Bordeaux 2011: How was it?

I was asked by Gemma, the News Editor at Harpers Wine and Spirit, for my thoughts on the 2011 vintage before the trade and press tastings here in the first week of April. Here was my reply.

Even though I live and breath each vintage in Bordeaux, it’s foolish to try and predict how each Château’s wines are going to show from barrel, especially with such an up-and-down year as 2011.

No-one is going to claim that 2011 is a better vintage than, say, 2009. Apart from me, that is – I lost 80% of my crop to hail in May 2009. (So did hundreds of others, for that matter.) But for the great wines, 2011 sits in the shadows of 2009 and 2010, despite the dry and sweet whites from last year showing real promise.

There are some key factors about 2011.

We had a very early budbreak and then a summer-like spring, so the vines flowered about three weeks early in May. By the beginning of July, after a bone dry period of four months, the development of many vines had become blocked through lack of rain. July and August were then up-and-down – at times hot and humid, at other times cool and rainy.

The year will go down as a very dry year, with just 270mm of rain from March to September, compared to the 30 year-average in Bordeaux of 430mm. But in July and August we had around 150mm of rain compared to a norm of 100mm, so a glance at a weather chart will show that it was an upside-down season – dry from March to June and again in September but wetter in the summer. Weird.

There was less threat of mildew early on but, far worse, there was a high risk of grey rot as the harvest approached. The harvest was early, following on from the early kick-off in the spring, with the dry whites being picked in the second half of August. ‘Record de précocité’ shouted the headline in the Sud-Ouest on 30 August.

The 2011 reds were nearly all picked in September. In 2009, and the late harvest 2010, you’d have seen the Merlots being picked in September and the Cabernets in October, so 2011 was an early one, for sure. The only other vintage in the last twenty years when everything came in during September was 2003, a quite different year when there was a dangerous heatwave in August.

Sorting and selection were key, and this put the guys with the best terroirs (that could withstand drought or rot, for example) and, of course, the resources, into a far stronger position.

I can’t stress enough how much investment has been made in the sorting lines and in the top wineries in the last four or five years. In 2009 and 2010, the mind-boggling equipment at some of the major châteaux were simply there as a test, a fashion statement for the cameras. The grapes then were close to perfection. But in 2011, the new-fangled sorting systems have really been put to the test.

My guess is that there’ll be some very good wines, although quite inconsistent. Right Bank over Left? Not a vintage though, I’d wager, to wade into the bulk red wines.

People might describe it as a more classical vintage, even if the growing season was far from typical. The malolactic fermentations generally happened early too, so the reds shouldn’t be too hard to taste.

2011 will be called a ‘drinker’s vintage’, as opposed to one to invest in: prices will have to come down a great deal for the expensive wines to sell through, and not get stuck along the way. It could be a tough year for Bordeaux négociants if they get left holding these babies.

Whatever the prices, everyone will want to see a quick primeur campaign. Recent experience shows, the 2008s notwithstanding, that one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.

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One thought on “Bordeaux 2011: How was it?

  1. Steve Webb

    This echoes the thoughts of Denis Dubourdieu. Denis also stated that the dry whites are excellent and the Sauternes great so hopefully both of these styles will receive more focus this year. Certainly the trio of 2009, 2010 and 2011 in Sauternes is quite remarkable.