Bill Blatch on Bordeaux 2010 Continued

Written By

April 2nd 2011

As promised here is the second installment of Bill Blatch’s masterwork on the soon to be released 2010 Bordeauxs. For anybody thinking that wine merchants had exhausted their stock of superlatives in 2009 and quietly hoping for a run of the mill year, it would seem you are not in luck.

Our own first impressions from the UGC tastings in Bordeaux will be coming next week.

From Bill: Vinification

The IPTs (total tannin counts) of the 2010 red bordeaux just harvested were absolutely enormous. But, unlike the gentler, more progressively evolved, tannins of 2009, these tannins were the result of hydric stress, of the dehydration of the juice that left more thick, hard skins than juice. There were also some raisined grapes among them So there was real potential for harshness and everyone had to be very careful with their extraction. Anyway, extraction came so quickly that it was quite clear from the start that there simply was no need to work the skins too hard. Most eliminated the first and last remontages (pumpings-over), reduced the daily number from five to three, didn’t do délestages (whole-tank wooshing), reduced any pigeage (cap-plunging), and most labs encouraged a 10% reduction in fermentation temperatures. Bitterness was never a problem: generally the grapes had only two pips each, the average being 3.5. The problem was quite simply hyper-tannin. The fermentations went much slower than last year, yet there was generally very good control of brett and volatile acidity – which is always dangerous with so much alcohol around.

The malolactic fermentations were generally very difficult to get started and, once started, to finish, in spite of, or maybe also because of, the high total acidity. Many said the acidities were more tartaric than malic. Some of the malos finished only in early March. The Burgundians can be proud of us.

One of the challenges of this vintage was the elimination of millerand grapes (see Blatch on Bordeaux 2010 – the vines for more on this). Often the harvesting machines or the de-stalkers would not do this properly, and in 2010 those who are equipped with vibrating sorting tables really won out. Manually, it was an extremely laborious process and, especially lower down the scale, not everyone was prepared to do it, so ended up with a touch of herbaceousness in the wine. Several estates now have electronic optical sorting capability (tri optique), and they are pleased they had it, although murmurs can be heard around Bordeaux, especially from the old guard, saying that this just adds to the boring uniformisation of modern claret.

2010 reds

These are solid wines and happily so – at current prices, we have to provide maximum bang for the buck! High sugars once again produced highly alcoholic wines, mostly slightly less potent than 2009 but sometimes in parts of the right bank and in most of Pessac-Léognan, even more. But if they have all the power of the 2009s, they have nothing of the opulence and thickness of the 2009s. They are much more rugged, have an incredibly strong tannic surge and there is more acidity in those tannins. Tasting them in any number is a challenging exercise, especially as the wines were much later developers and some are only just through their malolactic.

Distinguishing between the different forms of the enormous tannins is a detailed and tiring exercise this year and, in addition, allowance has to be made for the press wines which are often not yet incorporated in the blend. (Because extraction was so light, the press wines are usually excellent and will be used quite extensively.) The extra difficulty is that the cult of reductive élevage continues, mainly on the right bank, and little information is given about which of the samples come from unracked barrels and which from racked ones – often very recently – maybe for fear of complicating each year’s conveniently simplified hierarchy of the wines. Why rock the boat? ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’!

The word going round is that these will be long-lasting wines, making the 2009s look like a softer, more rapidly evolving version. The jury is out on this, but it could be that nothing is farther from the truth: Bordeaux often has an initial preference for the harder, more traditional vintage. The same was said about the 1983s versus the 1982s at the start. So why should it be any different this time? And why should the initially more strongly tannic vintage be necessarily the longer lasting anyway? After all these are monster tannins that may never settle down, or maybe they will? Or maybe they will continue harsh all their lives?

Other great pairs in Bordeaux’s history also seem to always have one softer and the other harder, but in the end the softer ones have about the same longevity as the harder ones: 1995-1996, the first drought-driven then softened by late-season rain, the second cooler and more tannic; 1985-1986, the first another drought vintage softened by late rain, the second a classic vintage of Cabernet re-concentration in October; the deep, mellow, soft-tasting 1929s preceded by the similarly rich but very tannic 1928s (so I am told); the soft and ripe-tasting 1900s coming hot on the heels of the just-as-generous but harder 1899s; and the1869-1870s, equally concentrated but the first more balanced and softer, the second densely tannic and slow developing…

The strong nature of these 2010s would seem to point to a similarity to 2000 or 2005. Yet this similarly dry, hot year had a better first half, in spite of all its problems, than the 2000s, for which the sun only really started shining from mid July. The comparison to 2005 holds better, with its more similar drought conditions, the same number of sun hours in July and the same high but not excessive maximum temperatures in August-September. But 2010 was a drier year still than 2005 with 40% less rain in July-August, with higher maximum daytime temperatures in July but considerably lower ones in October and many more sun hours during the re-concentration period in September-October. All of this meant that the 2010s have more of everything than the similarly-styled 2005s. Their sugar concentration is greater, their tannins are far higher and seem to have more acidity in them, with more strictness of structure for both Cabernets and Merlots, and the whites have a more nervous kind of power and the Sauternes a more vibrant and aromatic style.

