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First First-Growths First

Scores and tasting notes for the 2011 barrel samples of Haut-Brion and La Mission, plus a visit to Château La Garde
Château Haut-Brion's and La Mission's potentially classic 2011 whites bode well for the vintage's Sémillon crop.

Posted: Mar 27, 2012 11:20am ET

It seems fitting that my first full day in Bordeaux for the 2011 en primeur I would start with the first first-growth, Haut-Brion, which is the oldest of the five famed Left Bank properties atop the 1855 Classification.

Tasting the 2011s here also provides the first opportunity to see the efforts at the former Terte-Daugay, the St.-Emilion property purchased in 2011 by Haut-Brion's owner and renamed Quintus. For general director Jean-Philippe Delmas, there will be a learning curve as he works on the Right Bank, where the limestone terroir is markedly different from the gravelly soils of Pessac.

"Well, we just signed the deal in June 2011, so we have a lot to learn. We just finished the soil analysis and are starting to figure things out," said Delmas. "So far, no surprises—the better terroirs are on the limestone further up the slope. But we are just starting." Delmas also noted that the estate was entirely replanted at low density in 1980 shortly after it was bought by the Malet-Roquefort family, so the vines are just starting to mature. "Even though we started middle of the season with the estate, we did get to work right away and managed to do two green harvests; the first as usual for quantity, and then a second for quality as the harvest was very heterogeneous in terms of ripening."

The Château Quintus St.-Emilion Le Dragon 2011 is the second wine of the estate, made from a blend of 54 percent Merlot and 46 percent Cabernet Franc. It's very tight, chalky and pure, with lots of violet and cassis (88-91 points, non-blind). The Château Quintus St.-Emilion 2011 (a 51 percent Merlot and 49 percent Cabernet Franc blend) is lusher in feel, but still pure and racy, with less overt chalk, but equally bright violet and cassis notes as well as extra cherry paste and iron hints. Longer and finer through the finish. (90-93, non-blind). The estate seems off to a good start.

"For La Mission, this is now the third year we used the optical sorting machine. In '09 and '10, we used it, but to be honest, we didn't see the consequence in either quantity or quality, as we trimmed out less than 1 percent of the fruit," said Delmas. "But in '11 the machine was very useful. We eliminated 5 percent of the crop right away, as within the bunches sometimes there were green or pink berries."

The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2011 (69 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 11 percent Cabernet Franc) is tight, with a hint of mesquite and tar, and good racy tobacco leaf and cassis notes (90-93, non-blind). In contrast, the Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2011 (55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 33 percent Merlot and 11 percent Cabernet Franc) is also tightly wound, with a good chalky vibrancy and taut red currant, damson plum and bitter cherry notes that show ample length (93-96, non-blind). Both wines show very tight, lip-smacking acidity, but good flesh to surround their cores.

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2011 (71 percent Merlot, 23 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 5 percent Cabernet Franc and 1 percent Petit Verdot) has the racy, taut edge of the vintage but shows slightly better flesh than its La Chapelle counterpart. The addition of even a small drop of Petit Verdot is a good sign though, as the grape is difficult to get fully ripe.

"The window there was small, but we got some good Petit Verdot in," said Delmas who also noted that, as more Cabernet Sauvignon goes into the grand vin, the Merlot percentage in the second wine increases. In the end, La Clarence shows a nice briary edge with a range of red and blue fruits and a lively iron note on the finish (90-93, non-blind).

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2011 (46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Merlot and 19 percent Cabernet Franc) manages to harness the angularity of the vintage extremely well, almost burying the acidity in the core of cassis, black cherry peel, plum pit and Maduro tobacco flavors. It's still tight and primal (this is typically among the most backward wines of the vintage when young), but with admirable length and density already (93-96, non-blind).

"In terms of concentration, the level of tannins and acidity, '11 is in line with '01, '04 and '08," said Delmas. "But at the same stage, of en primeur, '04 and '08 were more difficult to taste early, while '01 had charm. And I see the '01 in the '11. It's easier to taste now than '04 and '08 were."

The white grapes at Haut-Brion were picked starting Aug. 18, one of the earliest dates here, and the alcohol was over 14 percent, but with high acidity. "That is unusual and I was a little worried at first," said Delmas. "But as the wine has developed, I see the whites on a level with 2007, which is really the reference point for white Bordeaux in recent years in terms of concentration and acidity."

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White La Clarté de Haut-Brion 2011 (78 percent Sémillon and 22 percent Sauvignon Blanc) is a "co-second wine," as it sources fruit from both La Mission and Haut-Brion. It's very tight, with brisk blanched almond, kiwi pulp and verbena notes. This is the first vintage with Sauvignon Blanc in the blend, as a former Sémillon parcel has recently been replanted (90-93, non-blind).

"We had to plant a little more Sauvignon Blanc in response to the warmer vintages and climate change, to keep the balance with the ripeness of the Sémillon," explained Delmas.

