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The Three Ages of The Bordeaux Drinker

I think I may have entered my third age as a Bordeaux drinker.

If you’re not familiar with the three ages of the Bordeaux drinker, don’t worry, neither is anyone else. This is because I just invented it earlier today, in a moment when my mind was wandering more than it should have been.

The defining moment that separates the first and second ages of a Bordeaux drinker comes when he or she encounters and becomes interested in the wines for the very first time. At that point there is an ‘entry vintage’ at which one dives into the region. It doesn’t have to be a massive en primeur purchase of thirty cases, a few bottles will do. It just has to be enough to connect you with the vintage, so that you experience the wines in their youth, before – provided you bought more than one bottle – you can then come back to the vintage again (and again) in the future.

This vintage draws a line in the sands of time (no-one can ever accuse me if not mixing my metaphors). Wines that were made before the ‘entry vintage’ are only ever experienced as they head towards maturity, without any understanding of how they tasted when young. These vintages belong to your more educated peers, but this is your ‘first age’, wines which you can only experience in retrospect, each one that comes along a little glimpse into this walled-off era. After the ‘entry vintage’, however, these vintages are yours. This is your second age, an era of vintages and wines you know much better. You meet them in their youth (and your youth!), and follow them through the years, as they mature.

Bordeaux

There comes a moment when the second age transitions into the third. This moment is, I think, more difficult to pin down, because we all jump in at different levels when we start, and we all have differing volumes of mature wine in our cellar. The third age begins with the realisation that our entry vintage, the vintage that we once aspired to, is now the vintage that we should drink. I don’t think there is one exact moment this happens, it is perhaps more of a gradual realisation, and I suppose it depends on when you consider a wine ‘mature’. For some it might be ten years. I think Bordeaux of decent quality develops well over a much longer time span than that, at least fifteen or twenty years, and in some cases of course much more. Regardless of how we define it, by now I am certainly securely into my third age. I have watched the young vintages that drew me into Bordeaux develop from embryonic, tannic young wines into mature wines that demand drinking.

The third age should be the era in which we can buy with the greatest confidence, as having had this experience surely brings a deeper knowledge of the region, a greater level of trust in our own palates, and perhaps the confidence to buy based as much on our own beliefs and palate self-awareness as much as the vintage reports, tasting notes and scores coming out of Bordeaux. Sadly, I am not sure my own third age is progressing as I once imagined it would. The problem is, with Bordeaux pricing as sky-high as it is, I think this confidence and self-awareness is now more often directed more towards finding good-value alternatives to Bordeaux, rather than the best the famous (and expensive) châteaux of Bordeaux can give us. But that is a story for another time, I think.

Being Organic gives no Score Advantage

A recently published UCLA study of eco-certified wine quality has generated a bit of discussion this week, with both positive and negative reactions. Jamie Goode describes the paper and some of its flaws well here, while Blake Gray’s article focuses on score inflation and, to me, feels much less rational. Indeed, the opening line of Blake’s article seems to purposefully conflate the notions of statistical mean and a wine being “average”, and I have to ask myself, to what purporse?

The study purports to show that eco-certified wines obtain higher scores in three influential wine publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast). It’s a really jumbled up paper; there are results described in the methods, the authors enter into discussion when describing their results, tables are poorly described, important results are squirrelled away in an appendix, and so on. Apologies to the authors for expressing this opinion (which is based on first-hand experience writing and reviewing scientific papers, by the way), but The Journal of Wine Economics really needs to go back and see who reviewed this paper prior to publication. And then consider whether or not they were doing their job properly. It’s an interesting paper, but it needs further editorial review and a bit of a rewrite.

This makes it difficult to read; all the same, I spent an hour or two trying to pick it apart this morning. The paper has been reported as producing a 4-point rise in scores of eco-certified wine. As Jamie pointed out, this isn’t true because of the score conversion the authors undertook in order to line up the three publications, which had different score distributions. The true result is actually buried in an appendix, which is that the regression method suggested being eco-certified gave wines a 0.46-point advantage. Just less than half a point, in other words, for all that hard, organic, biodynamic work.

That isn’t the end of it though. This half-point result was arrived at through a statistical method known as regression, in which the authors attempted to develop a model which explained the scores of the wines. Regression (of any sort) is a statistical method which should be viewed with a very wary eye. While being eco-certified conferred an advantage when analysed in this manner so did other factors, while other factors had a negative effect on score, some of which can be interpreted in really interesting ways but which I don’t want to digress on here.

