Fine wine in focus: Bordeaux 2011

A forgotten but not great vintage, the charms and strengths of Bordeaux 2011 are becoming increasingly apparent with the vintage’s place in history deserves a reappraisal.

The 2011 vintage in Bordeaux is not a neglected ‘great’ by any means but it has been somewhat forgotten and, as with other vintages that follow acknowledged ‘legendary’ vintages, suffered on release relative to the heights reached by not only the 2010 vintage but the 2009 as well.

Revisiting the climatic and market conditions facing the 2011s on release, it’s clear that everything was against it. A better received 2012 vintage followed straight afterwards and, now that the region has got back to winning ways with the 2014-16 trio, the 2011s have receded ever further into the background. The quick vintage guide on jancisrobinson.com rather brutally dismisses it as, “a forgettable year”.

Yet, now that the brusque tannins that masked the vintage in its youth have begun to fall away, revealing something of a swan (or an impressive sort of waterfowl such as a Mandarin duck at least) beneath the initial ugly duckling exterior and the 2013 vintage has obligingly taken the mantle for ‘worst campaign’ firmly upon its spindly shoulders, the 2011 vintage deserves something in the way of a revisit to see if it really was as bad as all that.

Harvest and campaign

Although it was only six years ago, much has happened in the fine wine market since the 2011 harvest and subsequent en primeur campaign in the late spring of 2012, and it probably bears a brief re-examination.

On a purely viticultural level, the 2011 vintage was somewhat awkward, especially in the Médoc, with a warm spring giving way to a distinctly damp but often humid summer and then ‘saved’ by a lovely autumn – though Saint-Estèphe was cruelly blasted by a hailstorm on 1 September.

Harvesting began in many areas in early to mid-September and volumes were certainly down on 2010 across the board but not disastrously so (except Saint Estèphe). The Left Bank where the rain hit hardest required more work in both the vineyard and sorting table and early on it was labelled a “winemaker’s vintage”.

On the other hand, once tastings began, the mood began to lighten and the consensus was the wines were, “better than expected”, Robert Parker saying the Right Bank had the advantage over the Left, but the best of the Médoc were generally good. The reds were a touch austere perhaps with nowhere near the rich fruit concentration or alcohol of 2009 or 2010 but the whites, both dry and sweet, were the real stars.

The only real concern going into the campaign, therefore, was price. All were accepting of the fact that the 2011 was no 2009 or 2010, but the feeling was that the 2011s should drop back in price to somewhere around the levels of the 2008 vintage in order to work.

As is well known, the ’09 and ’10 vintages soared, on the back of critical acclaim and a voracious Asian bull market, to unprecedented en primeur price levels.

They were big vintages and merchants made many, many millions in two of the most successful campaigns in modern history.

However, even while the 2010s were being sold in 2011 the great decline in the fine wine market was beginning, and by the time it came for the 2011s to be sold in 2012, this decline and a number of other factors were in full effect: Asia – or rather China – began to falter economically; its interest in the en primeur process, skin deep at the best of times, was waning; things were not much better in the US or Europe; the speculators that had helped whip up the craze of the previous few years were jumping ship (and dumping stock) and Bordeaux generally was on the cusp of losing its near-monolithic grip on the attentions of fine wine enthusiasts.

Parker himself warned that the campaign would “bomb” if prices did not return to “reasonable price points”, a situation much of the trade was well aware of, and demand was expected to be lower than it had been previously.

In the end there were corrections, including many that were probably more severe than one might remember, with cuts up to and over 50% on the 2010 release prices ex-négociant.

Unfortunately, and maybe a little unfairly, with cellars stuffed and wallets emptied by the glut of 2009 and 2010, many of the prices were still deemed out of line with customer expectations and failed to sell (even with a 45% price cut Haut-Brion 2011 was €360 a bottles ex-négoce, more than double the 2008 had been on release – €150 p/b); bombing as Parker had predicted and bombing hard.

The pricing misstep was exacerbated by near farce when it came to releases by the châteaux. Not only was the campaign very long for one that elicited such low interest from buyers (it finished around 11 June) but releases were sporadic, and abysmally timed. The most infamous incident was ‘Super’ or ‘Black’ Tuesday (15 May) when no less than 43 wines were released on the same day.

Overwhelmed, most merchants concentrated on just a handful of three or four labels and the others went begging – a wasted opportunity.

The fiasco generated good headlines at least. Charles Sichel of négociant house Maison Sichel branded it “messy, bloody and very difficult”, while merchants branded the campaign the “worst in living memory”. Berry Bros & Rudd – the UK’s biggest en primeur player – set a target of £30 million in the 2011 campaign, half of the £65m it made in 2010, but only made around £15m in the end.

