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Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Prologue

I arrived in Bordeaux early Saturday morning. It wasn’t too much of a trial getting here. I flew from Edinburgh to Gatwick Friday evening, and apart from waiting half an hour for a bus to take us from the plane to the terminal, it was fine. Then an early flight out Saturday morning meant that I was in my hire car heading for the right bank before lunch. Sadly, the weather was grey, drizzly and wet, and it has remained that way all weekend. I’m not a great believer in the concept that tasters are sensitive to low atmospheric pressure though, regardless of how many wine experts say that bad weather is disadvantageous for wine tasting (the science just doesn’t really stack up in support of this, but I don’t want to digress so I will leave it at that), and so I have been happy tasting for at least half the weekend, come rain or shine (mostly rain).

Saturday was pretty light. I had a few hours to spare before checking in at my hotel well outside Bordeaux, in Bergerac, and I spent it looking at vineyards in Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, St Emilion and Castillon. It is remarkable that two of these appellations command such high prices, while the other two do not, and yet their terroir is so similar. This is particularly true of St Emilion and Castillon, the latter benefiting from the same limestone terroir as the former, but without the same reputation and the classification system prices remain low. Speaking to Denis Durantou on Saturday evening, he lamented the fact that so many in Bordeaux choose to invest in second projects in Argentina or California when so much wonderful terroir on their doorstep goes unexploited. Denis, of course, has invested heavily in Château Montlandrie in Castillon, to which I paid a flying visit during the course of Saturday afternoon (you see, it’s not all about the first growths and similar on Winedoctor).

Château L'Église-Clinet

I was chatting to Denis because I headed out to Château Thénac in Bergerac on Saturday evening for a tasting, first of the Thénac wines, then of Château L’Église-Clinet. If you are wondering what the connection is, Denis consults at Thénac, and has done since the 2012 vintage. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, because although a fair distance from Bordeaux I know the region quite well, having spent a holiday here a few years ago. I enjoyed the cheap accommodation available in Bergerac, but would drive up to Pomerol, or across to Sauternes, to visit the likes of Jacques Guinaudeau at Château Lafleur or Aline Baly at Château Coutet.

Anyway, I digress. I tasted a number of recent vintages from Thénac, a beautiful estate (no shortage of investment here, obviously, the owner having made his money in oil), which in the case of the older vintages showed the potential of the vineyard, and in more recent times showed a step up in finesse and quality in the post-Durantou vintages. Then it was onto L’Église-Clinet, featuring wines (some pictured above) from 1995 through to 2005, in several cases from magnum as well as bottle to allow comparison. Suffice to say this was a truly great tasting, which demonstrated how things have improved here during this ten-year period. My favourite vintages were, perhaps somewhat predictably, the 1998, 2000 and also the 2005, this latter vintage showing much better than the bottle I tasted recently in my Bordeaux 2005 at Ten Years assessment.

Today, after not enough sleep, curtailed by the clocks going forward, I kicked off in St Emilion with the Cercle Rive Droite tasting, followed by visits to see Jonathan Maltus and also Château Lassegue, an estate which we should be aware of, and like the Castillon region it illustrates the value of the terroir east of the ‘classic’ St Emilion centre. I hope to be able to taste more of the Lassegue wines soon. Then it was on to the Vintex tasting for a slice of left bank action, with various interesting wines including the most exotic and exuberant vintage of Le Retout Blanc I have ever tasted, followed by a huge slew of Sauternes, just about every cuvée you could imagine. There were just one or two absentee wines (Rieussec, for example) so I hope to pick these up later in the week.

Finally, after some hastily scoffed slices of cheese and baguette to help wipe away the sugar, a short drive north saw me arrive at Château Cambon la Pelouse for the Biturica tasting. This was well worth going to; there were just five châteaux in attendance (there are only five members of the group), but there were some lovely wines, not just Cambon la Pelouse but also the wines of Belle-Vue, Gironville and Clos du Jaugueyron were particularly appealing, and even at this level (left bank Cru Bourgeois) they could wipe the floor with many of the right bank wines I had tasted earlier in the day.

