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En primeur | Travel | Wine tasting
Follow us here as we report live from Bordeaux with brief updates and images starting Monday, April 8th.
Along with the large scale Left and Right Bank UGC tastings, we will also be visiting the following estates:
Château Pichon Baron
Château Cos d'Estournel
Château Mouton Rothschild
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
Château Leoville-Las Cases
Château Pape Clement
Château La Mission Haut-Brion
Château L'Eglise Clinet
Château La Conseillante
Château Cheval Blanc
Vieux Château Certan
Château Le Pin
If you would like our specific thoughts on any of the above properties (or the 2012 wines from any other Bordeaux estates) or if you would like to submit En Primeur requests for particular wines, please ensure you sign up on our dedicated, 2012 En Primeur site.
After four days of non-stop visits, degustations, and discussions with négociants, estate owners, winemakers and other merchants, what conclusions can we draw from our in-depth tasting of the 2011 Bordeaux vintage?
Above: The AWC Tasting Team
The first is that the vintage is better than we envisioned it would be before we came here to see it for ourselves. This holds true for both the Left and Right Banks. There are exceptions, to be sure, but the best wines are fresh, balanced, succulent, and have great fruit flavours. Only the wines that received extraordinary care in the vineyard and were handled with great skill in the winery fall into this category. The knowledge, technical ability, and financial resources now exist so that even the most basic Crus Classés is able produce good wines under difficult and challenging circumstances. Twenty years ago, such an outcome would have been beyond the capability of Bordeaux and completely unimaginable.
Above: Vine leaves sprouting in the morning sun at Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.
The second, inescapable reality is that this is not a great vintage and it is not in the same league as either 2009 or 2010. Ultimately, this will prove to be the most important factor when it comes to pricing the crop. In comparison to recent vintages, it is probably closest in quality to the 2001 or the 2008 vintages. Ideally, the wines should therefore be priced at a rate that is comparably discounted. In some cases, this would mean a (completely warranted) price cut of more than 50% vis-à-vis last year’s starting offer prices. There is no doubt that this economic imperative is going to be extremely unpalatable to the Bordelais. However, unless we see price drops of this magnitude, I simply do not see sufficient incentive for us, or for our customers, to purchase this vintage in quantity. The market must be brought back into line and this is the only way that will be achieved. As a whole, it is clear that this campaign is going to be on the lighter side. In traditional markets such as the US and Europe, interested En Primeur purchasers are already sitting on nearly full cellars, having now stocked-up on both the 2009s and 2010s. As a result, they will see no reason to purchase – unless the prices are reasonable and correct. For consumers, with the exception of a handful of wines, it is really not a ‘must-have’ vintage. The châteaux must take this on board, particularly if they are to successfully persuade investors to take a financial stake during the élevage process. These unfinished wines must be priced at a level that allows perspective investors to envision a legitimate, short term return when they finally become available on the open market.
Which way will the wind blow on pricing?
One of the best investment returns of the past ten years was the modestly priced 2008 vintage, so, following on this, it is perfectly feasible that 2011 could be a vintage worth investing in. Having said that, I am unsure how the châteaux will feel about matching the 2008 pricing as, at the time, they felt they were deprived of significant upside revenue on the back end. Moreover, uncertainty remains in multiple areas of the global economy, so if customers are to buy this vintage, they will need a strong financial incentive.
Finally, the Bordelais now know that the Chinese are unlikely to come to their rescue this year. With noticeably lower En Primeur attendance across the board, the lack of Asian buyers in the tasting rooms was particularly obvious. The message is clear. If Bordeaux wants to sell its wines through the normal distribution system, there has to be an incentive for traditional collectors and drinkers to buy. This year, the only way they can make the wines sufficiently interesting is to drop the prices – by significant amounts.
What is already in barrel will need to be priced appropriately.
If the wines are valued correctly, they will sell. If not, they will not. It is as simple as that.Having spoken to a number of proprietors, there is a recognition that prices must come down. I expect that some will understand this market reality whilst others will not. The ones that do will need to release prices quickly and decisively. A long, drip-fed campaign, like last year, will not be in anyone’s best interests. Short, sharp, and at good value is what the market needs. Such a campaign would also win Bordeaux back some much-needed friends. My final observation is on the vintage as a whole. This is not a homogenous vintage. No claim can be made for a ‘Left Bank vintage’ or a ‘Right Bank vintage,’ as wines are spotty everywhere. There are several hidden gems - and you should certainly be on the lookout for them – that, in the future, will prove to be smart buys.
The top wine of 2011? Chateau Latour was certainly one of the best we tasted all week.
Some very good wines have definitely been made, particularly by the upper-tier châteaux (below are my top picks, based purely on quality), however, anyone who has read my blog over the last few days will know that there are also some very poor, clumsy and altogether disappointing wines as well. Either the raw material simply was not up to scratch or serious mistakes were made in the cellar. In most instances, the main culprits seem to have been excessive green harvesting and over-zealous feuillage (leaf removal) in the vineyard and/or heavy-handed, excessive extraction in the winery.Time and again, the Bordelais told me how important fruit selection was this year, and I couldn’t agree more. You can bet that we will be just as selective with which 2011 wines we buy, based on their release price, the quality and value. I would advise any collector, customer, or Bordeaux enthusiast to do likewise. As a final note, I would recommend that you only purchase your wines from a merchant who has actually been to Bordeaux this year, has spoken with the châteaux, and who has extensively tasted the wines. Not everyone has done so and that is both unfortunate and potentially problematic. Top Red wines of the vintage:Château AusoneChâteau La Mission Haut-BrionChâteau Haut-BrionChâteau LatourChâteau LafleurChâteau Léoville-Las CasesChâteau Cheval BlancChâteau Le PinChâteau Mouton RothschildChâteau Lafite-RothschildChâteau Pichon-Longueville BaronTop White wines of the vintage:Château d’YquemChâteau La Mission Haut-Brion BlancPavillon Blanc du MargauxChâteau Haut-Brion Blanc
After three, intense days of wall-to-wall châteaux visits, sampling one young, unformed claret after another, navigating the En Primeur circuit becomes a true test of tasting stamina. As much as we greatly enjoy this essential part of being a wine merchant, it can take its toll. I often joke to my colleagues that there must be other, easier ways of earning a living! Yet, when you arrive at a property like Château Lafleur - one of the very brightest and most-precious jewels in the crown of Pomerol - to taste their wine alongside the young, utterly charming winemaker and proprietor, Baptiste Guinadeau, I am quickly reminded of how lucky and privileged we are to be involved in such a business.
Above: Tending vines at Chateau Lafleur.
Immediately adjacent to Château Pétrus, Lafleur has been in the Guinadeau family since 1872. At that time, it was owned by Baptiste’s grandfather, who also owned nearby Château Le Gay and considered consolidating the properties. However, he recognised the uniqueness of Lafleur’s terroir and wisely decided to keep it a separate estate and a separate wine. What is particularly unusual about Lafleur’s vineyard is that it is a single, unbroken plot, which forms an almost perfect, 4.5ha square. Equally remarkable for such a tiny vineyard is its four, completely different soil types – ranging from clay, to clay-gravel, sand-gravel, and clay-sand. ‘Despite being so small, we harvest the wine from more than twenty different plots,’ said Baptiste. ‘That’s what allows us to develop the great complexity and minerality of Lafleur.’ Also unique (for Pomerol) is the high percentage of Cabernet Franc in the vineyard. ‘We’re lucky to have 55%,’ commented Baptiste. ‘And this year, everyone is talking about it because it performed so well. One of the reasons for this was because it was able to cope extremely well with the climatic excesses we experienced in 2011.’
