2011 Bordeaux from the Bottle

If I had to pick just one element that defines the Bordeaux reds of 2011, it is the transformative role of élevage.  Never before in the last decade or so have fining and a couple years in bottle done so much to improve Bordeaux's red wines from when I first tasted them at the Primeurs (in this case, in the spring of 2012).  Clearly, 2011 will not be remembered as a great vintage (not just 2005, 2009 and 2010, of course, but also 2001, 2006 and 2008 are significantly better vintages), but the wines have surprised me pleasantly with their development.  By contrast, the region's dry and sweet white wines were great right out of the starting gate (Barsac in particular); retasting them in 2013 and again in 2014 from bottle only confirms my earlier impression.

This past June (on my fourth trip to Bordeaux this year), Pierre Lurton, the talented general manager of Cheval Blanc and Yquem, told me that he was extremely happy with his 2011s, a feeling echoed only hours later by Pauline Vauthier, whose family owns Ausone and other Right Bank estates.  "In 2011, at Cheval Blanc, we harvested over a period of 28 days [actually, I remembered 23 but I must have heard it wrong the first time], our longest harvest on record," Lurton told me.  "By sending out pickers over and over again in the vineyards, we were able to harvest with great precision, in the hope of allowing each berry a shot at reaching the highest possible level of ripeness."

To be sure, such costly and time-demanding measures were possible only for the wealthier estates such as Cheval Blanc, which goes a long way toward explaining why certain estates performed much better than others in the difficult 2011 vintage.  Lurton was especially happy about how much density the wines had picked up since the Primeurs.  "The 2011s were characterized by very high polyphenol counts and stubborn tannins from the start, but time has allowed those tannins to smooth out to a much greater degree than we anticipated, allowing the fruit to surface."  Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Cheval Blanc's brilliant young technical director who was tasting along with us, pointed out that "the rather good showing of these wines in bottle is the best possible proof of why Bordeaux reds really need time to show their best.  People forget that historically Bordeaux reds were aged for much longer than is commonplace today.  There is something to oak aging that really helps our merlot and especially our cabernet to improve over time."

Later in the day, when I visited Nicholas Thienpont (who directs estates such as Pavie Macquin, Larcis Ducasse, Beausejour-Duffau-Lagarosse and Berliquet), I found that he held very similar views.  "I thought the 2011s would turn out much harder," he said.  "This time last year I was worried; instead I have been pleasantly surprised."  Asked if they had changed anything in their elevage practices, Pavie Macquin's technical director David Suire (who works on all the estates managed by Thienpont) noted:  "It wasn't so much a matter of decreasing the time these wines spent in oak because, owing to their huge tannic mass, they needed the slow oxygenation and smoothing effect provided by barriques.  However, we did reduce the amount of new oak, since we didn't want to risk overoaking 2011's gentle fruit."

In fact, most Bordeaux estates either reduced the amount of new oak or the time the wines spent in barrels, although there was no general consensus over which approach was best.  So while L'Evangile and L'Eglise-Clinet chose not to reduce the time in barrel, at Petrus and Ausone the wines spent up to three fewer months in oak.  By contrast, several estates even lengthened the aging process:  for example, Jean-Luc Thunevin kept Valandraud in barrel for almost 25 months:  "I didn't want a repeat of the problems I had with my 2004," he reminisced.  "In the end, I just felt the wine had so much tannin it really needed to round out in barrel."  Over at Chateau Lafleur, Baptiste Guinaudeau remembered that "water stress started early and the berries had very thick skins and not much juice, so the key was not to overextract.  Elevage has helped these wines immensely, but it doesn't always work that way.  For example, I think it actually hurt many otherwise fine 2009s, which are now showing too much oak and overly soft personalities due to the effects of excessively long oxygenation."

The 2011 growing season.  For a full description of 2011's weather during the growth cycle, I refer readers back to the original detailed description in my article on the 2011 Primeurs published in Issue 162 of the IWC.  Summarizing briefly, 2011 was characterized by a freak growing season during which spring and summer swapped places:  atypically, spring was warm and dry, while summer was wet and cold.  Even worse, in 2011 the rhythm of the vines was constantly interrupted: water stress and heat caused the vines to shut down early, and the early-season heat led to reduced yields and uneven ripening.  To make matters worse, August rains spurred vegetative growth when normally all the energy of the vines would have gone into ripening fruit rather than building more foliage.

