Blatch on 2009 – the vines
5 Feb 2010 by Guest contributor

Bill Blatch runs Bordeaux négociant Vintex and is one of the members of the Bordeaux wine trade who is most fascinated by how wines actually taste. For some years he has been widely acknowledged as being responsible for by far the most detailed analysis of each Bordeaux vintage and kindly gives us a preview. See also the gripping sequel, Blatch on 2009 – the wines. 

The first decade of the 21st century goes out in a blaze of glory

A decade with no off-vintages - Bordeaux has never experienced that before - even those all-time great decades, the 1920s and the 1840s, had a few misses. In this first decade of the new millennium, all have been successful, four made by end-of-season sunshine (2001, 2002, 2007, 2008), two by heat early in the season (2004, 2006), and four of highly concentrated wines from a combination of good summers as well as good autumns (2000, 2003, 2005 and now 2009, each receiving more acclaim than the previous one). That is a total all-time record.

And this final one has turned out to be the most concentrated of them all. In 2009, we seem to have reached the extreme limit of Bordeaux concentration. Yet it was not the hottest year by any means - that was 2003 - nor was it the driest - that was 2005. In 2009, there were no extremes, just good regular heat at the right times, with everything coming in the right order: the vine amply nourished by ground water during its growing period, then, as from 15 June, starved of water - very progressively - during the ripening and concentration of its bunches right through the rest of the vineyard year.

As a result, it functioned perfectly, creating sugar levels in the grapes that we have never seen before, together with a build-up of massive but gentle tannins for the reds and a complexity of flavours for the whites. In this sense, 2009 bears little resemblance to the more extreme scorching build-up of concentration as in 1990 or 2003, nor to the drier build-up of the more vigorous and harder tannins of the 2000 and 2005. 2009 is in an altogether gentler, softer, fatter style, something in the ilk of 1970 or 1982. But, as soon as the harvest was under way, it was to the 1947 that comparisons started to be made - difficult to challenge because not everyone has been drinking that many '47s recently. Technically, however, the sugar build-up was reported as being similar in 1947 (not bad considering France was 1.1 °C colder then), but often some of it is said never to have fermented out, making the wines slightly sweet. In addition, 1947 seems to have been a very irregular vintage, especially on the left bank, some wines glorious, some disastrous. 2009 has some of this irregularity, but is clearly, if only for reasons of technical expertise, more of an across-the-board vintage. Maybe everyone was just thinking of the legendary Cheval Blanc '47 rather than of the vintage as a whole.

The cold winter, with good rainfall in January and April, prepared the vineyard for a textbook budding and a good flowering, and then the dry, hot, and above all sunny summer and autumn just did the rest, all nice and easy, without any excess. This vintage goes to show, just as in '82, that gentle conditions make for gentler wines.

Of course there were problems along the way, and we spare a thought for all those growers who caught the massive hail in May, and who were thereafter reduced to being spectators rather than players. There was also some storm damage, and some parcels of vines that got stressed and blocked during the summer, yielding grapes that failed to develop properly. But overall, the whole thing was a quite remarkable success story.

And what accounted for it all? I was hoping you would ask. Back in December 2008, the meteorological stations had noticed a cooling of the North Equatorial Current in the Atlantic, probably a chain reaction from the termination of La Niña in the Pacific. They consequently predicted - correctly - that the US hurricane season would be mild, and that the North Atlantic low pressure systems would come over further north than usual. This too was correct up until June, and accounts for all those cooler more stable northerly and easterly air flows over Bordeaux during winter and spring, rather than the more usual, warmer and unsettled Westerlies. Then in July, a mild El Niño system unexpectedly started up in the Central Pacific, quite a surprise to everyone, and upsetting the whole northern hemisphere's jet-stream patterns. Hence the record hot dry summer in Oregon and the wettest July on record for Rhode Island, hence too a more southerly flow over the Atlantic, causing all those continuous rain-storms over Ireland and England during the summer. These rarely affected Bordeaux because it was protected by a further phenomenon from the same cause: an elongation of the Azores high pressure system over the whole Atlantic rather than over just the European side; hence the gently warm and fine July and August in Bordeaux coming from the milder west rather than from the more usual and more scorching south and east.