Above: Baptiste explains why the terroir at Lafleur is so unique.
Before we tasted the Lafleur, Baptiste showed us two other wines that his family produces, beginning with their 2011 Château Grand Village. This is actually produced at another estate, in Fronsac, where the Guinadeau family have lived and made wine since the seventeenth century. ‘In the nineteenth century, Fronsac was even more famous than Pomerol and on a par with Saint-Émilion,’ Baptiste pointed out. ‘But it is not so surprising. The soils there are exactly the same as they are on Saint-Émilion’s limestone plateau.’Never having tasted the Grand Village (83% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc) before, its crunchy black fruits and lovely spice profile were something of a revelation – particularly for such an everyday drinking wine. I can see why Baptiste is so enthusiastic about it. Also quite nice was their still un-named ‘G’ wine, now in its third vintage. A blend of 56% Merlot and 46% Cabernet Franc, this was impressively fresh, round, dense and chock full of blackberry fruit and violets. Les Pensées is Lafleur’s second wine and it has been produced by the estate since 1987. Ever since the 2000 vintage, however, it has been harvested from a particular, unique part of the vineyard in order to give it its own identity. ‘Now, we very much regard it as its own ‘cru’,’ noted Baptiste.
Above: The unusual terroir at Lafleur – almost more Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Pomerol.
I can certainly see why! This is mightily impressive for a second wine. From such a tiny vineyard comes a superior wine of great intensity, dark cassis, bramble fruit, kirsch, cream and dark chocolate. Made up of 55% Merlot and 45% Cabernet Franc, this is also fresh and harmonious, with sleek, suave tannins. 95 PointsMy first nose and initial sip of the 2011 Lafleur quickly confirmed that this was a very good year for the Grand Vin. Plump, deep, concentrated and elegant all at the same time, this is the epitome of a top terroir combining perfectly with skilful winemaking. The fruit rolls over your palate in waves of soy, smoked meats, violets, black cherry and coffee bean. Irrespective of the difficulties and dramas of the vintage, this wine is simply wonderful. ‘Graceful and profound,’ was how Simon Littler summed it up. This is another clear candidate for the wine of the vintage. 98+ PointsLast year, Alexandre Thienpont’s Vieux Château Certan was one of the stars of the magnificent 2010 vintage – an absolutely jaw-dropping wine. Would he be able to pull off such a feat in 2011? My view was that, while not quite 2010, it was certainly a very good wine this year, if not a great one. Again, the viticulture and winemaking was thoughtfully and carefully executed. Here too, the Cabernet Franc performed extremely well. ‘It’s definitely back with a bang in 2011,’ explained Alexandre’s son Nicolas. ‘The Merlot is vinous and shows great finesse and breed.’ But his greatest praise was reserved for the 29% Cabernet Franc that made it into the final blend. ‘It gives the wine wonderful complexity, ripeness, density, and length.’I thought he was right and the wine did show classic, VCC fruit character with lovely opulence, fleshiness and concentration, without being overly ripe or domineering. Clearly, great care was taken to ensure a very gentle extraction. It is also well-balanced in terms of alcohol (13.6%) and isn’t too high on the IPT (tannin index) at 83. I think this wine is definitely a vin de garde, but clearly not in the same league as the 2010. 95 PointsAt nearby Château La Conseillante, they also have the builders in right now, working hard to create yet another brand new chai in Bordeaux, hopefully in time to receive the 2012 vintage. There to greet us was La Conseillante’s young, talented winemaker, Jean-Michel Laporte. Ever since his arrival in 2004, La Conseillante’s profile has grown markedly within the Pomerol rankings and in the international consumer consciousness.
First, we tasted La Conseillante’s second wine, called Duo, which it began to produce only recently, in 2007. It is designed to be an early-drinking wine and only 800 cases are being made this year. This is unsurprising, according to Jean-Michel, ‘because we were so strict with the selection this year.’As with other châteaux, in 2011, La Conseillante is neither as fine, nor as great as their 2009 or 2010, but it remains very good indeed. The attack is fresh and lively with sweet cherry, damson and mulberry fruits, overlaid with soft, ripe tannins and good length. My only criticism at this early stage is that the oak is perhaps a little too overt and noticeable. I expect that will diminish over time as the new wood is integrated into the wine. 93 PointsFollowing La Conseillante, we headed to one of our favourite properties in Pomerol, the miniature estate of Château Le Pin. Arriving on his bicycle just a few moments after we pulled up to the building was our good friend and estate owner Jacques Thienpont. Dapper as ever in his appropriately wine-coloured trousers, Jacques was all smiles as he welcomed us into his brand new chai.
Above: Jacques hands over the keys to the cellar.
The building itself is remarkable – a modernist, sharp-angled wonder in the midst of the estate’s gnarled, ancient vines. The cellar room is also shockingly small, particularly after the spending time in the massive, barrel-filled vaults of the Left Bank châteaux earlier in the week. Just 30 barrels sit in the space, making it a more intimate, practically Burgundian, tasting experience. Interestingly, during our tour and tasting, we were simultaneously accompanied by a group of buyers from Shanghai - one of the only Chinese groups we encountered all week.
Above: The new Le Pin.
As he is known to do, Jacques personally blended our tasting sample, thieving and combining small bits from several different barrels. What we were served was one of the most impressive wines of the week, in part simply because of how much restraint it displayed. Dark plum and cocoa powder aromas swirled from the glass, followed by black cherry, boysenberry, and creamy dark chocolate flavours. The aforementioned restraint may be found in the tannins – some of the smoothest and most integrated we experienced – that flirt with perfection. This lasts and lasts and lasts in the mouth – it is delicious and palate-staining, with a seam of glorious minerality down the middle. 98 Points
Above: Jacques pours us glasses of his beautiful 2011.
As a special treat, we followed up Le Pin with the estate’s other, newer project, ‘L’If’, the Saint-Émilion property that sits just around the corner of the hill from Château Troplong-Mondot. Tasting this wine was a lovely bookend to the week, as we were the first ones to break the news on Jacques’ purchase of the vineyard, more than 2 years ago. While Jacques feels that the wine is still incomplete and not quite where he would like it to be, it certainly hints at infinite possibilities, the ‘what If?’ of it all, so to speak. Jacques confirmed that imbuing the name with this inherent optimism was a purposeful play on words. The fact that ‘L’If’ also means ‘yew tree’ in French, meaning that it worked with the established brand of Le Pin (the pine tree), made it all the more apropos. In its current incarnation the wine has a beautiful nose of sweet, dark fruit and smoked bacon fat, with a palate of intense plum and blueberry pie flavours. It is creamy, delicious and will likely drink on the young side. 94 Points
Tomorrow I’ll sum up my thoughts on the vintage as a whole and discuss what I hope the pricing structure will look like.
On day three of our En Primeur road trip around Bordeaux, we assessed the successes and failures of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc-dominated wines of the Right Bank. We began the day at Château Troplong-Mondot, which is perched at the very highest point in Saint-Emilion. This beautiful property is situated slightly to the east of the main town centre, right at the top of the appellation’s famous ‘côte’. It is owned by Christine Valette and Xavier Parente and it has a superb terroir due to its elevation, angle of exposure, and the deep, clay and limestone soils of the plateau on which it sits.
