An evening of claret: Looking at Bordeaux 2011s
by Julian Hitner and Sara d’Amato
On the evening of Thursday 16 January 2014, the LCBO played host at the Royal Ontario Museum to over 90 estates belonging to the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) as châteaux representatives poured wines from the 2011 vintage.
For those still interested in placing orders, Vintages will be selling futures of the 2011 vintage until March 6, 2014. To place your order call helloLCBO at 416-365-5900 or toll-free at 1-800-668-5226 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am-6pm, Saturday 9am-6pm). There is no minimum order size and quantities are limited. The 2011s are expected to arrive between Spring 2014 to Winter 2015. For more information, visit: Vintages.com
But is the 2011 vintage even worth buying? If so, what wines are the best? Year in and year out, these are the two most significant questions facing Ontario’s ever-increasing ranks of Bordeaux aficionados. But fear not, for we WineAlign commentators were on hand to taste as many different wines as time would permit. Between Sara d’Amato and myself, we were resoundingly thorough, though we do apologize in advance for any wines we may have overlooked. There were over a 110 wines to review and therefore I took on the enormity of the task of covering the Left Bank wines while Sara focused on the Right Bank and Sauternes.
Are the prices worth it?
Beyond all other concerns, the most pressing matter for Bordeaux buyers is whether or not the 2011 vintage is worth patronizing. For my part, I am inclined to respond with a provisional yes. Taken as a whole, some surprisingly fine wines were made in what has largely been deemed an average year. Caution is key. Many estates and ‘négociants’ – the latter commonly serving as intermediaries between châteaux and retailers – were far too ambitious in their pricing strategy. As a result, many 2011s have been absurdly overpriced and should be avoided at all costs. This said, there are luckily a very reasonable number of wines meriting the prices at which they’ve been pegged. Such are the offerings Sara and I are delighted to recommend in this column.
The Left Bank and Pessac-Léognan
Home to some of the most iconic estates in Bordeaux, the Left Bank (otherwise known as the ‘Médoc’) produced some surprisingly beautiful, bountiful wines in 2011. In Pauillac, accessibility of fruit seems to be a primary characteristic, reinforced by decent tannic backbone and overall ripeness. The same would seem to apply to an even greater extent in St-Julien, where some of the best wines of the vintage were produced. Things were more subdued in Margaux, though the more diligent estates were nonetheless successful in producing some extremely fine clarets of exemplary fragrance and body. Of St-Estèphe, there were too few estates at the event to formulate any generalizations. As for the Haut-Médoc (I was unable to taste any wines from the Médoc AOC), quality at the finest estates does not appear to have been much of problem, though prices were arguably too ambitious on the part of most wineries involved.
In Pessac-Léognan, I regret to report that I had only enough time to taste a handful of wines, though those I was able to examine were, along with St-Julien, some of the most notable examples of the evening: finely structured, full-bodied, and reasonably priced. The same could probably be said of the whites (at least judging from what I’ve heard through the grapevine). If only I had enough time to taste any of them—the LCBO really ought to make these events longer!
Domaine de Chevalier 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($69.00) is easily one of my top choices of the vintage, representing incredible value for money. Though historically known for its wondrous white wine, the estate’s red version in recent years has emerged as one of the most undervalued premium clarets in Bordeaux. Not to be missed.
Château Léoville Barton 2011 St-Julien ($97.00) is very much in keeping with the owner’s long-standing policy of never overcharging on his wines, despite the fact that Léoville Barton has long been considered one of the top estates in St-Julien. Surprisingly concentrated when considering the limitations of the vintage, this beauty comes very highly recommended.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($99.00) is a truly substantial effort on the part of this extraordinary estate. A classic example of conscientious winegrowing in the face of challenging conditions, this along with Domaine de Chevalier represents one of the best outings in Pessac-Léognan.
Château Grand-Puy Ducasse 2011 Pauillac ($69.00) exceeds a plethora expectations. Surpassing even the ’10 (no mean achievement), this is easily the finest wine I have tasted from this estate to date. Honestly, I never thought I’d see the day when Grand-Puy Ducasse would emerge as one of my top suggestions.
Château Langoa Barton 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) is an exceptional Third Growth under the same ownership as Château Léoville Barton (the latter is actually produced at the same estate as the former). Over the past several years, Langoa has taken a giant leap forward in quality, with the ’11 defying expectations in more ways than one.
Château Saint-Pierre 2011 St-Julien ($75.00) hails from the smallest Classed Growth in St-Julien, which means that its wines don’t always get the recognition they deserve. The ’11 is a classic example: full-bodied, excellently structured, and capable of long-term cellaring. For my part, I wish I had more wines from Saint-Pierre in my collection.
Château Labégorce 2011 Margaux ($39.00) is not only one of finest wines ever produced at this estate, it also represents one of the best bargains of the vintage. Surprisingly full-bodied and flavourful, a case of this may very well find its way into my own wine cellar before the ordering deadline passes.
