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From Moueix to Cheval Blanc

Friday was Pomerol day, and almost the day I had my first no-show. Almost.

When I rose, before dawn, I could see fog outside lingering heavily around the streetlamps. The weather this week has been really unusual, freezing cold in the morning, but warming up each afternoon. On Thursday, the first day of December, I had to scrape ice off the heavily chipped windscreen of my hire car (taking car not to press too hard, in case the whole thing caved in), and yet by early afternoon, standing at the front of Château Pavie, south-facing, with the pale stone facade just behind me, it was unbearably warm. In December!

The fog eventually cleared, but a frost remained. Yesterday was another ice-scraping day. “We are glad to see the frost”, Omri Ram of Château Lafleur later told me. A cold winter is good for the vines, although they could perhaps benefit from some rain as well, to top up the water table left low after the 2015 drought. My windscreen duly cleared, I headed down to the Moueix offices in Libourne, where I was greeted by both Christian and Edouard Moueix, two stalwarts. After a tasting here I headed out to Château L’Église-Clinet, where to my disappointment I found the cellars and maison all locked up, the shutters closed. My pressing of the doorbell went unanswered, so there was nothing to do but wait and see if Denis turned up. I passed the time wandering around the cemetery next-door. Am I the only one who finds cemeteries vaguely fascinating?

From Moueix to Cheval Blanc

As I wandered among the gravestones and mausoleums, I was coming to the conclusion that Denis was a ‘no show’ when I heard a door slam nearby, and immediately went to investigate. Denis had arrived (hurrah!), and after discussing the rights and wrongs of tasting young wines for twenty minutes I sat down to taste the Durantou portfolio in 2014. Thereafter I headed out to Vieux Château Certan for a meeting with Guillaume Thienpont, and Alexandre popped in to say hello as well. After tasting here, I headed out to Château Le Gay. It is always a pleasure to come to this pretty château, my eyes often as pleased here as my palate is by its wines.

Afterwards I had a quick lunch break, followed by a visit to Château Nenin, an estate on the up, with some serious changes underway, in the vineyard, in the château and cellars, and most importantly in the wine too. Afterwards, I headed out to Château Lafleur, something of a contrast. With a fairly relaxed schedule, I really enjoyed this tasting, delving into 2014 here and at Château Grand Village, looking at both red and white wines. Afterwards I headed out to Château Figeac, for their two 2014s, tasted with Frédéric Faye (pictured above), and then it was on to Château Cheval Blanc, to look at their 2014s. Meeting up as agreed with Nicolas Corporandy, the chef de culture, I tasted the grand vin, the second wine and the new addition to the portfolio in 2014, Le Petit Cheval Blanc. This latter wine is the first commercialised result of a long project, on which I will write more at a later date.

Once finished, the sun had long set, and it was very dark. Despite this I decided to make an impromptu inspection of the new Cheval Blanc white vines. Before long I had my hire car bumping up and down a rough track through the middle of a vineyard. This is, I should point out, nothing new. It was too dark for photographs though, so although I gained some understanding of exactly where the new white vines sit, I don’t have the evidence to support it. Oh well – I shall just have to come back next year.

That’s it for this short trip to Bordeaux. Right now I an en route for Edinburgh, via Mérignac. Normal Winedoctor service will be resumed as soon as possible.

From La Dauphine to Laroque

Thursday was a great day, for various reasons. First, I started the day with a pain au chocolat, although I think when in Bordeaux I am supposed to refer to it as a chocolatine. In the world of pastry-based breakfasts, the pain au chocolat is a strong contender for the crown, with only the pain au raisin able to give it a run for its money. Secondly, in a rare moment of calm I had half an hour to myself between visits during the afternoon. Rather than running around taking photographs or doing some other Winedoctor-related activity, I kicked back with a coffee, made by Jonathan Maltus. As Jancis Robinson has never invited me round for a drink, I can honestly say this was the first time anyone with an OBE ever made me a drink.

Thirdly there were, of course, some wines to be tasted. The 2014 vintage is definitely more homogenous on the right bank than the left, with good quality, and so there were plenty of interesting wines to taste, but before I got to that vintage I kicked off with a tasting of the 2016 vintage from vat at Château La Dauphine, yet another promising encounter with this most recent vintage. Then it was on to Château Angélus, where I tasted a range of wines made by Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, and Hubert himself popped in to say hello as I was tasting. From Angélus it was on to Château Pavie-Macquin where I tasted with Cyril Thienpont (pictured below) and David Suire. This tasting was a little more lengthy than I was expecting (note to self – schedule longer here in future!) because the Thienponts and David make a handsome range of wines, and so I was a little late arriving for my tasting at Château La Dominique.

