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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.

Bordeaux Quartets: 2015 vs. 2014

With my Bordeaux 2015 report now complete, I can look forward to writing about other aspects of Bordeaux, and also squeezing in rather more from the Loire Valley than I have managed over the past three weeks. That should please those readers who were wondering when the roll-out of my Loire Valley wine guide, temporarily on hold during the primeurs, would resume. The answer is “very soon”!

Although I have plenty of new articles lined up, we can’t leave 2015 Bordeaux behind completely. Over the next couple of months we should see all or at least most of the wines released onto the market. It is not the sort of vintage I can comfortably ignore from now on, because there are some wines of exceptionally high quality set to be released, and the prices might (we can dream!) be resonable. As I wrote in my Primeur Picks conclusion for subscribers yesterday, with this being the best vintage since 2010 we can expect prices to be higher than those for the 2011-2014 vintages, but hopefully not as high as we saw in 2009 and 2010. Any wine priced in this zone is worth considering; all you have to do then is judge, based on your preferences, the style of the wine, your financial situation and of course the published notes and scores, whether or not you think the wine is worth the price asked (and the associated risks of buying at this stage).

Château Canon

Any significant news regarding the en primeur campaign I will bring onto this free-to-read blog, meanwhile subscribers can expect a series of articles looking at the 2015 vintage tasted alongside 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Not only have these Bordeaux Quartet tastings given me another chance to consider the wines of 2015 (and with barrel samples, the more often you taste them, the better) but it allows me to now put the vintage into a more contemporary context. How does it stack up against these other vintages? Those who believe the ‘great vintage’ mantra adhered to by one or two merchants will probably be surprised by some (although not all) of the results. I started last week with a Bordeaux Quartet from Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte (looking at both red and white in 2015 and 2010 here, so I cheated a bit on the vintages), and I will continue tomorrow with Château Canon (pictured above).

I had planned to roll out these reports at a rate of one a week, but that will take months. As I suspect we will see a huge flurry of releases starting next week (all of France is on holiday at the moment for Ascension Day, and the holiday will roll through Friday into the weekend, so don’t expect anything before Monday) I should crack on and will post these at a rate of two or three a week. And I’m looking forward to it – nothing shows up the strengths – or indeed the weaknesses – of a vintage more than tasting them side-by-side.

Non-subscribers who feel they might be interested in the reports can subscribe here. A full subscription is £45, as I have not raised the price again this year, or there is a trial offered, £15 for one month, with the option to top-up the remaining 11 months for £30.

Bordeaux 2015: Penultimate Thoughts

Not closing thoughts then? No not quite, because although I have now published all my Bordeaux 2015 reports, having spent more than a week tasting the barrel samples during the primeurs, I do have one final instalment yet to be published in order to complete my review of the vintage. In my Primeur Picks conclusion, which I will add to my report next week, I will finish up with some thoughts on the real successes of the vintage, looking at the very best wines, those châteaux that over-performed, and where the best value might lie. Obviously, all this information is already waiting to be found buried somewhere in my published reports, but I hope it will be helpful to subscribers to bring it all together at the end.

This year’s examination of the latest Bordeaux vintage has been the most comprehensive ever, simply because I spent longer in Bordeaux tasting than I have in previous years. I headed for Bordeaux via London on the Thursday before the primeurs week; sadly, an Air Traffic Control strike in France temporarily delayed the second leg of my journey, but I still arrived in Bordeaux (after kicking my heels in a Gatwick airport hotel) earlier than ever before. I put in eight solid days (no weekends off for me) of visits and tastings.

Bordeaux Primeurs

Of course it’s not the trip that matters to readers, but the report. I never enjoyed reading primeurs reports that were nothing more than a list of tasting notes (and often all-too-similar scores) and now that I write my own reports I have always included plenty of background information, weather reports, quotes from winemakers, interpretations, satire, quite possibly a touch of sarcasm (I can’t help it, it’s Pavlovian) and more, all before I get to the all-important notes and numbers. I don’t keep track year-on-year of how much I write and how many pages my report covers, but obviously I should, so I’m starting here. This year’s report feels larger than ever, and (not including Primeur Picks) I have written over 44,000 words, not including my 478 tasting notes.

