Robert Parker’s 2011 Verdict: Our thoughts

On the 14th of March, before even tasting the 2011 vintage, Robert Parker tweeted: “Heading back to Bordeaux next week to taste 2011. Absolutely no interest in the vintage if my instincts are correct”.

With this and other negative press reports around, we were not expecting great things when we visited the regions. After tasting however, we (along with much of the wine trade) were pleasantly surprised. While the vintage is by no means in the same league as the previous two “vintages of a lifetime”, it is a good (very good in places) vintage none-the-less. 2011 has produced some fragrant and attractive wines that, when made well, were absolutely delicious and at times stunning.

Releases of 2011 Bordeaux have thus far have been few and far between and, with the exception of an unexpected early release from Château Lafite (at £2799 per 6/75cl , the cheapest Lafite vintage on the market), none of the major Châteaux have released. The feeling has been that they have all been waiting for Robert Parker’s pronouncements on the vintage.

Well, last Friday the wait was finally over as his scores and report were published. He, like us, had clearly found the vintage to be more pleasing than he anticipated, as he claimed in his report: “This is a much better vintage than I thought it was before my trip to Bordeaux and could turn out to be close in overall quality to years such as the underrated 2001 and 2008”.

While this was, on the face of it, an encouraging start, further examination of his reviews and scores (available here) leads me to feel that he has perhaps somewhat underrated the vintage. Our impression, following extensive tastings, was that the best wines had the freshness and verve of the 2008, but with greater flesh and structure – an opinion that we have seen echoed by many other professionals. Robert Parker’s notes seem also to support this, but the scores do not necessarily match.

Having taken the mid-point of his predicted 2011 scores, Parker has given an average score of 88.90, which does compare favourably with 2008 (average score of 88.77), a fact that would appear to support our belief that 2011 is a better vintage than 2008.  However, Liv-Ex looked at the average Parker scores for the leading 35 châteaux and found that – at this crucial level – Parker shows a marked preference for the 2008.

Of course tasting wine is always subjective and tasting (occasionally inconsistent) en primeur samples can prove difficult. However, we believe that some of the top level châteaux have produced excellent wines and I therefore find some of the scores attributed to them hard to understand. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was Château Lafite, which was given a score of 90-93 points, the same as Sociando-Mallet. Lafite was by no means my favourite first growth (for me it was Latour, hands down), but to suggest that it was only of the same quality as Sociando-Mallet is almost farcical.

The key to the scores may lie in his report, which contained some very strongly worded commentary on the bordelais  pricing policy, stating that “if prices do not drop dramatically for the 2011 Bordeaux, I do not think there will be any fine “futures” wine market in the civilized world that will buy these wines for delivery in 2014”. For the record, we absolutely agree with him: in order for 2011 Bordeaux to be successful in the UK market, prices must come down to a level that gives the buyer a reason to purchase the wines at this early stage, i.e. the wines must be available at a prices that are lower than physically-available vintages of the same châteaux.

Robert Parker is currently the most influential wine critic around and his reviews have enormous influence on pricing of fine wines around the world. Nowhere is this more evident that in Bordeaux, where points undoubtedly mean (higher) prices.  He is very aware of this power and has often stated that he has never intended for his reviews to be used as the excuse for wines being priced out of the reach of those that would like to drink them. Given his comments on this vintage therefore, one can’t help but wonder whether his allocation of underwhelming scores for some of the more potentially expensive wines is a conscious attempt on his part to cool pricing in Bordeaux?

Al Luffingham

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