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Bordeaux 2015: Pomerol Pacifist

Well, that’s it, it’s done. My primeurs week is finished. Seven days (it should have been eight – thanks very much, French Air Traffic Control) of organising, navigating, driving, tasting, writing and blogging along the way are over for another year. It has been an absolutely fascinating primeurs week. The story of the growing season, month after month of warm and dry weather with a little rain at the end, suggested a great vintage was possible, and yet the Bordelais remained unusually quiet. Having been here and tasted for myself, now I think I understand why. As always the real story of the vintage is more complex than the weather. Today I will be putting together some thoughts on this, as I head back to the UK.

It has also been a curious primeurs for more peripheral reasons, such as the predictable sparring with other journalists who don’t agree with the process of primeurs, either the timing of tasting, the validity of barrel samples, or perhaps even Bordeaux’s right to exist. In addition, there was the unexpected diatribe from Michel Rolland in Terre de Vins (links to article in French), which I became aware of last week but which has only hit English language publications during the last couple of days. Cutting a long story short, when asked about “Bordeaux-bashing” Michel’s opinion of journalists seemed to be that they (sorry – I think that should be we?) are full of “bullshit”, lack “balls”, and nobody cares what we say now, or in the future.

Cue breathless indignation from one or two corners of the wine blogging world. You can almost hear the collective intake of breath.

Good for Michel Rolland. Not because I agree with what he says (how tiresome it would be if we all had to agree with one another all the time) but because he has at least spoken his mind. Wine writers have been bashing Bordeaux for ages, and a good number have specifically bashed Rolland and the Rolland-style over the years, most famously in Mondovino but that was hardly an isolated case. And now, after years of criticism, the shocked, gaping-mouth, indignation in response to Rolland’s words all seem rather precious. C’mon chaps and chapesses, time to grow up. Take it on the chin. Man (or woman) up, and move on. Rolland doesn’t like it when you criticise Bordeaux, its wines, and his wines. What, you weren’t aware of that? You only realise it now he has said this? OK, well, in that case I am even more happy that he has spoken his mind. All spheres of life need people secure enough in their position, experienced and opinionated enough to tell things as they see it, even if it upsets people, even if it seems a little loose-cannon and broad brush-stroke, even if it seems downright rude. Uncomfortable outbusts such as these can be productive. And, if nothing else, they can certainly be entertaining. Alright, so maybe it was a little sweeping in that it brought together all journalists as one body, some of whom never go to Bordeaux at all, but so what? If it doesn’t apply to you, get over it. If it does, then fair game.

Having said that, when I met Michel at Château La Conseillante a couple of days ago (sorry, no selfie, I’m a bit past that), I didn’t raise the issue, just in case he thumped me. I’ve suddenly become a pacifist. A Pomerol pacifist.

Bordeaux 2015

Anyway, what about Friday? What looked like a relaxing timetable was actually pretty busy – the problem being I forget just how many wines some right bank estates have to pour. I kicked off at the Moueix offices at 9am, with a tasting of 15 wines. This was more than I was expecting (I am sure there have only been 9 or 10 in the past few years) and I had another appointment at 10am, so I had to taste in a peremptory fashion, and leave promptly, hoping not to appear rude as I dashed off. I was late to Château Canon-la-Gaffelière where I should have been able to catch up, but I so enjoyed chewing the cud of the vintage with Stephan von Neipperg (I have shook the hands of one Prince, one Baron and one Count this week….. I am thinking of running a sweepstake on which had the best manicure) that I was late again when I arrived at Château Pavie. Thereafter it was on to Château Pavie-Macquin, before a trip out to another domaine with Thienpont man David Suire (pictured). Top marks if you can recognise the domaine from the château behind (answers on a postcard please). Having tasted the 2015, made by David, this could be the start of an exciting story…..

I then headed back to St Emilion for a tasting with Jean-Luc Thunevin. This is the best tasting of the week, not because of the wines, but because it is the only tasting access to which involves climbing a wall like a 13-year old Just William. Jean-Luc hosts the tasting in his garage (where else?) in the centre of town, and I usually park at the top of town and walk in. Even though every year I look for a better parking place, I always end up in the far corner of the car park, where it is easier to clamber over the wall to then walk up to the town than it is to go the long way round. I am now closer to 50 years old that I am to 40 (I know, I know, I don’t look a day over 60) so I am pleased to report I can still hop over a wall with all the panache of the most accomplished schoolboy scrumper. Or cat burglar. I would like to see Jancis Robinson do this to get to her tasting.