Well, that was the weekend. On Monday I hear Haut-Brion, Pape-Clément, Haut-Bailly, Raymond-Lafon and Climens calling, as well as one or two other visits for up and coming profiles.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs

I leave this evening for Bordeaux, in order to taste and report on the wines of the 2014 vintage. In fact I’m sitting in Edinburgh airport right now; I am stopping over tonight in London, before flying out in the morning, picking up my hire car, and hitting the vineyards (I always mix some ‘vineyard visit’ time in – understanding Bordeaux is about more than slurping and spitting barrel samples). I’ve hired the smallest car possible for the primeurs trip – I do all my own driving as well as tasting and notetaking, so there’s no need for a bus. I did wonder, having heard he might be available, whether I should invite Jeremy Clarkson to be my chaffeur this year; unfortunately I haven’t heard back yet. And I thought he would bite my hand off….

I don’t have too hectic a schedule planned for the Saturday, in fact it should be fairly relaxing, but from Sunday onwards it will be all go. I have at least five (maybe six depending what time I get finished at tasting number five!) tastings, including a couple of interesting visits in St Emilion such as Jonathan Maltus. I have worked hard to squeeze in as much as possible. Monday should be fairly relaxing again; I take advantage of the fact that the UGC tastings don’t get underway until the Tuesday to spend some time in Pessac-Léognan (with visits to Haut-Bailly, Pape Clément, La Mission Haut-Brion) including the syndicat press tasting before heading down to Sauternes, to Raymond-Lafon and Climens.

The dovecot at Latour

Tuesday is a day for Pauillac, including all three first growths, as I don’t believe in skipping Latour simply because the wines aren’t sold en primeur. The individual notes and scores might not be much use, but understanding Latour is an important part of understanding the vintage. Every data point counts. I will also be tasting at all the usual suspects in St Estèphe, and will pop up to Sociando-Mallet too. Wednesday will be St Julien, Margaux and the Haut-Médoc, with visits to Margaux, Palmer, d’Issan, Ducru-Beaucaillou, La Lagune and others, before I head over to the right bank.

Thursday is a bit of a Pomerol whirlwind. We have Petrus, Le Pin, La Conseillante, L’Évangile, Le Gay, L’Église-Clinet and then a dash over to Angélus in St Emilion, and that’s just the morning. Lafleur, Ausone and more after a snatched lunch. Friday has promise too though, with tastings at Vieux Château Certan, Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Pavie, Tertre Roteboeuf and more.

Hopefully on Friday night, some beer! And time to start writing it all up of course. Next week, there will be no behind-paywall updates during the course of the week, but I will make some blog posts charting my progress across France’s second-most important wine region (after the Loire, obviously).

Critics: The Primeurs Marketing Machine?

The world’s wine eyes are beginning to turn towards Bordeaux now, as en primeur season looms. Well, that opening statement might have been true a few weeks ago. Now it would be more accurate to say that the en primeur season is already underway; the early-bird critics are in Bordeaux, and making sure their presence is felt through social media.

Critical opinion is important because, as noted last week, there is a very good association between perceived quality of the latest vintage and prices, on the upward trend at least. This is very relevant to 2014, because while the last three vintages have been equivocal in terms of quality, or obviously poor as was the case in 2013, the 2014 vintage looks as though it might be a step up in quality. After all, following 2013, it can hardly be worse. If this were so we would have heard about it, as it would have involved tornadoes, earth-shattering hailstorms (more extensive and more severe than Bordeaux has already seen in recent vintages), rampant mildew, apocalyptic earthquakes, tsunamis washing over Bordeaux, that sort of thing. It is going to be a better vintage this year.