Winter 2008/09


During the winter, however, the air flows came in from the north east round the continuous Mediterranean high-pressure systems, making for conditions that were colder than usual, and the first frosts came early, on those grey foggy icy mornings of early December. This is never a bad thing for getting the sap down early to the roots and ensuring against pests, further assured by a freezing - but not a white - Christmas.

There were the normal number of frosty nights during the winter - 25 over the 3 months compared with the average of 22 - but none were very severe. The lowest temperatures were in early January, when it froze on 13 consecutive nights, three of them at -6 °C, very cold but nothing that would stress the vines at all like the record frosts of January 1985 or of February 1956, or the two months at -20 °C in 1709 and in 582 when starving wolves invaded the city of Bordeaux.

With the sap down so early and spring coming late, pruning could be done at leisure. Most got it out of the way by the end of February, mainly because it's more pleasant to do it in the dry than in the rain that was forecast for early March.

There were long dry periods during this winter but the rainfall had come early, the November rains spilling over into December, and this ensured enough ground moisture for the soil to get through to the next band of rain in the second half of January (128 mm), which in its turn was more than enough until the showers of early March (23 mm) and above all until the high rainfall of April (116 mm). All this high winter rainfall was of paramount importance in preparing the vines for what was to come.

One other noteworthy event had no influence on the vintage. This was the freak winter hurricane that slammed into the region early on Saturday morning 24 Jan. It was exactly the same phenomenon as the December 1999 one, the Atlantic jet-stream catapulting a deepening low pressure area in the Bay of Biscay, of the same intensity (172 km/h on the coast) and once more knocking down all the trees in the forest. The Bordelais were all up on their roofs that day checking the tiles, but the vines were OK.

Spring 2009 and the budding

The cold and relatively dry winter ensured that the vines wouldn't wake up from their hibernation quickly. Even the 23 mm of early March rain and the ensuing 10 days of 17-24 °C afternoons (50% over normal) didn't stir them. It was only towards the 23rd that some Merlots and Sauvignons started to swell and even sporadically burst, but the main budburst had to wait until after the near-freezing night-time temperatures of late March had put off any further activity. Now we were in early April and it was getting late. The Merlots of the earlier vineyards such as Pomerol and Pessac were out to 4-5 leaves by the 8th, but the later ones, and most of the Cabernets, were only just slowly bursting. This was the beginning of the year's great disparity in the ripening cycles between the warmer and the cooler soils, a disparity that would later get increased by differences between these two soil types' reaction to the coming drought.

This irregularity was to stay with us all year, even when the mid-April showers, followed by the sudden warmth of 18-24 Apr ensured that it partially caught up. It rained hard the final week of April (61 mm) so that by early May, in spite of the irregularities, we were generally back on schedule.

For once, there was never a hint of spring frost during the whole of April and May - the average number of frosts for April is 4. This year zero: a great relief after all the frost angst of the previous year that had especially afflicted Sauternes and the Graves.

Early summer 2009, hail-storms, and the flowering

May and June became progressively warmer and sunnier: May 1.9 °C over the average and June 2.0 °C over, with 235 sunshine hours in May (average is 221) and a whopping 293 in June (average is 224). Encouraged by the still damp subsoil from the April rain, and egged on by a further 78 mm in May and 75 mm in June, the growth galloped ahead and the shoots and foliage looked vigorous and bright-coloured. They were clearly having no trouble feeding the quite substantial amount of embryo bunches that the budding had provided.

It was now that for some growers the axe fell. Late in the afternoon of Monday 11 May, a nasty little low pressure formed over the Bay of Biscay - just like for the January hurricane - and convected into a major hailstorm when it made landfall over the Charentes, wreaking havoc on 3,000 hectares of the Cognac vineyards. It then moved slowly south, devastating 500 hectares in Bourg-Blaye before crossing the river and decimating the southern Médoc, Cantenac, Arsac and Labarde in Margaux, then dispersing over Léognan and the southern Graves, only fizzling out when it got to Barsac.

As if that were not enough, early next morning another storm departed from Arcachon, and started convecting over Castres and Portets in the Graves, growing into a veritable 2-km-wide hail front that swept across the Entre-Deux-Mers then crossed the Dordogne into the eastern part of St-Émilion before dying out over Montagne and Castillon.

