At the tiny Château Pétrus, the new cellar's construction continues and the young Olivier Berrouet continues to settle into his role as caretaker at one of Bordeaux's most storied properties. For the 2011 vintage, Berrouet noted that he found the samples more fragile than usual.
"The sample you're tasting was just drawn today," said Berrouet. "Usually I like the samples to be drawn a few days ahead so they have time to knit. But in 2011 we've found the samples show well right away and then don't show well after the extra few days, which is odd because they are tannic and usually that resists oxidation. But we missed 150 hours of sun during the second half of the growing season and at some point you have to pay for that. That is the nature of '11."
"The wine has naturally more tannins than '10. But we didn't want to push in that direction during the vinification. We needed to emphasize the fruit for the balance. The vinification was shorter than usual. With the summer we had, we had a blockage in the vine's growing cycle. Then the rain started in July and August and the vines started again. So the seeds were not perfectly ripe at the end. We have a wine high in tannic concentration in the skins already. So if we added tannins from the seeds we would have had a wine out of balance. You had to check during the alcoholic fermentation every day, not to push the process. You could complete the wine with press wine, rather than extracting everything right away. In the end, the wine is dense and structured, but there is no angle. It's more malleable. And obviously it's not '09 or '10," Berrouet concluded.
The Château Pétrus Pomerol 2011 checks in at just 13.5 percent alcohol and has a strong pebbly feel weaving through the crushed damson plum and linzer notes. A sweet spice edge is starting to peek out on the bitter cherry-tinged finish. It's not tightly knit yet, but there's solid length and concentration for the vintage (91-94 points, non-blind).
"It is so, so dry. We have to plow deeper than usual and go slower," said the soft-spoken Alexandre Thienpont, with a hint of exasperation as he pointed at the vine rows behind the château at Vieux Château Certan, echoing the concern for the 2012 vintage I heard at Lafite and Montrose. "But in medium-dry years like 2011, gravel and clay soils actually behave similarly. The question is the difference in the root systems, deeper obviously is better, and the rootstock. Only in extreme years like 2003 does clay soil save you versus gravel. Still, we need some rain now for 2012."
We started with the Château Le Pin Pomerol 2011, the first vintage made in the newly constructed cellar, with numerous small vats that allow Thienpont to break the small 6-acre vineyard into seven different parcels for better precision.
"We usually do rémontage (pumping over) of half the tank in morning, half in the evening," said Thienpont. "But in 2011 we just moved small fractions of the vat to keep the cap moist, so not to extract too much."
The wine shows dark, captivating black tea, fig and plum notes with nicely rounded flesh and a long, smoldering feel. The tannins sneak up slowly but are prevalent in the end, with a loamy hint emerging steadily through the finish which opens slowly and forcefully. This is very solid and among the top wines of the vintage (93-96 points, non-blind).
"Even though Le Pin is gravel, the water table is high, so the vines handled the drought in '11 well," said Thienpont. "The vineyard was a lean outdoor cat, not a big, fat house cat."
The Vieux Château Certan Pomerol 2011 (70 percent Merlot, 29 percent Cabernet Franc and 1 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) features a big jump from the 14 percent combined Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc in the 2009 and 2010. "2009 and 2010 were Merlot years. But 2011 is a Cabernet Franc year," said Thienpont.
It shows in the wine, which has a dark ganache and loamy profile that belies the vintage's lighter, fresher profile. It cuts a broad swath but stays well-defined, with dense tobacco and fig on the finish. It's an impressive effort and an early challenger for one of the wines of the vintage (93-96, non-blind).
During the 2011 growing season, Thienpont's son Guillaume noticed areas in the vineyard that were greener and fuller in the canopy than other spots, and they were eventually picked and vinified separately. "They showed a little more dilution, as they had been shaded a bit from the sun and weren't as concentrated. It's that search for precision in the end," said Guillaume. Apparently he's learned from his father well.
