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A Sweet Arrival in Bordeaux

Back in Bordeaux to taste the 2011 barrel samples, my first stop was in Barsac at Château Climens
Photo by: Vincent Bengold
Château Climens is one of the few properties in Bordeaux that farms biodynamically.

Posted: Mar 26, 2012 2:00pm ET

Well, I'm off to Bordeaux again, so you can expect the blog to heat up. I'll be tasting the 2011 vintage from barrel as the Bordelais gear up to offer their red, white and sweet wines to the trade later this spring and into the summer. I'll start with a week's worth of visits to nearly two dozen châteaus, including the first-growths, to get a feel for the vintage, before settling down the following week to work through a few hundred barrel samples from a broad swath of appellations and producers.

As consumers, you'll be able to purchase the 2011 Bordeaux later this spring as futures. The benefits are that you secure the wine at its initial price point to the market. The down side is that you have to wait a year or two for your wines to actually arrive, and there may not be much in terms of price appreciation (if you buy wine for speculation rather than for drinking).

Why won't there be much price appreciation? That's likely because the 2011 vintage won't be able to compete, qualitywise, with the 2009 and 2010 vintages, two classic quality years. In addition, the market seems a little fatigued with Bordeaux right now after the 2009s were released at the most expensive prices ever for futures, only to be topped by the 2010s.

Is there a bright spot in 2011 for consumers looking for deals? Maybe. Prices are sure to come down, somewhat. But don't look for major drops from the big names. Instead, you'll have to choose wisely from the middle of the pack. There should be some very delicious reds that will reward some cellaring, plus the dry whites and sweet wines of Barsac and Sauternes look promising.

I'll try and help you sift through it all in the coming two weeks, so stay tuned. Reviews and blog notes will be posted here throughout my stay in the region. As usual, the vast majority of wines are tasted blind, to ensure impartiality. In a few instances, other reviews will be noted as non-blind tastings as some château owners will not allow barrel samples to leave the château.

Château Climens

Plane on time, train on time. And I got the hang of my rental car pretty quickly. So, since I was giving up another one of my weekends to work on the road, I figured I'd start in Sauternes, which makes my favorite wines in Bordeaux. After arriving in time for a restorative lunch (white asparagus now in season) I dropped off my bags and headed down to see Bérénice Lurton at Château Climens in Barsac.

Lurton, 41, has run the 75-acre estate since 1992; her father, Lucien, purchased it in 1971. The second-largest estate in Barsac, producing around 2,500 cases annually, Climens is known for producing an all-Sémillon sweet wine that combines rich citrus and tropical fruit flavors with razor cut on the finish. The classic-rated 2009 version was one of the top wines of the vintage.

Climens does not produce a final blend to show during the regular en primeur campaign (though the wine is offered for sale to its clients). Lurton feels that the blending process is too complex to rush, and the château's passive chai runs quite cold—it had a wintry feel inside even on a lovely spring day—which no doubt adds to the slow evolution of the wine.

"All the separate lots, in great years, are already very complex on their own, so blending them together is a difficult operation," explained Lurton. "Even two blends that are 99 percent the same can turn out very differently if the last 1 percent is different. So we work very slowly to capture the optimum of the vintage and the personality of Climens."

The vines here are typical of Barsac, situated on flatter, shallower soils than those of Sauternes, where a percentage of Sauvignon Blanc is often needed to offset the more tropical character that Sémillon develops there. The wine is fermented in oak, but only one-third new.

To show the 2011, Lurton presented six lots, based on picking date. The 2011 season in Barsac and Sauternes saw a rapid spread of botrytis and Lurton noted that she was done picking in 2011 on the same date that she started the 2010 harvest.

"We're just happy when botrytis comes, so fast or slow we don't think about," said Lurton of the speed in 2011. "We have enough to worry about. As long as there is no rain during the picking, as the botrytis develops, we're happy. But really the key is the level of ripeness, acidity and complexity in the grapes when the botrytis hits. From there, fast or slow is not an issue."

The first sample of the Château Climens Barsac 2011 drawn was from the first picking Sept. 8, and it shows great juicy cut with pineapple and quince flavors and live wire acidity. The second sample, from a picking on Sept. 12, is markedly richer, with more tangerine and clementine notes and an apricot finish. The third sample, from Sept. 14, is tighter and denser, with more coconut, quince and fig and a nice underlay of pear on the finish.

Climens will typically have four to six pickings per year, but that depends on the harvest. "In Barsac you have to be both very patient and very quick to react," said Lurton. "But in 2011, there's terrific homogeneity in the quality of the lots in 2011, whereas in other vintages there can be a picking or two that really dominates the final blend."

The fourth sample tasted was from the picking on Sept. 15, and shows lots of fresh spice, invigorating orange, peach and white cherry as well and a lingering almond edge. The fifth sample, from a picking on Sept. 18, seems almost complete by itself, with unctuous apricot, orange peel and almond notes offset by racy heather and honeysuckle on the finish. It has more weight than finesse in the end though, so it should absorb the rapier feel of the earlier lots nicely. For the sixth sample, from the picking on Sept. 20, I was expecting more power, but it is all cut and precision, with white peach and quince racing along and a long quinine note on the finish. The final wine should easily rival the classic 2009, though in a much more precise, fresher style (the '09 is very powerful and backward now).

"Good weather in September and October can make miracles here," said Lurton, obviously proud of what she has in '11. "You can't always save the reds after a difficult growing season followed by disease pressure. But in Barsac and Sauternes, we deal with humidity all the time. So when the good weather comes at the end, it doesn't just save the vintage, it's truly special. Our only concern in 2011 was in mid-July with the drought as we had a few parcels that looked a little flat, but then we got rain right away so ultimately it was not an issue for us."

During Lurton's tenure there have been the usual changes at the estate. It's a recent shift in viticultural philosophy though that stands out.

"We've changed lots of things, like barrels and renovating buildings, but that is not a revolution by any sense," explained Lurton. "I would say the biggest change we have made here is changing to biodynamics in 2010. Even though we were raisonée (a form of sustainable farming) before, we didn't feel it was the best for the vineyards and environment. We felt we were losing the terroir in the final wine, and that scared us because the terroir is so strong here, it should be coming through. But organic winegrowing didn't interest us, because it is too basic and not really effective in a maritime climate."

"We were a little scared of biodynamics at first, because of the guru image it has. But Jean-Michel Comme at Pontet-Canet [in Pauillac] introduced us to it and showed us those vineyards at Pontet-Canet. We saw the life that was in the vineyards and felt something special was happening there. We feel that biodynamics gives the vineyards the natural defense it needs to handle the difficulties of a maritime climate while letting the terroir really show. That's been our biggest change in how we see the vines today."

The employing of biodynamics at Climens puts Lurton in a distinct minority in Bordeaux, which is generally way behind other major wine regions in utilizing less chemically-dependent growing methods, be they biodynamics or other. I asked if Lurton thought a trend might be developing.

"I am not so sure. It's different for me. I am the only owner here and this is a small family estate, so I can make the decision and we can do it," she said. "But other estates in the Médoc are much larger and ownership is often a group or company, where those kinds of decisions are not usually made. But for me, I had to make the change. You look at Pontet-Canet and then the neighboring vineyards, where it looks stripped, bare, no life. For me it was an easy choice."

Tomorrow I head into Pessac …

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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