Category Archives: Vintage Notes

Bordeaux 2011: Vintage Review

This past week, at the culmination of the Master of Wine seminar, the Institute of the Masters of Wine held their annual Bordeaux tasting.  This year focused on the 2011 vintage.  After the spectacular back to back successes of 2009 and 2010, 2011 brought a challenging year but also a year where the individual communes could show their classic styles.

  
Weather Recap
The spring started off a bit on the early side and rapidly warmed up to the second warmest April on record.  May followed suit and also was quite dry causing an early flowering.  Drought conditions early in the year can cause difficulties later in the season if enough water is not available to the vine during the time just after flowering.  This period of the year is called the “cell division and expansion phase” and allows the vine to set the number of cells that will make up the grape later in the season.  If not enough water is available during this phase the berries can remain quite small which, if water becomes available later in the season can cause splitting and exacerbate rot.  Drought conditions during this phase can also affect shoot growth and leaf development which may result in the vine being out of balance.

June of 2011 in Bordeaux was equally problematic due to a severe heat spike which resulted in early sunburn on many vineyards.  Sunburn damages the cells of the grape skins and results in reduced color and flavor formation.  Late season sunburn can also result in cooked flavors however this was not the case since July rapidly cooled and the rains returned leading some estates to worry about rot.  Additional large rainstorms in September caused many estates to pick earlier than usual further exacerbating an already difficult year.  As always, those producers willing to make the rigorous cuts in fruit selection were able to make good wines.  Here are my impressions from the various regions.

Graves

Still quite a ripe style of wines over the producers I tasted.  Not as intense as 2009 or 2010 however some black fruit is evident, more so than most of the other communes.  The tannins were characteristically gravelly over all and the mid palate was missing some of the generosity of the previous two vintages.  Overall a classic representation of the area.

St. Emillion

St. Emillion was showing its very structured, slightly blocky tannins and quite a bit more cassis and dry herb notes than the past two years, clearly reflecting the cool season post veraison.  For my tastes, I definitely preferred its neighbor Pomerol for the 2011 vintage.

Pomerol

Pomerol still showed the lush mid-palate weight that it is known for relative to St. Emillion however 2011 was a more classic vintage for the region than the previous two.  The minerality of the old world is back and was something I had found missing in the uber ripe previous two vintages.  The texture of tannin was chunky and the Merlot dominant blends were clearly apparent when compared to the more fine grained tannins of the Left bank.

Haut Medoc

Granitic minerality with focused cassis and dry herb characters but only modest mid-palate weight and structure.

St. Estephe

Quite lean mid palate and high, fine grained tannins.  Lots of cassis but some black cherry and wet granite as well.  These definitely need time to soften.

  
St. Jullien

This commune was my favorite for the vintage.  The elegance of the styles complemented the classic beauty of this vintage and the wines showed very well integrated oak balanced with beautifully textured, fine grained tannins.  These wines stood out as having the most affinity for the cool end of the season and the lovely texture of the wines reflected winemaking that embraced the vintage rather than working against it.

 
Paulliac

The most surprising of the communes I tasted since there seemed to have been little regard for what 100% new oak would taste like over the natural flavors of such a classic and restrained vintage.  In many of the producers I tasted, the oak was dominant and overpowered the more delicate fruit.  Maybe with time, this will integrate further however I am not convinced it will resolve.

Margaux

A lovely showing for Margaux.  Although the perfume of the commune was not as apparent in this vintage, the tannins were powerful and refined with a velvety texture which complemented the highly concentrated mid-palate.  Of all the communes, Margaux seemed to have retained the most concentration on the palate and the ripest fruit profile showing blueberries and black cherries.  The elegant style and mineral notes still clearly said old world however, which is a welcome change from the riper styles of the previous two vintages.  These wines are evolving beautifully and should show classic complexity in the years to come.

Of course, much of the wines that were tasted are classed growths with the means to handle a challenging vintage and come out on the other side with a classically elegant wine.  This means that the widespread deliciousness of the 2009 and 2010 vintages will be restricted to those estates with the means to be very selective and I would choose from the non-classed wineries very selectively.  It’s a good year to know the history of the producers.  If they were able to make a good or great wine in 2007, it is likely that they would be able to repeat the performance from the 2011 vintage.

