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Checking in on a maturing Vouvray

We all know Vouvray is immortal. Well, at least I hope we do. I was certainly reminded of this indisputable fact when checking in on the 1996 Cuvée Moelleuse from Domaine Champalou recently. This has always been a very elegant style of moelleux Vouvray, pure and floral, very much in the Champalou style. I recall about a decade ago opening a bottle with a sweet-salty stilton from the Cropwell Bishop creamery; it was one of the most heavenly food and wine matches I have ever encountered. It wasn’t long before the cheese wrapper was empty and the bottle was dry. More than ten years on, I can recall the sensation of the combination with absolute clarity, it was so striking.

Champalou Vouvray Cuvée Moelleuse 1996

Right now the Domaine Champalou Cuvée Moelleuse 1996 shows a polished straw-gold hue in the glass, quite a rich colour for this cuvée, which tends to have a somewhat paler hue than other sweet Vouvrays, which to my mind reflects the more delicate, floral nature of the wine (and the Champalou style). The nose here, however, is not floral but is rich in honeyed quince, sweet yellow plum too, but this is presented in a taut rather than fat or exuberant fashion, and it is nicely balanced by contrasting notes of smoke and mineral on one side, but hints of even richer praline on the other. The palate is beautifully defined, cool and bright, taut and with plenty of crisp, lively fruit behind the grip, acid freshness and richer nuances. There is perhaps a touch of sorbet-like purity and intensity here which really appeals, especially when mixed with the more smoky nuances. It is fabulously long, and yet always taut and precise. Divine to drink now (with or without stilton) but this has decades ahead of it. 18.5/20

Underground at Champany Inn

Last week I took a trip up to Champany Inn, near Linlithgow, a restaurant renowned for its steak above all else. It’s quite a few years since I last visited; in fact, looking back I see it was in 2006, a far-too-long eight years. Well I’m glad I put that right.

The reason for my visit was to attend a dinner showcasing the wines of Henri Bourgeois, the leading Loire Valley domaine and négociant based in Chavignol, not far from Sancerre (although I would imagine the locals would probably rather say “Sancerre, not far from Chavignol”). This was an interesting dinner as, although the numbers of wines poured was not huge, it was (if I recall correctly) the first time I have tasted the Henri Bourgeois wines next to the Clos Henri wines, which originate from the Bourgeois vineyards in New Zealand.

Champany Inn

Before the dinner I was treated to a quick tour of all things Champany. Since my last visit a very impressive shop has sprung up (a lot can happen in eight years!), selling wines off the list, strong on South Africa (as is the wine list) but featuring many other regions too. I even spotted a bottle of Louis Métaireau Muscadet. I made a mental note to return when I have more time, for a longer and more leisurely nose around.

It was the cellars that impressed most though. As cellars go this one (a little of which is pictured above) is deceptive. It goes on for much longer than you think (what I thought was a mirror in the distance was only a glass panel, and there were more bins beyond), and the total capacity is an impressive 36,000 bottles. Just inside the door some recent arrivals were ready to be stacked away; Mike, the sommelier, has very wisely been stocking up with 2004 Bordeaux, a vintage which offers good value, as well as a little from the 2000 vintage, provided the price was right, of course.

Champany Inn

There were plenty of interesting bottles to see. Old Italians, South Africans, plenty of Burgundy and more than a bottle or two from Bordeaux, unsurprisingly. The 1998 Yquem, above, is just one of many such bottles, and hints at the quality of the wines on the Champany Inn list.

I will write up the dinner and wines in the next few weeks, after I have overhauled my Henri Bourgeois profile after my visit there late least year.

Disclosure: I joined the Henri Bourgeois dinner, and stayed overnight in one of their rooms, as a guest of Champany Inn.

A nice Southern Red: Minna Vineyard

It’s always fun to look at what’s going on in other regions beyond Bordeaux and the Loire, the two areas I focus on most within Winedoctor, whether it be through wines pulled from the cellar, or received samples such as this one.

The Villa Minna Vineyard has been family owned for eight decades. Abandoned after the death of the proprietor in 1979, his grandson breathed new life into it in the 1990s. The usual Southern French varieties including Syrah and Mourvèdre were planted, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan (a Cabernet-Grencahe cross) and Caladoc (a Grenache-Malbec cross), and some whites. All five red varieties are blended in the Villa Minna range of wines, but just the three more noble varieties in the Minna Vineyard wines.