Under Michel Rolland’s consultancy, Troplong-Mondot has gone for both later harvesting and lower yields in recent times. Following the warm weather last year, in fact, the wine topped nearly 15.9% alcohol. This year, it is mercifully lower; but not by much. Once again, Troplong-Mondot’s cellar-master, Jean-Pierre Taleyson, has produced a turbo-charged 2011. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that this wine may always remain an ugly duckling rather than successfully developing into an elegant swan.
Above: Troplong-Mondot vines in the early morning fog.
The nose is attractive enough, with high-toned black cherry and plum fruit aromas. Once you put the wine into your mouth though, your palate is overwhelmed by a wall of astringent tannins. My fear is that it will take an eternity for these tannins to soften and the wine may stay rather unbalanced as a result. I also found the finish to be a bit harsh and hot, probably due to an alcohol level of just over 15%. Honestly, this was not a great surprise given the direction the winemaking has been taking of late. However, it is both a disappointment and, in my view, a grave mistake to continue in this formulaic vein of winemaking - especially in a vintage like 2011, when over-extraction seems guaranteed to have produced unbalanced and ungainly wines. 88 Points From Troplong-Mondot, we navigated our way around the hillside to Château Pavie, which sits on the southern part of the côte. Since 1998, this historic property has been owned (and summarily transformed) by Gerard Perse. In that time, along with substantial investments at Pavie, Perse has ploughed an enormous quantity of cash into his entire portfolio of Saint-Emilion properties, including Château Pavie Decesse, Château Monbousquet, Château Bellevue-Mondotte, Clos L’Eglise and Clos des Lunelles.As part of this process, Perse is currently renovating the cellars and production facilities at his flagship property. Pavie is not alone in this respect, as serious construction projects seem to be the recurring theme across all of Bordeaux at the moment. Given that so many châteaux are awash with cash following the recent, banner vintages, one does wonder whether the real thinking behind the cranes and scaffolding is simply to try and reduce their exorbitant tax bills with a nice bit of capital expenditure. Either way, in the case of Pavie at least, after looking over the grand plans that are posted prominently in the tasting area, the end result will be nothing short of spectacular.
Above: Purchasing Manager Berenger Piras (l) discusses the Perse selections with winemaker Henrique da Costa.
I wish I could say the same of Gerard Perse’s 2011 wines. My favourite was the Monbousquet, which was deeply coloured and had a good attack of acidity, along with intense, black cherry fruit flavours, as well as coffee bean, violet, and minerals notes. I was happy with the alcohol, which didn’t seem too intrusive at just under 14%, yet the tannins were simply too obvious and aggressive. 92 Points
The Clos des Lunelles was even more saturated in colour and saturated with tannin - to the extent that it made the wine almost completely impenetrable. 87 Points. The Pavie Decesse was measurably better. Whilst it also had a powerful and overbearing tannic structure, it was not as off-puttingly monolithic as the Clos des Lunelles. There were some rich, dark cassis and plum fruit flavours which were quite nice. However, my main problem with this ‘international style’ of wine was that it simply didn’t taste like Bordeaux, let alone Saint-Emilion. 88 PointsThe Bellevue-Mondotte was also weighed down by a mass of tannins, which drowned out the kirsch-like fruit. My view is that the 2011 vintage simply cannot absorb this kind of structure or tannic volume. 89 Points
Perhaps, not surprisingly, I did not particularly like the Pavie either. Again, there was good intensity of bold, black fruit as well as violets and an attractive, roasted meat character. However, the whole ensemble is simply overrun with heavy-handed, mouth-puckering tannins. One day, the wine may come round, but I am unsure it will it be worth the wait. 90 Points
After just two tastings my palate was already feeling jaded and weighed down under so many firm and poorly integrated tannins. However, I was hopeful and confident that our next tasting would restore my sense of equilibrium. It proved more than up to the task as we presented ourselves to Alain and Pauline Vauthier, keepers of the flame at one of Saint-Emilion’s most historic properties, Château Ausone.Much as I expected, the contrast between Ausone and our our first two degustations could not have been more apparent. Pavie was all about raw, savage power, overtly forced density and supreme extraction, all elements which combined to drown out the estate’s natural terroir. Ausone, on the other hand, was entirely focussed on fruit, balance and finesse, and it managed to express its privileged terroir beautifully.
Above: The view from Chateau Ausone.
We began with the impressively elegant, restrained, and cherry-infused Château de Fonbel, which had terrific freshness and lift to it, along with some superbly handled tannins. To me, this will represent one of the great value wines of Saint-Emilion in 2011. I rated it 92 points. Even better was the Château Moulin Saint-Georges, which has a vineyard that sits just below those of Ausone. This was also elegant, fresh, and pleasantly fleshy, with defined, primary fruit flavours of crushed blackberries. 94 PointsThe Chapelle d’Ausone was also a great success this year and will be well worth seeking out. Sadly, only 650 cases of this rare and deliciously delicate wine will be produced, so if you can manage to get your hands on even a small quantity, do so post-haste. 96 Points
As for the Grand Vin of Château Ausone, it was another magical effort and undoubtedly one of my wines of the vintage. Plums, damsons, cherries, chocolate, and mocha dance across the palate. The tannins are beautifully refined and exquisitely constructed. The acidity is invitingly fresh and juicy, while the length is something to marvel at, begging you to take another sip. Nothing was out of kilter in this eloquent wine. This was all about poise, precision, and restraint. 98+ Points From Ausone, we made our way to the Union des Grands Crus tasting at Château Soutard for a broader look at Saint-Emilion in 2011. Under the aegis of consultant Stephane Derenoncourt, the up and coming Château La Gaffelière has produced a sound and solid wine this year. 92 Points
Even better in my tasting notes though was Nicolas Thienpoint’s Château Pavie-Macquin. It was balanced, correct, and persistent, with well defined plum fruit and cedar notes. I rated it 93 points. Château Trottevieille was also well constructed. It was round on the palate, elegant, and fresh with nice underlying fruit and tannins. 94 Points I also liked the Château Clos Fourtet which showed firm black fruits, smoked meat and black olive flavours. It deserved 93 points. Château La Couspade though, was clumsy and coarse. Similarly, Stephan von Neipperg’s Château Canon-la-Gaffelière struck me as being a little under-cooked and lacking in concentration. 91 Points
Perhaps the pick of the bunch at this tasting was Comte Eric d’Aramon’s classical Château Figeac. He has produced another impressively delicious and inviting wine in 2011, with sweet, plump, expressive fruit flavours, and ripe, supple tannins. This wine appeared absolutely brilliant amongst the also-rans from the region. Easily 96 points.
Left: Comte Eric d'Armon of Château Figeac describes to us how his new presses work.
After a good lunch with a tired and somewhat disappointing 2000 Château Soutard, our next appointment was at Hubert de Boüard’s brand new cellars at La Fleur de Boüard in Lalande-de-Pomerol. Hubert is also renovating his cellars at Château Angelus and has only recently opened the new facility at La Fleur de Boüard. Sadly, the directions to get there were not terribly helpful. By the time we arrived, we had taken a number of wrong turns trying to find the estate, meaning that we did not have time to taste more than a few wines.I focussed primarily on the charmingly good and extremely approachable Carillon d’Angelus. I was also quite taken with the Château Angelus this year. It shone brightly, thanks to some beautiful fruit definition, deft and polished tannins, and à point acidity. This was a really lovely Angelus. 94 PointsOur final stop of the day was at Château Cheval Blanc, where the head-turning new cellars were utilised for the first time in 2011. I spoke at length with Pierre Lurton and he is clearly thrilled with this extraordinarily beautiful and flowing piece of contemporary architecture. It is very much the fine wine world’s new, ‘statement’ winery – exactly as you would expect from LVMH.
