Bordeaux 2011: A Year of Living Dangerously

After two great Bordeaux vintages, 2011 has been a year of living dangerously. “It’s complicated,” Christian Moueix explained when I asked what he thought of the millésime, as his team picked in St-Emilion. If one of the most respected winemakers thinks it’s hard to generalise, it might be foolish for the rest of us to rush into snap judgments.

Let me try and explain what’s been going on in the Bordeaux vineyard this year, and forgive me for the amount of detail. My fascinating weather charts will follow later (updated for 2011 here).

Here’s a summary:

1. Early start, warm spring, then drought.

2. An up-and-down summer.

3. Early harvest, September sunshine.

4. When to pick: balancing ripeness with the risk of rot.

5. These magnificent men (and women) and their sorting machines.

6. Volume 5% up overall but yields vary from one estate to another.

7. Finally, a Tweet showing how the growing season compares.


1. Early start, warm spring, then drought

Merlot vines, 9th April 2010

We had an early budburst in Bordeaux in late March, then a much warmer April and May than usual, indicating an early harvest. Fine weather during the crucial flowering of the vines in late May and early June also suggested a good crop size.

June was slightly cooler than the norm, despite a fearsome heat wave late in the month, during which some exposed bunches were sunburnt. (Worse than that, some parts of Margaux, the Graves and Sauternes were hit by hail earlier on.)

Same vines, 9th April 2011

In these four months from March to June, we had very little rain: 89mm in total here, compared to a 30-year average of 290mm. (Figures vary across Bordeaux.)

70% less rain than the average, over four months, might well have reduced the risk of the evil mildew but there was real cause for concern as young vines suffered from from a lack of water and, heading into July, the development of many vines ground to a halt.

Vines on the great terroirs, which naturally allow the roots access to just enough moisture in the sub-soils, fared better. Those terroirs would be tested again, in a quite different way, when good drainage would be required during the summer rains.

Philippe Dhalluin, Technical Director of Château Mouton-Rothschild, told me in late June that tests in the vineyard had showed that the vines were three weeks ahead, and that the harvest there would start around 5th September.

The overall feeling though was that having experienced two very dry summers in 2009 and 2010, further drought would lead to serious problems.

2. An up-and-down summer

A vine at Tertre Roteboeuf, St-Emilion, bunches still green, 1 August 2010

At last, we had some rain in the second week of July to refresh the parched vines. We then had just a little too much rain during the summer holidays, off and on – 153mm in the two months combined compared to the 30-year average of 106mm.

July was much cooler than normal but the rain in the middle of the month, then sunshine at the end, helped the grapes to change colour, so we were still a fortnight ahead. Merlot and Cabernet grapes on either Bank in Bordeaux on 1stAugust in 2010 were still green, mostly. This year they were red.

The same vine at Tertre Roteboeuf, St-Emilion, red bunches, 1 August 2011

August was a month of highs and lows, even if the stats show, overall, that temperatures were slightly cooler than the average. Rain at first, then chilly, then sunny and dry, then very hot and humid, heavy rain on 23rd, then sunny again. Some vines, with their timing already out of whack, starting growing new leaves, rather than concentrating on ripening grapes.

With the vines well in advance, and the threat of rot in the humid conditions, the dry whites were picked from the middle of the month onwards, with most growers starting to harvest by the end of August.

Earliest white harvest on record, claims Sud Ouest

As the Sud Ouest newspaper declared on the 30th, this was a very early kick-off.

3. Early harvest and September sun.

September is a crucial month. Fine weather just before and during the harvest can seal a great vintage, as in 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010, or it can save a vintage after a wet summer, as in 2002, 2004 and 2007. The attractive 2008s – a much later harvest than this year – were helped by a prolonged dry spell from mid-September onwards, whereas many 2006s had the shine taken off them by mid-September rain.

With the vines so advanced, the weather this September has been even more pivotal. If the rain of the last week of August and 1st September had carried on for longer, hopes for a good vintage would have ebbed away. After a nervous, cloudy first week, the sun came out from the 9th and Châteaux were able to harvest during three weeks of mostly fine weather.