In terms of individual vintages, if, by its velvety texture, 2009 has a lot in common with 1982, 1947 or 1929, then 2010, with its strong tannins, is more in the vein of 2005, 2000, 1986, 1949 and 1945, but with more sheer alcohol than all of these.

Merlot? / Cabernet? Left bank? / Right bank?

Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc are quite clearly a major success. In some cases, in spite of their high alcohol levels (generally between 13 and 14°), they may not all have achieved the total ripeness of last year before the wintery nights of mid October were upon them and there are some with a little – not disagreeable – marmalade touch to the tannins. But generally they were absolutely ripe, having been picked further away from the early October rainfall and taking full advantage of the second drying concentration period of mid October. They are nicely aromatic but, above all, if not over-tannic, have a firm, tensile, strong structure of great breed.

The Merlots are once again very rich, in some cases as alcoholic or even more so than 2009, sometimes over 15% and mostly over 14%. This is tough to explain, as they were more handicapped than the Cabs by poor flowering in June and by becoming ripe close to or during the October showers. Maybe part of the explanation is to be found in their looser, less populous bunches that allowed the vine’s vigour to be channelled into fewer grapes. More importantly, most pre-harvesting grape analyses showed that they dehydrated more than the Cabs, often losing 30% of their weight over the summer versus the Cabs’ 10%. And finally, the Merlots are usually grown on the denser limestone or clay soils, which were precisely those that retained the most moisture during the drought, thus allowing better functioning of the vine during the dog days of summer. Whatever the reasons, the sheer alcoholic power of the Merlots puts them closer in style to 2009 than the Cabs.

2010 dry whites

This is clearly going to be a tremendous vintage for whites. They are less fat but just as alcoholic as those other dry vintages 2005 and 2009. Yet they are more aromatic and vibrant, as bright and fresh as the 2008s but with all the weight of the 2005s and 2009s. The Sauvignons are especially aromatic, some to the point of a Kiwi gooseberry kind of floweriness. The Sémillons too are very concentrated and surprisingly aromatic (more in the grapefruit range of flavours), even more so when grown on the more water-retentive clay or limestone soils.

The cool nights of August trapped acidity and freshness of flavour into the grapes as they were approaching full ripeness. Then, just as most were preparing to harvest, there were those few early September days of moisture that re-awoke the vines for the final push and, by 20 September, most had finished, under the most ideal conditions possible, an unhurried and relaxed harvest. The vintage was not marred by any frost, as in 2008, or by any hailstorms, as in 2009, so there was more produce to select from, and the result is that they seem finer-tuned.

Yields

After the budding, there was a natural excess of bunches, stemming from the perfect aoûtement of the previous year’s wood, which is where the embryos proliferate if the conditions are favourable then. But after the bud-burst had confirmed this large potential crop, from then on, it gradually got whittled away, first by a difficult flowering resulting in coulure and millerandage, very heavy in parts; then by an uneven fruit set; then by weight loss in the grapes, and by the June-July green harvesting that was calculated for normal-sized grapes, before it was known that they would dehydrate by as much as 30%; and finally by a very strict final selection.

All this meant that the harvest often went from a potential 50-55 hl/ha right down to a final 30 or 40 hl/ha during the vineyard year. Very generally, top estates, which go to great lengths to weed out everything that is slightly imperfect, have produced between 10 and 30% less than last year, while lesser estates and many generics are about the same. Sauternes is the odd man out here, having been blessed with both excellent wines and a large harvest, most ending up with a total production, including second wine, on the maximum yield of 25 hl/ha. So we may be able to maintain primeur allocations of Sauternes this year, but certainly not quite the same amount of reds.

2010 Sauternes

Less dense and less opulent than their monumental predecessor, these 2010 Sauternes and Barsacs make up for that by being the prettiest vintage of all time, with lovely, floral, uniformly pure and totally fresh-styled wines that are all the same beautifully lush and sweet.