However, the real purpose of it for Pierre is not simply its aesthetic appeal, but rather how practical and efficient it is from a winemaking perspective. For him, what counts is the fact that he can now make Château Cheval Blanc even more haute couture than in the past. Equipped with 52 different sized concrete vats, for all 44 different plots of vines, he can now pick each parcel exactly when he wants and vinify each one separately. ‘There’s no question that we are making better wine because of the new cellars,’ he told me.
The first wine we tasted was the debut vintage of what used to be Alain Reynaud’s Quinault L’Enclos, which was purchased by Bernard Arnault and Albert Frère in 2008. Clearly, a lot of work has been done in the vineyard and winery to transform the style of this wine since the acquisition. It is now virtually unrecognisable from its former incarnation. Judging by the quality of the 2011 Quinault L’Enclos in the glass, this is a hugely positive change for the better. This was altogether much lighter, fresher and elegant than it was under the previous regime. I picked up bright, summer fruits of raspberry and blackcurrant, as well as suave, silky tannins. 92 Points
Meanwhile, La Tour du Pin, which was an adjacent vineyard to Château Cheval Blanc for many decades until it was acquired in 2006, continues to make good progress. Now in its fifth vintage, this too is firing on all cylinders. Aromatic on the nose, this wine has real lift and presence. On the palate, I picked up bruised plum skin and spicy tobacco notes, while the tannins are ripe and fine grained. 92+ Points
Le Petit Cheval is impressively aromatic. In the mouth, it is vibrant, fresh and opulent. The attack is sure-footed and pure, with red and black fruits, chocolate, caramel and spice. It has lovely length, barely-noticeable tannins and is hedonistically delicious, even at this early stage. A lovely Petit Cheval and worthy of 93 points.
Right: Pierre Lurton comments on the improvements that LVMH has made at Quinault L'Enclos.
So much for the warm-up act; what about the main event? All I can say is that the 2011 Cheval Blanc has the potential for greatness. A blend of 52% Cabernet Franc (which has been extremely successful here) and 48% Merlot, this is full of vim and vigour with great freshness, a fine, dense, tannic structure and a profound concentration. The fruit skews more to the black cherry spectrum and there is a savoury, meaty quality which adds to the slow-building complexity and sustained finish. It will be interesting to see how this develops. 93-95 PointsFinally, it was with great anticipation that we tasted the 2011 Château d’Yquem vintage. We had already discovered that the vintage was very kind to both the dry and sweet white wines, with comparisons to 2001 already being made for Sauternes. Tasting alongside Pierre and his chief winemaker at d’Yquem, Sandrine Garbay, it was clear that they had another great success on their hands with the 2011. With 145gms of residual sugar, this was intensely sweet – sweeter even than the 2001 – yet with sufficiently high acidity to keep it fresh and stylish. The mouthfeel also differs from the 2001, being slightly rounder and with greater palate weight. Only d’Yquem has the unique ability to produce something so fabulous – a wine of royal bearing and supremely elevated quality. 98+ Points
Above: The roof of the new Cheval Blanc chai.
In my final En Primeur post, which will be live early next week, following a few days of much-needed relaxation and palate recovery, I will cover our last day in Bordeaux. During the course of our visits we travelled to most of the major Pomerol properties, including several estates whose wines will almost certainly be candidates for wines of the vintage, including Château Lafleur and Château Le Pin.
As we leave Château de Sours in the Entre-Deux-Mers - our home away from home in Bordeaux - it is apparent that yesterday’s sunshine is now gone. The weather has turned and it is both colder and cloudier. Rain looks imminent. Why does this matter you may ask? Partly, it is that good weather naturally lifts your mood. However, it is also important because many in the wine trade (including Robert Parker) believe that high and low pressure systems can positively or negatively affect the way the wine tastes. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps it is just a by-product of the good cheer that sunshine brings.
Above: Ancient sign posts point the way at Château de Sours.
As we approach the Medoc though, almost miraculously, the sun begins to assert itself. By the time we reach Château Latour, our first appointment of the day, we have gone from winter gloom to glorious spring in the space of a few miles. Maybe God is not just a Frenchman, he is also a Bordelais!?One always expects great things from Château Latour and, ever since Frédéric Engerer took over the reins in 1998, the estate has produced a string of marvellous and outstandingly powerful vintages. However, the true tests of the world’s great terroirs (and the brilliant winemakers who work with them) are not the ‘easy’ years like 2009 or 2010. It is the ‘off’ vintages that really push the people and the environment to their limits.
Upon our arrival, three, deeply purple wines are set out before us in Latour’s immaculate salle de degustation. Looking out through the massive sheets of glass that rim the room, we can see directly south towards Léoville-Las Cases and the town of Saint-Julien. The sun is now streaming down from between the clouds and it is a magnificent vista. The first glass we sample is filled with the estate’s third wine, simply called ‘Pauillac’. Comprising more Merlot than usual in the blend, at 62.5% this year, with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, it is an impressive start to the morning. The wine is fresh, generous and accessible. No harsh tannins or rough edges here at all. 92 PointsLes Forts de Latour comes next and it is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and the rest a smattering of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. What struck me immediately were the Margaux-like aromatics – floral, expansive, and beguiling. On the palate it had a lovely initial attack and superb sweetness. The fruit flavours seemed to be more black than red, with nothing overdone or out of place. Generous, poised and with a real sense of restrained power. The tannins were beautifully controlled, expressive and deft. 94 Points
The Grand Vin was even more impressive. Thus far it is my candidate for wine of the vintage. It is a serious vin de garde, with great purity of fruit, intense minerality, perfect concentration and a sense of controlled, coiled power. The tannins have been sufficiently kept in check and the fruit flavours are expressive and long-lasting. Black fruits dominate the palate, mingling with lead pencil and cigar box. There is a brooding quality to this wine that tells me it is one for the long haul. 98 PointsInterestingly, none of these wines were more than 13.1% ABV and it seems that the freshness and finesse of the Grand Vin, in particular, is due to the larger proportion of Merlot in the blend than in recent vintages. These are three superb efforts from Latour, particularly for such a troublesome year.
Our next appointment was at what remains one of Bordeaux’s hottest properties, Château Pontet-Canet. This incredible Pauillac estate is located immediately adjacent to Château Mouton Rothschild and it looked as glorious as ever in the spring sunlight. In the tasting room, we meet owner Alfred Tesseron, who we are looking forward to welcoming into AWC Wine Academy later this month. On April 25th, Alfred will host a special evening of Château Pontet-Canet, featuring a vertical tasting of ten vintages, including the 2009 that was just given a perfect, 100 point rating from Robert Parker. It promises to be quite a night.
Above: Perfect pours of Pontet-Canet.