These negative factors may be very important. Why do I say that? Here’s why; despite the way in which the results have been presented by the authors, and by the press who have seized upon the eco-favourable result – eco-certified wines actually scored lower in the three publications. Eco-certified wines scored 47.8% (on the author’s scaled system) whereas conventional wines scored 50%. And this didn’t appear to be statistically significant, (or at least the authors didn’t state one way or the other), and to me it seems this is the most reliable aspect of the paper. But writing “eco-certified wine scores no different to conventional wine scores” isn’t much of a headline, is it?

Summer Break: Chinon Time

The sun is shining (intermittently, to be honest) over the vineyards of Chinon today*. I know this not because I have looked up the latest méteo report, but because I can feel its warm rays on my skin. I’m at the start of my summer break, and rather than flying out to India or the Algarve for my holiday, I’m staying within sight of Chinon’s famous château pictured below (taken with my mobile phone – which accounts for the grainy quality), literally from my front gate. So you could call it a busman’s holiday, I suppose.

As you would expect, I have a few appointments lined up, to see Jérome Billard at Domaine de Noblaie, Anne-Charlotte Genet at Charles Joguet and Matthieu Baudry at Bernard Baudry. And I will be looking further afield too; it wouldn’t be a trip to the Loire Valley without calling in on Vincent Carême of course. There will be other visits as well, but I will be making these other appointments over the next week, provided the vignerons I hope to visit aren’t on their summer holidays of course.

Chinon

I have only been here since Saturday evening, but I have already eaten out in Chinon, a selection of escargots, rognons and ris de veau (not all on the same plate I hasten to add) washed down with the 2012 Cuvée de la Cure from Charles Joguet. Of course, Joguet is a domaine I already know quite well, and the same could be said of Chinon and its vineyards, so during this ‘break’ I hope to get in my car and explore some parts of the Loire Valley I am less familiar with; I have plans to head up to Jasnières and the Coteaux du Loire, and perhaps Cheverny too. While in the evenings I will wash away the dust of the day with as many examples of Chinon from the 2014 and 2015 vintages as is humanly possible (I have already made a start on this).

After two weeks in Chinon I plan to head upriver to Sancerre, a region I also know well although I have never passed more than a couple of days there; on this visit, however, I will be staying there for a week. Again, I have some visits lined up, and some yet to be made. This means I will be back in the UK updating Winedoctor in three weeks time, hopefully refreshed and ready to go. In the meantime I hope all readers, subscribers or not, enjoy some good wine and hopefully some good sunshine too over the next few weeks.

*Anyone in Chinon on Monday, on reading this and looking up at the grey and drizzly skies, will see this as a lie. But the sun was shining when I wrote it on Sunday afternoon, honest.

Don`t be a Woolworths

Many years ago I had a Saturday- and holiday-job in Woolworths. I worked there on-and-off from the age of 15, right through my years at high school and for quite a few years when I was at university too. I finally left when I was perhaps 21 or 22 years old; I can’t be sure, because in the end it sort of fizzled out, as I didn’t have enough time left to fit any hours in. Something to do with studying medicine, I think.

For those unfamiliar with Woolworths (which is not the same as the Australian retail chain of the same name), it was a stalwart of the British high street for decades. Having started out as a grocers, by the end of the 20th century it was a jack of all trades. You went to Woolworths if you were shopping for childrens’ toys, women’s clothing, confectionery – the pick’n’mix was legendary – or music, in the days of vinyl. You could also find gardening equipment and plants, electrical goods, hardware and seasonal wares. On occasion you would find motoring accessories, which would disappear as soon as they were added to the range. It didn’t sell groceries any more, but weirdly there was a delicatessen. It was a one-stop shop, handy if you were popping out for a rake, 30-denier hosiery and some sliced ham.

To say the store lacked focus would be an understatement. Everything in Woolworths was sold by other retailers, usually more specialised retailers that offered greater choice and better prices. These other retailers had in-store expertise, and if you were looking for advice on the hedge trimmer you were considering buying you would probably believe what these specialists told you much more what the Saturday boy (i.e. me) in Woolworths told you. Ultimately Woolworths went bankrupt, an inevitable demise hurried along by the arrival of the internet and more efficient online retailers.

