First Growths First: Harbingers of the Vintage

by Chuck Hayward

First Growths First: Harbingers of the Vintage

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 3rd, 2012

Mouton-Rothschild Tour "Bus" (who's that dashing fellow in the front?)

Let the madness begin! Save for the elite critics who arrived in Bordeaux one or two weeks ahead, en primeur week officially opened on Monday. We arrive early enough to get acclimated and rested up, as that first day offers an important opportunity get a sense of the vintage before later diving into the really big tastings hosted by negociants and the Union des Grand Crus (UGC).

So with schedules in hand and cars revved up, we headed north on the Route du Chateau (after a slow slog through downtown Bordeaux's unfailing traffic jams), to make the most of our fresh, day one palates by tasting the First Growths. Sampling the crème de la crème of Bordeaux first is helpful, as it usually sets the standard for the wines tasted throughout the rest of the week.

Latour's 2011 Lineup

From our initial tastings over the weekend, it became clear that the weather during the 2011 growing season had an especially powerful impact on the quality of each estate's wines. This is certainly the year of the winemaker, as the ideal conditions of '09 and '10 could not be counted on as auxiliary to technique. It is easy to discern that the wines of 2011 were dependent on how different wineries responded to the hot drought of spring and early summer and the rains right before the harvest. Those estates with clay soils had the most success with their grapes throughout the drought conditions thanks to the clay’s capacity for water retention. Harvesting dates will definitely be a predictor of success in 2011, favoring those who waited until after the September weather passed and were thus rewarded with ripe fruit.

Lafite-Rothschild Tasting Salon

With all this in mind, it seems that 2011 is a year where quality will run the gamut from disappointing to exceptional, and my feeling is that the First Growths illustrated this broad range. While I won't elaborate on tasting notes or assessments regarding any one chateau (you'll have to wait for our 2011 Bordeaux Report for that!), I will say that the grand vins from each of the premiers grands crus mirrored their respective house styles perfectly: Lafite was elegant and precise, Latour showed its traditional power, Haut Brion displayed its compacted and dense concentration. (For more on Margaux, read about our visit here). The vintage conditions seemed to dial back the levels of intensity and complexity from what the last two vintages achieved. In addition, while the flavors showed some vibrancy and precision, they also lacked a bit of length.

2011 Mouton-Rothschild

This is not to say, however, that these wines are in any way below average. They are classical interpretations of each estate's terroir and style, with special emphasis on fresh varietal qualities and some nice, spicy tannins. What they may lack in power, they will definitely compensate in approachability and drinkability. And what was the top estate? Well, Mouton-Rothschild was looking like an early favorite to me, showing impressive richness and balanced tannins - two qualities of the '11s that, when achieved, will be well worth seeking out.