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A Bordeaux Guesthouse

During a visit to Chateau Haut-Bailly a year or two ago I learnt of the purchase by Robert Wilmers of nearby Château Le Pape. To me the acqusition of this second estate made perfect sense; quality at Château Haut-Bailly was being pushed to the maximum, the reputation of the estate was (and still is) in the ascendent, and the confident prices were already reflecting this. Having tasted the 2012 Château Le Pape a couple of years ago, and also the 2014 Château Le Pape during the primeurs earlier this year, it was clear from these wines that this is a domaine with potential. If the team apply the expertise they have developed at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured below) to this new acquisition we could have the latest Pessac-Léognan success story on our hands here.

Château Haut-Bailly

The estate is not just about wine though; I learned today that the property has been converted into guesthouses, so if you fancy a stay among the vines to the south of Bordeaux this might be an option for you. The propery has several bedrooms, a shaded terrace and a swimming pool overlooking the vineyard. There is also, of course, an option to visit the cellars at Château Haut-Bailly and to dine at the Table Privée de Haut-Bailly. The kitchen at Château Haut-Bailly was established in 2010 by Tanguy Laviale. Even though I believe he has since left, to set up Garopapilles, now apparently a firm favourite with the locals, just about everyone I speak to still rates the Haut-Baily table as one of the best private dining venues in the region.

The guesthouse has been renovated by local artisans and the Compagnons du Tour de France (a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages), while the gardens have been designed by landscape artist Camille Muller. As you can imagine, this is a high class vacation venue. The price is, I am told, €220 per room, per night. No doubt, for the venue and the experience, perhaps with a tasting of Haut-Bailly thrown in, it will be worth it. If you book a room, do let me now what it’s like.

If you’re interested, check out the website: Château Le Pape.

Criticism: How the Big Boys deal with it

It’s not fair to have a go at Bordeaux all the time is it? I wonder if some of my previous posts and comments on the quality of its wines, the ‘ambitious’ pricing strategy followed by some proprietors (which we see yet again in the 2014 vintage, although to be fair the prices of some releases have been more sensible, and well received by the trade), and as I wrote last week a reluctance to declassify even in a wash-out vintage perhaps make me seem bitterly obsessed with the region. Obsessed, yes. But bitter? No. I love the wines of Bordeaux. It’s just that I don’t allow that love to translate into an unending stream of platitudes, instead it comes out as hopefully fair and considered criticism as well as praise. It’s a big, grown-up wine region. It can take the criticism and the love side by side.

So let’s turn to the Loire instead. Now, if you think a few critical blog posts levied against Bordeaux makes me look bad, criticising the wines of the Loire Valley probably makes me look like the wine world’s version of the playground bully. I am now the junior psychopath who pulls wings from insects, or who tortures ants with a magnifying glass. Or that kid who lived next-door to Andy in Toy Story maybe. Too many people have had a tough time in the Loire Valley, you might think, for criticism. Frost and decimation in Muscadet (2008). Rampant grey rot in Muscadet, plus a little in Anjou too (2011). Floods and hail damage (pictured below) in Vouvray (2012 and 2013). A wash-out along the length of the Layon (2012). Low yields for already cash-strapped vignerons in many regions (several recent vintages). And no really ‘great’ across-the-board vintage since, errr, maybe 2009 or 2010? Who would want to criticise a region that has been through so much?

Hail damage in Vouvray, June 2013

Perhaps that is a view some people take. Indeed, this a region that has more than its fair share of ardent supporters, the Muscadet- and Savennières-obsessed (who often seem to be sommeliers, or have I just overlooked all the other fanatics?) who, like an overbearing mother-figure set about smothering the region with their love, promulgating the wines at every opportunity on social media. They probably enjoy what they do, and perhaps feel they are giving the region the support it really needs, but ultimately this approach is pointless. Why? Because when you write only the positive – these wines rock!Domaine [insert your favourite here] in Muscadet does it again!these wines are awesome, mindblowing Chenin-tastic! – and so on, eventually these very words become meaningless. It might make the vignerons happy, for a moment, but it’s a yawn-inducing experience for everybody else, and so it will never translate into anything useful for the vignerons in question. The words carry no weight, and so they won’t translate into sales. They won’t inspire interested merchants to visit and maybe ultimately import the wines, because the same comments are applied to every wine. They don’t inspire holidaymakers in the region to visit, taste, buy and spread the word, again because every wine is praised, so there is no differentiation. Every comment is just more of the same positive slush.

I’ve long thought that what the Loire Valley really deserved was not never-ending praise, but considered criticism too, although first we need to develop a true understanding of its wines. Instead of carrying on being the region perceived as a source of cheap-‘n’-cheerful white apéro wines, and “lighter reds for summer drinking” as one mainstream UK publication put it a few years ago, maybe it is time for a reappraisal. Maybe the Loire should shake off the idea many seem to hold that it only makes simple summer-afternoon sippers and not ‘proper’, ageworthy wines. Such a shift in opinion would surely require us all to look at the wines in the same way we regard Bordeaux and Burgundy, or indeed Napa, Rioja, Alsace, Coonawarra and all the other ‘serious’ wine regions. And to do so would be appropriate, because the Loire isn’t a region full of mere simple summer sippers, there are also plenty of ageworthy wines here. Wines that go the distance, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, in white and red, and they develop beautifully complex character as they age (watch out for a new feature, my forthcoming ten-years-on Loire report, starting with 2005, if you have doubts).

