II. Daily Round-Up of the En Primeur Tastings
Day One (2nd April 2012)
Day One has proven to be interesting. Tastings have confirmed that we are looking at a mixed vintage. The weather pattern this year was certainly bizarre for Bordeaux, as previously mentioned. A dry, hot spring and a markedly cold summer, which included a period of drought, was followed by rain in late August and into September before bright, sunny conditions prevailed. Against this backdrop modern Bordeaux's understanding and, to be frank, technology were going to have a bearing on the outright result of the vintage. Famed oenologist Eric Boissenot commented that 'it is unusual for the vine to go through so many traumas.' Today, it is difficult for Bordeaux to deliver a substandard vintage, such is the level of expertise. Abject failures - such as those of the early/ mid seventies or even the early nineties - could not happen today.
That said, variation had to be the watchword for the vintage, particularly when so much was dictated by harvest date and the precision with which numerous vineyard and winemaking tasks were carried out. Yields are down. There is less wine than the norm, in part down to grape selection and in part due to small berry size - Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. Furthermore, high skin to juice ratios demanded that great sensitivity guided extraction policy during fermentation. It isn't always plain-sailing. I am always one to caution against generalisations in any vintage, none more so than in 2011, for today we have tasted the good, the so-so and - dare I say it - witnessed the ugly.
A broad-ranging tasting at one of our key négoçiants was very helpful in setting the scene. There we were able to taste multiple wines from each appellation in order to get a feel for what 2011 had to offer. This is my twelfth En Primeur visit and experience has taught me that heading into a château first thing on the Monday without the opportunity to reference the vintage is a difficult exercise. Arduous at times but exciting at others, it did much to paint the picture of the vintage.
The wines that impressed captured a supple note. Their fruit which was more forward than either of the preceding two vintages (no surprise there) was underscored by a marked, vibrant acidity. Stylistically, some of the wines we tasted today resembled their 2008 counterparts although in the main there was the suggestion of bolder, more intense fruits. 2011 shouldn't be a heavily tannic vintage and the key for success is, as always, balance. Those châteaux that balanced fruit concentration with carefully-extracted tannin and allied it to the vintage's inherent freshness have stood out from the pack. Having tasted 60 wines in one sitting this afternoon, I would suggest that this kind of balance is not commonplace.
Notable successes that we have tasted today include:
Pontet-Canet: I was impressed by the precision shown in the 2011 and we could see that proprietor Alfred Tesseron was justifiably proud. The aromas were fragrant, the palate full of terrific deep fruit with remarkably fine-grained tannins, a seamlessness and sense of purity of which a First Growth would be proud, all in a vintage which was dictated by skill. I just don't think enough praise can be heaped on Monsieur Tesseron and his team. What they have achieved and continue to achieve is truly remarkable.
Pichon-Lalande: I often end up rating Pichon in less obvious vintages. In the past, the château has used substantial proportions of Merlot and it was fascinating to learn that 2011 was dominated by the Cabernets: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc with a mere 8% Merlot. In spite of - or maybe because of - this assemblage, the classic Pichon elegance was still show with that singular lushness on the mid-palate. I would certainly suggest keeping tabs on this wine; if pressure leads to substantially reduced prices, it could prove one of the picks of the vintage.
Brane-Cantenac: Hitting such a rich vein of form, this Château is chalking up success after success. I found the effortless elegance shown by the 2011 to be seductive. Very fine indeed, it shone in a lineup that showed a mixed bag for the commune of Margaux. Brane is typified by refinement and poise and again this vintage does not break with that run.
Gloria: This unclassified St. Julien has really excelled in the vintage and could be one of the value picks. The Henri Martin stable came through in fine colours as St.Pierre impressed greatly too. Spicy and vibrant with a generous but open palate, packed with dark fruit characters, this is punching well above its weight in 2011, and it won't test your patience to the limit before you can enjoy it either.
Tomorrow will shed further light as we head across to Pomerol and St.Emilion before heading back to the Medoc on Wednesday. We have set this year's itinerary up in such a way as to give us an overview early in the trip but also to ensure we get the chance to taste numerous key wines on multiple occasions as we felt this would be warranted in such a vintage.
Please don't hesitate to ask any questions on the vintage while we are in situ. If you email any of the team we will do our best to respond of an evening while in Bordeaux. More to follow tomorrow.