Christian Moueix is another experienced vigneron whose search for precision continues. As we walked the vine rows at his flagship Pomerol estate of Château Trotanoy, budbreak has occurred in the portions on the warm, gravelly soil (the rocks are warm to the touch), and the vines are off and running for 2012. Yet on the cooler clay portion, just a couple hundred yards away, the vines still seem in their winter dormancy (see the accompanying video). "20 years ago we would have picked these within just a couple of days of each other because it's a small estate. But now we wait at least a full week for the clay portion after the gravel, to make sure the ripeness is ideal."
The lineup here covers both Pomerol and St.-Emilion and includes the estates owned by Moueix and those he distributes exclusively.
"2011 is back to normal," said Moueix. "Not that 2009 and 20010 were in excess, but they were extraordinary vintages in terms of quality. We don't have that depth in 2011. We have more charm. And in terms of yield we're just below normal, but 10 percent higher than 2010, which was a small crop for us because of the coulure on the Merlot in that season. On some gravelly soils the stress was more severe and we wound up producing less than in '10, but that was not the norm."
Moueix also noted that 2011 was a vintage to be careful with extraction, an aspect of winemaking that he is always trying to handle delicately, as he prefers wines of finesse rather than brute power.
"One reason we have so many extracted wines in Bordeaux these days is because people are using smaller tanks more and more, for the parcel selections. But in smaller tanks the extraction goes faster. So trying to figure out when the extraction is perfect is critical," he said.
"How would you have corrected the 2011 vintage?" I ask, wondering if the drought or the cooler temperatures had had more effect. "Three inches of rain in July would have been ideal. The drought stressed the vines more than the cooler temperatures in the second half," responded Moueix.
The Château La Serre St.-Emilion 2011 offers supple, charming cassis and sweet plum fruit with a lightly toasted vanilla frame and a gentle, almost breezy finish (88-91 points, non-blind). The Château Magdelaine St.-Emilion 2011 shows a darker profile, with boysenberry and linzer fruit, but stays supple, creamy and charming through the finish, with a nice floral lift at the end (90-93 points, non-blind). The Château Bélair-Monange St.-Emilion 2011 is a noticeable step up, with cassis, plum preserve, cherry pit and focused, well-integrated spice. Underneath runs a beautiful chalky streak that lends a pleasant bitterness and extra length. It's a wine poised for some cellaring (92-95 points, non-blind).
"2011 is the first year I think we really mastered the picking in the vineyard at Bélair," said Moueix. "We were even picking the same age parcels at different times and doing more micro-vinifications. I think we really got the complexity in 2011 at Bélair-Monange.
The Château Plince Pomerol 2011 is open, and bouncy, with briar-studded plum and blackberry fruit flavors. It has a nice primal, slightly rustic finish. It's a gutsy Pomerol, uncomplicated with a plum skin edge holding sway on the finish (86-89 points, non-blind).
"You can feel the press wine in the Plince," said Moueix. "At 2 percent, the wines were good, and at 3 percent they went out of balance. You had to be careful with the press wine."
The Château Lafleur-Gazin Pomerol 2011 offers sweet, high-toned blueberry and plum fruit with toasted spice and a nice fleshy feel through the finish. It's not deep, but nicely rendered (88-91 points, non-blind). The Château La Grave à Pomerol Pomerol 2011 has refinement, with the plum skin notes more embedded into the core, allowing more succulent cherry and cassis to fan out on the anise-tinged finish, where a nice minerally thread knits it all (89-92 points, non-blind). The Château Latour à Pomerol Pomerol 2011 has both guts and charm, with a very solid core of plum cake, fig and cassis laced with hints of ganache and roasted spice notes. There's a nice mouthfilling feel through the finish, with more oomph and drive than most (90-93 points, non-blind).
The Providence Pomerol 2011 has a very solid, plump core of blackberry and crushed cherry notes, with sweet spice filling in on the finish. A lightly singed-wood edge shows on the finish and should integrate with further élevage. Still rather youthfully primal but has good material (91-94 points, non-blind). The Château Hosanna Pomerol 2011 is sleeker and racy, with no angles, as boysenberry and raspberry fruit courses along nicely, supported by light charcoal and ganache shadings on the finish. This is showing its wood today though, even though Moueix uses just one third new oak and this particular sample is noticeably darker in profile than most in '11 (91-94 points, non-blind).
The Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2011 is nicely packed for the vintage, with lots of apple wood, cherry preserve and sandalwood notes laced with black tea and plum notes on the finish. It's a step up in range and depth here for sure (91-94 points, non-blind).
"The vines have matured here since we replanted a good percentage of the estate in the late '90s, and the wine is definitely darker in recent years than 10 or 15 years ago. It is much more structured than usual," said Moueix of La Fleur-Pétrus.
The Château Trotanoy Pomerol 2011 is mouthfilling, with crushed cherry, plum and raspberry fruit all rolled together and liberally laced with anise and roasted apple wood. There's lots of grip, but it's still harmonious through the finish. It's one of the more backward wines of the vintage, with an obvious tannic spine that will take some time to soften (92-95 points, non-blind).
"There will always be surprises, and so maybe with something like Bélair you can wait longer because of the character," said Moueix, pausing after tasting through the lineup. "But really 2011 is a vintage to drink within 10 years."
Denis Durantou, 54, has a small, wiry build and an animated personality. He's cultivated the Right Bank hipster vibe too—he's the only vigneron I've met all week wearing jeans. As we walked along the edge of his vineyard at Château L'Église Clinet, Durantou reached down and grabbed a clump of wet soil from a drainage ditch. He rolled it into a ball in his hands and it kept its shape.
"That's argilo-calcaire," he said emphatically. "The retention of water in it is fantastic. In years like this, it makes the difference."
When I asked what he would have done differently in 2011, he answered: Lower temperature. "Low temperature was the key for a gentle extraction. [82° F] maximum—and that was the temperature in the cap, not the juice itself."
Durantou, whose first vintage was 1983, runs several estates on the Right Bank, starting with the Saintayme St.-Emilion 2011, a 12-acre property located on the foot of the slope with clay, gravel and a little limestone. The wine is taut with lively red berry, plum and anise notes and good bouncy spice through the finish. [Note: Official reviews of Durantou's wines, based on formal blind tastings, will appear after my complete tasting of 2011 en primeur samples.]
The Château Montlandrie Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2011 (75 percent Merlot and 25 percent Cabernet Franc), from a 62-acre estate (though only 22 acres are in production), comes off as bright and racy in style, with freshly crushed blueberry and red currant notes mingling together, offset by a tangy chalk and floral finish. It has very nice definition.
The La Chenade Lalande-de-Pomerol 2011 (80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc) is sourced from 10 acres of gravel soils at the bottom of the vineyard in Cruzelles. It has a nice warm plum confiture and macerated red currant profile, with subtle spice shadings adding a lightly mulled hint to the finish. The Château Les Cruzelles Lalande-de-Pomerol 2011 comes from the remaining 15 acres of the estate. Made from a blend of 90 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Franc, it's racy, with linzer and plum sauce notes that are filling out nicely. There's nice cut and vibrancy on the finish, with finely-beaded acidity.
From the home estate, the second wine is the Château L'Église Clinet Pomerol La Petite Église 2011 (all Merlot), which is sourced from younger vines located on the gravelly parts of the vineyard—"always the same section," said Durantou. It's very silky, with deliciously pure plum and cherry preserve notes backed by a twinge of iron, which shows up a bit more as the wine finishes. It's very classy for a second wine, particularly in a vintage where the gap between the grand vins and second wines is often quite noticeable.
The Château L'Église Clinet Pomerol 2011 comes from the older vines on the 11.6-acre property (90 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Franc) which is located just next to Clos l'Église and Clinet. The wine was sold in bulk prior to 1965 by previous generations of the Durantou family. One-third of the estate's vines here are less than 10 years old, one-third are 25 years of age and the last third older than 65 years. The old Merlot and Cabernet Franc are interplanted, picked and fermented together. The wine is very sleek, with a light plum skin frame that harnesses intense plum, violet and cassis notes nicely. It's long and finely tuned through the finish, with vibrant, mouthwatering chalkiness that should embed further into the fruit as the élevage continues. It's a lovely wine with clearly outstanding potential.
Tomorrow, I finish a week's worth of visits in St.-Emilion.
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