After the Thunevin tasting it was out to Château Le Gay to check out their wines (watch out for reports that say Château Montviel has 15.5% alcohol – it hasn’t, it was a typo on their fiche technique) followed by Château Nenin, then Château Barde-Haut, and finishing up with François Mitjavile of Château Tertre-Roteboeuf. And that was it. I left François just as a light scattering of hailstones danced off the roof of my hire car, happily not enough to do any harm to the vines though. Which is a good thing. After all, those tender buds and baby leaves carry the hopes of the 2016 vintage, And it is just 51 weeks until we do this all over again.

Bordeaux 2015: Bumping

Friday morning, and it is the last day of primeurs, for me at least. There won’t be any tastings ongoing over the weekend, so the Bordelais can breath a sigh of relief. They can put their feet up for a couple of days, safe in the knowledge that the idiotic invasion of journalists has finished for another year. All they have to do first, for one more day, is pour me some wine. Sorry, I mean barrel samples – we all know these are unfinished wines which need to be viewed in that light.

I began Thursday at 9 am en forme, with a bare half-hour at Château Ausone to taste seven wines, get some chat about the vintage, quiz Pauline Vauthier on the location of the Fonbel vines (which has been puzzling me for some time) and then get to my next appointment in Pomerol at 9:30 am. Needless to say I was a little late, especially as I had cause to linger over the grand vin. Indeed, it turned out to be a tight schedule today. Next up was Château L’Église-Clinet, where Denis Durantou was on top form, and happily he didn’t notice I was ten minutes late. He was being helped out by one of his three daughters, Constance, an aspiring young journalist who I imagine will go far. It was a fine tasting, and it was great to bump into David Bolomey here, of Bolomey Wijnimport Amsterdam, a leading fine wine merchant in the Netherlands. Indeed, today was a day for ‘bumping’ into people.

I did continue to run a little behind schedule for the rest of the morning. Leaving Denis I hotfooted it over to Château Cheval Blanc, where as everybody knows they declassified the second wine into the grand vin this year, or something like that. I tasted with Nicolas Corporandy, the chef de culture (he looks after the vines); as you can imagine he was a goldmine of information on how the different parcels behaved during 2015 (generalising, the vines were all good litte boys and girls, and they all behaved very well). After a slurp of 2015 Château d’Yquem in the company of the ever-informative and ever-voguish Sandrine Garbay, I then raced to Château Figeac, succeeding in driving past the first entrance on to the estate (which is huge), so I figured I would carry on and take the next, which I also rocketed past, so I slowed down a little for the third. Made it.

Bordeaux 2015

After Figeac (bumped into Tim Atkin, Charles Metcalfe, Christy Canterbury here) it was over to Château Angélus, which was heaving with visitors, all eager to taste the grand vin as well as all the wines for which Hubert de Boüard de Laforest consults, which must be 50 or 60 domaines (I have a list somewhere). In the car park I was directed to a space so tiny I immediately took it as a challenge to my parking prowess, indeed my masculinity was suddenly at stake. I made full use of the mirrors, and took great care to get it lined up straight; I then proceeded to edge my car in, reversing naturally, until I was safely inserted into the gap. I had succeeded; it was a day for bumping into people, but not for bumping into other cars, much to my relief. Had there been any spectators I am sure I would have received a round of applause. The clapping would no doubt have intensified when I realised the space was so tight I couldn’t open either door more than two inches. I briefly considered climbing out through the tailgate and across the petunias, but decided against it. I drove out and selected another space that was marginally wider, all under the withering gaze of the parking attendant. Although I suspect he was rather content with the outcome, as he could now direct the next unsuspecting visitor to his special micro-space.

Afterwards came the UGC St Emilion Grand Cru Classé tasting at Château La Couspaude; most of the barrel samples shown here I had tasted before, elsewhere, but it was good to take a second look. Usually these tastings also provide a bite to eat, but when I enquired “pas aujourd’hui” was the response, so I left hungry for an afternoon of flying visits in Pomerol, to Château Lafleur, then Petrus, Vieux Château Certan (bumped into Finn Petteri Harjula of Tasting Company and his colleagues here), Château La Conseillante and finally Château l’Évangile. That is an afternoon only the most hard-hearted of wine lovers could resist. Particularly enjoyable was La Conseillante, because after tasting the 2015 blended samples winemaker Marielle Cazeaux, newly appointed in July 2015, took me through a tasting of different Merlots and Cabernet Francs from barrel (as pictured above), looking at the different quality levels as they related to the grand vin and deuxième vin. Fascinating stuff. And wow, that Cabernet Franc!

