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The 2011 Bottom Line Report: Tannins

There are so many facets to the Bordeaux 2011 primeurs that it is difficult to know exactly what to focus on for my daily posts. In these modern times we not only have the wines to judge, but we have new sides to the show brought by modern technology. I find myself drawn towards commenting on how the Twittersphere and the primeurs are intertwined, simply because it is easy to fall into the trap of talking about Twitter, where it seems some wine journalists are either (a) trying to police what everybody else Tweets about, or (b) putting themselves on a pedestal where they judge not only the wines, but what everybody else says about the wines. As one person said at dinner last night, it has all the bitchiness of a girl’s boarding school. I wouldn’t know about that (honest!), but I do know I find wine writers picking at other wine writers on Twitter to be tiresome. But it’s not up to me to police it; otherwise I fall into the trap of doing exactly what I am so tired of myself. It’s best if I let them get on with it I think.

So if I believe we should maybe talk more about the wine and not about other wine writers, I should follow my own advice (there’s a first time for everything). Yesterday I tasted a lot of left bank wines, almost all (but not quite all) the major châteaux from Pauillac, St Julien and St Estèphe, including some first growths and super-seconds, but all the lesser names as well. I think it was during these tastings that I really got to grips with the vintage. I find it much more sound for me to draw firm conclusions based on tasting these wines as I have been tasting and drinking some of these left bank châteaux for two decades now, and I think I know what to expect, what to look for and what I personally want. It’s what I actually find when I turn up that allows the judgement to be made.

‘Getting to grips’ with a vintage can mean many different things. Sometimes it is about understanding the overall style, sometimes it is about sifting through the communes, picking out good performers, occasionally distinguishing a ‘left-bank vintage’ from a ‘right-bank vintage’, looking at which of the ever-popular left bank communes out-performed others. In this vintage it is a mix of all these things, which is what makes the year so complex to understand. My comment one or two days ago (sorry, I’m losing track of time in Bordeaux!) that this might be a right bank vintage just because I found some good wines on the right bank was simplistic, and as I step back and look at my notes and reflect on my tastings (there are still some gaps to be filled, by the way, more tasting today) I see that there are just as many left bank successes as there are on the right bank. And, more importantly, there as just as many wines on the left bank that I would countenance avoiding as there are on the right bank. The weather affected all communes, and it was the peculiarities of the weather that has really brought the character of 2011. And most of all, it is the tannin quality that has been affected….hence my title.

The 2011 vintage has tannin levels which are comparable in many places to those found in 2010. It’s just that in 2010 there was a lot more fruit, flesh and substance. Some wines have this in 2011, enough to cope in most (more ‘classic’?) vintages, but in 2011 it often isn’t enough. Tannin management is the key to quality in 2011, left or right bank. There are over-extracted wines and wines where the extraction is certainly questionable on both banks, even in the traditionally reserved communes of Pauillac and St Estèphe. At least one usually highly regarded second growth has enough tannin in it for three vintages (speaking figuratively, I haven’t done any sums!), and it really shows, and it does not make for a flattering mouthful. Then, adding to the complexity, some communes have shone (or done the opposite). Sauternes and Barsac are streets ahead in quality and consistency, and drinkers should put their money into this vintage if you have the slightest interest in this style of wine. We have to go back to 2001 to find anything comparable. But the red wines of Pessac-Léognan are perhaps collectively the weakest (good wines from some estates though…..generalisations must be seen for what they are, mere generalisations) and some of the lesser St Estèphes were quite hard work. Although the big-name St Estèphes were very well made. This adds another layer of complexity; a good winemaker, with (a) insight, (b) enthusiasm and (c) financial authority was more likely to make a good wine.

The Bottom Line for today is Tannin. These often determine the style and quality of the wine. Look for comments on the tannins in the reports and tasting notes when they come out; this is key to understanding the vintage. That the vintage hasn’t been widely likened to 1986 – another year of expansive tannic structure – is something I find slightly surprising.