So what?

Well all this came to mind recently when, in discussion, the topic of converting wine words into pennies, in other words how to turn wine writing into a viable money-making exercise, came up. The conversation was prompted by this piece, by Richard Hemming (who writes very well), but to be fair it is an old topic with no great answers. Wine writers and wine bloggers have been chewing it over for years at one conference or another.

I don’t recall ever being asked for advice on this matter, despite having run Winedoctor for 16 years, with a good level of advertising revenue for much of that time, but more significantly having converted to a subscription model for the last three of those years. And so I am apprehensive about the notion of throwing any advice out there; it is almost certain to be flawed, and it will inevitably be limited in scope, applying well to me and my circumstances, my dreams and aspirations, but not necessarily to anyone else and their hopes and plans. There are many behaviours and decisions that engender success in any business or profession, from medicine to law, from plumbing to political reporting, but to keep this simple here is one key piece of advice.

Don’t be a Woolworths.

The problem is, I think, is that many (perhaps all?) wine writers are curious and open-minded folk. They enjoy the diversity of wine, and drift easily from one concept, style or wine region to the next. One week it is all Burgundy and Barossa, the next spice-infused Barolo Chinato and quevri-fermented Saperavi. Writing about all these subjects is a little like Woolworths trying to sell gardening equipment and women’s hosiery and the Top 40 and Christmas decorations and chocolate all in one shop, and somehow expecting to become a ‘go to’ retailer, as if it were Amazon selling books, or Apple selling phones and music, or Tesco selling crap food. Whether a writer who does this adopts an authoritative tone (old school writing), or that of the exploratory traveller taking a reader on a journey (the chummy blogger), the reader can ultimately probably get the same information (or better) elsewhere, on other blogs, social media or even from their mates down the pub (provided it is a pub that sells Barolo Chinato). Unless there is an inherent draw to your writing regardless of the subject matter (i.e. you are Hugh Johnson or Andrew Jefford) readers aren’t being given a reason to come back to you.

I would suggest if a writer wants to improve their earning capacity, one way (note – it is not necessarily the only way – I wouldn’t dare suggest that) is to specialise. Be focused, and become known for a certain region, or a certain wine theme which runs through these regions. Become a recognised voice on Bordeaux, or Georgia, or Oregon. Develop a reputation for knowing everything there is to know about natural wine, biodynamics, wine science or grape varieties. Explore every detail, and do so with passion.

This is what I have tried to do with Winedoctor, although looking back I let my heart rule my head and decided to specialise in two regions, Bordeaux and the Loire. On reflection, I should perhaps have been even more hard-headed, and decided on just one or the other. I enjoyed the contrasts between the two regions, and also the comparisons (there are more similarities than you might at first imagine), perhaps too much to let go of one or the other. Nevertheless, I know some subscribers feel reluctant when they only want Bordeaux scores, or Loire profiles, and feel they are paying for something they won’t use. On the other hand, I have had feedback from Bordeaux-interested readers who have been grateful for finding some Loire values, so perhaps this glitch in my plan (as if I had much of a plan!) wasn’t such a bad thing after all. And the fact that I have managed to successfully sell my words to paying subscribers, with still climbing subscriber numbers I might add, suggests to me that the course of specialisation I have followed is one that is valid.

Jonathan Maltus, OBE

I learnt this morning that Jonathan Maltus, proprietor of Château Teyssier in St Emilion, has been made an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Jonathan Maltus

Huge congratulations to Jonathan (pictured above, during last year’s primeurs). I hope he and wife Lyn will celebrate with a magnum or two of Le Dôme 2010, with Stevie Ray Vaughn on the turntable, turned up to 11.

I’m off now to research etiquette for greeting individuals awarded the OBE ready for when I next visit Jonathan. Fellow OBEs, Jancis Robinson and Gererd Bassett, two other hugely talented individuals, will hopefully help me out.

Bordeaux 2015: Is it all over?

I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a Bordeaux apologist. I have been as dismayed as the next drinker by the increasingly tight stranglehold on primeurs prices that we have seen develop during the last 15 years. I’m all for winemakers being paid appropriately (if only we could get that in place in Muscadet) but it balks when that is achieved at the cost of the potential profit for everybody else in the chain of distribution, as well as through a system which traps négociants into buying (take your allocation or you get none next year) and through manipulation of the supply of wine onto the market, as seems to be more common in the region this year.

