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Is Natural Wine Spoofy?

Spoofy wine. You have probably heard the term. If not, a quick 101; the term ‘spoofulated’ or ‘spoofy’ seems to have come out of the East-Coast US wine scene (although I welcome corrections on this – it’s not as if I have spent time researching the etymology) and is on occasion used to describe wines that are made in an overly slick, international style. There’s no definition of what it is that makes a wine spoofy, but a few typical features might be a long hang-time (giving over-ripe and indistinct flavours, sweetness and low acidities), cold maceration (giving a slick presence of fruit and plenty of well-fixed colour – at least that’s my take on it), and plenty of new oak (to tart it up). Of course, one person’s tarted up wine might be another persons nirvana, so from that point of view it isn’t a term I have ever used (before now, anyway). Such wines naturally deserve critique, but to me the term ‘spoofy’ always seemed to be imbued with more than a hint of derision, not just for the wines but also for those who drink them.

Spoofy wines are ‘wines of process’; they aren’t so much about the the fruit, they are more about the winemaking, about the technique. Spoofy wines hide their origins; taste a spoofy wine from St Emilion and it doesn’t speak of the terroir, whether it be sandy (I have to confess when thinking of the style certain sandy-terroir St Emilions spring to mind first) or from the clay or limestone of the plateau and côtes (I can certainly think of one or two here as well). What you get is jammy and ill-defined fruit, sweet oak, the whole package polished to a state of ambiguity.

What is the antithesis to spoofy wine? Natural wine is surely the answer, wines that are ‘honest’, some would say ‘authentic’ or ‘real’, or some similarly indefinable term.

The word ‘natural’, when applied to wine, is imbued not with derision, but with superiority. Our wines are natural, ergo yours are unnatural. The term is no less challenging to define than ‘spoofy’, so I’m not even going to try, but ‘natural’ wines do tend to follow a schema in the same manner as spoofy wines, although here it is nothing to do with hang-time or oak. Instead, the important aspects of the fermentation are the negatives; no enzymes to clarify the juice; no manipulations with added acid, tannin, colour or similar; no preservatives, most notably no sulphur dioxide. There are some positive rather than negative correlations though, the most notable of which would have to be the widespread use of novel fermentation vessels. There is, apparently, nothing more ‘natural’ than a wine fermented in qvevri, amphorae or a concrete eggs. Another correlation is extended skin contact, in some whites, giving us orange wines.

However you look at it, ‘natural’ wines are also ‘wines of process’. Even though much of the winemaking schema is about what the winemaker shouldn’t do, as opposed to what he/she should do, there is to my mind an undeniable dogma to it. Even though the original intention may well be to let the wine express its origins without manipulation, as a consequence of following this dogma many ‘natural’ wines I have encountered do not achieve this stated aim, and instead they display characteristics reflecting the winemaking process, obscuring the origins of the wine. This isn’t true of all ‘natural’ wines of course, an example that ticks all my boxes being the 2012 La Lune from Mark Angeli, a wine which sings so clearly of Chenin Blanc and schist. But so many fall short of achieving this. Instead, their origins are obscured by features such as oxidation (the most common problem), refermentation, Brettanomyces or other funk, all of which are direct consequences of the winemaking dogma. Indeed, these are the ‘natural’ wine equivalents of the slick texture, ill-defined fruit flavours and the new-oak vanilla and toast we find in spoofy wine. Therefore, is it not true to say that the two wines are fundamentally the same; whether ‘natural’ or ‘spoofy’, are both not basically process-driven wines that fail to speak of their origins?

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest: Word from the UGCB

The pace of activity in Bordeaux seems set to pick up in the next couple of weeks. While the season has on the whole been warm, dry and sunny, the rain in August reminded everybody that it could all go wrong at any minute. There was rain last night around Bordeaux, and there are storms forecast across much of France for the rest of the weekend. The most severe weather forecast looks to be restricted to the Mediterranean coast, but there is a possibility of storms in Bordeaux, as well as the eastern and upper Loire Valley.

