Friday, May 29, 2009

Comet Vintages

Dwayne Perreault − I'm fascinated by comet vintages. That doesn't make me any more cuckoo than a vintner who buries a cow horn filled with compost in his vineyard, right? Both ideas seem to me to be biodynamical in nature. Steiner in fact did write about comets, but what he had to say does not concern us here. But in a biodynamical world where the phases of the moon and alignment of the stars and planets play a role in viticulture, the idea of a celestial body like a comet having an influence on the grape harvest seems not so strange at all.

Clos des Jacobins 1989
What is a comet vintage? Basically, it is a vintage in which a comet which is visible to the naked eye appears during the grape growing season, especially directly before or during the harvest. This is supposed to have a propitious, perhaps even a mystical effect on the quality of the harvest. This may be folklore passed on by generations of winemakers, but in fact it is backed up by examples of outstanding and yes even mystical vintages like 1811 and 1858.

The complete list of recorded comet vintages is: 1811, 1826, 1839, 1845, 1852, 1858, 1861, 1985 & 1989. These were all considered great years in regions as diverse as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rheingau and Tokaji in Hungary. This should of course be kept in perspective. There were many more great vintages, even in recent memory like Bordeaux 2000 and 2005, in which no comet was recorded.

In fact, comets pass by the earth routinely every year, but we are talking about comets which must be visible to the naked eye, which happens on average once a year on earth, and they must appear during the growing season in western Europe. There is a strange lack of comet vintages between 1861 and 1985, the reappearance of Halley's comet.

Whether the comet vintage is myth or reality, it seems to begin in 1811 which is generally regarded as the greatest vintage year of the 19th century, notably for cognac but also for western European wines in general, especially Bordeaux and Sauternes. Robert Parker, tasting the 1811 Chateau d'Yquem in 1996, awarded it 100 points, his absolute bench mark. 1811 was also the year Veuve Clicquot discovered the technique of remuage, which revolutionized the champagne industry and further romanticized the year. For the comet is not just an astronomical observation in 1811, it is a Romantic concept of the mystical cause and effect of physical nature. The Flaugergues comet was visible for most of the growing season of 1811 and coincided with (or caused?) optimal growing conditions that year. Outside of vineyards it had a less favourable aspect. The same comet was seen to be the harbinger of Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia and the War of 1812, America's lone failed attempt to invade Canada which led to the sacking of York (now Toronto) and the burning of the original White House. As you can see, comets have wide-ranging effects, not all of them good.

The last comet vintage was 1989. Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko 1989 r ('r' means it was the 18th comet discovered that year) was first detected on Augus 24th and was visible to the naked eye in western Europe from September to November. So, what about 1989? I was recently able to get my hands on 10 bottles of St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé Clos des Jacobins 1989 for a reasonable price through Winefield's Auctioneers in Amsterdam. Back in 1989 Clos des Jacobins was still owned by Cordier, whose name comes first at the top of the label. Parker would later write "the 1989 looked to be one of the finest offerings this property had ever made." In 1989 George H.W. Bush became President of the United States of America (I repeat, comets can have wide-ranging effects, not all of them good).

I admit, I couldn't wait to try the wine and within hours after arriving home, a cork had been pulled. The Dutch have a word which I find can best describe this vintage: boterzacht. Literally translated, it means soft as butter, but I’m telling you this is a wine with plump extremities: adjectives like full, round and even bacchanalian come to mind, and there remains something smoky in that glass of dark fruit. This is generous wine you can really get intimate with, and a few bottles are now available on my website.

When will the next comet vintage be? Alas, nobody knows because comets come and go and they often don’t pre-announce themselves. Short term comets (with an orbit of less than 200 years) are easier to predict than long term comets (with orbits up to millions of years). So you never know which comet will come cruising up next, an old friend like Halley (1985) or an unknown like OLR 1989-r. In the meantime, before more bad stuff happens, we can enjoy this last comet vintage. It is, after all, at its peak.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bordeaux 2008: greed returns in tilting market

This year’s futures campaign started off so hopeful, with prices drastically lower than in the previous years. Latour released at 45% below 2007, Mouton at -50% (for more details see my previous postings).

