2011 burgundies – looking good

Bouilland tasting 2011 with Linden

We selflessly tested wines from 30 of Burgundy's finest producers so you don't have to. Note red-trousered, ex-HK Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience, at the tasting table above. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Burgundy 2011s tasted in Bouilland.

The Hong Kong–Burgundy axis is an interesting one. There are probably more people who are willing and able to drink top-quality burgundy, despite today’s almost unbelievably high prices, living in, or recently moved from, Hong Kong than anywhere else.

Recent Hong Kong investment in Burgundy vineyards and domaines may be discreet but it is considerable. And I had an aperitif one evening earlier this month in a short, cobbled street in Beaune, the capital of Burgundy’s famous Côte d’Or, in which no fewer than three Hong Kongers own a house.

The day afterwards, thanks to the extreme generosity of Richard Orders, an HK-based, burgundy-loving investment banker currently on one of his increasingly long stints in Europe, I had the pleasure of tasting 32 mature or maturing burgundies from the most revered domaines on the Côte d’Or. 

Nigel Bruce, now based in Laugharne in Wales, supposedly the inspiration for Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, describes himself as ‘recently retired from 30 years as a member of the Hong Kong Wine Society, managing to get some teaching done between organising wine tastings’. It was thanks to his curiosity about the current state of the 2011 burgundy vintage that the tasting took place. 

He wrote to me last October, worried by reports that some of the reds had developed in bottle a certain herbaceousness – smelling too much of crushed green leaves rather than ripe fruit – and proposed a tasting of as many as possible. In the end only six came from his wine collection while Orders supplied the other 26, including six very smart 2011 white burgundies, from his extensive stocks held in bond in England. 

It was the location of the tasting that was so poignant. On a particularly hot day it took place in the high-ceilinged, airy hall of the home of the late Becky Wasserman in the hamlet of Bouilland, at the head of a verdant valley in the hills west of Beaune. From this bucolic base she played a key role in developing the huge American market for fine burgundy, launched the careers of countless burgundy experts, and is much missed by all for her adherence to true quality and newcomers rather than big names.

Had she been there, she might have been somewhat bemused by the roll call of the great producers represented round her long table: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (run until very recently by her great friend Aubert de Villaine), Rousseau, Roumier, Leroy, Coche-Dury, d’Angerville, de Vogüé, Dujac, Lafon (Dominique Lafon was one of her business’s legion of now-famous interns), Lambrays, Leflaive, Roulot and more of that ilk.

As it was, her spirit was certainly there even though she died last summer a youthful 84. She was represented corporeally by her husband Russell Hone, who sat in the dining room next door directing operations for the lunch that followed the tasting (see below for an image whose photographer had a high proportion of grand cru burgundy in her bloodstream).

Bouilland lunch

Next-door neighbour Jasper Morris MW, author of both editions of the excellent Inside Burgundy, had set up the bottles, and established that the de Vogüé Musigny 2011 was fatally – and Anne Gros’ Richebourg mildly – flawed by cork taint. Two in 32 is a pretty disappointing failure rate in wines that, at current market values, would cost hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of pounds a bottle.

Of the 32 wines, no fewer than 24 were grands crus, grown in the hallowed plots of vines deemed capable over time of producing the Côte d’Or’s finest bottles. Only one wine was of supposedly basic ‘village’ level (without a specific vineyard named on the label). But Coche-Dury’s straight Meursault kept its end up beside five white burgundies carrying much grander names – including Joseph Drouhin’s Grand Cru Montrachet.

The thick stone walls, a flagged floor and an arcadian soundtrack of birdsong kept both tasters and the wines suitably cool. The former included Burgundy specialists such as Anthony Hanson MW, Allen Meadows (aka Burghound) and Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience, who has recently moved from Hong Kong to that backstreet in Beaune. It was difficult not to be in a good mood with the view below from my perch beside the tasting table.

Bouilland view

About 20 tasters in all, including Orders and Bruce of course and various friends of theirs, moved slowly round the table making notes. Because there was just one bottle of each wine, Jasper (who broadcast the cricket scores throughout the tasting) had reminded us at the beginning of one of Becky’s sayings: ‘if you have wine to pour away after tasting it, you’ve poured too much’. We took this to heart to such an extent that once we had all tasted, the bottles were still almost half-full – though empty by the time we had finished our lunch in the shade of a tree in the garden, overlooked by the cliffs shown below that Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy used to climb with her late husband Marcel.

Bouilland cliffs

The 2011 harvest was one of the earliest ever in Burgundy with some grapes picked in August – September and October having been the previous norm. The first grapes at the famous Domaine Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, for instance, were picked on 25 August. It was an unusual year marked by an exceptionally hot April that sped up the ripening process and fine, dry weather during the flowering in May that held out the promise of a decent-sized crop of healthy grapes. But heavy rains plagued July and August so that some grapes swelled so much that they threatened to burst and invite rot. Only low midsummer temperatures staved off serious disease, and uneven ripening meant that grapes had to be carefully sorted.

Although the grapes were technically ripe enough, with vine leaves starting to turn yellow as soon as early September, potential alcohol levels were low and many producers added a bit of sugar to the fermentation vat to increase the final potency of the wine, so-called chaptalisation. Most of the wines we tasted were either 13 or 13.5% alcohol according to their labels, with only Domaine Fourrier’s distinctively muscular Grand Cru Griotte-Chambertin Vieille Vigne having notched up 14%.

So did we find this mysterious greenness in the wines? Absolutely not. Perhaps just a little bit on the finish of La Tâche. But then that was one of the most youthful wines of the tasting with a very long life ahead of it – and remember that these were judgements based on a single bottle. Most of these wines are already an enormous pleasure to drink, even if one should feel in no hurry to pull corks.

Burgundy 2011-2019 average prices
Burgundy 2011-2019 red prices
Burgundy 2011-2019 white prices

According to Liv-ex’s analyses of trade prices, despite their maturity, the 2011s are cheaper than any red burgundy vintage up to and including 2019 (with the sole exception of 2012 village reds), but I wonder whether this is justified? I found myself scoring the top wines 19 and 19.5, which is very rare for me.

The whites seemed every bit as successful as the reds, within which most of the stars were, as usual, the Côte de Nuits grands crus. But then they tend to be the most expensive burgundies. In general, there are many relative bargains on the Côte de Beaune, but they are probably of more interest to those on a British not a Hong Kong budget.

Top-scoring 2011 burgundies

Wines are listed in my descending score order, from 19.5 ‘down’ to a hugely enthusiastic 18.5. Few surprises here – except that prices are per bottle rather than per case.

Dom Georges Roumier, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru
£1,980 Hedonism

Dom Armand Rousseau, Clos des Ruchottes Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru
£870 Turville Valley Wines

Dom de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-St-Vivant Grand Cru
£3,300 in bond Falcon Vintners and Turville Valley Wines

Dom du Comte Liger-Belair, La Romanée Grand Cru
£3,902 Wine Owners Exchange

Dom Fourrier, Griotte-Chambertin Vieille Vigne Grand Cru
$895 The Wine Club, San Francisco, plus two Hong Kong merchants

Joseph Drouhin, Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet Grand Cru
HK$6,800 A C Wine Management, Hong Kong

Dom Joseph Roty, Griotte-Chambertin Grand Cru
16,800 new Taiwan dollars, Châteaux Wine & Cigar Co, Taipei

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche Grand Cru
£8,580 Hedonism

Tasting notes on all 30 wines in Burgundy 2011s tasted in Bouilland. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.