I sometimes read that the market sets the price for Bordeaux. When it comes to the secondary market, a combination of high quality (by which I mean a high score from Parker, before his retirement the only critic to really move markets in Bordeaux) and restricted availability (which might reflect limited production, but might also be a result of increasing scarcity as wines age and are consumed) has resulted in higher prices. Other factors, such as provenance, influence the price of individual bottles, cases or lots.

I used to believe that anyone trying to apply this market concept to the primeurs was deluded, but these days I would not be so sure. Now I would perhaps say they are only half-deluded. First, châteaux do have some notion of the quality when they release, or at least they have a surrogate for it, admittedly not from Parker but they have scores from a range of European, North American and other critics. That used to be the whole story, but today reduced supply may also be playing a more important role, as more châteaux look to hold back stock from early release. Even so, this is still not true market economics, because the price is not set by true supply and demand in the marketplace. It is set by the châteaux, taking into account likely perceived demand, perhaps bolstered by the withholding of stock (which, to be fair, as far as I am aware only applies to the minority of châteaux…. at the moment) and an amalgam of opinions about quality. And of course other factors may have some influence on price-settings. Perhaps pride? Local politics? The release price set by your neighbours, whether you view them as peers of competitors? The perceived need to ‘market reposition’? The need to pay off the bank loan for the recent cellar building project? Who knows?

With this in mind, the early 2015 Bordeaux releases provided something of a pleasant surprise. Of course, in the context of a vintage where quality ranges from merely good all the way through to truly great, the wines weren’t going to be ‘cheap’ or what many of us would think of describe as ‘bargains’, but that’s the nature of Bordeaux these days (not just in good vintages like 2015, but also dismal vintages such as 2013 too). All the same, the earliest releases were characterised by what I thought were at least reasonable prices. Sure, some were clearly over-ambitious, being priced close or even above 2009 and/or 2010 and they were all more expensive than recent vintages including 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. But I feel for many potential buyers the price positioning seemed appropriate, and not as avaricious as some were expecting. In fact, the pricing was sufficiently acceptable for me to buy a couple of six-packs. Other than Sauternes (always good value) this is my first purchase at the primeurs since the 2008 vintage. I have bought in 2009 and 2010, but only once the wines were in bottle. I would have bought in 2011 and 2012 if the prices were more appropriate for the quality. Only a madman would buy 2013, unless keeping a vertical going is really important to you.

Sadly this considered approach by the Bordelais to pricing hasn’t been consistent, especially as time has gone on. Later releases have seen higher price rises than those seen with the earlier releases. Look at this plot published by Liv-Ex earlier this week. Something has happened to encourage châteaux releasing later to raise prices to a much greater degree. We can only speculate what might be driving this, but some of the influences on primeur pricing listed above might be relevant. One possibility is that later-releasing châteaux might be seeing how well earlier releases are being received (and presumably selling?), and concluding that they can squeeze a little more on the price. Another is simple politics; perhaps later-releasing châteaux might simply want to price higher than their peers who have already released in order to make a statement on status. I’m not so sold on that idea, simply based on the diverse array of châteaux involved and the wide spread of price increases. It may play a part in some of the price rises though. It might be that later releases tend to include grander names; the increase in the trend line is largely dependent on five high-ranking châteaux, namely Château Canon (this is score-driven to a large extent), Château Pichon-Baron, Château Cos d’Estournel, Château Haut-Bailly and Château Lynch-Bages, with a surprise appearance from a sixth, Château Brane-Cantenac. Château Palmer would be another, if it were plotted. Naturally these tend to be more expensive wines anyway, because of quality, track record, classification or status, but don’t forget the plot is not for prices, but for price rises, expressed as a percentage of the price of the 2014 from the same châteaux. Something about this group of châteaux meant they felt comfortable going with big price rises. I’m not sure that there is one simple reason explanation for this, though.

Whatever the reason(s), with the first growths and super-seconds largely yet to release, we can expect more high prices in the next few weeks. And, I suspect (because I can’t see it turning around) continued high price increases (maybe not continuing the trend upwards, but I expect these percentage increases to be maintained). That means, for me, these wines will all be increasingly poor investments; the more wines are priced like they were in 2010, the more likely it is that the price/value will fall over time. If you’re are an investor, these wines are a big risk. If you are buying to drink, it is likely you will get a better deal later on.

