The Comedown: Bordeaux 2011 Ten-Years-On


Two-thousand and eleven was the comedown after the heady days of 2009 and 2010. Customers that had come out of nowhere with fat wads of cash vanished into thin air, phone calls no longer answered. The sudden arrival of Far Eastern-based buyers was matched by their sudden disappearance having quickly wised up to how they were being exploited by the more unscrupulous merchants. The 2011 growing season had been challenging to say the least. Not even the most euphemistic château proprietor was willing to mount their soapbox to claim that it was the same calibre as the previous two vintages. 

Perusing my original en primeur report, I had completely forgotten that I had channelled my inner-Wordsworth/Morrissey to compose a poem that sums up how I felt at the time… 

An Ode to En Primeur

Bordeaux, Bordeaux, in 2011,

Will your wines send me to hell or to heaven?

Is it really worth my time

Investing in unfinished wine?

Are you an exercise of vanity

Or economic insanity?

Will your prices tumble and fall

Or will you give us bugger all?

Tell me, who’s the new kid on the block

And which wines should I chide and mock?

Which primeur was a “right old mess” and

Who did not add their vin de presse?

Should I invest in a Premier Cru,

Leaving my bank balance sad and blue?

I’m in the red, school fees to pay.

Should I go long on Château Le Gay?

Right Bank or Left: where should I go?

Trust the critics? What do they know.

Apparently the Pomerols are tasting bitter

According to some chap I don’t know on Twitter.

Who’s the quickest with their score?

(Usually the one we all ignore.)

I can’t decide, I’m all confused,

I see the prices. I’m not amused.

I confess that I’ve never been an ardent admirer of the vintage. Over the years, it became hip to praise this underdog. Yet, across numerous vertical tastings, the only good thing I could say about the 2011 was that “it was not 2013.” It definitely was not a bad vintage, not by a long chalk. But the wines rarely set my pulse racing, and whereas I felt that the 2012 vintage meliorated as time passed, a subject that I shall return to in a future piece, the class of 2011 was happy to swim doggy-paddle when others swam front crawl. I re-examined the vintage in 2015 at the annual Southwold tasting, though unusually for this pedantic note-taker, I never published the report. Therefore, revisiting the 2011 vintage after ten years, I was intrigued to find out whether I have unfairly given it short shrift or if it is an also-ran season that you can take or leave. First, let us remind ourselves of the weather that year.

I dug up this old photo. I was visiting Bordeaux during the harvest in September 2011. This is Jean-Hubert Delon at Léoville Las-Cases keeping a watchful eye over the sorting. I cannot imagine it was undertaken in this manner for the entire production…they would still be there now.

The Growing Season

Two-thousand and eleven was a fairly challenging growing season, one might say “topsy-turvy”, insofar that summer was more like spring and vice versa. Such was the springtime warmth that bud break was just over a week earlier than usual and flowering even earlier than in 2003, fifteen days ahead of schedule at Lafite-Rothschild. Summer was unseasonably cool, except for a blistering heat-wave towards the end of June. Dry conditions caused hydric stress, particularly amongst the Cabernets on free-draining gravel soils. Those producers who chose to leaf-thin in order to counter the lack of warmth risked grilled and shrivelled berries. They were small and thick-skinned, average weights of 1gm per berry instead of 1.5gms. August was wet and cold; the rain encouraged vines to increase foliage rather than pump that energy into its fruit and grey rot was a constant risk. Given that danger and with grapes fully ripe, picking of dry whites commenced extremely early on 17 August. Come September and châteaux faced a dilemma: avoid risk and harvest potentially unripe fruit or hold firm and hope conditions improved. Forecasts of unsettled conditions encouraged some to dispatch the pickers early. Merlot was brought in from around 5 September. Teams in the vineyards had to endure a large storm that slammed into the Médoc on 10 September, but afterwards, those that had waited it out were rewarded with a fortnight’s warm and dry weather at the end of September that continued into October. Such was the extent of this Indian summer that it skewed average temperature figures enough to suggest it was one of the warmest years. In truth, it simply delayed ripening, causing fruit to accumulate less sugar than during the summer. You could say that it averts a poor vintage rather than guarantees a great one.

