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Down South in Médoc

Bordeaux Châteaus Margaux and Palmer met success despite a difficult 2011 growing season in the Médoc's southernmost appellation
Château Margaux dealt with very low yields in 2011, as did its neighbors.

Posted: Mar 28, 2012 12:10pm ET

The drive up the tree-lined allée never fails to excite at Château Margaux, which is starting some new construction on the property to house a newer bottling line and a few other changes.

The experienced Paul Pontallier has been director here since 1981, and he seemed particularly pleased at how Margaux handled the challenges of 2011.

"The difference in 2011 is very low yields, as the Margaux appellation was probably the driest spot in all of Bordeaux during what was a very dry season in general. We have the lowest yields in the last 20 years at [about 2 tons per acre]. The result is the highest tannin levels we've seen, higher than '09," said Pontallier. "So, the problem could have been balance, because if the grapes didn't ripen well and retain freshness, the tannins would have stuck out too much. But despite being an early harvest, the cool August helped retain freshness and then the late September gave us the ripeness."

"So in the end, 2011 has the characteristics of an early year and a cool year. The grapes got fully ripe but retained freshness. The difficulty was we didn't get that perfect summer that gives perfect maturity and concentration throughout the entire vineyard, as we saw in '09 or '10. Better terroirs manage water better and lesser terroirs will show that difference at a greater magnitude. The best wines are thick, but fresh, because of the drought. The lesser wines couldn't get that balance. How else can you explain that you have that many tannins, but not have a tannic wine? That's the gift of great terroir."

While there has always been a severe crop selection here, Pontallier began bottling the estate's third cut starting in 2009. It is not offered en primeur, however, and so it is not shown until formally released. The 2011 third wine, combined with the fourth portion of the crop, which is bulked out, accounts for a hefty 34 percent of the overall crop.

The second wine, the Château Margaux Margaux Pavillon Rouge 2011 (65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 8 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc) represents 28 percent of the crop and also has probably the highest proportion of Petit Verdot ever for the wine. The grape, notoriously late to ripen, relished the early, dry season in 2011, and it's distinctive high-toned cassis bush and white pepper notes will mark many wines in the Médoc this vintage. The Pavillon Rouge combines both silky texture and good tension, with a light chalky thread running through the middle of the almost plush plum and blackberry fruit. There's a very suave feel through the finish, with a lingering jasmine edge (90-93 points, non-blind).

The Château Margaux Margaux 2011 represents just 38 percent of the crop and the final blend is 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot, 2 percent Petit Verdot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc. It's succulent, with an almost jammy cassis, plum and black currant profile, though that is quickly harnessed by riveting acidity on the finish, which lets additional floral, bay leaf, tobacco and perfume notes play out. There's a very impressive range here already (93-96, non-blind).

The Château Margaux Bordeaux Pavillon Blanc 2011 (all Sauvignon Blanc) is potentially the best version for this wine yet, as the '11 vintage dry whites continue to impress. It is blazingly pure, with gorgeous honeysuckle, heather, green almond, green plum and verbena notes backed by a long, macadamia nut-tinged finish. Again, it has both tension and a creaminess at the same time in delivering a beautiful expression of fruit and minerality. Despite sharing the label with the second wine of the red, this is grand vin white (93-96, non-blind).

Château Palmer

I almost missed the new driveway entrance at Château Palmer, which was finished earlier this year. But even though it was a very quiet Sunday, general director Thomas Duroux was there to flag me down.

"We were concerned by the drought, because it was so early. There was coulure, hail in June, then a heat wave with no rain. So, by then we were already concerned," said Duroux, as he looked back on the 2011 growing season. "Luckily there was rain in the second half of the summer, which let the vines continue the process, even though it was cooler than usual. But to be honest, at the end of June, I thought we might not make a Château Palmer in '11."

The estate did wind up producing a wine, though yields here were drastically reduced by the up-and-down growing season. With just 1.5 tons per acre across the entire estate, the 2011 Palmer saw the lowest yields since the '61.

"Because the yields were so small, we had to blend fruit in the fermenting vats from parcels that would usually be separate. So knowing which parcels work well together became critical," said Duroux.

Despite the growing season being both tricky and early (see the video for Duroux's comments on the 2011 growing season), the harvest wound up closer to normal timing.

