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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.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: An Allegorical Ending

It would be lying to say that Friday was relaxed, but it certainly felt less hectic than Wednesday and Thursday. More lengthy appointments helped; an hour here, another hour there, makes for a less frentic timetable than the string of Pomerol visits for which, because there are so often just one or two wines up for tasting (e.g. Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certain, L’Évangile), I usually only schedule thirty minutes each (including travelling time from one venue to the next, although to be honest you could walk between most of them in just a couple of minutes).

It was another strange Pomerol-St Emilion hybrid day though, starting at the Moueix offices in Libourne to taste their wines, from less famous St Emilion cuvées such as Château La Serre, up to the more serious wines from Pomerol. Of note, this year the St Emilion Château Bélair-Monange was poured last of all, after Château Trotanoy and all the other wines from Pomerol, which perhaps says something about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the vintage.

Then it was on to Vieux Château Certan, where the king of the vintage comparison floored me with his response to my reuqest for a vintge which matched the weather patterns seen in 2014. “There isn’t one”, replied Alexandre Thienpont, so both weather and wines were/are unique. In saying this Alexandre was only reinforcing what others have said though, such as Pierre Seillan at Château Lassegue. I tasted with Pierre last Sunday, and he told me that in 49 vintages worked (I confess I didn’t write down the number, but I seem to recall he said 49, certainly 40-something anyway) he has never seen such a dramatic turn-around during a growing season.

Château Bellevue-Mondotte

Next up was Château Cheval Blanc, with Château d’Yquem as well of course, followed by a string of other interesting tastings. These kicked off at Château Pavie-Macquin, where I have never tasted before (I usually pick up the wines somewhere else), then Château Figeac (on their first time away from the UGC tastings) and then back into St Emilion again to meet up with the Thunevin portfolio, followed by Château Pavie, where the Perse portfolio (now ten in number, if we include his winemaker’s own estate always included in the tasting) grows ever more broad. And then it was time to wind down, first with a little left-bank interlude, as I tasted the Delon range at Château Nenin, before I finished up at Château Tertre Roteboeuf. And suddenly, that was that. My tasting was done. Before heading back to my accommodation I swung by a few châteaux to take some photographs, and eventually (after a bit of investigative work, because it isn’t obvious which it is) I found Château Bellevue Mondotte, part of the Perse empire. What a sad sight this was. While Château Pavie, down on the côtes, is now a golden palace of marble and gilt (during a visit to Bordeaux in 2014 I was told, but it might just be rumour, that this was built partly using EU funds, now reminded of this I shall have to check this out to see if true or mere hearsay), this château (pictured above) lay in a dilapidated state.

This has been a fascinating vintage to taste en primeur. After a dismal summer the Bordelais were thinking this might be 2013 all over again, but then they were saved by six or more weeks of beautiful weather. Naturally, they are keen to point to this period of warm weather and stress its beneficial effect on the ripening of the fruit, and the resulting wines, but in reality this has been a far-from-perfect vintage. Some varieties did better than others (because some took advantage of the warm weather while others were picked), some terroirs did better than others (all to do with how the soil interacts with water this year), and some appellations did better (i.e. had less rain) than others. And as a result of this complex matrix of influences quality is very variable, running the full gamut, from the superb down to the disappointing. It is a vintage where buying decisions must be informed. Critics dishing out high scores across the board and ‘best ever’ comments have clearly been tasting very different wines to those I have encountered. It is certainly not a great vintage where you could buy blind, or buy from your favourite châteaux, safe in the knowledge you will have something good. There are wines to buy in this vintage though; but those who have made the top wines know it (they said so – there’s confidence for you!), and I think my prediction that prices will rise seems likely to be correct. Many are in the mood for a rise, with the weak Euro being the most commonly cited influence on this. If that happens, I can’t see how the en primeur system can continue to work. Perhaps Château Bellevue-Mondotte is a suitable allegory for the state of Bordeaux today? It is all gilt palaces and smiling confidence at the front, but behind it things are perhaps a bit broken? I wonder, can the négociants soak up another vintage of over-priced wines?