But if that’s what the region should be aiming for – to be seen as a source of great wines for the cellar as much (if not more than) a source of daily drinkers – then there’s a need for considered critical opinion. Serious wines – top Chinon, top Bourgueil, top Savennières, top Vouvray and so on – need serious review. Some wines will merit praise, but some will – if the reviews are to be taken seriously – come in for appropriate criticism. Some wines will get great scores, and with a background of real criticism (not universal never-ending praise) those scores will actually mean something. The words of a critic who praises and criticises in balanced measures should have a positive effect, even if it is only a small one, upon the vigneron’s reputation and sales. There is the downside though; what if your wine is on the receiving end of a critical note from me, or from someone else? Mostly I have found vignerons in the Loire can take this on the chin, only reinforcing my belief in (and love for) the region, and that it has every right to be considered alongside all the ‘big name’ wine regions mentioned above. These are dedicated, hard-working vignerons who believe in their wines, and know that serious critics who can actually influence sales need to critique as well as praise, and while one particular wine might not strike a chord with one particular critic, there’s always another vintage (or indeed another critic) coming up. This is, I think, how the big boys deal with it.

What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange” sang Ani DiFranco in Fire Door, the ninth track on her debut album released in 1990 on her own record label, which she set up at the age of eighteen. This came on the back of a long history of busking and playing in coffee shops, since the age of nine. More than twenty years on she continues to write and to perform, to considerable critical acclaim, despite commercial success somehow eluding her. Some people are just determined, I guess.

Context is all important, and I was reminded of this last week at the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting. This tasting sees a small and very select group of some of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux descend upon London, each bringing an armful of bottles from the four most recent vintages. The fact that the last two are usually still in barrel is no barrier to them being poured, so that means this year the tasting featured 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Accepting the fact that the comparison of barrel samples against bottled wines can be seen as a flawed approach, this is still a fascinating tasting, a rare opportunity to compare vintages across a range of Bordeaux châteaux and appellations. What is more, as the event is annual a regular attendee can watch the wines progress through the élevage; initially there is a comparison with the three preceding vintages to be made, but a few years later there is instead a comparison with those vintages that followed. The tasting therefore places any one vintage in a number of valuable contexts over the years. No wonder it quickly became a regular feature on my personal tasting schedule.

When I wrote up my 2013 Bordeaux report I wrote in regione caecorum rex est luscus, a rare (for me) foray into Latin. I have to confess the words were plagiarised, the victim of my theft being Erasmus, writing in Adagia. As Erasmus died in 1536, however, I’m not expecting any letters from his lawyers. Translated, the adage reads in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, a recognition that when judging the 2013 vintage from barrel I was wary – without a physical context, only my memories of other (much better) vintages – of the trap of overly praising some wines simpy because they were, being blunt, the best of a bad lot. I took some stick (well, I received a few emails of complaint, anyway) from the Bordelais for my parsimonious scores. But I felt they were justified.

Thierry Valette, Clos Puy Arnaud, May 2012

Having revisited the 2013 vintage twice now, immediately after the primeurs at the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting last year and again last week, the opportunity to taste the wines in the context of other vintages has been invaluable. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have so far been constant companions but last year the 2010 vintage was also present, and this year the good but far-from-brilliant (no matter what some with vested interest might say) 2014 vintage was there too. The upshot of tasting in context only served to highlight even further the weaknesses of the 2013 vintage. These are delicate wines, fresh with acidity, crisp and needle-like in many cases, with little in the way of backbone and structure. The fact that Stephan von Neipperg has already taken the 2013 Canon-la-Gaffelière from barrel and bottled it (and the 2013 La Mondotte, while still in barrel, will follow soon I think) tells you something of the delicacy of the wines, which is ironic as his are some of the most convincing in the entire vintage I think.

To be clear the wines are far from terrible, in fact many feel quite drinkable, and the Bordelais deserve praise for what they achieved in such a wash-out vintage. But placed against the other vintages, not just obviously superior years such as 2010 (and last week 2014) but also 2011 and 2012 it is clear that these wines aren’t really the grands vins we look for in Bordeaux. This region has a superb reputation for great wines, from hallowed gravel and limestone terroirs. In the majority of years these vineyards give us wines of interest, in some years wines of true greatness. But there is another side to the coin as well, and that side is 2013. This is a year of disappointment, and these aren’t (in the majority of cases) the grands vins we should expect for the price tag. Revisiting the vintage, I can’t help feeling that the reputation of this region would have been better served by declassifying the wines in many cases, producing a very good second wine and selling more off, rather than insisting in squeezing a grand vin out of it. The only estate I know with certainty that did this was Thierry Valette (pictured above), of Clos Puy Arnaud, so I tip my hat to him; I am sure some other little domaines must have followed his lead, but none of the really big names did so.

