If you peruse the wine fora and wine sites of the world you can’t help but notice that – especially in some paywall-protected corners – there’s a growing tendency for Bordeaux "reporting" to no longer begin with the wine, but with the grape. Whereas for many years our first contact with the vintage has been through the primeur tastings which are held each spring (the week of tasting generally straddles the cusp between March and April – seriously inhibiting my ability to play April Fool’s jokes on my family, as these days I am usually in Bordeaux), reports on the health of the fruit on the vine, or on the colour of the grapes as they whizz through the Vistalys optical sorting system, now seem de rigueur. It’s slightly disconcerting when viewed in the light of discussions earlier in the year regarding the validity of early en primeur tastings, and whether they favour the chateaux or the consumer. Within this debate the most notable voice was Jancis Robinson’s, who admitted "I can see that I play a part in a process that really does not benefit the consumer", as can be seen in this free for all article. Hyperbolic reports, especially from influential figures such as Parker, have undoubtedly in my opinion contributed to high prices in Bordeaux. There is a feeling, in some quarters at least, that the en primeur system, which generates a lot of hype around unfinished wines, needs to change.
Pushing the timing of the report earlier and earlier – the rush to get the ‘scoop’ on the vintage – contributes to this excited fervour. James Suckling has been a major culprit here, breaking the unwritten code that you taste at the primeurs and publish your notes after that week. For the 2010 vintage he published his earliest comments on his blog,
here, on March 15th, several weeks before anyone else. Michel Bettane’s rather shrill response, publicised in Decanter here, was to complain to the UGC: “the practice has now got out of hand and if nothing is done to curb the practice then ‘this will be the last year that we play the game’” he is reported to have said.
For the 2011 vintage, Suckling, Bettane, Robinson, Parker and anyone else who cares to opine on the vintage have, of course, already been scooped by those who go to Bordeaux to taste the grapes, and watch the harvest. The most notable is Jeff Leve, a long-time admirer of Parker who rose to the post of "moderator" on the Parker forums before kicking off his own site, The Wine Cellar Insider. A self-confessed "self taught wine enthusiast" Leve’s 100-point scores are now widely quoted, by Farr Vintners, Bordeaux Index and others. His reports on the harvest provide interesting reading, and they do have validity; although it can tell us little of the absolute quality level of the wines, and how the vintage sits when compared with other recent vintages such as 2006, 2007 or 2008, it seems from reading these early reports that it is unlikely that 2011 is another 2009 or 2010. Nevertheless, valid or not, when there are people rushing out to Bordeaux to squeeze the fruit fresh from the vine, the idea that a Jancis-led revolt against the primeur tastings – regardless of how meritorious that action might be – would ever take off is, to my mind at least, unimaginable.
By coincidence I am flying out to Bordeaux tomorrow, and it might be that I will end up tasting some 2011 barrel samples. I’m looking forward to it, although more for the experience and the educational opportunity it offers, rather than the concept of ‘judging’ the vintage based on tasting a handful of wines. The real reason for my going, however, has nothing to do with Bordeaux at all, or at least not much. I’m meeting up with the family that once owned Chateau de Fesles (one of the best-known estates of the Bonnezeaux appellation, a Coteaux du Layon cru), who now – because they remain in or at least connected to the wine trade – reside in Bordeaux. We’ll be tasting some of their older vintages, and hopefully I will be able to learn a little more about the history of the property. It will be a fascinating meeting and tasting, the wines promise much (there may be ups and downs, there being some old vintages lined up, but that is the nature of wine, and I savour such variations), and we plan to cap it off with a meal in Au Bonheur du Palais, my second time at this chinois culinary hotspot this year. The meal I had there in March was simply incredible – I’m hoping for more of the same.
Naturally, being in Bordeaux for a few days, I have a few visits and tastings lined up, but it is the opportunity to see the vines, meet the people, and taste how those two factors have translated into an array of different vintages that appeals to me, rather than the race to make a ‘scoop’ on the latest embryonic wine. I have a ten-vintage vertical tasting of Brane-Cantenac lined up, for instance, and perhaps a slightly less extensive tasting with Jean-Pierre Meslier of Raymond-Lafon, who has been good enough to see me on a Sunday (a deal brokered by Steve Webb and Bill Blatch of Bordeaux Gold – thanks Jean-Pierre, Steve & Bill!).
As a consequence my usual sequence of updates may be a little disorientated next week, as I won’t be back in Scotland until Tuesday. Please bear with me!