ASSESSMENT OF THE 2010 BORDEAUX VINTAGE AFTER THE EN PRIMEURS
By John Salvi
All the most famous names in journalism and wine writing publish their notes very soon after the tastings. Parker, Jancis Robinson, Decanter and Wine Spectator to name but 4 out of many. Many of you will have read and studied these. In this article I do not give tasting notes. Those of the good and famous will be much more sought after. What I do here is to try and assess the quality of the vintage and explain WHY it is what it is and what makes it that way. I start with the premise that each and every vintage is formed and structured by the weather – the meteorological conditions. In my previous article “Assessment of the Bordeaux Vintage BEFORE the En Primeurs” I gave details of those weather conditions and therefore I shall not do so again. Please refer to that article if interested.
A remark too good to omit was made at Château Mouton Rothschild. “Some of the wines this year are a DNA of their classical conception”. At Château Haut Brion they said “now all the grapes are ripe the blending becomes more difficult”, and at Château Latour we were told “you feel in the wine that the skin is still wrapped round the tannins”. At Le Pin we heard the comment “we would have liked to have waited a bit longer, but keeping freshness won the day”. Vieux Château Certan summed its vintage up by saying “2010 will be a great, long-ageing wine”. Château Palmer stressed “the mild water deficit helped the concentration and the September rains hastened the skin ripening. Both Château Margaux and Cheval Blanc commented on the stoppage of the vine in July. All interesting and informative general comments, so let us take the principal factors that structure a wine one by one.
The IBMP (3-isobutyl-2-méthoxypyrazine), without being technical, is the principal molecule responsible for green pepper aromas (unripeness), and according to Jean-Hubert Delon at Château Léoville-Las Cases was well below the threshold at which a human nose can detect it. In other words the grapes were ripe.
I have rarely, if ever, seen such deep, intense and vivid colour in new, red Bordeaux. The edges are a violent and vivid purple and the body of the wine almost black. Where the grapes were phenolically ripe, and this was the vast majority, the colour came out of the grapes extremely fast. In fact, when I was visiting the cellars and saw the fermenting vats, the colour was there after only 3-4 days. It is important to remember that the grapes were small this year. This, of course, means that the ratio of skins and pips to juice was greater than if the grapes had been large. Also, in many cases, the skins were relatively thick, which increased this ratio. The colouring matter is in the skins in Cabernet and Merlot and therefore there was plenty of it. Naturally some of the colouring matter will precipitate, and the post fermentation maceration period helps to stabilise the colour. However, whether this period was long or short and whether it was kept at a higher or lower temperature, and also whatever the amount of precipitation, the colours this year will be deep, dark and intense. It is a hallmark of the 2010 vintage.
Here we come to what, in my opinion, is perhaps the most important feature of the red wines in 2010. Once again, like the colouring matter, the tannins came out extremely fast in phenolically ripe grapes. So fast in fact that Eric Tourbier, oenologist at Château Mouton Rothschild, said that most of it was extracted while the juice in the fermenting vats was still more or less an aqueous solution. We all know that the best tannins are in the skins and that the harsher and bitterer tannins are in the pips. Again the fact that the berries were small and the skins relatively thick augmented the amount of good tannin.