Having now tasted it, I anticipate that the 2011 vintage will also do well with Parker. However, I do not expect it to receive another three figure score. Nonetheless, this was a very good effort from winemaker Jean-Michel Comme. He was convinced that the biodynamic regime at Pontet-Canet once again, ‘proved critical during the 2011 growing season. The health of the vines helped enormously with the balance of the final wine. However, it was also important for us to adapt to the varying conditions of the year.’
Above: Jean-Michel reflects on the difficult vintage.
Like many estates, yields were down at Pontet-Canet, this time to around 32hl/ha, compared to normal levels of around 40-45hl/ha. The harvest was early and rapid. The Merlot vines were picked from the 15th of September, followed a week later by the Cabernet Sauvignon. Everything was completed by the 29th, which was, coincidentally, the exact same date as the start of the 2010 harvest, noted Jean-Michel.
This is yet another exceptionally good Pontet-Canet and one that I think will open up much sooner than the 2010, thanks to its fine-grained tannins. The fruit was ripe and fresh with notes of blackcurrant and kirsch, along with a fine seam of mocha. This was not a monumental Pontet-Canet in any way, shape, or form. Rather, it is impressively lithe and supple. This will be drinking fabulously within five years of its release. Do not be fooled by the early accessibility though, as I think it will also be graceful in its old age. 96+ Points Next on our itinerary was Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, a beautifully situated and well-appointed estate in Saint-Julien. Under Bruno Borie’s guiding hand, Ducru-Beaucaillou has really found its form recently, including also garnering a 100 point Parker rating for its 2009. Along with adjustments in the vineyard and the chai, Bruno has also instigated several major changes to the estate’s business plan. For example, the Croix de Beaucaillou is no longer considered the estate’s second wine. Instead, it now has its own, separate and distinct vineyard just to the west of the Château. As a long-standing patron of the arts, music, and fashion, and as part of the changes to the Croix de Beaucaillou brand, Bruno asked Jade Jagger to redesign the wine’s label – her involvement being a play on the connection between the word ‘Beaucaillou’ (‘beautiful stones’) and the legendary band of her famous father.
Whether or not you like the rather odd re-imagining of the tasting experience at Ducru-Beaucaillou – let’s just say it involved a lot of neon lighting – I certainly could not complain about the rebranded, Croix de Beaucaillou. Made with a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and a surprisingly high 7% of Petit Verdot, the result was an unusually spicy, broad, and dense wine with solid depth and serious palate weight. There was an impressive amount of sweet fruit and ripe, fleshy tannins here as well. 92 Points
Above: The gardens at Ducru-Beaucaillou.
The Ducru-Beaucaillou was more classical in form, as well as more monolithic, with impressive blackberry and tobacco notes, firm tannins, fresh acidity and tremendous power. My only criticism was that the wine lacked some charm at this stage. I expect it will take some time to come around. But, having said that, I am sure it will be worth the wait. 93 Points
Like many other châteaux this year, Ducru-Beaucaillou’s crop was also significantly reduced, down more than 30% on last year’s volumes. This actually made it the smallest yield in the history of this exceptional Second Growth. From Ducru-Beaucaillou, it was a short trip back up to Pauillac where our next tasting was at Château Lafite-Rothschild. We arrived at Lafite slightly early, which meant we had a chance to chat with Guy Woodward and Adam Lechmere of Decanter Magazine, as well as Lafite’s Christophe Salin and Charles Chevallier, both of whom looked relaxed and confident.
Above: Discussing the 2011 vintage with Charles Chevallier.
After tasting their 2011s, I can understand where the confidence comes from. First up was the 2011 Carruades de Lafite, which exuded a wonderful perfume. On the palate, it was exquisitely sweet, elegant and silky – very much in the Carruades mould of recent years. It is very, very good for the vintage. That said, if you put it next to the 2010 or the 2009, it would most certainly end up as third best. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to taste and I rated it 95 points.After the performance of the Carruades, I was perhaps a touch disappointed with how this year’s Château Duhart-Milon performed. Again, the wine was very good and showed great vivacity, freshness, balance, and some intense blackcurrant and raspberry fruit flavours. The tannins have also been structured correctly and there was no hint of heaviness. My only complaint was a slight lack of persistence on the finish. 94 Points
We now are at a stage where we have come to expect nothing less than the greatest from Lafite. The 2011 is another sleek and ethereal effort from this thoroughbred First Growth. Once again, the wine has tremendous purity of fruit and is supremely elegant. The tannins are wonderfully ripe, creamy and sweet. The length is profound and already it is a joy to taste. It is a classic Lafite-Rothschild - albeit not a truly great one. 96 Points
According to Christophe Salin, ‘it took a long time to build and it certainly didn’t taste this good in December. In fact, it already tastes better than it did two weeks ago. For me, this was a Cabernet Sauvignon year, even though there is now more Merlot in the blend. It shows the importance of great terroir. If the wine is born in the right place, it makes all the difference.’
Above: The AWC team at Lafite-Rothschild.
Next up was Lafite-Rothschild’s cousin, Château Mouton Rothschild. Sadly, this is the last time we will see Hervé Berland at Mouton, having now announced his retirement as joint Managing Director, after a wonderful career running the estate on behalf of Philippine de Rothschild. Like many, I am extremely sad to see Hervé go and wish him all the best. Equally, we look forward to working with his successor, Hervé Gouin.
Happily though, a contented Hervé Berland did actually confide to us that he has already secured a new position as Commercial Director at Château Montrose. I am sure he will be as great an asset to Montrose as he has been at Mouton Rothschild. Hervé must also be quite pleased with his swansong vintage at Mouton. I felt that Le Petit Mouton was particularly successful this year, with its vibrant, red fruit characteristics and the fine tobacco leaf and cigar box notes it exuded. I rated it 94 points. Château d’Armailhac was equally sweet and forward, with an attractive, smokey, roasted character and solid palate length. I also gave it 94 points. Château Clerc-Milon was also succulent, with generous fruit and good, ripe tannins. 95 Points
Above: Vineyards and spring leaves at Mouton Rothschild.
The star of the show was still the complex, classy Grand Vin. Supple tannins, fresh acidity, and sumptuous fruit flavours were interspersed with hints of meat and baking spices. For me, this had plenty of charm to offer and it was a great pleasure to drink. With this sort of density and depth, I expect that it will age extremely well. It is certainly one of the stand-out wines from this vintage. 97 Points.From Mouton, we crossed over into Saint-Estèphe to taste the wines of Château Cos d’Estournel. For the last two years, Cos has courted considerable publicity (and controversy) for producing some very powerful, full-bodied and highly alcoholic wines. This year, the wines are lighter in alcohol, but remain muscular and firm, with good acidity and phenolic ripeness. According to Managing Director Jean-Guillaume Prats, this was a technical and difficult vintage at Cos, requiring almost constant monitoring and intervention in the vineyard.
Jean-Guillaume took the decision to pick early and fast, beginning the harvest with the Merlot on the 5th of September and quickly following it with the Cabernet Sauvignon the following day. This made it the earliest harvest at Cos since 1893! Somewhat surprisingly though, the yields were actually higher in 2011 than they were in 2009.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by either the Goulée or Les Pagodes de Cos. The former seemed a touch over-extracted. I gave it 88 points. The latter was a touch too simple and one dimensional – 89 points. The Grand Vin was slightly more compelling, with attractive concentration, greater balance, elegance, and length. The tannins are round and ripe, but you will need to wait a good ten to fifteen years for this wine to really open up. 93 Points
Finally, our last tasting of the day was at Château Montrose. Talking to Nicolas Glumineau, Montrose’s Technical Director, it was clear that the estate took a slightly different approach to picking the crop than Cos did.