Day Two (3rd April 2012)
Today we headed across to the Right Bank of Bordeaux, to the appellations of Pomerol and St.Emilion. Here there seemed to be a greater homogeneity to the style and indeed the quality of the vintage.
Speaking with growers such as Denis Durantou of l’Eglise-Clinet, after tasting his impressive 2011s, gave an interesting insight to the vintage. He commented that since the tastings had begun he had been frequently asked by visitors to explain the problems he faced this vintage. Denis commented that his vines are situated on clay-based soils and they did not struggle for moisture nor did they suffer heat stress. They were unaffected by hail. And the rains, when they came, fell at opportune moments in the cycle of the vine. Perhaps most interestingly Denis said “2011 reveals the history of the vines”. By this he meant that if there had been a long-term over-reliance on fertiliser, vines would have shallow roots and struggle in the drought. With its unusual climatic pattern, 2011 would expose vignerons who had focused on short-termism and who had not truly considered the future health of their vineyard.
Denis is not alone in excelling in 2011. The great and the good of Pomerol have impressed us greatly, from the effortless concentration of Chateau Clinet with its deep, glossy, silky nuanced fruit to the fragrance and precision of the majestic Vieux Chateau Certan. There is plenty to get excited about in Pomerol. Where Merlot may have struggled on specific terroir, Cabernet Franc assumes greater importance and in wines such as Vieux Chateau Certan, there is a mineral, racy, linear aspect to the wines which builds an impression of energy and poise.
Rather than appearing akin to a vintage like 2008 with its accent on vibrancy, there is a far greater sense of substance to many of the wines we tasted today.
Notable wines tasted today include:
Vieux Chateau Certan: Incorporating the highest percentage of Cabernet Franc (29%) for some time, this is detailed, precise, elegant – very fine, a classic vintage for this outstanding property.
Clinet: Going from strength to strength and gaining a new found recognition. Glossy, seamless, darkly-fruited and just so harmonious. Worth a look this vintage if sanity prevails in pricing.
Pavie-Macquin:This is a modern style, but one which is true to its terroir. Floral, almost violet, this exudes ripe, juicy berry fruit with an underlying mineral race. A compelling style.
Figeac: Often overlooked, but in a year where many have championed Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon on the right bank, Figeac delivers in spades. Two thirds of the 2011 comprises these two varieties. Gravelly-nuanced, fine-tuned, with cedary berry fruit and terrific vibrancy. Pray for a realistic release price!
Troplong-Mondot: A return to form or a vintage which didn’t incline the winemaker to over-extract? Whichever of the two, Troplong is back on our radar. Deep fruit, brooding with scented blueberry notes and terrific mineral persistence. This could be a star this vintage.
Eglise-Clinet: Monsieur Durantou is delivering great Pomerol each year it seems. This is a short distance behind his recent vintages and defies vintage generalisations. Packed with vibrant, violet-infused dark cherry and berry fruits, so fine-tuned and expressive, there is a firmness and a balance here that signal anything but a modest vintage.
The picture of the vintage is forming. Today was filled with more pleasant surprises than one might have expected. Robert Parker and James Suckling have both commented that the vintage was ‘better than expected’. On today’s evidence it would seem that selected Pomerol and St.Emilion have added substantially to that impression.
Tomorrow we return to the Medoc where will get the chance to taste the Firsts and a whole host of Pauillac, St.Julien and Margaux. It is likely to be the busiest and most informative day yet.
One last comment – we could see releases before the end of the month if the rumour mill is to be believed. This would be a bold step for the Bordeaux chateau owners. But it would not be wholly unexpected given concerns over the economic backdrop and the fact that the market has bought heavily into the preceding two vintages.
Day Three (4th April 2012)
I predicted that today would be the most educational day and so it proved. Having tasted across the Union des Grand Crus events and at numerous chateaux in the Medoc I would have to say there have been some odd moments, when specific wines have stood out as being other worldly in the context of the vintage.
Front-runners for wines of the vintage must include Chateaux Latour and Margaux.