I finished up with the UGC Pomerol tasting at Château Beauregard. What struck me most here, and at the earlier St Emilion tasting, was how well many of the wines were showing compared to samples of the same wine previously encountered at négociant tastings. I have said before I believe it is important for me to taste from different samples, at different venues, but it might be more important simply to pick and choose where I taste. Focused appellation tastings, with a better number of visitors and smaller number of wines, which turnover quickly, may well be better than the négociant tastings where hundreds of wines sit open for hours on end, while a mere handful of zombie-tasters wander around from bottle to bottle, wondering why eveything tastes a little flat, loose and oaky.

Today, Friday, another blend of Pomerol and St Emilion, beginning with the Moueix wines, ending with the glories of François Mitjavile.

Bordeaux 2015: Never Ignore Fate

It’s Thursday morning, and I am now on my primeurs home straight. I have left behind the glories of the Médoc, settling temporarily in Fronsac instead. Not because Fronsac is the centre of the Bordeaux universe (everybody knows that is Parempuyre), but because from here I can strike out on two days of visits in St Emilion and Pomerol. First, though, how did Wednesday go?

Well, thanks for asking.

The morning went very smoothly, much to my surprise. I attended the press tastings of Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estèphe, Moulis, Listrac, Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Sauternes and Barsac held at Bordeaux’s new football stadium. The first thing I had to do was get there, and having had plenty of grim experiences with the Rocade this week I planned a route which took me away from this ring road, through the Médocain countryside. This turnd out to be ridiculously successful decision, as I arrived with more than an hour to spare. At least I was able to spend some time admiring the stadium’s architecture, and I am not bitter about missing out on an extra hour’s sleep, not at all.

Bordeaux 2015

Much has been made of the move to have journalists taste at the stadium, the story intertwining with many different primeurs themes. First, it was criticised because it centralised journalists away from the vineyards and châteaux, distancing them from proprietors. There were a number of proprietors on hand after the tasting, but I still think this is a valid complaint. Second, the tasting conditions were called into question, after all this is a football stadium, not a dedicated tasting room. This wasn’t an issue at all, the venue being spacious, light and bright, and just perfect for tasting. Third, the move was accompanied by a re-evaluation of the blind tasting process, undoubtedly the most controversial part of these recent changes. All tastings are now open-label.

There was quite a lot written about these changes before the primeurs kicked off. I didn’t make any comment though, because any new venue should be evaluated before we pass judgement. In any case this is the first year I have slipped into the press tastings, as in presvious years I have quite enjoyed the more relaxed, flexible and anonymous environments found at the trade tastings. So I didn’t really have an axe to grind on the issue (there is a first time for everything). Having now experienced the press tasting at the stadium, however, I have to confess I will come back next year, that’s if Bordeaux hasn’t given up growing grapes by then as a result of climate change, who knows?

As for the issue of blind tasting barrel samples, I think the idea is nonsense, as understanding primeurs samples is about the chat with the team who made the wine, as well as tasting it. I do find some amusement in the paradox that, on the one hand, there is a body that feels primeurs samples are sufficiently representative of the wine that we should be tasting and scoring them blind, as if they were bottles just plucked from the shelves of a wine merchant, and on the other hand there is a body who feels primeurs samples are so unreliable, doctored misrepresentations of the wines to come that we shouldn’t even be tasting or writing about them at all, so presumably when the wines are released to the market in a week or two hopeful buyers should just buy without any advice at all.

Blind tasting also provided a very uneven playing field, as many wines can only be tasted at the property, the whole point of which is definitely not to taste blind. So if you ever read a primeurs report that stated the wines were tasted blind, if the author didn’t point out this didn’t apply to Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Pontet-Canet, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pichon-Lalande, Palmer, d’Issan, Haut-Bailly, Ausone, Pavie, Angélus, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Le Pin, L’Église-Clinet, Le Gay, La Violette and the other Péré-Vergé wines, La Conseillante, Vieux Château Certan, Tertre-Roteboeuf, the Maltus wines, Beauséjour and other Nicolas Thienpont wines, Figeac, L’Évangile, all the Moueix wines such as Trotanoy, Bélair-Monange and La Fleur-Pétrus and all Jean-Luc Thunevin’s wines such as Valandraud, not to mention all the more peripheral wines only encountered at tastings hosted by Michel Rolland, Stéphane Derenoncourt and the like, then they were pulling the wool over your eyes.

