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Quarts de Chaume: The Hard Work Begins

“Cent cabarets offrent leur vin
Rochefort, Huille, Quart de Chaume,
Martigné, tous les Saints qu’on chôme
Saint-Aubin, Saint-Lambert, Saint-Cyr
– Nectar, ambroisie, Élixir!”

A.J. Verrier (1841 – 1920)

I don’t know much about Verrier, other than he had a penchant for language and dialect. He obviously knew a thing or two about wine though, as he makes clear in his ode to the wines of Anjou, a few opening lines from which are reproduced above. He doesn’t take long to get around to Quarts de Chaume you note (even if he does spell it differently), followed by several other notable Layon villages.

The wines of Quarts de Chaume, and to a lesser extent Chaume, have enjoyed an exalted reputation for many decades, indeed for centuries. And if you take a look at a map of the Quarts de Chaume the first thing it calls to mind are maps of the great wine villages of the Côte d’Or with which, I suspect, more wine drinkers will be familiar. There, famous grands crus lie nestled in among less well known vineyards, some of which will be premier cru, some of which are ‘mere’ village lieux-dits. The lines are drawn on a plot-by-plot basis, making a patchwork of potential quality within each village.

Note that I write ‘potential’ quality. Sometimes the weather gods conspire against the vignerons, and deal them a difficult vintage where the wines are, across the board, simply not up to scratch. In this sort of situation the grower with a plot of vines in a grand cru vineyard has, I suppose, two options. First, harvest the fruit, ferment and bottle the wine, stick the grand cru label on, which comes with a very expensive price tag, and send the wine out into the world. In other words, try to sell it on the basis of the appellation rather than the quality of the wine. One day that might have worked, but in the modern world of widely available critical review and consumer-to-consumer communication via social media the game would soon be up. It would be like Pontet-Canet or Pichon-Baron during the 1970s; great names, but we all knew the wines fell far short of where they could have been. Would a dedicated vigneron, one who respects the land as much as he respects his customers, want to do such a thing anyway?

Quarts de Chaume

The other option is of course to declassify; drop the grand cru fruit into a premier cru cuvée, or even a village wine (or sell it off I suppose). This protects the name of the grand cru, and also the reputation of the vigneron. The declassification of the entire 2004 vintage to village level by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy was an extreme example of this practice, but a well known one (it was the first that popped into my head anyway). It’s a relatively common practice in Burgundy I think, and a good way not just of dealing with difficult vintages, but also the fruit from inherently ‘lesser’ vines, those that are younger, or lesser clones, for example.

Unfortunately, to declassify is to firmly grasp a very vigourous nettle, because it means volunteering for a financial hit. And so some (many?) vignerons don’t seem to be able or willing to take the plunge, and they would prefer to risk their brand and status instead. The Bordelais have done this in 2013, as described in my post What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013, and I think it will come back to bite the majority of them once the wines are in bottle and consumers – who don’t hold back when posting on their favourite wine forum – get to taste the wines. Some other vignerons who might need to think a litle harder about it are those with vines in France’s newest grand cru, which of course is where Quarts de Chaume comes in.

After more than a decade of wrangling the vineyards of the Quarts de Chaume were finally recognised as grand cru, effective from the 2011 vintage. I can imagine exhausted members of the Quarts de Chaume syndicat, led by Claude Papin, breathing a final sigh of relief. At last, it is over! No, wrong! Now is when the hard work really starts on the Quarts de Chaume. Now you have to prove that the title was really deserved, because if consumers enticed by the grand words on the label don’t find the sort of quality they expect, it won’t be long before the grand cru designation is seen as a joke, more of a Clos de Vougeot than a Chambertin, shall we say. I appreciate that the few barrels of wine that were salvaged from the slopes in 2013 and 2014 were born through the blood, sweat and tears of the vignerons, but being blunt that’s of no concern to the consumer. If a vigneron can’t say, hand on heart, that the wine is up to scratch, it should be declassified into generic Coteaux du Layon.

I’m not taking about dreadful wash-out vintages such as 2012, where almost nobody made wine anyway, as here nature has taken this decision away from the vignerons. I’m also not taking about some new body or regulation where wines are deemed, by some tasting panel perhaps, of being worthy – that already happens under INAO regulations anyway. No, I am asking the vignerons of the Quarts de Chaume (and of the premier cru Chaume too, of course), to do this for themselves. They need to take on the responsibility to do what Lalou Bize-Leroy did in 2004, to protect their reputations, and the reputation of this new grand cru. If they don’t, it will all have been for nothing. And besides, if Quarts de Chaume becomes a joke, what wines will the next Verrier have to dedicate his odes to? Surely not something from Burgundy instead?

