Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

TASTING THE 2009 CLARETS WITH THE MASTERS OF WINE

January 2014. A tasting of 94 clarets and 12 Sauternes from 2009 was held in London in November 2013 under the auspices of the Institute of Masters of Wine: an ideal opportunity to assess a great vintage at a very good point in its development. Now around two years in the bottle, the wines have had time to recover from the rigours of bottling and to knit together sufficiently well to give a good idea of their overall constitution.

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By contrast, those who flocked to Bordeaux in April 2010 to taste the ‘09s when they were only a few months old were confronted – inevitably – with a mere mock-up of what would eventually be the definitive wine. And in the case of more opportunistic proprietors, the samples may well have been specially concocted to please the supposed taste of the visitors. Serious producers make it clear that, with the best will in the world, it’s impossible to present a final and complete sample of the finished wine at such an early stage, when there are still so many imponderables: young wine is protean. What may seem to be the best barrel or barrels in March may show in a totally different way a few months later.

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Useful background to the vintage is supplied by Charles Taylor M.W., who points out that the vintage in fact got off to a poor start, with an April and May that were so wet and cool that growers started to fear a repeat of the dismal summers of 2007 and 2008. Luckily, the summer turned out “consistently fine” and though hot, temperatures never reached the excessive levels of 2003.

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In Bordeaux, the different varieties mature at different times. In exceptionally hot years the window of opportunity is very restricted and sometimes growers have to pick faster than they would like. In 2009, though, the excellent conditions that prevailed allowed them to pick each of the varieties at just the right moment. In fact, because they could do things in stages, it was the most prolonged harvest on record. ”Château Haut-Brion started on their Merlot on 9th September”, Charles Taylor continues, “but didn’t finish their Cabernet-Sauvignon until 6th October. Some, however, were quicker off the mark: On the right bank, La Conseillante had picked all of their varieties between 13th and 28th September.”

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There are two ways to approach a tasting of 106 young wines. One, taste everything without dallying, to get clear overall picture. Two, concentrate on what you consider to be the best wines (hoping you guess right!), taste each one with real care, assessing the overall characteristics of each as meticulously as you can, with your overall assessment of the vintage being accorded secondary importance. I chose the second approach (didn’t have much choice, really, as I experience palate fatigue after 150 minutes of uninterrupted tasting at maximum concentration). My total bag was around 50 wines, inclusive of several of the Sauternes which, because their mode is so utterly different, I didn’t write detailed notes on.

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PESSAC LÉOGNAN

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I started off diffidently, with 2009 Château Bouscaut. The first wine in any tasting always suffers, as the palate has to undergo the initial shock of being abruptly exposed to alcohol and the assertive tannins and acidity of very young wines. Even allowing for this, 2009 Château Bouscaut made no great impression, other than being “correct”: elegant, medium long, and clean. 2009 Fieuzal was darker and fuller, noticeably oaky, earthy, and balanced. It had that château’s typical fullness and weight.

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It was the next wine that was the first to impress:

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2009 CHÂTEAU MALARTIC LAGRAVIERE ***

Dark, rich, and harmonious, this shows real precision on nose and palate. The aroma has ample fruit, with a spasm of raspberry, and the vinous flavour exhibits good length, structure, and balance, with typical Malartic refinement. A 30-year wine.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION *****

One of the stars: Nearly black but with lustre, it has a lovely concentrated nose with typical La Mission density and depth. At its centre, a seamless meld of wholly ripe Cabernet-Savignon, Merlot, and Cabernet-Franc that’s both sensuous and rigorous. The flavour, in true La Mission style, is big and chewy, firmly structured, and profound, leading into a glossy aftertaste of ripe blackberry and raspberry that’s fresh, complex, and harmonious. Great! Will live for decades.

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2009 CHÂTEAU SMITH HAUT LAFITTE ***(*)

The nose is elegant and noticeably oaky (vanillin), with hints of graphite (Cabernet-Franc), chocolate, black cherry, and raspberry. The svelte flavour shows ripe-grape sweetness and the finish is long. A refined wine that will fill out as it ages over the next three or more decades.

