So Tuesday was the day when I started really getting to grips with the Médoc, with tastings in Pauillac first of all, plus St Estèphe later in the day, and some St Juliens in the middle.
My run of morning and early afternoon appointments would be a treat for any fan of Pauillac, as I visited all three first growths, as well as Château Pichon-Baron, Château Pontet-Canet and Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste. In each case the objective was to taste the wine – obviously – but as I wrote in yesterday’s blog a visit to the châteaux provides an opportune moment to buttonhole the manager, winemaker or proprietor (or all of them together) and find out the nitty-gritty detail. With this there might also come some discussion of the markets, of price, and so on – a little bit of crystal ball gazing. Unusally, this year, at Château Pontet-Canet, we were not looking forward, but looking back, because as I am sure the whole world knows by now, Alfred Tesseron took the unusual decision to release his wine a week before the primeurs tastings officially kicked off. I asked him why he had taken this decision, and how the offer to the négociants had gone.
“I was fed up reading that people were not going to come to Bordeaux to taste the wines”, replied Alfred (pictured below – with biodynamic expert winemaker Jean-Michel Comme). The early release seems to have been his response to the decision by some critics to stay away from Bordeaux, intimating that they had already judged the wines as unworthy. I can understand his response; if critics don’t need to taste the wine in order to be able to judge them, then perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised when the Bordelais decide they don’t need the critics in order to be able to sell them. I can certainly sympathise with his point of view. A lot of effort and investment goes into making a wine such as this and you can’t judge it without tasting, regardless of the horrors of the vintage’s weather, the storms, rain and rot. Anyone who writes off this vintage, even when it comes to the red wines (it seems common knowledge that the whites have done better), has got it wrong. Any critic who writes it off from afar, without tasting the wines, is both wrong and unprofessional.
I went on to ask him how the offer to the négociants was received. “People [by this Alfred means the négociants to whom he offered the wine] weren’t ready for it at first”, he replied, “but I told them it was alright, they should take their time, come back to me when they were ready”. The time frame was rather tight though, as Pontet-Canet is a popular wine. The offer was made Tuesday morning, and by the close of play on Tuesday Alfred had sold 70% of the offer. Cynical minds will obviously question the size of the offer – we all know the Bordelais can offer very small tranches which unsurprisingly sell out – so I put this question to Alfred. In response, he was quite clear that the entire crop was put on the market. After close of business on day one he left the offer open, but interestingly only to those who had by this time made a purchase; those negociants that showed confidence in Alfred were rewarded, those that stayed away were locked out. The négociants who had made a purchase could now increase the quantity taken by up to 50% if they desired, which he did to ensure the stock distribution would remain fair. Clearly Alfred’s confidence in the wine was rubbing off on the négociants, because they subsequently took up all that was left. By last Friday, the entire harvest was sold.
The next step is of course for the négociants to sell the wine; indeed, I have heard some say that the wine isn’t really ‘sold out’ until the négociants have shifted their stock. I know the price was on the confident side (sorry, I know there is a lot about ‘confidence’ in this post) – Alfred unsurprisingly cited the small harvest as one of the considerations when setting the price – but with small volumes made I wonder if this will really be that difficult? The one piece of evidence that makes me lean this way is that the négociants all came back for more. With your allocation of the 2014 and 2015 secured through a purchase of the 2013, why bite for more unless you thought you could sell it? An even bigger allocation? Possibly, I suppose.
Tasting in the Médoc today, from petits châteaux up to first growths, seemed to reveal something even more interesting about this vintage. This is not a year in which success depended solely on terroir, but perhaps more on effort (the ability and financial strength to select) and the ability to make the right decisions in the winery. I have tasted petits châteaux and lesser classed growth wines, super-seconds and first growths that seem to have got it just right, with surprising texture and tangible substance. And I have tasted petits châteaux and lesser classed growth wines, super-seconds and first growths that seem to have missed the target slightly. Some seem to have shot far wide of the target in fact, but then again some have had a fairly disastrous vintage, with rotten Merlots and rain-sodden harvests. For example, Château Pichon-Lalande in 2013 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, a rare beast in Bordeaux. But when they get it right, as a handful have done, the wines have real appeal. I didn’t think I would be writing this, but what has been achieved on some estates in the face of such a difficult vintage beggars belief. There are some delicious, charming wines in 2013. Just some, mind; there are also a lot of lean, bare-boned wines, acid-dominated wines. It was a year when the châteaux had to select carefully and rigorously; consumers looking to buy must do the same.
Wednesday’s programme kicks off at Château Margaux, hopefully followed by Château Palmer and Château d’Issan, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and Château Léoville-Las-Cases, If I can fit all those into one morning without turning up late to the last one, I will be doing well.