Bordeaux 2015

Here is an update received this morning from Bernard Olivier (pictured above with wife Anne), president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and proprietor of Domaine de Chevalier. It is, of course, typically upbeat.

2015: the dawn of a great vintage…

Located on the 45th parallel, the northern limit for the world’s great red wine regions, Bordeaux likes sunny summers to produce great vintages. The months of May, June, and July 2015 were among the hottest and driest on record. Water stress, so important for stopping vegetative growth and starting the ripening process, took place early, in July, and brought on a magnificent véraison (colour change) in early August. I have not seen such an early, even véraison since 2009. All our grapes were red by the 15th of August and many of them were already deeply-­colored.

Fortunately, the month of August was less hot and more wet, which gave a certain vigor to the vines.

Dry white wines

This month of August enabled the grapes, especially the white wine grapes, to “breathe” and retain their freshness. The first grapes were picked at the end of August. Their juices were superb and the weather forecast for the next two weeks is looking excellent… We are thus quite confident this will be a great year!!!

Red wines

The Merlot grapes will be harvested the last ten days of September and the Cabernets the first two weeks of October. These are showing magnificent potential, but we still need six weeks without a major disturbance.

Sweet white wines

The Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes are slowly reaching perfect ripeness. As with every vintage, botrytis will call all the shots, but the conditions conducive to its development are all there.

It has been several years since Bordeaux has seen the dawn of such a beautiful vintage…

There are still a few weeks of suspense left before this promise is fulfilled.

Bordeaux 2015 Harvest, Smith-Haut-Lafitte

I normally refrain from writing about the Bordeaux harvest unless I have some first-hand information to offer. Otherwise, it is too easy to end up as nothing more than a conduit for the Bordeaux marketing machine. Having said that, I am feeling optimistic about 2015, and so I figured it was worth bringing a little harvest news direct from Bordeaux onto the Winedr Blog. After all, the year has been favourable so far, with warm dry weather in May, June and July, albeit followed by a wet August but good weather again so far in September (incidentally, having spoken to vignerons in Vouvray, they described very much the same pattern).

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte

This immediately seems more promising than 2014 (a very cool year saved by an Indian summer), 2013 (a washout), 2012 (a late and wet harvest with uneven ripening and rot at the end) and 2011 (also a wet, late harvest with rot at the end). By contrast harvest in 2015 is now underway, in good conditions. Here’s a report from Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, received yesterday, September 9th:

Harvest serenely started on the 31st of August with the young vines of Sauvignon Blanc. We are taking our time. The fresh nights and wonderful sunny days allow the berries to refine their maturity day after day. At SHL, it is not the acidity level that triggers the harvest but the aromatic and phenolic maturity according to our daily grape tastings.

The first juices offer a beautiful tension, volume and the perception of acidity is higher in mouth than what the analysis forecasted… Despite the drought and beautiful weather of the summer, the levels are reasonable: around 13%.

At this comfortable path, we will start our old precious and fragile Sauvignons blancs on gravel, ploughed by horse for 20 years, starting tomorrow, 10th of September. One week earlier than 2014, we think we will start the reds next week with the young Merlots on gravel. As usual the Cabernets will be last. All parameters are ideal to offer a great vintage.

Putting thoughts of the team at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte enjoying a ‘comfortable path’ to one side for now, the key piece of information here is goood acidities in the harvested whites. A warm vintage such as 2015 is bound to hold some promise when it comes to reds, but it is easy to overlook the negative effect on whites. I increasingly find some 2009s from Bordeaux and the Loire seem rather soft, and I will be looking out for signs of this when I next visit (next month, and naturally for the primeurs next year).

More harvest news as and when I receive it, and of course I will get some first-hand information when I visit for myself.

Moulis Oenocturne

Forever overlooked, save perhaps for a few famous names such as Château Chasse-Spleen and Château Poujeux, the viticulteurs of Moulis have come up with a new idea to draw in the punters: Moulis Oenocturne 2015.