On the menu today; Haut-Brion, Margaux (the château and the appellation), maybe Palmer if I can squeeze it in, and an afternoon flight back to Edinburgh. Closing thoughts tomorrow, something not from Bordeaux on Monday (probably!) and my first report (probably an expanded version of this post!) on Tuesday.

The 2011 Bottom Line Report: The Right Bank

Yesterday was a day purely for the right bank. I visited some of the top names in St Emilion and Pomerol, as well as the UGC tastings for each. The temptation when you visit such a litany of famous names is to reel them off; there’s nothing like dropping a few first-growth-equivalent names into a conversation, perhaps with your associated off-the-cuff scores, to reaffirm your status as a top wine critic. It’s what Twitter is full of this week.

Personally, I believe that the latest vintage is best viewed in more considered and reflective detail than this, which is why I will be saving my opinions for my full report which I will begin next week, and in the meantime will be making these posts on how I think the vintage is shaping up here. Is this a point of difference between the wine ‘critic’ and the wine ‘writer’ perhaps? One might post opinions and scores on Twitter, usually with a bit of breathless hype or safe and predictable criticism (directed at the Perse portfolio, or Cos d’Estournel perhaps – not saying I disagree, but it is pretty obvious stuff), in a fashion which – despite its use of up-to-date social media – just seems tired and hackneyed. The other writes detailed reports, looks at the weather, the markets, the differences between the appellations on a commune-by-commune basis, backed up by tasting notes which serve to validate the opinions presented rather than simply guide Pavlovian buying. This seems as good a distinction between the wine ‘critic’ and the wine ‘writer’ as any other I have come across. But perhaps the whole concept is more complex (and perhaps less important!) than I perceive.

So, no name-dropping, and no breathless Tweeting. Looking at both Pomerol and St Emilion, I was disappointed to find no true consistency in either commune (unlike Sauternes, which is a through-and-through winner). Here on the right bank there were great wines, and also less good wines. Strangely, in both communes, some wines I usually enjoy went over the top, and some which are usually inadequate seem to have upped their game remarkably.

Focusing in on St Emilion, the leading premier cru classé châteaux have both made superb wines, but coming down a level to the ‘ordinary’ premiers crus these are mixed. Some wines are always raisined and pruney and they remained true to that form this year. Others were more on a knife edge. One châteaux brought out samples which I found to be a little hot on the palate; when I enquired the wine had 15% alcohol! And yet I am sure it is a wine that will be well reviewed in many quarters. Others just seemed overworked, or over-extracted. Some though were fresh, appropriate and balanced. I should point to those that impressed, and beyond the unaffordable joys offered by white horses and ancient poets (that’s not too cryptic, is it?) these included Fonbel, Moulin-Saint-Georges (although both samples were quite reduced and not easy to judge), Clos Fourtet, Canon-la-Gaffelière, Beau-Séjour Bécot and Figeac (although not showing any greenness this still has the Cabernet Sauvignon influence on the structure this year and is still for Figeac lovers only). I also thought we might see some real value from the likes of Grand Mayne and Larmande.

As for Pomerol, here there was also variability. One wine I often enjoy and again which will be widely praised veered into dried fruit and managed to get a bit pruney, rather like some of the St Emilions. Others really raised their game, including some properties I find habitually undrinkable. This really is a topsy-turvy vintage. Here good efforts with perhaps non-mortgage-level prices came from Les Pensées de Lafleur (Lafleur’s second wine – I’m not sure how much this costs so have included it especially as it wipes the floor with many ‘bigger’ wines), La Conseillante (who knows, the price might come down!) and Petit Village. Yes, Petit Village! There were also some good wines at the top end of the Moueix portfolio, but these are hardly likely to come in with prices that suggest ‘good value’.