My reports begin on Tuesday next week (April 7th). I don’t think it is appropriate to wait any longer, simply because I suspect the campaign may kick off quite soon. I have a fairly rigorous schedule for publishing the reports, in order to get them out as soon as possible, and will do my best to keep to it (but I haven’t signed that promise in blood – there is a lot of writing to do!).

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: I quit my husband

Today’s story begins at 1am on Thursday, my fifth day of 2014 Bordeaux primeur tasting, or my sixth if you include Saturday evening. Well, actually, the short chain of events in this tale can actually be followed back to Wednesday morning, when I unwittingly left behind a laptop at my accommodation. I only realised when I received an email to say it was being held for me, and I can pick it up any time. I toyed with the idea of driving back to retrieve it after my tasting at Château La Lagune had finished, but it would have been a round trip of 1 hour 40 minutes, plus my drive to my hotel on the right bank, so I decided to leave it and pick it up later in the week. If I had gone back to get it, however, I would have perhaps realised I also left behind half my clothes. My departure on Wednesday was clearly not my most star-spangled packing performance.

I only realised I was now travelling lighter than I originally intended at 1am Thursday morning, and I thought first I should check the boot of my hire car to see if my missing clothes were in there. It was then, in the car park, that I met Marguerite (names may have been changed to protect the innocent). Marguerite seemed flustered, and it soon became apparent why. She was desperate to stay at the hotel, which is one of these budget hotels (and you thought I was staying in the Libourne Hilton) where you can take a room, any time day or night, by paying with credit card; you use a machine in the foyer which spits out a room number and access code at you. The problem was, Marguerite had cash, but no credit card. And then out came the story; I’ve quit my husband. I am here, with my son (cue appearance of eight-year old boy cradling puppy), needing a room. I went to the gendarmerie they told me to come here. I have the cash, but no card. If I give you the money can you buy me a room? I am naturally cynical, but the desperation was genuine, the story stacked up, and there was no scam I could see (it’s not like she was trying to sell me some Armani jackets she had in the back of the car). Still, I took my time assessing the situation before I agreed, and she fished €50 from her purse which I took, but then discovered at the credit card machine that the the hotel was full. Her plans were dashed, the money returned. Disheartened, she and her son returned to her car. They lingered at the gate for five minutes, perhaps wondering what to do next, before they disappeared into the night.

I came to Bordeaux for the primeurs, but thanks to some wayward socks I ended up wandering into the middle of a stranger’s life crisis, a momentary figure in Marguerite’s story, a bit part in a life-defining drama, for her and perhaps more for her son (who I had a nice chat with – my French was more his level). It makes you realise, or remember anyway, that wine is just wine, and there are so many other life changing events happening all around us, often unseen.

Jean-Michel Laporte

I went back inside and set an early alarm which gave me time to stop off at InterMarché to buy some socks. Then it was off to see Jean-Michel Laporte (pictured above) at Château La Conseillante. The main news here is that Jean-Michel is set to leave La Conseillante, he and the Nicolas family having decided to go their separate ways, after the realisation that they have different visions for the estate and its wine, and having disagreed on a number of important issues, including pricing. Jean-Michel will leave in June, and does not yet have another job lined up. It is a life decision that, while perhaps not quite on the same level as Marguerite’s tale, will change the course of a very fine career if nothing else.

Then it was on to Le Pin, where I also tasted Jacques’ new-ish St Emilion cuvée L’If, and I asked Jacques if the 2013 (which he didn’t show last year) would ever be poured for journalists. “No”, he replied, “it is for people who want to buy it. If nobody wants to buy it, I will drink it”. I suspect, somehow, it will sell, even in the absence of critical opinion. Then I followed up with Petrus, Château Le Gay, Château L’Évangile, Château L’Église Clinet, then over to Château Angélus (it was a bit out of synch, but it was the only time I could fit them in). Afterwards, it was back to Pomerol, with Château Lafleur, where the development of the white wines continues to be very strong, alongside the red wines too of course. Then it was back to St Emilion (I know the road between the two appellations better than ever now) for Château Ausone, where the wines were one greater in number than is usual, as the Vauthier family purchased Château La Clotte in September 2014, and were showing the ‘transition vintage’. I guess we should look to 2015 as their first true vintage here, having said that the wine was good, as was the rest of the range, but in a style that very much conforms to the vintage, which is very mixed and weak in parts, with a very broad range in quality from the top to the bottom.