The 2015 primeurs. Is it all over?

Loire Valley Frost 2016: Technical & Economic Report

I received this morning this report from InterLoire, the inter-professional organisation representing much of the Loire Valley, namely the Nantais, Anjou, Saumur and Touraine regions, with a few notable exceptions including Bourgueil, Montlouis and Nicolas Joly, clearly an appellation unto himself.

The frost that hit the Loire Valley on April 26th/27th was very severe, with widespread damage done. The damage was not, however, universal. The report provides some detail on which regions were worst affected and what the likely outcome will be, as well as describing what economic measures have been taken. I don’t usually reproduce press releases, but there was some information here from a central and reliable (if admittedly spin-prone) source that I thought would be of interest to many.

What follows comes from InterLoire. Some phrases I have highlighted in bold.
 

Frost in the Loire Valley
Technical Report and Economic Measures

The Loire Valley vineyards were severely hit by late April frosts, in some areas, temperatures dipped as low as –6°C. On Friday May 20th, Interloire called a meeting of Loire Valley wine professionals to take stock of the situation and decide on the measures they need to implement.

LOSSES ESTIMATED AT 20 – 30% OF HARVEST – WITH CONSIDERABLE DISPARITIES

Having looked at the studies carried out by winegrowers’ federations, the ODG and the Chambers of Agriculture, Interloire’s Technical Committee reports that at this stage, overall losses can be estimated at 20-30% of an average year’s harvest (1.9 million hl).

The picture is variable, however, with huge disparities between different vineyards and areas. Worst affected are the vineyards of Touraine, Nantais and Sarthe, with losses of up to 80% in some communes. The Presidents of the Loire Valley’s Winegrowers’ Federations report that “some areas have been very badly affected. The ODG stepped in quickly, setting up crisis centres in the worst-hit areas.”

We will have to wait until flowering starts at the end of June before we can give a more accurate estimate of harvest levels and assess the impact frost damage will have on the year’s vintage.

REGULATING SALES

Due to market interest in Loire Valley wines and low harvests in recent years, wine stocks are currently at their lowest ever level (7 months in 2015). “The situation is serious,” warns InterLoire President Gérard Vinet. The Loire Valley works on a ‘just-in-time’ basis, and it is imperative that we introduce a collective strategy to regulate sales.” The Committee for Marketing, Economics and Forecasting chaired by Laurent Menestreau is planning to hold a meeting for all relevant parties in the near future.

In terms of sales, 2016 will be relying on the excellent 2015 vintage to supply volumes. In 2017 the picture is likely to be more varied, depending on the company and product concerned. Appellations with volumes of over 100,000 hl and which suffered less impact – Cabernet d’Anjou, Rosé-d’Anjou, Crémant-de-Loire and Vouvray – should be able to meet demand. Those which were badly hit – Muscadet, Chinon, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil or Touraine for example, we will look at on a case-by-case basis, as each situation is so different. Following the discussions, however, Bernard Jacob, vice-president of InterLoire and president of UMVL (an association of Loire Maisons de Négoce) was reassuring: “The Loire Valley is ready and willing to supply the markets without introducing price rises which may lead to destabilisation.”

INSTITUTIONS OFFERING SUPPORT

A number of support measures have been announced; among them, FranceAgriMer and the Regions have pledged financial support for the study and provision of frost protection equipment. Meanwhile, the Federations have approached public authorities and institutions regarding insurance, partial unemployment benefits for employees and financial concessions for 2017.

As the meeting finished, Gérard Vinet summed up: “At a time when we are revitalising our image, making wines our consumers love and enjoying excellent market positioning, the Loire Valley’s wine professionals have rallied to find ways of supporting those Loire businesses which have been worst affected. Meanwhile we continue to respond favourably to demand.” All solutions will be carefully scrutinised, and industry professionals will be kept informed so that they can continue to sustain their growth and development.

En Primeur: Buy, Backfill or Chinon?