Minna Vineyard Red 2009

The 2009 Minna Vineyard Red (pictured above) comes from organically managed vineyards, picked by hand, with a yield in this vintage of just 12.3 hl/ha. The fermentation is in steel after a few days cold maceration. The wine then goes into barrels, with bâtonnage, for 24 months prior to bottling after a light filtration, but no fining. On the nose it has a wealth of sweet, dark, spiced fruits, the scents reminiscent of macerated berries, plum skins and pepper, laced with nuances of coffee and juniper berries too. As expected it has a very seductive texture in the mouth, full and concentrated, and sweet berry fruit, feeling substantial and macerated, and yet it doesn’t feel overdone. It is quite softly defined though, with rather low-key acidity, and some ripe tannins for backbone, which are plush, velvety, and only really show through in the finish. A warmer vintage, I suspect. Long and grippy, there is certainly some potential for the cellar here. 15.5/20 (May 2014)

The Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience

In October this year I’m looking forward to leading a trip to some of Bordeaux’s most remarkable wine estates with Adam Stebbing of SmoothRed, a long-established company offering tailor-made wine tours, holidays, events and experiences. The Bordeaux Grand Cru Experience promises great wine, superb château visits and fine dining.

The tour is now mostly booked up but there are still some places left. It would be great to fill those last few places with a couple of long-term Winedoctor readers!

Here’s a taster of what the trip will involve:

October 1st 2014 – St Emilion: Flight from London Gatwick to Bordeaux, private chauffeur-driven coach to St Emilion, Château Canon-la-Gaffelière (for lunch) and then Château Angélus. Dinner and hotel in Bordeaux City.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

October 2nd 2014 – Graves and Sauternes: Château Haut-Brion first, and as if one first growth weren’t enough, after a tasting and lunch it’s onto Château d’Yquem.

October 3rd 2014 – The Médoc: Tour up the famous ‘Route des Châteaux’. Visit Château Pontet-Canet, now turning out wines to challenge the very best in the commune. Then it will be lunch at Château Pichon-Baron (pictured above) – where lunch, I have recently learnt from first-hand experience, is not to be missed! In the afternoon, we head south to Margaux and Château Rauzan-Segla.

SmoothRed - The Grand Cru Experience

October 4th 2014 – Bordeaux and Graves: There is no let up in terms of quality on the final day. The morning allows us all time to take in Bordeaux city, followed by lunch and tasting at Château Haut-Bailly (pictured above), the origin of one of the very best wines of the entire appellation. Fly back to London early evening.

Prices: £1679.00 per person for 3 star hotel option (based on double room occupancy), £1994.00 per person for 5 star upgrade option (also based on double room occupancy). For four days with all those visits (including Yquem and Haut-Brion!) that seems like money well spent.

There are (or were – more than half have sold) fourteen places, so this will be a very intimate tour. If you would like to come along check out the SmoothRed itinerary here: Grand Cru Bordeaux Experience or phone Adam on +44 (0) 207 1988 369, or email him on sales@smoothred.co.uk.

Bordeaux 2013: Final Day

My final day in St Emilion (and Pomerol) was a little more relaxed than some others, with long appointments, each one lasting at least an hour. That’s quite appropriate though, as many estates here produce a broad range of wines. You think you’re turning up to taste a premier grand cru classé, then you remember that the wines offered also include a second wine, one from Castillon, a couple of other cuvées from less classified St Emilion vineyards, a wine or two from the satellite appellations, and maybe a white wine. Sometimes the winemaker at a grand estate also owns his own plot of vines somewhere, and it can of course be advantageous for him to have his wines served alongside those of the classified estate where he works. I remember once turning up to a top St Emilion estate to find this was the case, as a result the number of wines being poured had increased from five to about a dozen

I kicked off at Château Pavie, where I was greeted by Gérard Perse, although he soon left me in the hands of his staff, who were pouring the Perse range in one of the new tasting rooms. The entire château has been razed to the ground and rebuilt in recent years, and I now struggle to remember what it looked like before the work began. Now, though, the completed rebuild is remarkably palatial, with glistening stone, gleaming marble and walls of glass and gilt. It all feels very appropriate, and it is difficult not to be impressed by the work now it has been completed. After tasting here, I then made the short trip up the steep hill to Château Ausone, to taste the wines, and also to get some chat from Alain Vauthier, who reaffirmed what many have already told me this year, in particular the difficulties with Merlot, and the appeal of the Cabernet Franc. This a strong year for this variety, and I find that blends with even a relatively low percentage of Cabernet Franc – say between 15% and 20% – are often aromatically dominated by its perfumed scents. So you can imagine what a wine such as Lafleur, Ausone, or Le Dôme, all of which major on this variety, are like.