The more approachable 2012 vintage was better received and in a recovering marketplace with further price cuts the proportion of sales on Liv-ex actually surpassed 2011 but, as the wines were cheaper again and the vintage was smaller too, the sums still didn’t add up to very much.

The nadir, of course, came in 2013 with a bad vintage and a wider fine wine market racing once again to the bottom. The 2014 and 2015 vintages then benefited from not only a more stable marketplace and prices that were back in line with the Bordeaux secondary market, but also from the fact that they were very good to excellent and demand for Bordeaux had returned to decent levels. As we shall see, however, it would be wrong to view them as more successful campaigns than the 2011 – because they weren’t.

In-bottle scores and on delivery

Robert Parker

Parker returned to the 2011s in 2014 for his usual in-bottle assessment and his scores reaffirmed his initial impression that it was a ‘Right Bank’ vintage. The top scores in fact went to two boutique Saint Emilion producers, Clos de Sarpe and Magrez Frombrague, which both received 96-points, as did Palmer and Pape Clément, the latter apparently “transcending” the vintage. Ausone, which had in fact been given 100-point potential back in 2012, together with Pavie, Bellevue Mondotte, Le Pin, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Clinet, L’Eglise Clinet, Valandraud and Troplong Mondot all got 95 or 95+ points, as did Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion which were the only two other Left Bank wines in the upper echelons of his scores.

Parker still called the vintage “inconsistent” but with the more positive caveats that the wines were better in bottle than they had been in barrel and that it was a “drinker’s vintage that offers immediate appeal”.

As was often the way with Parker’s notes, in the immediate aftermath of their release there was some movement among the 2011s that built throughout March, April and May of 2014, before dropping away again.

Liv-ex at the time noted that while Parker probably had a hand in some of the activity, it was also the case that, in many instances, the 2011s were the cheapest physical vintage from many châteaux.

The 2011s were also victims of the maelstrom of en primeur vintages that lost buyers money, which was all part and parcel of the wider dissatisfaction with Bordeaux and discussion of en primeur as a ‘broken’ system.

It’s not hard to see why. In Liv-ex’s now annual Bordeaux report from spring 2016, it was shown very clearly that between the 2005 and 2014 vintages, the worst for returns, by far, were 2010 and 2011, each of which showed mid price returns at that time of -22%.

Furthermore, the 2011s offered by far the worst example of supply chain margins, at least between 1994 and 2012. At the time of delivery the ex-château price of the 2011s represented somewhere in the region of 93% of the market price leaving the most meagre of margins for trade and consumer and, what margins there were, were largely taken by négociants.

A vintage not considered especially great and one that lost money was not going to endear itself to anyone and so the 2011s have been passed over up to the present day.

Coming out of its shell

The Southwold tasting is an annual meeting of critics and merchants who get together in the Suffolk town each January to taste the latest Bordeaux vintage to be released.

In early 2016, the vintage under review was 2012. Jancis Robinson MW wrote it up in her column in the Financial Times along with a rundown of the 13 Bordeaux vintages from 2000-2012 ranked best to worst which was the result of a discussion at the tasting (many of the panel members being regular attendees).

As might be supposed the top trio were the 2005, 2009 and 2010 vintages but what piqued the ire of Decanter regular Andrew Jefford was that the 2011 vintage was ranked bottom of the heap and deemed “miserable” and “lacklustre”.

In an article at the end of February 2016 he called it a, “miscarriage of justice” and asked how it could be ranked lower than the “skinny latté” 2002s or “weak-kneed” 2007s – although he also referred to the 2004s as “charmless” which is a very odd adjective for that vintage.

Calling for a reassessment of the 2011s, he said they were: “classic, generously constructed, well-built and enduring wines of true gastronomic potential.

“I honestly do not understand why my learned friends have knocked 2011 down to the ground and are kicking the hell out of it,” he wrote.

He did not try and argue (as no one should) that the vintage was ‘great’ and noted it is inconsistent but it’s increasingly clear that the 2011s do indeed require a re-evaluation.

“The wines didn’t show well at Southwold, most were very savoury and tannic with a dryness and lack of clear fruit – in truth, pretty joyless wines,” says Justerini & Brooks buyer, Tom Jenkins, shedding some light on why the 2011s were ranked so poorly.

Tannins and austerity were real hallmarks of the red wines in their youth and, as AXA Millèsimes’ managing director, Christian Seely, says: “wines like that are exhausting to taste en primeur.”

Wine writer Andrew Jefford has already called for justice in the case of the 2011s

Unfortunately, not unlike the 2006s, which were, and occasionally still are, quite tannic, this austere side has taken a while to soften, meaning those returning to the wines are unlikely to have come away with a favourable point of view.