In a region not renowned for embracing oenotourism (although I think this view will soon have to be reappraised the way things are changing in Bordeaux), in Moulis they will be hosting (today, so if this is of interest you will have to make your travel arrangements quickly) an evening of tasting in the village square in Moulis-en-Médoc.

Moulis Oenocturne 2015

Entry to the tasting costs just €9 (€7 for early-bird bookings, but it goes without saying that we’ve missed that) which gets you a tasting glass, access to many of the wines of Moulis all from the 2012 vintage, music from Fellini Félin and the opportunity to visit the 12th-century church. There will be street food too, from a diverse array of “food trucks” (I am delighted to learn, having been informed of this event tonight, that French for “food trucks” appears to be “food trucks”!).

Anyone in Bordeaux who fancies going can catch one of the navette buses being laid on, departing from the Place des Quinconces in the city centre. The tasting is 19h00 until 23h00. For the bus timetable, telephone 05 56 58 32 74.

A Bordeaux Guesthouse

During a visit to Château Haut-Bailly a year or two ago I learnt of the purchase by Robert Wilmers of nearby Château Le Pape. To me the acqusition of this second estate made perfect sense; quality at Château Haut-Bailly was being pushed to the maximum, the reputation of the estate was (and still is) in the ascendent, and the confident prices were already reflecting this. Having tasted the 2012 Château Le Pape a couple of years ago, and also the 2014 Château Le Pape during the primeurs earlier this year, it was clear from these wines that this is a domaine with potential. If the team apply the expertise they have developed at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured below) to this new acquisition we could have the latest Pessac-Léognan success story on our hands here.

Château Haut-Bailly

The estate is not just about wine though; I learned today that the property has been converted into guesthouses, so if you fancy a stay among the vines to the south of Bordeaux this might be an option for you. The propery has several bedrooms, a shaded terrace and a swimming pool overlooking the vineyard. There is also, of course, an option to visit the cellars at Château Haut-Bailly and to dine at the Table Privée de Haut-Bailly. The kitchen at Château Haut-Bailly was established in 2010 by Tanguy Laviale. Even though I believe he has since left, to set up Garopapilles, now apparently a firm favourite with the locals, just about everyone I speak to still rates the Haut-Bailly table as one of the best private dining venues in the region.

The guesthouse has been renovated by local artisans and the Compagnons du Tour de France (a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages), while the gardens have been designed by landscape artist Camille Muller. As you can imagine, this is a high class vacation venue. The price is, I am told, €220 per room, per night. No doubt, for the venue and the experience, perhaps with a tasting of Haut-Bailly thrown in, it will be worth it. If you book a room, do let me now what it’s like.

If you’re interested, check out the website: Château Le Pape.

Criticism: How the Big Boys deal with it

It’s not fair to have a go at Bordeaux all the time is it? I wonder if some of my previous posts and comments on the quality of its wines, the ‘ambitious’ pricing strategy followed by some proprietors (which we see yet again in the 2014 vintage, although to be fair the prices of some releases have been more sensible, and well received by the trade), and as I wrote last week a reluctance to declassify even in a wash-out vintage perhaps make me seem bitterly obsessed with the region. Obsessed, yes. But bitter? No. I love the wines of Bordeaux. It’s just that I don’t allow that love to translate into an unending stream of platitudes, instead it comes out as hopefully fair and considered criticism as well as praise. It’s a big, grown-up wine region. It can take the criticism and the love side by side.