The Bordeaux 2015 releases continue to trickle out. Well, there has perhaps been a little more than a ‘trickle’ this week, as the pace seems to have picked up a touch. I have been watching the prices with interest, wondering if any would tempt me to bite, or whether they would simply push me towards buying older vintages – known as backfilling – instead, or indeed whether the prices would continue to push me even further away from buying Bordeaux at all (especially bearing in mind it is only four weeks until I head out to Chinon, and I have a Chinon-shaped hole in the cellar).

Quite a few wines have been released now, from a variety of appellations, and although scores and prices obviously vary from one wine to the next, I think some generalisations can be made. On the whole, prices have tended to be higher than most currently available vintages, back to 2006. The only exceptions to this ‘rule’ tend to be 2009 and 2010, which are more expensive, and going back beyond 2006 this is also the case for the 2005 vintage. Putting it another way, this means wines from a number of older physically available vintages can currently be bought for less money than the 2015 vintage. It perhaps it goes without saying, but these older vintages are a surer bet, having been reviewed and scored as wines in bottle by various critics (including me), often several times, over the course of the years that have passed since they were bottled. You can buy them and have them delivered the following week, not wait two years. They also have the added advantage of that extra maturity, being so much closer to being ready to drink and, if storage charges are a concern for you, they come with years of storage already paid for.

Alternatively, the 2015s customers are currently being offered are uncertain and unfinished wines, yet to be definitively reviewed after bottling, and they have a long road to travel before they get to their drinking windows.

I guess deciding whether to take a gamble on the latest vintage, possibly superior, or to go with the known quantity that is a vintage already in bottle, possibly the lesser wine (or possibly better too), is a very personal decision which reflects your character, wealth, the current contents of your cellar, age and perhaps many other factors. Such decisions also need to be made not just on the perceived quality of the two vintages, but – especially because 2015 is such a variable vintage – on the specific wines concerned. For example, with some 2015 St Emilions, I think a price point that sits above all those older vintages except for 2009 and 2010 might be appropriate. It is a great vintage in this appellation, and a price point like that puts the wine in a good position for consumers. When there is an incentive to buy such a wine, which really means a good score combined with a fair price (or even better, a great score and a price below that anticipated), I suspect 2015 may be a good investment (whether that be an investment for the future pleasure of our tastebuds, or a financial investment). But I think you have to be very selective though. I have written before it seems like the norm to lose money buying en primeur these days, and across the board I think that is still true. But some individual wines provide us with exceptions to that rule; the skill lies in identifying these wines before release and having the confidence to stump up the asking price. Yesterday’s release of Château Canon was one such wine, a truth which I think was widely understood judging by most merchants having immediately sold out with pre-orders.

There are other wines worth watching for in St Emilion, hence my comments above. Elsewhere, especially as you move northwards on the Médoc, I am not at all convinced wines released at a price above most of those older vintages offer a good deal. I worry about wines from St Estèphe, for example, which are priced at a level comparable or even higher than 2009 or 2010 – that seems stridently over-ambitious. I would say the same of many wines from Pauillac and St Julien. Whereas the St Emilions may be superior, many of these wines from the Médoc are of comparable quality to older physically available vintages in my opinion, and many will be available in the future for similar or even lower prices than those being asked now. I can’t help thinking that backfilling is a better option in these regions; avoid 2015, and buy those less expensive wines from the likes of 2006, an attractive vintage overshadowed by 2005, but still well-priced, and carrying all the advantages detailed above.

So for me, the 2015 has been a little buy (in St Emilion), and a little backfill (in 2006 St Julien). And in a few weeks, a little Chinon too. That’s my experience of the primeurs. What have you bought?

Exploring Sherry #17: Romate Don Jose Oloroso

Yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? In truth, a full three months have passed since my last foray into the Sherry universe, which was with the Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso. I think we have a problem with a time distortion around the Bordeaux primeurs (something else to blame the Bordelais for!) because I can’t understand how I have lasted three months without a glass of Sherry.

Romate Oloroso Medium Dry label

This wine comes from Sánchez Romate Hermanos, which was established at the end of the 18th century – in 1781, to be precise – by a local chap named Juan Sánchez de la Torre. The firm went from strength to strength, their wines appearing on tables everywhere from the House of Lords in the UK, to the Vatican. Remarkably, the firm remains in the hands of a local family.