Enough of that. After a quick bite to eat at the stade (I was hoping they would keep the footy theme going with a grease-laden meat pie and a plastic cup of luke warm over-stewed tea, so was disaapointed to see them serving smoked salmon and foie gras) I headed north to Château Margaux, then next-door to Château Palmer, and then on to Château d’Issan. I also called in on Château Rauzan-Ségla again, as when I tasted there last Sunday they had run out of 2015 Château Canon echantillons, which to me feels a little like a butcher running out of beef. Next up, Château La Lagune, where I chatted with Caroline Frey (pictured above) about the vintage. I retasted the 2015 (I had already tasted it earlier during the morning, but I taste twice or three times wherever possible, to get a feel across multiple samples) and a couple of older vintages, as well as a personal cuvée from 2015, pure Cabernet Sauvignon, just two barrels of which Caroline is keeping back for her own interest.

I ended the day with a couple of hours spare, and couldn’t decide whether or not to go to the Cru Bourgeois tasting at Château d’Arsac, or Stéphane Derenoncourt’s La Grappe tasting at Château La Gaffelière. I tossed a coin, which told me to go to Château d’Arsac. I duly ignored fate and headed for St Emilion instead, and in return fate kicked me in the shin with gridlock about a mile from the sliproad onto the Rocade. After ten minutes in standing traffic, and able to see the very long queue stretching down the road in front of me, I turned around and went to Château d’Arsac after all. Never ignore fate.

Today, I kick off at Château Ausone at 9am, with a busy day thereafter.

Bordeaux 2015: Rocky Balboa

Yesterday morning saw a relaxed start. That doesn’t mean I had a lie-in, because my first tasting was at Château Calon-Ségur at 8am. Indeed, the rebbiting frogs and hooting owls outside my window did their best to prevent me having any sleep at all. Not to mention the axe-murderers who creep around the grounds at night, ready to pick off unsuspecting victims (or maybe that is my nocturnal imagination getting the better of me – less cheese for supper, perhaps?). It just means that, as I was sleeping up in the Bas-Médoc (does anybody actually use that term any more?), near Lesparre-Médoc, I only had a twenty-minute drive to get there. That’s quite a contrast with Monday morning, which began with a drive lasting 1 hour 35 minutes, including a slow creep onto the Rocade, the famous car park – sorry, I mean ring road – that encircles Bordeaux.

All the same, the day couldn’t go without a hitch. It simply couldn’t. You can’t fit twelve visits with tastings, one lunch, and one UGC tasting into a single day without something going badly wrong. All the same I set off with controlled determination in the face of adversity, like Rocky Balboa stepping into the ring. Only less muscular. And more intelligible (most of the time). And without boxing gloves (these never work well in the driving seat – I’ve had a go – although I did find that when I tried typing while wearing boxing gloves my tasting notes made more sense).

So after Calon-Ségur I sauntered down the road to Château Montrose, then it was on to Château Cos d’Estournel, followed by a very short drive down the hill to Château Lafite-Rothschild. Believe it or not (and you should perhaps take most things said about the primeurs with a pinch of salt) I was by this time ten minutes ahead of schedule. This is despite not only tasting, but grilling every manager, technical director or hapless work experience youth who happened to be there on the vintage, the weather and the wines. I then hot-footed it out to Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste where François-Xavier Borie was doing splendid Winedoctor PR for me, ensuring every visitor was fully informed regarding my presence. I might have to put him on the payroll. Then it was back to Château Pichon-Baron for a tasting, and lunch with Christian Seely (pictured below). This brought the unexpected benefit of being permitted, only in Christian’s company, to walk across the grass in front of the château. Please don’t try to imitate this if you visit though, as they have snipers positioned on the rooftop just waiting for you to step onto the green stuff.

Bordeaux 2015

A twelve-visit day needs thoughtful organisation, so unsurprisingly after lunch it was a quick stroll (don’t believe this – you know full well I took the car) across the road to Château Pichon-Lalande for a tasting with Nicolas Glumineau, and then a quick dash to Château Pontet-Canet, followed up by Château Mouton-Rothschild. Here I chatted with Philippe Dhalluin, another of Bordeaux’s most charming characters, about the vintage, and I also met again Philippe Sereys de Rothschild who is now very involved in the family business. Oh, I also tasted some wine of course. Mustn’t forget that. In case it isn’t clear, I did taste some wine during every visit. Always the 2015 as it happens. Funny that.