Two-thousand and eleven was a year when châteaux had to sort carefully, advantaging those with optical sorting machines or numerous eyes and hands discarding any underripe or rotten bunches before they ended up in the vat. For example, Mouton-Rothschild parsed out 8% of their crop that in previous years might have ended up in the final blend. One aspect of the vinification is that alcoholic fermentation was surprisingly quick, so it was important to control the temperature of the must, lest you risk over-extracting during the rest of the cuvaison period. In addition, some châteaux deselected some of the Merlot from the Grand Vin as a few winemakers felt that it detracted from the final quality.

How the Wines Were Tasted

Some 150 wines were tasted single blind, that is to say, organised into peer-group flights, poured in a random order, in October 2021. Tasting notes appear as I wrote them at the time, prior to their identity being revealed. The only edits were in tidying up the grammar and inserting châteaux names instead of numbers where I made comparisons.

The Wines

Let’s get this out of the way first. This ten-year tasting gave me no reason to re-evaluate my pre-held opinion towards the 2011vintage. If you want to get numerical about it, then I can save you a search because no red wine breached 95-points, not any First Growth or the elite wines of the Right Bank. As expected, this single blind tasting revealed surprising results, famous names that performed below expectations and occasionally surpassed by châteaux with less kudos and more wallet-friendly price tags. Some results did not correlate to my own previous scores, but the next time an expert boasts that every single wine matched their previous reviews exactly, then take that with a very strong pinch of salt. I always go through every tasting note to see whether the blind tasting note matches the incumbent review, and if it differs, reflect on why that might be, a process that we all undertake when we open a bottle we are familiar with.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the 2011 Bordeaux. It just misses a bit of pizzazz. Putting a positive spin on things, I appreciated the style of the wines that are far removed from the decadence of 2009 and bombast 2010, with lower alcohol levels that appeal to those for whom 14.5% guarantees a severe headache the following morning. There are few underripe or vegetal wines, partly because by now, the top estates practiced stricter selection, made far easier by the “new toy” in Bordeaux: optical sorting machines. Whilst these could eradicate distasteful underripe aromas or flavours, Nature just did not imbue the wines with the complexity, putting a cap on quality that no château, irrespective of reputation, could surpass. Furthermore, perusing my original banded scores from barrel from that year’s primeur campaign, I noticed how many are below my estimates, suggesting that as they age in bottle, the 2011s are either flatlining in quality or are beginning to run out of steam.

Let’s broach this appellation by appellation.

Saint-Estèphe – The scores here did not correlate to the reputation of the estates with both the 2011 Cos d’Estournel and the 2011 Montrose failing to deliver. Examining the group’s average scores, both came mid-table. I was not alone in feeling unimpressed. Both were pipped by a divine 2011 Calon-Ségur that appears to be maturing well in bottle and a surprise of that flight, the 2011 Les Ormes de Pez that displayed wonderful balance and tension. 

Pauillac – Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2011 Latour came out trumps, this being the last vintage released during spring following the harvest. It’s a gem and relative to other vintages, probably represents great value, this decade’s equivalent to the over-performing 2002. The 2011 Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild were a step behind, though commendable given the growing season. That said, both the 2011 Pichon-Comtesse de Lalande and 2011 Pichon-Baron showed better under blind conditions. Others that showed well include an excellent 2011 Batailley and also its neighbour, the 2011 Haut-Batailley. Some did not show as expected. I was left scratching my head over the misfiring bottle from Grand Puy-Lacoste, which I previously rated highly. Also, though I did find the 2011 Pontet Canet enjoyable, I was not the only participant to notice an incongruous gamey element that distinguished it from its peers. To reiterate, these wines were all served blind. I rated it highly from barrel. So, it’s egg on my own face. But a truly independent critic doesn’t pull punches and I must communicate my impression of this bottle. I hope to revisit this 2011 to corroborate because perhaps there might be some bottle variation? Overall, a mixed performance for Pauillac.

Saint-Julien – In many ways, Saint-Julien performed similarly to Pauillac. The Léoville-Barton really shone, testament to the recently departed Anthony Barton. It showed the best out of the three Léovilles, though as a group of tasters, Poyferré came out top (a strong performer in blind peer-group tasting because it always has more fruit intensity and sensuality). The 2011 Ducru Beaucaillou is very impressive and received some of the highest scores from the attendees. Others were not bad, but did not set my world on fire. 