Never since 1935 (when hail devastated the entire right bank) has there been such extensive hail-damage. Usually hail is very localised but this time it was two broad swathes moving over a vast area. The worst-hit areas were the Central Entre-Deux-Mers, especially Créon, and the vineyards immediately north east of St-Émilion. In these areas, the landscape afterwards looked like Verdun. Overall at least 18,000 hectares are estimated to have been damaged. Then the central Entre-Deux-Mers region got hit twice more, on 25 May and 1 June, and Fronsac and the northern part of Bordeaux were hit, less seriously, on 8 June. The regions that were totally spared could consider themselves very fortunate indeed: the Médoc above Cantenac, Pomerol, the western part of St-Émilion, the eastern side of the Entre-Deux-Mers and Sauternes. All the rest had damage ranging from minor to total, had to heal their battered vines as best as possible and hope for a counter shoot that often never came, and, if it did, it flowered much too late to produce anything worthwhile.

Now it was time for the vines to flower, and, with some extra moisture in the ground from the mid-May showers, followed by a hot spell from 27 May to 4 June, the Merlots and most of the whites flowered fast and efficiently. The Cabernets then got a bit spun-out by the showers of 5-10 June but the temperatures remained steady and they completed it, as always, satisfactorily. We were now on course for a good-sized harvest, and also quite an early one, the flowering having finished in good time around 14 June. This is usually more like the date of the mid-flowering rather than the end-flowering. So we were now a bit early, and also some of the irregularity at the budding had now been caught up.

High summer

As soon as the flowering was through, the weather patterns started to change. In place of the first half of the season's largely dry easterly air flows, interspersed with weak fronts every 10 days, the winds now went round to the west, circling round the lows that were beginning to come in further south than before, over Ireland. The highs that had been positioned over Europe moved out west into the Atlantic, where they stayed almost motionless for two months, expanding in a big oblong, often right over to the eastern US seaboard, and providing exceptionally stable, mild and progressively drier conditions for South West France. Such conditions are most unusual - as are winter hurricanes! Bordeaux's weather patterns have been changing dramatically…but this year we were not complaining, and maybe that's the way Bordeaux will continue to benefit from the gradual warming of South West France, which is currently warming up at twice the speed of the rest of Europe.

The final 10 days of June were 2.2 °C over the average, with a record 119 sun hours (the average is 72), and every day over 25 °C. The foliage looked magnificent and the bunches started to swell nicely. It was about now that there began to be a realisation that we could have a shot at a truly great vintage if the weather would hold.

And hold it did. All of July and August continued in the same vein, dry and above all, sunny: 532 sun hours for the two months, compared with the average of 484, the heat gradually building up over July and the first week of August. This was not the brutal scorching heat of the previous record years 2003, 2006, 1990 and 1921. There were 13 days of 30 °C or more, and the average is…13 days. In 1921, there had been 21 in July alone, and in 2003 there had been 20 in August alone. This was altogether a much gentler summer. And, as in 1982, July was tempered by just enough showers (1-2 and 17 July) to keep the vine active: further evidence that if extremes produce very good vintages, the great ones generally seem to come from gentler conditions.

Rainfall became rarer during August (a total of 23 mm, confined to 1 and 9 Aug), a little heavier inland and on the right bank; in the Médoc non-existent. Also the middle of the month started to get seriously hotter, spiking up to 5 days over 30 °C, with the hottest day of the year, 36 °C, for the national holiday of 15 Aug - a nice day for the beach but suffocating for those who stayed in town - after which the temperatures slid back to where they had been for the last part of the month. Here and there, blocking had occurred during these hot, dry days, and, especially on the lighter subsoils, the ripening process was arrested temporarily, or, as we would see later, in some cases permanently. But generally the vine was to revive quickly.

During these two summer months, the by now usual vineyard work had been performed: beginning with a first deleafing in early July, very cautiously (bunches left too exposed could get scorched if these dry hot days were to escalate into an August-like 2003), together with an even more conservative green harvest (after last year's small crop, and with even a big crop looking so healthy this year, there was no point in eliminating too much, especially in the hail-damaged areas). In August, most did a second run-through to expose the bunches on the other side - again conservatively - and to weed out the few laggard bunches they could find. But in general, the mood this year was not for over-indulgence in green-harvesting.

