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Bordeaux 2011

by Tom Cannavan, 04/12

Merchants offering En Primeur

Each April, the Châteaux of Bordeaux invite the world's wine buyers and press to taste their latest vintage 'en primeur'. This year Bordeaux 2011 was on show.

The en primeur system is increasingly controversial, with some wine merchants expressing an opinion that the speculative nature of pricing - the 2010 wines were up 40% compared to 2009 in some cases - will have a negative effect on Bordeaux wine in the long term. Some consumers are also wondering if stumping up cash a year before they can take delivery of wines is really such a good idea, especially when prices once the wines are actually on sale in the UK can be much the same as those paid 'en primeur'.

And yet the wines of Bordeaux remain the most collectible in the world, with a huge growth of interest from the Far East and other emerging markets. And so the chance to secure a favourite château will prove irresistible for many, almost irrespective of price. Collectors will once again be drawn to the en primeur market for the 2011 vintage, either to secure an allocation of a château they follow regularly, or in the hope of buying at a good price in a market that has moved in only one direction in recent years.

Vintage summary

From reading the reports of many experienced commentators who have been tasting hundreds of wines on the ground in Bordeaux, it seems certain that the conditions of 2011 worked against the winemakers. A number of climatic aberrations combined to make this a very difficult vintage in which to make great wine, including:
  • early spring flowering but then severe drought
  • excessive heat and drought in June
  • July colder than normal
  • August and September wetter than normal

Yields were much lower than usual for many estates - up to 50% lower in some cases - and all reports suggest it was a year when very, very careful fruit selection was needed to make wines of quality. No clear left bank/right bank advantage has emerged so far, but there is a very broad consensus that white wines - dry and sweet - have fared better than red.

One thing's for sure: it looks like a vintage where it is essential to choose your châteaux wisely. It is important to read widely, talk to a trusted wine merchant (some can be remarkably candid about wines they are selling) and take any tasting opportunities - a number of merchants have en primeur tastings here in the UK over coming months, pouring samples of the 2011s.

Prices up or prices down?

Every year there are calls for prices to be reduced to stop a runaway market and allay fears of a generation of wine lovers who will grow up with little interest in stratospherically-priced Bordeaux. But this year those voices are whispering that the time has finally come: with a glut of good vintages in recent years all to be sold at high prices, there is quiet confidence that the Bordelais will take a more pragmatic view of this difficult vintage and introduce real cuts - some rumours are talking of 40%, even 50%. The release of prices always follows an elaborate courtship ritual between the Bordeaux trade's buyers and sellers, and pricing is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the 2011 vintage that is yet to unfold.

The bookends: Preuillac and Brown

I did not attend en primeur week in Bordeaux as I have often done in the past (for a flavour of the week see
En Primeur 2011), but I was lucky enough to be sent samples of three 2011 wines by my contacts at Yvon Mau, owners of Château Preuillac in the Médoc and Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan. Three samples do not a vintage make, and so the little tasting below is certainly not an overview of the 2011 vintage, just a mere snapshot.

Interestingly, these two châteaux are sited at opposite ends of Bordeaux's 'left bank' territory. Jean-Christophe Mau is director of both estates and sums up the vintage at Château Preuillac, a relatively cold site in the northern Médoc close to St-Estèphe: "It was an early vintage marked by erratic weather conditions." The harvest was the earliest at Preuillac for a decade due to an Indian Summer and was three weeks earlier than in 2010. By contrast, Château Brown lies in Pessac-Léognan, Graves, one of Bordeaux's most southerly red wine appellations. The most notable factor for Brown was the cool July followed by a hot August when temperatures reached 40ºC, but which also saw rain storms and the risk of Botrytis. Harvest for the white wine began on August 24th, with the first red grapes (Merlot) harvested on September 16th.

The wine samples

As always, these come with the caveat that these are unfinished wines that will spend another year or more in barrel before final blending and bottling.

Château Preuillac, Médoc 2011, France
Preuillac's 2011 is composed of 50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, with 13% alcohol. It has a dense, vibrant colour and a nose with little rhubarb and beetrooty, vegetal aromas over firm, cherry and black berry fruit. On the palate this has very nice balance: it has a fairly lean, fairly sinewy style with the oak a little raw at this stage and the tannins grippy but adding a nicely roughening edge. The fruit is good: supple and well packed into the mid-palate, a touch of pepper and spice in the finish which is really quite long, just warmed by vanilla and clove. A really good effort. 87-89/100.

Château Brown, Pessac-Léognan Rouge 2011, France
The blend here is 67% Cabernet Sauvignon and 33% Merlot, with just over 13% alcohol. Good, deep, vibrant colour. Lovely fruit purity on the nose, with some of that vegetal, chicory-like firmness to the black fruit and a sappy feeling of freshness with modest oak influence. On the palate the tannins are more refined than in Preuillac, a smaller grain to the tannins and more silky texture. The svelte black fruit is still keen and quite lean and muscular, but there is a lovely sense of burgeoning blackcurrant sweetness. Good acidity, a bit of spice and charry character building on the finish, and already tasting quite delicious. Should be very good. 89-91/100.

Château Brown, Pessac-Léognan Blanc 2011, France
This blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon has a pale gold/green colour and a lovely nose combining creamy, custardy oak with lemon peel, crushed almond and just a hint of fresh green herbs. On the palate there is immediate concentration, with masses of lemon fruit and acidity, lots of grip and power, and the nutty, gently toasty background adding depth. This feels like a very powerful and serious young wine, with lots of citrus and apple tang and clarity, but with a sense of ripeness too. 89-91/100.

Buying en primeur

If you are in the market to buy these or any other wines en primeur, place you order thoughtfully: I recommend reading the comprehensive information published by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association on their Investing in Fine Wines web site.