Perhaps such a declassification would be viewed by some as a sign of weakness, but it should I believe be seen as a sign of strength, of a belief that the terroir matters, that the name on the label matters, and when the wines aren’t up to it – no matter how good they might be for the vintage – they really should be taken down a notch. It’s a well-understood practice in Burgundy, where inadequate wines can easily be downgraded from grand cru to premier cru to village wine. There are one or two good examples in the Loire as well (although some still need to learn how to do it there as well – more on that in the future). In Bordeaux, though, where the process would be not declassification through the appellations but to a second wine, they seemed determined to plough on with the grands vins at all cost, perhaps as determined as the young Ani DiFranco must have been. Which is a great shame. These could have been delightful, early-drinking second wines. Instead, once bottled and sold as highly priced grands vins they are destined to be, to quote Erasmus again, largely not worth a snap of the fingers.

Primeurs Blind Tasting: Who Ends up Blind?

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, this week I have been judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. This is a huge tasting open to all-comers, with – if memory serves me correctly – 16,000 wines submitted this year. Each wine is submitted to a blind tasting by a panel, is retasted by a ‘super-judge’ if there is any dissent, and is also retasted if up for a gold medal or a trophy. The whole process is blinded of course, from start to finish; none of the judges involved know what the wines are when they taste, only basic information (appellation, price bracket, grape varieties, etc.) is provided.

In-between flights, however, I’ve also had one eye on Bordeaux this week, looking for any interesting 2014 releases, so 2014 Bordeaux and the primeurs are still very much on my mind. Is it really already four weeks since I returned from the 2014 primeurs? Time flies so fast (I guess I must be having fun).

The process of judging wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the Bordeaux primeurs is very different. The obvious difference is that by definition the Decanter wines are finished, in bottle, whereas by definition the primeurs samples are unfinished wines. Judging barrel samples requires a very different mindset than judging finished wines, and so I think the two tasks require a very different approach. The use of blind tasting is one aspect of the approach that differs.

In a wine competition, rigorous blind tasting in order to remove bias is an absolute must, as I already noted in my recent Sabre Rattling post. When you have the finished wines in front of you, and buyers will be getting exactly what is tasted, and all wines are subjected to the same blinded process, this is the fairest and most appropriate way to assess the wines. I don’t, however, think this is true of the primeurs. I know others feel the same way; I was chatting to Neal Martin at the Grand Cru Classé tasting this week and he and I are in agreement on this. I believe he has made some comments on this in his Wine Advocate primeurs report. Others, however, feel that the tastings should be blind, but here are a few reasons why I think that’s the wrong approach.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Not a Blind Tasting

Primarily, the primeurs shouldn’t just be about fruit flavours and scores, it is about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage. Take, for example, a 2014 petit vin from Pauillac. The blinded critic tastes what he tastes, and reports that, with no context. Magically, without any external knowledge, he has assessed the barrel sample, how it came to be where it is, and where it will go in the future. Job done, next sample please.

Then I come along. I’m not tasting blind, I’m at the château with the managing director and winemaker. I have some information on the barrel sample, which I taste every year. Tasting the wine, it seems much more plodding than usual; I have the context of other vintages tasted, which the blind taster doesn’t. I know quality has been on the up here, with more and more Cabernet in the blend, and it is usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in recent vintages (previously it was mostly Merlot). This trend has been for the better. I ask about the blend this year, and learn it is now back to 70% Merlot. That’s informative, and correlates with my thoughts on tasting, as 2014 was good for the Cabernets, not so good for Merlot. So I ask the question; why 70%? I learn there was hail on the vineyard which took out much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Another hit. The tasting experience becomes more informed, with a greater depth of knowledge on the wine, better foundations upon which to build the tasting note. The winemaker then informs me that maybe the élevage will be shorter this year, a reflection of the lesser nature of the wine. More useful information that guides critic and therefore also the consumer. The blind taster, meanwhile, is already onto blind sample number 5, churning out another tasting note and score.

There are other reasons blind tasting doesn’t work. The above vignette encapsulates most of them (no knowledge of vineyard during the season, no knowledge of harvest, no knowledge of blending decisions, no knowledge of changes made and reasons for them, no knowledge of forthcoming élevage – you see this is very different to a blind tasting from bottle) but one other worth mentioning is levelling the playing field. In Bordeaux, top châteaux give themselves an advantage by insisting you visit to taste. So you want to taste Latour? Then you must visit Latour, and taste it in Latour, in a room overlooking the Latour vineyard. Blind tasters can’t taste the top 30-40 wines blind even if they say that’s what they do. To taste everything else blind enhances the advantages these top names have given themselves, and works in their favour to the disadvantage of all the little châteaux.

