Every year, vintners learn a crucial lesson: No two vintages are the same. In 2009, Mother Nature smiled on France—every major region enjoyed a beautiful growing season. Maybe not as universally outstanding as 2005, but quite promising. That's not to say vignerons were on autopilot. A wet June led to uneven flowering in Champagne, while Burgundy grappled with hail. The Rhône Valley and Bordeaux experienced August heat waves so intense that growers worried the vines would shut down. Here's a first peek at the upcoming vintage.
Producers in Alsace report beautiful conditions during harvest this year and speculate that 2009 will be an excellent vintage, but it's got some big shoes to fill. The vintage comes after two exceptional years in 2007 and 2008, along with several outstanding vintages earlier this decade, particularly 2001 and 2005. Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht said, "2009 is a very good vintage, but only the long term will tell us if it will be better than some of the recent great years."
The success of the harvest is undoubtedly due to the near-ideal weather during September and October—warm, dry days and cool nights—but the growing season laid the groundwork. André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag described 2009 as, "A real vintage with real seasons, like in the old days." Producers say they had a dry, cold winter and a mild spring. Although the timing of budbreak varied in different areas, flowering finished in a timely manner, with good vegetative growth.
Summer was typical for Alsace—warm, with some storms and rainfall through June and July. The combination of heat and humidity often promotes mildew, but this year it seemed to be a small concern for most growers. The onslaught of very dry and hot conditions in August kept it under control. Mélanie Pfister of Domaine Pfister said August helped by, "Warding off the risk of rot and offering beautiful grapes."
Most estates began picking in early- to mid-September. "We were very lucky because the dry and sunny weather went on and on," said Véronique Muré of Domaine Muré. "Alsace had a nice Indian summer, and it was perfect conditions for harvest."
Producers were able to harvest clean fruit with good maturity and acidity, so very little sorting was needed. All of the area's major varieties looked good, though several producers feel the Pinots—Blanc, Gris and Noir—did especially well. "The Pinot family will, without a doubt, belong to the top of the vintage's list," said Bernard Sparr of Domaine Sparr.
The Indian summer also allowed growers to harvest some grapes for Alsace's late-harvest wines, or vendanges tardives, but in smaller quantities then in recent years. Offerings of the area's dessert-style wines will be limited in 2009.
How good was 2009 to Bordeaux? A number of vintners say that their wines are already so fantastic that they are enjoying them straight from the vat. Some are heralding the vintage as their best ever.
"I have never seen anything like it in my career," said Christian Moueix, whose family owns or manages some of the most prestigious wineries on Bordeaux's Right Bank, including Pétrus, La Fleur-Pétrus and Trotanoy. Moueix has been making wine in Pomerol and St.-Emilion since 1971.
Thomas Dô-Chi-Nam, the winemaker of Pauillac's Pichon-Lalande, who started making wine at the second-growth in 1992, echoed that. "It is my best harvest ever," he said.
The year started with unseasonably wet weather for most of winter and spring. Some areas, particularly Right Bank appellations such as Pomerol and St.-Emilion, as well as Margaux, were hard hit by hail in the spring. Yet the weather during the summer was impeccably warm, dry and sunny.
Some producers were concerned that the vintage could turn into a scorcher like 2003, which produced exciting but atypically fruity wines. But the water table in the soil was high enough to offset the dry summer, keeping the vines green and growing. A little rain the first week of September and a few weeks later revived the vines completely, helping them mature their fruit to near perfection.
A picker carefully harvests a ripe cluster of Merlot at Pomerol's Château Pétrus.
"I just tasted the wines on Monday morning and they are rich and powerful yet smooth and refined at the same time," said Jean-Charles Cazes, whose family owns such top châteaus as Lynch-Bages and Les Ormes-de-Pez. "The acidity is very good as well."
Cazes said that many wineries thought that 2009 would be an early harvest because of the warm summer, but they picked their grapes during the third week of September in Pauillac, which is fairly normal. Moreover, the clear and warm weather during the harvest allowed them to pick their grapes slowly, parcel by parcel, and at just the desired moment.
"It was such a serene harvest," said Dô-Chi-Nam. "We had no pressure from the possibility of bad weather. "We had the time to pick when we wanted."
