases with more of a stern Pauillac character and Ducru more seductive and velvety.

Margaux is a large and diverse commune and, as such, has delivered a bit of a mixed bag of wines in 2009.  Amongst the junior properties, there are some instances of wines that are just a bit light and angular; some of the smarter estates seem to have unecessarily attempted to ‘turn the volume up to 11’ and pushed things a bit too far.  In the middle ground, though, there are some very attractive, aromatic wines with extremely pretty and elegant fruit.  Alter Ego de Palmer (16/20) impresses for a 2nd wine and out-performed a number of classed growths.  Cantenac Brown 2009 was a surprise as, whilst John Avery had rated this very highly at our first tastings, I’d always found it a bit over-done.  In Southwold, I found it complex, silky and relaxed – proper Margaux – 17/20.  The other surprise out-performer was a deliciously fresh and breezy Ch d’Issan, finishing with a firm, mineral grip.  The two outstanding Margaux wines were clearly Palmer and Rauzan Segla.  Rauzan is the more conservative of the pair, with a beautiful creamy texture and savoury fruit (17.5/20).  Palmer, on the other hand, is far more flamboyant and ambitious, really filling the palate with perfume and with truly soaring tannins (18.5/20).

1st Growths
This was always going to be splitting hairs as each of these wines is extraordinary in its own right.  On the day, Margaux got my highest rating of the five 1er Crus – 19/20 – it just had phenomenal length, intensity and purity.  The rest were pretty much level pegging, and another day my preference may fall another way.  Haut Brion is wonderfully aromatic and complex.  Lafite has incredible grace and elegance. Mouton is one of the world’s most exciting expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Latour has a structure as though its hewn from rock and steel.  Textbook.  I do keep wondering at how good Montrose is, though.

St Emilion
If some of the Margaux wines attempted to turn the volume to 11, there are estates in St Emilion with aspirations towards 15!  We tasted a huge number of wines that were black in colour, inky, port-like and just hard work.  Thankfully, these are wines that we never buy at Averys.  What’s more, there is a lot of extremely good wine being made in this famous town.  Away from the 1er Grand Cru Classes, two names we no longer see made lovely 2009s.  Tertre Daugay (now Quintus) was a classic St Emilion (17/20), and Magdelaine (now absorbed into Belair Monange) was aromatic, fresh and lively (16/20).  Further up the scale, both Larcis Ducasse and La Gaffeliere were very good – I particularly liked the scent and minerality of La Gaffeliere (17.5/20).

My highest St Emilion score went to Ausone (19/20).  Hard to read at first, because of some reductive notes, they receded to leave a gorgeous berry perfume.  On the palate it was supremely cool, sleek and mineral, with great tension and huge depths of intensity.  Ausone’s a unique and beautiful wine but what was surprising was how – unlike in St Julien – I enjoyed some of Mr Parker’s high-scoring wines.  Both Pavie and Angelus seem to have pulled back from the days when they made full-throttle, high octane wines.  Pavie (18+/20) was exciting, mineral and lifted, with great definition; Angelus (18.5/20), as study in unforced, creamy and elegant St Emilion.  Clos Fourtet (18/20) was fine-grained and silky, with a lovely thread of Cabernet Franc running through the wine.  Finally, Ch Canon was spectacular: restrained, fresh and vibrant, it really danced on the palate and was a huge surprise to the group when we realised we’d all rated it so highly.  18/20 from me, for a 1er Grand Cru Classe that’s significantly less expensive than some of the wines mentioned above.

These wines rivalled those of Pauillac for sheer quality and thrills.  It’s almost pointless reporting on wines that are both impossible to find and impossibly expensive.  The texture, quality of tannin, fruit expression and balance are simply exquisite.  No one is going to be disappointed with 2009 Pomerol and, because it’s a relatively small and homogenous appellation, this is one of the few where the wines out-perform both up and down the quality spectrum.  Ch Beauregard was my pick of the more modest wines – a winner in terms of scent, spice and intensity, again I found a lovely Cabernet Franc note in the middle giving freshness and complexity (17/20).  At the top, Petrus, Lafleur and l’Eglise Clinet all got 18.5/20, which is perhaps predictable.  I think I might have missed something with Le Pin, which I thought lacked a bit of tension (17.5).  What was surprising was that, tasted blind, I gave two unexpected 19/20 scores.

- Clinet: intensely ripe and exotic with fabulous spice notes.  The texture is huely opulent but just caresses the palate.  The length is outstanding.
- La Fleur Petrus: exotic and spicy but with great aromatic lift.  This has an iron-like structure.  Stunning purity and focused like a laser – this would score a diamond.

2009 is, especially at the top end, a truly great vintage.  The usual suspects from throughout the Bordeaux region have excelled, and if someone offers to pour you any of the 1st growths, Petrus or similar you should reach for the biggest glass you can find.  That said, there are some brilliant wines further down the scale.  Southwold threw up clear wild cards for me – Montrose, Canon and La Fleur Petrus – all posh wines, all fairly expensive, but all far removed from the likes of Petrus.  If you have any in the cellar, be very pleased indeed.

I have notes and scores on everything I tasted, so if you’re interested in a specific wine, do let me know.  It’s also worth having a look at the professional notes that will be published by Jancis Robinson, Neal Martin and Steven Spurrier.

A small offer of available 2009s will follow in a couple of days...and, if you’ve read this far, thank you and well done!

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