Charles Sichel, export director of Maison Sichel, continues: “The style of the vintage was difficult when young – austere and unforgiving. It had the makings of a good bottle but it was always going to take time.”

Seely thinks that time, somewhat sooner than many might have guessed, appears to be coming. “I love the 2011s,”he declares. “We did a vertical at Pichon-Baron recently of ’08-’16 and the ’11 was the star of the show. In the last year or so they’ve come out of their shells. I think they’re going to be lovely. People are still a bit reluctant about the 2011s but I always thought their time would come – big time, and faster than expected too.”

Jenkins may have seen the bad side of the 2011s at Southwold but it’s not something he’s holding against them.

He says: “In the last 12 months they have begun to flourish and show the qualities we saw when they were in barrel. Delicious as the 2012s are, many believe the 2011s are more serious and will outlive the 2012s.”

But what of actually being able to buy any of them? The 2011 vintage, as mentioned above, was not very big. On the other hand it did not sell very well either and so stocks are not too hard to come by – in 2015 winemaker and négociant Jean-Christophe Mau told the drinks business that it was the 2011s still gathering dust in many warehouses.

Take, for example, Haut Bailly. Rated 94+ by Parker in his 2014 tasting (actually one of the better scores), it has declined in price -5.8% since release and has a market price of £546 on Cellar Watch, which also appears to show there are currently around 439 cases on merchants’ lists. The 94-rated 2014, meanwhile, costs around £600 a dozen.

After all the calls for looking again at the 2011s one might expect them to have effectively sunk without trace in the market, but in fact, taking 49 of the top wines from both banks and, based on data from Liv-ex, the 2011s haven’t actually performed too badly it would seem.

Based on market prices in late April of this year, the average change across the wines was, in fact, +5.6%. Not too bad at all on the surface until one digs down a little deeper, at which point it’s clear that, while 20 of the wines have appreciated rather well, one has remained rooted to the spot and not changed at all in price since release (Léoville Barton) and 27 have declined. The positive performance of the 2011s can largely be laid at the feet of Le Petit Mouton which, on the back of the great surge of interest in the second wines of the first growths, has appreciated a staggering 136% since release. Le Pin has also gone up 92% and Pavie and Carruades de Lafite a good 60% each.

These very strong performers have pulled the 2011s up by their bootstraps as a whole, but take them away, and their market performance is -1.5% overall.

Best performing Bordeaux 2011 (source: Liv-ex)
Wines Ex-London price p/cs Current market price p/cs Change
Petit Mouton £770 £1,820 136.40%
Le Pin £9,000 £17,350 92.80%
Pavie £1,200 £1,978 64.80%
Carruades Lafite £1,170 £1,900 62.40%
Angélus £1,470 £2,350 59.90%

In general, no matter what your preferred buying price, there are many top wines sitting below their release price at the moment, including all the first growths (though none of their second wines, bar Clarence de Haut-Brion which has declined -2.2%); Pichon Baron; Cheval Blanc; Ausone; Evangile; Eglise Clinet; Lafleur; Cos d’Estorunel and La Mission Haut-Brion among them.

Worst performing Bordeaux 2011 (source: Liv-ex)
Wines Ex-London price p/cs Current market price p/cs Change
Eglise Clinet £1,150 £880 -23.50%
Lafleur £4,200 £3,200 -23.80%
Yquem £2,900 £2,200 -24.10%
Cos d’Estournel £1,145 £840 -26.60%
La Mission Haut-Brion £2,296 £1,560 -32.10%

“The ‘11s are what we’re going to sell most of in the following months,” predicts Sichel. “They’ve been looked over so they haven’t moved in price.”

Jenkins agrees saying: “In terms of commerciality, the 2011s are beginning to look interesting. Discounting in the secondary market is making them look quite attractive and market prices on the most sought after wines are now close to the release prices. As the 2012s become more difficult to source and as the 2011s continue to come out of their shells, I think we’ll see more and more interest in the ‘11s.”

Spying just such an opportunity, Max Lalondrelle at Berry Bros & Rudd cheerfully announces: “With recent pressures on maturing stocks in Bordeaux, the 2011 wines are now looking more attractive than ever, especially because they are starting to taste beautifully. Recent big purchases for BBR include: Giscours, Pichon Baron, Figeac, Grand Puy Lacoste, Issan, Rauzan Ségla, Carmes de Haut Brion, Brane Cantenac and, at a slightly more modest end, Malartic Lagraviere, Ormes de Pez, Haut Batailley, Le Pape, which are all starting to drink beautifully but will keep for a long time.”