As in 2009, and also 2005, the summer drought produced an exceptional build-up of sweetness in the grapes, giving the concentration a similar head-start. But this time September remained almost totally dry, so the skins remained hopelessly thick and hard and it took a long time for the botrytis to do anything with them. So the similarity to those two vintages ended here, the 2005 and 2009 having botrytised fast and massively early in October, the 2010s, with half the September precipitation of 2009, which was already half that of 2005, getting spread out over a full seven-week period with the bulk of the best of it late rather than early in October.

So there they were mid September looking at lovely golden, rich grapes, without an ounce of bad rot to be seen, but no noble rot either. It was then that the showers of 6-9 September loosened things up a bit, and were followed by a crescendo of heat up to 30 °C on the 15th which brought on some isolated patches of full botrytis and also some excellent shrivel. So very slowly a small and laborious first picking was generally undertaken as from the 15th and became generalised from the 28th. These first pickings produced a very small quantity of concentrated musts of up to 24% potential alcohol, with a clean, incisive appley/citric character.

By the end of September, the botrytis had virtually dried up again, and many stopped harvesting completely. The showers of the 3rd, and the 30 mm of rain on 4th October, followed by a succession of very warm days up to 12th, produced a sudden onrush of widespread botrytis, but the moist oceanic air flow prevented it from concentrating properly and a lot of it stuck at pourri plein without being able to concentrate properly to the optimum rôti stage. Some managed to do a second and third picking by carefully selecting out small quantities of individual rôti among the pourri plein from about the 8th to about the 17th but there was not much of it and again, it was a very laborious process.

This was not a particularly happy time for the Sauternais, who were now well into their fourth week of picking, with not that much to show for it. The pourri plein was mostly already over 20% and some was picked at this time, more out of impatience than anything else.

Then suddenly, it all flipped to rôti. The wind had gone round to the east on the 12th, producing the same drying effect as for the final ripening of the reds. At last, for those who had had the patience to wait, the second half of the month provided the best of the crop, and also the most volume, usually around 80% of the total. The musts came in as fresh and pure as the first ones, but now with much more richness and the added complexity of aromas that can only come from such full botrytis.

Many finished after this, picking a little wider to reduce the sweetness a bit, but quite a few continued on into November, picking right up to the 4th and even, for one or two, to the 6th. These were not always the best pickings. The quite heavy rainfall of 23-24 October often fell on botrytis that was too old and tired and, with a few exceptions, there was a drop in complexity as well as in sweetness and acidity, especially after the further showers of 29th.

The wines are still in their separate lots, but generally the hallmark of the vintage, after the opulence of 2009, is one of grace and charm, less concentrated, less persistant but immensely pure and fine, generally with a much more delicate balance of barely 14% alcohol and 120-135 g/l residual sugar (but there are a couple at 160-165 g/l, as in 2009) and above all with a refreshing acidity from the cool summer nights and also from the often freezing nights of later October.

They seem to combine very neatly features of all the last three vintages: the complexity (without the absolute power) of 2009, the spiciness (without the frost devastation) of 2008 and the absolute purity of 2007. This vintage is probably capable of long ageing but, as we wait all those years for the massive 2005s and 2009s to be ready, will provide greater earlier enjoyment while still all fresh and primary.

Conclusion

So ended, for the second year running, an extreme vintage. Exceptional pairs of seasons always seem to coincide with very turbulent global meteorological conditions. In 2010, globally, the weather went crazy. The re-assurer Munich Re had to deal with 950 natural catastrophes, as compared with the 30-year average of 615. They caused 295,000 deaths and 97 billion euros of damage… and the Australian floods are not yet in the figures, nor any earthquakes or tsunamis.

Bordeaux was no exception. It was a violent vineyard year that tested the vine’s resistance to chaotic conditions: during its grape formation, to extreme drought during ripening and to a high variation of hot and cold temperatures at the end – totally the opposite of the previous year’s just as excessive but very regular cycle.

Bordeaux’s 2010 is a vintage born of extremes but the extremes went the right way. They could have gone the other way. Those 1000-km-wide anomalies in the American summer were often down to 200 km by the time they reached Europe. Maybe the butterfly effect exists – but for Bordeaux, in reverse… The bad summer and autumn weather was never far away: and it would have taken only a slightly southward track in a transatlantic depression system to wreck the whole scenario (as in 1976). While Bordeaux was baking, northern Europe was under water. It had been a very close call… or maybe it’s just that someone up there still likes us…