The whole ball game this year was to do everything softly, gently, slowly and with a delicate touch, in order to extract just the right amount of fine, ripe and silky tannins and stop before extracting the harsher ones. Talking to many oenologists and producers it was interesting to discover how many different ways were used to achieve this. Some decided not to do any pre-fermentation maceration or cold soaking. Many did no délestage at all, deeming it too brutal and encouraging extraction too fiercely. Eric Tourbier did just one right at the beginning of the fermentation. Many reduced the number of pumping-overs by up to 50%, or did short little ones instead of full ones. I keep quoting Eric, because he gave me so much precious information, but he invented a new system that Château Mouton Rothschild has christened the “Tourbier pump-over”, and which consists in spraying the cap with the fermenting juice to moisten it and then putting the hose just under the surface of the cap to break it up and disperse it, but without sending the juice bubbling up from the bottom of the vat in order not to disturb things too much. Perhaps the most significant adaption to gentle extraction was to ferment at lower temperatures than usual. I spoke to 1855 Classified Growths who fermented at a temperature as low as 24°C. This of course slows down and prolongs the fermentation and thus the extraction. Finally some growers lowered the temperature in the vats during the post fermentation maceration to stop any further extraction, but others maintained the temperature under extremely close supervision. Perfect extraction, not too little but above all not too much, required consummate skill and sorted the men from the boys. It was a complex affair requiring very precise decisions at exactly the right moment. Those who got it exactly right have made some very great wines indeed, meriting the rare 20/20 mark. One Château, Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, proudly quoted their anthocyanins as measuring between 1,000 -1,300 mg/l. I think tannins will also prove to be the one major shortcoming of the less good 2010s. A number of wines were over-extracted and had harsh, bitter and excessive tannins. In some cases so much so that it is hard to see how they will ever soften. Without a shadow of a doubt extraction control and tannin control were the vital keys to great wine making this year.
There is still a great deal that we do not understand about tannins and their extremely complex molecular structure. A great deal of research is being done and researchers have discovered that there are numerous different tannins in the wine. Yves Glories, formerly the doyen of the Bordeaux University of Oenology, invented what has become known as the “Glories method” for measuring tannins and today we use a measure known in France as the IPT (indice des polyphénols totaux – indicator of total polyphenols content). This year it was not so very high, although at 80 Mouton claims that it was their highest ever. At Vieux Château Certan it was 90, which is the highest that I came across. La Mission Haut Brion said theirs was high, but then look at its alcoholic strength below. Although this is very useful it has the drawback of not distinguishing between the good and the bad tannins. A lot more research is needed before we fully understand this vital component, which among other components is one that gives a wine the potential and the gift of long life.
This is another component that gives a wine the ability to age long. It is also absolutely vital for the balance of fine wine, for its equilibrium and therefore its grace and beauty. This year was a wonderful year for acidities. There are hundreds of different acids in a wine, but we do not need to go into these in detail. Generally speaking the pH varied from around 3.6 – 3.8. The higher the pH, the lower the acidity, and the lower the pH, the higher the acidity. pH stands for “potential Hydrogen”, but we have no need to delve into this. The above are perfect.
One of the most important features is the malo-lactic fermentation. To keep things simple the malic acid is transformed by bacteria and much of it ends up as lactic acid, which is much softer and gentler. It is incredible today to think that when I studied oenology, under Emile Peynaud in the 1950s, we did not know what the malo-lactic fermentation was, and not knowing we did nothing to encourage it and it often did not take place until spring. Today wine-makers wish it to happen immediately following the alcoholic fermentation and a scientist at Vancouver University has even discovered a yeast that will make the malo-lactic fermentation take place at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation. It has not yet proved itself and has not been adopted. Paul Pontallier, at Château Margaux, said that this year his total acidities were among his highest and was intensely proud of it Getting back to 2010 the acid levels when the grapes were picked were splendid. The reason for this was the very cool nights in September and into October. These cool nights allowed the total acidity (which is the measure generally used) to remain at optimum levels instead of falling too low, which was often the case in 2009, particularly in the white wines. When the acidity is too low the wine tastes heavy and blowsy, but when the acidities are perfect the wine tastes fresh, vibrant, and vigorous and the fruit is accentuated. This was the case in 2010 and is another factor contributing to those fine, elegant and balanced wines that scored 20/20.