From La Dauphine to Laroque

I had scheduled a longer visit at Château La Dominique, knowing a taste of the 2016 vintage would also be on offer, so after tasting the Fayat family’s wines from 2014 we headed into the chai for some 2016 Merlots and a lone 2016 Cabernet Franc. These were yet more samples which suggest this is a vintage we should pay attention to when it comes to the primeurs. The usual refrain with 2014, and again sometimes with 2015, was “it’s the best since 2010″. I think it quite likely 2016 will take that crown, but let us see what they are like at the primeurs. I suspect there will be some really interesting wines being poured next April, wines which might be worth you opening your wallets (I would open mine, but all I ever seem to find inside it are till receipts and moths).

After La Dominique I hot-footed it over to Château Pavie, and I arrived only ten(-ish) minutes late. I then spent another ten(-ish) minutes trying to figure out how to get in, as all the doors were locked and the château seemed deserted. As I tried every door possible my mobile rang – “This is Château Pavie, where are you?” ….. “I’m outside, let me in” I replied. One minute later a door swung open and I was in. Fifteen minutes later I was en route for Château Teyssier, and a tasting (and a very welcome coffee) with Jonathan Maltus.

The day was originally set to finish at Château Tertre-Roteboeuf, not by accident, but by design, as I learnt a long time ago to always schedule a visit with François Mitjavile at the end of the day. François is often inundated with visitors, and he can thus spend a long time attending to everybody’s needs. Today, however, I agreed to meet David Suire at Château Laroque. So after Tertre-Roteboeuf I headed up to Laroque, and I was only five minutes late, and I was quite pleased with this. And it was a good tasting on which to end the day; Laroque isn’t a famous name, but David Suire is already doing good things here.

Today (Friday) it is Pomerol, so some Moueix wines first, Vieux Château Certan (this feels like a privilege – I don’t think I have visited outside the primeurs before), Château Le Gay, Château L’Église-Clinet, Château Figeac and Château Cheval Blanc (what’s that? – you don’t think those two belong in Pomerol?). Hopefully the thick fog outside my bedroom window this morning will clear soon.

From Calon to Fronsac

Wednesday started off well, and just seemed to get better as the day went on, at least as far as the wines were concerned. I started at Château Calon-Ségur, tasting the 2014s, followed by a quick tour of the cellars. When I visited in October last year these were under construction. And now, more than a year on……they are still under construction. A lot of progress has been made though, and I had a look at the 2015s and 2016s in the expansive new barrel cellar. Leaving too soon, I then headed down to Château Montrose for a tasting of their 2014s, followed by another hop, skip and jump south again to Château Lafite-Rothschild for theirs. That doesn’t sound like much, but those three visits easily took up most of the morning.

I arrived at Château Cos d’Estournel at 11am, for a longer and more detailed visit. After meeting up with Aymeric de Gironde and Dominique Arangoïts we piled into Aymeric’s chariot for a whirlwind tour of the Cos d’Estournel vines, from the east-facing parcel of mostly gravel and clay, to the southwest-facing parcel which runs down towards the drainage channel before you get into Pauillac, and then onto the plateau, altogether the three major sections of the vineyard. It was fascinating to learn how Aymeric and Dominique have added a new layer of complexity to their work following a recent study of soil resistivity. If you are passing by Cos d’Estournel in the future and you wonder why there are vines and posts daubed with fluorescent orange paint dotted throughout the vineyard, these are the indicators of where the soil changes from one type to another. I guess after building one of the Médoc’s most well-equipped cuveries back in 2008, which still makes many proprietors green with envy when they see it, the only way to go is to seek out more precision in the vineyard.

From Calon to Fronsac
 
I tasted some 2016s from vat at Château Cos d’Estournel, and it seems to me this is going to be a very interesting vintage to taste next year. I think it is too early to throw out hyperbolic statements on the quality (is it ever the right time for hyperbole?), but the handful of wines (and it is just a handful) I have tasted on the left bank are filled with promise. It seems like a much more homogenous vintage so far, much more so than 2015, 2014 and 2012, all of which had hot spots and cold spots when it came to quality. After the tasting, I accepted an invitation to have a quick lunch at Cos d’Estournel, and enjoyed four older vintages with Aymeric and Dominique. That is perhaps a story for another time.