But things started to change when Robert Parker decides that 2008 is a Grand Year. From that moment on the price drops are less spectacular, and the best wines even release at 2007 price level, e.g. Buy-of-the-Year Pontet-Canet. The wine sells out immediately and a second tranche follows, of course at a higher price.

This more or less marked the end of the truly spectacular releases. Especially the Right Bank wines start releasing now at relatively high price levels.

But since this - short - week it seems that we are returning to Business As Usual, I’m afraid. The first sign is the release of Ducru-Beaucaillou at the end of last week, with good ratings, priced 20% above the 2007. A striking release, well-timed close to the end of the campaign, when everybody is waiting for those few Unreleaseds. For the Left Bank Léoville-las-Cases was the other Big Unreleased, and this wine stepped forward yesterday. Other than expected it slightly decreases its price, with a lousy 11%, but in the light of the recent developments a rather friendly price.

The second château presenting its price yesterday was Cheval Blanc. And despite a price drop of about 20%, to me this wine still is much too expensive: with 300 euros ex. (from négociant) and about 400 euros inc. (consumer price) it releases at more (much more) than twice the price of its Left Bank premier cru neighbours. A crazy price, and I can only explain the difference with the Left Bankers by reasoning that Cheval Blanc wants its price to be close, and as close as possible, to Ausone. And why actually, with the enormous difference in available quantities for these two wines?

But today my shock is complete: Lafite is proposing a second tranche, exploring demand at the price of... 300 euros as well! Following a first tranche at - just - 130 euro (to compare: the second tranche of Château Margaux last week was at a 'friendly' 155 euros). Unbelievable this new price, and perhaps even a little sick. But then again, if the market absorbs these wines... and yes... my naive Why? at the end of the last paragraph might also be answered today: Cheval Blanc seems to be selling!

Apparently greed is back. At the side of the seller, but as it seems also at the side of the buyer. Too bad that it - greed I mean - had only been gone for such a short period of time... Or am I being too pessimistic now? I really hope so.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bordeaux 2009 suffering from hail storms

*** NOTE - added later *** Below you find the first posting about the subject Bordeaux 2009. If you are looking for information about this subject in general, this link will give you all postings on this blog written about Bordeaux 2009 (from the newest to the oldest). ***

Early in 2008 Paul Pontallier spoke the following words: "We are so fortunate with global warming. Look at the number of great vintages we have had in the last 12 or 13 years. It is absolutely amazing."

Since he said this Bordeaux has suffered from a series of devastating hail storms. The first one hit the 2008 crop in the south of the Médoc, around Cantenac, causing losses at Du Tertre, Cantenac-Brown and Prieuré-Lichine, among others. The second series took place this week, unusually early in the growing season: two storms, severely damaging extensive areas in the Bordeaux region. Normally these kind of storms occur in September, just before or around harvest time.

Of course it is hard to say whether these fierce storms are the result of global warming, but nevertheless I wonder if the Bordelais are still so enthusiastic about Modern Weather as a whole.

The first storm covered the largest area, from the Charentes in the north down to the Graves in the south. It took place Monday afternoon. The Charentes was hit the worst, with many, many hectares of vineyards lost. From there it raged south along the right bank border, it passed Blaye, and blew over the southern Médoc & Graves, and the Libournais more to the east. With this first storm the southern Médoc (Margaux) was hit for the second year in row.

The second storm was more local yet more damaging: it took place around 4:00 in the morning from Tuesday to Wednesday and more or less ran from the Entre-Deux-Mers region towards Saint-Emilion. Normally the Carteaux côte is enough of a barrier to split a storm in two, but this one couldn't be stopped and cut deep into the Saint-Emilion vineyards.

The losses are big. For example Château Canon lost about 80% of its crop, some others even more. The damage is so serious that it probably will affect the 2010 crop as well. The plants have been bombarded with huge hail stones, the young twigs and leaves have been ripped off, and - worse - the wood of many vines has been severely injured.

