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The 2011 Bottom Line Report: Mishaps and Metaphors

Monday saw a mixed day of tastings and mishaps. An early start allowed me to pass by Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Pape-Clément on the way to taste both of these wines and others at the Pessac-Léognan UGC tasting. First up though was a rendezvous at the airport with some colleagues; in some cases there is strength in numbers. A last minute search for a filling station to refuel my hire car before handing over the keys was not entirely straightforward, however, as my Sat-Nav directed me towards a filling station that clearly no longer existed, if indeed it ever did. Thankfully the next one I selected was very real, as was the lengthy queue of vehicles lined up. I thought the impending fuel delivery strike was just in the UK?

After meeting up with the other journalists our first port of call was the aforementioned UGC Pessac-Léognan tasting at Fieuzal, where plenty of wines – red and white – showed well. This is not a disastrous vintage. The reds in particular impressed, not because they are intrinsically great wines, but perhaps more because of prior low expectations. Everyone is raving about the whites by the way – these are very good wines. But, focusing on the red wines and their intrinsic qualities, not the context of low expectations, there were a number that showed a really attractive, elegant, appropriate style. They were very much of the region, classically styled as Bordeaux, with an appropriate depth of fruit, moderate tannins and normal levels of alcohol. Where I asked, the alcohol was 13%. I haven’t tasted much on the right bank, but where I have the alcohol was more like 13.5%. “Welcome back to Bordeaux”, said one person at Cheval Blanc.

OK, so there was one slightly green wine from Pessac-Léognan, and a couple that were either over-ripe or over-worked, but isn’t that so often the case? This says more about individual châteaux than the vintage. And it is panning out to be a good vintage, for some communes, and/or for some estates. Some tastings in the Médoc during the afternoon showed the variability of the wines a little more clearly; some were clean and rich and well made, showing their qualities, some were merely good (an honest perception, I am not trying to damn with faint praise). But these wines that were “good” were, in at least one case, absolutely stellar in 2010. That shows how the difficulties of the 2011 vintage have held back the ultimate quality of the wine in places; looking at it from another angle, it shows how good 2010 was.

Later on, a look around Cheval Blanc and Pierre Lurton’s new €15-million winery (the above picture of the sun setting was taken a vantage point on the roof), followed by the Cheval Blanc wines, which now include not only La Tour du Pin but also Quinault L’Enclos, this year considered to be of sufficient quality to be tasted at the château. This was my second brief exposure to the right bank ahead of a full day of tasting there today. Again these wines were remarkably convincing, far more so than the left bank and Graves wines I have tasted. This could be a right bank vintage as far as the red wines are concerned; I will know better when I have worked through the Pomerol and St Emilion appellations in more detail. But so far it is the sweet whites that remain the icons of the vintage. Yquem is so good I could have mistaken it for a top Quarts de Chaume!

So ends my report which is typed on a laptop which has now survived having a generous tasting sample of Château Bernadotte emptied upon its keyboard (I did mention mishaps in my title, didn’t I?). It was a full wine bath – the crimson liquid was pouring out of every vent and seam as gave it immediate first aid. The trick here is to switch off and wash out the wine with water (otherwise the sticky residue causes long-term problems), and then leave to thoroughly dry. Nine hours later I was happy to have a fully functioning computer again. I’m tempted to say today’s bottom line message is to avoid intimate contact between wine and keyboard, but maybe today’s message should relate more to Pessac-Léognan. There are some classically styled wines here that would keep purists happy, given half a chance (by which I mean sold at the right price). This is a vintage to buy Haut-Bailly, La Louviere and the like if you miss the more restrained style of five or ten years ago. It is not a vintage to inherently avoid in the way that 2007 was…….although a huge part of the problem there was price, of course. This is the elephant in the room; will the prices reflect the need to re-engage with drinking consumers again? Will the Bordelais drop their prices 50% from the crazy highs of 2009 and 2010 to keep what consumer support the region still has? Or as is more likely, will we see a token 10-20% drop? Sadly, I expect we will be lucky to see 30%; when you see how the wines compare to the prices of 2008 at that level, you can see why the wines won’t sell. And so I have decided that the Bottom Line for today is that the Bordelais must drop prices to re-engage with consumers. They have a good vintage with which to do so. Otherwise, my picture above could become a metaphor for Bordeaux; will the last person out please turn off the lights?

3 Responses to “The 2011 Bottom Line Report: Mishaps and Metaphors”

  1. With the Asian and emerging markets, paying lip service to the “difficult” vintage is too tempting to do. I expect to see 10-20% drops. It will only be when these markets finally dry up and the enthusiastic new wine drinkers move onto other rich fields (I hear the Chinese are avidly buying up Quarts Des Chaumes), then will the Bordelaise reconsider their pricing structures.

    When the price of the wine far exceeds the price to produce, they can quite easily sit on stockpiles of back vintages and quietly place it in the market place in future years and make silly money still. An enviable position to be in.

    Meanwhile people who make good wines here in the Roussillon struggle to get the recognition their owed.

  2. Well, I see one London merchant is busy describing ‘model slash hostesses in gold dresses’ (why spell out the ‘slash’?) and the wisteria, so I expect their tasting notes to be very exacting ….

    While, the top growths might easily drop their prices by substantial margins, I think price , at almost any level will be difficult for the cru bourgeois: I can’t see Capbern Gasqueton dropping from 140 to 70, and at 125 one might as well go back-fill on the still available 2010s. A level up, it will be interesting to see if the likes of Fleur Cardinale and Moulin St Georges drop back from 300 to 200-225; if they are 240-270, then again the question becomes why not add another case of 2009-10? Even with sauternes, I’d like to see even a small drop: 300-325 for Guiraud would make sense.

  3. Dids, thanks for those comments. Your comment on how much youneed to sell when you have double/trebled your usual price is spot-on. The 2009s and 2010s not only brought in hue profits, but the stocks that were retained now put the châteaux in a very enviable position.

    Hi Mark. It’s a real shame that those sorts of comments are made; understandable perhaps, as the primeurs are a week of showmanship, but the key is to pick away and find the real information & detail on the wines, not to be swayed by the pretty girls checking your identity as you arrive at each château.

    You bring up a good point which also came up today in discussion in our group and which I will higlight in tomorrow’s post – the big reductions should really apply to those who have made big increases. It is not a case of looking for bargain prices, but for ridiculously elevated prices to return to fair levels to entice consumers in. This means the likes of Ducru, Pontet-Canet, etc. Little châteaux like thise you mention do not see the same price fluctuations and don’t need to slash the prices in such a fashion.