The afternoon was something of a dash. First up, five wines from the 2014 vintage at Château Mouton-Rothschild, followed by just one wine at Château Pontet-Canet. Then I headed down to Château Léoville-Las-Cases for a tasting with the charming Bruno Rolland, and I was impressed by the wines. I can’t help but comment on the building works going on here, which seem extensive; the team have been relegated to a temporary office in a little house overlooking one of the vineyards, so I saw parts of the estate I don’t think I have ever set foot in before. Finally, I finished with a quick dash down to Château Palmer, to taste this estate’s 2014, their first 100% biodynamic wine.

My tastings were over, but my day wasn’t. For a special treat I finished up crawling along in heavy traffic for something close to eternity, half of Bordeaux seemingly gridlocked thanks to the Vinitech fair (a chance to check out all the latest harvesting machines, tractors and so on) at the Parc des Expositions. I ended up heading west to get onto the Rocade, before heading east towards Libourne, and managed to lose only an hour of my life sitting in le bouchon. Once in Fronsac I spent the entire evening trying to get my wifi working (and failing). Eventually I gave up and went to bed instead (hence this late post).

Thursday’s timetable focuses on St Emilion. First stop, Château Angélus.

From Merignac to Yquem

I landed in Bordeaux right on time yesterday morning. It was quite a surreal flight; I flew with Ryanair, the most budget of all budget airlines. There is no in-flight service unless you pay, and the quality of the offerings might just be open to culinary criticism (although I admit to not splashing out to explore this first hand), so it is de rigueur to take something on board yourself. It is only two hours from Edinburgh to Bordeaux though, so after a 6am coffee and pain au raisin at the airport I took a bottle of water with me. The old (by which I guess I mean older than me) couple sitting next to me, however, each brought a full lunchbox, with ham and coleslaw sandwiches, crusts removed, and two roasted chicken legs each, the knuckle ends wrapped in foil so they could eat them without getting greasy fingers. All it needed was Hugh Johnson to pop up, wearing striped blazer and boater, clutching a chilled bottle of Clairette de Die, and the picnic would have been complete.

I don’t mean to make it sound as though I was on a mission yesterday but I was off the plane, through border security and through baggage collection (without stopping – I almost always do carry-on only) and en route to the location des voitures and I coulld see there were still passengers ambling down the steps from the aircraft. I picked up my hire car, a pristine VW Polo no doubt pumping out twice the legal emissions limt, without any problem. Less than fifteen minutes later I was at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion which, to put it bluntly, has been turned on its head in recent years. There has been huge investment by the new owner, Patrice Pichet, including new cellars, built in a river. Yes, you read that correctly. The approach to viticulture and winemaking has also changed dramatically, with micro-vats, foudres and terracotta amphorae (pictured below) being just some of the innovations.

From Mérignac to Yquem

I spent a couple of hours at Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion, before a very short drive to Château La Mission Haut-Brion, just eight minutes away. I gained entry through a gate I didn’t even know existed, although it obviously knew me, as it magically swung open as I approached. After a few minutes of hanging around (I was early – it’s a new bad habit I seem to have fallen into) I was in and checking out the 2014 vintage. From here on the afternoon was all about getting to grips with the 2014s, the most recently bottled vintage, and I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather kick off than here.

It was a much briefer visit to Château Haut-Brion, a mere hour in fact, after which I headed south to Château Brown, where I met Jean-Christophe Mau, to taste the 2014 Château Brown and the 2014 Château Preuillac, the Médoc estate Jean-Christophe owned until selling up after the 2014 vintage. This was also a good opportunity to hear a little more about the 2016 vintage, because if there is one person in Bordeaux you can trust to give you an honest and trustworthy opinion, rather than following the hyperbole of the crowd, then it is Jean-Christophe. I really think he is one of the great guys of Bordeaux. It was another short visit though, as after 30 minutes I had to head further south to Château d’Yquem, to meet up with technical director Sandrine Garbay for a taste of her two 2014s, the dry ‘Y’ and of course the grand vin.

