Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach
The internet is heaving with opinion on Bordeaux 2014 at the moment. It rumbles on after every primeurs tasting week, Bordeaux’s very own cosmic background radiation. Many millennia from now, long after the sun has died and the earth is but a frozen and desolate wasteland, civilisations in distant galaxies will scan the skies with their radio telescopes only to find they are swamped by the reverberating echoes of tweets complaining about the moral turpitude of Bordeaux, and about the absurdity of tasting barrel samples. It will be the only evidence that humankind once existed.
This point concerning barrel samples is an interesting one. There is no denying that they add some uncertainty to this well-established system of assessing and marketing the wines of Bordeaux. I am pretty sure we could all rattle off a long list of issues with them; they might not be the final blend, the press wines might not have been added yet, the wines are simply too young, the élevage may change the wine’s character, and so on. Even worse, some allege that the samples are deliberately misleading, the accusations ranging from special ‘preparations’, the samples run off into barrel for early malolactic fermentation to ready them for the primeurs, as Stéphane Derenoncourt revealed he does a year or two ago, to the urban legend of the Parker barrel, the suggestion being that different journalists are all treated to different wines.
I think anyone interested enough to subscribe to Winedoctor is already well aware of the vagaries of barrel samples, nevertheless it is something I try to maintain some focus on in my reports. I try to refer consistently to what I taste in my report as ‘barrel samples’ rather than wines, and make reference in my reports to the need to see how the wines pan out with time. I score the wines, but always with a range of potential points of course. And (and this is perhaps the crucial bit) I will come back to the wines again in the future, at two years of age after bottling, at four years of age, and provided I am around long enough at ten years of age too. Revisiting wines in this fashion, free of any influence from my primeurs report (because I never re-read my previous notes before these tastings, I just start again from scratch, and I don’t think any critic can really remember every score, for every wine, in every vintage) has taught me that while it is appropriate to be aware of the drawbacks of barrel samples, tastings even at this very early stage have significant validity. In short, there is a correlation between my barrel sample scores and my wine scores.
I was interested to read the opinions of Jamie Goode on the primeurs recently. It was a post filled with good points, but there was also a lot to disagree with. Jamie, for example, feels that when you visit a first growth “it’s hard not to give it 96–98/100″. Maybe this is true for the more spineless visitors to Bordeaux, or for the critics who prefer to cheerlead the region with lots of high scores rather than a true critique (not suggesting that Jamie is either, by the way), but I don’t perceive this to be a problem I have personally. I think in every one of the last three Bordeaux vintages I have written up en primeur there are châteaux that have shown up the first growths, with higher scores, the more famous name lagging behind, and I’ve drawn attention to that in my reports. But to be honest that wasn’t the statement I found to be most wide of the mark in Jamie’s post. No, this was “Dudes, these are cask samples! You shouldn’t be writing extensive tasting notes on cask samples and then pretend you have a reliable assessment of that chateau’s grand vin” which struck me most. This statement is, of course, pertinent to my topic here, the issue of barrel sample validity.
I think Jamie has this completely wrong. While I agree (while we all agree, surely?) that barrel samples are an imperfect system, a clairvoyant snapshot of a future wine, I don’t think this should be communicated by breezing through the tastings, writing the briefest non-committal two-sentence tasting notes. In fact I think the opposite is true; because these are barrel samples, they require not less but much more examination than a finished wine. We can enquire regarding the blend, which helps us to understand the wine in the context of the vintage. I often try to include some technical data where available too, as this also helps us to understand the wine and the vintage as a whole. And it is vital to note all the components of the wine, because whereas with a finished wine it is perhaps enough to say “I like this now” or “I don’t like this now” (most lily-livered wine writing focuses on the former), with a primeurs sample we are trying to gauge where this embryonic wine sits within the vintage, and what its future might be. So the flavour profile deserves a comment, as do the structural components of the wine, the acidity and tannin, as does the texture of the wine.
It’s all about building up a picture, each item of data – whether technical or sensory – a vital piece of the jigsaw. I think it is acknowledged that we can’t complete the jigsaw at this time, because there are pieces missing (the élevage, future decisions on the assemblage, all the reasons I have cited above) but the best idea of the final picture comes from putting as many pieces in place as we have, and making a close examination, not from flicking the pieces around, taking a quick glance and making a few cursory comments, before moving onto the next barrel sample. Nobody ever finished a jigsaw, or wrote a worthwhile and useful tasting note, doing that.