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Bordeaux 2011 Primeurs: Overview

Written by JW. Posted in Bordeaux

Pontet-Canet: One of the best reds in a tricky vintage

Well that was an interesting primeurs week. Bordeaux 2011 is a fascinating vintage, though not for the reasons most of the producers would have liked. It’s a tricky, difficult year for the reds, because of the topsy-turvy nature of the growing season and a series of extreme events. First was the heat of the spring, more like summer, which led to rapid and precocious development in the vines. It pointed to the earliest ever harvest in Bordeaux’s history. Continuing drought followed by rain led the vines on a stop/start cycle and bunch ripeness became irregular. Searing days of heat in June [40C] also burnt the grapes in some places. Violent hail at the very beginning of September threatened to destroy a year’s crop inside half an hour in St Estèphe and rain in Bordeaux then, and in mid-September, also threatened a spread of rot, the fear of which may have led some producers to harvest grapes lacking in phenolic ripeness. Those who waited profited. Anyone working from a recipe book in this vintage was destined for trouble. It’s being described by many as a ‘technical’ vintage. It is certainly one that seems to separate the men from the boys.

Given all this irregularity in the growing cycle you’d expect irregularity in the resulting wines and there is. Many very good reds have been made in 2011, don’t get me wrong, and some are extremely good at the very top level, but there are a host of wines verging on the green and vegetal. There is lots of acid about and many wines suffer mid-palate dryness with a raw quality to the tannins.  Those who’ve looked for composure, elegance and harmony have faired best to my palate. Those who have pushed things have misjudged it. Vintage comparisons are a little erroneous. 2011 is very peculiar. Nevertheless there are similarities with 2001, 2004 and 2008 for the reds but it’s a complex picture. There are wines in 2011 much better than in those vintages, but there are also quite a few you would not touch with a barge pole.

Chateau d’Yquem leads and impressive field in Sauternes

In the end the conditions only favoured probable greatness for the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Here there are many rich, fabulous wines to be had, in a vintage blessed with botrytis. Growers think this vintage may very well be the best of what is now clearly a trio of top back-to-back vintages spanning 2009-2011. Time will tell where 2011 sits amongst them, but it is undoubtedly excellent.

Amongst the reds the best terroirs and the most diligent and sensitive producers have generally triumphed. For me the left bank Haut Médoc appellations Pauillac and St Julien did better than the rest. Margaux seemed very spotty – a lot of raw, stretched and extracted wines there – and only a handful stood out, Chateau Palmer being one. The Cru Bourgeois in this vintage too were also generally a very tough bunch and there was a lot of rawness in many reds in too. The saving grace there was the whites, which have lovely spicy grapefruit and citrus aromas and lots of style. Of course there are exceptions everywhere. On the right bank certain producers in St Emilion have triumphed with very well made wines, generally it being those who didn’t plunge in with too much extraction. Less is always more in St Emilion and that seems especially so in a vintage like 2011. There was also much variability in Pomerol too. Some were light, spicy efforts, others felt raw and extracted. The best managed balance and harmony. I’ll be posting detailed notes by appellation in the coming days on all the 300 wines I got to taste

Chateau Palmer: Dense and structured from the lowest yields since 1961

A brief word on pricing. There seems to be a realisation at all the Chateaux I visited this past week that price cuts this year are inevitable and necessary. There’s talk of it being up to as much as 50% in certain cases. Great, if that happens. Many properties though don’t have that much room for manoeuvre. I’m thinking here of the Cru Bourgeois and Petits Chateaux. Other properties that have raised their game recently, and their prices, privately feel that a step backward in price would undermine their achievements and their brand. But this vintage only makes sense to buy en primeur if the price cuts are serious. By all means tuck into the sweet wines in 2011, it is a lovely vintage, but if prices for the reds don’t drop at least 40% or more, you’d be far wiser using your money to buy 2001, 2004, 2008 and even 2009 [at the lesser level] to drink now. 2011 doesn’t represent an investment vintage, so unless this vintage is priced to drink, in the coming weeks I’d pass.

Bordeaux 2011: Which way on prices?

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