After four visits I headed north to bed down for the night in the northern Médoc, ready for today’s visits, which start in St Estèphe and which will end in Margaux. On the A62 the windscreen of my hire car took a hit from a flying stone which I never saw (I only heard it – what a fright that gave me) but it must have been the size of a brick, judging by the three-pointed stellate chip in the glass. So my Polo is no longer pristine. This might be a more expensive tasting trip than I had hoped for.

Five Days of Fourteens

There will be a change of pace on Winedoctor during the next few days, as I am off to Bordeaux to taste more of the 2014 vintage. I tasted quite a few in London with the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux a few weeks ago (although it already feels like it was several months in the past – it has been a busy month). The UGC tasting included many great names, as always, but of course there are any number of interesting châteaux that do not participate, from left-bank first growths (and their neighbours who see themselves in the same light) as well as any number of worthwhile estates on the right bank, especially in Pomerol. So now it is time to top up my tasting experience of this vintage at these châteaux before I publish my in-bottle report, hopefully early in 2017.

Five Days of Fourteens

I have five days of visits lined up; that isn’t as much time as it sounds, and so they will be five busy days of mainly quick in-and-out visits purely to taste the 2014 vintage, and of course I will be sure to ask how the 2016s are looking at the moment (although I think I can predict the answers already). I do have a few longer visits lined up though, with the option to taste a broader range of vintages, so these should be interesting. I also have a free hour (and I do mean just an hour, no more) on Friday afternoon, so if anyone in or near Pomerol would like me to pop in and won’t be offended that I have only 60 minutes to spare do get in touch!

The upshot of all this is that I won’t be making behind-paywall updates for the remainder of the week, as I have learnt through experience during the primeurs that with long days of driving, tasting and scribbling (this isn’t a press trip in which I get chauffered around, wined and dined) that writing multi-page profiles and tasting reports before I start out each day just isn’t feasible. I will hopefully update the Winedr blog each day though. Provided my flight departs on time (glancing at the departure board in Edinburgh airport as I write this, no worries so far) I should be calling in later on Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion (pictured above), Château Brown and Château d’Yquem. It’s not a bad line-up for day one.

The Three Ages of The Bordeaux Drinker

I think I may have entered my third age as a Bordeaux drinker.

If you’re not familiar with the three ages of the Bordeaux drinker, don’t worry, neither is anyone else. This is because I just invented it earlier today, in a moment when my mind was wandering more than it should have been.

The defining moment that separates the first and second ages of a Bordeaux drinker comes when he or she encounters and becomes interested in the wines for the very first time. At that point there is an ‘entry vintage’ at which one dives into the region. It doesn’t have to be a massive en primeur purchase of thirty cases, a few bottles will do. It just has to be enough to connect you with the vintage, so that you experience the wines in their youth, before – provided you bought more than one bottle – you can then come back to the vintage again (and again) in the future.

This vintage draws a line in the sands of time (no-one can ever accuse me if not mixing my metaphors). Wines that were made before the ‘entry vintage’ are only ever experienced as they head towards maturity, without any understanding of how they tasted when young. These vintages belong to your more educated peers, but this is your ‘first age’, wines which you can only experience in retrospect, each one that comes along a little glimpse into this walled-off era. After the ‘entry vintage’, however, these vintages are yours. This is your second age, an era of vintages and wines you know much better. You meet them in their youth (and your youth!), and follow them through the years, as they mature.

Bordeaux

There comes a moment when the second age transitions into the third. This moment is, I think, more difficult to pin down, because we all jump in at different levels when we start, and we all have differing volumes of mature wine in our cellar. The third age begins with the realisation that our entry vintage, the vintage that we once aspired to, is now the vintage that we should drink. I don’t think there is one exact moment this happens, it is perhaps more of a gradual realisation, and I suppose it depends on when you consider a wine ‘mature’. For some it might be ten years. I think Bordeaux of decent quality develops well over a much longer time span than that, at least fifteen or twenty years, and in some cases of course much more. Regardless of how we define it, by now I am certainly securely into my third age. I have watched the young vintages that drew me into Bordeaux develop from embryonic, tannic young wines into mature wines that demand drinking.

The third age should be the era in which we can buy with the greatest confidence, as having had this experience surely brings a deeper knowledge of the region, a greater level of trust in our own palates, and perhaps the confidence to buy based as much on our own beliefs and palate self-awareness as much as the vintage reports, tasting notes and scores coming out of Bordeaux. Sadly, I am not sure my own third age is progressing as I once imagined it would. The problem is, with Bordeaux pricing as sky-high as it is, I think this confidence and self-awareness is now more often directed more towards finding good-value alternatives to Bordeaux, rather than the best the famous (and expensive) châteaux of Bordeaux can give us. But that is a story for another time, I think.