Montrose began early enough, on September 2nd, but instead of pulling the entire crop in quickly, they continued to take their time, finishing the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc parcels towards the end of the month. ‘The weather was good and there was no rot, so we were able to wait for the tannins to fully ripen,’ said Glumineau. In the end, the harvest took twenty five days to complete, making it the longest ever at Montrose.
I was immediately taken with the estate’s second wine, La Dame de Montrose, as it had fabulous fruit aromas and fragrances of both ink and minerals. The tannins are certainly not lacking in this wine, but they are refined and accessible. 94 Points Unsurprisingly, I was even more disposed to the Grand Vin, which I thought was particularly impressive. What struck me most were the quality, precision and refinement of the tannins as much as the sweetness and complexity of the fruit. It was all here – acidity, depth, balance, and length. 96 Points This was a pleasing way to finish our second (and final) day on the Left Bank and it confirmed that we have a better than expected Bordeaux vintage on our hands. Certainly, the more I taste, the more confident I become.Although my confidence is growing, the fact remains that not every wine has been a success and, as I mentioned yesterday, this is not anywhere close to the quality of 2009 or 2010. Given the complexities of the growing season though, the Bordelais are to be widely congratulated on the end results. Already, we are making judgements as to the wines we think are suitably impressive and which we might like to purchase - assuming the price is right, of course. However, there are two Banks in Bordeaux and tomorrow I’ll be reporting on how the Right one has managed to perform in this testing and intriguing vintage.
Once again, the fine wine world has descended on Bordeaux to taste and assess the latest vintage. Over the course of the next five days, a total of ten of us will travel to châteaux on both the Left and Right Banks as part of our annual pilgrimage. Although this vintage is certainly going to be a weaker one for the red wines, we know that the time we spend here will be a key component in our future successes.The knowledge we gain during this week will allow us to advise our clients appropriately and accordingly on what to, or what not to, purchase. If there is one thing that remains clear, it is that you have to be here if you want to truly understand the wines and attain the necessary level of vintage expertise. Being present also sends a message to both the châteaux and the negociants – the companies who actually sell the wines – that you have a serious, professional, and vested interest in the wines and in the process.
Unfortunately, as a vintage, 2011 was much more difficult than anyone could have predicted and it created challenges that its elder siblings easily avoided. Both 2009 and 2010 were ‘dream’ years in Bordeaux, or as Jacques Thienpont of Château Le Pin likes to call them, ‘deckchair vintages.’ These were years in which the weather cooperated perfectly – the right climactic elements occurred at exactly the right times. Regrettably, the stop-start growing season of 2011 turned out to be more akin to a viticulturalist’s nightmare than to a dream. And yet, it is important to remember that Bordeaux no longer has really bad vintages. This is largely due to the dramatic technical advancements and the improvements in both viticulture and winemaking practices. Really, you would probably have to go back to 1992 or 1993 for the last, real ‘dud’ of a vintage. That said, now that we have had nearly 20 intervening harvests, I am certain that 2011 will be much better than either of those years. Already, comparisons are being made to both 2008 and 2001 – both of which are fair to middling vintages. However, the proof is always in the tasting.Ultimately, the key factor in the success of this En Primeur campaign will be the pricing. Unless the wines provide genuine value, commensurate with their quality, I do not believe that they will sell to people whose cellars are already nearing capacity. My greatest hope is that the Bordelais understand this fact. Acknowledgement will mean providing the necessary financial incentive to allow for reasonable acquisitions by the public. Lest you think otherwise, this is not an irrational hope either. Bordeaux has already done it in recent memory with the 2008 vintage. Whether the producers follow this wisdom for the 2011s or not remains to be seen. Alas, I have my doubts. A lot, as ever, will depend on Robert Parker’s scores. Plus ça change…
In the meantime, we will focus on the 2011s and what has actually been produced. So begins another busy week of criss-crossing the region, going from château to château and tasting several hundred wines. Happily, much like last year, a bright, sunny morning always bodes well for our first tasting. Let’s hope it is a good omen. We started at Pichon-Longueville Baron in Pauillac. As always, we were warmly greeted by the genial Christian Seely, who beckoned us into the tasting room. As we tasted, Christian provided the first, insider view on 2011. He is not one to pull punches. ‘It was undeniably hard work and at times extremely challenging. But in spite of that, we have made good wines from a much smaller crop. This year, the key for the reds was rigorous selection and managing the tannins, which were higher than in both 2009 and 2010. However, it was good for the dry white wines and even better for Sauternes, where great sweet wines have been made.’
Above: Christian Seely discusses the challenges of 2011.
Pichon Baron’s second wine, Les Tourelles, was a solid beginning; fresh, balanced, and approachable with sweet, plummy fruit, a whiff of tobacco and readily approachable tannins. It is not overly complex and it is meant for early drinking. For me, the wine was a good, competent start. 89 Points Christian’s Grand Vin had more depth, structure and length, with more of a black fruit profile and some nice mineral components. Self-evidently, it had neither the depth and gravitas of the 2010, nor the flamboyance of the 2009. Nevertheless, it is a well-made, fine, ‘classical’ claret with nicely defined fruit and measured tannins. 93 Points Also part of the AXA stable is the Petit-Village estate in Pomerol. The property has been carefully repositioned over the last five or six years and remains on an upward quality curve. The blend is 70% Merlot, with the rest made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. To me, this was a very successful and, frankly, more exciting wine than the Pichon Baron. There was a good core of concentrated fruit, generous but not over-extracted tannin levels and an impressive amount of palate length. 95 Points
To finish, we tasted the dry, ‘S’ de Suduiraut, of which just 500 cases are made each vintage. It is a shame that more cannot be produced, as it was impressively good, with crisp, fresh nectarine and citrus fruit flavours. 93 Points
The wine that really shone though was Suduiraut itself. This is a generous, opulent, and rich wine, with fabulous botrytis notes and a gorgeous texture. It is possibly every bit as good as the 2001. Wonderfully aromatic, complex, beautifully balanced and very long on the finish, it merits 97 points. If this is anything to go by, Sauternes has pulled something very special out of the hat.
Our next appointment was at Château Margaux, which was also bathed in beautiful, spring sunshine. As ever, its châtelaine, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, was on hand to welcome us. So too was Paul Pontallier’s new, ‘number two’, Thomas Do Chi Nam, who joined Margaux last year from Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, where he has been for the past two decades. However, the hot weather was clearly too much for Corinne’s dog Zorba, who was clearly more interested in taking an early siesta in the sun!
Above: It's a dog's life at Château Margaux!
In contrast to Zorba’s relaxed approach, we were quite excited to see what Margaux had made of the 2011 vintage. We began with the estate’s second wine, the Pavillon Rouge. Since 2009, Margaux have begun to produce a third (and still un-named) wine, which has undoubtedly upped the quality of the Pavillon Rouge. I was particularly taken with the aromatics of the 2011 – a glorious range of floral notes and red fruits. On the palate it was fresh, easy and nicely appointed, with some surprisingly supple tannins. Again, it was not as good as its predecessors, yet it remains an extremely attractive and well-made wine without a hint of heaviness. 91 Points
The Grand Vin is also a step down from the previous two vintages. However, the difference is not as much as you might imagine. The nose was somewhat muted, although it still had Margaux’s hallmark perfume. The palate provided a lovely, sweet, fruit-driven profile, with cassis, blueberries, and cream, as well as a great sense of balance, fine minerality, and silky, refined tannins. All of it was very much in the traditional, Margaux mould. I rated it 94 points. My only reservation was its lack of mid-palate weight. This is something I am now seeing as a common thread amongst the 2011s we have tasted thus far and, unfortunately, I think it could be a recurring theme in this vintage.
