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.