In the last few years the noise surrounding a Bordeaux en-primeur release has got louder and louder. We’ve always had the merchants shouting – this is fair enough: they’re trying to sell something – though we now have the press, both the specialist wine media and the mainstream media, shouting too. The mainstream press like talking about wine, particularly the investment aspect of it, as it’s an interesting side story for their readers in an age where there is more reporting than there is more news to report. The wine media is slightly more interesting, with both institution and person, from establishment publication to would be blogger trying to waterski behind the powerboat that is an en-primeur release in the hope that their classy slalom spray might catch some attention. Erm, yes, that would be me then.
But I’m also a merchant with, first and foremost, a merchant’s view on things and the irritating conflict of interest that is honest advice versus actually selling some wine. It’s all very well for — —– to say: “93 points and a bargain”; he doesn’t have to buy it, sell it, nor deal with the consequences. He doesn’t have to understand the palate of his readership whereas a good merchant will know the dislikes and likes of his customers.
So: the vintage. It’s not a great one by any stretch. A topsy-turvy growing season that saw burnt grapes, rot, drought, a dull summer and both hail and flood in some areas made for what some of the more honest Bordelais describe as the most difficult year ever.
For many, it gave the smallest yield since 2003 or 1991. For some, the earliest harvest since 1893. These facts can be spun into selling points, but to say that the tannin levels of Ch. ——- are even higher than those of the 2010 vintage does not necessarily translate into the wine actually being any good.
God, or nature, makes the quality of a vintage in that He makes the weather, which dictates the essential point: the state of the grapes that come into the winery, and what you can do with them. Much of the Cabernet Franc was rather good. Most of the Merlot was average at best (look at how much of it has been dumped into the second wines). The Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up the lion’s share of the blend for most of the left bank was okay, or at least it was if you could afford to discard the burnt grapes, the rotten grapes and the unripe grapes. And what was left was very small grapes with very thick skins – all tannin and no juice. Which meant that great restraint was needed in the winery to get the good stuff out without getting the bad stuff too. To quote Thomas Duroux at Ch. Palmer, a chateau that has made one of the vintages best wines: “it was more like an infusion than an extraction”. And extraction is what a lot of this vintage is about – a lot of chateaux over-did it, and a lot of chateaux have made rather tannic, rather austere wines.
As en-primeur has become a more and more popular phenomenon there is, as far as I’m concerned, less and less point in participating. There is no shortage of good claret to buy, most of it in bottle rather than barrel. You can still buy most of the brilliant 2005s for less than the outstanding (and Parker-endorsed) 2009s. You can buy many of these 2009s for less than the 2010s and, whilst Ch. Palmer may have made one of the best wines of the vintage, you can buy their quite delicious 2001 for around £1,200 per case in bond. Will the 2011 be less than that? I doubt it. And you can drink the 2001 next Sunday.
To finish, there are twenty or thirty wines from 2011 that I genuinely rated as being rather good. For them to be worth actually buying now, rather than in a couple of years’ time, will depend on how they are priced. As a broad gauge I think that most 2011s need to be cheaper than any other vintage from the past ten years, with the possible exception of 2002 and 2007, to be really worth it. I’ll be buying an imperial of Ch. Batailley for my son for all the best reasons for buying wines this early – the year is important, I’ll pick the bottle format and, when we drink it, I will not only have the pleasure of knowing its impeccable provenance, I’ll have had the pleasure of owning it for many years.