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2009 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER ****

Dark and luminous, this has a lovely, complex aroma of black cherry, dark chocolate, and graphite: it trumpets depth and future finesse. A suave, noble collection of scents. In the mouth, velvety and nuanced. A lovely mouth-feel, stylish, with real depth. Superb tannins. 12 years to open, followed by at least 25 of evolution. One of the best Chevaliers of recent decades.

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HAUT-MÉDOC

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2009 CHÂTEAU LA LAGUNE ***

On the nose, full, even blowsy, and distinctly Graves-like, as is always the case with La Lagune. A bit like Giscours (not far away) in style but a little more rustic and noticeably earthy. It has a fine full flavour, fleshy and round, with weight and with clayey undertones. A very satisfying claret, fruity and mouth-filling, to enjoy around 2020-35.

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MARGAUX :

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2009 CHÂTEAU GISCOURS ***

This possesses a smooth, focused nose of blackberry, damson, plum. Though in a diffident phase, you can detect underlying refinement and delicacy. It is, though, a bit on the light side for Giscours. The longish flavour is gently earthy, with good minerality. A poised, feminine wine that should be accessible in 6-7 years but will live another 20 at least.

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2009 CHÂTEAU BOYD CANTENAC**(*)

A scent of espresso coffee mingles with those of blackberry and damson jam on a noticeably oaky, earthy aroma. It’s solid and vinous on the palate, and well-made even if a little rustic for a Margaux classed growth. A good wine for the medium term (20-30 years).

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2009 CHÂTEAU BRANE CANTENAC ****

The nose is ripe and refined, with very Cantenac-style succulence and grace. Fruity and flowery aromas intermingle, with suggestions of blackberry and ripe berries and incipient signs of truffle. The flavour shows plenty of flesh, but rigour too, and there’s a wealth of nuances on the balanced aftertaste. Blackberry – a typical Margaux trait – leaves its imprint on the suave finish. A lovely wine that should be held back a dozen years and whose progress should be followed attentively, with ample rewards, for a further 25.

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2009 CHÂTEAU D’ISSAN ***(*)

The colour is a hint more evolved than most. The nose is oaky and vital, exhaling hints of black cherry, cinnamon, sweet plum, and peony. The flavour shows a delectable sweetness and succulence but it’s not all charm: there’s rigour and structure too. A well- balanced wine, very Margaux in style, with fine tannins. The Cantenac plots give a fleshy allure to the wine – an allure that prompts thoughts of the luminous beauty of a Renoir parisienne. A 30-year wine at the very least.

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2009 CHÂTEAU PALMER *****

This has the blackish tinge of a Cabernet-dominated wine. The aroma is weighty and profound, confirming the Cabernet-Sauvignon’s ascendancy but also showing the impact of some Petit Verdot – the most concentrated claret variety of them all. Black cherry, blackcurrant, and bilberry aromas can be picked out and there’s a fugitive whiff of raspberry too. Wonderfully balanced in the mouth, streamlined and structured, it shows considerable body, with a delectable grapy sweetness on an aftertaste of phenomenal length. A truly great Palmer, along similar lines to the ’61, ’59, and ’47. A 50-year wine.

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SAINT-ESTÈPHE

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2009 CHÂTEAU CALON-SÉGUR ***

This has an archetypical Saint-Estèphe nose (weight and grip) of chocolate, damson, and blackberry. It’s both earthy and homogeneous. Full-bodied and fresh, it tastes like a mix of blackberry, chocolate, and plum jam, with a distinct earthiness. A solid, typical Saint-Estèphe that will evolve steadily for 30 years and more. This château can give truly great wines: I’ll not soon forget a wonderful ’47 drunk with the late proprietor, Philippe Gasqueton, quite some years ago.

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2009 CHÂTEAU COS D’ESTOURNEL *****

Another lofty peak in this tasting: very dark, even for this vintage of optimum ripeness, it has a surging, balanced nose of multiple black fruits and berries, chocolate, and swarf (crasse de fer). Its excellent balance and great tensile strength make me think of Lafite, albeit more assertive, and it has a comparable authority and presence. On the palate, sheer strength is reiterated but you also find the complexity and balance without which no wine can achieve greatness. Long and disciplined, full of nuances, it will evolve steadily for four decades or more. Great.