Château Pavie

After Ausone it was over to Château Angélus, another recently refurbished château. The new château and cellars were inaugurated during the primeurs, an event which I did not attend, as I am uncomfortable with the glitz of such events, bearing in mind I am here to review their wines. Here I tasted not only Angélus and Bellevue, but also a host of other wines from across Bordeaux where Hubert de Boüard de Laforest consults. Anyone who doubts that a consultant has an impact on the style of wine should come to a tasting such as this; many of the wines had the same deep plummy fruit, the same broad but ripe tannic structure. They were largely successes, and they showed what could be done with the vintage, but after a while the wines began to taste the same so I left to take a break. I stopped off for lunch, and took a few photographs in the region, before moving to Château Canon-la-Gaffelière to taste the wines of Stefan von Neipperg. The vintage was just as difficult here as elsewhere, and the yields told the story; 10 hl/ha for Canon-la-Gaffelière itself, just 8 hl/ha at La Mondotte. Before leaving I also took some time to take a look at their wines in the 2004 vintage; I often try and squeeze in a few non-primeur tastings, especially on my last day, and this was the first of several. The wines, at ten years of age, were largely very firm and structured, and are clearly still on the way up.

The it was over to Château Tertre Roteboeuf to taste with François Mitjavile; this was a fascinating visit (isn’t it always?) and I have to admit I learnt a lot more about Tertre Roteboeuf, as well as the 2013 vintage. I tasted all three of his wines, Domaine de Cambes, Roc de Cambes and Château Tertre Roteboeuf. I also then moved on to look at a 2012, and then all the wines from 2011, the most recently bottled vintage, including Les Aurages, the Castillon made by his son Louis. I finished up with the 2004 vintage again here. Some of these wines were just wonderful, and as with the Neipperg wines I will be writing these up as soon as possible. This appointment did over-run somewhat (note to self; more time for François next year) and so I was twenty minutes late for my final appointment at Château Bonalgue in Pomerol. Here Jean-Baptiste Bourotte and his technical director Cécile Dupuis make a very good example of off-plateau Pomerol, a real stylistic contrast to the wines from the estate that they have up on the gravel plateau, Clos du Clocher. I tasted all four of Jean-Baptiste’s wines in 2013, three Pomerols and a Lalande-de-Pomerol, none of which I would turn my nose up at. Finally, I finished off with a vertical tasting of the wines of Bonalgue, starting at 2011, now in bottle, and working my way back to 1988. Some of these wines were really good; not at the level of a plateau Pomerol, maybe, but in some viintages they showed delightful pencil-straight structure, polished textures and a lovely tobacco, cigar, truffle and autumn-leaf complexity as they mature. From the gravel and sand terroirs on the edge of Libourne, these are good wines indeed. Sometime over the next few months I will these up in a Château Bonalgue profile.
 
That is it for my Bordeaux primeurs diary; as I type these final words I am sitting in an airport lounge, on my way home. Updating the Winedr blog has been a more interesting experience than in previous years; I update the blog with these informal posts during the primeurs week simply because I don’t have time to write detailed articles for behind the paywall, so hectic is the week’s schedule. They are meant to be diary-like comments, light reading, broad impressions, nothing more; despite that, I have had emails from both château-proprietors and wine merchants regarding my comments, usually disagreeing with what I have written. This is a vintage where the two, producers and merchants, seem set to pull apart even harder than usual, and both are looking to the critics for support in where they stand. That’s something I have had cause to reflect on during this journey home, and I will write more about in coming weeks.