More St Emilion then, first to check out the Neipperg wines at Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, and then up to the UGC tasting to check out Château Troplong-Mondot and others. Finishing ahead of schedule, I then unexpectedly found myself hot-footing it back to Pomerol for the Pomerol Séduction tasting at Clos du Clocher. The samples here were a little warm but felt fresh otherwise, so this was a useful exercise, allowing me to double-check these wines, as I had tasted all but two of them before.

On Friday, another Pomerol-St Emilion blend, with the Moueix portfolio first, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac, the Thunevin portfolio, a tasting at Château Pavie-Macquin and finishing up at Château Tertre Roteboeuf. I have learnt to always finish up with François, as the tastings can over-run a little. After all, who knows which way the conversation with François will turn. Astrological planetary alignments? Voltaire? The taste of potatoes? Anything is possible with François.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: I read sumsing. . .

I suspect most people would prefer to taste dry wines followed by sweet, rather than sweet followed by dry; trying to get your head around a mouthful of tannin-rich Pauillac is hard enough without starting with all your tastebuds coated with the lingering sweetness of Sauternes, its fragrant golden fruits, and every single gram of its residual sugar doing its best to cloud your judgement. No doubt this is why, when all the other UGC tastings shut up shop at 6pm, the plucky Sauternais hang on in there for another hour, ready to serve last-minute, post-Pauillac tasters.

I already tasted Sauternes on Sunday, but there were a couple of wines missing, most notably Château Rieussec, and so having trundled down the D2 stuck behind a very slow moving luxury minibus (probably full of the tasting team from Farr’s, or Fine & Rare, or perhaps it was just WSJ wine journalist Will Lyons in his mobile wardrobe) I arrived at Château La Lagune (the Sauternes venue) at 6:38 pm. More than enough time to find the wines I needed to taste, and maybe just check in again on one or two others. But as I entered I spotted the UGC ladies, who were ready to scan the barcode on my badge – which I suddenly realised was “dans ma voiture”, as I put it. “Oh, no problem” she replied in a sultry French accent that would melt even Boy George’s heart (you have to read this in your head in the same accent), and she immediately set her machine to print a new badge for me. “I know you are Chris Kissack, because I read sumsing about you….”

Anyway, I’m starting at the end again, when I should really start at the beginning. I started Wednesday at 9am at Château Margaux, never a bad place to start, and then followed up with visits to Château Palmer, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château d’Issan. I was sorry to learn at the third of these visits that John Kolasa, the mastermind behind the renaissance of both Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon in St Emilion, is set to retire this June. He has decided to go while the going is good, and perhaps to travel more, to see his increasingly large number of grandchildren who are scattered across France and Canada. I wish him well.

Dourthe 2014 samples

Thereafter it was up to Château Ducru-Beaucaillou to taste the wines of Bruno Borie, who was in ebulliant form (as always I think), before going completely off-piste from my schedule. I had intended to taste at a number of other UGC events, but first I had a couple of gaps I needed to fill in (the result of a press Pessac-Leognan tasting I went to where there was no Malartic-Lagravière and no Smith-Haut-Lafitte, which seems nuttily slapdash to me) and so I wangled an invitation to the Dourthe tasting at Château Belgrave. It would only take 20 minutes. I arrived at about 1pm, and didn’t leave for Château La Lagune until 6pm.

The reason I lingered so long is that this was a great tasting. Not only was there a huge selection of wines available, all colours, all communes, dry and sweet, white and red, the wines were just perfectly presented, the temperatures were spot on, and I didn’t come across a duff sample in there. The tasting, which was seated, was divided up into about 30 flights, and all I had to was raise my hand and a sommelier would bring the requested flight, in a little rack of half bottles (as above). Once finished, the sommelier would take them away, restock if required, and ensure they were returned to a cool 17ºC before they went out again.

I started by tasting Margaux, a target for the afternoon, followed by wines from the Haut-Médoc, the Médoc, Moulis and Listrac, then I retasted all the St Julien classed growths available (becuase I just wasn’t convinced they were showing right yesterday afternoon, and although some might blame the atmospheric pressure, or whether it was a root day or a leaf day or some other such nonsense, I think they were just tired samples, or a tired taster maybe), then I picked up those missing wines from Pessac-Léognan in red and white, followed by some white Graves, and I finished in style with some Bordeaux Blanc.

