This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Read our members' forum to find out why this differs somewhat from the article that appeared in the FT.
Any analysis of the outstanding vintages of 20th-century French wine – 1929, 1949, 1959 and 1989 for red bordeaux, 1999, 1989, 1969, 1959, 1949, 1929 and 1919 for red burgundy – suggests that years ending in nine tend to have special properties. This year, 2009, looks, so far, set fair to continue this phenomenon in virtually all French wine regions.
Winter was usefully severe, killing off harmful bugs and allowing the vines a good rest. Spring was relatively wet, replenishing a depleted water table in many areas. The flowering of the vines in late spring generally took place in fine conditions yielding a decent but not super-abundant crop. And, most importantly, summer has been unusually fine, warm and dry yet without excessive heat. Nights were noticeably cooler than in the heatwave vintage of 2003, for example, when many grapes literally turned to raisins on the vine without going through a proper ripening process.
The 15 August holiday in France is traditionally associated with a break in the weather and potentially dangerous storms which can precipitate rot in underripe grapes, but this year the weather held in all significant French wine regions right through August, resulting in healthy grapes with relatively thick skins that easily withstood some light showers at the beginning of September which revitalised the vines and encouraged a final spurt of ripening. And, most unusually, the fine, warm weather seems to have held. Conditions seem quite similar to the most recent 'vintage of the century' 2005, although the flowering was in general more successful and the drought less extreme.
As Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux in Bordeaux in the south west of France told me on 8 Sep, 'we are very excited about the harvest, and are beginning the picking of the white grapes today'. Director of the Pauillac first growth Château Latour, Frédéric Engerer, was at François Pinault's new property in Burgundy, Domaine d'Eugénie, when I asked him about 2009 on Monday. In an email he described 2009 as, 'VERY GOOD. Reminds me more of 2000 than 2005 in Bordeaux.' (The 2000 vintage was another standout year for red bordeaux.)
In the far east of the country, twelfth-generation Riquewihr vine grower Étienne Hugel reports that 2009 'looks to be a great year in Alsace', while in the Rhône Valley, Jean-Luc Colombo describes this year's growing season as 'exceptional'. He began picking as early as 1 Sep, a good week ahead. An early vintage is usually a good sign of unusual ripeness.
Someone with more experience of the minutiae of Médoc vintages than most is Eric Boissenot, a local oenologist who advises the great majority of classed-growth châteaux there. He described 2009 to me as 'magnificent with very, very healthy grapes. July was good and August was great. The quantity will be a bit more than 2008 and 2007 but it won't be a massive vintage.'
The Bordeaux wine trade, bellweather of French wine, will be relieved that, after two vintages that have been notably difficult to sell, it looks as though they may have something highly desirable to tout during the en primeur tastings next April.