I tend to run my primeurs week on the same sort of timetable each year. That statement makes me sound like some sort of old hand who has been coming here for five decades, but that certainly isn’t the intention. But I have been out here every year since 2007, not as long as some I know, but in the last two years I have definitely found myself in a fairly fixed routine. And yesterday was Monday, so for the moment that means Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. I might change things around next year, although it is hard not to take advantage of the fact that the Pessac-Léognan syndicat tastings start on the Monday, while the UGC tastings don’t kick off until Tuesday.
I was at Château La Mission Haut-Brion at 8am, where the red wines were good especially when taking into account the difficulties of the vintage, although they were eclipsed by the white wines, which were full of charm and energy. As with other difficult vintages, including 2012 and 2011, the earlier-harvested white varieties outclass the reds; the cooler weather kept the acidities prominent, fine for white wines, but not so desirable in the reds. Having said that, the wines here were some of the better red wines I have tasted, especially Château Haut-Brion.
Then it was on to Château Carbonnieux for the Pessac-Léognan press tasting. I arrived at 10am, half an hour after the tasting started, and yet I was the first person to walk through the door. By the time I left at 12:30pm no more than eight tasters had been and gone. Is this a reflection of the level of interest in 2013, I wonder? Whatever the reason, the tasting environment was as a result fabulous – it was bright, calm and free of disturbance (although it was also a little cold in the tasting room, an empty barrel cellar) – but it’s a great shame for those who provided their samples for the tasting to be so poorly attended. Perhaps numbers will pick up later in the week. Strangely, two significant châteaux were missing, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Château Haut-Bailly. So once finished I nipped over to Château Malartic-Lagravière where the trade tasting was being held; I also thought this was less busy then usual – I have attended the trade tasting before and found it elbow-room only at times. I soon found Smith-Haut-Lafitte which was duly tasted in red and white, but still no Haut-Bailly. Eight minutes later I was at Château Haut-Bailly, where I succeeded in interrupting their lunch, sans-rendezvous (oops – I am always uncomfortable turning up without an appointment), in order to taste the wine. So I worked hard for my Haut-Bailly tasting note this year! As it turned out though, Château Haut-Bailly are participating in all the appropriate tastings, but only from the Tuesday, which is when the primeur tastings really kick off. As my only day in Pessac-Léognan was on the Monday, I was fortunate that they were so welcoming at the château in allowing me to taste.
Then it was on to Sauternes. I stopped off first to take a few photographs around Pessac-Léognan, as I had a thirty-minute gap in my schedule, but by 3pm I as at Château Climens. Like the Pessac tasting it was very quiet here – I was the only taster again – and I walked and tasted with Bérénice Lurton for the best part of an hour before a horde of tasters suddenly turned up, all eager to fit in Climens as their last appointment, I suspect. We first did a quick stock-take of this year’s plants, drying in the tisanerie, ready for going into the biodynamic brews that are used here; the marigolds (pictured above), freshly picked, were drying in the sunlight beneath the window. This walk-round soon developed into an impromptu competition to see who could best translate the names of the plants from French into English. I was taken to the cleaners; Bérénice won, I lost count somewhere about 12-2.
Then it was downstairs for a tasting from the barrels. I remember the first time I heard of Bérénice’s preference for tasting individual barrels rather than an assemblage. It seemed a pretty unusual approach which obviously hindered forming an opinion on the new vintage’s wine. How can you assemble and score eight or more barrel tasting notes? In more recent years, however, I have completely changed my tune on this, and my feelings reflect my thoughts on the usefulness of the primeur tastings. I know many critics see these tastings as an opportunity purely to provide buying guidance; 400 wines are tasted, the favourite 100 (or maybe all of them) written up, scores are assigned, and it is down to the consumer to choose whether or not to buy. Job done, said critic moves on to doing the same with Barolo, or Beaujolais, or maybe various vintages of Buckfast. Fair enough. But the tastings provide a much broader education if you look for it, and this can provide a much greater depth of knowledge than a string of isolated tasting notes, which I choose to communicate to my readers in my primeur report; this is why my communal reports always have several pages of background information – chats with the proprietors, harvest dates and anecdotes from the growing season and harvest, opinion from the winemaker and so on – as well as my appropriately detailed tasting notes and scores.
Anyway, back to Climens. The tasting is informative because regardless of how much you might hear or read about the Sauternes harvest, the waves of botrytis, the concentration (or lack of it) from wind and sunshine, the pickings or tries as they are known, the sorting and so on, unless you are there when the decisions are made, or can at least taste the results of these tries, it is all just second-hand information. Unless you are somebody like Bill Blatch (of Bordeaux Gold), who resides in the region and who lives and breathes Sauternes, who visits the châteaux regularly especially around harvest time, tasting the barrels with Bérénice is the only way to gain a real first-hand insight into the significance of the various tries. I would never now miss visiting Château Climens during the primeurs; there is just too much that can be learnt here to miss out. Nothing could lodge the significance of the first tri against the second and third tries more than actually tasting them.
After Climens, it was a quick dash down to Château Raymond-Lafon, another favourite visit of mine, before heading back to my accommodation for the night. On Tuesday, I kick off with Château Latour, a visit I know some now miss out as a consequence of this estate having withdrawn from releasing en primeur after the 2011 vintage. Again, it all boils down to how you view the tastings; purely a chance to generate notes and numbers, or a chance to understand the vintage in more depth? If the latter, how do you place the wines of Pauillac into context if you don’t taste Latour?
Happily, it’s a 9am start, a bonus after my 8am start at La Mission Haut-Brion. An extra hour in bed!