So let’s turn to the Loire instead. Now, if you think a few critical blog posts levied against Bordeaux makes me look bad, criticising the wines of the Loire Valley probably makes me look like the wine world’s version of the playground bully. I am now the junior psychopath who pulls wings from insects, or who tortures ants with a magnifying glass. Or that kid who lived next-door to Andy in Toy Story maybe. Too many people have had a tough time in the Loire Valley, you might think, for criticism. Frost and decimation in Muscadet (2008). Rampant grey rot in Muscadet, plus a little in Anjou too (2011). Floods and hail damage (pictured below) in Vouvray (2012 and 2013). A wash-out along the length of the Layon (2012). Low yields for already cash-strapped vignerons in many regions (several recent vintages). And no really ‘great’ across-the-board vintage since, errr, maybe 2009 or 2010? Who would want to criticise a region that has been through so much?

Hail damage in Vouvray, June 2013

Perhaps that is a view some people take. Indeed, this a region that has more than its fair share of ardent supporters, the Muscadet- and Savennières-obsessed (who often seem to be sommeliers, or have I just overlooked all the other fanatics?) who, like an overbearing mother-figure set about smothering the region with their love, promulgating the wines at every opportunity on social media. They probably enjoy what they do, and perhaps feel they are giving the region the support it really needs, but ultimately this approach is pointless. Why? Because when you write only the positive – these wines rock!Domaine [insert your favourite here] in Muscadet does it again!these wines are awesome, mindblowing Chenin-tastic! – and so on, eventually these very words become meaningless. It might make the vignerons happy, for a moment, but it’s a yawn-inducing experience for everybody else, and so it will never translate into anything useful for the vignerons in question. The words carry no weight, and so they won’t translate into sales. They won’t inspire interested merchants to visit and maybe ultimately import the wines, because the same comments are applied to every wine. They don’t inspire holidaymakers in the region to visit, taste, buy and spread the word, again because every wine is praised, so there is no differentiation. Every comment is just more of the same positive slush.

I’ve long thought that what the Loire Valley really deserved was not never-ending praise, but considered criticism too, although first we need to develop a true understanding of its wines. Instead of carrying on being the region perceived as a source of cheap-‘n’-cheerful white apéro wines, and “lighter reds for summer drinking” as one mainstream UK publication put it a few years ago, maybe it is time for a reappraisal. Maybe the Loire should shake off the idea many seem to hold that it only makes simple summer-afternoon sippers and not ‘proper’, ageworthy wines. Such a shift in opinion would surely require us all to look at the wines in the same way we regard Bordeaux and Burgundy, or indeed Napa, Rioja, Alsace, Coonawarra and all the other ‘serious’ wine regions. And to do so would be appropriate, because the Loire isn’t a region full of mere simple summer sippers, there are also plenty of ageworthy wines here. Wines that go the distance, ten, fifteen, twenty years or more, in white and red, and they develop beautifully complex character as they age (watch out for a new feature, my forthcoming ten-years-on Loire report, starting with 2005, if you have doubts).

But if that’s what the region should be aiming for – to be seen as a source of great wines for the cellar as much (if not more than) a source of daily drinkers – then there’s a need for considered critical opinion. Serious wines – top Chinon, top Bourgueil, top Savennières, top Vouvray and so on – need serious review. Some wines will merit praise, but some will – if the reviews are to be taken seriously – come in for appropriate criticism. Some wines will get great scores, and with a background of real criticism (not universal never-ending praise) those scores will actually mean something. The words of a critic who praises and criticises in balanced measures should have a positive effect, even if it is only a small one, upon the vigneron’s reputation and sales. There is the downside though; what if your wine is on the receiving end of a critical note from me, or from someone else? Mostly I have found vignerons in the Loire can take this on the chin, only reinforcing my belief in (and love for) the region, and that it has every right to be considered alongside all the ‘big name’ wine regions mentioned above. These are dedicated, hard-working vignerons who believe in their wines, and know that serious critics who can actually influence sales need to critique as well as praise, and while one particular wine might not strike a chord with one particular critic, there’s always another vintage (or indeed another critic) coming up. This is, I think, how the big boys deal with it.

What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange” sang Ani DiFranco in Fire Door, the ninth track on her debut album released in 1990 on her own record label, which she set up at the age of eighteen. This came on the back of a long history of busking and playing in coffee shops, since the age of nine. More than twenty years on she continues to write and to perform, to considerable critical acclaim, despite commercial success somehow eluding her. Some people are just determined, I guess.

Context is all important, and I was reminded of this last week at the annual Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting. This tasting sees a small and very select group of some of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux descend upon London, each bringing an armful of bottles from the four most recent vintages. The fact that the last two are usually still in barrel is no barrier to them being poured, so that means this year the tasting featured 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Accepting the fact that the comparison of barrel samples against bottled wines can be seen as a flawed approach, this is still a fascinating tasting, a rare opportunity to compare vintages across a range of Bordeaux châteaux and appellations. What is more, as the event is annual a regular attendee can watch the wines progress through the élevage; initially there is a comparison with the three preceding vintages to be made, but a few years later there is instead a comparison with those vintages that followed. The tasting therefore places any one vintage in a number of valuable contexts over the years. No wonder it quickly became a regular feature on my personal tasting schedule.

When I wrote up my 2013 Bordeaux report I wrote in regione caecorum rex est luscus, a rare (for me) foray into Latin. I have to confess the words were plagiarised, the victim of my theft being Erasmus, writing in Adagia. As Erasmus died in 1536, however, I’m not expecting any letters from his lawyers. Translated, the adage reads in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, a recognition that when judging the 2013 vintage from barrel I was wary – without a physical context, only my memories of other (much better) vintages – of the trap of overly praising some wines simpy because they were, being blunt, the best of a bad lot. I took some stick (well, I received a few emails of complaint, anyway) from the Bordelais for my parsimonious scores. But I felt they were justified.

Thierry Valette, Clos Puy Arnaud, May 2012

Having revisited the 2013 vintage twice now, immediately after the primeurs at the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tasting last year and again last week, the opportunity to taste the wines in the context of other vintages has been invaluable. The 2011 and 2012 vintages have so far been constant companions but last year the 2010 vintage was also present, and this year the good but far-from-brilliant (no matter what some with vested interest might say) 2014 vintage was there too. The upshot of tasting in context only served to highlight even further the weaknesses of the 2013 vintage. These are delicate wines, fresh with acidity, crisp and needle-like in many cases, with little in the way of backbone and structure. The fact that Stephan von Neipperg has already taken the 2013 Canon-la-Gaffelière from barrel and bottled it (and the 2013 La Mondotte, while still in barrel, will follow soon I think) tells you something of the delicacy of the wines, which is ironic as his are some of the most convincing in the entire vintage I think.

To be clear the wines are far from terrible, in fact many feel quite drinkable, and the Bordelais deserve praise for what they achieved in such a wash-out vintage. But placed against the other vintages, not just obviously superior years such as 2010 (and last week 2014) but also 2011 and 2012 it is clear that these wines aren’t really the grands vins we look for in Bordeaux. This region has a superb reputation for great wines, from hallowed gravel and limestone terroirs. In the majority of years these vineyards give us wines of interest, in some years wines of true greatness. But there is another side to the coin as well, and that side is 2013. This is a year of disappointment, and these aren’t (in the majority of cases) the grands vins we should expect for the price tag. Revisiting the vintage, I can’t help feeling that the reputation of this region would have been better served by declassifying the wines in many cases, producing a very good second wine and selling more off, rather than insisting in squeezing a grand vin out of it. The only estate I know with certainty that did this was Thierry Valette (pictured above), of Clos Puy Arnaud, so I tip my hat to him; I am sure some other little domaines must have followed his lead, but none of the really big names did so.