Except for Château Latour of course. One or two estates offered tastes of the 2014 as well, but only Château Latour brought out the older bottles, as of course these days their sales are solely through release of older vintages. After the three 2015 barrel samples, I got stuck into the 2010 Pauillac de Latour, the 2009 Les Forts de Latour and the 2000 Château Latour. One of those was ‘spat backwards’ as they say, no prizes for guessing which. Then with an hour to kill I headed out to Château Gruaud-Larose for the UGC trade tastings. I turned up without a badge and with no certainty I would get in, but my name was in the system (a rare case of ‘computer says yes’, although the line was delivered by a hostess slightly more easy on the eye than David Walliams in a skirt) and I spent a happy forty minutes tasting alphabetically, from Château Beychevelle to Château Talbot. To round things off, a visit to check out the wines at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, before heading back to my base for my two days on the Médoc. I spent the evening supping on a delicious bottle of Château de Cérons 2007, proof that Bordeaux isn’t only for those willing to reduce their personal ‘kidney count’.

I said a twelve-visit day couldn’t go without a hitch. But it turns out I was wrong. And what a day it was.

Today, who knows what will happen. I am driving down to the UGC press tastings in the Malmut football stadium, followed by visits in Margaux, Haut-Médoc, possibly a Sauternes top-up (provided Château Rieussec, one of the significant wines I haven’t tasted, turns up to the appropriate tasting) and if I have time at the end of the day a rummage through some of the cru bourgeois wines, before I head over to the right bank for more luscious, Merloty, rocket-fuelled hedonism. Wish me luck. Or send me evil thoughts through the ether. Depending on how you feel about Bordeaux, obviously.

Bordeaux 2015: Lost in Barsac

I have an 8am appointment this morning (Tuesday), so this latest update from the road in Bordeaux had better be a quick one. Yesterday was my Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes day, which always looks rather light on paper but usually starts early, and finishes late, with some long drives in the middle.

I kicked off at Château Pape-Clément yesterday morning, as noted in yesterday’s blog post. It’s a good thing I wrote that, because otherwise they wouldn’t have known I was coming. This year I seem to be making a habit of turning up for tastings which either don’t exist. or where I am not expected until some other time or date, or perhaps not at all. Not to worry, it was all very flexible chez Magrez, who very sensibly runs an open ‘self pour’ tasting (I like to think of it as a buffet, but with wine) and I soon got stuck in.

Thereafter I called in on Château La Mission Haut-Brion, where upon my arrival the estate seemed deserted, save for a handful of other recently arrived visitors who were wandering around the car park, seemingly wondering what to do. Usually they have hosts (it is a better word than bouncers) waiting to direct you, but they seem to have disappeared. After my trials getting here last week I did wonder if perhaps they had gone on strike. I marched round and entered via one of the 28 back doors, and went up to the wood-panelled tasting room. The other visitors weren’t brave enough to enter the first growth château without a quill-written invitation though, and I never saw tham again. I presume they were herded off into another tasting room, or perhaps they just went to pray in the chapel (for good release prices maybe) for a while?

Bordeaux 2015

The tasting at La Mission was informative as always, and Jean-Philippe Delmas (I recall last year one British visitor who was tasting alongside me insisted on calling him Jean-Bernard, his father’s name, throughout the entire tasting, so I try not to make that mistake) was of course a mine of information on the vintage and harvest. So it was a good tasting. I tasted all the usual wines, and I even tasted Clarendelle, the Bordeaux blend they make. This is really good quality in 2015, and it is staggering to think that this quality is combined with a 1.2-million bottle production (yes you read that right).