Jonathan Maltus, OBE

I learnt this morning that Jonathan Maltus, proprietor of Château Teyssier in St Emilion, has been made an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Jonathan Maltus

Huge congratulations to Jonathan (pictured above, during last year’s primeurs). I hope he and wife Lyn will celebrate with a magnum or two of Le Dôme 2010, with Stevie Ray Vaughn on the turntable, turned up to 11.

I’m off now to research etiquette for greeting individuals awarded the OBE ready for when I next visit Jonathan. Fellow OBEs, Jancis Robinson and Gererd Bassett, two other hugely talented individuals, will hopefully help me out.

Bordeaux 2015: Is it all over?

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a Bordeaux apologist. I have been as dismayed as the next drinker by the increasingly tight stranglehold on primeurs prices that we have seen develop during the last 15 years. I’m all for winemakers being paid appropriately (if only we could get that in place in Muscadet) but it balks when that is achieved at the cost of the potential profit for everybody else in the chain of distribution, as well as through a system which traps négociants into buying (take your allocation or you get none next year) and through manipulation of the supply of wine onto the market, as seems to be more common in the region this year.

I sometimes read that the market sets the price for Bordeaux. When it comes to the secondary market, a combination of high quality (by which I mean a high score from Parker, before his retirement the only critic to really move markets in Bordeaux) and restricted availability (which might reflect limited production, but might also be a result of increasing scarcity as wines age and are consumed) has resulted in higher prices. Other factors, such as provenance, influence the price of individual bottles, cases or lots.

I used to believe that anyone trying to apply this market concept to the primeurs was deluded, but these days I would not be so sure. Now I would perhaps say they are only half-deluded. First, châteaux do have some notion of the quality when they release, or at least they have a surrogate for it, admittedly not from Parker but they have scores from a range of European, North American and other critics. That used to be the whole story, but today reduced supply may also be playing a more important role, as more châteaux look to hold back stock from early release. Even so, this is still not true market economics, because the price is not set by true supply and demand in the marketplace. It is set by the châteaux, taking into account likely perceived demand, perhaps bolstered by the withholding of stock (which, to be fair, as far as I am aware only applies to the minority of châteaux…. at the moment) and an amalgam of opinions about quality. And of course other factors may have some influence on price-settings. Perhaps pride? Local politics? The release price set by your neighbours, whether you view them as peers of competitors? The perceived need to ‘market reposition’? The need to pay off the bank loan for the recent cellar building project? Who knows?

With this in mind, the early 2015 Bordeaux releases provided something of a pleasant surprise. Of course, in the context of a vintage where quality ranges from merely good all the way through to truly great, the wines weren’t going to be ‘cheap’ or what many of us would think of describe as ‘bargains’, but that’s the nature of Bordeaux these days (not just in good vintages like 2015, but also dismal vintages such as 2013 too). All the same, the earliest releases were characterised by what I thought were at least reasonable prices. Sure, some were clearly over-ambitious, being priced close or even above 2009 and/or 2010 and they were all more expensive than recent vintages including 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. But I feel for many potential buyers the price positioning seemed appropriate, and not as avaricious as some were expecting. In fact, the pricing was sufficiently acceptable for me to buy a couple of six-packs. Other than Sauternes (always good value) this is my first purchase at the primeurs since the 2008 vintage. I have bought in 2009 and 2010, but only once the wines were in bottle. I would have bought in 2011 and 2012 if the prices were more appropriate for the quality. Only a madman would buy 2013, unless keeping a vertical going is really important to you.

Sadly this considered approach by the Bordelais to pricing hasn’t been consistent, especially as time has gone on. Later releases have seen higher price rises than those seen with the earlier releases. Look at this plot published by Liv-Ex earlier this week. Something has happened to encourage châteaux releasing later to raise prices to a much greater degree. We can only speculate what might be driving this, but some of the influences on primeur pricing listed above might be relevant. One possibility is that later-releasing châteaux might be seeing how well earlier releases are being received (and presumably selling?), and concluding that they can squeeze a little more on the price. Another is simple politics; perhaps later-releasing châteaux might simply want to price higher than their peers who have already released in order to make a statement on status. I’m not so sold on that idea, simply based on the diverse array of châteaux involved and the wide spread of price increases. It may play a part in some of the price rises though. It might be that later releases tend to include grander names; the increase in the trend line is largely dependent on five high-ranking châteaux, namely Château Canon (this is score-driven to a large extent), Château Pichon-Baron, Château Cos d’Estournel, Château Haut-Bailly and Château Lynch-Bages, with a surprise appearance from a sixth, Château Brane-Cantenac. Château Palmer would be another, if it were plotted. Naturally these tend to be more expensive wines anyway, because of quality, track record, classification or status, but don’t forget the plot is not for prices, but for price rises, expressed as a percentage of the price of the 2014 from the same châteaux. Something about this group of châteaux meant they felt comfortable going with big price rises. I’m not sure that there is one simple reason explanation for this, though.

Whatever the reason(s), with the first growths and super-seconds largely yet to release, we can expect more high prices in the next few weeks. And, I suspect (because I can’t see it turning around) continued high price increases (maybe not continuing the trend upwards, but I expect these percentage increases to be maintained). That means, for me, these wines will all be increasingly poor investments; the more wines are priced like they were in 2010, the more likely it is that the price/value will fall over time. If you’re are an investor, these wines are a big risk. If you are buying to drink, it is likely you will get a better deal later on.

The 2015 primeurs. Is it all over?

En Primeur: Buy, Backfill or Chinon?

The Bordeaux 2015 releases continue to trickle out. Well, there has perhaps been a little more than a ‘trickle’ this week, as the pace seems to have picked up a touch. I have been watching the prices with interest, wondering if any would tempt me to bite, or whether they would simply push me towards buying older vintages – known as backfilling – instead, or indeed whether the prices would continue to push me even further away from buying Bordeaux at all (especially bearing in mind it is only four weeks until I head out to Chinon, and I have a Chinon-shaped hole in the cellar).

Quite a few wines have been released now, from a variety of appellations, and although scores and prices obviously vary from one wine to the next, I think some generalisations can be made. On the whole, prices have tended to be higher than most currently available vintages, back to 2006. The only exceptions to this ‘rule’ tend to be 2009 and 2010, which are more expensive, and going back beyond 2006 this is also the case for the 2005 vintage. Putting it another way, this means wines from a number of older physically available vintages can currently be bought for less money than the 2015 vintage. It perhaps it goes without saying, but these older vintages are a surer bet, having been reviewed and scored as wines in bottle by various critics (including me), often several times, over the course of the years that have passed since they were bottled. You can buy them and have them delivered the following week, not wait two years. They also have the added advantage of that extra maturity, being so much closer to being ready to drink and, if storage charges are a concern for you, they come with years of storage already paid for.

Alternatively, the 2015s customers are currently being offered are uncertain and unfinished wines, yet to be definitively reviewed after bottling, and they have a long road to travel before they get to their drinking windows.

I guess deciding whether to take a gamble on the latest vintage, possibly superior, or to go with the known quantity that is a vintage already in bottle, possibly the lesser wine (or possibly better too), is a very personal decision which reflects your character, wealth, the current contents of your cellar, age and perhaps many other factors. Such decisions also need to be made not just on the perceived quality of the two vintages, but – especially because 2015 is such a variable vintage – on the specific wines concerned. For example, with some 2015 St Emilions, I think a price point that sits above all those older vintages except for 2009 and 2010 might be appropriate. It is a great vintage in this appellation, and a price point like that puts the wine in a good position for consumers. When there is an incentive to buy such a wine, which really means a good score combined with a fair price (or even better, a great score and a price below that anticipated), I suspect 2015 may be a good investment (whether that be an investment for the future pleasure of our tastebuds, or a financial investment). But I think you have to be very selective though. I have written before it seems like the norm to lose money buying en primeur these days, and across the board I think that is still true. But some individual wines provide us with exceptions to that rule; the skill lies in identifying these wines before release and having the confidence to stump up the asking price. Yesterday’s release of Château Canon was one such wine, a truth which I think was widely understood judging by most merchants having immediately sold out with pre-orders.