Nevertheless, the Bordelais are only human, and they (I realise I shouldn’t lump such a diverse group of winemakers together – they are all individuals – so forgive me for that) naturally look for external reinforcement of their own perception of the wines. And although only Parker has enough power to drive prices up or down, the Bordelais have always been willing to listen to other opinions (and indeed they only have other opinions now he has retired). They like to hear positive comments of course, and negative opinions are perhaps rather less welcome. I would be lying if I said I have never heard proprietors express frustration at critics who don’t “get behind a vintage”, and if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of emails along the lines of “how can we expect to sell our wines, when you score them so low?” (both comments made in the context of the 2013 vintage).

I don’t mind this. It is the right of the Bordelais to be positive about their new wines, if they so wish; it is a business after all, and the wines have to be sold, true of the 2013 vintage just as much as 2010, 2009 or 2005. Who wouldn’t put a positive spin on their product? It’s called salesmanship. And I’m confident enough in the honesty and fairness of my opinions to publish them, even when they aren’t so positive, or are plainly (although always politely) negative. Nevertheless, it is clear that proprietors who make statements like those above have misunderstood the very raison d’être of critics, who are there to provide independent opinion on the wines, for their readers. They are not part of the Bordeaux marketing machine, and I feel uncomfortable with any activity that exists on the borderline between independent reporting and marketing. It is a grey area though, so here’s my take on how I will report on the latest Bordeaux vintage.

● I won’t visit the region before the official en primeur week kicks off, and won’t make any comment on the wines at all before then. The need to have a ‘scoop’ on the wines only drives vintage hyperbole, and prices follow hyperbole.

● I won’t publish tweets on every château I have visited, or fleeting off-the-cuff impressions of the wines, because these are undeniably skewed towards the positive (can you imagine a visitor tweeting “I just visited Château [insert name here] and the wine was dreadful”? – no of course not – but of course there are plenty of “Château [insert name here] rocks!” tweets). Barrel samples need more careful consideration than this, and multiple tastings helps.

● I won’t use obvious expressions of hyperbole – “this is the best wine since the 1945″ and the like – especially not on social media. This also drives hyperbole.

● I will visit the region during the primeurs week, and I will publish free-to-read blog posts about the regions of Bordeaux I have covered each day, so readers can track my progress, but this will involve overall impressions only, and as in previous years, and won’t include comments on specific wines tasted, for the same reasons as above.

● I will publish a report, for subscribers, after synthesising the tastings of the week, after my return, which will be crammed with factual information and wall-to-wall honest opinion, but no hyperbole and no marketing spiel.

I would be very interested to read feedback on this approach, especially any comments on how I can use the primeurs season as it stands (accepting flaws inherent in the system, such as the vagaries of barrel samples and the fact the wines are very young) for the benefit of my readers but without being part of the marketing machine.

Bordeaux 2014: Prices will Rise

The 2014 Bordeaux primeurs draw near. The almost traditional pre-primeurs back-and-forth is already behind us. The UK wine trade called for sensible pricing in an open letter printed here in The Drinks Business. Bordeaux says no, of course.

Once a seemingly innocent device designed to provide early cash flow for the châteaux, which then mutated into merely the first step in a now well-established investment system, in recent years en primeur prices have risen almost interminably, as the châteaux sought to keep more of these investment profits previously enjoyed by third parties for themselves. In recent years this has resulted in a paradox, in that we now have many wines released at prices that are more expensive than mature vintages of the same wine. Add this to the many other criticisms of en primeur – samples that are tasted too early prior to blending, the exclusion of press wines from the blends, and even the failure to complete the malolactic fermentation before tasting in some cases, and of course the continued unproven suggestions of manipulated and misrepresentative samples – and today the en primeur system provokes more ire than joy. Some call for its abolition. Some pray for its collapse. When I read such criticisms I often think of what we would lose if that were to happen. I often also wonder, it has to be said, in what ways those making the calls might gain.

