How to know if Bordeaux 2010 is a great vintage?

   A great vintage is a vintage that produces rich, full-bodied wines that stimulate and fill out the mouth, particularly on entry, on the mid-palate and on finish. 

 

For this stirring character to last through to the finish and not to be cut short immediately after entry – as in shorter and lighter wines - it is essential for the wine not to be dry. Poor quality tannins, i.e unripe tannins, are responsible for dryness, which hinders voluptuous sensations such as plenitude on the mid- palate and depth on finish.

But the physical presence of the wine in the mouth alone is not enough and the vintage needs to bring it to life. Freshness -triggered by pH, acidity and terroir- and vibrant aromas – brought about by varietals, terroirs and time of harvest – liven up a wine, enhance flavours and in the end invite us to swallow.

 

What about 2010 ?

What is at the source of gratifying sensations on the palate depends very much on the weather pattern and the work of man.

 

The weather pattern

Three stages during the maturing process of the grapes are essential for the building of a wine’s structure: July for the entry, August for the mid-palate, September for the finish. The role August plays is the most commonly known. We are all familiar with the saying “August makes the must”. Indeed, a dry and warm month of August will build the wine’s body - essentially on the mid-palate.

 

What was June like?

Before flowering, the yield looked likely to be bountiful but a difficult flowering leading to poor fruit set naturally reduced volumes. In 2010 bunches were of a decent size but bearing comparatively few berries, which later proved essential to maintain the grapes in good sanitary conditions. With the drought, the berries remained small and had little juice- an ideal proportion to create concentration later on; very few properties resorted to saignée in 2010.

 

What was July like?

The role July plays in the potential quality of wines has only recently been specified. We now know that if July is hot and, above all, if it is dry, it marks the end of the vegetal growth of the vines and the start of the concentration in the berries. The earlier it happens, the more likely the wines are to be full-bodied. Heat, as dryness, stops the growth.

July 2010 was outstanding- hotter than in 2009, 2008 and 2005 and three times drier than in 2009 and 2005. And that explains the depth in colour for 2010 reds, their high tannins levels and their density.

 

What was August 2010 like?

August 2010 was not hot. It was cooler than in 2000 and 2005. As you know, living in the heart of the Medoc gives me the unique opportunity to experience the weather live. And in August last year, even though I missed the heat and the chance to enjoy a dip in my swimming pool, I was happy for my garden, already scarred by drought. I remember thinking nature works wonders: too much heat on top of the drought would have caused damage to the vines and plants. I also remember wondering what the wines would be like. I knew that because of the cool weather breadth would be ruled out, but I also knew they would show lift. If the weather in September was poor, wines would be lean. On the contrary, if we enjoyed a spell of sunny weather in September, it could make up for the incomplete maturing in August and the wines would gain in generosity even if they remained linear.

In 1998, I said September was really what determined the calibre of a vintage: rain can definitely spoil the work of a good summer but when September is dry, sunny and warm, merlots, and above all, petits-verdots, cabernets francs and cabernets sauvignons get a chance to mature to their optimum. And optimum maturity is what determines a wine’s breadth. It is also what gives it fat and a velvety tactile feel on the palate. It is what makes a vintage stand out.

 

What was September like?

September 2010 was on the whole warmer than September 2005 and I° cooler than September 2009, with important differences between day and night temperatures and cooler nights than in 2005 and 2009. Most importantly of all, September 2010 was dry, with 50% less rainfall than in 2005 or 2009. These favourable weather conditions helped the maturing of the grapes and gave them a chance to reach their optimum maturity. But even though the weather was lovely between 13th and 19th September, very cool temperatures at night slowed down the maturing process and the start of harvest had to be postponed many a time. The advantage of cool weather is to keep the rot in check and to concentrate aromas. And yes, 2010 is definitely packed with aromas. They enliven the tannins and lift up the wines with freshness. Quality wise, a slow and steady maturing is better, but in the cooler corners full maturity was not quite reached. And if you think that plots on early ripening soils had a greater advantage in 2010, remember that they often are on graves soils and that, unless there are clayey subsoils, some vines might have suffered from the drought.

 

What was October like?