Hail hit grapes in St-Estèphe

September 2011 did indeed start badly, with heavy rain – and worse – on the 1st. Hail in much of St-Estèphe, and in other parts of Bordeaux, meant an early start to the harvest for some, as grapes had to be brought in early to avoid any rot spreading, and shredded leaves could no longer help the ripening process. Château Lafite started picking their parcel of Cabernet in St-Estèphe on Saturday the 3rd, Montrose kicked off too, and Cos d’Estournel the following week.

The Merlot harvest, other than in the vineyards hit by hail on 1st September, began as usual in the ‘precocious’ vineyards of Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan. Harvesting began there during the first week of September (young Merlot vines were picked, in fact, at Haut-Brion as early as the 29th August) but the weather really improved from the 9th onwards. With the sun out, winemakers became bolder in the quest for ripeness, especially if they had a modern sorting line to hand.

Harvest at Le Pin, as seen from the roof

Most of the red action was from Monday 12th onwards, on both banks. In Pomerol, L’Eglise Clinet and Le Pin, delaying the start from the previous week, began on Monday 12th. Way across the Gironde in Pauillac, Château Lafite started to harvest their young Cabernet Sauvignon vines on 14th September (last year, they didn’t start their Cabernet until 4th October), just as they finished their Merlots. Mouton completed their Merlots and started with young Cabernets on 15th September.

We had rain on Sunday 18th and on the 19th but the sun returned on Tuesday 20th, and with it the harvest in earnest. The Merlot harvest in St-Emilion really began then, shortly before they’d finished in nearby Pomerol – there were still plots of Merlot left at Pétrus, for example, on the 21st.

Château Margaux, 23 Sept 2011

Meanwhile the Châteaux on the Left bank were harvesting all the red varieties the week beginning 19th, and into the following week. Château Margaux was still bringing in Merlot on the 23rd  with the Cabernet Sauvignon to be completed the week after.  Meanwhile, Château Léoville-Barton – which often finishes before its peers – completed the harvest on Friday 23rd.

The harvest on the Left Bank in St-Julien, Pauillac, St-Estèphe, Margaux and the Haut-Médoc is being wrapped up, under a hot sun, before the end of September. This doesn’t happen very often: in fact, the only other recent vintage when the reds of the Left Bank were picked in September was 2003, which was, after a summer drought and heat wave, a quite different year.

With such lovely weather in the last three weeks of September, it’s a pity that the early start to the season, and warm Spring, meant that the grapes were ready much earlier than usual. An early October harvest would have been spot on.

4. When to pick: balancing ripeness with the risk of rot

Château Pontet Canet, 22 Sept 2011

With a relatively long ‘hang-time’ since the early flowering in late May, but with a difficult summer, winemakers have had to choose the timing of the harvest carefully, balancing phenolic ripeness on the one hand and the risk of botrytis – grey rot – on the other. I’d seen no rot at all on red grapes in September in the last three years, quite unlike this year.

Leading producers, from Christian Moueix at Château Magdelaine in St-Emilion, to Alfred Tesseron at Château Pontet Canet in Pauillac, were at pains to point out how important it was to risk having some bunches in the vineyard with rot, in order to harvest fruit that was fully ripe. Any rot-affected bunches could be eliminated during the sorting process – at leading and ambitious estates, that is.

Jean-Michel Comme

“If the grapes are unripe you will taste that in the wine for 20, 30 or 40 years,” said Jean-Michel Comme, Pontet Canet’s technical director. “Ce n’est pas tout a fait mûr” shrugged Didier Cuvelier, the owner of Château Léoville Poyferré, as he waited to pick grapes that weren’t yet completely ripe. (“It’s all about the pips, apparently,” Anthony Barton told me once, mockingly.)

If we hadn’t had fine weather for much of September, rot would have been rampant. But some growers who left grapes out to capitalise on the late September sunshine found that they simply withered on the vine as they passed their sell-by date.

5. These magnificent men (and women) and their sorting machines

This year, for the first time, the new sorting machines and state-of-the-art sorting tables, should really prove their worth: it has certainly been a vintage year for the suppliers of modern grape-sorting equipment in the wake of two extraordinary primeur sales campaigns.

Grape sorting machines have been around for a few years but the new systems, including optical ray scanners and the like, have really been tested since the 2009 vintage. In the last two years, there has been little to reject as ripeness was fairly even.