At the risk of repetition, to sum up:

  • The 2011s were the victims of circumstance; a so-so vintage released in the shadow of two great ones at the wrong price, in a declining market and they lost money.
  • The wines were tough in their youth and have taken time to come around.
  • It is not a great vintage and has its inconsistencies but is clearly a ‘drinking’ vintage, increasingly showing it is in fact more charming, pleasing and more ‘serious’ in structure and longevity than it has been given credit for – possibly superior to the better-received 2012s in many ways.
  • A lot of top labels are off their release prices and available in reasonable quantities which offers collectors some interesting buying opportunities.

 

The villains of the piece

The point of this essay has been to attempt to reassess, or at least question, not only the broadly held view of the 2011s from a qualitative standpoint but also, in what is now an historical perspective, their place in the ups and downs of recent en primeur campaigns.

The most immediate legacy or perhaps fallout from the 2011 campaign was the rush of opinions on how ‘broken’ en primeur was and whether or not the system needed to change or even end entirely. This debate rumbles on still. Then of course we entered the era, such as it was, of ‘Bordeaux bashing’ – which usually amounted to little more than saying prices were still too high.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is the criticism that dogs 2011. The simple argument might be that the 2011s failed because they came after two superior vintages and the pricing was a mess. It is an argument which puts the onus of failure squarely on 2011 and which is, unequivocally, wrong.

Male Mandarin (left, back) and Wood ducks, both very striking examples of waterfowl

Yes the prices should have come down further – something acknowledged even by a few Bordelais – and the campaign was a disaster and ignominious; these are facts with which there is no arguing. But the ‘blame’ for ruining the system rests entirely on the shoulders of the 2009s and 2010s, certainly the latter. They were aberrations that skewed the pitch for subsequent vintages and because they were beautiful they were allowed to get away with it, leaving ugly duckling 2011 (now a rather fetching Mandarin duck, of course) to take the bulk of the rap.

As is often the case with people, a pretty face is worth more than an alibi. The beauty of the wines from 2009 and 2010 shields them from a lot of just criticism for the appalling havoc they wrought on the en primeur market, from which it is still recovering.

The 2009s and 2010s were successful, vastly successful in fact, and on a superficial level they did exactly what they were meant to do: sell. And they are superb vintages but the pricing of those two campaigns was entirely out of line with anything that had gone before, and because they sold despite this, they created a false impression of what the en primeur system could be.

There used to be a saying that, “a night with Venus, means a life with Mercury,” – mercury being a common prescription for venereal disease in the days before penicillin, but a painful and potentially fatal antidote in itself. En primeur had its fling with Venus, twice, and has been on the Mercury since. Was it worth it?

It is also worth laying out again that the fine wine market and Bordeaux did not go into a tailspin on account of the 2011 campaign. The market’s decline began in 2011 when the 2010s were being sold. That vintage did not sell anywhere near as well as posterity generally remembers – BBR made just over half of what they did in 2009 with the 2010s for example – and the share of that campaign’s trade on Liv-ex was 11% of total sales; down from 15% for the 2009s and only just above the 10% achieved by the 2008s (though it is well above anything that has come since).

Remember too that the 2010s had, on average, declined 22% in price by the time they became physical, the same as the 2011s, but have largely been given a free pass on the basis of the vintage’s undoubted quality, and because nearly all subsequent discussion of the 2010s devolves entirely on how good it is and where it stacks up in the pantheon of greats, rather than both how commercially viable and successful they were from the off, or their secondary market performance.

As François Thienpont told db in 2014: “The whole thing starts with 2010. It was a nonsense to increase the price again on the ’09s.”

Viewed in this way, the 2011s never stood a chance. If the incline in prices for the 2009s and 2010s had been less severe then the cuts administered for the 2011s would have seemed reasonable, in fact, they almost certainly wouldn’t have had to cut so far in the first place. As it was, they were priced for a market that no longer existed (Asia) and was in decline, lost money post-campaign and were despised for it – out of all proportion to the quality of the wines themselves, as is increasingly clear.

Furthermore, the tag of worst vintage in living memory has turned out to be laughably off the mark.

To begin with, while the 2012s represented a marginally better figure for en primeur as a proportion of sales on Liv-ex, the 2011s did in fact outperform the subsequent 2013, 2014 and 2015 campaigns, none of which managed to create over a 2% share of sales on the platform.

Then there was the sad mess that was the 2013 campaign, BBR made £12m with the 2014s and considered its 2015 campaign a return to form when it made £15m – precisely what it made with the 2011s.

From the ‘worst campaign ever’ to an ‘encouraging level of engagement’, a sure sign of how times have changed and how the success of en primeur campaigns are now judged. And that’s a sure sign of just how badly 2009 and 2010 ruined everything.

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