Bordeaux’s Sunburned New Vintage Needs Price Drop to Star

Christian Moueix
Christian Moueix, president of negociant house Jean-Pierre Moueix, discusses the 2011 Bordeaux vintage at the J.-P. Moueix offices in Libourne, France. He described a difficult year that included heat spikes of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and severe drought. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

At 10 o’clock on a sunny Bordeaux Monday morning, tall, slim Christian Moueix places his palms prayerfully together as he intones the tale of 2011’s difficult weather in a smooth baritone.

“The problem factors were very serious drought, a June heat spike, some green merlot, and sunburned grapes,” he says. Still, he managed to pull off some delicious wines anyway, like subtle, complex Chateau Trotanoy.

Complicated, tricky 2011 is definitely not another “vintage of the century.” The worst wines are lean, pruney, bitter and tannic, like biting into a roasted espresso bean, the result of trying to extract too much from shriveled grapes.

I spit into upturned barrel crachoirs (spittoons), red plastic buckets, brown ceramic pots, and stainless steel sinks, in chilly cellars and elegant chateaux. At the end of each day my teeth are purple.

Yet after tasting more than 500 barrel samples during my 10-day visit to Bordeaux earlier this month, the best wines are better than I expected. The 35 or so on my list of favorites are elegant, balanced. While they are mercifully lower in alcohol than the 2009s and 2010s, they also have less power and concentration.

Pricey Vintages

I’m wondering whether anyone will pant for the 2011s following these two pricey great vintages. In famous Chateau Petrus’s spare all-white tasting room, director Olivier Berrouet shares my sentiments.

“If anyone says he made a truly great wine this year he’s a liar,” he says. “2011 is like 2001.”

That said, the suave 2011 Petrus is really good.

Chris Adams, chief executive officer of New York’s Sherry-Lehmann, echoes what every merchant told me in Bordeaux. “This year, it’s all about price.” He was one of more than 6,000 merchants and journalists from 68 countries who turned up for the annual en primeur circus to sample wines that won’t be bottled for another two years.

Every vigneron puts his own spin on how he dealt with 2011’s topsy-turvy weather problems.

In Margaux, Thomas Duroux, CEO at Chateau Palmer, maker of one of the vintage’s stars, says meticulous grape selection was key after drought, a heat wave, and a June hailstorm cut Palmer’s yields to the lowest since 1961.

Like other chateaux which could afford to, Palmer rented a 100,000 euro ($131,000) optical sorting machine to ensure no unripe or burned grapes made their way into fermentation vats. The resulting Palmer is fresh, velvety and rich. Its second wine, Alter Ego, is deliciously floral and charming.

Organic Red

Another red success is the savory, soft-textured Chateau Pontet-Canet, whose vineyards are certified organic and biodynamic. Technical director Jean-Michel Comme believes its approach helped tackle the challenging 2011 climate.

Others are beginning to take a similar route.

Frederic Engerer, president of first growth Chateau Latour, sporting a lavender tie, says 23 hectares of its vineyards are now organic or biodynamic.

“You need to watch every parcel like it’s milk on a fire,” he says. “But the fruit is more expressive.”

Latour’s excellent 2011 is loaded with fine, suave tannins and cassis aromas and flavors.

Engerer announced in a letter to negociants on April 13 that the 2011 will be the last vintage of the Latour’s grand vin offered as futures during en primeur. Instead, the chateau will release bottles only when wines are ready to drunk.

In first-growth Chateau Margaux’s chilly cellar, managing director Paul Pontallier, wearing a pink tie, says the vineyards whose grapes go into the grand vin will be organic in three to four years.

Sleeping Beagle

“I’m not a tree hugger, but the risk is worth it,” says owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos, fresh from a ski trip in Chamonix. Her beagle Zorba, sleeping on the stone floor, has no comment.

In Pomerol, I’m wowed by the energy, succulent texture and violet scents of the Vieux Chateau Certan and the bright, red plum, oh-so-smooth Chateau Lafleur. Both stars of the vintage have good percentages of cabernet franc in their blends, which fared better than most merlot this year.

And some sweet whites are very good, especially complex Chateau de Fargues, earthy Chateau Coutet, pure, pear-toned Chateau Suduiraut, and lemony Chateau Raymond-Lafon whose owner, Jean-Pierre Meslier, compares his 2011 to Marilyn Monroe. “It’s sexy, it has curves, and it’s a blonde,” he says with a chuckle.

So how low will prices fall?

Lower Prices

Simon Staples, global sales and marketing director for London-based Berry Bros & Rudd, says a dozen chateaux whose wines sell for more than 100 euros told him prices would come down 50 percent if they had to. If you ask me, that may not be enough for some chateaux.

“If our 45 picks are cheap, we’ll have some fun,” say Staples, predicting that the Chinese, who accounted for 30 percent of Berry Bros sales of 2009 futures, won’t buy otherwise. (A few petits chateaux released their prices last week, most about 10 percent cheaper than 2010.) Two good buys will be Chateau Beaumont and dry white G de Guiraud.

Shaun Bishop, founder of Oakland, California-based J.J. Buckley Fine Wines explains, “Customers need an incentive to put out money for wines that won’t arrive for two years.”

Drink Now

After all, good, ready-to-drink, reasonably-priced Bordeaux from 2001 and other vintages are already on retail shelves. Why pay more to wait?

Chateau Lafite today released its 2011 to negociants at 350 euros a bottle, 450 euros to the wine trade. That’s about 35 to 40 percent off 2010’s release price. U.K.-based Farr Vintners says it will sell it at 20 percent less than any available vintage of the wine. Will Mouton follow suit?

A negociant who didn’t want to be named previously insisted that first growths Chateau Mouton Rothschild will very soon will release prices in the 250-euro range.

That was no doubt wishful thinking. As U.K. wine blogger Jamie Goode suggests, high-end Bordeaux pricing is actually akin to sexual display --an impressive reproductive strategy to demonstrate the extent of your resources.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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