In 2011, in comparison, grapes even in the same bunch have shown different levels of ripeness. More importantly, this year there has been a lot more rot in evidence, so it’s been important to eliminate this – usually by hand, before the bunches are de-stemmed.

‘Tri-Optique’ sorting machine at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou

At the top châteaux – and this can include many lesser-known names which try to punch above their weight – hand-picked bunches are inspected first, either in the vineyard or in the winery. The grapes are then de-stemmed in the winery before being crushed as they go into the fermentation vat.

In the last decade, many more efficient de-stemming machines have been installed, with another sorting table thereafter for the individual berries. The sorting both before and after de-stemming is often referred to as ‘double sorting.’ In the last few years, some châteaux have opted for the new wave of grape-sorting machines.

Perfect grapes pass the test

To give you an idea, within a few square miles of St-Julien alone, there’s impressive new sorting machinery at Ducru Beaucaillou, Gruaud Larose, Léoville Barton, Léoville Poyferré, Léoville Las Cases and at most of the Crus Classés. And it’s not just at the most expensive crus that you’ll find clever sorting systems: Clos d Clocher in Pomerol, Haut-Simard in St-Emilion, and Poujeaux in Moulis are just a few of the properties across Bordeaux using state-of-the-art kit to eliminate inferior grapes.

Unripe grapes picked out by hand at Léoville Barton

Quality is very uneven. However, there’s no doubt that those estates with the best vineyards, which have had to cope with both drought from March to early July and then provide drainage for excess rain during the summer, along with the necessary manpower, know-how and deep pockets, have given themselves the chance to select just the best grapes to make some pretty good wine. In Bordeaux, success breeds success.

I’m afraid that the opposite is also true as there are too many vineyards this year with big yields and, shall we say, just a hint of rot.

6. Volume 5% up overall but yields vary from one estate to another

The official estimate for the yield for the Bordeaux harvest is 5% above the 5-year average at 6.1 million hectolitres (a mere 813 million bottles’ worth). That covers the whole region, of course, and most growers don’t cut back their crop – especially if it looks in the early stages that there’s a likelihood of a third very dry vintage on the trot.

‘Green’ harvest – discarding excess bunches to improve those that remain on the vine – St-Emilion, 23 August 2011

After the rainy summer, which filled out the grapes, yields in some parts of the Right Bank, particularly in the less prestigious appellations, were potentially huge.

My view is that most leading Châteaux will make normal yields, as many cut back their crop through stricter pruning and vine management, and from green harvesting in July, August and even early September.

Low yields can be expected from some leading châteaux in Margaux, Graves and Sauternes, as a result of the early season hail, and strict selection for the first wines of some top estates in St-Estèphe will reduce volumes of ‘Grands Vins’ after the hail of 1st September.

7. Finally, a Tweet showing how the growing season compares

Finally, for fun, here’s a Twitter version of how the growing season compares to the other years I’ve lived through – considering Bordeaux as a whole, not just our vineyard:

2011 Bdx growing season: 7/10. 10: 9/10, 09: 9/10, 08: 7/10, 07: 6/10, 06: 7/10, 05: 9/10, 04: 6/10, 03: 6/10, 02: 5/10, 01: 7/10, 00: 8/10.

Now it’s time for me to take a look at Sauternes and Barsac. After all, for those vineyards that escaped the hail, and with this brilliant weather at the end of September, it should be looking good.

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4 thoughts on “Bordeaux 2011: A Year of Living Dangerously

  1. Keith Hearnden

    Great to be given access to such an insightful analysis, Gavin. For those many of us who are fascinated by the processes that produce the wines we drink and love, it is a priceless benefit.

    I hope all the trouble you have clearly taken results in wines of which you are proud.

  2. David Stuart

    A refeshingly honest and straightforward article. Thank you. The million dollar question however, is, what will en-primeur be like in 2012? Anyone brave enough to hazard a guess or even an informed opinion!

    1. Gavin

      Prices will be a lot lower for the 2011s. That is, for those Châteaux which have put their prices up considerably since the inexpensive 2008s were first released. Of course, some brands – namely the First Growths – will still be in demand, so it'll be interesting to see what happens.