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Bordeaux 2016: The Primeurs

I am now back in the UK now after a week of tasting the 2016 primeurs in Bordeaux. It has been one of the most enjoyable week of barrel-sample tastings in this region that I have had the good fortune to experience. I am already proof-reading notes and composing my reports.

Before I get to that, what sort of primeurs has it been? This year I had eight days of tasting in the region, running from Saturday before the primeurs-week proper, when I started with a very comprehensive Sauternes tasting, through to the next Saturday, when I finished up tasting some white and red Bordeaux Supérieur and Vin de France which had been delivered to my accommodation (yes, you read that right – as a dog is not just for Christmas, Vin de France is not just for Anjou). After that I headed out to check out the vines – taking my first 2017 Bordeaux photographs (like that below) – before heading to the airport. Last year I did try a longer trip, departing earlier, planning for ten days in the region, but thanks to an air trafiic control strike I wasted the first two days stranded in an airport hotel in Gatwick. I decided this year not to tempt fate by trying the same thing again.

Primeurs is of huge significance to the Bordeaux wine trade, and I have to admit that there are a lot of things I don’t like about the way they are reported; I am not a fan of the actions of the early tasters who solely wish to trump others with their scores. I don’t like it when opinions are tweeted from the road, before the tannins from the barrel sample in question have even had time to stain the taster’s tongue. I am also very aware some visitors nosh heavily at the trough, taking boozy lunches and longer dinners each day, interspersed with a little tasting. I previously raised this as an issue here, my prime concern being impartiality, although to their credit a number of wine-writing peers also raised the issue of afternoon blood-alcohol levels and whether such tasters should be getting behind the wheel. I also take issue with wine writers who feel they have the authority to declare they have found the only valid way to “do” the primeurs, typically in a programme that is said to last two or three weeks. These “weeks”, however, tend to run from Monday lunchtime until they return home on Friday at gin o’clock, which is of course no more than four and a half days. Repeat once and you’ve had nine days of tasting, ten if we round up. If that’s what you understand by two weeks, please get in touch, I have some timeshare I would like to sell you.

Bordeaux 2016

My primeurs tastings took just over a week. And when I say a week, I mean a week, and I spent as much time as I could tasting, and not relying on the Bordelais to feed me to the gills. Funnily enough, I have noticed that some who follow a more ‘gustatory’ programme may spend two or three weeks in the region (you can only fit in one lunch and one dinner per day, after all) which indicates to me it is the personal philosopy, work ethic and experience of the taster that is probably most important in determing the validity of a primeurs report, and not the length of time one spends in the region. Having said all this, though, I acknowledge that wine writing is not a regulated profession. Nobody signed up to a code of ethics, there are no annual appraisal meetings with your line manager, no regulatory body to summon you to a hearing should you overstep the mark, and therefore the truth is everybody visiting Bordeaux can do exactly what they like. Perhaps us critics (myself included) should focus more on the wine, and less on how our peers choose to work. It is up to readers and subscribers to decide whether or not they want to support the critic in question by judging their methods, reading their work, interacting with them on social media, and if they feel like it subscribing to their website or publication.

With that in mind, here are some details of my primeurs trip. I have been going to the primeurs for more than a decade now, running my own timetable for the last four years (making all my own appointments, doing all my own driving, tasting and writing, and meeting all costs incurred). Over that time I have developed what I think is a pretty decent schedule which doesn’t vary much from year to year. I have already mentioned the Saturday Sauternes tasting. Sunday was for the right bank, and there were as always a variety of tasting opportunites. I made a handful of visits to those willing to see me on a Sunday (three domaines this year, if you are interested). I remain amazed that I get any appointments at all; there have been Sundays in France when I have come close to starvation as I failed to find a supermarket, bar or restaurant that had opened its doors and yet, during the primeurs, Bordeaux is very much open for business. After these visits I spent much of the day at the Rolland tasting, and also had lunch with Michel Rolland (more on this, and disclosure, below). On Monday I started at Château La Mission Haut-Brion at a very foggy 8am (as pictured below), and worked south, ending up in Château Raymond-Lafon sometime between 6pm and 7pm. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the left bank, mostly visits, starting at Château Calon-Ségur at 8am on the first of these days, although I did also make use of at least one of the UGC press tastings. Then on Thursday and Friday it was back to the right bank (or the ‘wrong bank’, as one well-known Bordeaux négociant refers to it), again mostly for visits, starting at Château Ausone, but there were also larger tastings I attended hosted by Jean-Luc Thunevin and Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, as well as the UGC St Emilion and Pomerol tastings, and the St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting.