Criticism: How the Big Boys deal with it

It’s not fair to have a go at Bordeaux all the time is it? I wonder if some of my previous posts and comments on the quality of its wines, the ‘ambitious’ pricing strategy followed by some proprietors (which we see yet again in the 2014 vintage, although to be fair the prices of some releases have been more sensible, and well received by the trade), and as I wrote last week a reluctance to declassify even in a wash-out vintage perhaps make me seem bitterly obsessed with the region. Obsessed, yes. But bitter? No. I love the wines of Bordeaux. It’s just that I don’t allow that love to translate into an unending stream of platitudes, instead it comes out as hopefully fair and considered criticism as well as praise. It’s a big, grown-up wine region. It can take the criticism and the love side by side.

So let’s turn to the Loire instead. Now, if you think a few critical blog posts levied against Bordeaux makes me look bad, criticising the wines of the Loire Valley probably makes me look like the wine world’s version of the playground bully. I am now the junior psychopath who pulls wings from insects, or who tortures ants with a magnifying glass. Or that kid who lived next-door to Andy in Toy Story maybe. Too many people have had a tough time in the Loire Valley, you might think, for criticism. Frost and decimation in Muscadet (2008). Rampant grey rot in Muscadet, plus a little in Anjou too (2011). Floods and hail damage (pictured below) in Vouvray (2012 and 2013). A wash-out along the length of the Layon (2012). Low yields for already cash-strapped vignerons in many regions (several recent vintages). And no really ‘great’ across-the-board vintage since, errr, maybe 2009 or 2010? Who would want to criticise a region that has been through so much?

Hail damage in Vouvray, June 2013

Perhaps that is a view some people take. Indeed, this a region that has more than its fair share of ardent supporters, the Muscadet- and Savennières-obsessed (who often seem to be sommeliers, or have I just overlooked all the other fanatics?) who, like an overbearing mother-figure set about smothering the region with their love, promulgating the wines at every opportunity on social media. They probably enjoy what they do, and perhaps feel they are giving the region the support it really needs, but ultimately this approach is pointless. Why? Because when you write only the positive – these wines rock!Domaine [insert your favourite here] in Muscadet does it again!these wines are awesome, mindblowing Chenin-tastic! – and so on, eventually these very words become meaningless. It might make the vignerons happy, for a moment, but it’s a yawn-inducing experience for everybody else, and so it will never translate into anything useful for the vignerons in question. The words carry no weight, and so they won’t translate into sales. They won’t inspire interested merchants to visit and maybe ultimately import the wines, because the same comments are applied to every wine. They don’t inspire holidaymakers in the region to visit, taste, buy and spread the word, again because every wine is praised, so there is no differentiation. Every comment is just more of the same positive slush.

I’ve long thought that what the Loire Valley really deserved was not never-ending praise, but considered criticism too, although first we need to develop a true understanding of its wines. Instead of carrying on being the region perceived as a source of cheap-‘n’-cheerful white apéro wines, and “lighter reds for summer drinking” as one mainstream UK publication put it a few years ago, maybe it is time for a reappraisal. Maybe the Loire should shake off the idea many seem to hold that it only makes simple summer-afternoon sippers and not ‘proper’, ageworthy wines. Such a shift in opinion would surely require us all to look at the wines in the same way we regard Bordeaux and Burgundy, or indeed Napa, Rioja, Alsace, Coonawarra and all the other ‘serious’ wine regions. And to do so would be appropriate, because the Loire isn’t a region full of mere simple summer sippers, there are also plenty of ageworthy wines here. Wines that go the distance, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, in white and red, and they develop beautifully complex character as they age (watch out for a new feature, my forthcoming ten-years-on Loire report, starting with 2005, if you have doubts).

