After four days of non-stop visits, degustations, and discussions with négociants, estate owners, winemakers and other merchants, what conclusions can we draw from our in-depth tasting of the 2011 Bordeaux vintage?
Above: The AWC Tasting Team
The first is that the vintage is better than we envisioned it would be before we came here to see it for ourselves. This holds true for both the Left and Right Banks. There are exceptions, to be sure, but the best wines are fresh, balanced, succulent, and have great fruit flavours. Only the wines that received extraordinary care in the vineyard and were handled with great skill in the winery fall into this category. The knowledge, technical ability, and financial resources now exist so that even the most basic Crus Classés is able produce good wines under difficult and challenging circumstances. Twenty years ago, such an outcome would have been beyond the capability of Bordeaux and completely unimaginable.
Above: Vine leaves sprouting in the morning sun at Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.
The second, inescapable reality is that this is not a great vintage and it is not in the same league as either 2009 or 2010. Ultimately, this will prove to be the most important factor when it comes to pricing the crop. In comparison to recent vintages, it is probably closest in quality to the 2001 or the 2008 vintages. Ideally, the wines should therefore be priced at a rate that is comparably discounted. In some cases, this would mean a (completely warranted) price cut of more than 50% vis-à-vis last year’s starting offer prices.
There is no doubt that this economic imperative is going to be extremely unpalatable to the Bordelais. However, unless we see price drops of this magnitude, I simply do not see sufficient incentive for us, or for our customers, to purchase this vintage in quantity. The market must be brought back into line and this is the only way that will be achieved. As a whole, it is clear that this campaign is going to be on the lighter side.
In traditional markets such as the US and Europe, interested En Primeur purchasers are already sitting on nearly full cellars, having now stocked-up on both the 2009s and 2010s. As a result, they will see no reason to purchase – unless the prices are reasonable and correct. For consumers, with the exception of a handful of wines, it is really not a ‘must-have’ vintage.
The châteaux must take this on board, particularly if they are to successfully persuade investors to take a financial stake during the élevage process. These unfinished wines must be priced at a level that allows perspective investors to envision a legitimate, short term return when they finally become available on the open market.
Which way will the wind blow on pricing?
One of the best investment returns of the past ten years was the modestly priced 2008 vintage, so, following on this, it is perfectly feasible that 2011 could be a vintage worth investing in. Having said that, I am unsure how the châteaux will feel about matching the 2008 pricing as, at the time, they felt they were deprived of significant upside revenue on the back end. Moreover, uncertainty remains in multiple areas of the global economy, so if customers are to buy this vintage, they will need a strong financial incentive.
Finally, the Bordelais now know that the Chinese are unlikely to come to their rescue this year. With noticeably lower En Primeur attendance across the board, the lack of Asian buyers in the tasting rooms was particularly obvious.
The message is clear. If Bordeaux wants to sell its wines through the normal distribution system, there has to be an incentive for traditional collectors and drinkers to buy. This year, the only way they can make the wines sufficiently interesting is to drop the prices – by significant amounts.
What is already in barrel will need to be priced appropriately.
If the wines are valued correctly, they will sell. If not, they will not. It is as simple as that.
Having spoken to a number of proprietors, there is a recognition that prices must come down. I expect that some will understand this market reality whilst others will not. The ones that do will need to release prices quickly and decisively. A long, drip-fed campaign, like last year, will not be in anyone’s best interests. Short, sharp, and at good value is what the market needs. Such a campaign would also win Bordeaux back some much-needed friends.
My final observation is on the vintage as a whole. This is not a homogenous vintage. No claim can be made for a ‘Left Bank vintage’ or a ‘Right Bank vintage,’ as wines are spotty everywhere. There are several hidden gems - and you should certainly be on the lookout for them – that, in the future, will prove to be smart buys.
The top wine of 2011? Chateau Latour was certainly one of the best we tasted all week.
Some very good wines have definitely been made, particularly by the upper-tier châteaux (below are my top picks, based purely on quality), however, anyone who has read my blog over the last few days will know that there are also some very poor, clumsy and altogether disappointing wines as well. Either the raw material simply was not up to scratch or serious mistakes were made in the cellar. In most instances, the main culprits seem to have been excessive green harvesting and over-zealous feuillage (leaf removal) in the vineyard and/or heavy-handed, excessive extraction in the winery.
Time and again, the Bordelais told me how important fruit selection was this year, and I couldn’t agree more. You can bet that we will be just as selective with which 2011 wines we buy, based on their release price, the quality and value.
I would advise any collector, customer, or Bordeaux enthusiast to do likewise.
As a final note, I would recommend that you only purchase your wines from a merchant who has actually been to Bordeaux this year, has spoken with the châteaux, and who has extensively tasted the wines. Not everyone has done so and that is both unfortunate and potentially problematic.
Top Red wines of the vintage:
Château La Mission Haut-Brion
Château Léoville-Las Cases
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Le Pin
Château Mouton Rothschild
Château Pichon-Longueville Baron
Top White wines of the vintage:
Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc
Pavillon Blanc du Margaux
Château Haut-Brion Blanc