Power Play

With the 2010 vintage, Bordeaux now has back-to-back classics in dramatically different styles

Excerpted from the March 31, 2013, issue

Stephan von Neipperg is pumping his fist, throwing short jabs in the air. He’s winking and smiling. “The 2010s just have more,” he says emphatically. “They have more punch. More terroir. They are straighter and longer than 2009. They are really special.”

Von Neipperg owns several estates on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, including Château Canon-La Gaffelière, La Mondotte and Clos de l’Oratoire, as well as a portion of Château Guiraud in Sauternes. His enthusiasm is on full display, and he speaks for most producers in Bordeaux when they compare the two most recently bottled vintages—2010 and 2009. The earlier vintage was no slouch; I rated 2009 96 points (on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) on the Right Bank and 97 points on the Left Bank. But producers are giving a clear edge to 2010.

“In the wines, the alcohol levels are slightly higher in 2010 than 2009. But the 2010s have more acidity and so the perception of the alcohol is not as strong,” says Stéphane Derenoncourt, who produces his own wine at Domaine de l’A in Castillon while also consulting for many estates, primarily on the Right Bank.

Since last year’s report on Bordeaux, I have blind-tasted more than 1,000 wines from the 2010 vintage in France’s most recognized wine region. Of the approximately 865 red wines, 45 (5 percent) earned classic ratings of 95 points or better, while overall nearly 420 (48 percent) earned outstanding ratings of 90 or more points. This bests the results from the ’09 vintage in both score ranges. The 2010 dry whites are also excellent, though not quite as pure as the ’09s or as fresh as the coming ’11s. The sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac also excelled in ’10, with rich, tropical profiles, though they don’t quite have the delineation of 2009 or 2001.

Based on my tastings in both Bordeaux and Wine Spectator’s New York office (all formal reviews are generated from blind tastings), I rate the 2010 vintage 99 points on the Left Bank and 98 points on the Right Bank.

In general, the 2010 reds show more structure, both tannin and acidity, with more definition and energy than 2009. The vintage isn’t shy on fruit or punch, as von Neipperg and other producers note. But the extra acidity and slightly lower yields, compared to 2009, result in more grip on the finish; the 2010s are well-balanced and perfectly designed for long-term cellaring. They stand in stark contrast stylistically to the more opulent and fruit-driven 2009s, which are more forward and flattering.

The 2010 growing season was marked by a cool spring which led to a low berry set. From there, the vintage was markedly dry but not overly warm, so the smaller grape bunches and smaller berries ripened with thick skins but without losing acidity or developing cooked flavors or rugged tannins. “Very cool nights in August and September preserved the aromatic freshness,” explains David Suire, who works with Nicolas Thienpont overseeing production at prominent St.-Emilion properties such as Châteaus Larcis Ducasse, Pavie Macquin and Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse.

In the large and scattered St.-Emilion appellation, Merlot is the lead grape, though Cabernet Franc can play a key role. Many of the top wines there are among the more large-scaled wines of the vintage, especially those from the gravelly soils of the appellation that rely heavily on Cabernet Franc.

The immense Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2010 (98, $1,440) stands apart from the pack. Others where Cabernet Franc and even some Cabernet Sauvignon play a role include Château Angélus 2010 (97, $375), Château Canon-La Gaffelière 2010 (96, $103) and Château Figeac 2010 (96, $300).

Atop the plateau of St.-Emilion, the terroir changes to limestone, and the wines take on a racy, more minerally profile. Highlights there include the refined La Mondotte 2010 (97, $400), marked by a strong graphite note, and the Château Pavie Macquin 2010 (96, $143), one of the most aromatically expressive wines of the vintage.

Of the 169 St.-Emilions in this report, 108 (nearly two-thirds) earned outstanding ratings. And in this large appellation, there are savvy cellar buys to be had. The Château Barde-Haut 2010 (93, $40), Château Fleur Cardinale 2010 (93, $60) and Château La Tour Figeac 2010 (92, $41) should reward a decade of additional bottle aging while carrying friendlier price tags. The outlying appellations from St.-Emilion are rife with delicious values as well. Those consumers willing to forgo label prestige should scour Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux and Fronsac for wines that deliver St.-Emilion-like profiles at reduced prices.

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator‘s lead taster on the wines of Bordeaux.

For more value recommendations and to learn about the Left Bank reds, Pomerol reds, dry whites, sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and other Bordeaux in 2010, read the full article, “Power Play,” in our online archives.