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2009 CHÂTEAU MONTROSE *****

Black and opaque, this has a vast, strikingly homogeneous aroma of crème de mûre, blackberry, and damson jam. A floral component gives hints of iris and peony. It’s a nose of deceptive simplicity – the simplicity you find in a Sung vase. A touch of fig signals the presence perfectly ripe Merlot grapes. The flavour is velvety, with suggestions of black cherry, fig, chocolate, and truffle. The tannins are of exceptional finesse, providing ample structure free of obduracy. Very long. This is Montrose at its very best – a 50-year wine.

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SAINT JULIEN

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I passed over the 2009 Château Beychevelle – always a lovely, elegant wine – as the sample available was a bit unclean, proceeding to:

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2009 CHÂTEAU GRUAUD LAROSE ***(*)

This has the nuanced, intense look I associate with complexity. The generous aroma has a swirling quality – a vortex of scents – evoking autumn berries, roast chestnut, a discreet hint of oak. A faint hint of stable derives from very ripe Merlot. The flavour is fleshy and mouth-filling, with high viscosity, and long, showing subtlety and a certain earthiness. Ever true to character, Gruaud Larose remains one of the Médoc’s fullest and most voluptuous wines, with a stylistic kinship with Mouton and Lynch Bages. If the excellent ’99 (a middleweight year) is good for another 20 years, this weightier example should last 40 at least.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LAGRANGE **(*)

Lagrange has given impeccable wines every year since Suntory took over in the 1980s, when it hired Peynaud as oenologist and put Marcel Ducasse in overall charge of the estate (he retired few years back). This example is noticeably lighter than usual, but is pure, elegant, and poised. On the day it seems a bit nebulous but will undoubtedly fill out and show more complexity as it evolves in bottle.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LANGOA BARTON***

The colour, intensified by new oak, is deep, and the subtly oaky aroma of ripe berries and damson is fullish. The trim, harmonious flavour is very Saint Julien in style (elegant and refined), veering towards blackberry, the finish medium long. Will last well. As usual, a satisfying wine even if – as always – noticeably less powerful and weighty than its sibling (see next wine).

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2009 CHÂTEAU LÉOVILLE BARTON ****(*)

Much blacker, this has a smooth, velvety nose that’s full of finesse and shows great profundity. Black cherry and stone, swarf, raspberry, peony, and other bewitching scents unroll, leading into a noble, complex flavour of great harmony and length. The very texture is ravishing – it coats the mouth with a wealth of fruit – and the finest of tannins provide structure and rigour. The rolling finish goes on for an age. A combination of ripeness, purity, and harmony. One of the great Léoville Bartons, sure to improve for four decades at least.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LÉOVILLE LAS CASES *****

The very colour expresses nobility – nearly black but glowing and full of nuances. The nose is quite wonderful: broad, spacious and masterly: superripe black cherry, damson at its sweetest and ripest, raspberry, and dark red roses at their most polleny. Not to mention violet. There’s a sense of multiple additional aromas still waiting to materialize. The flavour is long and extremely complex, if not as weighty as the previous wine, with a level of finesse that rivals that of a great Musigny. Las Cases in the feminine mode, and one of the most refined wines in the entire tasting. You feel that the team has resolutely avoided any tendency inherent in this high-alcohol vintage towards heaviness or over-extraction. Should not be touched for at least 10-12 years, and will then improve for a minimum of 30.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LÉOVILLE POYFERRE ****

For years this property lagged far behind the other two Léovilles but the gap has narrowed in recent vintages – though, in my view, it’s never quite closed. The blackest of the three, it has a big, assertive aroma, very Cabernet, that trumpets power and structure. Black fruit and berries, smoke, a hint of toasty oak. But it’s less subtle than its peers, with less personality. This should not obscure the fact that it’s a splendid wine – balanced, structured, and very persistent on the palate.