The tragedy is that en primeur as a system does work. It has worked for decades. All that is required is a drop in prices to regenerate lost good will and renew interest. I think anyone looking for significant price falls in the 2014 vintage will be disappointed though. The Bordelais are adept at matching their pricing to the perceived quality of the wines on an upward trend, as we have seen multiple times since the mid-1990s (and probably back further than that), but they are not so good at matching quality and price on a downward trend, as we have seen in the last three vintages. From 2013 to 2014 we have an upward trend in quality once again (you can’t go down from 2013!), and so to expect a contradictory price fall is rose-tinted wishful thinking. This isn’t another 2008 – there isn’t a global economic meltdown brewing. Prices will rise.

There are some obvious counter-arguments to my belief that prices will rise, and so I thought I might look at one or two of these here. The first and most obvious is Robert Parker. Will his retirement from the reporting of en primeur put a downwards pressure on pricing? After all, without Parker’s scores, how will the châteaux set the prices – won’t they just have to flog the wine off cheap? The answer to this question is no. Anyone who believes that Parker’s absence means cheaper wine has looked to the wrong vintage; that might have been the case in 2002 (although I believe it also reflected the despondency of the Bordelais who thought they had a much worse vintage on their hands than was actually the case, a factor that might have also played a role in 2008) but that’s not the Bordeaux we are dealing with today. I sense a more confident critic-free independence in Bordeaux these days. Parker’s absence does not begin in 2014 – do not overlook the fact that Parker didn’t report on the 2013 primeurs either. Because of recent surgery, he visited Bordeaux long after the 2013 primeurs finished.

The 2013 vintage was one that many in the region openly admitted to be the “worst in thirty years”, or “the worst in my lifetime” according to the younger folk. Not a 2002, or a 2008, but a 1984-style washout. So how did Parker’s absence influence the pricing in such a disastrous year? Many prices saw barely a token reduction – cuts of a few per cent – or none at all. Indeed, annoyed by the press having written off the vintage before even coming to Bordeaux to taste, Alfred Tesseron released his wine before the primeurs week had even got underway, and at a very strident price too. This was not really the action of a man who was lost without Parker. No doubt Tesseron was content (he certainly told me he was) as his wine sold very well (as far as the négociants at least, which isn’t quite the same as selling through to a consumer of course). And so if the Bordelais are content to price so aggressively without Parker’s support, why look for anything other than a price rise in 2014, obviously a better vintage?

The other major factor that might conceivably push prices down is the strain that exists in the system. Every year we hear en primeur is at breaking point. And then what happens? It doesn’t break. Nevertheless, there is a huge volume of wine in the system, and the négociants who have soaked up the recent difficult-to-sell and over-priced vintages must now be under great pressure. All the same, I doubt this will have an impact on pricing by the châteaux. I think it will take a major collapse, such as bankruptcy – the result of the banks who are supporting the négociants through these leaner years simply pulling the plug – to result in that. That’s not impossible, although I cannot imagine a bank doing this during the next few weeks as we head into the primeurs season. And those unloved vintages will eventually sell, discounted, or through the foires aux vins, generating cash flow for the négoce once again. So don’t hold your breath for lower prices based on the perhaps precarious state of some of the négociants.

The third reason we won’t see any drop in price is the current state of the Euro. The pound and dollar are both strong, and the Euro is weakening by the day. I have read that some hope this will produce a fabulous buying opportunity outside France, as whatever decisions are taken in Bordeaux the favourable exchange rates will mean a 15-20% reduction in price, on top of whatever cuts the Bordelais might make. But here’s the reality; the Bordelais are fully aware of the exchange rate, and know that potentially lucrative British and American markets are already getting a good deal based simply on these rates. Prices, despite the world’s obsession with Parker, are not set on his scores alone (and certainly won’t be this year). Everything else matters too, from the global markets (one reason why the 2008 prices were slashed) to the naivety of new markets (hence the dramatic price rises as China suddenly fell in love with Bordeaux), even what your neighbour sells his wine for has an impact. And so, of course, do exchange rates. Why lower prices, when all your prospective customers in the UK and the USA are already getting a super exchange-rate discount? This will certainly be taken into consideration when price setting.

