by Juel Mahoney, Our Woman in Pauillac
Sitting at a superb lunch with our Bordeaux negociant in St Julien talking about possible pricing for 2011 Bordeaux we had a glass of 2004 Phelan Segur. Not the best vintage in the world for Bordeaux, a four-square wine which does not shout over the conversation with fruit and oak madness. Yet this is what Bordeaux does very well. It is a wine for doing business.
The Bordelaise have centuries of experience doing business with the English wine merchant. The En Primeurs, especially the tastings we did yesterday at the Chateaux, are very well coordinated mini-events. We taste no more than 3 or 4 wines at each appointment, talk to the owner or winemaker, and then make an assessment. At places like Ducru Beaucaillou there are model slash hostesses in gold dresses and even at Pontet they now have hostesses now to escort guests to the tasting room.
However, despite the grandness of the Chateaux, there is always one element the winemakers have to do business with that no amount of slick PR will influence: the weather.
Most of the winemakers looked exhausted when we asked about the 2011 vintage. Last year they saw every kind of weather from severe hail storms in St-Estephe to extreme drought in Pessac and all the variations in between. You have to give them credit, they know how to make do with a not ideal situation.
When we asked Nicholas Glumineaut at Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe, what he thought about the 2011, he paused for a while and hesitated. After an awkward silence we asked, why the hesitation? “Well, of course, I am biased, and I think it is good,” he said, as if a cloud darkened his face, “but when I remember the 2011 vintage, it was a very difficult and demanding time in the vineyard with the weather. We have never seen weather conditions like this before.”
This is why, like a lot of Chateaux, Montrose had reduced yields. At Palmer their yields were half the normal vintage and the 2011 was the smallest after the very small 1961 vintage (only 12ha/l when it is normally around 40 ha/l). This was the story heard across the Chateaux in the left bank.
There is an old saying that “When you have lemons, make lemonade,” and this is exactly what the Chateaux have done. They have produced small quantities of good fruit, with strict selection and smart winemaking they have made some very good grand vins.
For some in this difficult vintage, it is certainly not all bad news. The Grand Vin of Chateau Palmer was the team favourite of the day in the Left Bank. Unctuous and velvet with great texture and plenty of ripe, classy fruit. It was not only a technically good wine, but it also had charm.
Unlike the Lafite-Rothschild this year. Perhaps we were burdened by the weight of expectation – it is a very good wine. However, tasting it was a bit like watching a technically brilliant tennis player who plays all the shots but who does not really connect to the emotion of the game. Excellent, but not thrilling. Although I have to say, the Chateau itself was my idea of a fairytale French country house with all the purple wisteria over the stone walls.
The good news is that this vintage has lower alcohol levels. This was most apparent at Cos d’Estournel who turned out a high-alcohol beast in 2010, but this year have produced a more reasonable 13.5% alcohol. It is as spicy and outlandish as the pagoda-themed Chateau itself but more restrained and in balance. It is fun to visit, like visiting a rich man’s plaything. As asual, Ben Collins stocked up on Cos-branded golf pencils and stationary adorned with silver elephants: “I love showing off at Wentworth.”
The style of the 2011 vintage is very interesting. The tannins are more apparent because the fruit is less dominant. They are not aggressive tannins but, for the most part, fine and “black tea” like. It is not a blockbuster year but there are certainly some stellar wines. Most will be drinking very well in the next 5 years rather than needing 20 plus.
The elephant in the room is the price. Although judging by the amount of construction work on the Left Bank, Bordeaux is re-investing the previous two highly-priced vintages back into the chateaux infrastructure. This year, the construction workers may be the richest people in Bordeaux.
Monday’s Top 5
- Chateau Palmer
- Chateau Pontet Canet
- Chateau Montrose
- Chateau Leoville Las Cases
- Chateau Clos du Marquis
Want to taste Bordeaux 2011 for yourself?
You can! Tickets are available (but selling like fast) to Bibendum’s Annual Bordeaux Tasting. 100+ Chateaux. Lots of 2011. Lots of older wines. Lots of winemakers. Wednesday, 9th May at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London. Don’t miss it.