But if that’s what the region should be aiming for – to be seen as a source of great wines for the cellar as much (if not more than) a source of daily drinkers – then there’s a need for considered critical opinion. Serious wines – top Chinon, top Bourgueil, top Savennières, top Vouvray and so on – need serious review. Some wines will merit praise, but some will – if the reviews are to be taken seriously – come in for appropriate criticism. Some wines will get great scores, and with a background of real criticism (not universal never-ending praise) those scores will actually mean something. The words of a critic who praises and criticises in balanced measures should have a positive effect, even if it is only a small one, upon the vigneron’s reputation and sales. There is the downside though; what if your wine is on the receiving end of a critical note from me, or from someone else? Mostly I have found vignerons in the Loire can take this on the chin, only reinforcing my belief in (and love for) the region, and that it has every right to be considered alongside all the ‘big name’ wine regions mentioned above. These are dedicated, hard-working vignerons who believe in their wines, and know that serious critics who can actually influence sales need to critique as well as praise, and while one particular wine might not strike a chord with one particular critic, there’s always another vintage (or indeed another critic) coming up. This is, I think, how the big boys deal with it.

Exploring Sherry #9: Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos

My Sherry explorations continue, and recently I alighted upon (metaphorically that is, literally would have been painful) a good value everyday drinking Sherry from Lustau called Los Arcos. It sits in their Solera range, so it is entry level really, but it is a really good entry level wine. One that I have been very happy drinking over the past couple of weeks.

Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos

Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado: This has a richly coloured, orange-gold hue in the glass, with a little hint of green at the edges. The nose is quite enticing, filled with caramelised citrus peel, notes of toasted almonds, with a slight oxidative seam coming though in the shape of scented wood shavings and even a little baked earth. The palate is energetic and fresh, harmonious, with a very . polished texture at the start. Although this is labelled and marketed as dry I think it is far from bone dry, and indeed there is even a little tinge of sweetness to it through the middle, although nothing overt, more a bolstering of the wine’s confident character than a tower of sugar. This is all secondary to the very complete, seamless character in the middle, showing some grip and punch here, vigorous and bright, with a dried yet savoury fruit concentration resting atop that confident substance. A very drinkable Sherry indeed, rather ready to please, with a long finish. 16.5/20 (May 2015)

What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange” sang Ani DiFranco in Fire Door, the ninth track on her debut album released in 1990 on her own record label, which she set up at the age of eighteen. This came on the back of a long history of busking and playing in coffee shops, since the age of nine. More than twenty years on she continues to write and to perform, to considerable critical acclaim, despite commercial success somehow eluding her. Some people are just determined, I guess.

Context is all important, and I was reminded of this last week at the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting. This tasting sees a small and very select group of some of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux descend upon London, each bringing an armful of bottles from the four most recent vintages. The fact that the last two are usually still in barrel is no barrier to them being poured, so that means this year the tasting featured 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Accepting the fact that the comparison of barrel samples against bottled wines can be seen as a flawed approach, this is still a fascinating tasting, a rare opportunity to compare vintages across a range of Bordeaux châteaux and appellations. What is more, as the event is annual a regular attendee can watch the wines progress through the élevage; initially there is a comparison with the three preceding vintages to be made, but a few years later there is instead a comparison with those vintages that followed. The tasting therefore places any one vintage in a number of valuable contexts over the years. No wonder it quickly became a regular feature on my personal tasting schedule.

When I wrote up my 2013 Bordeaux report I wrote in regione caecorum rex est luscus, a rare (for me) foray into Latin. I have to confess the words were plagiarised, the victim of my theft being Erasmus, writing in Adagia. As Erasmus died in 1536, however, I’m not expecting any letters from his lawyers. Translated, the adage reads in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, a recognition that when judging the 2013 vintage from barrel I was wary – without a physical context, only my memories of other (much better) vintages – of the trap of overly praising some wines simpy because they were, being blunt, the best of a bad lot. I took some stick (well, I received a few emails of complaint, anyway) from the Bordelais for my parsimonious scores. But I felt they were justified.

Thierry Valette, Clos Puy Arnaud, May 2012

Having revisited the 2013 vintage twice now, immediately after the primeurs at the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting last year and again last week, the opportunity to taste the wines in the context of other vintages has been invaluable. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have so far been constant companions but last year the 2010 vintage was also present, and this year the good but far-from-brilliant (no matter what some with vested interest might say) 2014 vintage was there too. The upshot of tasting in context only served to highlight even further the weaknesses of the 2013 vintage. These are delicate wines, fresh with acidity, crisp and needle-like in many cases, with little in the way of backbone and structure. The fact that Stephan von Neipperg has already taken the 2013 Canon-la-Gaffelière from barrel and bottled it (and the 2013 La Mondotte, while still in barrel, will follow soon I think) tells you something of the delicacy of the wines, which is ironic as his are some of the most convincing in the entire vintage I think.