Although my ‘official’ 2015 review is more or less finished, I will of course return to the vintage in the future. In the immediate future in fact, as yesterday I commenced a series of Bordeaux Quartet reports, a look at the four most recent vintages from a number of châteaux, in each case (or in most cases, anyway) 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. I began with my Smith-Haut-Lafitte Bordeaux Quartet, and will continue with another estate next Friday, and I will do the same each week over the next couple of months. This will I hope be an interesting series of reports, as it allows me to report on 2015 and 2014, tasted side-by-side, as well as revisiting the two previous vintages.

Thanks to all my subscribers for reading and for making all this possible. Subscriber numbers are continuously setting new records as the numbers climb, especially so over the past few weeks, and I am indebted to each and every one of you. Thanks!

Bordeaux 2015: Pomerol Pacifist

Well, that’s it, it’s done. My primeurs week is finished. Seven days (it should have been eight – thanks very much, French Air Traffic Control) of organising, navigating, driving, tasting, writing and blogging along the way are over for another year. It has been an absolutely fascinating primeurs week. The story of the growing season, month after month of warm and dry weather with a little rain at the end, suggested a great vintage was possible, and yet the Bordelais remained unusually quiet. Having been here and tasted for myself, now I think I understand why. As always the real story of the vintage is more complex than the weather. Today I will be putting together some thoughts on this, as I head back to the UK.

It has also been a curious primeurs for more peripheral reasons, such as the predictable sparring with other journalists who don’t agree with the process of primeurs, either the timing of tasting, the validity of barrel samples, or perhaps even Bordeaux’s right to exist. In addition, there was the unexpected diatribe from Michel Rolland in Terre de Vins (links to article in French), which I became aware of last week but which has only hit English language publications during the last couple of days. Cutting a long story short, when asked about “Bordeaux-bashing” Michel’s opinion of journalists seemed to be that they (sorry – I think that should be we?) are full of “bullshit”, lack “balls”, and nobody cares what we say now, or in the future.

Cue breathless indignation from one or two corners of the wine blogging world. You can almost hear the collective intake of breath.

Good for Michel Rolland. Not because I agree with what he says (how tiresome it would be if we all had to agree with one another all the time) but because he has at least spoken his mind. Wine writers have been bashing Bordeaux for ages, and a good number have specifically bashed Rolland and the Rolland-style over the years, most famously in Mondovino but that was hardly an isolated case. And now, after years of criticism, the shocked, gaping-mouth, indignation in response to Rolland’s words all seem rather precious. C’mon chaps and chapesses, time to grow up. Take it on the chin. Man (or woman) up, and move on. Rolland doesn’t like it when you criticise Bordeaux, its wines, and his wines. What, you weren’t aware of that? You only realise it now he has said this? OK, well, in that case I am even more happy that he has spoken his mind. All spheres of life need people secure enough in their position, experienced and opinionated enough to tell things as they see it, even if it upsets people, even if it seems a little loose-cannon and broad brush-stroke, even if it seems downright rude. Uncomfortable outbusts such as these can be productive. And, if nothing else, they can certainly be entertaining. Alright, so maybe it was a little sweeping in that it brought together all journalists as one body, some of whom never go to Bordeaux at all, but so what? If it doesn’t apply to you, get over it. If it does, then fair game.

Having said that, when I met Michel at Château La Conseillante a couple of days ago (sorry, no selfie, I’m a bit past that), I didn’t raise the issue, just in case he thumped me. I’ve suddenly become a pacifist. A Pomerol pacifist.

Bordeaux 2015

Anyway, what about Friday? What looked like a relaxing timetable was actually pretty busy – the problem being I forget just how many wines some right bank estates have to pour. I kicked off at the Moueix offices at 9am, with a tasting of 15 wines. This was more than I was expecting (I am sure there have only been 9 or 10 in the past few years) and I had another appointment at 10am, so I had to taste in a peremptory fashion, and leave promptly, hoping not to appear rude as I dashed off. I was late to Château Canon-la-Gaffelière where I should have been able to catch up, but I so enjoyed chewing the cud of the vintage with Stephan von Neipperg (I have shook the hands of one Prince, one Baron and one Count this week….. I am thinking of running a sweepstake on which had the best manicure) that I was late again when I arrived at Château Pavie. Thereafter it was on to Château Pavie-Macquin, before a trip out to another domaine with Thienpont man David Suire (pictured). Top marks if you can recognise the domaine from the château behind (answers on a postcard please). Having tasted the 2015, made by David, this could be the start of an exciting story…..

I then headed back to St Emilion for a tasting with Jean-Luc Thunevin. This is the best tasting of the week, not because of the wines, but because it is the only tasting access to which involves climbing a wall like a 13-year old Just William. Jean-Luc hosts the tasting in his garage (where else?) in the centre of town, and I usually park at the top of town and walk in. Even though every year I look for a better parking place, I always end up in the far corner of the car park, where it is easier to clamber over the wall to then walk up to the town than it is to go the long way round. I am now closer to 50 years old that I am to 40 (I know, I know, I don’t look a day over 60) so I am pleased to report I can still hop over a wall with all the panache of the most accomplished schoolboy scrumper. Or cat burglar. I would like to see Jancis Robinson do this to get to her tasting.

After the Thunevin tasting it was out to Château Le Gay to check out their wines (watch out for reports that say Château Montviel has 15.5% alcohol – it hasn’t, it was a typo on their fiche technique) followed by Château Nenin, then Château Barde-Haut, and finishing up with François Mitjavile of Château Tertre-Roteboeuf. And that was it. I left François just as a light scattering of hailstones danced off the roof of my hire car, happily not enough to do any harm to the vines though. Which is a good thing. After all, those tender buds and baby leaves carry the hopes of the 2016 vintage, And it is just 51 weeks until we do this all over again.

Bordeaux 2015: Bumping

Friday morning, and it is the last day of primeurs, for me at least. There won’t be any tastings ongoing over the weekend, so the Bordelais can breath a sigh of relief. They can put their feet up for a couple of days, safe in the knowledge that the idiotic invasion of journalists has finished for another year. All they have to do first, for one more day, is pour me some wine. Sorry, I mean barrel samples – we all know these are unfinished wines which need to be viewed in that light.

I began Thursday at 9 am en forme, with a bare half-hour at Château Ausone to taste seven wines, get some chat about the vintage, quiz Pauline Vauthier on the location of the Château de Fonbel vines (which has been puzzling me for some time) and then get to my next appointment in Pomerol at 9:30 am. Needless to say I was a little late, especially as I had cause to linger over the grand vin. Indeed, it turned out to be a tight schedule today. Next up was Château L’Église-Clinet, where Denis Durantou was on top form, and happily he didn’t notice I was ten minutes late. He was being helped out by one of his three daughters, Constance, an aspiring young journalist who I imagine will go far. It was a fine tasting, and it was great to bump into David Bolomey here, of Bolomey Wijnimport Amsterdam, a leading fine wine merchant in the Netherlands. Indeed, today was a day for ‘bumping’ into people.

I did continue to run a little behind schedule for the rest of the morning. Leaving Denis I hotfooted it over to Château Cheval Blanc, where as everybody knows they declassified the second wine into the grand vin this year, or something like that. I tasted with Nicolas Corporandy, the chef de culture (he looks after the vines); as you can imagine he was a goldmine of information on how the different parcels behaved during 2015 (generalising, the vines were all good litte boys and girls, and they all behaved very well). After a slurp of 2015 Château d’Yquem in the company of the ever-informative and ever-voguish Sandrine Garbay, I then raced to Château Figeac, succeeding in driving past the first entrance on to the estate (which is huge), so I figured I would carry on and take the next, which I also rocketed past, so I slowed down a little for the third. Made it.

Bordeaux 2015

After Figeac (bumped into Tim Atkin, Charles Metcalfe, Christy Canterbury here) it was over to Château Angélus, which was heaving with visitors, all eager to taste the grand vin as well as all the wines for which Hubert de Boüard de Laforest consults, which must be 50 or 60 domaines (I have a list somewhere). In the car park I was directed to a space so tiny I immediately took it as a challenge to my parking prowess, indeed my masculinity was suddenly at stake. I made full use of the mirrors, and took great care to get it lined up straight; I then proceeded to edge my car in, reversing naturally, until I was safely inserted into the gap. I had succeeded; it was a day for bumping into people, but not for bumping into other cars, much to my relief. Had there been any spectators I am sure I would have received a round of applause. The clapping would no doubt have intensified when I realised the space was so tight I couldn’t open either door more than two inches. I briefly considered climbing out through the tailgate and across the petunias, but decided against it. I drove out and selected another space that was marginally wider, all under the withering gaze of the parking attendant. Although I suspect he was rather content with the outcome, as he could now direct the next unsuspecting visitor to his special micro-space.

Afterwards came the UGC St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting at Château La Couspaude; most of the barrel samples shown here I had tasted before, elsewhere, but it was good to take a second look. Usually these tastings also provide a bite to eat, but when I enquired “pas aujourd’hui” was the response, so I left hungry for an afternoon of flying visits in Pomerol, to Château Lafleur, then Petrus, Vieux Château Certan (bumped into Finn Petteri Harjula of Tasting Company and his colleagues here), Château La Conseillante and finally Château l’Évangile. That is an afternoon only the most hard-hearted of wine lovers could resist. Particularly enjoyable was La Conseillante, because after tasting the 2015 blended samples winemaker Marielle Cazeaux, newly appointed in July 2015, took me through a tasting of different Merlots and Cabernet Francs from barrel (as pictured above), looking at the different quality levels as they related to the grand vin and deuxième vin. Fascinating stuff. And wow, that Cabernet Franc!

I finished up with the UGC Pomerol tasting at Château Beauregard. What struck me most here, and at the earlier St Emilion tasting, was how well many of the wines were showing compared to samples of the same wine previously encountered at négociant tastings. I have said before I believe it is important for me to taste from different samples, at different venues, but it might be more important simply to pick and choose where I taste. Focused appellation tastings, with a better number of visitors and smaller number of wines, which turnover quickly, may well be better than the négociant tastings where hundreds of wines sit open for hours on end, while a mere handful of zombie-tasters wander around from bottle to bottle, wondering why eveything tastes a little flat, loose and oaky.

Today, Friday, another blend of Pomerol and St Emilion, beginning with the Moueix wines, ending with the glories of François Mitjavile.

Bordeaux 2015: Never Ignore Fate

It’s Thursday morning, and I am now on my primeurs home straight. I have left behind the glories of the Médoc, settling temporarily in Fronsac instead. Not because Fronsac is the centre of the Bordeaux universe (everybody knows that is Parempuyre), but because from here I can strike out on two days of visits in St Emilion and Pomerol. First, though, how did Wednesday go?

Well, thanks for asking.

The morning went very smoothly, much to my surprise. I attended the press tastings of Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estèphe, Moulis, Listrac, Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Sauternes and Barsac held at Bordeaux’s new football stadium. The first thing I had to do was get there, and having had plenty of grim experiences with the Rocade this week I planned a route which took me away from this ring road, through the Médocain countryside. This turnd out to be ridiculously successful decision, as I arrived with more than an hour to spare. At least I was able to spend some time admiring the stadium’s architecture, and I am not bitter about missing out on an extra hour’s sleep, not at all.

Bordeaux 2015

Much has been made of the move to have journalists taste at the stadium, the story intertwining with many different primeurs themes. First, it was criticised because it centralised journalists away from the vineyards and châteaux, distancing them from proprietors. There were a number of proprietors on hand after the tasting, but I still think this is a valid complaint. Second, the tasting conditions were called into question, after all this is a football stadium, not a dedicated tasting room. This wasn’t an issue at all, the venue being spacious, light and bright, and just perfect for tasting. Third, the move was accompanied by a re-evaluation of the blind tasting process, undoubtedly the most controversial part of these recent changes. All tastings are now open-label.

There was quite a lot written about these changes before the primeurs kicked off. I didn’t make any comment though, because any new venue should be evaluated before we pass judgement. In any case this is the first year I have slipped into the press tastings, as in presvious years I have quite enjoyed the more relaxed, flexible and anonymous environments found at the trade tastings. So I didn’t really have an axe to grind on the issue (there is a first time for everything). Having now experienced the press tasting at the stadium, however, I have to confess I will come back next year, that’s if Bordeaux hasn’t given up growing grapes by then as a result of climate change, who knows?

As for the issue of blind tasting barrel samples, I think the idea is nonsense, as understanding primeurs samples is about the chat with the team who made the wine, as well as tasting it. I do find some amusement in the paradox that, on the one hand, there is a body that feels primeurs samples are sufficiently representative of the wine that we should be tasting and scoring them blind, as if they were bottles just plucked from the shelves of a wine merchant, and on the other hand there is a body who feels primeurs samples are so unreliable, doctored misrepresentations of the wines to come that we shouldn’t even be tasting or writing about them at all, so presumably when the wines are released to the market in a week or two hopeful buyers should just buy without any advice at all.

Blind tasting also provided a very uneven playing field, as many wines can only be tasted at the property, the whole point of which is definitely not to taste blind. So if you ever read a primeurs report that stated the wines were tasted blind, if the author didn’t point out this didn’t apply to Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Pontet-Canet, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pichon-Lalande, Palmer, d’Issan, Haut-Bailly, Ausone, Pavie, Angélus, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Le Gay, La Violette and the other Péré-Vergé wines, La Conseillante, Vieux Château Certan, Tertre-Roteboeuf, the Maltus wines, Beauséjour and other Nicolas Thienpont wines, Figeac, L’Évangile, all the Moueix wines such as Trotanoy, Bélair-Monange and La Fleur-Pétrus and all Jean-Luc Thunevin’s wines such as Valandraud, not to mention all the more peripheral wines only encountered at tastings hosted by Michel Rolland, Stéphane Derenoncourt and the like, then they were pulling the wool over your eyes.

Enough of that. After a quick bite to eat at the stade (I was hoping they would keep the footy theme going with a grease-laden meat pie and a plastic cup of luke warm over-stewed tea, so was disaapointed to see them serving smoked salmon and foie gras) I headed north to Château Margaux, then next-door to Château Palmer, and then on to Château d’Issan. I also called in on Château Rauzan-Ségla again, as when I tasted there last Sunday they had run out of 2015 Château Canon echantillons, which to me feels a little like a butcher running out of beef. Next up, Château La Lagune, where I chatted with Caroline Frey (pictured above) about the vintage. I retasted the 2015 (I had already tasted it earlier during the morning, but I taste twice or three times wherever possible, to get a feel across multiple samples) and a couple of older vintages, as well as a personal cuvée from 2015, pure Cabernet Sauvignon, just two barrels of which Caroline is keeping back for her own interest.

I ended the day with a couple of hours spare, and couldn’t decide whether or not to go to the Cru Bourgeois tasting at Château d’Arsac, or Stéphane Derenoncourt’s La Grappe tasting at Château La Gaffelière. I tossed a coin, which told me to go to Château d’Arsac. I duly ignored fate and headed for St Emilion instead, and in return fate kicked me in the shin with gridlock about a mile from the sliproad onto the Rocade. After ten minutes in standing traffic, and able to see the very long queue stretching down the road in front of me, I turned around and went to Château d’Arsac after all. Never ignore fate.

Today, I kick off at Château Ausone at 9am, with a busy day thereafter.

Bordeaux 2015: Rocky Balboa

Yesterday morning saw a relaxed start. That doesn’t mean I had a lie-in, because my first tasting was at Château Calon-Ségur at 8am. Indeed, the rebbiting frogs and hooting owls outside my window did their best to prevent me having any sleep at all. Not to mention the axe-murderers who creep around the grounds at night, ready to pick off unsuspecting victims (or maybe that is my nocturnal imagination getting the better of me – less cheese for supper, perhaps?). It just means that, as I was sleeping up in the Bas-Médoc (does anybody actually use that term any more?), near Lesparre-Médoc, I only had a twenty-minute drive to get there. That’s quite a contrast with Monday morning, which began with a drive lasting 1 hour 35 minutes, including a slow creep onto the Rocade, the famous car park – sorry, I mean ring road – that encircles Bordeaux.