Vintners in Bordeaux are already making comparisons to some of the modern legends of the region including 2005, 1989 and 1982. "I don't like to make early comparisons to other vintages," said Anthony Barton of Léoville Barton, who also said the year is one of his best ever. (He has been making wine since the 1950s.) "So I usually say that it is like something obscure like 1870 or 1865."
Jokes aside, the vintage appears to be sensational. I have never heard such across-the-board praise for a young vintage in my three decades of tasting young vintages in Bordeaux. Even the normally cautious and reserved voices of the region are hyping the fledgling vintage.
"My father says that the vintage reminds him of 1982," added Cazes, whose first vintage as the head of Lynch-Bages was in 2006. "I just like to say it is a smiling vintage. Everyone is very, very happy about 2009."
Burgundy is already heralding 2009 as a great vintage. History is on the region's side. The vintages on the "nines" have produced some memorable harvests—years like 1999, 1989, 1969, 1959 and 1949.
Certainly, if one adheres to the old adage, Août fait le mout—literally, “August makes the must,” the vintage shows promise. During that month, rainfall was well below average, while both temperatures and sunlight hours were above average.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. When I was in Burgundy mid-November, the wines had not gone through their malolactic conversions yet. Furthermore, the reports from growers and merchants were not always consistent.
The year started with a cold winter, ideal for shutting down the vines and inhibiting pests and diseases. Flowering took place homogeneously in early June. Spring and early summer were both hot and humid, with several thunderstorms, which made it necessary to spray for mildew, oïdium and botrytis.
The storms also brought hail in some areas. Antoine Vincent of Château Fuissé reported that about 30 percent of their vineyards in and around Pouilly-Fuissé were affected by hail, reducing the crop in those sites by roughly 50 percent. There was also hail in the Côte de Nuits, in parts of Morey-St.-Denis and Gevrey-Chambertin. Not only did this decrease yield, it advanced ripening. Kellen Lignier of Domaine L. & A. Lignier noted natural alcohol levels in some of her grapes hit 14.5 to 15 degrees.
August was hot, dry and sunny. The good weather continued right up through harvest, though rain around the middle of October forced those with any fruit still hanging to pick quickly. Fortunately, the moisture in May, June and July provided enough reserves to prevent any serious drought conditions.
The dry weather at the end of the season contributed to healthy fruit at harvest and very little sorting. A few growers, like Aubert de Villaine at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme experienced a lot of millerandage in 2009, meaning the berries are small, with thick skins.
In the end, some areas had good quantities, while others, particularly in those hit by hail, saw yields 20 percent to 30 percent lower than average. Extraction came easily, by most accounts, giving wines of deep color and abundant fruit. Alcohol levels in the wines are high, generally reaching a minimum of 13 degrees, but often in the 13.5- to 14-degree range. That, combined with healthy fruit and lower-than-usual acidity levels, resulted in fleshy, forward reds that in some cases lack the structure of a vintage like 2005.
"So far this vintage looks like it has a great balance of acidity, ripe tannins, concentration and finesse, a vintage whose level of quality most producers would happily duplicate each year," said Taupenot.
The whites have plenty of fruit and balance, with good acidity. "The challenge for me is to keep the fresh character of the wines as much as possible, meaning a cool cellar during the 18 months in barrel and no bâtonnage, etc.," said Pierre-Yves Colin of the négociant Colin-Morey.
The vintage I heard mentioned the most in comparison with 2009 was 1999. Some also cited 2002. All things considered, it looks like Burgundy lovers will be blessed with charming and fruity reds and whites. Whether it will be great or not remains to be seen.
Champagne's 2009 growing season got off to a difficult start. After a cold winter, the rainy spring helped recharge groundwater reserves, but June saw a long, difficult flowering, particularly in the Côte des Blancs, caused by cool nighttime temperatures. That led to inconsistent ripening at the end of the season, but this is less of an issue in Champagne than other regions, due to the typically gentle pressing of the grapes and lack of maceration with the skins.