To be clear the wines are far from terrible, in fact many feel quite drinkable, and the Bordelais deserve praise for what they achieved in such a wash-out vintage. But placed against the other vintages, not just obviously superior years such as 2010 (and last week 2014) but also 2011 and 2012 it is clear that these wines aren’t really the grands vins we look for in Bordeaux. This region has a superb reputation for great wines, from hallowed gravel and limestone terroirs. In the majority of years these vineyards give us wines of interest, in some years wines of true greatness. But there is another side to the coin as well, and that side is 2013. This is a year of disappointment, and these aren’t (in the majority of cases) the grands vins we should expect for the price tag. Revisiting the vintage, I can’t help feeling that the reputation of this region would have been better served by declassifying the wines in many cases, producing a very good second wine and selling more off, rather than insisting in squeezing a grand vin out of it. The only estate I know with certainty that did this was Thierry Valette (pictured above), of Clos Puy Arnaud, so I tip my hat to him; I am sure some other little domaines must have followed his lead, but none of the really big names did so.

Perhaps such a declassification would be viewed by some as a sign of weakness, but it should I believe be seen as a sign of strength, of a belief that the terroir matters, that the name on the label matters, and when the wines aren’t up to it – no matter how good they might be for the vintage – they really should be taken down a notch. It’s a well-understood practice in Burgundy, where inadequate wines can easily be downgraded from grand cru to premier cru to village wine. There are one or two good examples in the Loire as well (although some still need to learn how to do it there as well – more on that in the future). In Bordeaux, though, where the process would be not declassification through the appellations but to a second wine, they seemed determined to plough on with the grands vins at all cost, perhaps as determined as the young Ani DiFranco must have been. Which is a great shame. These could have been delightful, early-drinking second wines. Instead, once bottled and sold as highly priced grands vins they are destined to be, to quote Erasmus again, largely not worth a snap of the fingers.

Checking in on . . . Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011

A momentary diversion from the Loire and Bordeaux now, as I check in on the latest vintage of the Minna Vineyard Blanc, which is the 2011. While I never regret deciding to focus on two regions as I believe that is for the best, I am on occasion sorry that I don’t get to look in more detail at other regions. So I am glad of the opportunity to check out wines from beyond Muscadet and the Médoc from time to time.

Villa Minna Vineyard is located to the northwest of Aix-en-Provence, although the wines are all marketed as IGP Bouches du Rhône. There are a little under 8 hectares of vines planted here, of which 2.5 hectares are white. It’s an interesting blend of Rhône varieties (Marsanne and Roussanne) and a single Provence variety (Vermentino, which if I recall correctly also goes by the name of Rolle, and it is under this moniker it is found in Bellet, although it is best associated with Italy I guess).

Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011

Minna Vineyard Blanc 2011: A blend of 48% Vermentino, 25% Roussanne and 27% Marsanne, picked by hand at 27 hl/ha and fermented in a mix of oak (30%) and steel (70%), at a temperature of 12ºC, with élevage in the same vessels. The ageing lasts twelve months, with bâtonnage. It has a vibrant yellow-gold hue in the glass, and scents of dried orchard fruits, with a little desiccated sweetness, trimmed with a little blanched nut, preserved lemon and a lick of oak. Indeed it feels quite oaky in the palate at first, more so on the nose, showing a very firm frame of vanillin lactones. But then this parts in the middle, allowing the wine to reveal its sweetly concentrated orchard fruit and its citrus freshness, and at the same time the texture suddenly seems to build, showing a creamy richness here, cut with moderate acidity. A very appealing style overall, but certainly a substantial oak-framed wine which needs a few years in the cellar to integrate. 16.5/20 (May 2015)

Disclosure: This wine was a free sample.

Primeurs Blind Tasting: Who Ends up Blind?

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, this week I have been judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. This is a huge tasting open to all-comers, with – if memory serves me correctly – 16,000 wines submitted this year. Each wine is submitted to a blind tasting by a panel, is retasted by a ‘super-judge’ if there is any dissent, and is also retasted if up for a gold medal or a trophy. The whole process is blinded of course, from start to finish; none of the judges involved know what the wines are when they taste, only basic information (appellation, price bracket, grape varieties, etc.) is provided.

In-between flights, however, I’ve also had one eye on Bordeaux this week, looking for any interesting 2014 releases, so 2014 Bordeaux and the primeurs are still very much on my mind. Is it really already four weeks since I returned from the 2014 primeurs? Time flies so fast (I guess I must be having fun).

