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Bordeaux Primeurs, April 2017: Programme

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux have released details of this year’s tasting programme, commencing April 3rd. I have already made most of my appointments (yes, really) and so I was eager to see whether their schedule fits in with mine. Fortunately it does!

The most noteworthy change (from my point of view) is a change in venue for the UGC tastings. Last year the press tastings were held in the Stade de Bordeaux, outside the Rocade. Some visitors weren’t too happy about it, but I thought it was a good venue, with lots of space, good sommelier service to pour the wines, and good natural light (once we managed to get the blinds down a bit). Having said that, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, as it was the first time I went to the press tastings, having previously preferred to fly undercover at the trade tastings.

This year the UGC tastings move to Hangar 14, on the Quai des Chartrons, looking out onto the river. The building looks like a concrete prison wing (complete with mesh grills on the windows), but I have never been inside, so it could be a great venue. Here is a link if you are interested, and here’s the location on Googlemaps.

Otherwise, briefly, the programme looks pretty similar to last year:

Monday 3rd April – Sauternes and Barsac press tasting in the appellation, also a stand-up tasting of all appellations in two-hour slots at Hangar 14, this latter tasting open to the trade.

Tuesday 4th April – Hangar 14 for Graves, Pessac-Leognan, St Emilion, Pomerol, Sauternes and Barsac press tasting, selected visits in the afternoon (new). Stand-up tastings in appellations (see below) are open to the trade.

Wednesday 5th April – Hangar 14 for all Médoc appellations and Sauternes and Barsac press tasting, selected visits in the afternoon (new). Stand-up tastings in appellations (see below) are open to the trade.

Thursday 6th April – Stand-up tastings in appellations (see below) are open to the trade.

Appellation tastings on the 4th/5th/6th which are open to the trade are as follows:

Ch. Carbonnieux – Graves and Pessac-­‐Léognan
Ch. La Couspaude – Saint Emilion Grand Cru
Ch. La Pointe – Pomerol
Ch. Cantemerle – Médoc, Haut Médoc, Moulis & Listrac
Ch. Kirwan – Margaux
Ch. Talbot – Saint Julien
Ch. Batailley – Pauillac & Saint Estèphe
Ch. La Lagune – Sauternes & Barsac

This is just the bare bones of the week – for more details including times contact the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux.

Bordeaux 2016: Jean-Christophe Mau

During my recent tastings of the 2014 vintage (report to come very soon) I found myself heading out from Château La Mission Haut-Brion, where I had just finished tasting all the Domaine Clarence Dillon wines (so Château Haut-Brion as well, reds, whites and second wines, and Château Quintus too) in the direction of Château d’Yquem. My route took me past the gate of Château Brown (well, almost – maybe just a small detour). What else to do but call in and see how the 2014 Château Brown was tasting?

I tasted the red 2014 with proprietor Jean-Christophe Mau (pictured below). There was no chance of tasting the white; this cuvée is in great demand, and Jean-Christophe was entirely sold out. That gave me a few minutes of free time, so I thought I had better ask how the 2016 vintage was looking. After all, in a region known for its hyperbole, you can rely on Jean-Christophe for an honest, no-nonsense appraisal of things.

Bordeaux 2016

Me: Can you please tell me a little about 2016?

J-C: The 2016 vintage is a bigger style than 2015. I have tasted them side by side. In 2016 the acidity is higher, presumably because of the stress in vineyard. We had a long dry summer, and the vines shut down in these conditions. From September onwards we had some rain, but the time between the arrival of the rain and the need to pick was too short for the vines to be able to get the acids down.

The tannins feel large, but it is difficult to say more at the moment. I will look at the tannins again after a year of evolution. But with these tannins and acidity the wine should keep well.

Me: What about picking and alcohol levels?

J-C: We started picking the reds on October 3rd, and finished on October 22nd. Obviously the whites were picked much earlier than that. In 2016 the alcohols varied at picking between 14.5% and 15%. This is for Château Brown of course. I can’t comment on other châteaux and what they have in 2016, but I assume it is something similar.

Me: Is it better than 2015?

J-C: I think to say 2016 is better right now is a little arrogant. We will need to wait and see.

Me: Although you sold Château Preuillac, in the Médoc, I know you still manage it for the new owner. How did the vintage go up there?