Château Gloria 2011 St-Julien ($51.00) is widely recognized as the top non-Classed Growth of St-Julien, under the same ownership as Château Saint-Pierre. Tasted alongside, the two wines in ‘11 have much in common: outstanding concentration, balance, and style. If the 1855 Classification were ever revised, you can bet the likes of Château Gloria would be included.
Château Carbonnieux 2011 Pessac-Léognan ($49.00) might not have the same name recognition as some of its peers, which is all the more reason to buy it. Like many estates throughout Pessac-Léognan, it used to be the much-improved whites that hogged the spotlight; but now that the reds have caught up, the latter represent some of the best values around.
Château Maucaillou 2011 Moulis-en-Médoc ($35.00) is one of the most reasonably priced wines in its neck of the woods. A very beautiful outing, wines like this will undoubtedly become increasingly popular as the Classed Growths become all but unaffordable for most claret connoisseurs in the years to come.
Navigating the Tumultuous 2011 Vintage
Once again, Julian Hitner and I have joined forces to cover this year’s UGC de Bordeaux Tasting (Union des Grands Crus) hosted by Vintages. On the heels of two praise-worthy and very pricy vintages, the 2011 crop of Bordeaux proved highly variable and certainly lacking the consistency of the two exceptional vintages it supersedes. Therefore a little extra caution is recommended this year in making purchasing decisions. Although the prices are down, they are not down enough. Certain producers refuse to drop their prices accordingly for fear of devaluing their brand or creating a fight to increase the price later. Others, however, respect the lesser quality and take the hit. At the end of the day, it is the market that will ultimately influence further pricing and this is a critical year.
Having spoken to several former colleagues over the course of the growing season, I had the impression that they were quite baffled by the season and could not predict what sort of outcome they would have. The growing season was oddly reversed with a scorching hot spring and then a very cool and rainy summer. What saved the wines was a rather long Indian summer that evened out the vintage and allowed the producers a break from the erratic to come to gradual and calculated courses of action. Careful winemaking was paramount in such a vintage as muscular tannins required a gentle hand to manage.
Just as the season was erratic, so are the offerings. There are some very fine, dare I say, values amidst some unimpressive offerings lacking depth. All in all, I suspect that the right bank fared slightly better than the left as merlot and cabernet franc proved somewhat hardier in the dense clay soils which may have allowed for a more steady pace of ripening in the face of these turbulent conditions. This being said, there are some terrific wines in this group that are certainly worthy of your attention.
Sara’s Top Picks from the Right Bank and Sauternes
Saint-Emilion and Pomerol
Chateau Trotte Vielle 2011, Saint-Emilion ($225.00). A fascinating estate with a remarkable, small and rare plot of pre-phylloxera vines. Known for careful, small-batch production and keen winemaking, it is no wonder this Chateau faired exceptionally well in this vintage. The level of complexity and thunderous intensity is nothing short of brilliant.
Chateau Troplong-Mondot 2011, Saint-Emilion ($119.00). For centuries, Troplong-Mondot has been producing praise-worthy wines, considered one of the top estates of Saint-Emilion. Today it is run by Christine and Xavier Pariente – a couple who proudly continue this great tradition. This compelling 2011 exhibits a presence impossible to overlook.
Chateau Pavie-Macquin 2011 Saint-Emilion, 1er Grand Cru Classe ($89.00). Known for its impactful, dense and powerful wine, the founder of Pavie-Macquin, Albert Macquin, was responsible for helping save Saint-Emilion from phylloxera during turn of the century by introducing the process of grafting root-stocks to the region. Balanced, generous and revealing, this carefully crafted offering has serious technical merit.
Chateau Villemaurine 2011 Saint-Emilion ($59.00). Made purely of merlot (80%) and cabernet franc (20%), this offering is an example of how these varietals have proved shinning stars this vintage. Feminine, floral, poised and elegant but also generous and affable.
Chateau La Couspaude 2011, Saint-Emilion ($79.00). Vanessa Aubert puts on many hats at Chateau including that of winemaker, having inherited the property along with her two siblings from generations of men in her family since 1908. After studying enology at the University of Bordeaux, has devoted herself to continuing the illustrious tradition of the property. The Aubert family also owns eight other left bank properties. Not to be missed – this is a complex, carefully crafted and sublimely enjoyable offering.
Chateau Le Bon Pasteur 2011, Pomerol ($95.00). Le Bon Pasteur benefits from both an interesting location, at the junction of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion known as the “Maillet sector”, and by the current managers, descendents of the original owners, Jean-Daniel and Michel Rolland (yes, The Michel Rolland). Once again, meticulous winemaking wins the day in this age worthy offering with classic structure.
Chateau de Fargues 2011, Sauternes ($179.00). Chateau de Fargues never ceases to impress me with concentration and complexity that is far superior to any of the greats I taste from this region. Owned by the Lur Saluces family for over five centuries, this sought-after nectar is worth the premium price.
Chateau La Tour Blanche 2011, Sauternes ($95.00). Known for its history giving back to the industry in helping establish a tuition-free viticulture school in the region, Chateau La Tour Blanche is also known for its modern methods and progressive attitude. It has certainly adapted to this vintage remarkably well.
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