Bordeaux 2011: Nick Dagley’s Vintage Report

The weather and its effectsBordeaux Harvest 2011

I witnessed first hand the topsy-turvy weather conditions, which made 2011 such a challenge for the vignerons; I was sunburnt and hot during the en-primeur tastings of the first week in April, rained on and distinctly chilly in August and then overheated again during my annual harvest visit in September.

The main dangers for the wine producers are spring frosts and wet weather during harvest, both of which were avoided in 2011, despite a complicated growing season. The summer was early and ultimately cool and has produced uneven reds and exceptional dry and sweet white wines. September started badly in the south-west corner of St. Estèphe, with a violent hailstorm on the 1st that caused significant damage to grapes at several cru classé châteaux.

The rest of the month was almost bone-dry, meaning the harvest of grapes, which had been hanging on vines for as long as any Bordeaux has ever seen, could begin at the owners’ leisure.

Overview of the Market Lay & Wheeler Bordeaux 2011, Vintage Overview

If the Bordelais were quiet last year because they weren’t sure how to publicise a second exceptional vintage on the trot, this year they have been like the proverbial mice. 2011 is a complex vintage in more ways than one. There are so many factors at work and, as ever, much speculation about timing and prices, with something of a stand-off between merchants and châteaux owners.

To be frank, with two great but very expensive vintages in a row, if they don’t get the prices right then the wines will be difficult to recommend and hard to sell. However, there are some very good to truly excellent wines and, if the prices reflect what the market wants and needs, then this will be a great opportunity to buy – after all this is what en primeur should be!

There are of course exceptions – Denis Durantou of l’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol has produced a stunning range of wines, but suggested he wouldn’t lower his prices very much. In his defence his production is limited, demand for his wines is growing and he was reasonable last year.

The ‘issue’ is on the left bank of the river, where properties are larger and choice is wider. The other unknown factor is the mood of the emerging markets. They began buying seriously in 2008 and enjoyed quick and substantial returns. In general, 2009 and 2010 have proved a less profitable investment thus far. There were certainly more European than Asian or American buyers in Bordeaux this week, suggesting that the volumes they buy will surely depend on the prices being right.

The signs are that the campaign will be early and quick, Didier Cuvelier of Leoville-Poyferré helpfully said that they would release their prices in May at a level somewhere in between 2008 and 2009(!). We already have some prices from certain Cru Bourgeois Châteaux and Jean-Pierre Moeuix, which have made for an exciting start.

Be assured we will only offer wines which we believe in and which provide value for money. Personally I was forced to lower my sights somewhat when buying 2009 and 2010 – this year I hope I can aim a bit higher.

View of the vintage Chateau Rausan Segla, Lay & Wheeler En Primeur Bordeaux 2011

There is little doubt that 20 years ago a vintage such as 2011 would have produced many (red) wines that were either dilute or full of such drying tannins that any fruit would have been buried forever. However, there have been such advances in both vineyard and winery that 2011 has produced some extremely good wines; overall this vintage is better than 2008 – the right bank châteaux are comparing it to 2001 (delicious now); the picture is less clear on the left, with 1996, 2006 and even 2000 being mentioned.

The keys to making good wine in 2011 were a strict selection in the vineyard (green/pink harvest), followed by more sorting of the fruit upon arrival at the winery and a gentle extraction of tannin, with many winemakers choosing to macerate for less time than usual and at a lower temperature.

Also important were individual terroirs and harvest dates. Merlot planted on clay or limestone performed very well (crucial to so many of the better wines in St-Emilion and Pomerol), but there was some hydric stress for better draining, gravelly soils.

In the Médoc, St Julien seemed to be the most consistent commune, with supremely refined wines from Gloria to Léoville-Las-Cases. Understandably, St-Estèphe was patchier, but Vincent Millet continues to make brilliant wine at Calon-Segur. Pauillac was good with some pretty serious tannins on show, meaning that the top wines will need time to knit.

The best strike rate was over on the right bank, where Pomerol impressed yet again, with real purity and vineyard definition – the vintage particularly seemed to suit the thoughtful approach of Maison Jean-Pierre Moeuix.

Graves is not far behind, typically aromatic with fine grained tannins and incredible white wines.

Chemically, the analysis of many 2011s shows that they are similar to the 2010s, with a degree (or so) less alcohol, which people may view as a good thing. Most wines we tasted were between 13 and 13.5%, whereas there were plenty over 14% in 2010. Those wines which lack richness and flesh can taste lean and even green, and where a less delicate touch has been shown in the winery, some bitter tannins were extracted – and we won’t buy them.

There are however many very successful and balanced wines, which will mature more quickly than the previous two vintages. It is undoubtedly a year which has allowed the character and style of each château to shine through. If there is a wine you know that you like, the chances are that the 2011 vintage will be a very good example.

I hope that sensible prices will prevail making this a much more accessible vintage.

White wines White Bordeaux 2011, 2011 Haut-Brion, Lay & Wheeler

Both dry and sweet whites are superb in 2011. The early spring and cool summer meant that this was the earliest white grape harvest since the 1893 (as early as 17th August). The great dry wines of the Graves are racy and explosive, with huge concentration and capacity to age – Domaine de Chevalier Blanc is at the same level as Haut-Brion or La Mission.

There was a full-blown attack of very pure noble rot in Sauternes and Barsac, following showers in early September, which helped give us one of the best vintages ever for these wines. Both dry and sweet Bordeaux white wines remain unfashionable, but offer truly unique experiences – they come highly recommended.

Nick Dagley, Head of Buying

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  1. […] a round up of the week Nick Dagley, Fine Wine Buyer, has just written his vintage report, and you can also find his diary from the trip, along with daily reports from Kat, Ludovic and […]

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