Neither of these two wines suffered the pitfalls that had befallen so many other wines on the Left Bank. Neither showed the almost shrill acidity that was so prevalent in many lesser properties, nor did they possess the unyielding, hard-edged tannins that have dominated certain wines. Perhaps most interestingly, these two wines exhibited a substance that is singular in a vintage which is essentially mid-weight at best.
Aurelien Valance of Chateau Margaux commented that if 2011 had been a vintage of the nineties, it would have been viewed as exceptional such are the steps forward in quality and selection that have been made. I don’t see this as the throw-away marketing phrase that it might seem. Chateau Margaux 2011 is, analytically, one of the most concentrated wines the estate has produced and from the smallest vintage since 1991. It is also the earliest harvest since 1893. The wine itself is the product of obsessionally selected fruit which would not have been possible twenty years ago. The style of the second wine is vastly removed from that of the Grand Vin and Aurelien acknowledged the night-and-day difference between the two. The Grand Vin’s gain has been the second wine’s loss. The Grand Vin is harmonious, classically Margaux, with terrific aromas and floral, scented, ripe berry fruit. This is not a supple, forward style and is the product of skilled winemaking.
Those that did not show the same attention to detail have not achieved the same heights. The small berry size witnessed on so many Cabernet Sauvignon-based vineyards posed problems to which not all winemakers found the right answer. Within bunches, grape ripeness varied to such a degree that optical sorters – essentially mechanical and extremely high-tech sorting machines – were employed to refine the selection beyond the widely practised hand-sorting. It is little wonder that lesser properties have fallen short in such a technically demanding vintage.
That Chateau Latour has produced three such impressive wines in this vintage is nothing short of wondrous. Even the third wine, Pauillac de Latour, has excelled. (This wine is only sold for restaurant distribution in the UK, so calm down.) But to select so strictly to ensure such quality while maintaining the family resemblance is quite extraordinary. Both Forts de Latour and Latour itself have a richness of ripe fruit that is lacking in too many wines. Both show terrific gravelly, mineral nuances and taut tannic frames. And wasn’t it Lafite that was referred to as first among equals? We will see tomorrow when we taste this last wine. In addition to Latour and Margaux, we tasted at Mouton-Rothschild. As correct as the wine was, it seemed to lack some verve and expression.
Wines tasted today that have impressed and which we believe have successfully navigated the difficulties this vintage include:
Ducru-Beaucaillou: A very refined example with plenty of glossy berry-fruit and a seamlessness that is uncommon this vintage. Vibrant, sleek and very classy. Will Monsieur Borie break with tradition and release early and at a sensible price or will the plaudits he earned for his 2009 lead to only a modest reduction?
Leoville-Poyforre: Tasted on three occasions now, Poyferre shows appealing ripe berry fruit of good intensity allied to a firm mineral backbone. Its success is unquestioned in all recent vintages.
Grand-Puy-Lacoste: A more supple, forward style for the vintage and perhaps one different to those commented on here. Very well-made, with nothing harsh. Instead just elegant, fine-tuned fruit of admirable freshness. It will drink early but will drink well, and Xavier Borie possesses a firm grasp of the market reality so sanity will prevail here.
Saint-Pierre: A personal favourite and again a St.Julien with a strong track record these last few vintages. Punchy blackcurrant, not lacking substance, a real wealth of fruit and fine purity. This is certainly one to watch in the value stakes if pressure is heeded.
Lynch-Bages: More substantial than so many, Lynch-Bages seems removed stylistically from other Pauillac this vintage. Mouthfilling, packed with firm black fruit; a richer, bolder example in the vintage context. Way ahead of the pack.
Pichon-Baron: We have a visit to the Chateau tomorrow, but todays showing at the UGC tasting is deserving of comment. Sleek, layered, impressive depth of black fruit and stunning purity. Very mineral and precise – a full note will follow tomorrow.
The most disappointing visit of the day was to Château Palmer, where both the second wine and the Grand Vin left us nonplussed, given the multitude of positive comments we had heard from the trade. On this showing they displayed a shrill note to the acidity like barely ripe cranberry. While the Grand Vin was appreciably better, both wines were out of kilter and out of keeping with the style of the estate. Perhaps with 60% of production going into the Grand Vin quantity was favoured over quality? Nonetheless this highlights the difficulties that the vintage presented, with so much down to the individual Chateau’s vineyard management and winemaking expertise. And with those demands not everyone will have navigated a successful path through the vintage. As Xavier Borie commented, you had to work out the shape of the vintage and then adjust your approach to suit. He alluded to a tailor making a suit for a far bigger frame, which is where it would seem so many wines have gone awry (pushing extraction too far).