Today (Thursday) it is Pomerol, with La Conseillante, Le Pin and Petrus just for starters, with more Pomerol and St Emilion for the main course and pudding. Oh, and what was that “sumsing” the UGC lady had read? I am afriad I was distracted by Caroline Frey, and her invitation to taste the latest four vintages (2014 to 2011) of La Lagune, so I am afraid I never discovered it. If I find out, I will be sure to let you know.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Boozy Lunches and Blinkers

Well Tuesday went well. After running late for most of Monday, on Tuesday I ended up running early, at one point up to 50 minutes ahead of schedule. You might think this a sign of bad planning, but it was just the luck of the draw. I simply couldn’t get some appointments at the times I wanted, giving me a rather ‘spaced out’ schedule, but rather than hang around waiting for my allotted times I just turned up early. A little bit inconvenient, but I hoped my interest would be looked upon kindly. It was, and so I kept the day running nicely; indeed, I managed to fit in two tastings that weren’t even on my timetable for the day.

It was 8am at Château Calon-Ségur for the first tasting, and as on previous days it was cold, miserable and disappointing (the weather, not the wine). I tasted with Vincent Millet, who is pleased with the results of the 2014 vintage. Then I quickly swung by Château Pédesclaux to see the results of recent building work here, the château (below) now flanked by two steel and glass cubes. It certainly looks interesting. As for the wine, I will taste that later today (Wednesday) with Emmanuel Cruse who has a big role here and at the other Lorenzetti estate, Lilian-Ladouys. Then it was on to Château Pontet-Canet, before hopping next-door to Château Mouton-Rothschild, then another hop up the road to Château Lafite-Rothschild. Next was Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, followed by Château Latour. That took me up to lunchtime, and so I headed up to Château Sociando-Mallet to taste, and then I sat down for lunch, an informal affair of cold charcuterie followed by boeuf en daube and cheese. There was a bottle of the 2006 Sociando-Mallet to wash it all down with, if required. I took a couple of mouthfuls to taste, but no more than that, as it is a long day, and I am of course driving for much of it. This was my most luxurious lunch of the week, by the way, as usually I just grab a sandwich in the car between appointments.

Château Pédesclaux, March 2015

This is, it has to be said, a great contrast to the experience some enjoy during the primeurs week. It can be a bit of a party, with long boozy lunches with plenty of old vintages served, and lazy dinners too. This is fine for the wine trade; if you’re in the trade you definitely should be dining with the Bordelais in this fashion, building a good working relationship, getting to know one another, because the merchants and the châteaux depend on one another to survive (although you might not think it – suffice to say it can perhaps be a little tense at time, the obvious problem in recent years being the prices). For wine critics, or writers, or bloggers, or whatever you want to call them, it seems to me to be a rather incongruous activity though. Picture the supposedly independent assessor of the latest vintage, sitting at table, grinning into the camera, glass in raised hand, enjoying the 2000 from Château Wonderful with carpaccio of coelacanth and pan-fried ortolan. As the photographs are plastered over Twitter or Facebook they might just be followed up with something like “I love the 2014 vintage”, which is of course a completely independent assessment based on long and considered though, the taster working entirely free of undue influence, despite having just had a fine gustatory experience, and having just glugged the 2005 and 1990, also from Château Wonderful. It might be all good fun, but this critic/blogger is now part of the marketing machine, and when the release prices stay high despite everything it wil be partly this critic’s fault. When the punters who bought the wines pull the corks ten years down the road, and find that actually they’re a bit lean, and maybe 2014 was a bit over-hyped after the dreary 2013 vintage, and perhaps the wines are not really all they were cracked up to be, it will also be partly that critic’s fault. Don’t believe the boozy, blinkered hype.