The word sugar sounds dreadful when talking about fine, dry red wine. However it is the sugar that gives the alcohol so we cannot really give it any other name. One of the problems here in Bordeaux, as well as in many other wine producing regions, is the ever increasing alcoholic strength of the wines. Gone are the days when the great wines had 12° or 12.5° of alcohol and when one First Growth nearly failed to be granted its appellation because the sugar in the must did not reach the minimum legal level. Today, for many reasons, the sugar in the must and therefore the alcoholic strength of the finished wine is often higher by 2° or more. Better and more vigorous clones, both of the American rootstock and of the French varietal, better adaptation of the vine to the soil in which it is planted, better and more accurate pruning and vastly improved canopy management, all allied to global warming or at least to earlier ripening over the last 10 years or more; all of these combine to raise the sugar content in the ripe grapes. Approximately 17.0 – 17.5 grams of sugar will ferment into 1° of alcohol, so it is easy to see how much richer the grape musts have become. This year Château La Mission Haut Brion won hands-down with a wine of 15.1°. The alcoholic strength of Haut Brion was 14.6°, Cheval Blanc and Palmer 14.5° and Latour 14.4, to mention just a few.
There are 3 main ways of reducing alcoholic strengths. The first is to add water (forbidden!), the second is to allow the vine to produce much heavier crops (maximum yields for Bordeaux appellations are also laid down by law) and the third is to use one of the modern scientific methods of removing alcohol from the finished wine. Charles Chevallier, at Château Lafite, says that he would never dream of using any one of the above methods as they would have disastrous effects upon his wine. Very skilful viticulture can control some of this increase but only some. We must accept the fact that the alcoholic strengths of our wines are, and will be, considerably higher than in the past. All this is leading up to saying, quite simply, that in 2010 many growers experienced record richness in their musts and therefore record high alcohol levels. Bernard de Laage de Meux, Director of Development at Château Palmer, says that is spite of this Bordeaux remained Bordeaux and remained both balanced and elegant. The truth of this remark can be found in the fact that one absolutely does not taste or become aware of the alcohol while the wine is in the mouth and there is absolutely no burn when it passes down the throat. Added to this, the perfect acidities, already explained, give a lot of "tension" to the wine, and help retain its freshness. Combining power with finesse and elegance and freshness is one of the most difficult arts of fine wine making and requires consummate skill. This is a year in which this skill has been perfectly demonstrated and these very powerful wines, with record high alcohols, do not appear in the very least heavy or over-concentrated or alcoholic. The finest still appear magnificently energetic!
This is a general term and is not a precise and scientific element. However, when grapes are picked in perfect health and at optimum maturity the resultant wine, in the hands of a skilful wine-maker, will have that wonderful vibrant quality that is like biting into a fresh grape. It adds immensely to the quality, balance, energy and raciness of a great wine, and was hugely responsible for the grace and charm, and above all freshness, of the great 2010s. One of my hobby horses is PURITY of fruit. Crystalline purity is hard to achieve, but when achieved it is sublime and can make the difference between excellent and great. Many wines in 2010 have this rare quality, which comes from grapes picked in perfect condition, at optimum maturity, and handled with skill and meticulous care and attention to detail.
DRY WHITE WINES
For some reason, quite unfairly really, the white wines get much less attention than the red wines. This is a real pity this year because many of the dry white wines are excellent and the best simply magnificent. Because of the cool nights the acidities remained at perfect levels, and because of the difference in temperature between night and day the flavour compounds were splendidly developed with great complexity. The grapes, for the vast majority, were picked during the first days of September under almost perfect weather conditions, which was just one more plus to add to perfectly healthy and ripe grapes. The wines have fine aromas of fruit and flowers, generous and sometimes exotic. Above all they enjoy a magnificent, vibrant and vigorous lemony minerality, which gives them great expression, and deep, long, complex flavours in the mouth. The wines are long, remain full of flavour on the end mouth and linger on the aftertaste. While being superbly fresh and crisp they are deeply satisfying and complete. This only happens in fine vintages, and this is one of them.
