Pierre Taïx of La Mauriane in Puisseguin Saint Emilion told us that after the rain at the end of August the vines started to grow again, and that this growth resulted in dry sap tannins in the grapes. Harvest had to be left for at least another ten days for the tannins to polymerize and the grapes re-concentrate. Since this re-concentration did not really start until after the 18th of September (up where he is, which is a cool, late-ripening terroir), he had to wait to harvest in the first week of October, while much of Pomerol, for example, on more precocious terroir, was picked in a whole month earlier.
Jonathan Maltus, based at Château Teyssier, which is in the plain of Saint Emilion, also makes a range of wines from better sites on the plateau and the côte, including Châteaux Laforge, Le Carré, Les Astéries, Vieux Mazerat and Le Dôme. He tentatively likened 2011 to 2001. ‘Not 2008 with its high acidity – 2011 has good acidity but it’s not exceptional.’ 2011 was a hot growing season thoughout with 40 degree spikes in late June and early July which burnt the grapes. They normally do two de-leafings, one end of June and the other in July, but this year (and here Jonathan gives the credit to his viticulturalist Olivier Darcy) they took the decision not to de-leaf and he thinks this a decisive factor in the quality of his result this year. There were problems with rot but the fine weather at the end dried this up and it was easy to sort out at the havest. Up to the end of July they all thought that the harvest would start around the middle of August, but then the rain came and they needed to wait, and in the end the Indian summer lasted long after the picking was over. I liked all the wines in the Maltus range this year, but there’s no doubting they are in a dense style.
Basile Tesseron, in his first year fully in charge at Lafon Rochet, was having coffee on the terrace at eleven in the morning of the 1st September when he saw the thunderstorm heading his way. He and Lucas, his chef de culture, had been discussing how, after a difficult summer which required a lot of work in the vineyard, things were looking pretty good. Twenty minutes later there was a scene of devastation, all the leaves smashed off the vines, half the production lost, and hailstones blocking some of the drainage ditches, so that parts of the vineyard were lakes of water. They called everyone back and that afternoon started work to save what they could. The system of working here means that each plot is looked after all year like a garden by an individual, who naturally feels responsibility for it and really does not want to see a year of work wasted. They picked some on the 3rd, but then were able to hold off until after the 6th.
At Belgrave at the end of the week we learnt about some of the work that had gone into what seemed to us to be the most successful wine in the Haut Medoc, Moulis and Listrac tasting. This included a technique learnt from Brazil (Brazil, for goodness’ sake!), where a temporary cover crop of (mostly) barley with peas and wheat is sown in early spring, and then, instead of cutting it, which would make the roots hungry to regrow (and suck up moisture from the soil), they use a roller which flattens and bunches-up the straw stems, creating a cover which retains water as well as reflecting heat. Frédérique Bonaffous, the man responsible, told us that they did not do a traditional éffeuillage, but rather an éclairage, which involves removing new leaf growth after the flowering; once the grapes are set, the vine grows secondary leaves within the existing structure, and it is these they remove, leaving the big first leaves in place which better protect the grapes. Much more arduous work.
At Château Margaux, Thibault Pontallier told us that the échaudage had particularly affected the Cabernet Sauvignon on the best terroirs – which tallied with what we were told by the always straight-talking Bernadette Villars-Lurton at Château Ferrière. Bernadette said that at Ferrière the normal qualitative pecking order of the parcels was quite different in 2011, with some parcels which never normally make the first wine producing the best grapes, while some that always go into the first wine were excluded. The order in which each parcel reached maturity (determining the picking date) was also all over the place. In the end they were so confused by the way the different parcels had performed they did the blend by blind tasting with their consulting oenologist Eric Boissenot. The Merlots seemed not to have a lot of character – thin and with acerbic tannins, but by contrast the Cabernets were fine. Merlot press wines were not good – too bitter.
In Saint Julien we found the only properties which were prepared to show us their 2010 and 2009 wines alongside the 2011. These included the Barton properties, Langoa and Leoville, as well as Branaire, Talbot and Lagrange. As Jean-Dominique Videau of Château Branaire Ducru put it, ‘it’s not as exceptional, but the little brother is from the same family’ – and so it proved when we tasted. They made lower yields in 2011 – 37 hl/ha compared to 47 in 2009 and 42 in 2011. Jean-Dominique also added that ‘there were some Merlots which were rather flat, lacking aromatic appeal’. He also confirmed the thoughts of Bernadette Villars in Margaux. ‘The drought was very selective. Some parcels which are normally excellent were too dry, while others that are often too wet were perfect.’