Also coming next week: first, my 2013 vintage report, kicking off with a vintage summary on Tuesday, and St Estèphe the day after. If this campaign is really quick wines may well come out before I have published relevant notes or scores; that shouldn’t be a worry, as the wines aren’t going to sell out in this vintage. Gradual publication is a consequence of all the detailed background I give, and I would rather stick with that than simply rush to publish long lists of notes, to be released into an information vacuum. Does anybody find notes like that of any use? And second, I will be announcing the winners of my new Winedoctor primeurs award, which is Bud of the Week. Totally serious of course. Any notion that I just thought it up as I sit with a pint of airport beer in my hand would be well wide of the mark, obviously.

Bordeaux 2013: On the Right Bank

My primeurs week continues, and I’m now on the right bank. Thursday was a day of Pomerol in the morning, and a mix of Pomerol and St Emilion in the afternoon. The weather was absolutely miserable, with grey skies and rain all day, sometimes light but sometimes very heavy. Dashing from car to tasting room in order not to get soaked to the skin was the order of the day.

The morning was fascinating, as I toured sme of the top names of the Pomerol appellation, starting at the Moueix offices on the Libourne quayside. This tasting usually includes a full line-up of their Pomerols, plus a handful of St Emilions, but there were a few wines missing this year, and these absentees served as an indicator of the difficulty of the vintage. First, in St Emilion, no Château Puy-Blanquet this year, as the vineyard was hit by hail and they took the decision to sell off the enture crop in bulk. Secondly, coming back to Pomerol, due to millerandage there is no wine from Château Hosanna nor from Providence. So it was a somewhat contracted line-up here.

Thereafter it was on to Vieux Château Certan where Guillaume Thienpont (pictured below) was pouring the 2013. The story told here was in contrast to that I heard elsewhere, in that most reported problems with Merlot more than any other variety. Here Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont found the Merlot to be of good quality, and were less convinced by the Cabernets this year. As a consequence, the wine here has more Merlot and less Cabernet than it has had for many decades. After that, it was a dash to Château Église-Clinet, to taste with Denis Durantou, Château Lafleur to taste with Baptiste Guinaudeau, Petrus and then Château Le Gay. To say there were some good wines in amongst this little lot would be an understatement. This really has been a primeurs worth coming for – it is a vintage where you can sift through all that is on offer and find some real successes. And isn’t that what wine critics are for – to guide willing drinkers towards wines worth buying? I’m in danger of repeating myself here though, of getting back on the you-can’t-judge-without-tasting track, and so I’ll move on now.

Guillaume Thienpont

The afternoon kicked off with the UGC Pomerol tasting, and then a quick stop at Château L’Évangile before heading next-door to Château Cheval Blanc to taste with the very knowledgable technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet. Here I also picked up a taste of Château d’Yquem, before heading next-door again (you see, there is some planning in my timetable!) to Château La Dominique for the UGC St Emilion tasting. I have never been to this château before, but sadly as it was still bucketing down I wasn’t going to hang around to take any photographs, although I would have very much liked to have done so.

There were some surprisingly convincing wines at this tasting; you might think with the tendency at some estates in St Emilion to over-extract that the wines would end up terribly over-worked. But there are in fact some really notable successes here, wines brimming with fruit, as there are in Pomerol. They are wines of genuine structure, and the fruit is really fresh yet ripe and dark; some are very convincing wines, remarkable efforts when you time the time to consider once again the trials of the growing season.

Although it was now late afternoon I had two more tastings to go. First I headed into St Emilion, parking up at the top of town and then braving the rain (the evening before I flew out last weekend I had been hunting for an umbrella but couldn’t find one – just my luck) to walk through the cobbled streets to Jean-Luc Thunevin’s tasting. As usual (as there were in 2012), there were some pretty smart wines here. And then for a final hurrah, I headed out to the wilds of Vignonet, on the plain below St Emilion, for a tasting of the wines of Jonathan Maltus. That was a pretty good way to round up a long day of tasting. It was, to say the least, a late finish.

Friday is my final day of primeur tasting. Some more big-name St Emilions today, including Château Pavie, Château Angélus, the Neipperg wines, Château Tertre-Roteboeuf and then back into Pomerol to mop up there. My timetable is a little lighter – I have even allowed myself a lunch break today. Perhaps I will be able to use it to catch up on some sleep!