Of vital importance now is that these damaged vines are treated and pruned, enabling them to continue (or restart) their vegetative cycle. But that is difficult: the soil is extremely wet - there has also been lots of rain these days. One can enter the wet clay by foot (whereby the boot will grow with every step) but the tractors can't get in (yet another reason to bring back the horses!). To treat against mildew the richer properties might hire a helicopter.

The drama behind the plant-kill is financial. Most producers aren't insured (any more) because of the big expenses, and a year (or two?) without wine can mean that a producer loses his market.

One of the wines that I work with is the white Vieille France 2007 (Graves), and they have already said there will be no white 2009. That's sad. Besides the financial loss for the owners, it means that we will have to miss a lovely wine this year.

More details (with numbers etc.) can be found in a Wine Spectator article by Diana Macle.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bordeaux 2008 in tasting notes

There has been much excitement, and/or agitation about Parker's publication on Bordeaux 2008. An interesting reaction came from Simon Staples from Berry Bros. & Rudd, who was "utterly bewildered" when he saw Parker's judgement.

Staples' clearest statement: "In 2003 he [Parker] rated this huge, hot vintage as astonishing as the rest were perplexed to find finesse. In 2005, where the entire wine world hailed it as legendary he was initially lukewarm. Now it's the turn for 2008 and we see another electric review in the face of all other wine professionals and even the Chateaux themselves."

But besides Parker there is another critic who is quite thrilled about the 2008 vintage, and that is René Gabriel. In this month's WeinWisser Gabriel talks about a "recht stattlichen Zahl grosser und exzellenter Primeurs" and rates 25 wines 19/20 and 94 wines 18/20. With these numbers he rates structurally higher than the other writers of importance (Decanter, Bettane & Desseauve, Robinson). Overall, Jancis Robinson is reserved this year, and hardly gets to the 18 out of 20 points.

And what do I think? I didn't taste hundreds of wines this year, but I got a general impression after tasting a series of about thirty 2008 primeurs. My summary for Bordeaux 2008 in bullets: *) sound, vital fruit, *) good structure (matière), with a healthy, natural concentration *) good acidity and related freshness.

And these are the reds that I tasted, starting with the best (I leave out the few whites):

Saint-Pierre 2008, 4th cru classé de St-Julien
Broad nose, some sweetness, some oak. Lusty round red fruit, hearty juice, powerful tannins. Very complete wine, harmonious strength, needs time. (8+/10)

Haut-Marbuzet 2008, cru bourgeois de St-Estèphe
Sweet brushwood, hint of dairy, vital dark fruit. Cherry, black currant, darkness. Good solid juice. (8+/10)

Clos Fourtet 2008, 1er grand cru classé de St-Emilion
Still closed. Round black fruit, full-bodied and hearty. Some bitters. Powerful round dark juice, good stuff. (8+/10)

Phélan-Ségur 2008, cru bourgeois de St-Estèphe
Powerful and full-bodied, oak, good texture (tannins), balance. Hint of cookies. Somewhat edgy still. Has a bright future. (8+/10)

De Fieuzal 2008, cru classé de Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Purple-black. Sweetness, darkness, dairy and some vanilla. Already quite supple. Fresh fruit, spirited, good acidity. Chalky. Not to be kept for decades? (8/10)

Gloria 2008, St-Julien
Comparable with the St-Pierre. Energetic, spicy, with a sweet undertone. Quite round and fat. Hint of dairy and chalk. Lovely juice. (8/10)

Lafon-Rochet 2008, 4th cru classé de St-Estèphe
Barn, and some reduction at this moment. Quite closed. Prominent acids, powerful, structured, for the longer term. Bay leaves. Baby is still asleep. (8/10)

Clerc-Milon 2008, 5th cru classé de Pauillac
Very dry, acids dominant. Good texture, hearty stuff. Darkness, and in the end also a hint of sweetness. Complete, and freshness too. (8/10)

Rauzan-Ségla 2008, 2nd cru classé de Margaux
Difficult to fully judge at this stage. Comes across vital and spicy, but also lean and edgy. Opaque, doesn't really let me in. (8-/10)

Cantenac-Brown 2008, 3rd cru classé de Margaux
Dark-purple introvert fruit. Substantial and good acidity, even showing some elegance. Attractive line. For the longer term. (8-/10)

Note: today Château Cantenac-Brown 2008 was released at a price 43%(!) below the 2007-price, and with that it is quite an interesting buy. And indeed, the 2007 was way too expensive, as was the 2006. For those of you who are interested, see my earlier posting Cantenac Brown 2006 and its crazy price.