Last, but by no means least, we tasted the 2011 Pavillon Blanc, Margaux’s magnificent, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, produced from a unique, 12 hectare parcel of vines to the west of the appellation. My advice to you on this wine is simple - if you can get your hands on a case or two (providing the price is sensible) do not hesitate to snap them up. This is a wonderful Pavillon Blanc, with incredibly complex fruit flavours, including grapefruit, mango, guava, and pineapple, wonderful texture and stunning length. 98 Points
Above: Paul Pontallier unleashing his legendary charm on Corinne Mentzelopoulos and AWC's own Julia Scales
From Margaux, it was just a short drive over to Château Palmer, an estate that continues to punch above its weight. Certainly, in the last few years, it has been producing some magnificent and breathtaking wines. In large part this is due to the skills of winemaker and technical director Thomas Duroux, who kindly hosted us again this year. It seemed that the 2011 vintage really tested Thomas’ abilities to their very limit. ‘It was an extraordinary year,’ he admitted. ‘We had drought, coulure, hail, sunburn, and rot. Everything that nature could throw at us, she did.’
Unfortunately, Palmer suffered a direct hit from a big hailstorm that occurred on June 4th. This was just one of the many contributing factors that resulted in a severely reduced crop. According to Thomas, 2011 was the smallest crop at Palmer since the legendary 1961 vintage. Alas, Thomas wasn’t going to compare the quality of the 1961 to the 2011, only the quantity.
Against all odds, it turned out that the vintage was not a complete disaster, which was what Thomas feared at the end of June. The rains came in July and August and the harvest began on September 7th, finishing at the end of the month. ‘In the end, the yield was around 28hl/ha.’
Above: Thomas recounts how the hail storm destroyed vast portions of the crop.
Selection was critical, Duroux explained, echoing Christian Seely’s earlier comments. ‘This year we also used optical selection for the first time. I would say we manually triaged 5% of the fruit in the vineyard and on the sorting tables and then the optical selector removed an additional 5%.’ This remarkable piece of technology separates any green, unripe berries and automatically removes them from the sorting table. Although not new to Bordeaux, nor inexpensive, at a cool, €150,000+ per machine, optical sorting appears to have played a much bigger role in the 2011 vintage than in any prior. The result was that Palmer’s total production was down by 50%.
An additional difficulty at Palmer in 2011 was that the berries were incredibly small and had extremely thick skins. This was a challenge that had to be overcome in order to create the refined, signature, ‘Palmer’ style which is so adored by wine lovers. In order to clear this hurdle, the estate worked very hard to manage the extraction during the maceration. ‘We did much less pumping over, we did much more pigeage, and we fermented at much lower temperatures.’
As for the wines, the Alter Ego de Palmer was probably as good a wine as the vintage allowed. It was bright and fresh, with attractive, loose-knit tannins that did not overwhelm the palate. The fruit was high-quality, with cassis and spice notes. And yet, whilst the wine was solid, it did not make my heart skip a beat. 90 Points
The 2011 Palmer was also quite good, but by no means great. The tannins were very dense and I am concerned that they will outlive the fruit. Perhaps I am being too harsh, yet I worry that by the time the tannins have softened, the fruit will no longer be around to carry the wine into a glorious old age. Interestingly, Thomas compared it to the glacially evolving 1986 vintage. I would instead pick the 1975. Only time will tell. 92 Points
Our last tasting of the day was in Pessac-Léognan at Château La Misson Haut-Brion. Prince Robert of Luxembourg is away this week, so our old friend, winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas led us through the tasting. He was also candidly honest about how tough the vintage had been at both La Mission Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion. Similar to Palmer, he too opted to utilise optical sorting to weed out berries that simply were not up to scratch. ‘It meant we lost a further 5% of the crop, but it did pay dividends by upping the quality of the resulting wine.’
Above: The sculpture garden at La Mission Haut-Brion
For Delmas, 2011 is a good, but not a great, vintage. ‘I think it is closer to 2008, perhaps with a bit more roundness.’ Having now tasted the wines though, I felt he was maybe being too critical. I thought La Mission’s second wine, La Chapelle, and the Clarence de Haut-Brion, were both extremely good. Even better were their respective Grand Vins. La Mission Haut-Brion, which this year weighed in at 13.5% ABV had stunning aromatics, exceptionally ripe, plush tannins and a wonderful purity of fruit. 96 Points
Above: Even under intense questioning, Jean-Philippe wouldn't give up the opening price of the 2011 Haut-Brion. Can't say we didn't try!
The Haut-Brion just edged its stablemate, with poise, precision, and perfect weight of tannin, all in complete harmony. Both are exceptional wines and were certainly my red wine picks of the day. Additionally, they were the most successful wines of the vintage thus far and by some distance too. I think that they will provide pleasurable, early- to medium-term drinking. My colleague, Simon Littler, summed it up perfectly. ‘This is the perfect approach to this vintage. You can tell that really intelligent and perfectly executed winemaking went into these wines. These have the most polished tannins we’ve tasted all day.’ 97 Points
Of course, La Mission Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion don’t just make great clarets; their dry white wines are also legendary. Here, they had plenty to shout about. Both the La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc and the Haut-Brion Blanc are astoundingly good, which again confirms the quality of the vintage for the dry white wines. The blends are slightly different but the wines are both outstanding. Without hesitation, I gave them both 98 point ratings.
So, after day one, I think 2011 is off to a pleasing and surprisingly promising start. However, it is clearly not in the league of 2005, 2009, or 2010, by any stretch of the imagination. The Bordelais know that and so do we. It is significant and telling that we are not being offered the 2010 to directly compare against the 2011 as we have with vintages in the past. That, in a way, says it all. Something else is also quite clear - there is simply not the same number of buyers here as there were last year, nor is there the same buzz and excitement around the vintage. You can feel it at the tastings and you can see it in the châteaux car parks. Tomorrow we will taste at several other Left Bank châteaux, including Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Léoville-Las Cases and Pontet-Canet. With that line-up of estates, how can it not be a fascinating day!? If nothing else, I am certain it will provide us with additional insight into how the vintage as a whole has performed, so be sure to check back here shortly for further updates.
Looking back over the recent en primeur tastings, a number of things have become clear... The first and most obvious thing is that Bordeaux has another great vintage on its hands, albeit one which is very different from the remarkable preceding vintage of 2009. The success of 2010 is due to the near-perfect and unusual weather patterns which developed during the vintage. In particular, the weather was dry but not too hot, with many cool nights. Several appellations did experience drought conditions but fortunately rain came at the right time in September. This provided welcome relief just when the vines were at their most stressed.The result was grapes that were small, healthy and concentrated and wines which are high in alcohol, acidity and tannin. As Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel pointed out – this was genuinely remarkable. ‘Most wine regions can produce one or two of these three components. Only Bordeaux has been able to do all three at the same time!’