For me, these are the major reasons why blind tasting doesn’t work for the primeurs. The primeurs tastings are an opportunity to clear away the obfuscating mists of marketing speak, to see through to the reality of the vintage, to clear away the confusion. I suppose it is more about being a journalist, getting to the story, rather than just being a taster. To me, tasting blind doesn’t help the taster to develop a robust opinion on each wine, instead it obscures the wines even futher, hiding them behind an information blackout, making them more difficult to interpret. It’s a disservice to those châteaux that allow blind tasting (in other words the wines we might still be able to afford), and it’s a disservice to the reader, who ends up being just as blind as the taster.

Bordeaux: Psychohistorian Required

There are various moments throughout Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series – by which I mean the original trilogy of novels with which I am most familiar, not so much all the other novels that grew up around these stories – when the hero of the tale, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, appears in order to save the titular Foundation from impending doom. This is something of a challenge for a human of standard lifespan, because the Foundation’s purpose was intended to play out over a thousand years. Seldon only appears ‘in the flesh’ in the first chapter, and subsequent Foundation crises usually result in him popping up in the form of a pre-recorded hologram. Disaster is, thankfully, usually averted.

Seldon is perhaps Science Fiction’s best example of a character playing the ‘long game’. He could have done something else to achieve quicker fame and reputation, but he chose to play out a much grander plan, one where the prize was ultimately greater. Playing the long game is always the difficult option; it can be demoralising, time consuming and expensive (after all, future-proofed holo-projectors surely don’t come cheap).

Playing the long game is a concept I have already alluded to – without using that exact term – in Primeur Picks, the concluding article in my 2014 Bordeaux coverage [both articles subscribers only]. Bordeaux has something very precious, which countless other vignerons across the world of wine would happily sell their grandmothers for, and that is en primeur. Or wine futures, if you prefer. Whatever we call it, it is the concept of selling wine two years before it is really ready, generating lots of lovely cash flow for the châteaux, and giving consumers a good deal. It also provides the region with a massive amount of publicity every year, through a concerted marketing push from châteaux and merchants alike, and these days a surge in social media chatter too.

Bordeaux Primeurs sign

At least that is how it should work. But a more short-term approach seems to have taken over Bordeaux in recent years, with profit now being the over-riding concern. There is a reluctance to step back from the release prices of the 2013 vintage, which were largely too high. And so we can expect (although the campaign has yet to start really, so we shall see, we shall see…..) that the 2014s will be released at similar prices. If so, it will be a mistake built upon a mistake. The ultimate result if this continues over many years will surely be the decline of the en primeur system for selling wine. It will be a curious outcome when we consider that the wines of Bordeaux today seem better than ever.

Wine critics can also be guilty of failing to play the long game. It is tempting, I suppose. Short term gains can easily be found in Bordeaux; you could tell a little white lie about your significance in the world of wine in order to gain instant, unfettered access to the top châteaux; you can then live it up with fine dinners lubricated by older vintages; you can publish high scores, to ensure merchants quote you, and to create excitement, and of course to ensure that you are invited back next year (not just for a tasting, but for a lovely dinner too, no?). But made public all of these acivities, while making for a great trip to Bordeaux, have the ability to ultimately damage your reputation. It’s far from playing the long game, and surely that is how a critic should build a reputation and a readership?

In twenty years time, where will these critics be? Indeed, in twenty years time, where will en primeur be?

We perhaps don’t really need the services of a psychohistorian to predict the answers to these two questions.

Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach

The internet is heaving with opinion on Bordeaux 2014 at the moment. It rumbles on after every primeurs tasting week, Bordeaux’s very own cosmic background radiation. Many millennia from now, long after the sun has died and the earth is but a frozen and desolate wasteland, civilisations in distant galaxies will scan the skies with their radio telescopes only to find they are swamped by the reverberating echoes of tweets complaining about the moral turpitude of Bordeaux, and about the absurdity of tasting barrel samples. It will be the only evidence that humankind once existed.

This point concerning barrel samples is an interesting one. There is no denying that they add some uncertainty to this well-established system of assessing and marketing the wines of Bordeaux. I am pretty sure we could all rattle off a long list of issues with them; they might not be the final blend, the press wines might not have been added yet, the wines are simply too young, the élevage may change the wine’s character, and so on. Even worse, some allege that the samples are deliberately misleading, the accusations ranging from special ‘preparations’, the samples run off into barrel for early malolactic fermentation to ready them for the primeurs, as Stéphane Derenoncourt revealed he does a year or two ago, to the urban legend of the Parker barrel, the suggestion being that different journalists are all treated to different wines.

I think anyone interested enough to subscribe to Winedoctor is already well aware of the vagaries of barrel samples, nevertheless it is something I try to maintain some focus on in my reports. I try to refer consistently to what I taste in my report as ‘barrel samples’ rather than wines, and make reference in my reports to the need to see how the wines pan out with time. I score the wines, but always with a range of potential points of course. And (and this is perhaps the crucial bit) I will come back to the wines again in the future, at two years of age after bottling, at four years of age, and provided I am around long enough at ten years of age too. Revisiting wines in this fashion, free of any influence from my primeurs report (because I never re-read my previous notes before these tastings, I just start again from scratch, and I don’t think any critic can really remember every score, for every wine, in every vintage) has taught me that while it is appropriate to be aware of the drawbacks of barrel samples, tastings even at this very early stage have significant validity. In short, there is a correlation between my barrel sample scores and my wine scores.

Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach

I was interested to read the opinions of Jamie Goode on the primeurs recently. It was a post filled with good points, but there was also a lot to disagree with. Jamie, for example, feels that when you visit a first growth “it’s hard not to give it 96–98/100″. Maybe this is true for the more spineless visitors to Bordeaux, or for the critics who prefer to cheerlead the region with lots of high scores rather than a true critique (not suggesting that Jamie is either, by the way), but I don’t perceive this to be a problem I have personally. I think in every one of the last three Bordeaux vintages I have written up en primeur there are châteaux that have shown up the first growths, with higher scores, the more famous name lagging behind, and I’ve drawn attention to that in my reports. But to be honest that wasn’t the statement I found to be most wide of the mark in Jamie’s post. No, this was “Dudes, these are cask samples! You shouldn’t be writing extensive tasting notes on cask samples and then pretend you have a reliable assessment of that chateau’s grand vin” which struck me most. This statement is, of course, pertinent to my topic here, the issue of barrel sample validity.

I think Jamie has this completely wrong. While I agree (while we all agree, surely?) that barrel samples are an imperfect system, a clairvoyant snapshot of a future wine, I don’t think this should be communicated by breezing through the tastings, writing the briefest non-committal two-sentence tasting notes. In fact I think the opposite is true; because these are barrel samples, they require not less but much more examination than a finished wine. We can enquire regarding the blend, which helps us to understand the wine in the context of the vintage. I often try to include some technical data where available too, as this also helps us to understand the wine and the vintage as a whole. And it is vital to note all the components of the wine, because whereas with a finished wine it is perhaps enough to say “I like this now” or “I don’t like this now” (most lily-livered wine writing focuses on the former), with a primeurs sample we are trying to gauge where this embryonic wine sits within the vintage, and what its future might be. So the flavour profile deserves a comment, as do the structural components of the wine, the acidity and tannin, as does the texture of the wine.

It’s all about building up a picture, each item of data – whether technical or sensory – a vital piece of the jigsaw. I think it is acknowledged that we can’t complete the jigsaw at this time, because there are pieces missing (the élevage, future decisions on the assemblage, all the reasons I have cited above) but the best idea of the final picture comes from putting as many pieces in place as we have, and making a close examination, not from flicking the pieces around, taking a quick glance and making a few cursory comments, before moving onto the next barrel sample. Nobody ever finished a jigsaw, or wrote a worthwhile and useful tasting note, doing that.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: An Allegorical Ending

It would be lying to say that Friday was relaxed, but it certainly felt less hectic than Wednesday and Thursday. More lengthy appointments helped; an hour here, another hour there, makes for a less frentic timetable than the string of Pomerol visits for which, because there are so often just one or two wines up for tasting (e.g. Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certain, L’Évangile), I usually only schedule thirty minutes each (including travelling time from one venue to the next, although to be honest you could walk between most of them in just a couple of minutes).

It was another strange Pomerol-St Emilion hybrid day though, starting at the Moueix offices in Libourne to taste their wines, from less famous St Emilion cuvées such as Château La Serre, up to the more serious wines from Pomerol. Of note, this year the St Emilion Château Bélair-Monange was poured last of all, after Château Trotanoy and all the other wines from Pomerol, which perhaps says something about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the vintage.

Then it was on to Vieux Château Certan, where the king of the vintage comparison floored me with his response to my reuqest for a vintge which matched the weather patterns seen in 2014. “There isn’t one”, replied Alexandre Thienpont, so both weather and wines were/are unique. In saying this Alexandre was only reinforcing what others have said though, such as Pierre Seillan at Château Lassegue. I tasted with Pierre last Sunday, and he told me that in 49 vintages worked (I confess I didn’t write down the number, but I seem to recall he said 49, certainly 40-something anyway) he has never seen such a dramatic turn-around during a growing season.

Château Bellevue-Mondotte

Next up was Château Cheval Blanc, with Château d’Yquem as well of course, followed by a string of other interesting tastings. These kicked off at Château Pavie-Macquin, where I have never tasted before (I usually pick up the wines somewhere else), then Château Figeac (on their first time away from the UGC tastings) and then back into St Emilion again to meet up with the Thunevin portfolio, followed by Château Pavie, where the Perse portfolio (now ten in number, if we include his winemaker’s own estate always included in the tasting) grows ever more broad. And then it was time to wind down, first with a little left-bank interlude, as I tasted the Delon range at Château Nenin, before I finished up at Château Tertre Roteboeuf. And suddenly, that was that. My tasting was done. Before heading back to my accommodation I swung by a few châteaux to take some photographs, and eventually (after a bit of investigative work, because it isn’t obvious which it is) I found Château Bellevue-Mondotte, part of the Perse empire. What a sad sight this was. While Château Pavie, down on the côtes, is now a golden palace of marble and gilt (during a visit to Bordeaux in 2014 I was told, but it might just be rumour, that this was built partly using EU funds, now reminded of this I shall have to check this out to see if true or mere hearsay), this château (pictured above) lay in a dilapidated state.