The process of judging wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the Bordeaux primeurs is very different. The obvious difference is that by definition the Decanter wines are finished, in bottle, whereas by definition the primeurs samples are unfinished wines. Judging barrel samples requires a very different mindset than judging finished wines, and so I think the two tasks require a very different approach. The use of blind tasting is one aspect of the approach that differs.

In a wine competition, rigorous blind tasting in order to remove bias is an absolute must, as I already noted in my recent Sabre Rattling post. When you have the finished wines in front of you, and buyers will be getting exactly what is tasted, and all wines are subjected to the same blinded process, this is the fairest and most appropriate way to assess the wines. I don’t, however, think this is true of the primeurs. I know others feel the same way; I was chatting to Neal Martin at the Grand Cru Classé tasting this week and he and I are in agreement on this. I believe he has made some comments on this in his Wine Advocate primeurs report. Others, however, feel that the tastings should be blind, but here are a few reasons why I think that’s the wrong approach.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Not a Blind Tasting

Primarily, the primeurs shouldn’t just be about fruit flavours and scores, it is about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage. Take, for example, a 2014 petit vin from Pauillac. The blinded critic tastes what he tastes, and reports that, with no context. Magically, without any external knowledge, he has assessed the barrel sample, how it came to be where it is, and where it will go in the future. Job done, next sample please.

Then I come along. I’m not tasting blind, I’m at the château with the managing director and winemaker. I have some information on the barrel sample, which I taste every year. Tasting the wine, it seems much more plodding than usual; I have the context of other vintages tasted, which the blind taster doesn’t. I know quality has been on the up here, with more and more Cabernet in the blend, and it is usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in recent vintages (previously it was mostly Merlot). This trend has been for the better. I ask about the blend this year, and learn it is now back to 70% Merlot. That’s informative, and correlates with my thoughts on tasting, as 2014 was good for the Cabernets, not so good for Merlot. So I ask the question; why 70%? I learn there was hail on the vineyard which took out much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Another hit. The tasting experience becomes more informed, with a greater depth of knowledge on the wine, better foundations upon which to build the tasting note. The winemaker then informs me that maybe the élevage will be shorter this year, a reflection of the lesser nature of the wine. More useful information that guides critic and therefore also the consumer. The blind taster, meanwhile, is already onto blind sample number 5, churning out another tasting note and score.

There are other reasons blind tasting doesn’t work. The above vignette encapsulates most of them (no knowledge of vineyard during the season, no knowledge of harvest, no knowledge of blending decisions, no knowledge of changes made and reasons for them, no knowledge of forthcoming élevage – you see this is very different to a blind tasting from bottle) but one other worth mentioning is levelling the playing field. In Bordeaux, top châteaux give themselves an advantage by insisting you visit to taste. So you want to taste Latour? Then you must visit Latour, and taste it in Latour, in a room overlooking the Latour vineyard. Blind tasters can’t taste the top 30-40 wines blind even if they say that’s what they do. To taste everything else blind enhances the advantages these top names have given themselves, and works in their favour to the disadvantage of all the little châteaux.

For me, these are the major reasons why blind tasting doesn’t work for the primeurs. The primeurs tastings are an opportunity to clear away the obfuscating mists of marketing speak, to see through to the reality of the vintage, to clear away the confusion. I suppose it is more about being a journalist, getting to the story, rather than just being a taster. To me, tasting blind doesn’t help the taster to develop a robust opinion on each wine, instead it obscures the wines even futher, hiding them behind an information blackout, making them more difficult to interpret. It’s a disservice to those châteaux that allow blind tasting (in other words the wines we might still be able to afford), and it’s a disservice to the reader, who ends up being just as blind as the taster.

Decanter World Wine Awards 2015

I’ve had a busy week in London, mostly judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. As usual I’m sitting on the Loire panel alongside Jim Budd and other Loire stalwarts including Nigel Wilkinson of the RSJ Restaurant (which surely has the country’s most convincing Loire wine list – the list is entirely sourced from the region) and Chris Hardy, who buys from the Loire for Majestic Wine Warehouses. The Jim-Chris-Chris-Nigel combo always makes for a very entertaining day; we all know the region well, and we have great fun judging the wines.