The last week in September was cold – 5° at night- but the weather picked up again from October 2 to October 10 with temperatures reaching levels usually recorded in August! Apart from light rain on October 10, the weather held until heavy rain fell on October 24.  For those who had  decided to wait, this beautiful late season was the chance to pick each plot at the right point of maturity without the stress of having to bring in huge yields – in 2010, yields are moderate.

 

The results

On paper, the vintage seems poised to be a success. All we have to do now is see how well it stands the test of thorough tasting. My notes will be focused on two specific points: how the wines perform on the mid-palate and, above all, how well they perform on finish. Why, you may ask? As the grapes matured slowly in September - with a spell of rather cool weather- no one can really say if they actually reached their optimum point of maturity. I kept close tabs on the harvest and the vinification process and I can tell you that caution was the key word in cellars, where teams were careful not to extract too much - and even more so that alcohol content is higher in 2010 than in 2009, particularly on the right bank - alcohol increases extraction. I must admit I was surprised by such caution. Isn’t it a paradox to believe you have the best possible grapes and not make the most of their qualities?

 

The work of man

Since 2000, average-quality vintages are getting few and far between in Bordeaux. Producers are facing a new challenge:  to tend and rear increasingly sturdy wines that show higher levels of alcohol. Winemaking teams have the skills to rear traditional Bordeaux wines of average body with imperfectly ripe tannins, but they are less at ease with extremely ripe wines.

 

Late picking and the aroma of prematurely aged wine.

In 2009, during the en primeur campaign, I mentioned overripe wines that had been brought in too late. 2010 raises the issue of late picking once again. When rain falls in September and grey rot is not a threat, Bordeaux winemakers are at a loss about when to start picking.

With the effects of global warming, the issue of when to pick will have to be addressed. In 2010 the harvest took place late in the season and spanned several weeks. There was a genuine risk for the grapes to lose their taste. Today, scientists are working on the prune aroma in prematurely aged wines- an intense off-flavour present in juvenile wines. Prune flavour is pleasant in mature wines but it should be seen as a technical error in young wines – and it has never been so obviously present in some crus than this year. In my forthcoming tasting notes you will find it referred to as “baked fruit”.

Leaving aside the critics and journalists’ personal preferences for some aromas, we need to bear in mind that when the nose is prematurely aged, the wine will gain nothing from bottle ageing and will never be able to develop the bouquet that makes mature Bordeaux stand out among other wines. But connoisseurs buy Bordeaux to lay it down - even if we tend to enjoy it earlier than we used to. So once again, wine lovers are kept in the dark and are the ones to lose out. How is such a thing possible?

 

Late picking and en primeur tasting.

Late picking gives the grapes a chance to ripen to their maximum point of maturity; it gives body to the wine, rubs out rough edges from the tannins and smoothes them out.  Some estates aim at this optimum maturity to present wines with the fullest possible body and seamless tannins at the en primeur tasting. Picking earlier on in the season would mean presenting wines with less coated, brisker tannins and with less body. But it would also mean more vibrant and lively aromas and taste. When the grapes are brought in early or at the right time, it is really down to the maturing process to smooth out tannins and add charm and pleasure to the wine – this process takes 15 to 18 months. But the wines are sold en primeur, only 6 months into the maturing process. Those that are not immediately attractive run the risk of selling less and at a cheaper price.

This is not a minor issue as for many estates the final price tag is often established during the en primeur campaign. Selling early can lead to excessive new trends only remotely connected to the original taste and style of Bordeaux wines. This year, such excess is more noticeable among the right bank estates than those on the left bank, for two reasons:

  • The first reason is linked to the Bordeaux winegrowing region configuration. On the right bank, estates are smaller and quicker to adapt to changing market demands. On the left bank, properties are up to 20 times larger and are slow to shift. Without intending to, possibly without even being aware of it, they stand as the defenders of the great style that everyone has been enjoying for decades.
  • The second reason is the aromatic fragility of the merlot. Whereas cabernets sauvignons and cabernets francs can be brought in later with no damaging effect thanks to their compliant character, merlots are not flexible and cannot stand approximation.

 The results:

I shall pay particular attention to the expression of the fruit and its intensity. The best scores will be awarded to the wines that manage to strike the perfect balance between maturity and fruit vibrancy. And I am looking forward to surprises and true finds, as I know some results will no doubt escape predictions – and that is the true magic of tasting!  

Source: jm Quarin

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