This has been a fascinating vintage to taste en primeur. After a dismal summer the Bordelais were thinking this might be 2013 all over again, but then they were saved by six or more weeks of beautiful weather. Naturally, they are keen to point to this period of warm weather and stress its beneficial effect on the ripening of the fruit, and the resulting wines, but in reality this has been a far-from-perfect vintage. Some varieties did better than others (because some took advantage of the warm weather while others were picked), some terroirs did better than others (all to do with how the soil interacts with water this year), and some appellations did better (i.e. had less rain) than others. And as a result of this complex matrix of influences quality is very variable, running the full gamut, from the superb down to the disappointing. It is a vintage where buying decisions must be informed. Critics dishing out high scores across the board and ‘best ever’ comments have clearly been tasting very different wines to those I have encountered. It is certainly not a great vintage where you could buy blind, or buy from your favourite châteaux, safe in the knowledge you will have something good. There are wines to buy in this vintage though; but those who have made the top wines know it (they said so – there’s confidence for you!), and I think my prediction that prices will rise seems likely to be correct. Many are in the mood for a rise, with the weak Euro being the most commonly cited influence on this. If that happens, I can’t see how the en primeur system can continue to work. Perhaps Château Bellevue-Mondotte is a suitable allegory for the state of Bordeaux today? It is all gilt palaces and smiling confidence at the front, but behind it things are perhaps a bit broken? I wonder, can the négociants soak up another vintage of over-priced wines?

My reports begin on Tuesday next week (April 7th). I don’t think it is appropriate to wait any longer, simply because I suspect the campaign may kick off quite soon. I have a fairly rigorous schedule for publishing the reports, in order to get them out as soon as possible, and will do my best to keep to it (but I haven’t signed that promise in blood – there is a lot of writing to do!).

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: I quit my husband

Today’s story begins at 1am on Thursday, my fifth day of 2014 Bordeaux primeur tasting, or my sixth if you include Saturday evening. Well, actually, the short chain of events in this tale can actually be followed back to Wednesday morning, when I unwittingly left behind a laptop at my accommodation. I only realised when I received an email to say it was being held for me, and I can pick it up any time. I toyed with the idea of driving back to retrieve it after my tasting at Château La Lagune had finished, but it would have been a round trip of 1 hour 40 minutes, plus my drive to my hotel on the right bank, so I decided to leave it and pick it up later in the week. If I had gone back to get it, however, I would have perhaps realised I also left behind half my clothes. My departure on Wednesday was clearly not my most star-spangled packing performance.

I only realised I was now travelling lighter than I originally intended at 1am Thursday morning, and I thought first I should check the boot of my hire car to see if my missing clothes were in there. It was then, in the car park, that I met Marguerite (names may have been changed to protect the innocent). Marguerite seemed flustered, and it soon became apparent why. She was desperate to stay at the hotel, which is one of these budget hotels (and you thought I was staying in the Libourne Hilton) where you can take a room, any time day or night, by paying with credit card; you use a machine in the foyer which spits out a room number and access code at you. The problem was, Marguerite had cash, but no credit card. And then out came the story; I’ve quit my husband. I am here, with my son (cue appearance of eight-year old boy cradling puppy), needing a room. I went to the gendarmerie they told me to come here. I have the cash, but no card. If I give you the money can you buy me a room? I am naturally cynical, but the desperation was genuine, the story stacked up, and there was no scam I could see (it’s not like she was trying to sell me some Armani jackets she had in the back of the car). Still, I took my time assessing the situation before I agreed, and she fished €50 from her purse which I took, but then discovered at the credit card machine that the the hotel was full. Her plans were dashed, the money returned. Disheartened, she and her son returned to her car. They lingered at the gate for five minutes, perhaps wondering what to do next, before they disappeared into the night.

I came to Bordeaux for the primeurs, but thanks to some wayward socks I ended up wandering into the middle of a stranger’s life crisis, a momentary figure in Marguerite’s story, a bit part in a life-defining drama, for her and perhaps more for her son (who I had a nice chat with – my French was more his level). It makes you realise, or remember anyway, that wine is just wine, and there are so many other life changing events happening all around us, often unseen.

Jean-Michel Laporte

I went back inside and set an early alarm which gave me time to stop off at InterMarché to buy some socks. Then it was off to see Jean-Michel Laporte (pictured above) at Château La Conseillante. The main news here is that Jean-Michel is set to leave La Conseillante, he and the Nicolas family having decided to go their separate ways, after the realisation that they have different visions for the estate and its wine, and having disagreed on a number of important issues, including pricing. Jean-Michel will leave in June, and does not yet have another job lined up. It is a life decision that, while perhaps not quite on the same level as Marguerite’s tale, will change the course of a very fine career if nothing else.