A New Year Wish

The year 2014 has flown by, especially the last four months, and so here is a moment or two of reflection. Winedoctor has grown nicely, both with regard to Bordeaux and the Loire. My march through Bordeaux, adding new profiles and updating old ones, having done Sauternes (from early 2012 onwards), followed by St Estèphe and Pauillac (during 2013) reached Pomerol in 2014. Back in January I was on Château Le Bon Pasteur (updated January 2nd 2014), and having progressed alphabetically I will finish with Vieux Château Certan in the next few weeks (today’s update, Le Pin, was slightly delayed). Alongside I also added my usual vintage updates, including an especially detailed look at the 2013 vintage, and there are other vintage-based tasting reports coming up. As for the Loire, I published dozens of new and updated profiles, with a leaning towards small, new, young and up-and-coming domaines. I could go back and count all these updates, but I think I would rather go and open something good to drink this New Year’s Eve, so I hope you will forgive me if I don’t.

Without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of 2014 for me was a chance to return to Vouvray, not merely for a fleeting visit but to linger a while, for several weeks in fact. I rented a cottage among the vineyards above Vernou-sur-Brenne, and passed the time visiting domaines in the morning, and chilling out at the poolside (weather permitting) in the afternoon. I popped in on some familiar favourites, as well as calling in on some domaines quite new to me, either young start-ups with only a vintage or maybe two under their belts, or domaines that I simply never got around to visiting before. It was a great trip, as everywhere I went the welcome was warm; I adore wine in all its forms, but nothing serves to heighten the experience like meeting the people behind the wines you drink. In Vouvray’s case they are charming and genuinely warm people, the seniors led by the gentleman ambassador Bernard Fouquet (pictured below), the delightful Catherine and Didier Champalou and the king of Vouvray Philippe Foreau, while new generation leaders are Vincent and Tania Carême, who march with Peter Hahn and a gang of Carême acolytes.

Bernard Fouquet

Of course there were less fun moments during 2014 as well. I enjoyed trips to the Loire in February as well as in July, and I was in Bordeaux in April and in June, but I had to cancel return trips to both regions later in the year due to ill health, a very depressing feature of 2014. This is one reason I will be glad to see the back of 2014. There was also the issue of Domaine Huet in February, when after my criticism of the 2012 vintage Sarah Hwang decided to ban me from tasting the Huet wines, either at the Salon des Vins de Loire or even if visiting the domaine (the 2013s I reported on earlier this year I purchased at the tasting room). This was also the year another wine writer accosted me at the Salon des Vins de Loire and referred to a review I had written as “nasty”. It certainly was an eventful Salon for me this year, one that opened my eyes to how adversely some people react to criticism, even when carefully judged and considered. I stand by every word I have ever written, because nothing on Winedoctor is off-the-cuff, jingoistic or gonzo in style. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a more peaceful Salon in 2015! Sadly I believe Domaine Huet won’t even be attending, but I hope to be able to taste their wines at some point, sometime, somewhere. I still rate the domaine very highly, and I think their 2013s were some of the best in that very difficult vintage.

And so what of 2015? April will see me come to the end of another year as a subscription site, and subscriptions are already up 9.5% this year, so by the end of the year hopefully this will be more like 15%. I don’t worry about page views, Google rank or Klout scores any more; these are either irrelevant to pay sites, or what I call “vanity” metrics. Winedoctor is generally regarded as a “blog” I think, but I prefer to view it as a continually evolving electronic book or journal (hmmm…, if only I had called it “Wine Journal” before Neal Martin chose that name!), full of information-rich profiles, and what matters to me is whether the quality of this information is worthy of the subscriptions people pay, so that is where I focus my attention. Hopefully, climbing subscription numbers mean I am getting it right, but I am always grateful for feedback in this regard. During 2015 I will be moving on to updating and expanding my coverage of St Emilion, and as this is a huge undertaking I will alternate with some left-bank profiles and updates as well, especially looking at some ‘lesser’ regions such as Moulis, Listrac and the Haut-Médoc. There will be the 2014 primeurs, and a look back to 2005 Bordeaux too. And much more. In the Loire, I aim to add plenty more profiles, a 2014 vintage report, update and add new Anjou profiles, and also start work on a huge Loire guide which will touch on every appellation going, from the Côte Roannaise down to the Fiefs-Vendéens. That should keep me busy through 2015 (and 2016, and 2017…).

Best wishes to all, good health and good drinking in 2015. And thank you for reading.

Critics Need Benchmarks

How do we judge wine?

I recall tasting, twenty-five years (or possibly a few more) ago, a South-Eastern Australian Chardonnay from a famous producer. I forget the bin number, and I forget the vintage, but I can still recall the flavour, the tropical-fruit sunshine, the creamy weight of it. I was just getting into wine, and this one tasted fantastic! I wasn’t scoring wine at the time (or even taking notes), but if I had I would have given it a high score.

Today, I would view the wine very differently. It would seem over-ripe, probably acidified, simple, commercial and ultimately rather dull. You might argue that my palate has changed, but something else has changed too. I have a different context for wine today. I have tasted thousands more wines than I had back then, and I have different expectations, based on personal benchmarks, top wines I have tasted and enjoyed over the years.

Benchmarks are essential for judging wine. Forget the commercial wine highlighted above. Let’s take a pricy South African Chardonnay instead. I taste it and really like it, and want to write it up. Do I score it 92 (I’m pretending I use the 100-point system for the moment)? Or should it be a 95? In view of the fact I really, really like it, should it be a 98? As it’s the best South African Chardonnay I have tasted this year, why not 100? The problem is I don’t have any strong benchmarks, South African or even New World, to place the wine and tasting note against. I decide I’m not going to give it a massive score, as it would probably be too high, and look silly. I’m going to end up being cautious, scoring it in the middle. In doing so perhaps I risk scoring it too low, an equally silly outcome, offensive to those that made the wine.

This is a problem you can see running through some wine magazine articles, when they suddenly venture into previously uncharted territory (like the Loire), and I see too many wines rated too low (interpretation: mustn’t give high scores, this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy after all) or some wines rated too high (interpretation: I’ve heard of this domaine, so they must be good – not always the case in the Loire, believe me – or I went on a press trip here so I had better say something nice). And I see it in Bordeaux too, when I see an approachable wine given a high score by writers who haven’t visited the region in years, and haven’t tasted what the region is capable of – Latour, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Lafite, Tertre-Roteboeuf, Ausone, Margaux, Haut-Brion, I could go on but you get the idea – for years and years, if at all.

I’m sure others see the same problem, but perhaps related to different regions. But for me, I see it in the Loire and Bordeaux. Critics need benchmarks to be credible. Without these benchmarks, it’s another process of random number generation and eye-rolling.

Sociando-Mallet: Old & New

A chance today to look at two wines from what is undoubtedly one of the leading lights in the Haut-Médoc appellation, Château Sociando-Mallet, an estate which lies on the last gasp of the Médoc’s gravel, north of St Estèphe, just before it finally gives way to the cooler clays of the Médoc.

First up, the 1986, the oldest vintage of Château Sociando-Mallet in my cellar. Despite approaching thirty years of age this wine still has a great colour, a dark, black-tulip hue, with surprisingly little sign of age. The nose is savoury, gravelly, perhaps even lightly smoky, with scents of pure blackcurrant skin, all crunchy and dark. It feels less perfumed and a touch more stony than my last bottle, which was a few years ago now. The palate is savoury, medium-bodied, with a tense structure of dry but largely resolved tannin and firm acidity, with fading rocks-and-stone fruit substance draped over the top. A little twist of coffee here reflects the wine’s evolution, and there are some slightly bitter edges to it. Overall this is cool, reserved, appealing, and would work well with roast beef. I’m not sure this has any more to give though, and in view of those fading aromatics I would drink sooner rather than later. 17/20 (November 2014)

Château Sociando-Mallet

Château Sociando-Mallet has been steered to success by Jean Gautreau, now well into his eighties but still very actively involved. Today, he runs the domaine along with son-in-law Vincent Faure, who once told me he was born at Latour. I’m still not sure it that was bare fact, or a figure of speech reflecting his being ‘born’ into wine. While I ponder that, here’s a more recent vintage from Sociando-Mallet.

Alongside, a much more recent vintage, 2010, and this time the second wine, La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet. As with the 1986 this is a wine I have tasted before, although in this case only as a barrel sample, during the primeurs. This is a blend of 50% each Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, partly aged in new oak, but mostly aged in vat to enhance the fruit. It has a dark but much more youthful hue, with a vibrant crimson rim. The nose has some appealing smoke and black-violet floral perfume to it, and it is certainly the fruit that shows above all, albeit in a savoury, blackcurrant-skin, charcoal-rubbed character. A palate quite typical of the 2010 vintage, firm, with a certain structure to it, led by the tannins, good acidity too, but with a gentle blanket of berry fruits laid over the top. An attractive wine, approachable now, but cerebral and savoury rather than plush or easy. Good. 15/20 (November 2014)

I like the wines of Château Sociando-Mallet; they are wines for drinkers, rather than collectors, always dependable, in good and not-so-good vintages, and good value too. I recently tucked some 2009 away in the cellar, and it looks like I should probably lay my hands on some of the 2010 grand vin sometime too.

Disclosure: The 2010 La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet was a sample sent on behalf of the château.

The 2014 Winedoctor Bordeaux Tour

It has been a very busy October, and a month I look back on fondly. The highlight of the month was without a doubt my first opportunity to lead a SmoothRed tour to Bordeaux. This was an immensely enjoyable experience for me, and I hope (and feedback seems to suggest my hopes have been realised) that the clients were just as pleased with the experience as I was.

Even though I was already quite familiar with the numerous châteaux we visited, I found something new on every visit. I suspect this is because, in Bordeaux, so many of my visits are quick dashes in to taste, often during the primeurs. I always try to build in a little time so that I can find out what is new, to hear the latest gossip, nevertheless it is still a hurried affair, a twenty-minute chat, and then another frantic drive to the next appointment. This trip was, of course, very different. Most visits lasted an hour or two, and there was plenty of time to walk in the vines, check out the harvest (the 2014 harvest was in full swing during our visit) and to taste some musts straight from the vat (always great fun, and the 2014 Château Haut-Bailly rosé we tasted, just a couple of days into its fermentation, promises to be delicious). Of course, we also tasted (and drank!) some older vintages, often over lunch or dinner.

Château Haut-Bailly

We visited many châteaux during the trip, and the programme took in some very serious Bordeaux names, including Château d’Yquem, Château Haut-Brion and Château Angélus. For me a couple of visits really stand out; the very first visit to Château Canon-la-Gaffelière was memorable, an informative talk in the vines being followed by a four-course lunch with a slew of mature wines, including 2000 Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and 2001 La Mondotte, among others. And our evening at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured above) was also very special, kicking off with a Champagne reception and then we had a three-course dinner accompanied by various vintages of the wine, back to the delectable 2000 Château Haut-Bailly. This was all very different to my usual Bordeaux trip, which usually involves a cheese sandwich for lunch, eaten while driving, in order to maximise tasting time.

Reflecting on the trip, I think it was a great success. The organisation behind it was impeccable, for which SmoothRed must take all the credit. And the roll-call of names we visited (I haven’t even mentioned Château Pichon-Baron, even though that was voted ‘top lunch’ of the trip by the clients, or Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, or Château Pontet-Canet, all of which put on excellent visits and tastings) was remarkable, as were some of our restaurant visits (Brasserie Bordelaise, La Tupina and others). Roll on the 2015 Winedoctor Bordeaux tour!

Bordeaux: Time Out

This is just a quick ‘heads up’ to all Winedoctor subscribers that I doubt I will be able to make any further posts this week, as I am flying out to Bordeaux this evening.

When I visit Bordeaux, such as for the primeurs, it is not unusual for me to suspend site updates, but in their place I usually update the Winedr blog instead, writing less formal posts on what I have been up to, which châteaux I have visited, and what I have tasted that day. I usually steer clear of the primeurs party scene, which gives me the time to do this during the evening, even after a full day of driving and tasting. This next trip is different though; I will be leading a group on a tour of Bordeaux, and the schedule is full of tastings, lunches and dinners (possibly long, drawn-out dinners, who knows?), and I doubt I will have enough time to think, never mind update the site and/or blog as well.

For this reason the site may well be quiet for a few days. If I have time I promise I will post something. In the meantime, here’s my rough schedule for the next few days:

September 30th 2014 – St Emilion: Château Canon-la-Gaffelière and Château Angélus (pictured below).

Château Angélus

October 1st 2014 – Graves and Sauternes: Château Haut-Brion, Château d’Yquem, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

October 2nd 2014 – The Médoc: Château Pontet-Canet, Château Pichon-Baron and Château Rauzan-Segla.

October 3rd 2014 – Bordeaux and Graves: Dinner at Château Haut-Bailly, then back home.

Each visit will be long and relaxed, a luxury compared to my swoop, taste and spit primeur tastings. And some will involve lunch, and I expect to be having dinner at La Tupina and the Brasserie Bordelaise, among other places. As some wine writers might say, it is going to be a mind-blowing trip!

Images from the Climens Tisanerie

I report today, on Winedoctor, on a visit I made earlier this year to Château Climens (subscribers only). As well as tasting a number of recent vintages, including Cyprès de Climens (the second label) back to 2010, and Château Climens itself back to 2005, I was also able to take an impromptu tour of the tisanerie. If you had asked me a year or two ago what a tisanerie might be I am sure I wouldn’t have had a clue; but now I could at least hazard a guess. If you have ever finished a dinner in France with a tisane, a tea or herbal infusion, rather than a coffee, then you will at least be familiar with the origin of the word tisanerie.

Indeed, the tisanerie is where proprietor Bérénice Lurton dries and stores the plant material she needs to make the herbal infusions so important to biodynamics. Here are a few more images, to complement those in my Climens report, of some of what Bérénice has stored.

The Climens Tisanerie

This is osier, which is willow (osier also translates as wicker, which can have many different plant origins, but in this case it is certainly willow). A tisane made from willow is one of several that is said to stimulate the vine’s natural defences, and thus it is useful against mildew and oidium.

The Climens Tisanerie

A sack of dried fenouil, or fennel. This is another commonly encountered tisane, used as far as I know in the same manner as willow.

The Climens Tisanerie

This is laurier, or bay leaf, which is also regularly used in the making of biodynamic tisanes at Château Climens.

The Climens Tisanerie

Here we have soucis, in other words dried marigolds, consoude, which is comfrey, a good base material for making a liquid fertiliser, as all gardeners worth their salt will know, and genièvre, which gin drinkers will know well, as this is juniper.

The Climens Tisanerie

Finally we have prêle, a staple in the production of biodynamic tisanes, as this is horsetail. It is used in much the same way as willow, as described above, being sprayed on the vines to ward off mildew and oidium. I have plenty of these in my garden, should any budding biodynamicists wish to come round and pull them up for me.

Read my full report on my visit to Château Climens here (subscribers only).