One final thought: beware merchants with hefty allocations. It would seem so many merchants are sitting uneasily this year. The weight of allocations is a commercial pressure on many established merchants and this is likely to lead to claims of ‘success’ in many different quarters. I would stress that Atlas Fine Wines has no commitments to purchase any wine this vintage and will wait to see release prices before agreeing to purchase any of the wines we actually rated this year.
Day Four (5th April 2012)
Today was our final day of tasting on this trip. It confirmed the impression of the vintage that had formed over the last few days.
- This was a complicated vintage where individual châteaux had to contend with numerous issues.2011 is characterised by an unusual weather pattern: hot spring, cool summer and a four month drought. Such a weather pattern necessitated strict selection; not just bunch-from-bunch but, critically, berry-from- berry as some individual berries were unripe, unformed, sun-scorched or failed to go through veraison (colour change).
- Such careful sorting and selecting is costly and labour intensive. Some châteaux carried out three or four different processes and those that could justify it brought in high-tech, optical sorting machines to assist.
- On account of the period of drought, the grapes themselves, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, were unusually small. This meant there was very little juice and the skin-to-juice ratio was far higher than the norm. Remember it is in the skins that the tannins and colouring material as well as flavour compounds are found.
- The manner and duration of extraction (working the skins to obtain these elements) was going to be critical. If you extract too heavily, you risk a tannic, hard-edged, drying wine; too softly and you have a supple, simple, gently fruity, early-drinking wine, light on complexity and expression.
- The acidities are as high as I can recall, in a perceptible sense, on account of the cooler summer conditions. This further complicates matters as if you have a vintage that is mid-weight in terms of fruit concentration with higher than normal acidity and potentially high tannins. In these circumstances you risk producing a structure that the fruit is unable to successfully fill out. A wine that seems hollow or overly lean can result.
As if the viticultural and winemaking pressures were not enough, Château owners also have a couple of further decisions to take. Given the last two highly-praised vintages, at what level should the 2011s be released? I mentioned in my pre-amble that London release prices needed to be 40% down to have a chance of igniting the market. After tasting widely, I think the Château owners may need to take an even bolder step. Clearly this is a general comment and there are specific success stories that might not lead to such dramatic action. But the success rate (in the vintage context) is comparatively – and given the commentary on the vintage above, understandably – low. Aside from intricacies and merits of certain wines, the en primeur market is tired and needs an incentive to burst into action. After two years of high prices and great profits it is time for the Bordelais to be decisive by reducing prices significantly and releasing early. Another protracted campaign will fast lose the wine buying public’s interest.
Yesterday, Christophe Salin, Director of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, commented that we could see wines, including Lafite, released by the end of April. There seemed to be a general consensus amongst the Bordelais that prices need to be out before Vinexpo in Hong-Kong at the end of May. Asked about sizeable price reductions, he commented that he was indeed aware of the rumour as it was based on something he had said. He added that prices needed to come down to restore the consumer’s faith in Bordeaux. The message would appear to be getting through and the early considerations of a modest reduction of 10-20% in order to offset reduced yield are fading fast.
We will keep you up to date on this topic as without significant reductions we are prepared to by-pass this vintage and urge our clients to re-visit back vintages where greater value might be found. Now that we have concluded our week of tastings it is clear that our list will be comparatively trim this vintage.
A few specific comments on wines we tasted on the final day can be found below.
Lafite-Rothschild: An elegant, supple flowing style with fine harmony, not at all imposing and a vintage that will be consumed comparatively early. This is clearly the product of a soft, gentle extraction. It is hard to see how a lofty price could be maintained this year. Carruades and Duhart-Milon followed suit.
Leoville-Las Cases: Again an elegant, refined wine, sleek with a soft open nature. This is possibly the most feminine Las Cases I can recall in many vintages. A vibrant, attractive style with modest density of fruit. This could be perceived as a little lean particularly once the youthful vibrancy fades.