It’s been fun meeting a few new people too though, either at the tasting table, or over lunch, and I’ve had really nice chats with the likes of top biodynamic author, journalist, presenter and winemaker Monty Waldin, the Loire-interested Matt Wilkin MS of H2Vin, Portuguese/Australian expert Sarah Ahmed, one of the newest MWs in existence Natasha Hughes MW, and a few others who have no doubt momentarily slipped my mind (apologies!). Getting together in a big group like this really does remind me just how many good people there are working in wine, and I feel privileged to be part of it, even if I do feel as though I only flit in and out of the UK wine scene, which is very London-centric, much less often than I would like.

Decanter World Wine Awards 2015

Sadly I have to report that I have been a traitor to the Loire, as although my original intention was to judge on all four days at the DWWA this was before I realised that the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting was also this week. So my trip to London has killed two birds with one stone. The Bordeaux tasting was on Wednesday, so instead of heading to Tobacco Dock for the DWWA I went instead to Church House, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, for the last four vintages (2011 & 2012 in bottle, 2013 & 2014 from barrel – or mostly in barrel in the case of the 2013s) from the likes of Château Gazin, La Mondotte, Château Branaire-Ducru and about a dozen other châteaux. This was another great opportunity to connect with good people in the wine trade, such as Joss Fowler, who sells wine but seems to do a very good job writing about it as well, and the famous (or infamous?) Barry Phillips from Four Walls Wine, who I bought a shed-load of old Vouvray from a while back, as well as a number of other merchants. I will be writing up my thoughts on the wines at this tasting in the near future, although my approach will be different this year. Watch this space.

Anyway, back to the Loire at the DWWA, and it has been a joy to taste here this year. The Loire Valley enjoyed a largely good vintage in 2014, and of course from some regions these wines are already coming through; there was a wealth of delightful Muscadet, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé on offer. I was particularly impressed by the standards in Muscadet. Alongside the many delicious entry-level wines of the 2014 vintage there was also some crus communaux cuvées from the 2010 vintage. Put all these wines together and there was certainly plenty of gold medal-winning potential. There should be some very happy vignerons in these regions when they see the results. The wines, despite the evident quality, still remain excellent value as well. As for other regions, these tended to trail in the wake of all the Melon and Sauvignon, although there were still some good wines, especially from Vouvray (including a demi-sec I will be looking out for, from the 2014 vintage), one or two decent sweet wines (2011 shining here), and even some nice rosés (2014 again of course). I’m looking forward to next year though, when we will start to see the 2014 reds coming through. It’s a vintage for good reds as well as whites in my opinion.

Bordeaux: Psychohistorian Required

There are various moments throughout Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series – by which I mean the original trilogy of novels with which I am most familiar, not so much all the other novels that grew up around these stories – when the hero of the tale, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, appears in order to save the titular Foundation from impending doom. This is something of a challenge for a human of standard lifespan, because the Foundation’s purpose was intended to play out over a thousand years. Seldon only appears ‘in the flesh’ in the first chapter, and subsequent Foundation crises usually result in him popping up in the form of a pre-recorded hologram. Disaster is, thankfully, usually averted.

Seldon is perhaps Science Fiction’s best example of a character playing the ‘long game’. He could have done something else to achieve quicker fame and reputation, but he chose to play out a much grander plan, one where the prize was ultimately greater. Playing the long game is always the difficult option; it can be demoralising, time consuming and expensive (after all, future-proofed holo-projectors surely don’t come cheap).

Playing the long game is a concept I have already alluded to – without using that exact term – in Primeur Picks, the concluding article in my 2014 Bordeaux coverage [both articles subscribers only]. Bordeaux has something very precious, which countless other vignerons across the world of wine would happily sell their grandmothers for, and that is en primeur. Or wine futures, if you prefer. Whatever we call it, it is the concept of selling wine two years before it is really ready, generating lots of lovely cash flow for the châteaux, and giving consumers a good deal. It also provides the region with a massive amount of publicity every year, through a concerted marketing push from châteaux and merchants alike, and these days a surge in social media chatter too.

Bordeaux Primeurs sign

At least that is how it should work. But a more short-term approach seems to have taken over Bordeaux in recent years, with profit now being the over-riding concern. There is a reluctance to step back from the release prices of the 2013 vintage, which were largely too high. And so we can expect (although the campaign has yet to start really, so we shall see, we shall see…..) that the 2014s will be released at similar prices. If so, it will be a mistake built upon a mistake. The ultimate result if this continues over many years will surely be the decline of the en primeur system for selling wine. It will be a curious outcome when we consider that the wines of Bordeaux today seem better than ever.

