I wrote this article for the trade magazine, Harpers Wine and Spirit, for the April 2012 issue.
Gavin Quinney, a grower in Bordeaux and contributor to Harpers Wine and Spirit, has tasted the top wines en primeur since the 2000 vintage. @GavinQuinney on Twitter.
There are only two types of vintage in Bordeaux these days, it seems. “Best ever” (2009 and then, arguably, 2010) and “Better then expected” (2008 and now, 2011). Most of the wine trade and press who attended the annual primeur tastings in early April agreed that the 2011s showed better than everyone thought they would. And, of course, that prices would have to be lower for the wines to sell as futures.
How does 2011 rate?
2011 is not a great vintage for red Bordeaux but it is a good vintage – and a very good one for dry whites, and an excellent one for Sauternes. I don’t think it’s comparable to any other recent vintage but qualitatively, for the reds, I’d put it well below 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2000 but above 2007, 2004, 2002 and most 2003s (excluding the northern Médoc). It sits somewhere alongside the 2008s and 2001s, depending on the region and the Chateau, and has more charm than 2006.
One plus point about 2011 is that most of the leading Chateaux produced 2011s that typify their terroir, their style, and the vintage. It may not have been a normal growing season in Bordeaux but the wines, for the most part, are faithful to their origin.
’It’s good to return to an Atlantic vintage, after two Pacific ones,’ said Denis Durantou of L’Eglise Clinet in Pomerol. ’With less alcohol.’
The best red wines combine good colour, lovely fruit and texture, balance, fine acidity and freshness. Tannins are the big issue – many wines have hit it just right, with well-knit, ripe, supple tannins. Others though have very dry, astringent, pippy tannins that they might never shed. Many wines have high tannin levels but it’s their quality and ripeness that matter.
What’s missing is that wonderful core of ripe fruit and the intensity, complexity, depth and length that you get from a great vintage like 2010.
The timing of the tastings, for once, slightly flattered these wines when compared to the 2010s at the same stage, given the early harvest in 2011 and the relatively quick alcoholic and malolactic fermentations.
The vintage hotspots
The best wines on the Left Bank came from the better terroirs in St-Julien and Pauillac. Margaux showed mixed results, as did St-Estephe. There are some good wines from the long spread of the Haut-Médoc, and from the appellations of Médoc, Moulis and Listrac. Selection is key, of course, and in a year like 2011, I’d rather wait to taste these wines again in bottle before buying.
South of Bordeaux, the Pessac-Leognan dry whites did well, although I didn’t find them as thrilling as many people did, while the reds were a mixed bag. 2011 was another excellent vintage in Sauternes and Barsac, making it 4 out 5 top vintages to choose from there (07, 09, 10, 11).
On the Right Bank, the clay-limestone sector of St-Emilion and the plateau of Pomerol produced the best results. Fronsac and some of the Cotes did well, for the same reason that the vineyards on the clay-limestone in St-Emilion did: the limestone beneath the clay topsoil provided enough moisture to the roots during the drought, so that vine development wasn’t blocked, giving the tannins a chance to ripen.
You can always find wines with excessive oak, but these seem to be going out of fashion, thankfully.
A challenging year, early harvest
We often hear the word ’classic’ with years like 2011 but the weather was far from normal. It was also a challenging year in the vineyard. The vines were quick out of the blocks with an early bud break in March and they accelerated away thanks to a very warm, dry Spring, with an early flowering in May – three weeks ahead of usual. March to early July was ridiculously dry, which meant that there was less risk of mildew, but some vines suffered and the berries remained small. There was also a brief heatwave at the end of June that singed many exposed bunches.
We then had more rain than usual in July and August, with changeable temperatures until early September. Sauvignon Blanc for dry whites were picked in August, much earlier than usual. As the red harvest approached there was also a strong threat of rot in the humid conditions but fine, sunny weather in September proved a great help.
Almost all the red grapes were picked in September, which is rare, as you’d normally see the harvest of Left Bank Cabernet Sauvignon and many Right Bank Merlots in October. The only recent year when this happened before this was 2003, a completely different vintage when, conversely, a hot summer brought forward the harvest.
Sorting it all out
For the first time, the array of sophisticated sorting systems earned their keep. If they’d been on test in 2009 and 2010, when everything was picked in great shape, it was in preparation for harvests like 2011. Unripe or rot affected grapes had to be separated out.
Philippe Dhalluin of Mouton Rothschild said his sorting line, including an optical sorting machine, rejected 8% of the crop. Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion told me that they ditched between 5% and 7% in this way ’en plus’ – on top of the manual sorting in the vineyard. That’s a significant amount of sub-standard grapes that might have detracted from the final wine.
This kit isn’t restricted to the First Growths. In St-Julien alone, optical scanners were used at super seconds Léoville Las Cases, Léoville Poyferré, Ducru Beaucaillou and Gruaud-Larose, all of whom made outstanding wines in 2011. Other estates which made superb wines, like Latour, Pontet-Canet and Leoville-Barton, swear by the manpower on their ’double-sorting’ lines (new chez Barton in 2011). Right across Bordeaux, from Chateau Poujeaux in Moulis to Clos du Clocher in Pomerol, you’d have found clever sorting machines in action in 2011.
Vinifications were relatively straightforward although most winemakers turned the dial down on the extraction to maximise the fruit but restrict the effect of any astringent tannins from the pips.
Last vintage for Latour ‘en primeur’
Just as the trade were expecting an early start to the en primeur campaign, with Lafite suggesting that the wine would be released early and at a reduced price, Latour created waves by announcing to its Bordeaux negociants on Friday, 13th April that 2011 would be the last vintage to be sold en primeur.
Market pressure v low yields
Given that many top chateaux made far less wine in 2011, it will be interesting to see how proprietors react to market demand for lower prices.
To give you an idea, the maximum permitted yield in 2011 for the top appellations in the Médoc was 57 hl/ha (hectolitres or 100 litres, per hectare), with yields for leading estates in a normal year being around 40-50 hl/ha.
First Growth 2011 yields
Lafite Rothschild produced 50 hl/ha (40% of the production went into the Grand Vin, from 112 hectares)
Latour 42 hl/ha (34% GV, 78 ha)
Margaux 29 hl/ha (38% GV, 78 ha)*
Mouton Rothschild 30 hl/ha (52% GV, 77 ha)
Haut-Brion 39 hl/ha (43 ha)
Other big names:
Léoville Las Cases 27hl/ha
Ducru Beaucaillou 25hl/ha*
Pichon Baron 30 hl/ha
Pontet Canet 32hl/ha
Cos d’Estournel 36 hl/ha (30% GV)
Montrose 34 hl/ha (50% GV)