"Based on flowering, harvest should have been end of August. But it wound up being early to mid-September. We wound up with small yields, small berries and thick skins, but ripe and fresh aromas and lower sugars than previous vintages," said Duroux. "But because of that we were more prudent with extraction. We did less pumping over and I played instead with temperature. Low for fermentation, but then slightly higher at the end for maceration for a longer, gentler extraction. 2011 is not a warm vintage. It was warm at the beginning but not overall. It is a dry vintage, because of the drought."

The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2011 is a blend of 48 percent Merlot, 37 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Petit Verdot, a noticeably high Petit Verdot percentage. "The Petit Verdot was good, very aromatic, but structurewise it didn't add anything to the grand vin, so we decided to use it just for Alter Ego" said Duroux. The wine is taut but sappy, with lots of white pepper and kirsch flavors and a chalky energy on the tightly wound finish (89-92, non-blind).

The Château Palmer Margaux 2011 features a slightly higher percentage of Merlot than usual in the blend of 55 percent Merlot and 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It shows an ample core of kirsch and bright cherry fruit that is very expressive, with flecks of white pepper, violet and tobacco. The nice racy acidity is well-embedded. It has solid length with a velvety edge in reserve that lets extra cassis and violet notes emerge, and it should stretch out nicely during the rest of its élevage (92-95, non-blind).

Château Cantenac-Brown

Just across a swath of vines from Château Palmer sits the very Oxford college–looking, red brick–accented Château Cantenac-Brown. General director and Portugal native José Sanfins has been here since 1989. He started his tenure with Jean-Michel Cazes when the estate was part of the AXA portfolio, and he stayed on following the château's sale to an English family in 2006. (Sanfins got his start at Quinta do Noval with Christian Seeley before coming to Bordeaux).

The 118-acre estate also has 7.4 acres in Bordeaux Supérieur which goes to its Château Brown-Lamartine label.

As with most other estates in the Margaux AOC, yields were lower in '11 and the resulting selection made for a lower percentage in the grand vin—just 50 percent of the crop in 2011, as opposed to a more usual 60 percent.

"We also used the optical sorter for the first time in '11," said the soft-spoken Sanfins. "And it really helped sort the unripe berries, which were in same bunches. In the end our yield was [2.2 tons per acre]. And I think if your yields were [2.5 tons, 3 tons] or higher, it would have been difficult to get the density of fruit to match the tannins that came from the small berries and their thick skins."

The second wine here, selected in the vineyard ahead of time, features more Merlot and is vinified accordingly, with less extraction for a softer, more approachable style.

The Château Cantenac-Brown Margaux BriO 2011 is soft and very open with easy plum and currant fruit offset by a light cherry pit edge that keeps the finish honest. There's just a touch of modest toast. The Château Cantenac-Brown Margaux 2011 is ripe and succulent, with an expressive, sappy edge to the kirsch, tobacco and iron notes, with good cut and length, offering potentially outstanding quality. (Note: Official scores and reviews based on blind tastings will appear after my full-scale tastings next week.)

There's a surprise here as well: the estate's first white wine. The Château Cantenac-Brown Bordeaux White AltO comes from a 4.4-acre parcel that was recently planted. The final wine (a blend of 90 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 10 percent Sémillon) is fermented entirely in barrel but none new, as Sanfins said he was "looking for a style like Sancerre, to enjoy with food." It's very bright, with a bold white peach core and a pure floral and citrus-tinged finish. It's very refreshing, with a hint of citrus oil adding weight. The delicious wine shows how good whites are looking in '11, and it is potentially outstanding in quality.

It was also very instructive to see the '08, '09 and '10 vintages side by side here during my visit. The '08, slightly firm, with its tobacco and black currant fruit notes, was very good (it earned 89 points officially when reviewed), but clearly outclassed by the richer, more voluptuous '09 (which earned 92 points officially). And then there was the '10, which continues to take on extra definition, length and depth, with captivatingly pure aromas and a mouthwatering feel. It was nearly as big a step from the '09 to the '10 as it was from the '08 to the '09, a characteristic that I have seen at nearly every château where I have recently tasted those vintages side by side.

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

Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  March 28, 2012 6:12pm ET
James, was Thomas Duroux at Ornellaia way back when? The face is very familiar.

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  March 29, 2012 1:49am ET
Andrew: Yes, that's him. He joined Palmer in '04. You can click the hyperlink in his name above for more info on him...

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