Margaux – Perhaps predictably the 2011 Château Margaux received some of the highest scores from both myself and others. It’s quality shone through, testament to the still much-missed Paul Pontallier who passed away four years later. But, it is given a tough challenge by an excellent 2011 Rauzan-Ségla, one of the best examples of this wine that I have tasted, demonstrating more tension than its peers. This pipped the 2011 Palmer that felt uncharacteristically straight-laced. Also, kudos to the 2011 Château d’Issan, perhaps one of the best value-for-money wines from the appellation. Maybe, I was hoping for more from Brane-Cantenac, though I think that they really upped their game in the last five or six years. Cooler growing seasons can sometimes make the wine feel a little raw compared to others.

Pessac-Léognan – There was a real mixed bunch here. The 2011 La Mission Haut-Brion really stood out for me: cohesive and focused, very precise, just having the edge over the 2011 Haut-Brion. There’s not much between them and perusing the group’s average scores, the First Growth was ranked higher. It was quite a mixed bag after that with some of my favourite château not really pulling out all the stops. The 2011 Haut-Bailly was perplexing, not least because it showed as expected when it formed part of a vertical last summer that I will publish in the future, so I took the decision to withdraw my note. Even the Domaine de Chevalier is another curiously off-key, though often I feel its subtleties can get a bit lost in an intensive blind tasting like this, as much as I keep an eye out for the more understated wines.

Pomerol – Everyone knows I love Pomerol. You don’t write a 600-page tome in your spare time if you don’t love an appellation. That said, I don’t think 2011 is Pomerol’s greatest hour. Four wines bucked the trend: the 2011 Lafleur, Vieux-Château-Certan and l’Eglise-Clinet, that all contain a dollop of Cabernet Franc, including the 2011 Trotanoy that comprises only around 10%. All of them showed marginally better than the 2011 Petrus, which I’ve never particularly been overly fond-of ever since I tasted it blind at the Southwold tasting in 2015. Hey, you can’t win ‘em all. Better was the 2011 Le Pin, which actually showed better here than the bottle drunk in 2020. Perhaps, I was expecting more from the La Conseillante, made before Marielle Cazaux joined as head winemaker, whilst Clinet is making far better wines nowadays.

Saint-Émilion – It is interesting to travel back in time with respect to this appellation. Back in 2011, Robert Parker was still visiting the region and reviewing, his opinion holding enormous sway over its wines, especially in a year preceding the 2012 reclassification. Saint-Émilion has changed remarkably over the intervening period, for the better in my opinion, with more liberal wine-thinking leading to greater diversification. Sure, if you want your big, fruit-driven, rich wines, they are still around, but so are their more terroir-driven and elegant comrades. The appellation is now less homogenous. Some of the wines from this era had not aged with particular grace, namely Troplong Mondot (then under Xavier Pariente), Le Dôme and Beau-Séjour Duffau Lagarosse received low scores from myself and others. Some 2011s are ageing far better such as Cheval Blanc and Figeac, Angélus and Bélair-Monange, the first vintage under J-P Moueix. The 2011 Canon-la-Gaffelière put in a commendable performance and might represent the best value, though our bottle of 2011 Canon was all over the place and in the end, was not scored by anyone. That’s just the way the cookie crumbled.

Sauternes – The sweet wines of Sauternes generally showed well considering that this is not the most revered vintage. Two or three wines received some of my highest scores: Rieussec just having the edge over a splendid Yquem, even though it did win based on average group score, Doisy-Daëne, Climens and Coutet flying the flag for Barsac. There’s a few hidden gems like the Château de Myrat and Lamothe-Guignard that I bet you can still pick up for a snip.

Final Thoughts

The 2011 vintage might not quicken the heart rate and frankly, there are very few that will evolve into something special. They’re unlikely to repay long-term cellaring. Perhaps what is more interesting is to compare these with the 2012s. Is there a gap between them? Both are cheaper than more lauded vintages, so which should you choose? To that end, readers can expect more or less an identical ten-year-on blind tasting focusing on the 2012s in the future, though I should forewarn, or more likely relieve readers, it does not contain any poetic prose.

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