We have some idea of the 2011 vintage in the southern hemisphere which was harvested around April but it is still very early to make any final assessments for the northern hemisphere. However, reports from producers and local commentators continue to stream in and now we are starting get a better picture of the quality of the 2011 wines from around the world. Chile had an unusually cool growing season, so much so that harvest was delayed until May for many producers. Despite the lower than normal volumes, quality was considered very good; the challenge will be in selling it given the rising cost of labour, energy and exchange rate fluctuations. In Argentina, 2011 was a challenging year – severe frost compounded by hail, drought then heavy rain meant the vintage was spotty and the popular Malbecs much less concentrated than normal. On the other side of the southern hemisphere, 2011 was also considered a difficult vintage. In Australia, the long drought was broken in September 2010, but the pendulum swung to the other extreme – floods plagued many key wine regions. In South Australia, there was four times the normal quantity of rainfall in 2011. Victoria also faced similar problems of too much rain with its accompanying mildew and fungal problems in the vineyards. Both quantity, and many producers admit quality, was down in 2011. However, the two coastal regions of Western Australia and Hunter Valley did not face the same flooding and their vintages were considered good to very good. Six months later, starting September through October 2011, the northern hemisphere did not fare much better. In the United States, a few Napa Valley producers who were in Hong Kong last month confided to me that the conditions were “horrible” and one of the worst they have seen in decades. The cool growing season combined with a lot of rain which spread fungal disease made it tough to make great wine in most parts of California. Along the Central Coast where top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is produced, there was similar cool weather conditions and severe frost in April reducing quantity. Cool weather is not necessarily bad for quality wine in California, but when it is combined with heavy rain and fungal disease as it was in 2011, then the vintage as one producer said to me was “an utter disaster”. Europe vintage reports were mixed. In northern Italy, the feedback was positive with Barolo producers very happy with the Nebbiolo harvest. Piedmont was dry and warm for most of July and August with only moderate rain. White wine producers in the Northeast regions were also very enthusiastic about the 2011 vintage. At the other end of the peninsula, many of the southern wine regions of Italy including Sicily had rains at crucial moments during grape development (pollination and maturation) and faced more challenging conditions. Central Italy had it own problems – very warm April hastened the pace of grape development but this was followed by cool weather until mid August when a heat wave descended upon Tuscany. The fluctuating weather conditions made for a challenging harvest and quality was inconsistent but regions like Montepulciano fared well considering the circumstances. In Bordeaux, the producers are probably breathing a sigh of relief that they are not confronted with having to market another pricey ‘wine of the century’. When I arrived in Bordeaux end of March for the en primeur tasting, the cashmere and wool tops I had were useless. I had to go out and buy a short sleeve shirt because it was so hot. With one of the warmest springs on record, the vines sprouted weeks earlier than usual but this was followed by very cool weather which stretched into August. Warm then cool spring was followed by a dry, cool summer. Then the rain arrived along with disease pressure so selection was crucial. Overall, there are mixed reviews about this vintage and the skill of the different chateaux will shine through this year. Burgundy didn’t fare much better than Bordeaux and the same schizophrenic weather affected grape maturity – early heat, drought, rain and disease pressures. The summer brought more rain than normal in the Cote d’Or and many expect the wines to be less concentrated and lighter than vintages like 2009 or 2010. Yields were down as well this year for Burgundy – due to the early heat, botrytis and hail. Champagne and Loire also reported 2011 as a mixed and challenging vintage while Rhone and Alsace reports were more optimistic. Most producers I spoke with are realistic about the 2011 vintage, understanding that it is probably not up to the standards of their more recent successful vintages. We were so used to great vintages that when one as challenging as 2011 occurs, we are taken aback and forget that only twenty years ago, it was the opposite. We were happily surprised in the 1970s and 1980s when a vintage was fantastic but now we take it as the norm. Combined with the jittery financial markets, hopefully for us wine lovers, this inconsistent vintage will result in a long over-due price correction or fine wines.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post