Then it was on to Château Haut-Bailly, and I managed not to get lost finding my way out of Bordeaux’s suburbs despite not having my sat-nav. Here I tasted with Véronique Sanders and was delighted to meet Robert Wilmers for the first time. Another great tasting here, and afterwards it was over to Château Bouscaut for a few hours tasting other Pessac-Léognan domaines, before a slog down to Barsac to call in on Château Climens. I am not sure I should make any comment on whether or not I got lost here without my sat-nav, but suffice to say within ten minutes of coming off the autoroute I had a sudden case of desert syndrome, losing all sense of which way is north or south, east or west. Having metaphorically lost my camel there was, sadly, no Lawrence of Arabia (played in the movie of my life by négociant and Sauternes guru Bill Blatch) riding back into the wilderness to lead me out, and I had to figure out whether the Garonne was on my right, or my left. I think I may have driven right through Barsac without noticing it – maybe I blinked. Whatever, I was now just as lost as those visitors at La Mission. Maybe I should also have paid the chapel a visit, and prayed for good signage?

I arrived twenty minutes late, not up to my usual standard. The barrel tasting with Bérénice Lurton (pictured above) and Frédéric Nivelle (the technical director) was as informative as ever. I really like tasting with staff as well as proprietors, as they offer keen insights different to those the proprietor gives you. The barrel samples were very elegant and remarkably consistent from lot to lot. Although I could sense the richness varying with the pickings, the differences weren’t as profound as they were in other years as you can often see one picking obviously weighed down with botrytis intensity, whereas others may be lighter, fresher and more elegant. Then it was on to Château Raymond-Lafond for a flying tasting before the long drive to my bed for the night, carefully picking my way around the Rocade on the way.

Today, a full programme, but no long drives. Calon-Ségur, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Lafite, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Léovile-Las-Cases, the two Pichons, Pontet-Canet, Mouton, Latour and Ducru-Beaucaillou. I aim to finish before midnight.

Bordeaux 2015: Bed Collapse

It is Monday morning and I am about to head out for Chateau Pape-Clément, my first visit in a day of tasting Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes. It’s April, and of course I am in Bordeaux for the primeurs.

It has been an eventful few days. I could write a book chapter on it, the outline for which would include a cancelled flight, one and a half days living as Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a broken sat-nav device (fortunately all my days of driving around Bordeaux do seem to have sunk in so I am coping with this, only two wrong turns so far), a damaged hire car, a 4am bed-collapse and two exploding tanker trucks. No wonder Bordeaux tourism is picking up – it’s simply amazing how much you can squeeze into a weekend here.

Although you may find it hard to believe, I have also tasted some wine since arriving in Bordeaux. This includes a shed-load of St Emilion, piles of Pomerol, a miniscule amount of minor right-bank and left-bank wines, and a slew of Sauternes.

Jonathan Maltus, April 2016

I kicked off yesterday with a visit to see Jonathan Maltus (pictured above), in St Emilion, who was on fine form for a Sunday morning. I was particularly proud to have located him at Château Teyssier in Vignonet without the help of my sat-nav. This is especially impressive when you consider that many vignerons living up the road in St Emilion don’t even know where Vignonet is. Jonathan impressed with a tasting sheet with my name printed on it, automatically qualifying him for 100 points. Afterwards I called in at Château La Dominique, not only to taste their wines but I also bathed myself in the Michel Rolland collection. Even though he gave up consulting at a number of properties quite a few years ago he was still showing over a hundred wines.

Later I popped into Château Cambon-la-Pelouse to see how the Biturica group of estates (Château Belle-Vue, Château Agassac, Château Cambon-la-Pelouse and a few others) did in 2015, but was disappointed to find it deserted. I subsequently found out the group seems to have disbanded, a real shame, as the tasting often revealed a few cru bourgeois gems. Fortunately, I picked up many of the wines at Château Rauzan-Ségla, at the Ulysse Cazabonne négociant tasting, so it all came good at the end. Thereafter I headed up to Château Lagrange, for a tour, tasting and dinner, featuring wines from 2010 back to 1985. It was the only formal dinner I am attending during the primeurs, and it was a good choice.

That was Sunday. On Saturday I was no less busy tasting, although the day was less fragmented. Having risen at 4am I flew in that morning, picked up my hire car and then drove to St Emilion. I spent the best part of the day with the Cercle Rive Droite at Château Bellefont-Belcier, tasting about 60 or 70 right-bankers (and trying not to fall asleep after that early start, easier said than done), followed up by an evening of Sauternes, from the very entry-level wines up to top classed growths. It was a pretty smart tasting, in a really interesting vintage, one where there is quality to be had, but there is also variability, although I don’t think I will get a handle on that until I get to the Médoc, on Tuesday.