The vintage's overall potential quality was largely limited by the cold summer.  And while this ensured that making overripe and overly alcoholic wines was not a risk--in my view, fortunately--it also made for tough, unyielding wines of little charm.  In fact, although the wines have turned out better than initially feared, the result of such fickle weather was unripe tannins (of the skins and especially the pips), the hallmark of the 2011 vintage.  On a positive note, because of 2011's weather, the reds share not just lower alcohol levels than those of other recent Bordeaux vintages, but also noteworthy acidity and freshness, which makes them generally very good food wines.  Given these characteristics (lower alcohol, freshness, physiologically unripe tannins), you might say that the 2011 wines are a throwback to some of the Bordeaux wines of the '60s and '70s in style.  

The wines in bottle
.  While 2011 will not go down in history as Bordeaux's finest hour, the wines will make very enjoyable lunch and dinner companions, offering ideal short-  to medium-term drinking.  As Jean-Pascal Vazart, technical director at l'Evangile, put it, "These are wines to eat with:  look up from your plate, and suddenly you realize that the bottle is already empty."

Some critics and members of the trade have gone on record as saying that the 2011s remind them of the 2001s, but I don't believe that to be an apt comparison at all.  Simply put, the 2001s are wines of much better balance and have much finer tannic structures.  If anything, the 2011s resemble the 2004s, though they are generally less fragrant and more powerful than those wines. As for those people (mostly folks with wines to sell) who say that the 2011 reds have sweet tannins, I really don't know what they're talking about--and, I fear, neither do they.

My original assessment of the 2011 Bordeaux reds (when I tasted them in 2012 during the Primeurs) stands.  It is a vintage in which the best terroirs and wealthiest estates shone, while wines from lesser sites and those from less-conscientious producers can be marred by tough tannins and a lack of fruit.  Estates with young vines or with vineyards planted on sand- and gravel-rich soils fared worse.  For this reason, 2011's Right Bank wines usually show best, thanks mainly to the prevalence of clay in the soils and to cabernet franc's stellar performance; without doubt, this grape, more than merlot, was a real success in 2011.  The presence of clay also explains why the wines of Pessac-Léognan are generally more successful than, for example, those of Margaux in 2011 and why the wines of Saint-Estèphe are also showing relatively well.  However, the majority of 2011s are characterized by strict tannic structures and generally dry finishes that left me scampering for food--not to mention wishing for a little more sweet fruit.  This is especially true of most Medoc wines.

On a positive note, the wines are much more approachable and less rigid today than they were during the Primeurs.  They are also a bit more consistent in quality than they were a year ago.  Last but not least, keep in mind that the wines of 2011 show more floral than fruity character.  This is especially true of wines with a strong cabernet franc presence:  aromas of violet, peony and lavender are especially striking in 2011, while ripe cassis, sweet plum and blueberry notes are much harder to come by.  Finally, for maximum drinking enjoyment, I'd suggest either double-decanting the wines (even if some in Bordeaux feel that this is too harsh a maneuver) or opening them well ahead (say three or four hours, at least) of when you plan to drink them.

Clearly, the top names in Bordeaux have delivered their usual solid efforts (say what you will, but should you have the cash, Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Cheval Blanc and Léoville-Las Cases, to name just a few examples, are outstanding wines).  Generally, though, the wines remain a little too expensive for the quality delivered.  So just remember that some less-famous Right Bank wines (Pomerols and Saint-Emilions especially), and some Pessac-Léognans and Saint-Estèphes, can be decent buys.  "That's the great thing about 2011," summarized Thienpont.  "There are many affordable wines in 2011 that are perfectly acceptable, not just the top 10% everyone talks about."

Dry and sweet white wines.  The 2011 dry whites are outstanding wines.  Quality is high across the board, with most wines showing precise sauvignon blanc and semillon aromas and flavors; bright, harmonious acidity; and good depth of fruit.  Most will also age especially well.

The 2011 Sauternes and especially the Barsacs are also glorious wines.  Though they haven't yet developed quite the complexity I expected, I believe that they are slowly developing wines blessed with noteworthy acidity levels and that they will benefit from years in the cellar, so you shouldn't be in any rush to drink them.  Happily, at least in my view, it is also a year of very nobly rotten grapes, and I love the added complexity and depth that that darling little fungus adds to what are some of the world's greatest wines.  The noble rot arrived in late August, and the warm autumn weather concentrated the botrytized fruit nicely.  But the sunny, hot fall weather was almost too much of a good thing, and there was a noteworthy risk of making wines that are too rich or heavy.