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2009 CHÂTEAU TALBOT ***

Winemakers come and go but Talbot remains Talbot – “il talbotte”, as the locals say. Always full and vigorous, with a thrustful, even aggressive quality that makes it an excellent match to game dishes. Even so, you can feel a move towards a more seductive style. It’s as full-bodied as ever, but also has quite a bit of charm. Nectarine and fig show at the kernel of the aroma, but black fruits start to assert themselves. Clovey spice shows on the finish, which has the typical Talbot vigour, and the familiar gaminess starts to manifest itself. A solid, honest wine that could easily be taken for a Saint-Estèphe if tasted blind.

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PAUILLAC

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2009 CHÂTEAU D’ARMAILHAC ***

The typically voluptuous nose exhales sweet black cherry, raspberry, and peony, all nestling on a pillow of ripe-grape sweetness. The flavour is full, strikingly fresh, with underlying structure. Indeed, rigour grows increasingly present as the wine is exposed to oxygen, and that special combination of power and vitality emphasizes the wine’s quintessential Pauillac character. Like many other ‘09s it will be wonderful to drink in certain phases of its youth; but true maturity will not arrive for 20-30 years or more.

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2009 CHÂTEAU BATAILLEY ***

The very Pauillac nose is weighty, earthy, and round. Chocolate and swarf can be picked out on the aroma, as well as sweet prune and truffle. A sniff of graphite announces the presence of ripe Cabernet-Franc, but it is the forceful Cabernet-Sauvignon that dominates. The oak – very lightly toasted – is hardly noticeable. All of a piece. 8-10 years then 20+.

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2009 CHÂTEAU CLERC MILON ***

Though just as typically a Pauillac as Armailhac, and made by the same team, this is altogether sterner and more “serious”. The Cabernet-Sauvignon gives a range of black fruit scents but there are suggestions, too, of swarf, date, and molasses (the latter from the Merlot). Its higher, more assertive tannins make it more closed up than any Pauillac tasted so far. 12 years to open at least, then 25-30.

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2009 CHÂTEAU DUHART MILON****

An intense black-purple, this has a concentrated, Lafite-style aroma, very disciplined, of damson, crème de cassis, and oriental spices. Behind the firm structure you find sumptuousness and ripe-grape sweetness. The flavour shows freshness, a luxurious texture, and a long incisive finish with perfect tannins. A beautifully balanced wine, in the Lafite mode, with real distinction. It leaves an impression of black cherry, blackcurrant, and sloe. A 40-year wine of exceptional quality.

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2009 CHÂTEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ****

Another blackish Pauillac, with a big, dense, specifically GPL aroma , globular and buoyant, of black fruits, truffle, and fig. Behind these “big” aromas lurk other, more subtle ones, that will burgeon in bottle as the years roll by. A hint of the finest clay derives from plots where the Merlot flourishes. All of these traits are repeated on the palate, which is round, harmonious, and sustained. A beautifully poised claret showing weight without heaviness, classic balance, and restrained power. Good for decades to come.

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2009 CHÂTEAU HAUT-BATAILLEY ***

As always, an elegant wine of classic restraint, smelling of blackberry, smoke, and roast chestnut. The medium-full flavour is balanced and concentrated, with good freshness and definition. The aftertaste shows typical H.-B. symmetry and a lightness which is deceptive: it will fill out as it ages, not peaking in less than 15 years and continuing to develop for a further two decades or more. Though almost always lighter than the nearby Batailley, it is just as durable.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LYNCH BAGES ****(*)

Even in this exalted company, the colour shows extra depth and glitter. The nose is full and ripe, with typical L.-B. sumptuousness, suggesting black cherry jam, crème de framboise, damson, and vanilla, with a hint of roast chestnut. A really dense nose, luscious and intensely fruity, with a floating quality too. But there’s still more to come: out billow the scents of truffle and liquorice, which amplify rather than supplant the first wave of aromas. On the palate, a reprise in fluid form. The middle palate is long and fresh, a wonderful fusion of Cabernet and Merlot fruit and depth, with a finish of phenomenal length. A great Lynch Bages, a Fifth Growth that should be a Second! No doubt drinkable when fairly young, it won’t really peak before 2040.

