Bordeaux 2011 - vintage character

In april 2011, when we were cruising the Bordeaux Rocade with temperatures hitting 30 degrees Celsius, we joked about the birth of yet another vintage of the century.

One year later it is clear: Bordeaux 2011 is not another stellar vintage. Thank God. Or better: thanks weather gods.

The result of the summery spring was that Bordeaux 2011 was an exceptionally early vintage: budding was exceptionally early, flowering was, and eventually harvest was early. So far so good.

The extreme drought. That was the main problem for Bordeaux 2011.

The 2011 samples of Cheval Blanc and Petit Cheval in the impressive new barrel room of Château Cheval Blanc

The winter had already been quite dry, so at the beginning of the growing season the water reserves were low. And after the warm and dry spring, a hot and dry June followed. By that time many vines got stressed, that is suffered from water stress: development and phenolic ripening of the grapes got blocked.

The main activity of the vine, of any plant, is photosynthesis:

6 CO2+ 6 H2O (plus warm sunlight) = C6H12O6 + 6 O2

Sugars are built up from carbon dioxide and… water! Without water no photosynthesis and no development. Drought is a prerequisite for a good vintage, but that’s certainly up to a limit. All over Bordeaux water stress was serious in 2011.

The vintage was saved, to a certain extent, in the second half of the summer. Thanks to rain in July, and more moderate temperatures, the vines could more or less recover (but rot arrived too, further diminishing the yields). Thanks to a good late summer the grapes continued to ripen again. But not in the way they did in 2009 and 2010.

Ripening in 2011 is more limited: sugar levels are lower, and full (phenolic) ripeness of tannins in skins and pips is not always there.

Not only the grapes were stressed halfway the growing season. Director Thomas Duroux from Château Palmer for example, had almost decided to skip the 2011 vintage altogether. In June many grapes got sunburnt during the excessively hot days of 26 and 27 June.

As said, the vintage was saved by friendlier weather afterwards, but the yields during harvest were low. In fact, for Palmer they hadn’t been so low since their monumental 1961 vintage (remember: the only wine that got 6 stars from Michael Broadbent).

The vineyard of Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol. "VCC" presented a great wine again this year.

Low yields combined with the effect of hot weather had resulted in small thick-skinned berries. Read: tannins! Yes, Bordeaux 2011 is a tannic vintage.

For the red wines we're looking at an average to above average vintage. We tasted a shipload of 2011s last week, and we found good wines, and wines that were not so good. For the whites, the general opinion is that 2011 is a good to very good year, but to my taste I found quite a few that are lacking freshness (acidity), so I’m going to be picky here as well.

Most winemakers were carefully enthusiastic about what they made this year. Some were jubilant, but that must have been an unfortunate commercial automatism playing up wrong time wrong place. Most surprising were the Bordelais who were explicitly reticent about the Bordeaux 2011 vintage.

Asked how I had found the wines at J-P Moueix, I politely answered that "I tasted some beautiful wines" - which was actually not just politeness, but the truth - but instead of agreement I saw a shooking head before me "No, this is not a great vintage."

An often heard characterization for Bordeaux 2011 is that it is a "classical vintage, in the positive sense of the word". This might ask for some explanation: usually the word "classic" is used as an euphemism for "bad". For Bordeaux 2011 it foremost means that the vintage does not have the sex and fat of the 2009s, and not the power of the 2010s.

So what classical features does it have? Christophe Jacquemin Sablon from Château Pétrus summarized 2011 as follows: tannins = high, acidity = high, sugars = low.

The vineyard of Château Petrus. Their 2011 is very attractive, I think mainly because the Petrus-team 'gently' followed the vintage characteristics

The low amount of sugars besides high tannins and high acidity don't make Bordeaux 2011 an easy vintage. And definitely not to taste en primeur. More than once I suffered from what I call tannins-poisoning: the mouth gets paved with harsh tannins that do not disappear with spitting. Every next wine will taste - more or less - tannic as it releases the tannins that are still present on tongue and palate.

The wines with aggressive, unripe tannins are the ones to cause tannins-poisoning (the remedy is to eat a piece of bread, or to avoid these wines). Over-extraction during winemaking is the most common reason for wines to be unpleasantly tannic.

In years with great ripeness, i.e. phenolic ripeness also of tannins in grape skins and pips, extracting is in fact less dangerous. But in a year like 2011 the best winemakers follow the vintage characteristics and are cautious not to over-extract.

In general the more attractive wines this year aren't the heaviest ones. Here Pétrus is a good example. Pétrus 2010 and 2011 are quite different wines. The 2010 is "high on everything" with lots of fruit, the 2011 is more modest, elegant, and in comparison to 2010 much less dominated by fruit.

The low level of sugar led to wines with less alcohol, and the 13 - 13,5% for this vintage is also more "classical".

Note that for a wine to be tannic is not necessarily bad, as long as the tannins are ripe. Powerful wines with good ripe tannins are for example (from North to South) Montrose, Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Barton, Rauzan-Ségla and Haut-Bailly. These are serious wines for the long, and perhaps very long run.

Unripe tannins make the mouth dry and bitter, it is an unpleasant experience. Ripe tannins especially differ in the finish: they sort of tingle on the tongue. And they tingle off, or should I say tingle away.

Jacquemin Sablon compared the 2011 vintage to the 1975 vintage. That was also a tannic and seriously structured year. The sad story for many of the 1975 Bordeaux’s is that they never really got mature: the hard texture never really softened out, and when it finally did, the rest of what the wine constituted had already died.

It is probable that the 2011s with the toughest (and partially unripe) structure will be facing a comparable unfortunate future. It is for that reason that I would not advise a wine like Pavie 2011. And I would advise a very refined wine like Château Margaux, for me one of the "wines of the vintage".

The 2011 samples of Château Margaux and Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux. Hard to spit!

To summarize: Bordeaux 2011 is a difficult vintage, and only the winemakers who made the right choices (and had some luck) made interesting and sometimes beautiful wines. Of course it depends on pricing too whether these wines are interesting to buy.

The next posting will contain my personal Bordeaux 2011 recommendations. Thus: to be continued!

Update 18 April: as from now on you can follow the Bordeaux 2011 offers on our page.


Anonymous said…
Thanks David, the most informative background story on the 2011 vintage I have seen so far
Ivo said…
Dear David,

Thanks for your first post on the 2011 vintage. I'm curious to read about your personal recommendations in the next blog. Everywhere you read 2011 is a rather difficult and tannic year, which will need cherrypicking and doing the necessary research on the chateaux before buying en primeur (for those of us not having the opportunity to taste). Any recommomendation will be appreciated.

Keep up the good work on the blogs.


Julien said…
Excellent post, thanks a lot!
mark said…
That's an interesting post and in line with some things I've read elsewhere. The elegance and under-extraction appeals to me.

Unfortunately, whether I buy will likely be based on cost and unless the wines are cheaper than the 2001s are now, it's hard to see me investing in this year to drink in my mid 50s!

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