The wet spring led to outbreaks of downy mildew, forcing growers to use treatments to stop its spread. There were also isolated thunderstorms accompanied by hail and mudslides on June 14 and July 3 in the Marne Valley, notably in the village of Aÿ.
August debuted very hot and dry, and stayed that way all month. "We could almost say that Champagne had its first really fine summer since 2003," said Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. "Little rain, lots of sunshine, which, combined with the early budbreak, resulted in grapes ready to be picked early September."
Picking began in earnest during the second week of September, and most growers and houses were finished by Sept. 30. Dominique Demarville, chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot, began with Chardonnay, but waited on the reds. "From my point of view, the grapes were ripe enough regarding the level of sugar and acidity, but not homogenous, due to the inconsistent flowering," he said. "Tasting the grapes a few days before, we decided to delay the picking."
From all reports, the grapes were healthy, with good levels of ripeness balanced by fresh acidity. Ruinart's Panaiotis pointed out that the numbers looked similar to 2008, but the weather patterns during the growing season were completely different, with '08 ripening at the very end, just before harvest.
"Because the summer was dry, the grapes were healthy: No oïdium (powdery mildew), no botrytis," said Pierre Gimonnet, proprietor and winemaker at Didier Gimonnet. "And when it is healthy, that is real quality—very pure flavors."
Yields ranged from 8,000 kilograms per hectare (about 3.5 tons per acre from an old-vine parcel damaged by hail in Aÿ and harvested for Deutz) to 14,000 kg/ha (6.2 tons/acre), depending on grape variety and region.
Though 14,000 kg/ha was the maximum yield in the vineyard, this year the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne limited the amount that could be bottled as Champagne to 9,700 kg/ha for growers and 8,000 kg/ha for houses. The remainder, up to 4,300 kg/ha can be set aside as reserve for future years. This policy effectively manages supply and stabilizes prices in a year that has seen sales of Champagne drop by as much as 50 percent.
Whether 2009 is a vintage year or not has yet to be decided by most houses. Régis Camus, chef de cave of Charles and Piper-Heidsieck, likens the young vins clairs to those from the 2002 and 2004 vintages.
Gimonnet noted that, "In the past, our grandfathers and fathers produced one exceptional vintage per decade. This millenium is amazing: 2002 is exceptional, then 2006 and 2008 could be exceptional. So we think we are not credible if we are saying 2009 could be exceptional too."
Early indications are that the Loire valley, a sprawling 600-mile stretch covering dozens of appellations and numerous grape varieties, enjoyed its best and most consistent harvest since 2005. The warm, dry weather that marked the growing season in many of France's major wine regions in 2009 extended into the Loire as well, resulting in ripe reds and whites marked by supple structure.
"It's a great vintage," said Pierre Breton, of Domaine Catherine & Pierre Breton, which specializes in Cabernet Francs from Chinon and Bourgueil. "The only problem was it was very dry and hot, so the maturity could've stopped in some places. Luckily a little rain fell on Sept 17."
If quality holds up to early prognostications, the vintage will be a welcome break for Loire vignerons following the inconsistencies of 2008, 2007 and 2006. Spring was on time in 2009, without any frosts; budbreak and flowering occurred on schedule.
By the end of August, without a drop of rain during the summer, growers noted that some young vines were suffering, but older vines with deeper root systems and better access to water and nutrients performed well. Following some mid-September rains—more than an inch in some spots—two weeks of dry, sunny, breezy weather arrived, drying the vineyards and creating ideal harvest conditions.
"The fungus pressure wasn't as high as '07 or '08," said Matthieu Baudry of Domaine Bernard Baudry in Chinon, who also described the growing season and timing of the fruit ripening as "classic."
"It is a bit early, but '09 looks very charming—ripe fruit, elegant tannins," said Baudry. "Some people want to compare to '05 but, for me, '05 has more structure while '09 is more seductive immediately. Maybe ['09 is] more relative to '90."
Chenin Blanc producers in the middle of the valley were also happy, though some sounded a cautionary note due to the drought-like conditions. "Vineyards with too big a yield had a problem ripening because we were waterless," said Philippe Delesvaux, a top Chenin Blanc producer in Anjou. Delesvaux noted alcohols were in the higher range, 13 percent to 14 percent, and that there was some limited botrytis development prior to additional rains in late October, which signaled the end of the harvest.
