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Bordeaux 2011: Merlot succeeds in ‘unpredictable’ year

The first London tasting of 2011 right bank wines has confirmed oenologist Denis Dubourdieu's comments that the vintage is as varied as the bizarre weather patterns that produced it.

St Emilion: Merlot on limestone and clay ‘delicious’

In his annual report the renowned consultant talks about the ‘unpredictable consequences’ of the incredibly hot spring, cool July, rainy August and Indian summer.

Winners this year are Merlot-based wines on clay and limestone soils, Cabernet Sauvignon on gravel and clay-gravel, the botrytised sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and the whites of Pessac.

Cabernet Franc, when it worked, was exceptional, Dubordieu said.

Producers from St Emilion and Pomerol and their neighbouring appellations, in London yesterday for the Cercle Rive Droite 2011 tasting, agreed.

‘It was the best year ever for Cabernet Franc,’ Paul Goldschmidt, owner of St Emilion Grand Cru Classe Chateau Le Prieuré said.

One of the oddest factors in the ripening cycle, across Bordeaux, was the spring, which saw temperatures in the high thirties – ‘true summer weather’ as Dubourdieu calls it.

Then came a summer characterised by ‘persistent drought’, including a heat spike of 40C for two days in June which roasted grapes on the vine. Up to 20% of the Cabernet crop was lost, the Merlot faring better, possibly because its wide leaves provided protection.

August rain then swelled grapes, diluting the flavours in some areas, followed by ferocious hailstorms at the beginning of September, devastating vines in St Estephe especially.

This was followed by an Indian summer, with a ‘spectacularly dry’ September.

On the right bank, in areas where clay and limestone predominates, producers are pleased with their Merlot – Dubourdieu recalled tasting ‘delicious Merlot grapes from clay and limestone soils’.

But, he warned, ‘Merlot grapes from gravel soils were not nearly as good, and those from sandy or silty soil were downright disappointing.’

Right bank producers say it was a difficult vintage to ripen, and one requiring a good deal of work in the winery, extensive sorting, and the powerful tannins needing particularly gentle extraction.

‘Those that tried to extract more flavour ended up with dry, astringent wines,’ Alain Raynaud, who consults for some two dozen properties on the right bank, said.

‘It was a winemakers’ vintage,’ Helöise Aubert from Vignobles Aubert, owners of eight properties including St Emilion Grand Cru Classe Chateau La Couspaude, said. ‘The Merlot was very successful but you had to have a very smooth extraction to be gentle with the tannins.’

Raynaud added, ‘It was a very strange year. At the beginning of summer we seemed to be on the verge of disaster, our grapes burnt by the sun. But those berries that were left gained in intensity.’

Written by Adam Lechmere

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