There are other wines worth watching for in St Emilion, hence my comments above. Elsewhere, especially as you move northwards on the Médoc, I am not at all convinced wines released at a price above most of those older vintages offer a good deal. I worry about wines from St Estèphe, for example, which are priced at a level comparable or even higher than 2009 or 2010 – that seems stridently over-ambitious. I would say the same of many wines from Pauillac and St Julien. Whereas the St Emilions may be superior, many of these wines from the Médoc are of comparable quality to older physically available vintages in my opinion, and many will be available in the future for similar or even lower prices than those being asked now. I can’t help thinking that backfilling is a better option in these regions; avoid 2015, and buy those less expensive wines from the likes of 2006, an attractive vintage overshadowed by 2005, but still well-priced, and carrying all the advantages detailed above.

So for me, the 2015 has been a little buy (in St Emilion), and a little backfill (in 2006 St Julien). And in a few weeks, a little Chinon too. That’s my experience of the primeurs. What have you bought?

En Primeur: Where Next?

The way Bordeaux is sold is changing, and it is going to keep on changing. Despite frequently made predictions to the contrary, en primeur isn’t going to explode, nor is it likely to disappear altogether. I should also stress that nor will it return to the way it used to be, when cases were stacked high and cheap, and we could all afford first growths, or maybe super-seconds (or at least something). I believe that the approach currently taken by the Bordelais, or at least some top châteaux, which has diminished the significance of this once-feverish buying frenzy, is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The most obvious force that shifts our attention away from buying en primeur is price. En primeur simply isn’t the great deal for consumers it used to be. Wines are frequently released at a higher price than many previous vintages, and buyers have often found in recent years that the wines have depreciated in value after their purchase. When asked to pay for a wine at least ten years from being ready to drink, consumers have to see some benefit from their early investment, and that means appreciation not depreciation. Consumers might put up with being burnt once. Or maybe twice. But to expect buyers to continue this pattern of behaviour year-in, year-out, is expecting a bit much. I don’t need to go into any great detail on this (there is already too much written on the price of Bordeaux), and we can all see this unfolding live with each new release from the 2015 vintage. I think the best way of determining how individual releases sit when compared with older vintages (both in terms of critic scores and pricing) is to check out the Liv-Ex blog.

Other moves in Bordeaux also diminish the significance of the en primeur season, and these are newer phenomena, the higher prices having been building for the past 10-15 years. We all know Château Latour withdrew in 2012, so that’s hardly news. No-one has yet followed them, but a number of other high-flying names are holding back more stock during the primeurs, releasing perhaps little more than half their production onto the market. Château Angélus is one, and the Rothschild estates (on the Mouton side of the family) have also followed suit. Le Pin hasn’t withdrawn from the primeurs, although they did not participate this year, apparently because a couple of barrels were not ready, and they also stayed out of it in 2013. It will be interesting to see if they come back next year.

High prices, supported by reduced volumes, have made en primeur less relevant to consumers, but from a merchant’s point of view the changes in Bordeaux have also diminished the significance of the primeurs week (we used to call it a ‘campaign’ – that hardly seems appropriate now). Those high prices mean margins are very slim if there is to be any hope of actually selling the wines to increasingly uninterested buyers, but at least there has always been the volume. With reduced stocks released onto the market (some châteaux holding back 40% of production) the volumes the merchants have to deal with are much smaller, diminishing the potential benefit of being involved in en primeur. And I think volumes are set to decline further, as big-name châteaux hold back more stock, and other châteaux follow suit. The grip on primeur sales will tighten even further. It must be very frustrating to be a merchant dealing in en primeur Bordeaux.

Coming back to my original point then, the question often asked of primeur is how long can it last? How long will it be before the Bordelais realise it isn’t working, that the system is being strangled? How long before the grasp is loosened, and we can all go back to how we were ten years ago? The answer I would give to this question is never. It won’t happen. En primeur will be an increasingly small part of how Bordeaux (or at least the most interesting part of Bordeaux) is sold, with more and more of the big-name châteaux looking to hold back stock, to support the releases prices and the value of what lies in the cellar, and to sell by novel routes. The interest will come with seeing how they achieve this. Will we see more focus on the bottled wines, rather than the hurried one-day tastings that currently tour the world? Will we see more specialist offers through merchants? What about group auctions, where top châteaux band together to sell their mature stock of exquisite provenance? There surely has to be some system to project the existence of the wines into the minds of the merchants and the consumers, because I don’t think a series of annual releases of mature stock, the approach currently taken by Château Latour, repeated across 20, 30 or 100 other châteaux, is going to work. You need something to replace en primeur, the greatest marketing machine any wine region ever invented.