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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.

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