A glass half full – or half empty?

The châteaux of Bordeaux believe their 2009 vintages could be the best in living memory. But can that save the ailing wine industry? John Lichfield tastes the evidence

With the air of a magician performing a trick that is likely to amaze, Alfred Tesseron pours out a glass of Château Pontet-Canet 2009. Only six months ago, this precious liquid was still inside luscious bunches of cabernet and merlot grapes hanging on the vines outside the château window.

Only a handful of people have ever tasted the infant vintage before this moment. Hundreds of people, from celebrity wine critics to powerful traders from all over the globe, will taste it in the next few days. Bordeaux is about to plunge into its annual spring festival of testing, and selling, "primeurs", or young wines, from the top 100 or so châteaux. I am no expert but the liquid poured into in my glass seems extraordinarily dark, almost black, for a wine so young. I take a hesitant gulp. The wine is explosive, but also gentle, already a powerful claret and already drinkable with enormous pleasure. All the same, following etiquette, I politely, and reluctantly, spit it out into the bowl provided.

For months, there have been ecstatic rumours and forecasts about the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. After a near-perfect spring and summer, the wines were predicted to be as good as – maybe even better than – the already legendary 2005. Unlike the 2005 Bordeaux, however, the new vintage will be born into a time of deep crisis: a crisis affecting not just lower-market French wines but the whole of the world's wine industry and even the speculatively inflated resale prices of some of the top Bordeaux châteaux. Could a great 2009 claret help to banish these blues?

Mr Tesseron, 62, the proprietor of Pontet-Canet, has been making great wines for more than two decades. He believes that the 2009 Bordeaux could be one of the finest vintages ever.

"When I tasted the 2005 primeur, I said I was grateful to have grown one such special vintage in my lifetime. Now another one has come along which is probably even greater, perhaps the greatest for 60 years," he said. "I adore all my wines. They are all my children. I would give them all a score of 100 out of 100. But I knew that this year's wine would be special as soon as I inspected the grapes at harvest time. Now that I have tasted it, I am sure that this will be a great wine, perhaps the best since 1949 or 1947, maybe on a level with mythical vintages like 1929."

On the other side of the small town of Pauillac, in the Haut-Médoc – containing perhaps the densest concentration of iconic red wine names in the world – is the home of another great claret, Château Lynch-Bages. Jean-Charles Cazes, 35, the son of the proprietor, who runs the wine-making side of the estate, said: "Everyone will always speak well of his or her own wine. But quite sincerely, the reaction of the first traders and critics to taste the primeur 2009 Lynch Bages has been exceptional, even euphoric. I believe that some of the 2009 Bordeaux wine will be even better than 2005. But the quality of this vintage may not be so evenly spread over the region. The weather last year was especially favourable for the cabernet-dominated wines produced on this bank of the river [the Gironde]. It was less perfect maybe for the wines on the other side (Pomerol, St Emilion) which are 85 per cent or more merlot."

If you mistrust the opinion of wine growers on their own wines, listen to the opinion of a leading British wine trader, Simon Staples, sales director of Berry Brothers and Rudd. He made an advance trip to Bordeaux this week before his company's main tasting expeditions begin on Monday.

"What is clear is that we are on to something spectacular again," he wrote in his blog yesterday. "What we have tried so far are all superb, rich, powerful, sexy beasts with great structure, depth and almost magical promise."

The 2009 vintage will not be ready to drink for three or four years – and not for 10 years or more in the case of leading châteaux, such as Pontet-Canet and Lynch-Bages. The vintage's reputation will be made, provisionally, by the scores given by the leading wine critics, and especially the great American wine guru, Robert Parker, in the next couple of weeks. At the same time, the Bordeaux wine négociants, or traders, and their clients abroad – including many Chinese this year – will be making their own judgements. Up to 90 per cent of the produce of some of the top châteaux is sold en primeur – still in barrels and years away from drinkable age – between April and June in the year after it is grown.

The verdict of critics and traders alike is anxiously awaited each spring but never more so than this year: a potentially great Bordeaux vintage is about to collide head on with a great wine crisis.

The lower and middle slopes of the wine industry in France, and elsewhere, have been struggling for a decade or more. Last year, as the global economic crisis took hold, sales of Bordeaux fell off a cliff. Wine exports from the region plunged 14 per cent by volume and 23 per cent by value.

"Such a brutal and rapid collapse has never been recorded since statistics on the world trade in wine began," said Roland Feredj, director general of the main Bordeaux wine industry association, the Comité interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB).

The catastrophe is explained partly by the recession-driven reduction in wine sales worldwide – a 23 per cent fall in the global wine trade. It is explained partly by the fact that much of the 2007 Bordeaux vintage was comparatively poor. Unsold stocks of 2007 primeur wine blocked sales of the 2008. Lower quality Bordeaux producers have been suffering for years from competition from Australia, Chile, South Africa and elsewhere. Last year some of the big Bordeaux châteaux names also found their bottles dropping off the shelf for the first time in decades.

Just before Christmas, the world's biggest buyer of top-price Bordeaux châteaux – DC&E, the US subsidiary of the British drinks firm, Diageo – liquidated its entire stock at 30 to 60 per cent discounts. Other US traders also pulled out of the high-price Bordeaux market.

Some of the leading Bordeaux châteaux scrambled to buy back their own wine from America to prop up the market. The falls, admittedly, were relative. The 2005 vintage of the elite Château Lafite-Rothschild (just next door to Mr Tesseron's Pontet-Canet) fell to "only" $825 (£555) a bottle at one stage, compared with $1,200 (£810) at its height.

The 2005 Pontet-Canet, almost as extraordinary a wine according to Robert Parker, can be bought for a reasonable €90 (£80) a bottle. It is greatly prized by connoisseurs, as opposed to speculators, and has therefore been much less affected by the latest wine crisis.

Two contradictory forces will contend during the next few weeks of the Bordeaux primeur season: the excellence of the 2009 vintage and the caution of traders faced with a difficult world market. Which will win? Mr Tesseron said: "You only have to see the length of the lists of traders and wine experts who have signed up for the primeur tastings. There is an excitement, an agitation, surrounding the 2009 vintage which, just as it did with the 2005, should increase interest in all types and vintages of Bordeaux. That has to be good news. What effect it will have on prices is impossible to say."

Jean-Charles Cazes of Lynch-Bages said: "In 2006, the Americans bought all the 2005 that they could. They would have bought two or three times as much. There will not be the same exuberance this year. There are still large stocks unsold in the US of previous vintages of some of the big-name châteaux.

"But the Americans are certainly here and they are very interested. And they have competition," he added. "The number of Chinese buyers has been growing year by year and this time there are more than I have ever seen before."

Much will depend on just how good the 2009 vintage is judged to be. Is it merely good? Or great? Is it a once-in-a-century peak of excellence?

"Each year I invite my principal clients amongst the Bordeaux traders to come here for a pre-tasting," said Mr Tesseron. "They were here last night. It's not difficult to know what they really think. If there is a problem, or they are unsure, there is a subdued atmosphere after they taste the wine. Just polite conversation. If they like it, they smile and chat."

And last night? Mr Tesseron grinned. "It was party time."

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
News
i100
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
tv
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments