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Those we Lost in 2016

It feels as though 2016 has seen more than its fair share of losses in the entertainment industry, from David Bowie at the very dawn of the year, through to Carrie Fisher in the past few days. And some, such as comedy actress Caroline Aherne and of course George Michael (and many others) left us tragically young.

Sadly, as 2016 draws to an end, I have also been struck by how many significant figures from the world of wine have left us this year. As the year began the news that Charly Foucault of Clos Rougeard had died on December 29th 2015 was still very fresh in my mind, but sadly there were many more to come as 2016 unfolded.

Bordeaux lost two leading lights during the course of the year, the first being Paul Pontallier (aged 59, in March), on the eve of the primeurs. Paul has rightly been credited with being largely responsible for the revitalisation of Château Margaux, and I was lucky enough to meet and taste with him many times over the past few years, sometimes in large groups, sometimes just the two of us. He was always warm-hearted and generous with his time. He is pictured below with his son, Thibaud, back in April 2012. For more thoughts on Paul, read my blog post, R.I.P. Paul Pontallier, Man of Margaux.

Paul and Thibaud Pontalier, April 2012

The second loss to Bordeaux was Denis Dubourdieu (aged 67, in July), one of the region’s most famed and respected oenologists, as well as being proprietor of several notable domaines, not least Château Doisy-Daëne. Denis had been ill for some time, but he was still on sparkling form when I visited him late in 2015, when I took the picture below. I wrote up the visit here, complete with some reflections on Denis’ achievements.

Denis Dubourdieu, October 2015

Looking elsewhere in France, I think everybody who knew him was shocked to learn of the death of Etienne Hugel (in April, aged 57). I met Etienne many years ago, in September 2004, and we had dinner together in Liverpool. He was charming, dynamic and enthusiastic, traits which of course only made his passing at such a young age all the more shocking.

Another famous figure in the world of wine who we lost this year, and who also played a significant role in my vinous ‘education’, was Aimé Guibert (aged 91, in May). Aimé was of course best-known for Mas de Daumas Gassac, but I first encountered his wines through the label Mas de Figaro, in the 1992 vintage to be precise, a brilliant value wine which I was delighted to be able to drink as a penniless student barely able to rub two overdrawn bank statements together. Within a few years (when I was earning!) I moved on to Mas de Daumas Gassac itself, but the memory of those good-value Figaro wines has never left me.

Other famous names in the world of wine who have left us this year include Italian revolutionary Giacomo Tachis (aged 82) and Californian Peter Mondavi (aged 101) in February, Henri Bonneau (aged 78) of Châteauneuf du Pape fame in March, Louis Latour (aged 83) in April and Charles Rousseau (aged 93) in May, both from famed Burgundian domaines of course, as well as Margrit Mondavi (aged 91), the widow of Robert Mondavi, in September, and Stanko Radikon (aged 62), Italian natural wine pioneer in the same month.

Winedoctor 2016 Disclosures

November and December have been super-busy, bringing another very active year to an end. I feel like I have been pedalling very hard the past six or seven weeks, and yet barely keeping up with the peloton (a cycling analogy purely for Jim Budd’s pleasure). As I write this it is only a couple of days until Christmas kicks off, but I haven’t had one spare moment to stop and reflect on the year, my favourite bottles, or my favourite tastings or dinners. In addition, I think the best ‘moment’ of the year – relating to a ‘project’ I have been working on in France – is yet to come, hopefully next week. Only after that moment will I really be able to catch my breath and reflect on the past twelve months…..

In the meantime, here are the annual Winedoctor disclosures for 2016. As always I have detailed support received, followed by some details of my own expenses incurred by undertaking various tastings and trips. On the whole this year has been more straightforward than 2015 and 2014. There were no surcharges for going over a mileage allowance hidden in the small print of the hire car contract (hurrah!). There were no speeeding tickets incurred between Paris and Saumur (hurrah!). There were no cancelled trips because of illness (hurrah!). The only hitch was having to live in a Gatwick hotel for two days, thanks to a French air traffic control strike. Interested deities looking for a new model for purgatory should feel free to get in touch for more details on my experiences there.

Here are details of trips when support was accepted:

Salon des Vins de Loire: No formal funding was accepted. I did accept two dinner invitations, one with a trio of Anjou vignerons, these being René Papin (Claude’s son), Vincent Ogereau and Yves Guégniard, and one with Loire courtier Charles Sydney. All other expenses I met myself (see below).
Bordeaux primeurs: My intention was to stay in Bordeaux for nine nights; thanks to a French air traffic control strike I spent the first two incarcerated in a Gatwick airport hotel, banging my head against a wall; I missed a visit I had arrranged to meet Peter Sisseck at Château Rocheyron (annoyed!) and a visit and vertical tasting at Château de Reignac (double annoyed!). I thus spent seven nights in Bordeaux, and I accepted offers of accommodation from Bill Blatch (one night, with barbecue and Sauternes tasting), Château Lagrange (one night, with a vertical tasting and dinner), Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I also took quick lunches at Château Haut-Bailly and Château Pichon-Baron. Other expenses I met myself (see below). Easyjet put me up in Gatwick and to give them credit this came with three meals a day, and was offered without me even having to ask for it. I was impressed by the actions of this ‘budget’ airline.
Loire Valley, October: I accepted accommodation for three nights (mostly self-catered) at Domaine de la Noblaie. I had dinner with proprietor Jérôme Billard on arrival, and also shared a pre-harvest lunch with his vineyard workers. Eggs from Jérôme’s hens came free of charge (and were delicious). Other expenses I covered myself (see below).
Bordeaux, December: I visited to taste the 2014s. I accepted accommodation in Château Preuillac (two nights, uncatered) and Château La Dauphine (three nights, uncatered). I accepted an invitation to lunch from Vignobles Fayat and Château Cos d’Estournel. Other expenses I met myself (see below).
Gifts received: I received a book as a gift from Hubert de Boüard de Laforest (written by Jane Anson – well done Jane!), as well as a few bottles from La Tour Saint-Martin, a bottle from Matthieu Baudry, a bottle from Benoit Amirault, several bottles from Domaine de la Noblaie. I don’t recall receiving any other gifts.
Samples received: A small number of wine samples were received, where the wines have been written up this has been declared. Most wines written up on Winedoctor are encountered at open tastings, or purchased.

This concludes the ‘support received’ section of my 2016 disclosures report. I try to keep support received to a minimum, but more important is to be transparent about exactly what support has been received, and the details presented above meet that requirement. In addition, where new articles have been published after support was received, this has been disclosed.

Winedoctor 2015 Disclosures

As is customary, I also like to balance this information with a report on which tastings and trips have been funded by me, or to be more precise by my subscribers.

Salon des Vins de Loire: All travel and accommodation expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included travel in the UK, flights, return rail fare in France, five nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all days but two.
Bordeaux primeurs: I met my travel costs myself; this includes travel in the UK, flights to Bordeaux via Gatwick, and hire car for nine days even if I only managed to use it for seven. I covered all my own subsistence expenses except for the lunches and dinners described above.
Loire Valley, July: I spent three weeks touring and tasting in the Loire Valley. I covered all costs, including driving to the Loire Valley, ferry tickets, accommodation in Chinon and Sancerre, and all subsistence expenses, myself. I rented dirt-cheap accommodation near Chinon, and super-expensive accommodation near Sancerre. The house near Chinon was better. How does that happen?
Loire Valley, October: Back to Chinon in late-September for a pre-harvest visit. I flew there via Poitiers, the smallest airport I have passed through in a long time (i.e. you queue up for the flight in the main hall, and then pass through security in a single lane, to a waiting room; airport shopping consists of a drinks vending machine – I liked it and will be going back!). After the disclosures above, I met my own costs, including travel in the UK, flights, hire car and most subsistence.
Bordeaux, December Visit: For this five-day trip to Bordeux I met my travel costs myself; this included transport in the UK, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for five days. I accepted assistance with accommodation (as noted above). Other than one lunch, I paid for all my subsistence myself.
London, Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting: As was the case last year, I was already in London judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards when this tasting was scheduled, and I took a day out of my judging schedule to attend this. I thus covered all my own travel costs.
Other London tastings: As always these were numerous, and included the Bordeaux Index 2006 tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting, the Real Wine Fair, the Union des Grands Crus tasting of the 2014 vintage, the St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting at the Leadenhall Building (a great venue), the annual Cru Bourgeois tasting, the IMW Bordeaux tasting of the 2012 vintage and the RAW Wine Fair. In each case I paid for my entry fee where applicable (this only applies to the IMW tasting), travel inluding flights and airport transfers, and subsistence. Some tastings came with a free lunch (insert your own joke here).

This concludes my disclosures statement for 2016. Next week I may sit down for long enough to have some reflections on the year, and will (hopefully) be able to write about my biggest ‘moment’ of 2016.

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 Cyrille 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.


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?