La Tour Figeac 2008, grand cru classé de St-Emilion
Somewhat lighter, pleasant juice. Fresh fruit in the nose, broad, some oak. Harmonious and pure. Not for ages in the cellar. (8-/10)

Monbrison 2008, cru bourgeois de Margaux
Seductive sweetness, and a bit of oak. Quite soft and pleasant. Sweet fruit lingering in the finish. (8-/10)

Beychevelle 2008, 4th cru classé de St-Julien
Lively, hints of dairy in the nose, and animal hints. In the mouth clenched power, dry and hard in this stage. Combined with a robust acidity. For the longer term. (8-/10)

Fombrauge 2008, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru
Sweetness (and some alcohol). Powerful, even energetic but... lacks some personality? (vague) Not very approachable in this stage. (7,5/10)

d'Issan 2008, cru bourgeois de Margaux
Cookies, difficult (empty) start, then quite elegant juice, medium-bodied, refreshing finish. (7,5/10)

Malartic-Lagravière 2008, cru classé de Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Quite seductive, solid fruit (blackberry), powerful wine. Acids quite dominant. For later. (7,5/10)

Saint-Georges (Côte Pavie) 2008, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru
Hearty sweet fruit with - also - some green tones. Tough red; solid juice. Low acidity level. Cookies. Missing some tension. (7,5/10)

Bolaire 2008, Bordeaux Supérieur
Pure fruit and some vanilla. Medium-bodied yet quite solid. Darkness and sweetness. Blackberries. Juicy. (7,5/10)

Labégorce-Zédé 2008, cru bourgeois de Margaux
Slender and with hints of dairy. Dark, opaque, shut and dry. Acidity, lacking some fruit (in this stage). For the long term? (7+/10)

Rollan de By 2008, cru bourgeois du Médoc
Clenched power and darkess, something artificial about the nose. Hard at first, it takes a while before the wine starts showing its dark lusty fruit. (7+/10)

Les Grands Chênes 2008, cru bourgeois du Médoc
Hidden below a closed surface: some seduction. Solid structure, fruit on the background. And on a distance some sweetness too. Cherries. Perhaps not so exciting. (7+/10)

Marjosse 2008, Bordeaux
Pierre Lurton's own estate. Juicy, good acidity, modest, slim and fresh fruit. Light to medium-bodied. Pure, for the near future. (7+/10)

Clauzet 2008, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru
Quite light and modest, pleasant juice, but lacks energy. Little flat. For the short term. (7/10)

Lascombes 2008, 2nd cru classé de Margaux
Sexy oak, sweetness and cookies. Oaky and a lack of fruit and freshness. Hence flat, and dry. (7/10)

Cos Labory 2008, 5th cru classé de St-Estèphe
Dark & sweetish, bit spineless. Lacks a kernel. Tannins are hard. (7-/10)

Rauzan-Gassies 2008, 2nd cru classé de Margaux
Somewhat overripe, somewhat flat, somewhat unbalanced. (6,5/10)

Larrivet Haut-Brion 2008, Pessac-Léognan
Silent boy with green cheeks. Lacks depths, bit peevish. Lacks fruit too. (6,5/10)

Note: Larrivet Haut-Brion 2008 was also released today, and it was the first left bank wine to raise its price in comparison to 2007. I wouldn't know why (other than that this estate would like to climb up to the group of Graves grand crus).

La Tour Carnet 2008, 4th cru classé du Haut-Médoc
Green. Twigs and branches. High acidity, dry and unpleasant. Perhaps something wrong with this sample? (6/10)