Bordeaux 2013: More Medoc

Yesterday I wrote mainly about Alfred Tesseron, in particular the early release of his wine, his reasoning and how the négociants responded. As a consequence I glossed over to a large extent the hectic activity of the day as I flew up and down the D2. The morning – all Pauillac – went very smoothly. It was in the afternoon that things started to fall apart. First, I hadn’t realised that the UGC tasting of St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe was split into two tastings this year, St Julien now going it alone (there is a story behind this – isn’t there always?). And thus, having finished the Pauillac-St Estèphe tasting, at Château Lafon-Rochet, I needed to find time to go to the St Julien tasting. This meant driving back down to Château Lagrange, which was hosting it. I had two choices; go for it, and risk turning up late at my next appointment, at Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, or turn up early at Grand-Puy-Lacoste and then see if I can free up time afterwards. I opted for the former.

Happily this worked out alright, and when I turned up only two minutes late at Grand-Puy-Lacoste I was feeling pretty pleased with myself; you know what they say about pride and falls though. Then it was off to Château Calon-Ségur and Château Cos d’Estournel, followed by Château Montrose. It was at this point that my timings started to go awry, and by the time I arrived at my final appointment at Château Montrose the place was entirely deserted. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I had been hearing good things about Château Montrose on the rumour mill, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like. And there was no guarantee I would be able to return the next day. Naturally I fired off an email of apology for missing the appointment, not something I have had to do before, and just crossed my fingers that I would be able to get in on Wednesday.
 
Le Retout Blanc

Wednesday morning started with Château Margaux, followed by a blast northwards through Margaux and St Julien, with Château Palmer, Château d’Issan, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and Château Léoville-Las-Cases. With each appointment I shaved a few minutes off my schedule, freeing up time for a dash northwards to St Estèphe. A quick phone call at midday to Montrose confirmed that I could visit again (thanks Marianne), any time after 4pm. That gave me time to head over to Château Clarke for the UGC Médoc, Moulis/Listrac and Haut-Médoc tasting, followed by Château Marquis de Terme for the UGC Margaux tasting. By this time I had so much time on my hands I headed north to Château Sociando-Mallet, on the last hurrah of the Médoc’s great gravel beds, before than coming back to Château Montrose. Was it worth the dashing about? Absolutely. Not only is the new cellar, upon which I cast my eyes for the first time, cathedral-like in its proportions, the wine is just as good as the rumour mill suggested. And it is not alone in this, there are some good wines in 2013. Of these, many are good but still for relatively early drinking, but quite a few are good, full stop, and that means capable of seeing out some time in the cellar. And with the acidity these wines have, Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer believes they may age better than people expect. With respect to a small subset of wines only – the likes of Palmer, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Pichon-Baron – I am inclined to agree with him. For all the other wines, buyer beware. You can find leanness and greenness in this vintage. And I encountered the unmistakeable scent of grey rot today, not only in a cru classé Sauternes but in a red wine too. These are rare wines though. Most wines are clean, with ripe but very fresh fruit, are acid-rich, but just a little too lean.

After Montrose, it was back through the Médoc, stopping off at Château du Retout to taste three vintages of their white wine, the best Bordeaux white you never heard of. The blend is illustrated above (it is Vin de France), and it would wipe the floor with most white Bordeaux. Looking at the back label reminds me of another interesting conversation I had with a gérant yesterday about appellation, white wines, and his interest in planting Chardonnay in Bordeaux, but perhaps that’s a story for another time. After Retout it was on to Château La Lagune, in order to taste the wine, which this year is not being presented at the UGC tastings as they have not blended. Instead, they are presenting four major components of the blend, à la the barrel tasting at Château Climens. This was fascinating, and as you might imagine there was a huge variation acrosst the four samples, with the old-vines Cabernet Sauvignon being my favourite by a country mile. Incidentally, I tasted with Maylis de Laborderie, the new maitre de chai, a dynamic youg woman who came to work at Château La Lagune in September 2013. Having graduated from Bordeaux University in 2011, she has since worked in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile’s Maipo Valley and Côte-Rôtie, which seems like an impressive curriculum vitae by any standards. I finished the day by mopping up in Sauternes, making sure I had tasted everything and retasting a handful.

That done, I headed over to the right bank, where I will put down roots for two days. Thursday morning I kick off at the Moueix offices to taste their wines. Then it’s Vieux Château Certan, Château Église-Clinet, Château Lafleur, Petrus and Château Le Gay – and that’s all before lunch. More Pomerol and some St Emilion in the afternoon. It’s going to be a long day.