SWEET WHITE WINES
Whilst growers of dry white wines had few or no worries in 2010, the growers of the sweet wines did. This was because the dry weather delayed the onset of botrytis cinerea and producers were beginning to worry seriously that if the dry weather continued it would not develop at all. Brief showers on 6th, 7th and 8th had proved not quite sufficient. Fortunately the problem resolved itself with just exactly the right amount of rain, around 10mm, from 21st – 24th September. From this moment on, especially as the grapes were in perfect health, the botrytis developed rapidly, evenly and plentifully. This year there was very little grey rot and to all intents and purposes no acid fly. Very little of the harvest had to be discarded and therefore not only were the wines great but the yields were generous. This was doubly satisfying. It was also a very long vintage and at least one Classed Growth told me that they did no less than 8 “tris”. These because, due to the absence of the above mentioned grey rot or any other spoilage, growers were able to wait calmly for optimum botrytisation. I will give just three examples. Château Suduiraut started on 22nd September and finished on 9th November with 5 “tris”. Château d’Yquem started on 20th September and picked the last botrytised grapes that went into the d’Yquem on 29th October, although the final grapes were harvested on 5th November. Château Rieussec says “selective picking began in mid-September with slow development of botrytis. This development was checked in October by very cool temperatures, necessitating delicate and highly selective harvesting. Then everything accelerated in the last week of October. Fermentation required close attention as sugar levels were somewhat high”. Their vintage started on 15th September and finished on 4th November. The wines smell and taste of botrytis – that wonderful and ethereal nose and flavour that is totally indescribable. As always, when the sweet wines are great, they taste airy and even light. Most of them have between 130 – 145 grams of residual sugar in them. Suduiraut had 145 grams and d’Yquem 141, but you do not taste them. The structure, balance and quality carry the sugar like a feather. The greatest of them are again 20/20 and will develop into magnificent seniors while being thoroughly enjoyable to drink as juniors. Perfect, fresh, crisp, lemon-mineral acidities, allied to finely developed botrytis and fine fruit from healthy grapes, have given the great sweet wines of Bordeaux one of their years to be remembered for longer than I shall live!
JUST A WORD OF WARNING
In a few cases, in certain soils and microclimates and for whatever reasons, and these reasons may be complex, the Cabernet Sauvignon refused to ripen fully. A few growers vintaged it as late as 25th October in the north of the Médoc, and one Margaux property, that shall remain nameless, vintaged its grapes into November! Whatever the case and whatever the reasons the wine from these grapes should be left out of the final blend if economically possible. Another point is that not everybody took sufficiently into account the shut-down that occurred in July in many vineyards due to the mild drought, and thus mild hydric stress, and which also slowed down maturation somewhat. Châteaux Margaux and Cheval Blanc remarked particularly on this.
I would not presume to be the world’s greatest judge and, as I said right at the beginning, there are many famous names who have published their tasting notes, marks and judgements, which you will have read by now and which carry infinitely more weight than mine. However I have strong feelings and here they are. The best of the 2010 Red Wines are magnificent, balanced, elegant, gracious, long, perfectly structured and truly great. 20/20. I have explained why they could be so above. Because of the structure, acidities and tannins they will age gracefully and last long – many, many years. The main faults were over-extraction, harsh tannins and picking too early, not having taken into account the shut-down in July due to hydric stress. Fortunately these are the minority. In my personal opinion, while somewhat less opulent and rich than 2009, they have an added finesse, elegance and purity of fruit. The Dry White Wines at their best are superb and show that Bordeaux today is capable of making dry white wines to match any other region in the world – something that was very much not the case 20 years ago. The finest again score 20/20 and Haut Brion Blanc is a magnificent example. The finest Sweet White Wines have unrivalled elegance and purity of fruit, allied to airiness and deeply integrated botrytis. They will last long and be delicious drinking both when young and when old. The Red Wines will age somewhat more slowly and outlast the 2009s and perhaps, when they reach their optimum, be finer than the 2009s at the same stage. I have most carefully avoided talking about prices and talked only about quality. These are wines that I would like to have in my cellar at any price and enjoy watching them age and grow in grace and beauty!