All the same, the day couldn’t go without a hitch. It simply couldn’t. You can’t fit twelve visits with tastings, one lunch, and one UGC tasting into a single day without something going badly wrong. All the same I set off with controlled determination in the face of adversity, like Rocky Balboa stepping into the ring. Only less muscular. And more intelligible (most of the time). And without boxing gloves (these never work well in the driving seat – I’ve had a go – although I did find that when I tried typing while wearing boxing gloves my tasting notes made more sense).

So after Calon-Ségur I sauntered down the road to Château Montrose, then it was on to Château Cos d’Estournel, followed by a very short drive down the hill to Château Lafite-Rothschild. Believe it or not (and you should perhaps take most things said about the primeurs with a pinch of salt) I was by this time ten minutes ahead of schedule. This is despite not only tasting, but grilling every manager, technical director or hapless work experience youth who happened to be there on the vintage, the weather and the wines. I then hot-footed it out to Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste where François-Xavier Borie was doing splendid Winedoctor PR for me, ensuring every visitor was fully informed regarding my presence. I might have to put him on the payroll. Then it was back to Château Pichon-Baron for a tasting, and lunch with Christian Seely (pictured below). This brought the unexpected benefit of being permitted, only in Christian’s company, to walk across the grass in front of the château. Please don’t try to imitate this if you visit though, as they have snipers positioned on the rooftop just waiting for you to step onto the green stuff.

Bordeaux 2015

A twelve-visit day needs thoughtful organisation, so unsurprisingly after lunch it was a quick stroll (don’t believe this – you know full well I took the car) across the road to Château Pichon-Lalande for a tasting with Nicolas Glumineau, and then a quick dash to Château Pontet-Canet, followed up by Château Mouton-Rothschild. Here I chatted with Philippe Dhalluin, another of Bordeaux’s most charming characters, about the vintage, and I also met again Philippe Sereys de Rothschild who is now very involved in the family business. Oh, I also tasted some wine of course. Mustn’t forget that. In case it isn’t clear, I did taste some wine during every visit. Always the 2015 as it happens. Funny that.

Except for Château Latour of course. One or two estates offered tastes of the 2014 as well, but only Château Latour brought out the older bottles, as of course these days their sales are solely through release of older vintages. After the three 2015 barrel samples, I got stuck into the 2010 Pauillac de Latour, the 2009 Les Forts de Latour and the 2000 Château Latour. One of those was ‘spat backwards’ as they say, no prizes for guessing which. Then with an hour to kill I headed out to Château Gruaud-Larose for the UGC trade tastings. I turned up without a badge and with no certainty I would get in, but my name was in the system (a rare case of ‘computer says yes’, although the line was delivered by a hostess slightly more easy on the eye than David Walliams in a skirt) and I spent a happy forty minutes tasting alphabetically, from Château Beychevelle to Château Talbot. To round things off, a visit to check out the wines at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, before heading back to my base for my two days on the Médoc. I spent the evening supping on a delicious bottle of Château de Cérons 2007, proof that Bordeaux isn’t only for those willing to reduce their personal ‘kidney count’.

I said a twelve-visit day couldn’t go without a hitch. But it turns out I was wrong. And what a day it was.

Today, who knows what will happen. I am driving down to the UGC press tastings in the Malmut football stadium, followed by visits in Margaux, Haut-Médoc, possibly a Sauternes top-up (provided Château Rieussec, one of the significant wines I haven’t tasted, turns up to the appropriate tasting) and if I have time at the end of the day a rummage through some of the cru bourgeois wines, before I head over to the right bank for more luscious, Merloty, rocket-fuelled hedonism. Wish me luck. Or send me evil thoughts through the ether. Depending on how you feel about Bordeaux, obviously.