More detail on all this, especially that collapsing bed (I know this is why people subscribe, nothing to do with detail, analysis, tasting notes and all that nonsense), in my subscriber reports which start next week. For now, I am off to Pessac-Léognan via the Rocade, Bordeaux’s delightful ring road which is always very quiet, and never becomes gridlocked with rain or accidents, especially at this time of the morning.

Winedoctor Philosophies, Year 4

In the past week Winedoctor passed an important landmark. It is not a true birthday – this site first appeared in May 2000, so it will hit its 16th birthday in about seven weeks time – nevertheless it is now three completed years since I moved away from the business model of advertiser dependence, to a subscription-based model. So at about this time of year, as well as pondering the forthcoming Bordeaux primeurs, I always take a look back at the past twelve months, and ponder the year ahead. The fact that I am holed up in an airport hotel en route to Bordeaux with little else to do might also have something to do with it.

My philosophy when it comes to wine writing online has developed as Winedoctor has grown. I came to realise that if I was to write something with real depth that would inform readers, I should probably focus on one or two regions, and then dig as deep as I could, year after year. Naturally I settled for the two regions I knew and loved most, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. This meant I could ditch the dependence on press trips; having done press trips both to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in the past, but having also explored both regions much more extensively alone, it is clear to me what a blinkered, tunnel-vision view of a region press trips give, even those arranged by regional bodies rather than single producers. I have read too many vacuous press trip reports filled with pretty pictures of beaming faces, lush lunches and boozy dinners, as well as fleeting impressions of wines, but seemingly devoid of substance.

Happily, having a subscription-based income isolates me from this endless marathon of stuffed-cheek blogging, because thankfully I now write for graciously paying subscribers, and thus I don’t see an endless stream of freebies as my imbursement. I have a week in Bordeaux just kicking off now, and shall be busy maintaining my distance from the besuited Bordelais, not because I don’t like them (I do!) but because that’s a professional, non-freebie-dependent approach. I see serious reporting on wine, reporting that readers are actually prepared to make buying decisions on, as a business rather than a lifestyle, and I feel happiest doing it while standing some distance from the trough. During the forthcoming week in Bordeaux I have only one dinner scheduled; I generally allow myself one per primeurs trip, and this year Château Lagrange tempted me in with the promise of a vertical tasting first. As always I will declare this support on relevant articles, and in my annual support disclosure. It would be a very professional approach for freebie-chasers to do the same, but it won’t happen, for obvious reasons.

Detailed reports and a willingness to describe wines both good and bad in an honest, open and transparent fashion has long seemed, to me, to be the right way to go with Winedoctor. This applies both in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. After my Bordeaux 2013 reports were published I had several emails from Bordeaux complaining I had scored the wines too low. It struck me that this was great feedback, implying I was doing something right. No wine writer should ever find only positive things to say, it isn’t realistic. The word ‘critic’ does carry some meaning, after all, unless you are happy being part of the marketing machine that says only positive things (I can feel myself returning to press trips here). The same applies in the Loire Valley, where I get the feeling some writers, merchants, bloggers and sommeliers coo too much over wines based on the naturalista-style viticultural and winemaking dogma involved, rather than the finished result. I have had too many oxidised, refermenting, Brett-laden, rotten and botrytis-laden wines to follow this mantra. The latest report from the Loire Valley, published this week for subscribers, hopefully makes that clear.

Hopefully Winedoctor subscribers agree with these philosophies, and they seem to be spreading the word. Subscriber numbers grew again in year three, by just under 14%, and I would like to thank all those who renewed their subscriptions, and welcome all those who signed up for the first time. Looking at the year ahead, building on this success I will for year four hold the subscription price down to just £45 per annum, the same price I launched at three years ago. As far as I am aware the number of months in the year hasn’t changed, so this is still the equivalent of £3.75 per month for almost continuous daily updates (I do have a summer holiday, and I still take Christmas Day off!). There is a trial period open to those who haven’t subscribed before, and that remains £15 for a month’s access (you can top up the remaining eleven months for £30). I intend to leave this trial offer available during the entire year, including during the publication of my primeur reports. If you’re wondering what my themes for the year ahead are, as well as my usual vintage reports (2015, 2012 and 2006 Bordeaux to come, also 2014 but I might carry that over into 2017 after another visit to the region, in the Loire just 2006 to come) I will be continuing the expansion of my coverage of both St Emilion and St Julien, and in the Loire I will home in on some of the red wine appellations, with tastings and reports of the successful 2014 and 2015 vintages from visits lined up for July. Complete with first tastings from barrel of the latter, I hope.