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2009 CHÂTEAU PICHON LONGUEVILLE ****(*)

So rich in pigment it could be used to dye a white shirt black, this has a masterful, penetrating nose of maximum concentration. Black fruits and berries predominate, with a hint of nectarine at the core and a swirl of liquorice, raspberry, and graphite. A fabulous aroma that’s both disciplined and opulent. The flavour is structured, without rigidity, and even in its current closed-up state you can’t miss the underlying complexity and volume. A wonderful wine, a cross between Latour and Las Cases, which will go on developing for decades.

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2009 CHÂTEAU PICHON COMTESSE LALANDE ****(*)

The nose is broad and assertive, but refined too, conjuring up sweet damson, smoke, graphite, blackberry jam, and roast chestnut. A hint of fig can be ascribed to the Merlot (35% here). In all, a velvety scent, full of nuances, fruit of optimum ripeness on the palate, and the aftertaste is immensely long and complex. Of great tensile strength, it carries its structure lightly, and the finish promises much delicacy and refinement when the wine reaches full maturity. Doubtless drinkable in only 8-10 years – like many of its peers – it won’t peak fully for 35-40 years. If you doubt these words, reflect on the fact that the 1986 (tasted by me four days ago) still needs at least 15 years to reach full maturity. A great “Comtesse”.

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2009 CHÂTEAU PONTET CANET *****

The vast, juicy aroma leaps from the glass, filling your nostrils with black cherry, peony, and raspberry scents. It’s an aroma of great poise and complexity, only achievable when a great château’s grape varieties achieve total ripeness and sing in unison. A nose that’s at once seamless and full of vinous implications. Despite its sheer force, it shows classic restraint too, great held-in power. On the palate, well-rounded yet svelte (like a ballerina’s body) with all the volume one could wish for. Even in this company, an exceptional wine, both restrained and of First Growth quality, even if it doesn’t have quite the same uniqueness of personality of that elite. Very sustained aftertaste with great freshness and precision. An exceptional Pontet Canet. 8-10 years then 25-30.

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FIRST GROWTHS

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2009 CHÂTEAU L’ANGELUS ***(*)

The extreme depth and intensity of colour is partly due to storage in toasty new oak. The nose is in tune with this, being full, oaky, and redolent of black cherry jam, chocolate, fig, Victoria plum, and blackberry. On the palate, it’s strikingly fresh and well-balanced, despite the manifestly high alcohol. To my mind, though, it’s less complex than the quintet that follows. Plum jam flavours assert themselves as the wine expands in the glass, with rivulets of espresso coffee and cinnamon enlivening the sustained finish. A corpulent, fleshy wine that may well be delicious in only six years or so but which will then evolve well for another 25-30.

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2009 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC*****

In some hard-to-fathom way, this has a more subtle, nuanced appearance than Angelus, with a characteristic black-purple “robe” and winking vermilion highlights. The voluptuous aroma billows out of the glass, conjuring up black cherry, coffee, and truffle, exhaling finesse and subtlety. Smooth as silk, this noble Cheval Blanc could not be more archetypical in its sheer luxuriance. But – as with all really great wines – there’s rectitude and harmony too, resulting in a wine that’s classical and romantic (in the musical sense), both in structure and spirit.

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2009 CHÂTEAU HAUT-BRION *****

Just as intense if not as dark (more Merlot), this has a noble aroma that, while dense, is also aerial, with a suavity and depth that takes your breath away. Black and purple cherry dominate on the fruit side, peony and carnation on the flowery. A sweetness that’s in no way sugary derives from wholly ripe fruit of the finest quality. It tastes of plum and nectarine, with intimations of all manner of other elements, and the tannins that stipple the long aftertaste are of the ripest kind. A great Haut-Brion of quintessential subtlety and understated power. 20-40 years.

