Coming just days before Easter, Bordeaux pulled another rabbit from its hat with the 2011 vintage wines during last week’s barrel tastings in the fabled French wine region.
As was the case with the 2008 vintage, the jumbled weather in 2011 had all the right elements – sunshine, rain, heat, cold – in all the wrong places, thus gathering early predictions of gloom.
“The vintage started dry, hot, and flowered early,’ says Philippe Dhalluin, executive director of Mouton-Rothschild, “and we thought we had another exceptional vintage. Then it was not sunny and was somewhat rainy most of the summer.” September, however, helped save the crop. But by the time the trade and media from around the world showed up last week in Bordeaux, the growers were increasingly optimistic about what they had in their barrels to show at primeurs (aka en primeur), the annual working party at which everyone looks into their glasses of wine that are barely seven months old and tries to tell their futures. In textbook seasons like the 2009 vintage, everyone flocks to Bordeaux ready to coronate another vintage of the century. But in questionable years, there is a much-different pattern – a sort of ritualistic dance – that goes like this: At the Sunday-night welcoming dinners that proceed opening Monday, châteaux owners are hopeful, but cautious. They, and very few others, have tasted and are happy with the new barrel blends, but will the trade and media be equally generous in their appraisals?
On Monday morning, when the trade and journalistic contingents start congregating at the châteaux, feedback comes burbling up like an over-heated fermentation. They like 2011, comes the verdict, but it isn’t a 2009 or 2010. Then there is the matter of price. The conversation becomes open and freer with the nightly gala dinners at the estates, a time when older vintages are trotted out to remind guests that previous problem vintages are now showing spectacularly. By Tuesday of last week, the trade was uniformly saying, “Yes, the wines are quite nice, but you’ll need to set your prices early and come down a whole lot from last year.” Some producers agree with the assessment and the recommended actions, but others are looking at their stocks in their cellars from previous vintages – which are surprisingly low – and indicate they will wait to see what other châteaux in the same commune or price range are doing. “The first growths will have to come down 30-40 percent, or I won’t be buying any of their 2011s,” one indignant London merchant told me. I told him it was my opinion that he will find himself empty-handed.
So, how are the wines? First, they are somewhat uneven in quality, particularly on the Left Bank. Everyone has plenty of fruit, as the small clusters last year did produce more flavor intensity if less volume – a smaller crop. However, some have “holes in the middle” – a deficit in the middle palate – and many could use more acid for a longer finish. But it is the tannins that startle. While they are supple and soft, there are tons of them, which is one of the elements for long aging.
“This vintage has the highest amount of measurable tannins that I have seen since I’ve been here,” says the venerable Paul Pontaillier of Château Margaux, and others I talked with echoed the same theme. Additionally, even though there is unevenness among producers, most of the 130-plus samples I tasted were of at least of “B” quality, and many were “A.” Château Margaux, among the first growths I tasted, was stunningly good – flavorful, complex, excellent structure, long, well-balanced. I told Pontaillier I couldn’t find a flaw in it, and he agreed that he couldn’t either. Among other first growths I tasted, Ausone, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild were perhaps the equal of Margaux – or close. Lafite-Rothschild seemed to have just a little less substance. Among the other top tiers who produced excellent wines, I would include Pontet-Canet, Le Pin with its distinctive brulée finish, Palmer, Lynch-Bages, Issan (the best texture) and Lassegue. Regionally, I felt that Pomerol, St-Émilion, Paulliac and St-Estèphe had more even production from top to bottom than did Margaux and St-Julien. Unfortunately, I did not get to taste Graves and Pessac-Leognan (other than the Haut-Brion stable), but others have indicated it was a very good vintage there as well. I asked Emmanuel Cruse of Château d’Issan whether Bordeaux would ever have a truly bad vintage again. “It’s very easy with all the technology we have to say, ‘no more bad vintages,’” he began. “But it will happen again. If you have bad berries, you will have bad wines.” I asked him, when was the last time there was truly a bad vintage? He thought back. “In 1992,” he said.
I had at least a half-dozen directors credit new optical sorting tables for saving a vintage that produced clusters that would have delicious berries, green berries and diseased berries all on the same bunch. Of course, a few châteaux will bite the tannic pip and come out with their prices immediately. But, until Robert Parker and others come out with more-definitive judgments, and until directors are certain that their neighbors won’t charge too little or too much, the annual Bordeaux dance of the primeurs will continue.