Rain of terroir
A bright blue sky warmed the thousands of wine tasters who converged on Bordeaux at the start of this month's wine futures week, as temperatures reached the low 30s. But by the end of the week, just a few hours after the last glasses were cleared away, the temperature had fallen by 20 degrees Celsius as a hailstorm lashed the city.
The changing weather pattern largely sums up the fortunes of the 2011 vintage, which is of varied quality, and serves as an apt metaphor for how the market views the wines, with opinions running equally hot and cold.
'This is a complicated vintage to call,' says Corinne Conroy of Chateau Brane-Cantenac in Margaux, whose 2009 release was one of Parker's Magical 20 at last year's wine futures in Hong Kong.
For those of us watching the wines and deciding whether to buy them at this early stage - 18 months before they are put in bottles - there are a few key things to bear in mind. Most importantly, the wines are not as universally impressive as either the 2009 or 2010 vintages - mainly due to the fact that the Bordelais had things a little tougher in terms of weather conditions during the year. Leading wine academic Professor Denis Dubourdieu described it as, 'Summer in spring, autumn in summer, spring in autumn.'
He means there was a very dry start to 2011, with April the second warmest since 1900 and May the driest since 1945. Vine flowering occurred early and evenly - two key factors for a quality vintage - but things started going awry by the end of June, with record heat during the last weekend. The sun grilled whole bunches of grapes, some of which withered on the vine. Coupled with the extreme drought conditions, winemakers were preparing for another 2003, and many vines were shutting down their growth cycle owing to water stress.
In July and August it turned cooler. Fine weather didn't return until mid-September. Ripening slowed to a crawl, and grapes reached maturity in uneven stages. There were a few hailstorms in May and early September. In one day, baptised by the locals as Black Tuesday, 80mm of rain fell.
Add this up, and what you get is not a Left Bank or Right Bank vintage, it's a vintage where terroir, age of vines, experience of winemakers and careful attention in the vineyard all come into play. In some ways, these are the vintages that Bordeaux does best - when experience of a maritime climate and careful decision making are key. Many estates lost up to 10 per cent of their crop in the sorting stage, after harvest, by meticulously separating damaged grapes from healthy ones.
'The terroir, the date of harvesting, and the care taken during sorting - this is what made the difference in 2011,' says Pauline Vauthier of Chateau Ausone, one of Saint-Emilion's leading properties.
There were some clear highlights. The dry white wines, for example, benefited from the warm start to the year, and maintained wonderful acidity from the cooler summer, producing aromatically complex wines. The sweet wines of Sauternes also had a stellar vintage.
For the reds, by and large, normal alcohol levels of about 13.5 per cent, rarely going above 14 per cent, means the best examples have a purity of fruit and an elegant structure that shines through. But this is not a vintage for a blank cheque.
'Quality-wise, the Bordelais dodged a bullet with the 2011 vintage,' says Guy Stout of American distributors Glazer's. 'I think we all arrived here expecting a mediocre vintage with plenty of early-drinking wines, but instead we have a few low points, but many serious highs.
'There are some excellent bottles and the majority of chateaux have made good quality wine.'
The event had the highest ever number of attendees, at 6,400, according to the official figures, with 68 different nationalities making 3,400 chateaux visits each day and using 25,000 Riedel glasses, proving the continuing allure of Bordeaux.
The locals certainly put on a show for those who came. There were art exhibitions alongside the tasting sessions - with contemporary Chinese artists including Shen Yuan and Yan Pei Ming at Bernard Magrez's cultural institute, photographs from renowned wine consultant Eric Boissenot at Chateau Brane-Cantenac, and a piano recital at Chateau Palmer.
Michelin-star chefs served up elaborate delicacies at lunches and dinners. Highlights included two-Michelin-star Philippe Etchebest at Chateau Marquis de Terme and at Chateau Pavie in Saint-Emilion, and 26-star Joel Robuchon at Chateau Pape Clement.
Simon Tam, of Christie's Hong Kong, found several reasons to be positive. 'The reds have a very different personality from 2009 and 2010, making them a real proposition for buyers, and most don't have to be put away for 15 years, which gives them clear value. Some estates were overambitious with oak, but those are the minority.
'This is a year when great terroirs have sung loud and proud - and it's reasonable to assume the prices will be lower than last year.'
With this Tam echoes the major feeling that the prices of the past two years would need to be readjusted downwards - not least because several major Chinese buyers have loudly proclaimed their dismay at the high prices, and lack of subsequent rises, of the 2010 wines.
There were plenty of Hong Kong buyers in Bordeaux - including teams from Altaya, Watson's, Berry Bros and Bordeaux Index - but not as many as last year.
'Prices need to be sensible, but I'm not worried about saturation in the Hong Kong market,' says Tam. 'Every year brings new consumers and a new personality to the wine. Bordeaux has been around for centuries and will be for centuries more.'
Sylvie Cazes, president of the Union des Grands Crus (the body which organises the tastings), and director of Chateau Pichon Comtesse, also sees recent price weakening as no cause for alarm.
'The Hong Kong market needed to settle and regulate itself. So many wine companies have set up in the territory over the past three years, and not all were going to survive - that is a necessary function of a maturing market,' she says. The feeling of uncertainty has meant an early start to price announcements, certainly compared to last year, when we were still waiting for things to get going in mid-May.
A handful of chateaux have already made their appearance, including La Tour de Bessan, Caronne Ste Gemme and d'Angludet, all coming out with a small decrease on last year. Rumours suggest that the first growths also plan an early campaign, with significant discounts on 2010.
Early releases at good prices is exactly what most people want to hear. But when it comes to selecting what to buy, bear in mind that balance in 2011 is all about elegance and freshness - the best producers worked with the vintage, not against it, and produced fruit-filled, lip-smacking wines.
The drought meant small grapes with good concentration. Tannin levels are in many cases higher than 2010, with good acidity, meaning the best wines will age.
But they should be perfect within eight years, unlike the 15 years that most of the 2010s will need.