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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.

4 Responses to “The 2011 Bottom Line Report: Tannins”

  1. Chris,

    I was just surfing the net to see if I could find anything written about 2011. The ones are found seem to be in agreement with yours regarding whites/Sauternes and the mixed bag in reds across the board. Clearly, if one is considering these wines then they really need to be tasted in bottle and en primeur buying should be avoided. I did not even touch on pricing.

    I found an interesting comment where one chateau owner said that 2011 was not as good as 2002. That to me is quite telling as I bought sparingly in 2002 after the wines were released and tasted by a trusted friend. However when I look at pricing for these wines compared to current prices what I have is the following PC/LB/LP for $35/40/40 respectively and even Haut Bages Liberal for $18. This is where the wines need to be for me to even raise “think about it”.

  2. From what I’m reading, the comparison with 86 seems very apt (a very good sauternes year as well); at the time, it was rated rather too highly, precisely because of the tannins and structure. If most people don’t note the similarity, it is perhaps because few who are writing puffery remember it, and those who have tasted it do so with the uncritical ‘oh how lovely’ because it is Ch 2eme cru and 25 years old from a ‘vintage’ that was praised at the time. When I do the tastings in a month’s time, I’ll certainly be going in with ‘where’s the fruit?’ and ‘how hard are those tannins?’ at the back of m mind. Even in 2010, I found the tannins of many a St Estephe cru bourgeois far too dry and hard.

    I’ll certainly be buying sauternes, and picking m way carefully for 2-3 reds that stand out for price/quality.

  3. I only tasted left banks. I did not like at all the tannin structure in most wines and, this being only my third EP tasting, I am very concerned the wines will not survive long enought for the tannins to soften. If this is the case, there is no reason to buy this lesser vintage. After all lesser vintages should be reserved for early drinking. This is unlikely to happen. There are very few exceptions to this in the left bank. To my taste I would say confidently I really liked Cos Nd Palmer. But will the prices come down enough on those names to grant purchase with a view to early drinking. As good as these wines are, the are a shadow of the good years like 09 and 10. Isn’t it better to look for lesser names in those vintages?

  4. Hi Giuseppe, thanks for these comments. I think the key is looking for balance, and there are wines that achieve this, whereas there are those that allow the tannins to dominate, often with a massive, tannic character. I think you do right to pick out Palmer (one of the top wines of the left bank) and Cos d’Estournel.

    Prices won’t come down enough on the whole, although the Bordelais are clearly thinking hard about it. I did say on Twitter before the primeurs that I think the Bordelais will wait for RP’s scores before releasing – they lost too much money in 2008 to make the mistake of releasing at too low a proce again. Despite all the talk of an early release in Bordeaux during the primeurs, RP is warming the crowd up for issue 200 on his forum, and I would not be surprised if this is released before any of the major wines come out.

    The issue of what ‘lesser’ vintages are for is an interesting on. It seems sad to me that great vintages now are for collectors, investors and conspicuous consumers. A vintage like 2011 has some good wines, much more so than 2007 or 2002. The tannins can be worked around – there was plenty of pleasure in 1986, eventually. But the prices might not reflect this I think – they will be too close to 2009 and 2010.