That irregularity of bunch formation we had noticed after the budding, and which had been partially caught up at the flowering, returned for the véraison (the colour change phase of the grapes), which happened in a progressive, quite spun-out sequence, between the final week of July and the third week of August. It was early - but nothing like as early as the three previous records of 1997 (a vintage of record early mid-véraison - 31 July - but all to no avail because of the damp August that was to follow), 1952 (3 August) and 1990 (6 August - by far the most successful of the three).

September-October and the harvest

As usual, the Atlantic high pressures that had provided such a great summer began to deflate in September. The lows were still coming over the Atlantic on the same quite southerly track as in July and August - providing plenty of flooding for northern England - but, with deflating European highs, the fronts spinning off them over France now met with less resistance. This is presumably the reason that from the first of the month right up to the 21st, the daily forecast was for rain. There were sudden fears of a replay of 2006, when autumn rains had taken the edge off a truly great potential, but, apart from a few light showers 2-4 September (total of 6 mm), all these fronts in the end stopped just short of Bordeaux. This allowed the dry white harvest to be almost totally completed in ideal conditions by the time the heavier traditional Equinox rain arrived 15 ,18,19 and 20 Sep.

Some right-bank growers on earlier soils had decided to harvest their Merlots just before this rain on the 14th, but many, after a first day of rather inconclusive trial picking, decided to leave it another week - in the end just as well as these four days provided more precipitation here than elsewhere - and they would have picked in the rain. However, at this time, some picked their Merlots, often those that had got blocked by the summer heat and were going nowhere, but also several who started to panic because of high sugar readings.

From 21 Sep right up to the end of the harvest, there would be no more rain, and temperatures would gradually rise. This is a most unusual phenomenon while the days are getting shorter and is a further explanation of this most unusual vintage. The maximum daily temperature for the last 10 days of September was 25.8 °C (cf average 23.7 °C), and for the first 10 days of October a whopping 24.6° C (cf average 18.8 °C), providing ideal conditions for the final concentration period. Last year, such conditions - although much cooler - had saved the 2008s, giving them just enough constitution to balance their otherwise hard tones. This time, it was rather a question of heaping yet more concentration on already concentrated grapes, and it was this period that was to account for the exceptionally high alcohol levels that we would see in the finished wines.

Different vineyards have different time-cycles, but generally, in spite of these high sugar readings, it took yet another week before 'technical ripeness' (high sugar, low acidity) became 'phenolic ripeness' (totally ripe tannins). During the week of the 21st, many were talking about 'Languedoc ripeness' (high alcohol but difficult tannins). The mornings had been very cold mid-month, serving as 'ripeness arrestors' and it was only when it turned very warm again that the tannins started to soften, putting the vintage more in the fatter vein of a 1982 than the harder style of a 1975 (when the tannins never really reached absolute phenolic ripeness). Most put the turning point at 28-29 Sep.

This hot spell was caused by an unusual high pressure over England sucking warm air up from the south and expelling it into a stationary mid-Atlantic low. Such lows normally move west fast, which accounts for all the forecasts for rain at this time - rain that finally never came, apart from a few insignificant showers 8-11 Oct, because the low refused to budge. All this frayed many nerves and encouraged a few growers to harvest some plots maybe a touch earlier than they should have done, but the main body of the harvest was brought in now, the Merlots during this hot period up to 9 Oct, the Cabernets during the much cooler week of the 12th. This cooler period was perfect, with its near-freezing early-morning temperatures ensuring that the totally ripe bunches didn't deteriorate.

The harvest was just about over by the 16th, red, white and Sauternes (see forthcoming report on Sauternes), but a few die-hards kept some parcels back and picked sporadically into the rainier week of the 19th.

So ended a textbook perfect vineyard year. Nobody could have wished for better. Now, with the grapes crushed and the musts in the cellar, the big question was: what to do with all that potential alcohol?

See the gripping sequel, Blatch on 2009 – the wines, on Monday.  

