The summer of content

I find it hard to imagine that I will ever again encounter such successful consecutive vintages in Bordeaux as 2009 and the infant 2010s I have just been tasting. But then climate change may mean that the summer droughts largely responsible for the ripeness of these two vintages will become more common.

What is clear is that, while the likely appeal of the voluptuous 2009s resulting from steady ripening of grapes through a warm, dry summer and autumn was never in doubt, the 2010 vintage might have been very different indeed. If, as Bill Blatch of Vintex points out in his detailed annual vintage report, last September’s Hurricane Otto had followed its predicted path and brought wet, stormy weather to the Bordeaux region for the first week or so of October, we might not have seen the lovely, just-ripe, concentrated Cabernets that characterise 2010. And if there had not been a rainy June, the vines could have suffered during the vital ripening season of midsummer.

As it was, the defining climatic influence on the 2010 vintage was the unusual combination of a coolish, summer and autumn with drought or, as semantically sensitive Bordelais like to call it, “hydric deficit”. If the summer had been hotter, the fact that there was virtually no rain at all between the unsettled weather of mid-June that affected the flowering and mid-October would have stressed the vines so much that the ripening process would have shut down, and evaporation would have left the vines suffering seriously, as they did in 2003. But July and August were cool and grey in Bordeaux so the vines just continued to build up sugars, flavour, tannins and pigments.

Both 2009 and 2010 have massive, record-breaking amounts of alcohol (thanks to the high sugar levels in the grapes), tannins and colour. The big difference between the vintages is in the acid levels. Thanks to the cool nights and generally lower temperatures, 2010s have much higher levels of acidity and, in some cases, the tannins taste much drier. This makes the 2010 vintage much more structured, more refreshing, and it will almost certainly demand a much longer time in bottle before the wine has softened enough to be worth broaching. The 2010s may well go into a shell in their youth, and several producers admitted that they happened to be tasting particularly well during last week’s sunny peak primeurs tasting season. The 2009s on the other hand, with their lower acids, taste much sweeter and gentler, and may well continue to do so throughout their lives.

Knowing in advance that the 2010s had very high levels of alcohol (Ch La Mission Haut-Brion 2010 crosses the 15 per cent alcohol Rubicon) and notably high levels of tannin, I was rather dreading a tasting assault on my three trips to Bordeaux in the past couple of months. But, in fact, in the best wines the balance between all the elements was so convincing as to make tasting these nascent ferments a pleasure. In many cases the relatively high acidity brings freshness to the whole. I tasted some wines I suspected had been de-acidified and they seemed strangely lifeless.

It was at the usual blind tasting of the classed growths of Margaux that any doubts I may have had about 2010 were dispelled. This collection has so often been disappointing in the past – either thin and underripe or over made-up – but the 2010s are in the main a range of ripe, well-balanced wines with real vitality to them. Their counterparts from St-Julien and Pauillac to the north were distinctively (and occasionally obdurately) made for the long term.

It was notable that most of the blends for the top left-bank wines were heavily dependent on Cabernet Sauvignon at the expense of Merlot. Even the restless Bruno Borie of Ch Ducru Beaucaillou has returned to a much more savoury, firm style in 2010 – and describes the last two vintages as Beyoncé (2009) and Shakira (2010).

At the far north of the Haut-Médoc there could hardly be a greater difference between the two most famous wines, with Ch Cos d’Estournel displaying a magnificent return to classicism with 78 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon in the final blend, while Ch Montrose has had to absorb the 22 hectares (55 acres) of substantially Merlot vineyard acquired from Ch Phélan-Ségur last year. Accordingly, the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in Montrose’s grand vin has fallen from 65 per cent last year to 53 per cent. But if these two properties seem to be changing, Madame Capbern-Gasqueton’s Ch Calon-Ségur (86 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon) seems as immutable a monument as she does. Ex-Ch Margaux winemaker Vincent Millet is particularly proud of how he has absorbed the tannic qualities of the 2010 without diminishing the qualities of the terroir.

­The least successful wines are those based on right-bank Merlots grown in well-drained soils where the scant April-to-October rainfall had a serious effect. The Merlots grown on clay and limestone, with their better water retention, were generally more successful, as at Ch Pétrus and Ausone. This year Ch Cheval Blanc reverted to the old formula of Cabernet Franc dominance.

The relatively cool August and September meant that the phenolics struggled to ripen fully and grape pips were often still green. The high alcohols encouraged extraction, so it was vital not to leech greenness from the pips into the wine. There are too many St-Émilions and even Pomerols with painfully drying tannins on the finish, even if winemaking practices on the right bank are less extreme than they once were.

The characteristic freshness of the 2010 vintage has translated into some successful, nervy, dry white wines. Perhaps bordeaux can take advantage with this vintage of current connoisseur disaffection with white burgundy? And this crispness, and frequent citrus-peel character, is also evident in a particular style of vintage for sweet white bordeaux, much racier than most but with no shortage of noble rot. Those who made their selections based on the best pickings should make thoroughly satisfying wines.

Those are my impressions based on hundreds of samples tasted in Bordeaux. Now let’s see how the wines and their pricing develop.

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