Bordeaux 2011: Tales of Tannins and Terroir

I love Bordeaux.  The city is a great place to visit and live, with young and energetic people, stately buildings, and a beautiful boardwalk along the river--plus some of the world's greatest red wines. All that was still true in 2011, save for the part about the wines. Though by no means a poor vintage, the red Bordeaux of 2011 are simply nothing to get excited about: they're deeper and more complex than the 2007s, but well below the quality levels produced in 2009 and 2010.  And though some owners and winemakers with rose-colored glasses were pushing comparisons with 2001 and 2008, this is simply not so. I have no doubt that many critics will swallow those P.R. words hook, line and sinker and simply broadcast them, so beware.  But keep in mind that, for the very reasons 2011 is a tough red wine vintage, it is a great year for the region's dry white wines (better than 2009 and 2010) and even better for Sauternes, where some memorable wines were made.  I'll discuss these extremely promising wines on this site in the coming weeks.

What the producers say.
The best way to summarize 2011 is to describe it as a freak growing season during which spring and summer swapped places.  In 2011, a dry, warm spring was followed by a wet, cold summer.  Put another way, 2011 was the opposite of 2000, in that the earlier year had a so-so spring and a great summer. In 2011, the rhythm of the vines was constantly interrupted.  First, the vines shut down early in the season because of water stress and heat.  And then, with the August rains, vegetative growth was kick-started again at a time when the vines' energy would normally be directed at ripening the fruit.  The early season scorching also led to loss of crop and uneven ripening: a short heat spike at the end of June, when afternoon temperatures rose as high as 104 degrees, were particularly damaging.

According to Paul Pontallier, director of Chateau Margaux, 2011 was the most precocious Bordeaux vintage in a hundred years.  Olivier Berrouet of Petrus told me that "in 2011 there were 150 hours fewer sunlight hours in July and August and the tannins are often unripe."  Lucien Guillemet of Boyd-Cantenac put a more positive spin on things:  "In the end, we had more fright than pain," he summarized, meaning that what had looked to be a disastrous vintage ended up turning out better than most had feared.  "I was more worried in the beginning of the year, for I thought we'd be harvesting in August.  And even though I realize that in 1873 some people did harvest on August 15, that doesn't mean I was looking forward to a repeat!"

"With 2011 there's lovely purity and very floral accents in many wines, with freshness," was Daniele Rolland's take.  "The key was not to try and compensate for the lack of sunshine by overextracting." According to François Mitjaville of Tertre-Roteboeuf, "the lack of water in 2011 didn't allow the vines to build up their photosynthetic machinery.  When it finally did arrive, it was a case of too late.  But because of the humid summer the berries weren't so small after all.  The millerandage gave bad ripeness of the pips."  Mitjaville, incidentally, seems to have been in the minority, as almost everyone else complained of smaller berries and bunches. Jean-Hubert Delon of Leoville-Las Cases summed up the challenge thusly:  "It was bad in places, and estates on sandy soils or young vines had a tough time.  But thanks to the acidity and freshness of the wines, 2011 is very French and very Bordeaux in style, so these will be great food wines."

The 2011 weather pattern and vine growth cycle.  In summary, three key elements characterized the 2011 vintage for red Bordeaux.  First, it was the most precocious vintage of the last century, with each phase of the vegetative cycle ahead of the norm by at least 10 to 14 days, except for the harvest.  That's because in mid-July the temperatures turned very chilly and the vegetative cycle slowed down enough that many--but not all--estates harvested later than they originally anticipated.  The growing season was also exceptionally dry, and the summer was generally cool.

The month of April was the second hottest on record (since 1900), recording more sunlight hours than a normal July does in Bordeaux. The whole month had only 10 millimeters of rainfall, compared to an average of 80.  May was much like April, dry and hot:  only May of 1922 was hotter than May of 2011.  Rain was scant: for example, less than 5 millimeters in Saint-Emilion, close to the all-time record of 0 in 1945.  June was also dry and hot, though less extreme than in 2005 and 2009.  The exceptional spring conditions produced early budding, which then accelerated due to the rapid heating of the soil.  Flowering took place in good conditions with plenty of sunshine, but there was some flower abortion, particularly in the young vines on clay soils.

July was overcast and lacked sun (an average of 200 sunlight hours, compared to 281 in 2010 and 271 in 2009).  It also rained a great deal more than in years such as 2005 or 2008.  August experienced some brief periods of heavy rain, and the total for the month was 80 millimeters (as measured in Merignac, in the city of Bordeaux), vs. 17 in 2010, 24 in 2009 and 14 in 2005.  Summer conditions returned in September, but a violent hailstorm hit Saint-Estephe on September 1, causing huge damage at some estates (Lafon-Rochet saw its production essentially halved as a result.)  Afterwards, there was enough warmth and fine weather to allow for decent ripening, even of cabernet sauvignon.

The lack of summer heat did not generally allow for full physiological ripeness and in the end produced wines with lower alcohol levels than those of recent vintages.  After three months of early-season heat and dry conditions, berries on the western side of rows risked being grilled in the hot late-afternoon sunshine.  Moreover, some of the stalks dehydrated and were burned despite the efforts of many estates to reduce de-leafing as much as possible (in many cases it wasn't necessary at all, as the leaves fell off by themselves in the early-season heat), and thus the sap circulation in the vines was slowed or stopped altogether. This led to uneven maturation of the bunches, and by harvest time some bunches included green, pink, and red berries, plus grilled ones, plus rotten berries caused by some late-season showers and humidity).

"Triage was key in 2011," concluded Jean-Philippe Masclef, technical director of Haut Brion, where the team was happy with the optical sorting machines they now use.  "In some respects it was almost easy this year, since it didn't take an optical sorting machine to see all the green or rotten berries," said Masclef.  "Still, its use allowed for greater precision because some red-looking berries will still not be ripe inside and can fool you."