Bordeaux 2013: Mainly Pauillac

So Tuesday was the day when I started really getting to grips with the Médoc, with tastings in Pauillac first of all, plus St Estèphe later in the day, and some St Juliens in the middle.

My run of morning and early afternoon appointments would be a treat for any fan of Pauillac, as I visited all three first growths, as well as Château Pichon-Baron, Château Pontet-Canet and Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste. In each case the objective was to taste the wine – obviously – but as I wrote in yesterday’s blog a visit to the châteaux provides an opportune moment to buttonhole the manager, winemaker or proprietor (or all of them together) and find out the nitty-gritty detail. With this there might also come some discussion of the markets, of price, and so on – a little bit of crystal ball gazing. Unusally, this year, at Château Pontet-Canet, we were not looking forward, but looking back, because as I am sure the whole world knows by now, Alfred Tesseron took the unusual decision to release his wine a week before the primeurs tastings officially kicked off. I asked him why he had taken this decision, and how the offer to the négociants had gone.

“I was fed up reading that people were not going to come to Bordeaux to taste the wines”, replied Alfred (pictured below – with biodynamic expert winemaker Jean-Michel Comme). The early release seems to have been his response to the decision by some critics to stay away from Bordeaux, intimating that they had already judged the wines as unworthy. I can understand his response; if critics don’t need to taste the wine in order to be able to judge them, then perhaps they shouldn’t be surprised when the Bordelais decide they don’t need the critics in order to be able to sell them. I can certainly sympathise with his point of view. A lot of effort and investment goes into making a wine such as this and you can’t judge it without tasting, regardless of the horrors of the vintage’s weather, the storms, rain and rot. Anyone who writes off this vintage, even when it comes to the red wines (it seems common knowledge that the whites have done better), has got it wrong. Any critic who writes it off from afar, without tasting the wines, is both wrong and unprofessional.

Alfred Tesseron and Jean-Michel Comme, April 2014
 
I went on to ask him how the offer to the négociants was received. “People [by this Alfred means the négociants to whom he offered the wine] weren’t ready for it at first”, he replied, “but I told them it was alright, they should take their time, come back to me when they were ready”. The time frame was rather tight though, as Pontet-Canet is a popular wine. The offer was made Tuesday morning, and by the close of play on Tuesday Alfred had sold 70% of the offer. Cynical minds will obviously question the size of the offer – we all know the Bordelais can offer very small tranches which unsurprisingly sell out – so I put this question to Alfred. In response, he was quite clear that the entire crop was put on the market. After close of business on day one he left the offer open, but interestingly only to those who had by this time made a purchase; those negociants that showed confidence in Alfred were rewarded, those that stayed away were locked out. The négociants who had made a purchase could now increase the quantity taken by up to 50% if they desired, which he did to ensure the stock distribution would remain fair. Clearly Alfred’s confidence in the wine was rubbing off on the négociants, because they subsequently took up all that was left. By last Friday, the entire harvest was sold.

The next step is of course for the négociants to sell the wine; indeed, I have heard some say that the wine isn’t really ‘sold out’ until the négociants have shifted their stock. I know the price was on the confident side (sorry, I know there is a lot about ‘confidence’ in this post) – Alfred unsurprisingly cited the small harvest as one of the considerations when setting the price – but with small volumes made I wonder if this will really be that difficult? The one piece of evidence that makes me lean this way is that the négociants all came back for more. With your allocation of the 2014 and 2015 secured through a purchase of the 2013, why bite for more unless you thought you could sell it? An even bigger allocation? Possibly, I suppose.

Tasting in the Médoc today, from petits châteaux up to first growths, seemed to reveal something even more interesting about this vintage. This is not a year in which success depended solely on terroir, but perhaps more on effort (the ability and financial strength to select) and the ability to make the right decisions in the winery. I have tasted petits châteaux and lesser classed growth wines, super-seconds and first growths that seem to have got it just right, with surprising texture and tangible substance. And I have tasted petits châteaux and lesser classed growth wines, super-seconds and first growths that seem to have missed the target slightly. Some seem to have shot far wide of the target in fact, but then again some have had a fairly disastrous vintage, with rotten Merlots and rain-sodden harvests. For example, Château Pichon-Lalande in 2013 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, a rare beast in Bordeaux. But when they get it right, as a handful have done, the wines have real appeal. I didn’t think I would be writing this, but what has been achieved on some estates in the face of such a difficult vintage beggars belief. There are some delicious, charming wines in 2013. Just some, mind; there are also a lot of lean, bare-boned wines, acid-dominated wines. It was a year when the châteaux had to select carefully and rigorously; consumers looking to buy must do the same.

Wednesday’s programme kicks off at Château Margaux, hopefully followed by Château Palmer and Château d’Issan, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and Château Léoville-Las-Cases, If I can fit all those into one morning without turning up late to the last one, I will be doing well.

Bordeaux 2013: Pessac, Sauternes

I tend to run my primeurs week on the same sort of timetable each year. That statement makes me sound like some sort of old hand who has been coming here for five decades, but that certainly isn’t the intention. But I have been out here every year since 2007, not as long as some I know, but in the last two years I have definitely found myself in a fairly fixed routine. And yesterday was Monday, so for the moment that means Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes. I might change things around next year, although it is hard not to take advantage of the fact that the Pessac-Léognan syndicat tastings start on the Monday, while the UGC tastings don’t kick off until Tuesday.

I was at Château La Mission Haut-Brion at 8am, where the red wines were good especially when taking into account the difficulties of the vintage, although they were eclipsed by the white wines, which were full of charm and energy. As with other difficult vintages, including 2012 and 2011, the earlier-harvested white varieties outclass the reds; the cooler weather kept the acidities prominent, fine for white wines, but not so desirable in the reds. Having said that, the wines here were some of the better red wines I have tasted, especially Château Haut-Brion.

Then it was on to Château Carbonnieux for the Pessac-Léognan press tasting. I arrived at 10am, half an hour after the tasting started, and yet I was the first person to walk through the door. By the time I left at 12:30pm no more than eight tasters had been and gone. Is this a reflection of the level of interest in 2013, I wonder? Whatever the reason, the tasting environment was as a result fabulous – it was bright, calm and free of disturbance (although it was also a little cold in the tasting room, an empty barrel cellar) – but it’s a great shame for those who provided their samples for the tasting to be so poorly attended. Perhaps numbers will pick up later in the week. Strangely, two significant châteaux were missing, Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Château Haut-Bailly. So once finished I nipped over to Château Malartic-Lagravière where the trade tasting was being held; I also thought this was less busy then usual – I have attended the trade tasting before and found it elbow-room only at times. I soon found Smith-Haut-Lafitte which was duly tasted in red and white, but still no Haut-Bailly. Eight minutes later I was at Château Haut-Bailly, where I succeeded in interrupting their lunch, sans-rendezvous (oops – I am always uncomfortable turning up without an appointment), in order to taste the wine. So I worked hard for my Haut-Bailly tasting note this year! As it turned out though, Château Haut-Bailly are participating in all the appropriate tastings, but only from the Tuesday, which is when the primeur tastings really kick off. As my only day in Pessac-Léognan was on the Monday, I was fortunate that they were so welcoming at the château in allowing me to taste.

Then it was on to Sauternes. I stopped off first to take a few photographs around Pessac-Léognan, as I had a thirty-minute gap in my schedule, but by 3pm I as at Château Climens. Like the Pessac tasting it was very quiet here – I was the only taster again – and I walked and tasted with Bérénice Lurton for the best part of an hour before a horde of tasters suddenly turned up, all eager to fit in Climens as their last appointment, I suspect. We first did a quick stock-take of this year’s plants, drying in the tisanerie, ready for going into the biodynamic brews that are used here; the marigolds (pictured above), freshly picked, were drying in the sunlight beneath the window. This walk-round soon developed into an impromptu competition to see who could best translate the names of the plants from French into English. I was taken to the cleaners; Bérénice won, I lost count somewhere about 12-2.