The Château La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2011 (73 percent Sémillon and 27 percent Sauvignon Blanc) also features more Sauvignon Blanc than in previous years for the reasons noted above. It's very racy and distinctive, with green plum, kiwi, grapefruit and verbena notes all still wrestling with each other, but showing great energy and length. A lovely macadamia nut note lurks in the background and this has a lot of stretching out to do (94-97, non-blind).

The Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan White 2011 (58 percent Sémillon and 42 percent Sauvignon Blanc) is its typical blend of varieties and features a chiseled feel for now with a blanched almond edge and vibrant quinine note taking the lead over salted butter, floral, verbena and gooseberry notes. There's terrific depth and length but a youthful rawness that needs to settle in. Terrific raw material here though, and could be a very long-lived Haut-Brion White (95-98, non-blind).

For the tasting, we were also joined by owner Prince Robert de Luxembourg. Though he typically defers on technical issues to Delmas, de Luxembourg is a wine lover and very active in the running of Domaines Clarence Dillon. (For more background on Domaines Clarence Dillon, reference my 2010 en primeur tasting blog.) He's also a businessman, so while it would be foolish to expect him to give a direct answer regarding what pricing for the 2011s might look like, he did have some interesting comments:

"Will prices come down? Yes, they have to. But, let's not also forget that even in a vintage like '11, the concentration and quality is far superior to what we did in the '70s, '80s and even '90s. The difference is, '11 is quite a change from the '09 and '10 and so comparison could be a little difficult in that regard. But furthermore, we have a stricter selection for the grand vin and produce less wine overall than we did then. And all of this comes with greater effort and investment, whether it be an optical sorter, new chai, etc. All of that, and the market for the wine has grown enormously in the last decade."

Château La Garde

I also made a quick stop at Château La Garde, in the Pessac commune of Martillac. The estate is owned by Vins et Vignobles Dourthe, which also owns Châteaus Belgrave, Le Boscq, Grand Barrail Lamarzelle Figeac and Pey La Tour as well as manages Château de Richaud, Rahoul and Reysson for the Thienot family (who have been the majority shareholder in Dourthe since 2007). The company also exclusively distributes Château Marsau, owned by the Chadronnier family, a minority shareholder in Dourthe. All told, the company controls about 1,500 acres of vines.

Though just 34, Mathieu Chadronnier is the general director at Dourthe; he joined the company in 2002 along with technical director Frédéric Bonnaffous, 38, who oversees winemaking at all the estates except Marsau (where Mathieu and his wife, Laurence, make the wine).

"Château La Garde was bought by my father in 1990 and that's when we fell in love with winemaking," said Chadronnier. "We had Belgrave, but [La Garde is] where we learned winemaking technically. At La Garde, we felt a special connection. And to make great wine you need some emotion."

La Garde is a 136-acre estate (131 of which are red) producing approximately 15,000 cases annually. Nearly one-third of the vineyards have been replanted in the past 10 years, switching to higher density and off of the old SO4 rootstock. The property totals 148 farmable acres, but 12 have been taken out of production for not being up to the quality level that Chadronnier and the Dourthe team would like to have. Soils here are gravelly clay ranging to heavy clay.

The southern stretch of Pessac was particularly dry in 2011 and the Dourthe team had their worries, just as many Bordelais did.

"Our concern was with the Merlot in particular, which seemed rather flat right after the vinification," said Bonnaffous. "But as the aging has gone on, the wines have responded. I think the lower yields, because of the dry summer, helped bring balance."

In addition, the wines feature bright acidity, but not more acidity, as Chadronnier explained. "With the low alcohol, the acidity seems higher, even though the tannins and polyphenols measure the same in '11 as in '09 and '10. It's the lower alcohol that marks the vintage, as we had individual lots ranging .5 to 2 degrees lower than in '09 or '10 and the finished wines will be .5 to 1 degrees lower."

"We have also really reduced the amount of new wood on the wine in recent years. Oak is the best thing to age wine in, but the worst thing to taste in wine," said Chadronnier. At La Garde, the wine sees only a maximum of 35 percent new oak now.

The Château La Garde Pessac-Léognan 2011 is sleek and shows nice material, with mouthwatering raspberry and damson plum fruit mixed together and showing good drive on the violet-tinged finish. The Château La Garde Pessac-Léognan White 2011 (a 50/50 Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blend) is all barrel fermented but sees less than 20 percent new oak. It shows kaffir lime, verbena and chalk notes up front, with a hint of white asparagus checking in on the very fresh and minerally finish.

I asked Chadronnier if he felt the 2011s were in line with 2001. "I was talking with Eric Boissenot [consulting winemaker for many Médoc estates] and after a long talk, he came up with '01 as well, as a vintage to compare '11 too. The acidity is there, but it's not acidic. It's fresh and pleasant."

Note: Official reviews based on blind tastings of La Garde, as well as the full range of wines from Dourthe, will appear after my full-scale tastings next week.

Tomorrow, into Margaux ...

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

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 28, 2012 8:36am ET

At Haut-Brion, are they using the optical sorter only on the reds or on the white wines as well? I believe that some can be programmed for use on whites.

Thanks for the great report!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  March 29, 2012 11:42am ET
Adam: No, they only use the optical sorter for the red varieties...

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