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2009 CHÂTEAU LAFITE ROTHSCHILD *****

The colour is of maximum intensity, the aroma of almost unimaginable refinement. It sings “Lafite”. Close meshed and velvety, as insistent about its innermost qualities as Beethoven’s late quartets, it smells of damson, cigar box, roast chestnut, swarf, and a host of other fascinating if still inchoate elements, inclusive of oriental spices. All four varieties sing in unison. It’s a nose that’s both dense and ethereal. The flavour – like Beethoven in an introverted mood – is closed up yet radiates authority and profundity, with marked minerality. In years to come the superb tannins will accentuate, and never undermine, the glorious fruit. Owners of this wine should not uncork a single bottle for at least 12 years – and then start taking an elixir of youth to ensure they survive another 30-40 so as to enjoy it at its peak.

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2009 CHÂTEAU MARGAUX *****

The colour, a shade lighter than many (but no less intense), suggests a high percentage of Merlot. The nose, if full, is closed up but speaks volumes nonetheless: blackberry aromas dominate but there are hints of fig and pomegranate too. A noble earthiness leaves its imprint. One of struck by an exceptional purity and ripeness. There is no hint of oak, the wood having been used for subtle aeration rather than for cosmetic ends.

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The flavour is homogeneous, veering from red cherry, initially, towards the weightier taste of blackberry and damson. A nuance of cinnamon is the first, barely detectible sign of oakiness, which remains very much in the background. Rich yet aerial, of impressive freshness, this great classic wine is extremely long and has perfect tannins. In an ideal world, no bottle would be opened for 15 years and it will progress steadily thereafter for 35 or so more.

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2009 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

The colour conjures up black cherries and it smells of them too, as well as blackcurrant, bilberry, and nectarine. The combination of power and voluptuousness is typical of Mouton at its best: lusciously fruity, mouth-filling, profound. The nose is so complete you simply know this is great without tasting a drop! But a drop – indeed several – you do indeed sample and the flavour speaks the same irresistible truth as the aromas. Total ripeness combined with great tensile strength adds up to a full, glossy, flawlessly balanced Mouton that will ravish senses and mind for decades to come. Nonetheless, so complete a wine is sure to undergo prolonged periods of closure and each decade that passes will bring increments of complexity and depth. *

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*****

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At this stage I suddenly registered that the tasting was due to close in only 20 minutes so I was only able to sample a few of the remaining wines – those of the Right Bank and Sauternes. I concentrated on Pomerol. There were some notable absences – no Pétrus, Trotanoy, or Lafleur. Of those present, CLINET *** was big and opulent, with a typical “brown sugar” nose and a mingling of molasses and black cherry jam on the palate; LA CONSEILLANTE **** showed lovely truffly Pomerol fruit and was long and satisfying; L’ÉGLISE CLINET ****(*) was complex and refined, with pronounced freshness and great stylishness; while LA FLEUR PÉTRUS **** showed classic restraint, real Pomerol finesse, and a pure, subtly clayey finish that promised many years of steady improvement. PETIT VILLAGE ***(*) is surely the best for years: subtle, refined, with a lovely meld of pomegranate, raspberry, and nectarine fruit on both nose and palate.

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* The 1986 Mouton Rothschild, retasted.

Baron Philippe was wrong to think the ’86 was a remake of the glorious 1949 – one of the few perfect wines I’ve ever drunk. The ’49 was glorious (in my experience) from around 1980 and tasted equally sublime from half-bottles, bottles, and magnums throughout the next 20 or so years, during which I was able to sample it from time to time. The ’86 is far more obdurate.

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Two days ago, in my cellar, I uncorked the ‘86 Mouton to check on its evolution. It was utterly black and as concentrated as vintage port. One could detect underlying complexity, and the promise (if not the delivery) of velvety texture; but it was still more a duty than a pleasure to drink. On the second day, it was as stiff as a board and, while drinkable (with cheese, say) not really seductive. On the third day, it was showing a lot more of it ample fruit and was good to drink, though very faintly oxidized (understandable in a decanted 29-year-old wine). The fact that it still had reserves of flavour after 72 hours’ exposure to oxygen suggests that it will still improve.

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© Frank Ward 2014

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One Response to “TASTING THE 2009 CLARETS WITH THE MASTERS OF WINE”

  1. […] *Tasting the 2009 clarets with the Masters of Wine […]

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