I digress (not for the first time). After Sociando-Mallet I headed down to Château Montrose, followed by Château Cos d’Estournel, then down to the UGC tasting for Pauillac and, although not orignally scheduled, I also squeezed in the UGC St Julien tasting. The former was at Château Lynch-Moussas, which is west of Pauillac in soils of a very sandy, gritty nature, and with all the recent rain it was a bit of a mudbath outside. My hire car is now more brown than black. The latter tasting was at Château Léoville-Poyferré. Then, as the wine wasn’t being shown at the UGC tasting (did they pull out last year? – I must remember this for future reference) I paid an unscheduled visit to Château Pichon-Lalande, where I was warmly welcomed despite turning up sans rendez-vous, and then I finished up across the road at Château Pichon-Baron, where I was certainly the last taster standing. By the time I finished, Christian Seely and Jean-René Matignon looked ready for their coats. It’s a tiring week for all, tasters, pourers and talkers.

Tomorrow, a lie-in, as my first appointment isn’t until 9am, at Château Margaux. More Margaux and St Julien thereafter, filling in a couple of Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes gaps, and then I head for the right bank before the final two days of tasting.

Bordeaux 2014 Primeurs: Rain on the Rocade

No visit to Bordeaux can be purely about the latest vintage, even if this is primeurs week, when samples of the 2014 are piled high waiting to be tasted. I’m in Bordeaux, so I think it would be silly not to take advantage of this, to visit domaines I haven’t been to before (even if they don’t have any interest in the primeurs) or, as I did before Saturday night’s L’Église-Clinet tasting, spending a few hours checking out vineyards, and taking some photographs. So yesterday (Monday) my final visit was in Sauternes, to a domaine I have never visited before. I tasted the latest releases, which included one vintage from when I was in second year at university (bear in mind my twenty-year reunion date was last year), and one from when I was still at primary school. A more compelling antithesis to the concept of tasting embryonic barrel samples would be impossible to find. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the morning.

I left my accommodation at 6:30am, giving me 90 minutes (my appointment was at 8am) to complete a 60 minute journey, the extra half hour being to allow for rush hour traffic. It was raining, but progress was good, until I made it to within a few miles of the Rocade, Bordeaux’s notorious ring-road. It was gridlock, the reason being an accident somewhere ahead, the wet weather no doubt being a factor in this, and from then on I crawled along. I arrived at Château La Mission Haut-Brion 45 minutes late, not really my finest moment, as I am religious about turning up on time for château appointments. Fortunately nobody seemed to mind and as I travel and taste independently, rather than in a big group, it is probably easier to accommodate me for tasting if I am early (not likely!) or late.

Château Gilette

I often find my 8am tasting at La Mission Haut-Brion (this is a regular feature on my schedule) a pretty quiet affair, as most people are still tucking into their croissants at this time. The advantage of being late was catching up with Jean-Philippe Delmas, who showed up at 9am. It’s an interesting vintage here and at Haut-Brion, with very high alcohol levels in some cuvées, and also the strident acidity which is a feature of the vintage. As the day progressed I managed to make up time. I was only 25 minutes late by the time I made it to Château Pape Clément, 20 minutes late at Château Haut-Bailly, and getting back to normality by the time I hit the press tasting of Graves at Château Rouillac. I arrived here two hours before the start time, having discussed this with the syndicat who gave my early kick-off the go-ahead, but unfortunately nobody told the staff at the château. Cue much frantic pulling of corks……

Later (much later, there are a lot of vines planted in Graves) it was down to Sauternes, first to Château Climens for the usual brilliant barrel tasting (do they ever make a bad wine at Climens these days?), then Château Raymond-Lafon, and then my final visit of the day, to meet Xavier Gonet-Medeville of Château Les Justices and Château Gilette in Preignac. After a tour of the estate we tasted some wine (surprise!), starting with 2014, but then looking at the current and forthcoming releases of Château Gilette. These include the 1990 Crème de Tête, bottled three years ago, after eighteen years in vat, and the 1979 Crème de Tête, bottled years and years ago but currently held back for release at forty years of age. So, just another four years to wait before we can all get our hands on this then. What a great visit this was, and what a contrast to the primeurs merry-go-round of barrel samples, and all the inherently intertwined commercial pressure that comes with it.

Today (Tuesday) it is northern left bank, so that means Calon-Ségur, Pontet-Canet, Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Pichon-Baron and probably one or two others. Fingers crossed for less rain, and fewer accidents…..

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.