Appendix 1: The year's monthly rainfall and temperatures


Rainfall 2009 (mm)

Normal rainfall (mm)

Rainfall 2005 (mm)

Temp °C in relation to normal

Sun hours as a % of normal





2009

2005









12/08

74

107

68

- 1.4°

- 0.9°


01/09

128

92

32

+ 0.8°

+ 0.5°


02/09

33

82

38

- 0.8°

- 2.7°


03/09

31

70

38

+ 0.5°

+ 0.2°


Winter total Dec-Mar

266

351

176

- 0.5°

- 0.7°









04/09

116

80

90

+ 0.8°

+ 1.5°

+ 11%

05/09

78

84

16

+ 1.9°

+ 1.7°

+ 6%

06/09

75

64

32

+ 2.0°

+ 2.7°

+ 31%

Spring total Apr-June

269

228

138

+ 1.6°

+ 2.0°

+ 16%








07/09

47

55

20

+ 0.7°

+ 1.5°

+ 8%

08/09

24

60

14

+ 1.4°

+ 0.3°

+ 12%

Summer total July-Aug

71

115

34

+ 1.1°

+ 0.9°

+ 10%








09/09

49

90

56

+ 1.1°

+ 0.5°

+ 34%

10/09

34

94

55

+ 1.7°

+ 3.0°

+ 36%

Autumn total Sept-Oct

83

184

111

+ 1.4° + 1.8°

+ 35%









Total

689

878

459 mm

+ 0.8°

+ 0.7°

+ 20%


Figures are as registered at Mérignac.


Appendix 2: Diary of the 2009 vintage's harvest

Date

Temp °C

Weather

Rainfall

Harvesting dates





Dry white

Merlot

Cab Franc

Cab Sauv

Sauternes

September (Norm: 12°5 -23°7)

02 W

16-25°

s/sh

3 mm






03 Th

17-23°

s/sh

2 mm

x





04 F

16-22°

s/sh

1 mm

x





05 Sa

9-22°

s


x





06 Su

10-28°

s


x





07 M

12-32°

s


x





08 T

15-33°

s


x





09 W

16-30°

s


x





10 Th

14-32°

s


x





11 F

16-27°

s


x





12 Sa

15-26°

s


x





13 Su

14-26°

s


x





14 M

13-22°

s


x

x




15 T

12-20°

sh

12 mm

x

x



1

16 W

8-21°

s


x

x



1

17 Th

8-24°

s


x

x



1

18 F

14-22°

r

13 mm

x

x



1

19 Sa

14-19°

r

8 mm

x

x




20 Su

16-19°

sh

5 mm

x

x




21 M

14-21°

s


x

x



1

22 T

13-25°

s


x

x



1

23 W

13-27°

f/s


x

x



1

24 Th

13-27°

f/s


x

x



1

25 F

13-24°

s


x

x



1

26 Sa

11-25°

s



x



1

27 Su

12-27°

s



x



1

28 M

13-27°

s



x

x

x

1

29 T

13-28°

s



x

x

x

1

30 W

10-28°

s



x

x

x

1

October (Norm: 9°5-18°8)

01 Th

14-26°

f/s



x

x

x

1

02 F

10-22°

s/c



x

x

x

1

03 Sa

8-22°

s



x

x

x

1+2

04 Su

10-25°

s/c



x

x

x

1+2

05 M

15-28°

s



x

x

x

1+2

06 T

19-29°

s



x

x

x

1+2

07 W

18-27°

s



x

x

x

1+2

08 Th

16-22°

sh/s

1 mm


x

x

x

2

09 F

15-22°

sh/s

1 mm


x

x

x

2

10 Sa

16-23°

sh/s

1 mm



x

x

2

11 Su

16-23°

sh/s

1 mm



x

x

2+3

12 M

15-20°

c/s




x

x

2+3

13 T

7-19°

f/s




x

x

2+3

14 W

8-18°

f/s




x

x

2+3

15 Th

5-15°

s




x

x

3+4

16 F

10-20°

s




x

x

3+4

17 Sa

6-16°

s





x


18 Su

2-15°

s





x


19 M

4-17°

s





x

3+4

20 T

11-19°

r

20 mm




x

3+4

21 W

11-16°

c/sh

1 mm





3+4

22 Th

10-17°

s/c/sh

1 mm





3+4

23 F

11-17°

c/r

5 mm





3+4

Figures are as at the Met Station in Mérignac.
Bold type = the main days of harvesting.
c = cloud, f = fog, s = sun, sh = showers, r = rain, dr = drizzle

Bill Blatch, Bordeaux, 4 Feb 2010 and meteorology assistant Claudia V Knight