Pichon-Longueville: This vintage is open and plush in texture, it will drink early but shows more substance than some and a lusher nature on the mid-palate. Fresh, vibrant with a mineral finish.
The Haut-Brion stable: This included Château Quintus (a recent purchase) in St.Emilion. It struck me as a brave step to release wines from a new property after six months ownership in a vintage such as this. Perhaps a Château to monitor in subsequent vintages but perhaps not in this one. Haut-Brion and La Mission themselves were well-made wines, but one certainly had the impression that a lot of work had gone into tempering the tannins of the Graves. They lacked mid-palate weight and seemed to be linear and austere. La Mission was perhaps the finer with a deeper, darker fruit and a little more substance. The whites were on the other hand exceptional. La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc was taut, mouth-watering and markedly mineral – such a pure, clean-cut racy wine compared to the softer, more voluminous nature of the riper, bolder and more honeyed fruit of Haut-Brion Blanc.
In the main, the Graves were a distinctly mixed bag – with our favoured wine being Domaine de Chevalier Rouge with its creamy swirls of summer berry fruit and typical elegance and understated nature.
And so another year of visits comes to an end. We will continue to run the blog adding any relevant information that we believe may be of interest to you. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you wish to discuss any aspect in greater detail.
Tasting notes for individual wines will be available from close of business on Tuesday – we only be adding notes for those wines that we rated but can provide broader commentary as required.
III. Taedium in extremis (27th April 2012)
Collectively, the UK trade has tasted, assessed, scribbled notes, voiced opinions to château owners and negoçiants alike, shared market observations and waited to see if the Bordelais would take note. Sound familiar?
After returning from Bordeaux, we thought that the message was getting through. This impression has since dissipated. Aside from a raft of petits châteaux, there has been only a handful of notable releases and very few of which are of interest to Atlas. Cos d’Estournel was among the first to break ranks and release a price which equated to £1200/12 in London. While this is a drop of just under 50% from the dizzy heights of the 2010, it still falls woefully short of a level that would excite the market. I had hoped we might have been in a position to sell at £800-£850/12.
At a trade lunch yesterday, one of the major, global, Bordeaux trade buyers conceded that his company had only sold a handful of cases of Cos d’Estournel while, in recent vintages, they sold several hundred. Lafite has also released and just about judged its opening price correctly, making it the cheapest available Lafite in the market. But this is a supple, forward-drinking wine and one that is unlikely to offer anything in the way of investment return. That said, from a consumption and brand perspective, Lafite does seem to have done reasonably well in assessing the state of the market. Beyond this, we have seen a stream of Sauternes emerge and some at horrendous prices. Rieussec, Coutet and Suduiraut released at over 40 euros a bottle and with shipping cost and a margin, this would translate to just under £450 per 12 in London. I would add that I do not subscribe the view that 2011 is a great Sauternes vintage; the wines seem softer than one might hope for and lack the definition of 2001 or the clean-cut vibrancy of 2007. One has to question why there is a necessity to buy these en primeur, as the 2011 vintage will surely be available after the fact at lower prices and will not sell out at this stage. There is some merit in buying Sauternes when you wish to drink them; Château Coutet from the outstanding 2001 vintage can readily be purchased in the market for around £360/12.
So, what happens next?
Hopefully, the apathy shown towards these first few releases will filter back and encourage at least one or two high status châteaux to take the bold step of reducing their prices dramatically. There is even more discussion than usual about the future of en primeur, its benefits to the consumer and its relevance today. Such discussions have been spurred by Latour’s announcement that, after the 2011 vintage, it will no longer release wines en primeur. The en primeur system is fascinating and while it has clearly worked in the favour of prestigious châteaux for a great many years, there must be obvious benefits to the consumer as well. So far this year’s benefits are not apparent. If this remains the case, than it may well be a year that really shakes the system – more so than ever before. History has shown that it takes an exceptional vintage to draw clients back in to the fold once switched off from this mode of purchasing.
Heed our advice – you will almost certainly be receiving many mixed messages this year from different merchants keen to sell something/ anything of this vintage. Be careful not to be drawn in. We have a clear idea of the levels that might render some of the 2011s interesting (please see below our ‘anticipated 2011 prices’) and we will keep you posted if and when a specific release satisfies these criteria. If nothing matches, we will leave it well alone and advise you to do the same.