Harvest 2015: Wrap Up

  
This week marks the end of harvest here in New York for me. We only have a few vineyards left to pick. All of the vinifera was safely in the door week before last and now the tanks are going through fermentation. The photo above is one of the Pumpovers on my first Cabernet Franc from the area. There were several key surprises that I have been intrigued by. 

1) The berry size is almost twice what I am used to seeing. 

2) The sugar is dramatically lower than other areas. This was somewhat expected being in a cool climate but the reality is definitely a change from my previous Cab Franc experiences. 

3) There are minimal bell pepper flavors. This was very exciting suggesting the sugar ripeness issue may be dealing with crop load rather than environmental issues since the flavors are ripe. 

4) Cabernet Franc Rose is amazing!!!! I’m very excited about my Rose this year 

5) The Riesling is as good as I remember and I’m very happy to report that both of my Rieslings look very promising at this stage. One is through fermentation and the other is almost finished. 

The Cabernet Franc is almost dry so we are still managing the cap there but backing off at this point. It has been a challenging year but they all are to some extent here. I’m excited to be back and invigorated with the challenges and surprises I’ve seen this year. I can’t wait to see how the wines turn out! 

Ningxia Winemaker Challenge: Part 1 – Harvest 2015

 Every now and then I like to push myself out of my comfort zone just to keep myself from being too comfortable in any single situation.  This trip was so far out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t even in the same ballpark with it anymore.  I did not know what to expect and since the details of what would happen when I arrived were quite fuzzy, I was going on pure blind faith that everything would be taken care of.  I shouldn’t have worried at all.   This was an experience like none that I have ever been a part of.  The first few days were spent in the company of my fellow Challenge winemakers, 48 of us in all.  As a group, we represent almost every major winemaking country, with varying experiences, languages, and careers.  Everyone was super friendly and, as is usually the case with winemaking types, extremely passionate about wine and grapes.  I had great conversations during these first days where we toured the Ningxia Provence by bus, visiting several wineries as well as our vineyard that we would be working with.

 The selection ceremony came and each winemaker was paired with a partner winery and selected a vineyard block.  This was done by random selection.  I was extremely lucky with my pick.  I am paired with a winery called Lansai.  The winery itself is small by local standards but elegantly designed and stays true to the spirit of China with very traditional architecture, statues and reliefs of mythological and symbolic Chinese figures cranes, lions, birds, and of course the dragon, which is the most prominent of the symbols and was chosen to bring power to the winery. Even though the winery is not finished it has a powerful feel to it, as though the building stands in comfortable harmony with the land even though it makes such a strong statement on the landscape.


I decided to pick on Friday, September 25th, earlier than most of my contemporaries but there was 3 days of rain coming the next week and I had no time to waste given that I was flying home on October 3rd.  If there is one thing I know from my years of winemaking, it is that 3 days of rain does not improve anything in wine quality that close to harvest.  I was able to sort quite strictly at both the cluster and berry level. Ten percent of the fruit did not make the cut.  The resulting juice was easy to work with and extracted quite nicely without the use of enzymes which so many people seem to rely on for fermentations.  I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the winemaking supplies that I normally use in the US, but it turns out that the suppliers have great representation in the region and I was able to find everything that I needed.  The winery is very well equipped with both heating and cooling capabilities on all the tanks, a luxury which I have not had previously.  The analysis was good from the sorted fruit and I am very happy with how the wine turned out.  I was able to press off one tank at dryness before I left and am very pleased with the texture of the tannin.  The seeds were quite green still so I wanted to minimize any harsh extraction while still providing great structure for the wine.
 I had other great adventures while making the wine.  I tried a Durnian fruit for the first time, and probably the last because the smell was almost too much for me to take.  I celebrated the Chinese holiday, Middle Moon, with my Chinese host family who have welcomed me in with open arms and have supported my efforts for making the best quality wine with amazing enthusiasm.  I have sampled much of the local food, minus anything spicy, and can report that it is delicious.  In particular, I am in love with the egg based Chinese crepe that is served for breakfast here.  I have already found a recipe and if it is successfully similar I will share it.

I returned from China yesterday and although I am a bit jet lagged still, I am happy that I have been able to participate in this incredible journey.  I have left the wine in the capable hands of the Lansai winemaker, a young man named Mr. Wu, with detailed instructions on what to expect in the next few months before I head back to Lansai in February.  All I can do is hope for the best and continue to make the most out of this incredible experience.