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Bordeaux 2011: St Emilion

Knowing just where to start with St Emilion can be something of a challenge. The appellation itself is huge, with thousands of hectares eligible, dwarfing the classic left-bank communes. Hand-in-hand with this we have several distinct terroirs here, giving us a variety of styles of wine; the largest and least exciting are the sandy soils (these alone account for 3200 hectares!), whereas centrally we have the clay and limestone around St Emilion itself. And at the very far western end on the border with Pomerol we also have the gravels which, if appellations were truly based on terroir, would surely be more at home within Pomerol than in St Emilion? On top of this diversity we have a range of varieties, with some wines focused on Cabernet Franc (Ausone, Cheval-Blanc, Le Dôme) and some on Merlot (the majority of the estates) and some throwing a distinctive proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon into the mix (Figeac). Then mix in the many and varied schools of winemaking, everything from a light-handed approach in the search for elegance (the Vaulthiers perhaps - Ausone, Fonbel and the like) to long hang-times and over-ambitious extractions (the Perse wines, such as Monbousquet and Pavie-Decesse, are perfect examples in 2011) and we have yet more complexity. Finally, thanks to my longer visit to Bordeaux for this year's primeurs I have tasted more wines than ever (in St Emilion, and elsewhere), thus adding to the complexity; all in all I tasted close to fifty wines from this appellation, four times the number encountered in some left bank communes. As a result St Emilion demands a detailed and multi-faceted report. So, as I said; where to start?

There is, of course, one obvious approach to dealing with this commune. There is only one purpose in travelling to Bordeaux for the primeurs, and no, I don't mean schmoozing with wealthy château-proprietors and gorging on foie gras, although I'm sure that is a major attraction for some! My intent when tasting the primeurs is to look for the successes hidden within the year, wines that transcend the difficulties of a trying vintage, or exemplify the potential of the year while hopefully offering value-for-money when the vintage has been much more favourable. I have to say, in this commune, with the 2011 vintage, my task was much more like the former than the latter. Sure, you have to taste all the obvious wines as well - Ausone, Cheval-Blanc, Pavie - as to some extent they define the commune and the vintage. But it's at the lower levels most of us will be drinking. So, before we get to hearing about the A-ranked premier grand cru classé wines and other newsworthy estates, where is the value this year?

Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot

Right here, at Beau-Séjour-Bécot, is my first suggestion. I didn't visit the estate this year (I have done previously - the image below shows the vines, with the church of St Martin beyond, pictured in 2010) but I tasted the wine at the UGC St Emilion tasting, hosted by Château Soudard. We parked up at said château on the Tuesday afternoon of primeurs week, our rather anonymous silver mini-bus - it's only distinguishing feature the scar of a long forgotten collision, a deformed door panel marked with a liberal scraping of pink paint from the other vehicle (which surely came off worse) - soon blending into the crowd of other anonymous, no doubt mostly rented vehicles. Some people at the primeurs aren't happy with such a simple chariot, however, as evinced by the limousine parked outside the château. Yes, a limousine. Who comes to the Bordeaux primeurs in a limousine?

Bordeaux 2011

Obviously a few names flashed through my mind. Jancis Robinson? No, for several reasons. First, although known to be a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth II (all credit to Neal Martin for uncovering the truth about HRH Jancis, by the way), Jancis may travel in exalted company but their transport is usually more modest. And besides, because of family commitments, Jancis wasn't in Bordeaux this year, the Purple Pages banner being carried by Julia Harding instead. What about James Suckling? An obvious choice; who else could pull off such an ostentatious mode of transport? No again, also for several reasons. First up, as we all know James 'scoops' everybody every year on the latest Bordeaux vintage, tasting in March, and was probably long-gone back to his Tuscan villa by now. Secondly, having stuck my nose inside the car, all I could perceive was pine air freshener, and not a hint of Cuban Cohiba. No cigar, no James, was my conclusion. Simon Staples of James Street merchants Berry, Bros & Rudd? Clearly not; everybody knows he flies from château to château in his private helicopter.

As it turns out I think the vehicle was there to serve a group of clearly important Asian visitors who must have thought - obviously never having navigated the narrow and convoluted streets and lanes of St Emilion before - that the most apt mode of transport would be long-wheelbase super-stretched Mercedes E240. Let's hope it didn't go back to the hire company with scars to match those worn by our mini-bus.

Anyway, I digress. In an antechamber off the main chai a number of wines from St Emilion awaited us. It was a vintage where earlier-ripening Merlots grown on cooler soils potentially did quite well, and I had also heard many positive comments on the quality of right-bank Cabernet Franc this year, and so I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into these wines. And only two samples into the tasting I found in Beau-Séjour-Bécot just what I had been looking for; here we had purity of fruit but also purity of form, the fruit on the palate defined and cleanly cut, fresh in style and also freshened up by the acidity of the vintage, with a light tinge of forest-fruit modernity to it. Now the wines of Beau-Séjour-Bécot can sometimes be good, but this was certainly an unexpected delight, and immediately I began to warm to the vintage. Could this be the year for St Emilion to reign supreme, I wondered, and usurp the oft-superior Pomerol?

Err....no.

Having tasted through all the remaining wines in that antechamber, the answer to that question is most certainly not. The wines of St Emilion in 2011 displayed all the usual diversity of style and quality, although in this more robust vintage a number of estates seem to have majored on fudgy and over-ripe fruit, sometimes with an overt desiccated or raisined character, often with a brawny backbone of tannins. There are few wines less pleasant than those that taste of dead, brown fruit, but you can find them here, in this commune, this year. Against such a stark backdrop, no wonder Beau-Séjour-Bécot shone out like a beacon of hope. Let's pray the price is reasonable; I don't buy many right bank wines for my own consumption, but this is one where I might just take the plunge. (24/4/12)