Then it was on to Le Pin, where I also tasted Jacques’ new-ish St Emilion cuvée L’If, and I asked Jacques if the 2013 (which he didn’t show last year) would ever be poured for journalists. “No”, he replied, “it is for people who want to buy it. If nobody wants to buy it, I will drink it”. I suspect, somehow, it will sell, even in the absence of critical opinion. Then I followed up with Petrus, Château Le Gay, Château L’Évangile, Château L’Église Clinet, then over to Château Angélus (it was a bit out of synch, but it was the only time I could fit them in). Afterwards, it was back to Pomerol, with Château Lafleur, where the development of the white wines continues to be very strong, alongside the red wines too of course. Then it was back to St Emilion (I know the road between the two appellations better than ever now) for Château Ausone, where the wines were one greater in number than is usual, as the Vauthier family purchased Château La Clotte in September 2014, and were showing the ‘transition vintage’. I guess we should look to 2015 as their first true vintage here, having said that the wine was good, as was the rest of the range, but in a style that very much conforms to the vintage, which is very mixed and weak in parts, with a very broad range in quality from the top to the bottom.

More St Emilion then, first to check out the Neipperg wines at Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, and then up to the UGC tasting to check out Château Troplong-Mondot and others. Finishing ahead of schedule, I then unexpectedly found myself hot-footing it back to Pomerol for the Pomerol Séduction tasting at Clos du Clocher. The samples here were a little warm but felt fresh otherwise, so this was a useful exercise, allowing me to double-check these wines, as I had tasted all but two of them before.

On Friday, another Pomerol-St Emilion blend, with the Moueix portfolio first, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac, the Thunevin portfolio, a tasting at Château Pavie-Macquin and finishing up at Château Tertre Roteboeuf. I have learnt to always finish up with François, as the tastings can over-run a little. After all, who knows which way the conversation with François will turn. Astrological planetary alignments? Voltaire? The taste of potatoes? Anything is possible with François.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: I read sumsing. . .

I suspect most people would prefer to taste dry wines followed by sweet, rather than sweet followed by dry; trying to get your head around a mouthful of tannin-rich Pauillac is hard enough without starting with all your tastebuds coated with the lingering sweetness of Sauternes, its fragrant golden fruits, and every single gram of its residual sugar doing its best to cloud your judgement. No doubt this is why, when all the other UGC tastings shut up shop at 6pm, the plucky Sauternais hang on in there for another hour, ready to serve last-minute, post-Pauillac tasters.

I already tasted Sauternes on Sunday, but there were a couple of wines missing, most notably Château Rieussec, and so having trundled down the D2 stuck behind a very slow moving luxury minibus (probably full of the tasting team from Farr’s, or Fine & Rare, or perhaps it was just WSJ wine journalist Will Lyons in his mobile wardrobe) I arrived at Château La Lagune (the Sauternes venue) at 6:38 pm. More than enough time to find the wines I needed to taste, and maybe just check in again on one or two others. But as I entered I spotted the UGC ladies, who were ready to scan the barcode on my badge – which I suddenly realised was “dans ma voiture”, as I put it. “Oh, no problem” she replied in a sultry French accent that would melt even Boy George’s heart (you have to read this in your head in the same accent), and she immediately set her machine to print a new badge for me. “I know you are Chris Kissack, because I read sumsing about you….”

Anyway, I’m starting at the end again, when I should really start at the beginning. I started Wednesday at 9am at Château Margaux, never a bad place to start, and then followed up with visits to Château Palmer, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château d’Issan. I was sorry to learn at the third of these visits that John Kolasa, the mastermind behind the renaissance of both Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon in St Emilion, is set to retire this June. He has decided to go while the going is good, and perhaps to travel more, to see his increasingly large number of grandchildren who are scattered across France and Canada. I wish him well.

Dourthe 2014 samples

Thereafter it was up to Château Ducru-Beaucaillou to taste the wines of Bruno Borie, who was in ebulliant form (as always I think), before going completely off-piste from my schedule. I had intended to taste at a number of other UGC events, but first I had a couple of gaps I needed to fill in (the result of a press Pessac-Leognan tasting I went to where there was no Malartic-Lagravière and no Smith-Haut-Lafitte, which seems nuttily slapdash to me) and so I wangled an invitation to the Dourthe tasting at Château Belgrave. It would only take 20 minutes. I arrived at about 1pm, and didn’t leave for Château La Lagune until 6pm.

The reason I lingered so long is that this was a great tasting. Not only was there a huge selection of wines available, all colours, all communes, dry and sweet, white and red, the wines were just perfectly presented, the temperatures were spot on, and I didn’t come across a duff sample in there. The tasting, which was seated, was divided up into about 30 flights, and all I had to was raise my hand and a sommelier would bring the requested flight, in a little rack of half bottles (as above). Once finished, the sommelier would take them away, restock if required, and ensure they were returned to a cool 17ºC before they went out again.

I started by tasting Margaux, a target for the afternoon, followed by wines from the Haut-Médoc, the Médoc, Moulis and Listrac, then I retasted all the St Julien classed growths available (becuase I just wasn’t convinced they were showing right yesterday afternoon, and although some might blame the atmospheric pressure, or whether it was a root day or a leaf day or some other such nonsense, I think they were just tired samples, or a tired taster maybe), then I picked up those missing wines from Pessac-Léognan in red and white, followed by some white Graves, and I finished in style with some Bordeaux Blanc.