Perhaps such a declassification would be viewed by some as a sign of weakness, but it should I believe be seen as a sign of strength, of a belief that the terroir matters, that the name on the label matters, and when the wines aren’t up to it – no matter how good they might be for the vintage – they really should be taken down a notch. It’s a well-understood practice in Burgundy, where inadequate wines can easily be downgraded from grand cru to premier cru to village wine. There are one or two good examples in the Loire as well (although some still need to learn how to do it there as well – more on that in the future). In Bordeaux, though, where the process would be not declassification through the appellations but to a second wine, they seemed determined to plough on with the grands vins at all cost, perhaps as determined as the young Ani DiFranco must have been. Which is a great shame. These could have been delightful, early-drinking second wines. Instead, once bottled and sold as highly priced grands vins they are destined to be, to quote Erasmus again, largely not worth a snap of the fingers.

Primeurs Blind Tasting: Who Ends up Blind?

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, this week I have been judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. This is a huge tasting open to all-comers, with – if memory serves me correctly – 16,000 wines submitted this year. Each wine is submitted to a blind tasting by a panel, is retasted by a ‘super-judge’ if there is any dissent, and is also retasted if up for a gold medal or a trophy. The whole process is blinded of course, from start to finish; none of the judges involved know what the wines are when they taste, only basic information (appellation, price bracket, grape varieties, etc.) is provided.

In-between flights, however, I’ve also had one eye on Bordeaux this week, looking for any interesting 2014 releases, so 2014 Bordeaux and the primeurs are still very much on my mind. Is it really already four weeks since I returned from the 2014 primeurs? Time flies so fast (I guess I must be having fun).

The process of judging wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the Bordeaux primeurs is very different. The obvious difference is that by definition the Decanter wines are finished, in bottle, whereas by definition the primeurs samples are unfinished wines. Judging barrel samples requires a very different mindset than judging finished wines, and so I think the two tasks require a very different approach. The use of blind tasting is one aspect of the approach that differs.

In a wine competition, rigorous blind tasting in order to remove bias is an absolute must, as I already noted in my recent Sabre Rattling post. When you have the finished wines in front of you, and buyers will be getting exactly what is tasted, and all wines are subjected to the same blinded process, this is the fairest and most appropriate way to assess the wines. I don’t, however, think this is true of the primeurs. I know others feel the same way; I was chatting to Neal Martin at the Grand Cru Classé tasting this week and he and I are in agreement on this. I believe he has made some comments on this in his Wine Advocate primeurs report. Others, however, feel that the tastings should be blind, but here are a few reasons why I think that’s the wrong approach.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Not a Blind Tasting

Primarily, the primeurs shouldn’t just be about fruit flavours and scores, it is about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage. Take, for example, a 2014 petit vin from Pauillac. The blinded critic tastes what he tastes, and reports that, with no context. Magically, without any external knowledge, he has assessed the barrel sample, how it came to be where it is, and where it will go in the future. Job done, next sample please.

Then I come along. I’m not tasting blind, I’m at the château with the managing director and winemaker. I have some information on the barrel sample, which I taste every year. Tasting the wine, it seems much more plodding than usual; I have the context of other vintages tasted, which the blind taster doesn’t. I know quality has been on the up here, with more and more Cabernet in the blend, and it is usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in recent vintages (previously it was mostly Merlot). This trend has been for the better. I ask about the blend this year, and learn it is now back to 70% Merlot. That’s informative, and correlates with my thoughts on tasting, as 2014 was good for the Cabernets, not so good for Merlot. So I ask the question; why 70%? I learn there was hail on the vineyard which took out much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Another hit. The tasting experience becomes more informed, with a greater depth of knowledge on the wine, better foundations upon which to build the tasting note. The winemaker then informs me that maybe the élevage will be shorter this year, a reflection of the lesser nature of the wine. More useful information that guides critic and therefore also the consumer. The blind taster, meanwhile, is already onto blind sample number 5, churning out another tasting note and score.