Below: Jean-Guillaume Prats discusses the differences between 2009 and 2010
Once again, this was another great year for Left Bank Cabernet. Firstly, this was because the weather conditions suited Cabernet Sauvignon, which ripens a bit later than Merlot and generally has lower potential alcohol. Secondly, this was because some Merlot vineyards suffered from coulure (poor fruit set), which reduced the crop in certain areas. As with 2009, some of the Merlot-dominant wines have come in with very high alcohol levels – whether or not this happened depended on their individual terroirs and the time of picking. On the Left Bank, many chateaux used less Merlot this year and much more Cabernet. Mouton is a case in point. For the 2010, the blend is 94% Cabernet (up from around 80% in 2009). However, this is by no means an exclusively Left Bank vintage. The Right Bank had some notable successes, particularly in Pomerol and, to a lesser extent, in St Emilion. Equally, Graves did well with both their red and white wines. For instance, at both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, big, powerful, and concentrated reds have again been produced. However, the power of these wines is tempered by the excellent acidity so prevalent in this vintage. The same goes for the whites produced by both properties. They are particularly impressive in 2010.
Below: One of the stellar Sauternes of the vintage - Chateau Suduiraut. Notice the interesting thermometer collar below the label, ensuring that the wine is served at the correct temperature.
Sauternes was also a success. The chateaux were blessed with a big crop and the wines exhibit good botrytis character and an excellent balance between sweetness and acidity. However, the wines do lack the sheer intensity and power of the 2009s.
As a result, there is near universal acclaim for 2010. However, some caveats should be issued when it comes to buying the wines – both stylistically and by individual chateaux. Consumers need to realise that the wines from this vintage have a very different profile than that of the more opulent and easy-going 2009s. The difference is that in 2010 the best reds are beautifully balanced but have a much more tannic structure and much higher acidity levels. This means that many will take quite a bit longer to develop. Yet, it is important to understand that they will indeed develop and that the resulting wines will be absolutely stunning. In many ways, this is very much a ‘classical’ Bordeaux vintage that will appeal to traditional European palates.
This was a difficult and challenging vintage to taste - particularly coming on the heels of 2009. There are many gorgeous wines in 2010 but the most successful are unquestionably those which showed some restraint with regard to tannin/extraction levels and percentage of alcohol. Unfortunately, some properties have produced tannic, over-extracted and highly-alcoholic wines. These wines may come around at some point in their development and allow the underlying fruit to shine through. Equally however, they may not.
In 2010 there are some real vins de plaisir, as well as vins de garde. The First Growths and Super Seconds have once again produced some exceptional wines. However, this year, their second wines have also taken a massive step forward. Carruades de Lafite, Le Petit Mouton and Alter Ego de Palmer are all scintillating wines and we will be buying as many cases of them as we are able to secure.
Above: One of the vins de garde - Tasting at Chateau Pontet Canet. Brilliant balance.
Ultimately, the commercial success of the vintage will largely depend on price. My view is that the Bordelais will not price 2010 any lower than 2009 for several reasons. First of all, they know that they have produced another excellent vintage that is similar in quality to 2009. Secondly, they have made slightly less wine than last year – overall production is down. Finally, they need to price it at least at the same level as last year simply to protect the current 2009 prices. Equally, it seems that the chateaux cannot raise prices significantly either. The global economic recovery is far from assured or complete. It also remains to be seen whether the American market will return after a long En Primeur absence.
Above: Will the chateaux embrace correct market pricing or will they burn the opportunity?
Another question is how much slack the Far East markets will take up this year. The Chinese are beginning to buy into the concept of purchasing En Primeur, and there was a notable presence of Chinese buyers in Bordeaux during our time there. Finally, what about Europe? After last year, some European collectors may feel less inclined to buy quite as much this season if the prices significantly increase. All of these factors lead me to expect prices to be released at similar levels to 2009.Of course, there will be exceptions to the rule. Those chateaux which have produced better wines in 2010 than in 2009 may be inclined to break ranks, particularly if Robert Parker endorses them with a big score later this month. In some instances, such price increases will be entirely justified. Against that, my inside information on Parker’s thinking is that he is likely to rate 2010 ‘a notch lower than 2009’.
Above: What will Robert Parker score the wines of Lafite-Rothschild?
At the Antique Wine Company, we will be offering specific advice to our clients as the campaign unfolds throughout May and June. Our counselling will be based heavily on our first-hand experience with each individual chateaux and the quality-to-price ratio of each wine. I believe that, no matter what, 2010 is a vintage that serious and knowledgeable collectors and consumers will want to include in their cellars. Prices are unlikely to fall in the near term and certainly over the long haul, the top wines will inevitably rise in value.Always remember, En Primeur is the best time to purchase top wines at their lowest market prices. It is also the only time consumers and collectors can obtain a substantial volume of their favourite wines and be unequivocally certain of provenance. Demand for the top wines from this vintage will be strong. As a merchant, it is always somewhat of a challenge to satisfy the many demands of the négociants, who require us to purchase vast quantities of their lesser wines, pro-rata to the First Growths and premium wines. The négociants decide which merchants are currently in favour and they like to see those merchants buying not only the First Growths but also promoting the less prominent and lower–hierarchy wines.In almost every vintage, market demand for the First Growths exceeds supply. Each year we find that we can easily sell our entire allocation of these wines. Therefore, we are constantly trying to increase the size of our allocations and 2010 is no exception. Thus, as we head into the 2010 En Primeur campaign, clients wishing to secure larger volumes of First Growths might also consider purchasing other classified wines. In good vintages - where the quality is more homogeneous - these lower hierarchy wines are perfect for many occasions and moments. It is a timely convenience that the 2009 vintage produced wines of this type – exceptional quality and ideal for early drinking.Therefore, clients should consider balancing their allocation requests for 2010 First Growths with a quantity of 2009 lower–classified growths. These 2009s can then be consumed and enjoyed while the 2010s continue to undergo élevage. This creates a win–win situation for everyone involved - including you, the client, The Antique Wine Company as your merchant, and both the châteaux and the négociants. Our Top Picks from the 2010 Bordeaux Vintage -LafitePalmerMargauxHaut-BrionHaut-Brion BlancVieux Chateau CertanLe PinLe Petit MoutonCarruades de LafiteCos d’EstournelAngelusCheval Blanc
Tags: En Primeur, Bordeaux, 2010 vintage, wine tasting, Stephen Williams, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Palmer, Haut-Brion, Vieux Chateau Certan, Le Pin, Chateau Mouton, Le Petit Mouton, Carruades de Lafite, Cos d'Estournel, 2010 pricing, 2010 versus 2009 Bordeaux, Angelus, Cheval Blanc, Saternes, Alter Ego de Palmer
Stephen Williams, Founder and CEO
Stephen Williams began trading as a wine merchant in 1982 and wishes he had stocked his cellar with Château Pétrus on day one. Since founding The Antique Wine Company, Stephen has built The Antique Wine Group into an organisation with clients in 63 countries and a global network of offices, representatives and business groups. Regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in fine and rare wines, he has created some of the greatest wine cellars and collections in existence – in châteaux, palaces, wineries, hotels and private residences across Europe, Asia and North America. As a popular commentator on the wine industry, fine wine investment and the global wine market, Stephen is frequently quoted by both the UK and international press corps. Along with his regular lectures at AWC Wine Academy, this blog offers a behind-the-scenes view into the world of fine wine.
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