"This is a much better vintage than I thought it was before my trip to Bordeaux and could turn out to be close in overall quality to years such as the underrated 2001 and 2008" Robert Parker, May 2012
The best red wines from Bordeaux’s 2011 vintage have fantastic freshness, a core of ripe fruits, good tannic structure and a purity to them. However, the vintage has little of the consistency found in the 2010 and 2009, with great variations in quality within appellations. Consequently, this is a vintage that requires careful selection when purchasing.
Despite the huge technical improvements made over the last decade in Bordeaux, the one thing that winemakers cannot control is the weather. In general, the winter was cool and dry with early flowering, but the lack of Spring rainfall was to persist. From March to September, the cumulative rainfall in Bordeaux - on average across all sectors - was 270mm, way below the 30-year average of 430mm.
Temperatures were above the seasonal norm in the springtime and in late June there was a heatwave with the mercury reaching 40®c. The excessive heat combined with lack of rainfall brought the very real danger of some vines shutting down. Some grapes were scorched and these were removed from bunches. July saw rain fortunately and temperatures dropping, followed by a mixed month of August with overall cool temperatures, heat spikes and storms. Yields in some areas were also reduced by hailstorms which hit southern St Estephe and parts of Pauillac on September 1st (and in Margaux earlier on in the year).
Despite a beautifully warm and dry September, the low temperatures in July and August meant that the wines lacked the richness found in warm vintages like 1990 and 2009. Bunches and the grapes on them were small and unevenly ripe, requiring careful management of selection and sorting. This intensive work has resulted in substantially reduced yields but, where carried out successfully, consistent and ripe fruits.
The grapes were concentrated and ripe but more fragile than 2010 and 2009. A light touch was needed in vinification, so as not to extract too much, and the most successful wines are those that took this approach.
This is a year of very mixed quality. The selection work needed meant that Chateaux with labour and financial resources have generally made better wines that those without, meaning that the top estates have a clear advantage.
It is clearly not a ‘great’ vintage like 2010, 2009, 2005, or 2000, but it seems superior to 2006, 2004 and 2002, and there are some very, very good wines. Perhaps 2001 or 2008, are the nearest equivalents and probably 1996 stylistically. There will be some good drinking wines here and certainly the best wines are precise, fresh and elegant with the structure to age.
Far more consistent were the dry white wines and Sauternes. The dry whites fare the best following cool summer months, with the extra warmth of September giving an exotic, tropical fruit character. Those who picked at the best time have made stunning wines, with rich fruit and minerality in balance.
For Sauternes, quality is excellent, with bright fruit and precise acidity. As Sandrine Garbay, the winemaker of Chateau d’Yquem says: “Conditions were perfect for the development of noble rot this year. The warm, dry September enabled botrytis to spread easily and the resultant wines have a wonderful perfume, purity and freshness”.