There are other reasons blind tasting doesn’t work. The above vignette encapsulates most of them (no knowledge of vineyard during the season, no knowledge of harvest, no knowledge of blending decisions, no knowledge of changes made and reasons for them, no knowledge of forthcoming élevage – you see this is very different to a blind tasting from bottle) but one other worth mentioning is levelling the playing field. In Bordeaux, top châteaux give themselves an advantage by insisting you visit to taste. So you want to taste Latour? Then you must visit Latour, and taste it in Latour, in a room overlooking the Latour vineyard. Blind tasters can’t taste the top 30-40 wines blind even if they say that’s what they do. To taste everything else blind enhances the advantages these top names have given themselves, and works in their favour to the disadvantage of all the little châteaux.

For me, these are the major reasons why blind tasting doesn’t work for the primeurs. The primeurs tastings are an opportunity to clear away the obfuscating mists of marketing speak, to see through to the reality of the vintage, to clear away the confusion. I suppose it is more about being a journalist, getting to the story, rather than just being a taster. To me, tasting blind doesn’t help the taster to develop a robust opinion on each wine, instead it obscures the wines even futher, hiding them behind an information blackout, making them more difficult to interpret. It’s a disservice to those châteaux that allow blind tasting (in other words the wines we might still be able to afford), and it’s a disservice to the reader, who ends up being just as blind as the taster.

Bordeaux: Psychohistorian Required

There are various moments throughout Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series – by which I mean the original trilogy of novels with which I am most familiar, not so much all the other novels that grew up around these stories – when the hero of the tale, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, appears in order to save the titular Foundation from impending doom. This is something of a challenge for a human of standard lifespan, because the Foundation’s purpose was intended to play out over a thousand years. Seldon only appears ‘in the flesh’ in the first chapter, and subsequent Foundation crises usually result in him popping up in the form of a pre-recorded hologram. Disaster is, thankfully, usually averted.

Seldon is perhaps Science Fiction’s best example of a character playing the ‘long game’. He could have done something else to achieve quicker fame and reputation, but he chose to play out a much grander plan, one where the prize was ultimately greater. Playing the long game is always the difficult option; it can be demoralising, time consuming and expensive (after all, future-proofed holo-projectors surely don’t come cheap).

Playing the long game is a concept I have already alluded to – without using that exact term – in Primeur Picks, the concluding article in my 2014 Bordeaux coverage [both articles subscribers only]. Bordeaux has something very precious, which countless other vignerons across the world of wine would happily sell their grandmothers for, and that is en primeur. Or wine futures, if you prefer. Whatever we call it, it is the concept of selling wine two years before it is really ready, generating lots of lovely cash flow for the châteaux, and giving consumers a good deal. It also provides the region with a massive amount of publicity every year, through a concerted marketing push from châteaux and merchants alike, and these days a surge in social media chatter too.

Bordeaux Primeurs sign

At least that is how it should work. But a more short-term approach seems to have taken over Bordeaux in recent years, with profit now being the over-riding concern. There is a reluctance to step back from the release prices of the 2013 vintage, which were largely too high. And so we can expect (although the campaign has yet to start really, so we shall see, we shall see…..) that the 2014s will be released at similar prices. If so, it will be a mistake built upon a mistake. The ultimate result if this continues over many years will surely be the decline of the en primeur system for selling wine. It will be a curious outcome when we consider that the wines of Bordeaux today seem better than ever.

Wine critics can also be guilty of failing to play the long game. It is tempting, I suppose. Short term gains can easily be found in Bordeaux; you could tell a little white lie about your significance in the world of wine in order to gain instant, unfettered access to the top châteaux; you can then live it up with fine dinners lubricated by older vintages; you can publish high scores, to ensure merchants quote you, and to create excitement, and of course to ensure that you are invited back next year (not just for a tasting, but for a lovely dinner too, no?). But made public all of these acivities, while making for a great trip to Bordeaux, have the ability to ultimately damage your reputation. It’s far from playing the long game, and surely that is how a critic should build a reputation and a readership?

In twenty years time, where will these critics be? Indeed, in twenty years time, where will en primeur be?

We perhaps don’t really need the services of a psychohistorian to predict the answers to these two questions.

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.

Barrel Samples: The Jigsaw Approach

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.