At the far western end of the valley, Muscadet producers weathered a wetter start to the season, but the dry conditions from August through harvest helped ensure quality. "We had all the elements gathered together," said Bernard Chéreau of Muscadet producer Chéreau-Carre. "Nice weather, good yields, perfect harvest and high maturity."
At the opposite end of the valley, where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir lead the way in the popular Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations, the superlatives also rolled in. The only blemish on the season was a hailstorm that hit Sancerre hard at the end of May, reducing yields drastically. But the storm was early enough in the year for the unscathed vines to benefit from the terrific growing season.
"The health of the grapes and the maturity was perfect," said Alphonse Mellot, whose eponymous domaine produces both red and white Sancerre. "The vintage is extremely rich with alcohols of 14 percent to 15 percent. No doubt we can compare it to 1947. The only disadvantage is the crop was small, like 2008."
The good news just keeps on coming for France's Rhône Valley, which appears by all accounts to have enjoyed a scintillating harvest in 2009.
"The easiest year I've ever seen," said Éric Texier, a small Beaujolais-based négociant who produces both Southern and Northern Rhône wines. "You could harvest early with bright acidities and very good phenolic ripeness, or harvest late and get huge concentration, alcohol levels and dark as hell wines."
In the Southern Rhône, which has had a string of remarkable vintages since 1998 (save only for 2002 and 2008), growers were extremely pleased, though yields were low, with some growers reporting a crop 30 percent below normal.
Winter and spring were cold and wet, allowing for the vines to store energy and water reserves to build up. This proved critical, as the growing season was very dry, with no measurable rainfall from June through August. A two-week blast of August heat was accompanied by warm evenings as well, which resulted in some shriveled canopies and smaller, concentrated berries.
"The key was that the heat wave came after veraison," said Philippe Cambie, an influential consultant who works with dozens of producers throughout the Southern Rhône, including St.-Préfert, Tardieu-Laurent and others. "So the maturity was not blocked, the grapes were concentrated and the acidity and structure was balanced."
"Due to the high temperatures, the ripening of the grapes was accelerated," said Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel and Perrin & Fils, which own 600 acres of vines throughout the Southern Rhône. "Not because of phenolic maturity, but because of dehydration." Luckily, a freshening rain fell in mid-September, giving the vines a needed respite from the heat and allowing them to continue ripening their fruit through harvest.
Growers reported extremely healthy conditions in the vineyards, thanks to the dry conditions, along with dark color, ripe expressive fruit and soft, but substantial tannins. Comparisons to other great vintages were common among growers. "Since 1974, we have never seen such beautiful grapes at the end of the season," said Frédéric Coulon of Domaine de Beaurenard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
"2009 in Vinsobres is big, nice color, good balance, great acidity, great body," said Hubert Valayer of Domaine de Deurre. "Some talk [about comparing to] 1978."
Harvest in the northern stretch of the valley was just as promising. The warm and dry conditions persisted in the north as well, resulting in an early harvest of very ripe grapes.
"We were fortunate to have a rain around the 15th of August which helped with the continuation of ripening," said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal, located in Ampuis. "The result was very early harvests for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, followed soon after by Hermitage, St.-Joseph and Crozes. I don't believe a late harvest was necessary—we had high alcohols, superb phenolic ripeness and low acidity."
"I knew that it could be great, but I had two worries," said Maxime Graillot of Equis in Crozes-Hermitage. "Will we have enough acidity and how will the tannins ripen with the lack of water? I got my answer at the end of the alcoholic fermentation: The tannins are beautiful; the acidity great."
Others were even more effusive in their praise. "The first feelings give us shivers," said an ecstatic Jean-Michel Gerin, one of the top small producers in Côte-Rôtie. "For our part, we have a wine with balance we haven't seen since 1961."
In addition to the quality, Northern Rhône growers didn't have the small yields that were more common in the south. "Quality and quantity," said Michel Tardieu, whose Tardieu-Laurent négociant operation produces wines from throughout the valley. "The fruit is ripe like 2003, but with good pH, abundant tannins and great freshness."