The plush gravel driveways crunch the endless cavalcade of cars to a grinding halt. Flags wave gaily in the cool maritime breeze. Security guards and other factotums direct drivers into their parking slots and pretty girls with glorious bottled suntans sashay like lissome tugboats across stone-coloured interiors. Delegations of sharply be-suited wine traders with slick backed hair and polished shoes dreamily march behind with their minds in altered state. The tiger’s den, decked out like a night club, purrs with intent. A court of oenologues, and Chateaux proprietors charm their prey with beautifully crafted argot and devoted attention; until the allotted time expires. The black-toothed, purple-lipped wine tasters are then niftily directed to the exit door with the precision of an executioner. They pile back into their waiting cars and rush urgently to their next rendezvous; their memories of deep-coloured, juicy elixirs positively charged with other beautiful aesthetics. For this is Bordeaux, the centre of the world’s fine wine trade and where reality and fantasy are disproportionately mixed.
The annual primeurs tastings, held in early April, is like a giant speed dating competition. A “flight plan” is essential to secure the best landing slots and to avoid driver fatigue. Thousands of trade and media, from around the world, flock to Bordeaux to taste the new wines from the previous vintage. This relatively modern tradition of vinous infanticide is where the reputation of the vintage is made. The wines are not finished. They have barely completed malo-lactic fermentation and they have only just been racked into barrel for a year’s maturation. Typically the wines are elemental without much fruit complexity or roundness on the palate. They will be bottled early next year (and delivered to Australia in around two years time) Yet these first impressions impact greatly on the success of the vintage and en-primeurs sales around the world. A great vintage will inevitably attract plenty of interest and drive prices up. A moderate vintage is more difficult to predict. Regardless, the first bite at the cherry – the forthcoming 2011 Bordeaux primeur campaign, is the earliest and usually the cheapest and lowest time to purchase Grand Cru Classe wines.
This year politics will inevitably play a part in the impressions of the vintage. It is no secret that the international wine trade and media wish to see wine prices reigned in. After the price gouging of the spectacular 2009 and 2010 vintages, and increasing push back from wine collectors world-wide, there is a feeling that the Bordelais need to bring down their prices for the 2011 vintage. As a consequence sentiment and opinion will be mixed this year. A further complication is the increasing competition between wine writers to secure early access to the wines. Publishing first brings obvious advantages. Robert Parker, who remains the world’s most important opinion maker, was in Bordeaux in early March and while presumably many of the wines were still going through malo-lactic fermentation. James Suckling, the London-based former Wine Spectator journalist and Jeannie Cho Lee MW, a Hong Kong Based writer, tasted the 2011 primeurs wines a week earlier than the main peleton of 200 wine journalists around the world. Last year Michel Bettane, France’s most famous wine writer, and Jancis Robinson MW, England’s queen of wine, bitterly complained about this, but clearly to no avail. The Bordelais are masters at divide and rule. Clearly there is much at stake.
I was in Bordeaux in spring, summer and autumn of 2011. The weather turned from winter into summer overnight. At Chateau d’Yquem I was wearing a heavy coat on the last day of March. On the first of April at Chateau Hosanna we were all in shirt sleeves. The growing season was challenging because the weather patterns were abnormal. Although there was significant heat during spring and summer the number of sunshine hours fell short by roughly 20 days. Leaf plucking and green harvesting were widely practiced. A few Chateau owners described the year as summer in spring, autumn in summer and summer in autumn. Others decribed it as two springs, two summers and two autumns. In June I was at Chateau Palmer with winemaker Thomas Duroux. A few of his vineyard plots were hammered by hail, yet just across the road Chateau Margaux largely escaped the storm. The weather was not entirely uniform across the region. Drought conditions prevailed through much of the season with enough top up rains to allow the vines to develop a small but flavourful crop. Flowering was uneven and resulted in relatively low crop levels, even before reducing the crop further by green harvesting. Some exposed clusters suffered from sunburn during late June. Some vineyards also experienced some disease pressure during August and September because of humid weather. Ultimately this was a vineyard management year. I saw plenty of fruit coming into the wineries during the early September vintage. Yields were small, but the grapes were deeply coloured, perfectly ripe, highly concentrated and crucially high in tannin. Chateau Margaux recorded its highest tannin levels in 20 years.
In Sauternes the vintage took place between early September and as late as November. Most estates triaged their plots several times to optimise the level of botrytis in their wines. Chateau d’Yquem finished in early October whereas Ch Rieussec finished picking on the 2nd November. Many of the grapes for white wines were picked as early as mid-August; the earliest in recorded history.
Optical sorting tables and meticulous selection of berries at vintage were widely employed in vintage 2011. The berries move along shaking tables like perfectly formed ball bearings. Anything short of perfect is picked out and thrown out. In some wineries there is a team of sorters, taking berries off discarded stalks. We worked out during the September vintage that each berry at a First Growth Estate is worth around $2. So why wouldn’t you take the extra care?
Most of the very top wineries including Ch Cos d’Estournel. Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalane, Ch Latour, Ch Lafite Rothschild etc, matched their vinification techniques with the personality of the fruit. Many wineries preferred to gently extract flavours and tannins in order to allow the fruit to come through. The 2011 vintage clearly shows that expertise and technology can impact greatly on overall quality. The rich and well capitalized estates all made very decent, sometimes spectacular wine. Tannins are fairly pronounced, but generally the quality is very good. My notes frequently describe tannins as chalky. Rarely are they ever sappy or under ripe, Ultimately the 2011 Bordeaux primeur wines are more elemental and tannic than recent vintages. The wines are often quite solid and chunky with the fruit lying seductively in the background. Many of the wines are ultra-classically proportioned with plenty of freshness, stuffing and richness.
