Assessing Bordeaux’s 2009 Vintage, Part 1: Primeurs and the Problem with Points
November 22, 2010, by: Stephen George
As Bordeaux’s skilled marketing teams begin to praise the newest harvest, it’s worth spending a moment to look back at the early returns of the much-lauded 2009 vintage.
At Primeurs week every April, hundreds of Bordelais chateaux pour samples of their newest wines for the thousands of critics and merchants who gather in Bordeaux to check in on the latest vintage. We at Montesquieu make sure to participate every year we can. Attending Primeurs helps us keep a finger on the pulse of the wine industry, and especially Bordeaux (the epicenter of the international wine scene), by tasting first-hand the new vintage that everyone is wondering about. As with the new 2010 vintage, the Bordeaux hype machine was in full swing well before Primeurs began this past April, with many proprietors declaring 2009 to be “The Vintage of the Century.”
But is it really? 2009 certainly offered favorable growing and harvest conditions that produced fruit with immense potential. But recall that “once-in-a-lifetime vintage” fanfare was also showered on 2000 and 2005 – have there really been three “vintages of the century” in this century’s first decade?
Assessing these claims is made all the more difficult by the fact that none of the 2009 Bordeaux red wines are yet finished – chateaux are pouring barrel samples that still have several years of aging ahead of them, not to mention racking, fining and filtering, and so on. Much guesswork is involved in evaluating the quality of a particular wine – and the vintage it comes from – so early in its lifecycle. After all, the important question is not how does the wine taste now, but how will it taste later upon release and then even later upon reaching maturity?
These are complicated issues to discern, and as always, personal preference plays a huge roll. What Jancis finds intriguing, Jim may find off-putting; and what Bob thinks is a slight imbalance that will resolve itself with age may seem to Steve to be a fatal flaw in the wine.
2009 is rife with examples of this kind of thing. Take, for instance, the Vieux Maillet from Pomerol. James Suckling rated it 92-95 points, calling it “very well done.” But The Wine Advocate’s Neil Martin rated the wine 80-82 points, saying it showed “unavoidable prune/raisin notes” and “lack[ed] freshness.” That’s not even close. Or consider the wildly controversial Cos d’Estournel from Saint Estèphe – some critics called it one of the wines of the vintage, while others were dismayed by what they considered to be over-extraction and a lack of finesse.
Of course bottle variation can also play a role. But the more fundamental point is that this kind of disparity reminds us that experiences with wine vary from person to person and cannot be captured effectively by a scoring system that assigns value to a wine with a single, static number.
Unfortunately, numerical wine ratings still hold market power disproportionate to their reliability. But as high-profile differences of opinion like Vieux Maillet and Cos d’Estournel proliferate, more and more consumers are realizing that a wine’s story and the experiences it offers are far more important than mere scores.
If scores of the 2009s can vary so widely, what’s a Bordeaux lover to do? The best thing is to listen to people whose palates you trust and who have tasted the wines themselves. That’s one reason it’s important for Montesquieu representatives to be present each year at Primeurs – so we can inform curious clients of what to expect out of 2009 and bring in for them wines that show the best of the vintage.