Bordeaux 2016

That’s obviously a busy schedule, filled with long days, but I always factor in time to talk, and time to drive, so it usually runs like clockwork. I never move from one side of Bordeaux to the other during the tasting period of the day, so this avoids the Rocade and thus wasting time. Where an estate pours just one, two or three wines – e.g Vieux Château Certan, Petrus, Château Montrose, Château Pichon-Lalande, etc., I still allow 30 to 45 minutes for chat about the vintage. When they pour more wines, e.g. Denis Durantou, Château Haut-Brion, Château Ausone, Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, I allot these tastings at least an hour in my schedule. The first growths tend to get an hour of my time, although I did nibble away at this a little this year. I always visit Château Latour as even though they don’t sell their wine en primeur they are an important piece of the Bordeaux jigsaw. A primeurs report should not be just a list of notes and scores, but should be the story of the vintage. Having read a few novels in my time, I know there is nothing more frustrating than discovering your copy has a missing chapter (unless it is the last chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, of course). Latour is the missing chapter for some primeurs tasters.

Sample quality can be an important part of the tasting matrix. Tasting at the châteaux, the samples almost always feel pristine. Over the years I have learnt that other tastings are more variable, not only the négociant tastings but also the UGC tastings. This year, comparing my impressions on the same wine tasted at the UGC tasting and at the châteaux, sometimes they were comparable, but sometimes they were better when shown on home soil. In the same vein, one or two négociant tastings I actively avoid, while others are very reliable. The consultant tastings (Thunevin, Boüard de Laforest, Rolland, etc) in general feature samples of good quality and it was interesting this year that all three of those mentioned actively sought feedback on either sample conditions, tasting conditions, or both. On the issue of tasting blind, I don’t agree with this, as each barrel sample is an unfinished “half-wine”. Blind tasting is for finished wine, in bottles. These “half-wines” have to be understood, not assessed as if they had just arrived in a case of samples from the PR department of a supermarket. In the same vein, because these wines need to be understood, I don’t agree with those who say tasting notes should only provide brief impressions, i.e. no real wine, no real tasting note. I go in the opposite direction, as I think maximum detail – on picking dates (this is very significant in the 2016 vintage), alcohol, acidity, phenolic concentration, what music was playing in the cellars during vendanges, who the chef de culture was dating at the time and how many speeding tickets the relevant consultant acquired as he raced from one château to the next – are all important to building up a true picture of the wine. As well as my tasting impressions of course.

Finally, before I throw out a few details regarding my forthcoming 2016 primeurs reports, as I already alluded to above there is the issue of the critic’s relationship with the Bordelais and disclosure of it. Regular readers will already be aware that I disclose all support received at the end of the year, as I did here for 2016, but I will also do this now here before I kick off my reports this Tuesday. Forewarned is forearmed, after all. Although I know some critics have paid lip service to the issue of disclosure (usually with “I could do that” or “why don’t we all to that?” tweets, followed by a degree of inaction that would make even Henry David Thoreau shed a tear) to my knowledge no other critic of the region does this. While I am sure many would have no issue with it but just can’t be bothered grasping the nettle, I suspect in a handful of cases it would make for some embarrassing reading. “Night one: had dinner with Pierre and Marie-Antoinette of Château de Pomerol – they poured their 1945 and 1937. Day two: Château de Pomerol 2016 – 98-100 points”. You get the picture. So here goes:

Day 1: Stayed at Château Siaurac, self-catered. Sausages and Sauternes with Bill Blatch, of Bordeaux Gold.
Day 2: Again, stayed at Château Siaurac, self-catered. A bit of a trough-nosh day though, as had lunch with Michel Rolland and dinner at Château Pavie. Said extra prayers as penance at bedtime.
Day 3: Stayed at Château Preuillac, self-catered.
Day 4: Stayed at Château La Lagune, with dinner. Had a quick lunch at Château Pichon-Baron.
Day 5: Again, stayed at Château La Lagune, self-catered.
Day 6: Stayed at Château La Dauphine, self catered.
Day 7: Again, stayed at Château La Dauphine, self catered.
Day 8: Back to Edinburgh, no support.

I prefer self-catered accommodation and tend to avoid châteaux with lavish catering but you learn by experience and certainly Château La Lagune put on a very nice dinner for me, and maybe I should specify in future that they don’t do that. The location is superb for the city though, where the UGC tastings were held this year. I tend to restrict myself to one formal dinner per primeurs as long as it is going to be informative and certainly tasting through five vintages from Château Pavie before dinner fitted the bill. The primeurs week features many lavish dinners and tastings, for example the Academie du Vin dinner (which pours vintages going back many decades matching the year of the dinner, so this year they all ended in a ‘7’, although I have learnt this is really a tasting aimed at the trade) and I know Château Gruaud-Larose used to put on similarly lavish tastings of ancient vintages followed by dinner (I wondered if they still did, but learnt this came to an end back in 2013), as do other châteaux in the immediate run-up to and during the primeurs, from St Estèphe down to Sauternes. I tend to avoid such events for all sorts of reasons, but feel if a critic does go they should simply declare that and declare that they also had dinner afterwards (after all we all have to eat), especially if they want any declarations regarding their probity and use of hospitality to be taken seriously.

Finally, some words of forthcoming changes to my Bordeaux primeurs reports. A few weeks ago I was speaking to Benoit Roumet of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins du Centre, the topic of discussion being the Salon des Vins de Loire (yeah, I know, I always have to spoil things by throwing in a Loire reference). Having once seemed like an immutable feature in the annual tasting timetable, this fair has haemorrhaged exhibitors over the past three years, and its future is less certain. The organisers are trying to adapt and respond to their predicament but Benoit’s response was this; “But it is too late to change when you are failing. You have to change when you are successful”. Benoit’s words resonated with me; when you are at the top of your game – whatever that game might be – you can’t simply rest on your laurels. You have to evolve and adapt, reinvent yourself, keep things fresh. The problem is, of course, this can be a difficult road to take. It is always easier to continue as things were.

This year my Bordeaux primeur reports will see some changes. The vintage report which I open with will stay, and will remain rich in detail, this being the linchpin around which all future knowledge of the vintage revolves (and why the primeur tastings are about much more than just notes and scores, or buying and selling). And, for those who enjoyed reading episodes 1 (2014) and 2 (2015) of the adventures of Monsieur Propriétaire, rest assured he will return in the 2016 vintage for episode 3. My region-by-region tasting reports, however, will change. I plan to move the technical information (on harvest, analyses and the like) previously embedded in my introductions to the tasting notes, making them more detailed, and carrying this information through to all my chateaux profiles. This will leave me open to write a different type of introduction, more a synthesis of the vintage for each region, putting myself between the wines and the reader a little more. I think the introductions may end up shorter, but more informative, more critical, but perhaps also easier to read. But as with all changes, I trust subscribers will let me know what they feel.

My Bordeaux 2016 coverage will begin this coming Tuesday, 11th April with my overview, followed by region-by-region reports, starting in St Estèphe the next day, progressing down the left bank before the right bank, the lesser appellations and the sweet wines.

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