Today (Thursday) it is Pomerol, with La Conseillante, Le Pin and Petrus just for starters, with more Pomerol and St Emilion for the main course and pudding. Oh, and what was that “sumsing” the UGC lady had read? I am afriad I was distracted by Caroline Frey, and her invitation to taste the latest four vintages (2014 to 2011) of La Lagune, so I am afraid I never discovered it. If I find out, I will be sure to let you know.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Boozy Lunches and Blinkers

Well Tuesday went well. After running late for most of Monday, on Tuesday I ended up running early, at one point up to 50 minutes ahead of schedule. You might think this a sign of bad planning, but it was just the luck of the draw. I simply couldn’t get some appointments at the times I wanted, giving me a rather ‘spaced out’ schedule, but rather than hang around waiting for my allotted times I just turned up early. A little bit inconvenient, but I hoped my interest would be looked upon kindly. It was, and so I kept the day running nicely; indeed, I managed to fit in two tastings that weren’t even on my timetable for the day.

It was 8am at Château Calon-Ségur for the first tasting, and as on previous days it was cold, miserable and disappointing (the weather, not the wine). I tasted with Vincent Millet, who is pleased with the results of the 2014 vintage. Then I quickly swung by Château Pédesclaux to see the results of recent building work here, the château (below) now flanked by two steel and glass cubes. It certainly looks interesting. As for the wine, I will taste that later today (Wednesday) with Emmanuel Cruse who has a big role here and at the other Lorenzetti estate, Lilian-Ladouys. Then it was on to Château Pontet-Canet, before hopping next-door to Château Mouton-Rothschild, then another hop up the road to Château Lafite-Rothschild. Next was Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, followed by Château Latour. That took me up to lunchtime, and so I headed up to Château Sociando-Mallet to taste, and then I sat down for lunch, an informal affair of cold charcuterie followed by boeuf en daube and cheese. There was a bottle of the 2006 Sociando-Mallet to wash it all down with, if required. I took a couple of mouthfuls to taste, but no more than that, as it is a long day, and I am of course driving for much of it. This was my most luxurious lunch of the week, by the way, as usually I just grab a sandwich in the car between appointments.

Château Pédesclaux, March 2015

This is, it has to be said, a great contrast to the experience some enjoy during the primeurs week. It can be a bit of a party, with long boozy lunches with plenty of old vintages served, and lazy dinners too. This is fine for the wine trade; if you’re in the trade you definitely should be dining with the Bordelais in this fashion, building a good working relationship, getting to know one another, because the merchants and the châteaux depend on one another to survive (although you might not think it – suffice to say it can perhaps be a little tense at time, the obvious problem in recent years being the prices). For wine critics, or writers, or bloggers, or whatever you want to call them, it seems to me to be a rather incongruous activity though. Picture the supposedly independent assessor of the latest vintage, sitting at table, grinning into the camera, glass in raised hand, enjoying the 2000 from Château Wonderful with carpaccio of coelacanth and pan-fried ortolan. As the photographs are plastered over Twitter or Facebook they might just be followed up with something like “I love the 2014 vintage”, which is of course a completely independent assessment based on long and considered though, the taster working entirely free of undue influence, despite having just had a fine gustatory experience, and having just glugged the 2005 and 1990, also from Château Wonderful. It might be all good fun, but this critic/blogger is now part of the marketing machine, and when the release prices stay high despite everything it wil be partly this critic’s fault. When the punters who bought the wines pull the corks ten years down the road, and find that actually they’re a bit lean, and maybe 2014 was a bit over-hyped after the dreary 2013 vintage, and perhaps the wines are not really all they were cracked up to be, it will also be partly that critic’s fault. Don’t believe the boozy, blinkered hype.

I digress (not for the first time). After Sociando-Mallet I headed down to Château Montrose, followed by Château Cos d’Estournel, then down to the UGC tasting for Pauillac and, although not orignally scheduled, I also squeezed in the UGC St Julien tasting. The former was at Château Lynch-Moussas, which is west of Pauillac in soils of a very sandy, gritty nature, and with all the recent rain it was a bit of a mudbath outside. My hire car is now more brown than black. The latter tasting was at Château Léoville-Poyferré. Then, as the wine wasn’t being shown at the UGC tasting (did they pull out last year? – I must remember this for future reference) I paid an unscheduled visit to Château Pichon-Lalande, where I was warmly welcomed despite turning up sans rendez-vous, and then I finished up across the road at Château Pichon-Baron, where I was certainly the last taster standing. By the time I finished, Christian Seely and Jean-René Matignon looked ready for their coats. It’s a tiring week for all, tasters, pourers and talkers.

Tomorrow, a lie-in, as my first appointment isn’t until 9am, at Château Margaux. More Margaux and St Julien thereafter, filling in a couple of Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes gaps, and then I head for the right bank before the final two days of tasting.