Wine critics can also be guilty of failing to play the long game. It is tempting, I suppose. Short term gains can easily be found in Bordeaux; you could tell a little white lie about your significance in the world of wine in order to gain instant, unfettered access to the top châteaux; you can then live it up with fine dinners lubricated by older vintages; you can publish high scores, to ensure merchants quote you, and to create excitement, and of course to ensure that you are invited back next year (not just for a tasting, but for a lovely dinner too, no?). But made public all of these acivities, while making for a great trip to Bordeaux, have the ability to ultimately damage your reputation. It’s far from playing the long game, and surely that is how a critic should build a reputation and a readership?

In twenty years time, where will these critics be? Indeed, in twenty years time, where will en primeur be?

We perhaps don’t really need the services of a psychohistorian to predict the answers to these two questions.

The Sabre Rattling of the Wine Judges

There is a shifting seasonality to the wine world. I’m not referring to the idea that we should all drink Pitt & Jolie’s rosé in the summer, and 17% Châteauneuf du Pape in the winter, more the fact that as the year progresses certain wine events come around as reliably as Wimbledon, The Masters or The World Cup (I think that might be every four years, but you get the idea). January? Then it’s the Burgundy tastings in London. February? Off to the Salon des Vins de Loire (high on my agenda, but not for almost every other writer it seems). The last week in March? Time for the Bordeaux primeurs then (don’t pretend you hadn’t noticed). And so on. Now in April it’s judging time. A couple of weeks ago the South African Top 100 was being judged, this week it is the International Wine Challenge in London. In a couple of weeks the Decanter World Wine Awards, also in London. I’m sure there are others that don’t immediately spring to mind.

Judging season has, in years gone by, tended to bring out a little of the partisan spirit in some corners of the UK wine writing world, each competition having its very vocal proponents. I always found that a little tiresome to be honest, as it implies that there is some sort of ‘gold standard’ methodology in wine judging that should be adhered to. The International Wine Challenge, for example, has a multi-layer system whereby wines are tasted for inclusion or rejection, and if included they are retasted to see which medal the wine should get. That’s a good system, because it means that each wine is tasted more than once, and no doubt probably a third time if the wine is slated for a top award. In this respect, the International Wine Challenge is perhaps superior to other wine competitions (I don’t know every wine competition going, far from it, so perhaps some others do this also).

Loire reds for judging, Decanter World Wine Awards

The Decanter World Wine Awards, meanwhile, has a one-taste process for most wines, but like the International Wine Challenge wines up for a top gong get retasted. Here, however, the wine is tasted by a hand-picked panel with experience in the region being assessed. This is a significant advantage over many other wine competitions (but again, not all, I am sure) where the panel are a randomly thrown-together group of merchants, sommeliers, journalists and the like. I became even more convinced of the importance of panel selection a few years ago on a press trip to Muscadet accompanying a group of other journalists; none had a particular interest in the Loire Valley, and indeed most were visiting the region for the first time. In two days I heard criticism levied against aged Muscadet for being ‘atypical’ (I would have thought this difficult to judge if you’ve never tasted ten-year old Muscadet before) and the group’s favourite wine of the entire trip was part-fermented in oak and had undergone malolactic fermentation, a soft generic crowd-pleaser but hardly a grand vin of the Muscadet appellation (and we visited some top names, and tasted some wonderful, strikingly mineral Muscadet). Being unfamiliar with a region can, I realised, produce some rather spurious tasting results, so selecting a panel of ‘experts’ could be seen as a vital part of ensuring reliability of the competition. In this respect, the Decanter World Wine Awards competition is perhaps superior to other competitions.

My point is this. Every wine competition has its strong points, but every competition will also have its flaws. Proponents who speak of one methodology as being unquestionaly superior to another are, I have realised, almost always speaking from a point of bias. This is very human behaviour. It’s natural to believe that processes or institutions we are involved with are the ‘best’, it is a hangover of the tribal mentality that has been so evolutionarily useful for the past few million years, but which today in many situations we would often be better off without. It would be much better to channel these energies into excluding bias in the competition; ensure rigorous blind tasting, develop a favourable tasting environment, grow a robust system of recording results, and so on. This would perhaps serve those consumers who use the results of these competitions to inform their purchasing decisions better than the wine-fuelled sabre rattling of the wine judges.

Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach

The internet is heaving with opinion on Bordeaux 2014 at the moment. It rumbles on after every primeurs tasting week, Bordeaux’s very own cosmic background radiation. Many millennia from now, long after the sun has died and the earth is but a frozen and desolate wasteland, civilisations in distant galaxies will scan the skies with their radio telescopes only to find they are swamped by the reverberating echoes of tweets complaining about the moral turpitude of Bordeaux, and about the absurdity of tasting barrel samples. It will be the only evidence that humankind once existed.

This point concerning barrel samples is an interesting one. There is no denying that they add some uncertainty to this well-established system of assessing and marketing the wines of Bordeaux. I am pretty sure we could all rattle off a long list of issues with them; they might not be the final blend, the press wines might not have been added yet, the wines are simply too young, the élevage may change the wine’s character, and so on. Even worse, some allege that the samples are deliberately misleading, the accusations ranging from special ‘preparations’, the samples run off into barrel for early malolactic fermentation to ready them for the primeurs, as Stéphane Derenoncourt revealed he does a year or two ago, to the urban legend of the Parker barrel, the suggestion being that different journalists are all treated to different wines.

I think anyone interested enough to subscribe to Winedoctor is already well aware of the vagaries of barrel samples, nevertheless it is something I try to maintain some focus on in my reports. I try to refer consistently to what I taste in my report as ‘barrel samples’ rather than wines, and make reference in my reports to the need to see how the wines pan out with time. I score the wines, but always with a range of potential points of course. And (and this is perhaps the crucial bit) I will come back to the wines again in the future, at two years of age after bottling, at four years of age, and provided I am around long enough at ten years of age too. Revisiting wines in this fashion, free of any influence from my primeurs report (because I never re-read my previous notes before these tastings, I just start again from scratch, and I don’t think any critic can really remember every score, for every wine, in every vintage) has taught me that while it is appropriate to be aware of the drawbacks of barrel samples, tastings even at this very early stage have significant validity. In short, there is a correlation between my barrel sample scores and my wine scores.

Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach

I was interested to read the opinions of Jamie Goode on the primeurs recently. It was a post filled with good points, but there was also a lot to disagree with. Jamie, for example, feels that when you visit a first growth “it’s hard not to give it 96–98/100″. Maybe this is true for the more spineless visitors to Bordeaux, or for the critics who prefer to cheerlead the region with lots of high scores rather than a true critique (not suggesting that Jamie is either, by the way), but I don’t perceive this to be a problem I have personally. I think in every one of the last three Bordeaux vintages I have written up en primeur there are châteaux that have shown up the first growths, with higher scores, the more famous name lagging behind, and I’ve drawn attention to that in my reports. But to be honest that wasn’t the statement I found to be most wide of the mark in Jamie’s post. No, this was “Dudes, these are cask samples! You shouldn’t be writing extensive tasting notes on cask samples and then pretend you have a reliable assessment of that chateau’s grand vin” which struck me most. This statement is, of course, pertinent to my topic here, the issue of barrel sample validity.

I think Jamie has this completely wrong. While I agree (while we all agree, surely?) that barrel samples are an imperfect system, a clairvoyant snapshot of a future wine, I don’t think this should be communicated by breezing through the tastings, writing the briefest non-committal two-sentence tasting notes. In fact I think the opposite is true; because these are barrel samples, they require not less but much more examination than a finished wine. We can enquire regarding the blend, which helps us to understand the wine in the context of the vintage. I often try to include some technical data where available too, as this also helps us to understand the wine and the vintage as a whole. And it is vital to note all the components of the wine, because whereas with a finished wine it is perhaps enough to say “I like this now” or “I don’t like this now” (most lily-livered wine writing focuses on the former), with a primeurs sample we are trying to gauge where this embryonic wine sits within the vintage, and what its future might be. So the flavour profile deserves a comment, as do the structural components of the wine, the acidity and tannin, as does the texture of the wine.

It’s all about building up a picture, each item of data – whether technical or sensory – a vital piece of the jigsaw. I think it is acknowledged that we can’t complete the jigsaw at this time, because there are pieces missing (the élevage, future decisions on the assemblage, all the reasons I have cited above) but the best idea of the final picture comes from putting as many pieces in place as we have, and making a close examination, not from flicking the pieces around, taking a quick glance and making a few cursory comments, before moving onto the next barrel sample. Nobody ever finished a jigsaw, or wrote a worthwhile and useful tasting note, doing that.