Estates coped differently with the situation.  Some, like Nairac, resolved matters by performing just one long trie in September, while others, like Yquem, resorted to increasing their use of bunches of grapes picked sooner in the fall and not affected by noble rot.  In the end, the long, cool summer guaranteed very high acidity levels.  Thus, the 2011 Sauternes and Barsacs are characterized by a rare combination of purity and precision as well as sneaky power.  And although you might read elsewhere that the 2011 Sauternes and Barsacs are not currently living up to the potential they hinted at during the Primeurs, don't pay any heed.  How good are these 2011s?  So good that Sandrine Garbay, winemaker at Yquem, compares her magnificent 2011 to the likewise magnificent 2009 Yquem, no small achievement.  And both Xavier Planty of Guiraud and Olivier Casteja of Doisy-Védrines prefer the 2011s to their vaunted 2001s.

Other recommended 2011s:  Amirail de Beychevelle Saint-Julien (86), Beau Soleil Pomerol (86), La Bienfaisance Saint-Emilion (86), Sanctus de La Bienfaisance Saint-Emilion (85), Brane de Brane-Cantenac Margaux (86), Cambon La Pelouse Haut-Medoc (86), Candale Saint-Emilion (86), Canon-Pecresse Canon-Fronsac (86), Carlmagnus Fronsac (86), Chevalier de Lascombes Margaux (86), Clos Bertineau Montagne Saint-Emilion (86), Clos du Clocher Pomerol (86), Clos La Madelaine Saint-Emilion (86), Clos les Lunelles Castillon-Cotes de Bordeaux (84), Clos Vieux Taillefer Pomerol (86), L'Excellence de Clos des Menuets Saint-Emilion (86), Cote Montpezat Cuvee Compostelle Castillon-Cotes de Bordeaux (85), La Couronne du Marquis de Terme Margaux (85), Croizet-Bages Pauillac (86), Daugay Saint-Emilion (86), de France Pessac-Leognan (86), Duluc de Branaire-Ducru Saint-Julien (86), Edmus Saint-Emilion (84), Gazin-Rocquencourt Pessac-Leognan (86), Godeau Saint-Emilion (85), Grand Corbin Saint-Emilion (85), Grangeneuve Pomerol (86), Gree Laroque Bordeaux Superieur (86), Guadet Saint-Emilion (86), Haut Bertinerie Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux (86), Haut Cloquet Pomerol (86), Haut Maurac Haut-Medoc (86), Haut Nouchet Pessac-Leognan (86), Haut-Segottes Saint-Emilion (85), Les Hauts du Tertre Margaux (86), Hostens-Picant Sainte-Foy Bordeaux (86), l'Isle Fort Bordeaux Superieur (86), Jean Faux Bordeaux Superieur (86), La Commanderie Saint-Emilion (86), La Croix St. Georges Pomerol (86), La Dame de Malescot Saint Exupery Margaux (86), Lafleur du Roy Pomerol (85), Laroze Saint-Emilion (85), Le Caillou Pomerol (85), L'Ecuyer Pomerol (86), Les Fougeres Saint-Emilion (85), La Fugue de Nénin Pomerol (85), Le Petit Lion de Leoville Las Cases (85), La Pointe Pomerol (86), La Rousselle Canon (85), Les Fiefs de Lagrange Saint-Julien (86), Lynch-Moussas Pauillac (86), Lyonnat Lussac Saint-Emilion (86), Magdeleine Bouhou Blaye-Cotes de Bordeaux (86), Magnan La Gaffelière Saint-Emilion (85), Montlabert Saint-Emilion (85), Moulin Riche de Leoville-Poyferre Saint-Julien (86), Munch Lussac Saint-Emilion (86), Plincette Pomerol (86), Reserve de Barton de Leoville-Barton Saint-Julien (86), Reserve de la Comtesse de Pichon Comtesse de Lalande Pauillac (85), Sacre Coeur Pomerol (86), Segla Margaux (86), Siaurac Lalande de Pomerol (84-87), Taillefer Pomerol (86), Connétable Talbot Château Talbot Saint-Julien (85), Tour Maillet Pomerol (86), Trianon Saint-Emilion (85), Tronquoy de Sainte-Anne du Château Tronquoy-Lalande (86), Vieux Chateau Palon Montagne Saint-Emilion (86), Vieux Plateau Certan Pomerol (86), Virginie Thunevin Bordeaux (86).

Other wines tasted:  Blason d'Issan Margaux, Charmes de Kirwan Margaux, Confidences de Prieuré-Lichine Margaux, Gassies de Rauzan-Gassies Margaux, Labastide Dauzac Margaux, La Croix Pomerol, Guillot Clauzel Pomerol, Prelude à Grand-Puy-Ducasse Pauillac, Echo de Lynch-Bages Pauillac, Les Hauts de Lynch-Moussas Pauillac, Haut Maillet Pomerol, Les Remparts de Ferrière Margaux, Les Tourelles de Croizet Bages Pauillac, Tailhas Pomerol, La Truffe Pomerol, Vivens par Durfort-Vivens Margaux.