On the whole then, this is a vintage where careful selection will be required. The right bank appellations are certainly stronger than Pessac (Pomerol perhaps a little more so than St Emilion) but this does not imply uniform quality in Pomerol, nor should it imply there are no good wines in St Emilion or Pessac. Buyers will need to cherry pick. They will also need to look at prices, which need to come down. As I indicated yesterday, but did not make adequately clear I think, massive reductions (50%?) are required for those châteaux that have instigated massive price rises. I don’t care if you 2009 got 100 points and the 2011 seems good value to the proprietor at 20% less, can we please have wines priced as wines rather than cultish objects of aspiration, investment and obsession? For the little names, where the prices have fluctuated less, more modest price cuts are required. The Bottom Line then is that in this difficult and patchy vintage, choose wisely, taking broad advice from wine writers (or wine critics!) and know what your top acceptable price should be. Alternatively, and especially for the less-chased wines, sit tight and wait until the wines physically arrive on the market. Unless the scores are unexpectedly positive from Parker (and he has sent out mixed messages, so who knows?) we won’t be seeing many gigantic price rises on these red wines in the next few years.

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?

The 2011 Bottom Line Report: First Tastes

My trip to Bordeaux began in quite a leisurely fashion, with a midday departure from Edinburgh, flying direct to Bordeaux; a much more convenient way to travel than the Edinburgh-Gatwick-Bordeaux route (often with a night in a hotel in Gatwick) that I have followed in previous years. And the absence of a 4am bugle call was also a benefit!

Saturday started with an informal dinner with friends which was low-key and involved some older wines, from 2008, 2006 and 2003. I did get to taste a single barrel sample of 2011 though, a white Pessac-Léognan, and I was taken aback by its freshness but also the depth to the fruit, with lovely vibrant acidity. I had heard that the whites (dry and sweet) might be good but this was better than expected. But one wine does not make a vintage of course. I needed (and still do) to taste more widely, and to reflect.

Sunday saw me point my hire car in the direction of the Vintex Vignobles Gregoire tasting, at a strange venue – a campsite outside Bordeaux. The tasting room within the restaurant looked out over a pond, from which there emanated a cacophony of mating calls from what must have been a large population of frogs. I’m glad my kids weren’t there – we would have had to have a hunt for frog spawn.

The main attraction here being a very good range of Sauternes (as shown above!), as well as a mix of lesser wines and grands crus. The range of Sauternes up for tasting was probably more complete than I have ever experienced, and the advantage of being here a day earlier than usual means I have the time to work through them at a more leisurely pace, giving the wines the time and respect they deserve. I spent all morning with the 33 wines, tasting and retasting as necessary. The vintage is remarkable, combining the depth and texture of a prodigious vintage with the acidity of a cooler, leaner one, giving the wines exquisite vigour despite their rich characters. They are remarkable, and wipe the floor with any other primeur samples of Sauternes I have tasted. For me, this means anything from 2005 to 2010. Are they as good as the 2001s? That’s difficult to say, as I never tasted the 2001s at this stage……but I have my thoughts, which I will write up in detail when back in Scotland.

Thereafter I tasted a few more wines with the Vintex team, before hot-footing it over to the Ulysses Cazabonne tasting at Rauzan-Ségla. This was a really good tasting, with lots of wines to pour, including some really good right bankers. The wines were only from one estate, but were rich, clean, not over-worked, fresh and yet concentrated. If the rest of the right bank is like this, we could have something really good on our hands. Too early to tell yet though….

As for the left bank, I tasted at all levels, from second growth cru classé estates to minor cru bourgeois. Another advantage of coming a day earlier is that I can get to look at these latter wines in more detail. The first growths don’t need the notes or the publicity in all honesty, and so if you are interested in how the likes of Rollan de By, Coufran, La Tour de By, Camensac and Cantemerle have done instead of Latour and Ducru-Beaucaillou (neither of which I will be visiting this year), then my reports should hopefully serve you well. Looking at the wines overall rather than any one in particular for the moment the quality was variable, and with no obvious hierarchy to it; even among these lesser wines, some shone, whereas others were competent. Few are truly to be avoided though.

And so, with a nod to Robert Parker, the Bottom Line for the primeurs so far is superb Sauternes.