J-C: We had a similar experience at Preuillac, although we started picking slightly later, starting October 6th and finishing October 21st. I think here 2016 could be a great vintage. We haven’t finished the malolactic fermentations yet, but it seems like the quality is very good.

Me: Thanks Jean-Christophe.

These early Bordeaux 2016 reports are essentially funded by Winedoctor subscribers, the first purpose of this latest trip to Bordeaux having been to taste 2014s for a forthcoming report on that vintage. If you find these reports interesting, please consider taking out a subscription to Winedoctor, for just £4.50 per month (or £45 per annum).

Bordeaux 2016: Jean-Michel Comme

It is only January, which to the UK wine trade means Burgundy, London having just hosted a smorgasbord of tastings featuring the 2015 vintage. And yet my thoughts are turning towards Bordeaux. First, after my latest trip to Bordeaux in December I have a few new reports and tastings to write up. Second, I am currently working on a huge tasting report on the 2014 vintage. And third, because I am already looking at the organisation of my trip to taste the 2016 vintage in April. Well, you know what they say about the early bird and the worm.

With that in mind here is some opinion on the 2016 vintage from Jean-Michel Comme (pictured below, I confess an older picture from 2013), of Château Pontet-Canet. I met up with Jean-Michel in the cellars to taste the estate’s 2014, but couldn’t resist asking for his early thoughts on 2016.

Bordeaux 2016

Me: Can you please tell me a little about 2016?

J-M: This was an amazing year, because from early on in the season we could not have foreseen the evolution of the vintage. At the start it was cold and wet, but during the last days of June the weather changed, when it became dry and hot. It was then mostly dry, for three months, with almost no rain at all. The concentration in the grapes in this vintage was amazing.

Me: How was the harvest? What would you say about the quality this year? And what about your yields?

J-M: There was no hurry, no rush, we were able to prepare the crop as we wished. There was a high level of ripeness in this vintage. As for quality, it is really very difficult to tell right now, although I think the worst case scenario is that we have, at the very least, a very good year in 2016. As for yields, we have 34 hl/ha.

Me: Yields can be impacted by organic and biodynamic viticulture, and of course we all know Pontet-Canet is biodynamic, so 34 hl/ha seems like a good yield?

J-M: Some people make some unfair comments about yields at Pontet-Canet – because of the biodynamics they say one year in three we produce nothing, that we have a crop missing. In truth the average yield here, over ten years, is 33 hl/ha. That is including the very low yield we saw in the 2013 vintage. Also, this yield is good for us, because we know what quality we will obtain with a yield like this. We don’t know what the quality would be like with a yield that was 10 or 20 hl/ha higher. As it stands, we have high quality, so it is not a big deal for us to stick with this yield.

Me: Thanks Jean-Michel. Before I go, what else is new at Pontet-Canet?

J-M: Well, we are still building stables for our horses, we have building works planned for another year yet. And we now have a Californian estate as well, in the Napa Valley, which takes some of our energy, but it is a great project for us. We have tried to apply our biodynamic approach in 2016, our first season. I am responsible for the estate, so I have been visiting California every six weeks. Having said that, although I am not a fan of dynasties, I leave the day-to-day running to my son.

Me: Thanks again.

These early Bordeaux 2016 reports are essentially funded by Winedoctor subscribers, the first purpose of this latest trip to Bordeaux having been to taste 2014s for a forthcoming report on that vintage. If you find these reports interesting, please consider taking out a subscription to Winedoctor, for just £4.50 per month (or £45 per annum).

January Break

January isn’t usually a month when I take a break from regular Winedoctor updates, but this January has turned out to be rather different. I am having a slightly enforced break from regular updates until January 16th.

Last Saturday I flew out to the Loire Valley (via Bordeaux believe it or not – that felt weird) in order to take possession of a house I purchased. I knew I wouldn’t have time to make updates this week, but had intended to make that clear in a blog post such as this. Unfortunately internet access has been more difficult than anticipated, so please accept my apologies for this late ‘announcement’!

I have no phone line or wifi and although I spent a morning in an Orange shop today, and I now have all the necessary equipment, I doubt my line will be switched on until the weekend. So radio silence will continue. In case you’re wondering, I am posting this from my phone via dodgy 3G.

