In a couple of weeks time the majority of the serious global wine buyers, traders, brokers and journalists will descend upon Bordeaux to taste the barrel samples of the 2011 vintage. The grapes were picked last September/October and they have finished their first (alcoholic) fermentation and also their second (malo lactic) fermentation. The grapes have now become wine and they are ready to be assessed. The wines will not be released for physical sale for another 15-18 months, as they will need to be matured in oak barrels before bottling. But this is the crucial time when judgements are made on the quality of the wines. The prices will then be released from the Chateaux from the end of April through until June. These prices are 'Primeur' or 'Future' prices and will determine the success or failure of the vintage. Many of the top Chateaux have allocations to their negociants (Bordeaux merchants) and then the negociants distribute throughout the World to importers. These allocations can be crucial when there is high demand for a sought after vintage such as the 2009 or 2010 Bordeaux vintage, but the allocations can also be a financial burden if there is an obligation/commitment to buy wine that is more difficult to sell.
The 2011 Bordeaux Growing season
Another very dry and unseasonably warm winter in 2010/2011 preceded an exceptional warm Spring. The vines shut down in winter during their dormant (pruning) period, but they burst in to life much earlier than normal. Many viticulturists were talking about the growth on the vines being 3 weeks in advance of normal during May 2011. The prediction would be for a very early harvest if the Summer was true.
After the advanced growth and early budding the vines continued to thrive. There was no late Spring frost, which is always the fear for viticulturists when the vines are so advanced. The warm weather continued to a mighty crescendo at the end of June, when it turned in to a heatwave. The vines suffered and some bunches were heat effected.
After the precocious start to the growing season July and August turned rather flat. There was no heatwave like 2003, there was no gradual and consistent warmth like 2009 and 2010. there were patchy days of heat and dullness. There was even rain in August after the 15th. This rain and the dull Summer set the vines back a few weeks.
Having originally thought that harvest would be taking place 3 weeks early (possibly in August), the harvest dates were not as advanced.....1 week earlier in most places.
In fact Chateau d'Yquem in Sauternes were suggesting that this could be the most advanced harvest since 1893, but this opinion soon changed after the mediocre Summer.
If vines are not effected by frost (in the Spring time), then one of the other major concerns for Chateau owners are hail storms. These hail storms can strike at the end of Summer, especially when the weather is changing after a warm period. Hail can be localised and very destructive. In 2009 a swathe of hail hit the Entre Deux Mer and Saint Emilion (Troplong Mondot and Trottevieille were badly effected) as well as the southern Medoc area near Margaux.
In 2011 the hail dumped on Friday 2nd September in northen Pauillac and Sainte Estephe. Early indications were that Cos d'Estournel, Cos Labory and Lafite Rothschild were effected. The decision for the vineyard manager is whether to treat the vines (a bit too late if they are already 90% ripe) or whether to pick all the hail effected (tatty bunches) grapes. Whatever the situation it is a dilemma!
Many of the top Chateaux have invested in advanced technology recently for selecting and sorting the grapes. One of the 'must have' toys is an Optical Grape Sorting machine, which has been adapted from pea sorting machines. The irony is that this technology has hardly been used in the great vintages of 2009 and 2010. But in 2011 these investments were certainly going to pay off. Chateaux such as Smith Haut Lafitte, Pichon Longueville and Brane Cantenac (as well as many more) would benefit from this severe selection and sorting.
The comments from the Chateaux at harvest time were very positive. Generally there seemed to be surprise at the health and quality of the fruit after such a topsy turvy growing season.
I have yet to taste a wide range of 2011 Bordeaux, as I will immerse myself in to over a thousand samples in the next few weeks. But the initial reality is that 2011 is not a Top vintage. The uneasy and uneven growing season did not help. The malo lactic fermentations were very early for this vintage. Sometimes when we taste in early April the wines are not knitted together and cumbersome and awkward. This year the wines should be more stable, so we can assess the quality. Early comments are that the vintage resembles 2008 or possibly 2001.
This overview has mainly been based around the red grapes, however I am hearing extremely positive and encouraging reports from Barsac and Sauternes for another unprecedented excellent vintage for the sweet wines. Sauternes was hit by an early hail storm on Easter Monday, when large parts of Chateau Guiraud(up to 60%) were effected. But this early hail storm is less lethal than an August/September hail storm. Maybe the gap between the top reds and the top whites will narrow for the 2011 wines?
As always the prices are crucial for Bordeaux. Many Chateau owners have trebled or quadrupled their prices in the last two vintages. They have taken an enormous amount of money out. The prices for the exceptional 2009 and 2010 wines have remained high, but over the course of time will go higher. The quandary for the Chateau owners is how low to go. If the top Chateaux halve their prices they will still be higher than the 2008s (which might be a better vintage). If the Chateaux reduce their prices by more than 50% they will feel that they are destroying their own brand rather than developing/establishing it. Many people feel that with the new wave of Chinese buyers and general World interest in Fine Wine the prices of 2009 and 2010 are a new platform. It will be an interesting 'Primeur' campaign. I am not sure that there will be a high global demand for the wines........but I am looking forward to tasting them and assessing for myself.