Wine critics will inevitably look at the 2011 vintage through the prism of 2009 and 2010. Its definitely not a great vintage. The moniker of a great vintage is given to a year when there is homogeneity across all genres. Nonetheless, some great wines were made. In these modern times, with so much scientific knowledge, technology and investment, the Grand Cru Classe producers make pretty good wine each year.
Prices are predicted to fall. There are several reports from negociants and the Chateaux that the opening offers will be less than last year. The big question is by how far? The Bordeaux system is complicated with various mechanisms to maintain value. Yesterday I listened to a negociant explain why the way wine is sold is not collusionary. Yet this is a place where families, wealth and business interests intertwine. Prices and reputations are profoundly connected. However China has retreated from the scene. Indeed yet another major Chinese buyer has defaulted on a huge $60 million order. These are uncertain times and it behoves the Bordelais to tease back their traditional market. Expect therefore plenty of value in the forthcoming campaign.
I found plenty of lovely wines from the 2011 vintage. Sub regional character showed itself this year.
The St Estephes are muscular but the best have lovely richness and volume. Both Ch Cos d’Estournel (95-97 points) and Ch Montrose (94-97 points) are outstanding. Ch Ormes de Pez (92-94 points) and Ch Cos Labory (93-95 points) were other highlights.
Pauillac is solid with a swag of outstanding wines. Typically the wines were fresh, intense and elemental with lovely cassis/ espresso aromas and fine plentiful graphite tannins. Ch Lafite Rothschild (95-97 points) was arguably the best wine of the first growths but both Ch Latour(95-96 points) and Ch Mouton Rothschild (93-95 points) were excellent.
Ch Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (93-95 points), Ch d’Armailhac (93-95 points), Ch Batailley (94-96 points) and Ch Pontet Canet (96-97 points) were impressive; some will offer terrific value.
St Julien performed quite strongly too. The wines are fragrant with clear cassis/ black cherry aromas with strong grainy tannins. Ch Ducru Beaucaillou (94-96 points) was a stand out, but also Ch Leoville Lascases (94-96 points) was impressive. Ch Branaire Ducru (94-96 points) and Ch Leoville Barton (94-96 points) were my value picks - assuming the prices are good!
Margaux was a mixed performer. Both Ch Margaux (93-95 points) and Ch Palmer (95-97 points), which experienced the lowest yields since 1961, made beautiful wines. Typically they are deep coloured with intense cassis/ mulberry aromas, buoyant fruit and savoury/ chocolaty tannins. Ch Lascombes (92-94 points), Ch Malescot Saint Exupery (92-94 points) and Ch Marquis de Terme (94-96 points) were my picks.
Listrac and Moulis are a mixed bag. I found many to be overly sinewy and underpowered with fruit.
Ch La Lagune (91-94 points) (made by the beautiful Caroline Frey) and Ch Poujeaux (91-93 points), no stranger to Australian shores, were the strongest performers.
Graves/ Pessac-Leognan was uneven.The very best Chateau including Ch Haut Brion (93-95 points) and Ch La Mission Haut Brion (93-95 points) are impressive. I also enjoyed Domaine de Chevalier (92-95 points), Ch Smith Haut Lafitte (91-93 points), Ch Bailly and the lesser known Ch Bouscaut. These wines are well concentrated with fairly strong tannins. Some estates made wines that were just over extracted. The whites are good, but when compared to Australian and New Zealand Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc-based wines, they will not offer great value.
St Emilion is always full of surprises. Bordeaux’s celebrity oenologists including Michel Rolland and Stephane Derenoncourt are prominent consultants in this region. The wines are typically medium deep coloured with intense elderberry/ plummy aromas and chocolaty tannins. Ch Cheval Blanc (94-96 points) was lovely. Ch Figeac (93-96 points) and Ch Canon (93-95 points) were beautifully proportioned. Clos Fourtet (93-95 points) and Ch Angelus (92-95 points) were impressive. Ch Pavie (87-90 points) looked once again like a Barossa Shiraz. I am not mad about this style.
Ch Ausone (95-98 points) was the standout wine this year. Ch Troplong Mondot (91-93 points) looked great in the UCG tasting but did not shine in the Ier Grand Cru St Emilion tasting; such is the nature of these tastings.
There are many great Pomerols this year. These deep coloured and deeply set wines are typically very well concentrated with superb fruit density and plush tannins. Vieux Chateau Certan (96-98 points) is gorgeous.
Le Pin (94-96 points) and Ch Petrus (94-96 points) are outstanding. Lafleur (97-100 points), however, is astonishingly good and could well land up being the wine of the vintage.
Ch Magdelaine (93-95 points), Ch Latour a Pomerol (95-97 points), Ch Certan de May (93-96 points) and Ch Lafleur Petrus (92-94 points) were lovely. The Pomerols are particularly strong this year, perhaps because of the water holding capacity of the clay soils.
Sauternes and Barsac have enjoyed a strong vintage in 2011. Ch d’Yquem (94-96 points) and Ch Climens are really outstanding. Doisy Daene and Doisy Vedrines are lovely. Ch Rieussec and Ch Nairac were my picks.
The price evolution of Bordeaux over recent years has been alarming. Many collectors have been feeling the crunch. However this forthcoming campaign will undoubtedly offer buyers many lovely wines at very advantageous prices and value. With the relatively strong Australian Dollar, this will be a great year to buy Bordeaux.
Andrew Caillard MW
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