It is only Tuesday, but in the last three days I hired a van, bought and transported a pile of new furniture, collected my keys, half-sorted a phone line, signed the final documents with my notaire, made some basic repairs and met the neighbours (not in that order I have to say).

I will have time for one or two visits – I have one this afternoon in Bourgueil. And please rest assured normal service will be restored ASAP.

Pouring Cold Water on the Biodynamic Calendar

Biodynamics was dreamt up by Rudolf Steiner. If you read his original lectures, it is all pretty fanciful stuff. Nevertheless many winemakers I have questioned on their switch to using biodynamics in the vineyard have a very positive view of it. Vines are stronger, greener, more vigorous and so on. And the wines are often very good. There are many confounding variables in this (i.e there are many other plausible explanations for why this might be), but in view of these encounters and my tasting experiences I have always kept an open mind.

One aspect of biodynamics that I have long struggled with, however, is the relationship between the biodynamic calendar and tasting. When it comes to the calendar and the vine, I again remain open minded, as external influences (by which I really mean the lunar cycle) could plausibly influence vine growth and behaviour. But the biodynamic calendar is often said to also influence tasting ability; if you subscribe to this notion, wines taste great on a fruit day, bad on a root day. This is often backed up by anecdotal experience, but this is very weak evidence which is open to bias. What we need is a well-designed study to examine the effect. Well, one has just been published.

The paper (published here, in Plos One) comes from New Zealand and the authors (Wendy V. Parr, Dominique Valentin, Phil Reedman, Claire Grose, James A. Green) examined how 19 experienced tasters (mostly oenologists) viewed 12 different wines (all New Zealand Pinot Noir) on root days compared to fruit days. For once (because I have read some ropey and badly written wine research over the years) it is a well-designed study and well-written paper. The tasters were blinded to the purpose of the tasting, and they assessed the wines across two occasions 7-9 days apart, looking at 20 specific wine characteristics.

Biodynamic tasting

The outcome, to cut to the chase, was that the assessment of the wines showed no difference across the two episodes. This is despite the fact that the authors used a very lenient significance level (p = 0.1) rather than the more stringent norm (p = 0.05). They did a lot of statictical tests, which increases the likelihood of a chance finding, and yet despite this the findings were extremely close comparing fruit and root days (as in the graph above). Only three of the 20 characteristics showed a statistically significant difference across the two tastings. These were ‘concentration’, ‘bitterness’ and ‘oak integration’. Of these three, only ‘concentration’ matched the expected finding if you subscribe to the biodynamic calendar (better on a fruit day), the other two were the opposite of expected (more ‘bitterness’ on a fruit day, more ‘oak integration’ on a root day). These seem to me to be chance findings – they certainly don’t support the idea that there is a working ‘tasting calendar’.

Perhaps most damning of all, the variation between the findings on the fruit and root day tastings was just 0.5%, less than that seen when tastings were replicated on the same day, when it was 1%. In other words, the wines taste pretty much the same, whether you taste them twice on the same day, or on a root day versus a fruit day. There’s no difference. This well-designed and communicated study surely puts a nail in the coffin of the biodynamic tasting calendar, which I suspect should be combined to the dustbin along with astrological star signs and spoon-bending.

New Year, New Monthly Subscription

Although I am not a great believer in New Year’s Resolutions, as I think I might have mentioned in today’s Weekend Wine report, the start of a new year does seem like a good time to change something. So I have decided to update the options for subscribing to Winedoctor.

First, during 2017 the annual fee for a Winedoctor subscription will remain (for the fifth year running) £45, giving twelve months of access to all Winedoctor articles. It is a popular plan with plenty of Loire-minded and Bordeaux-interested subscribers signed up to it, and I see no reason to change it.

Winedoctor subscriptions

What I have changed, however, is the old ‘trial period with optional top-up’ subscription, which I have replaced with a monthly payment plan called Winedoctor Monthly. This subscription costs just £4.50 for one calendar month of access, on a monthly recurring basis. Subscribers can therefore dip their toe in the Winedoctor water for one month for just £4.50, a much cheaper alternative to the old trial period (which was either £10 or £15, depending on how far back you look). And there is no commitment to keep going; you can cancel at any time you like.

To subscribe (either for an annual or monthly subscription), click here or on the green Subscribe poster, above left.