2011 Five First Growths & La Mission

6 April 2012
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee

Looking back at my reviews and ratings of nearly 500 wines, many of which I tasted twice, a theme begins to emerge. The white wines on the left bank performed better than their red counterparts and the sweet wines were the golden shining stars of the vintage (Sauternes will be covered in a separate article). Each region faced its own challenges; hail storms fell across St Estèphe and Margaux while issues arose from erratic weather beginning with warm, drought conditions in the spring fluctuating to a heat wave at the end of June and then dropping dramatically to wet, cool conditions into September.


Even under the most challenging weather conditions, I don’t think top Bordeaux châteaux are capable of making weak, thin, dilute wines. Compared to the 1970s or 1960s, winemakers will select only grapes with appropriate ripeness for the grand vin. Greater understanding of precision harvesting and technical know-how in winemaking allow smaller quantities of very good wine to be made even in poor years. Yield overall for most châteaux were lower than even 2010 where yields were already below average. 2011 was a difficult year that would have spelled disaster several decades ago. However, very good to excellent wines were crafted from first five growths and La Mission Haut Brion, which sits comfortably quality-wise in this company.


The wines listed below are from highest to lowest ratings and include white wines from the first growths which were excellent in 2011.


2011 Château Haut Brion Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
This wine combines the most desirable qualities found in top quality Bordeaux whites – finesse and detail along with freshness and concentration. Flavours range from ripe nectarines, pomelo and freshly chopped Chinese chives. The palate displays amazing intensity and depth with a very long finish. The flavours are vibrant, expressive and the fresh acidity gives lift and balance to the best white wine of the vintage.(95-97)


2011 Château Margaux Pavillon Blanc, Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Beautiful flavour of star fruits, mangosteen and sweet, ripe peaches. This delicately layered wine is very precise, focused and intense without being heavy. The layers of fruit is lifted by firm acidity and a moderate alcohol level of 13.4%. This charming wine has a deceptively long length and fine line running through it, showing that it will age beautifully.(95-96)


 2011 Château Latour, Pauillac, Bordeaux France
This is classic Latour expressing the seriousness and weight of this majestic wine. With 85% Cabernet Sauvignon in this blend, the flavours lean toward blackberries, dried Chinese red dates and cedar; there is a hint of agedpu’ertea in the finish. With 20 hectares of vineyards now being farmed in the ‘bio’ method since 2010, Frédéric Engerer attributes these subtle nuances and minerality in the wine to new farming methods. Full-bodied and generous, this is a wonderful Latour with plush, velvety tannins and a very long finish. Latour 2011 is powerful yet subtle and refined while still being concentrated. One of my top red wines of this vintage exhibiting great focus and terroir expression.(95-96)


2011 Château La Mission Haut Brion, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
Tasted alongside Haut Brion, La Mission stole the stage with its exuberance and expressiveness. The aromatics are complex and enticing with cedar, spices and black tea notes. The wine has cashmere-like tannins and fine texture. All of its elements are finely knit, gorgeously layered and built for long-term ageing. This excellent wine is among my favourites from this challenging vintage.(94-96)


2011 Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux France
This is a classic, fairly restrained Lafite with delicate layers of flavours. The wine is reserved at first sip, but it does open up in the glass (after about 10 minutes) to reveal blackberries, violets and spices. This year, there are more savoury, earthy characters that may be reminiscent of 1986 in its youth. The unique characters of top properties revealed itself this year and in typical Lafite style, this wine is incredibly refined, classy, reserved and subtle.(93-95) 


2011 Château La Mission Haut Brion Blanc, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
This is a full-bodied very concentrated white from La Mission. In contrast to Haut Brion Blanc, this wine is more fruity and expressive with greater immediate appeal. The wine is intense with lovely apricot, pomelo and nectarine flavours. The fresh acidity in this wine is evident in the long, mineral finish indicating a wine that will age for decades.(93-95)


2011 Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
In this vintage, Mouton is more restrained with greater delicacy, which is very much appreciated. Flavours range from ripe plums, cedar and sweet spices. Tannins are generous but well managed with a sweet, rounded and long finish. Mouton has managed to make a balanced wine with ripeness and no over-extraction. There is 1% less alcohol in this vintage than over the past several years with a very high proportion of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon (the second highest in past 50 years); there is 7% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.(93-94)


2011 Château Haut Brion, Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux, France
There is wonderful density and depth in this wine, but also a firm wall of tannins that make Haut Brion much less expressive at this stage than La Mission. There are many wines in this tannic vintage like Haut Brion that deserve to be re-tasted before bottling when a better sense of its true personality will emerge. The cedar box, earthy, dried Chinese red date flavours are restrained and the flavours are very tightly wound. The wine is promising with a long length, but patience will be required for this wine.(93-94) 


2011 Château Margaux, Margaux, Bordeaux, France
As expected from Margaux, the nose is gorgeous with aromas of violets, spices and blackberries. The flavours on the palate are rather dense this year (as is the Pavillon Rouge which has an enormous amount of density) and leans toward a full-bodied tannic style, which is atypical of Chateau Margaux. This year the grand vin had a very high density of tannins with an IPT level of 81 (most full-bodied reds are below 80). I would have appreciated slightly less extraction in both the grand vin and Pavillon Rouge.(92-93)