As the label indicates this is a Medium Dry Sherry, nevertheless the sugar concentration is not high, and the sweetness doesn’t dominate. In the glass the Romate Don José Oloroso has a gloriously toasty, caramel-bronze hue with a green rim. The nose is enticing, full of typical dried-wood notes, the typical oloroso oxidation here dancing around the scents of toasted walnut, a caramelised suggestion of sweetness, as well as pistachio, marzipan and some gentle allspice and ginger nuances. It is immediately soft and textured on the palate, showing its residual sugar, although it feels nicely balanced, the sweetness not dominating. The complexity suggested by the nose comes through, with plenty of drier, oxidative elements lending a contrast, and the acidity keeps it fresh and well defined. A wine full of charm, and beautifully bright and lively for an oloroso. 17/20 (May 2016)

En Primeur: Where Next?

The way Bordeaux is sold is changing, and it is going to keep on changing. Despite frequently made predictions to the contrary, en primeur isn’t going to explode, nor is it likely to disappear altogether. I should also stress that nor will it return to the way it used to be, when cases were stacked high and cheap, and we could all afford first growths, or maybe super-seconds (or at least something). I believe that the approach currently taken by the Bordelais, or at least some top châteaux, which has diminished the significance of this once-feverish buying frenzy, is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The most obvious force that shifts our attention away from buying en primeur is price. En primeur simply isn’t the great deal for consumers it used to be. Wines are frequently released at a higher price than many previous vintages, and buyers have often found in recent years that the wines have depreciated in value after their purchase. When asked to pay for a wine at least ten years from being ready to drink, consumers have to see some benefit from their early investment, and that means appreciation not depreciation. Consumers might put up with being burnt once. Or maybe twice. But to expect buyers to continue this pattern of behaviour year-in, year-out, is expecting a bit much. I don’t need to go into any great detail on this (there is already too much written on the price of Bordeaux), and we can all see this unfolding live with each new release from the 2015 vintage. I think the best way of determining how individual releases sit when compared with older vintages (both in terms of critic scores and pricing) is to check out the Liv-Ex blog.

Other moves in Bordeaux also diminish the significance of the en primeur season, and these are newer phenomena, the higher prices having been building for the past 10-15 years. We all know Château Latour withdrew in 2012, so that’s hardly news. No-one has yet followed them, but a number of other high-flying names are holding back more stock during the primeurs, releasing perhaps little more than half their production onto the market. Château Angélus is one, and the Rothschild estates (on the Mouton side of the family) have also followed suit. Le Pin hasn’t withdrawn from the primeurs, although they did not participate this year, apparently because a couple of barrels were not ready, and they also stayed out of it in 2013. It will be interesting to see if they come back next year.

High prices, supported by reduced volumes, have made en primeur less relevant to consumers, but from a merchant’s point of view the changes in Bordeaux have also diminished the significance of the primeurs week (we used to call it a ‘campaign’ – that hardly seems appropriate now). Those high prices mean margins are very slim if there is to be any hope of actually selling the wines to increasingly uninterested buyers, but at least there has always been the volume. With reduced stocks released onto the market (some châteaux holding back 40% of production) the volumes the merchants have to deal with are much smaller, diminishing the potential benefit of being involved in en primeur. And I think volumes are set to decline further, as big-name châteaux hold back more stock, and other châteaux follow suit. The grip on primeur sales will tighten even further. It must be very frustrating to be a merchant dealing in en primeur Bordeaux.

Coming back to my original point then, the question often asked of primeur is how long can it last? How long will it be before the Bordelais realise it isn’t working, that the system is being strangled? How long before the grasp is loosened, and we can all go back to how we were ten years ago? The answer I would give to this question is never. It won’t happen. En primeur will be an increasingly small part of how Bordeaux (or at least the most interesting part of Bordeaux) is sold, with more and more of the big-name châteaux looking to hold back stock, to support the releases prices and the value of what lies in the cellar, and to sell by novel routes. The interest will come with seeing how they achieve this. Will we see more focus on the bottled wines, rather than the hurried one-day tastings that currently tour the world? Will we see more specialist offers through merchants? What about group auctions, where top châteaux band together to sell their mature stock of exquisite provenance? There surely has to be some system to project the existence of the wines into the minds of the merchants and the consumers, because I don’t think a series of annual releases of mature stock, the approach currently taken by Château Latour, repeated across 20, 30 or 100 other châteaux, is going to work. You need something to replace en primeur, the greatest marketing machine any wine region ever invented.