But the dry conditions that led to increased concentration of the berries could also result in very tannic skins, and pips that weren't always physiologically ripe.  Many 2011 wines, especially those from lesser terroirs, are marred by tough, astringent tannins, which are typical of unripe seed tannins.  While the wines are certainly concentrated, with many estates recording their highest index of total polyphenols ever (I'm not a fan of that indicator), the vintage's overall potential quality was largely limited by the cold summer.  So while 2011 allowed for production of many admirably fresh and food-friendly wines, it didn't make for too many serious and ageworthy wines. This is the interesting paradox to 2011:  a precocious yet very fresh year, which is very rare in Bordeaux.  Usually early harvests are the result of summer heat and the fruit's rapid accumulation of sugars, but not so in 2011, because the very cool summer slowed down vine metabolism enough to eliminate the risk of making overly alcoholic or overripe wines.

The wines.  The 2011 vintage is characterized by great heterogeneity across the board.  In other words, there aren't just huge differences between appellations and wines, but also between the first, second and third wines of each estate.  (In practical terms, this means that unlike in 2009 and 2010, the second wines of the major estates are rarely exciting in 2011.) 

Due to dry conditions, those estates with very young vines and superficial root systems, as well as those on sandy soils (such as in parts of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion) or on highly gravelly ones (Margaux and Graves especially), fared poorly.  On the other hand, the clay content of soils in most parts of the Right Bank guaranteed that some outstanding wines were made nonetheless.  For the same reason, clay-rich Saint-Estèphe performed very well in 2011, save for those estates that were hit hard by hail. In the end, much as in 2008, and in fact in all less-than-ideal vintages, terroir really made a difference in 2011.  Still, all factors considered, the best Medoc appellation in 2011 is Saint-Julien.  Bordeaux lovers know that this is often the case thanks to very homogeneous, high-quality terroir and above-average winemaking talent in this small appellation, but in 2011 Saint-Julien was blessed with better weather too.  For starters, it didn't get any of the hail that inflicted damage on southern Saint-Estèphe and northern Pauillac, as well as a large swath of Margaux.

A note on Primeur samples.  The Primeurs event is wonderfully organized and a great learning opportunity for all of us. It also serves an important commercial purpose.  But readers should realize that evaluating such young wines and trying to handicap their future performance is a difficult exercise fraught with peril.  This year, I thought that the samples made it harder than usual to predict where the wines might go during their remaining months in barrel and during their future in bottle.  I tasted samples that were already oxidizing, and many others that were different on different days and in different places. Those critics who arrived late at the larger trade tastings and did not take care to have fresh bottles opened may have had less than ideal wines to taste.  Although the wines needed oxygen to open up, they also reacted very quickly to air, becoming flatter and softer.

At Petrus, I tasted from three bottles:  two were similar and the third was very different. This was far from an isolated case.  At L'Eglise-Clinet, as a learning exercise, Denis Durantou showed me samples of the same wine that had been prepared five days and two days prior; the austerity and florality of the cabernet franc dominated the former sample, while the upfront chocolatey charm of the merlot came through clearly in the latter.  Again, had I tasted only one of those two samples, I would have had an incomplete picture of the wine.

Last but not least, this year I felt that less press wine than usual had been added to the wines, some of which really tasted sweet and flattering, almost like alcoholic blackberry juice.  A couple producers seemed almost offended when I asked how much press wine was in the fruity sample they had just served me, and politely but tellingly refused to answer.  Readers should be aware that even a 1% difference in press wine can greatly change the mouthfeel of a wine.  Typically, in Primeur samples there's 3% or 4%, while in finished wines from a normal year it's more like 8% to 12%.  So it can be particularly tricky to judge young wines if the press wine hasn't been added by the end of March.  Of course, many estates do add it. "I like to use a little of the press wine; it can be very interesting to tie up the beginning and the finish of the wine," said Haut-Brion's Masclef.  Although his wines were among the best of the vintage (Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion especially), they were certainly more stern than some supple fruit bombs I tasted elsewhere.  I wonder if less experienced tasters understand the role of the press wine in the samples they taste in early spring.

To buy or not to buy.
  If prices are slashed by half, the 2011 reds are good enough to spark consumer interest; and for the top15 or so properties, a 30% decrease might also be enough to motivate Bordeaux lovers to buy.  However, I'm not sure that at those prices the wines will warrant investing in, but they they might make good buy-to-drink options. There is simply too much good Bordeaux out there from vintages like 2001, 2006 and 2008 for people looking to drink topnotch claret to pay top dollar for the 2011s.  And of course 2005 and 2009 are truly mesmerizing vintages.  Given the quality of the 2011s, if they open at absurdly high prices it is hard to imagine that they will ever appreciate much in value.  That said, there are wonderful wines to be had in 2011, and some of these may turn out to be relatively good buys.  The better 2011 wines will be enjoyable over the near to medium term and Bordeaux lovers might jump at the chance to have wines they'll be able to drink early while their '05s, '09s and '10s mature.  But relatively few 2011s appear to have the sweetness and flesh to benefit from long-term aging.

Mercifully, initial release prices of some top names indicate that Bordeaux prodcers have gotten the message.  The price of the 2011 Pontet-Canet is down 34% from the 2010 level, and prices for Lynch-Bages and Angelus show similar decreases.  Encouragingly, prices for Haut-Brion, La Mission and Lafite are down even more, starting at less than half what was asked for 2010 futures.  I believe that Bordeaux has acted intelligently and decisively, and that these price reductions will help move at least the most successful 2011s.