Then it was downstairs for a tasting from the barrels. I remember the first time I heard of Bérénice’s preference for tasting individual barrels rather than an assemblage. It seemed a pretty unusual approach which obviously hindered forming an opinion on the new vintage’s wine. How can you assemble and score eight or more barrel tasting notes? In more recent years, however, I have completely changed my tune on this, and my feelings reflect my thoughts on the usefulness of the primeur tastings. I know many critics see these tastings as an opportunity purely to provide buying guidance; 400 wines are tasted, the favourite 100 (or maybe all of them) written up, scores are assigned, and it is down to the consumer to choose whether or not to buy. Job done, said critic moves on to doing the same with Barolo, or Beaujolais, or maybe various vintages of Buckfast. Fair enough. But the tastings provide a much broader education if you look for it, and this can provide a much greater depth of knowledge than a string of isolated tasting notes, which I choose to communicate to my readers in my primeur report; this is why my communal reports always have several pages of background information – chats with the proprietors, harvest dates and anecdotes from the growing season and harvest, opinion from the winemaker and so on – as well as my appropriately detailed tasting notes and scores.

Anyway, back to Climens. The tasting is informative because regardless of how much you might hear or read about the Sauternes harvest, the waves of botrytis, the concentration (or lack of it) from wind and sunshine, the pickings or tries as they are known, the sorting and so on, unless you are there when the decisions are made, or can at least taste the results of these tries, it is all just second-hand information. Unless you are somebody like Bill Blatch (of Bordeaux Gold), who resides in the region and who lives and breathes Sauternes, who visits the châteaux regularly especially around harvest time, tasting the barrels with Bérénice is the only way to gain a real first-hand insight into the significance of the various tries. I would never now miss visiting Château Climens during the primeurs; there is just too much that can be learnt here to miss out. Nothing could lodge the significance of the first tri against the second and third tries more than actually tasting them.

After Climens, it was a quick dash down to Château Raymond-Lafon, another favourite visit of mine, before heading back to my accommodation for the night. On Tuesday, I kick off with Château Latour, a visit I know some now miss out as a consequence of this estate having withdrawn from releasing en primeur after the 2011 vintage. Again, it all boils down to how you view the tastings; purely a chance to generate notes and numbers, or a chance to understand the vintage in more depth? If the latter, how do you place the wines of Pauillac into context if you don’t taste Latour?

Happily, it’s a 9am start, a bonus after my 8am start at La Mission Haut-Brion. An extra hour in bed!

Bordeaux 2013: Around St Emilion

On Sunday I spent the day in and around St Emilion; it was more a question of what tasting opportunities were available, rather than picking and choosing. Normally I would have gone to the tasting held by Vintex Vignobles Grégoire, a good négociant, but this wasn’t on this year. And so I headed over the right bank, for two significant tastings.

I kicked off with La Grappe, an annual tasting hosted by Château Gaffelière but featuring the wines of the châteaux to which Stéphane Derenoncourt consults. The tasting featured 54 wines, poured by Simon Blanchard and Frédéric Massie, two of Derenoncourt’s team, and both good guys. The tasting was right-bank heavy, as you might expect, although the team also consult to a number of left-bank properties, including Château Talbot and Château Poujeaux, among a few others.

Château Bellefont-Belcier

Then it was on to Château Bellefont-Belcier (pictured above), for the Cercle Rive Droite and Cercle Rive Gauche tastings. All told there were 188 wines here for tasting, just a little too many (by just a teensy-weensy amount) to get through in just one afternoon. I probably tasted another 50 or 60, focusing on the right bank, not just Pomerol and St Emilion, but also Fronsac, Castillon and the satellite appellations.

Obviously I can’t report on all these wines individually here, but I shall write them up as soon as possible for my Bordeaux 2013 report, begining next week. It is certainly a variable vintage, although whereas I found some good (but not truly great) wines in among the Sauternes on Saturday, this was a more difficult task in today’s tasting of reds. The 2013 vintage was a very difficult one, described here in Bordeaux as “the worst in a generation” or the “worst in my lifetime” (which it is seems to depend on the age of the individual giving their opinion more than anything else) and this certainly comes through when tasting the wines. Having said that, of course, Sunday’s tastings were not rich in cru classé level wines; there were a few (Chevalier, Clos Fourtet, those mentioned above), but not many. I will be able to form a better opinion on this over the next few days, as I hit Pessac-Léognan (on Monday) and the Médoc (Tuesday and Wednesday), followed by a return to the right bank on Thursday. I start at 8am on Monday, at Château La Mission Haut-Brion.