R.I.P. Paul Pontallier, Man of Margaux

I am deeply saddened by news today of the death of Paul Pontallier, managing director of Château Margaux. He was very young, aged just 59 years.

Paul Pontallier was the face of Château Margaux for as long as I have known it. Having studied in Paris, Montpellier and Bordeaux, he took up a position at Château Margaux, working for Corinne Mentzelopoulos, in 1983. In 1990 he replaced Philippe Barré, who was set to retire, as managing director. It was a post Paul (pictured below) was to hold for more than 25 years.

My first ever visit to Bordeaux, a press trip in the depths of December as it happened, included a few hours at Château Margaux. It was, I think, the first time I had ever met Paul. He was charming and clearly deeply knowledgable about not just Margaux and its vineyard, but about all things Bordeaux. About rootstocks, terroir, varieties, canopy management and more. His mind was insightful and enquiring, evidence of which I was fortunate to experience many years later when tasting some of the wines from the Margaux Research Programme.

Paul Pontallier

Paul Pontallier was, technically speaking, an employee, although to see him and Corinne Mentzelopoulos working together at Château Margaux it was clear that there was a relationship of mutual respect and trust. I recall one tasting, perhaps back in 2008 or 2009, when Paul captivated the crowd of assembled tasters with his report on the vintage and opinion of the wine, while Corinne bustled away alongside, pouring the wines. Each was completely at ease in their respective roles, even though you might have thought they had it the wrong way round. It was a joy to watch.

Many of those visits were diluted by the number of people present. During the primeurs there are always crowds of tasters at the big-name châteaux, but I soon discovered that when I visited Bordeaux alone Paul was no less open, amiable and free with both his knowledge and his time. And yet he always remained humble. I recall standing in the usual tasting room (before tastings were moved down to the orangerie because of the recent building work), just Paul and I around a bottle or two of his wine, chewing the fat regarding recent vintages. I expressed an opinion that 2010 was particularly strong in the Margaux appellation. He seemed genuinely interested, and it soon became clear why – “I wouldn’t know”, he said, “I really haven’t had the chance to taste many”. His mind and palate had been focused solely on Margaux’s grand vin.

Under Paul’s direction Château Margaux rose from the doldrums of the 1970s, when it was frequently accused of under-performing, to produce some of the finest wines this estate has ever produced. He focused more and more on the heart of the domaine, its gravelly core, and pushing quality, expressed through the finesse rather than the power of the wines, ever higher. Is it possible for one man to achieve anything more significant in wine? He leaves behind a formidable legacy, and many, many people who are very saddened by his premature departure. These include a son Thibault who also now works at Château Margaux. My condolences to Thibault and the rest of Paul’s family, and to Corinne and the team at Château Margaux.

Exploring Sherry #16: Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso

My interest in Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castillo was piqued by an encounter with the Don Fernando sherries carried by a certain UK supermarket. Proof, perhaps, that it doesn’t do any harm to let a little of your stock go down the own-label route; I’m not at all sure, if it weren’t for these wines, exactly how and when I would have discovered this bodegas.

Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castillo was born in the 1960s, founded by Fernando Andrada-Vanderwilde, and was named for Fernando III, an influential 13th-century king who was canonised by Pope Clément X in 1671. It was revitalised following its acquisition by Norwegian Jan Pettersen in 1999.

Fernando de Castilla

There are essentially two ranges of wines; the Classic range, generally up to nine years of age, and the superior Antique range, which may be as old as twenty years on average. No prizes for guessing which range this wine comes from.

I am a little clueless as to the story behind the Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso; the Fernando de Castilla website is informative with regard to its weight (1.03 kg per bottle, 835 kg per pallet), and dimensions (310 x 69 x 69 mm) but says nothing of the origin of the wine, the aging, the solera, and so on. One taste, however, and I soon forget such oversights. This wine has a fine, golden, light-bronze hue, with tinge of green age at the rim. There are wonderfully expressed aromatics, toasty, with crisp and warm walnuts, pistachio too, lightly peppery and savoury, very defined and very enticing. And the palate is remarkable, warm and yet energetic, soothing and comforting, but with taut and tangy acidity to give it energy. In the midpalate it unfurls to reveal further charm and complexity, endowed here with texture and the umami of high quality stock, broad and deep, savoury and full of conviction. This is ridiculously delicious, and definitely a candidate for my favourite sherry so far. 18/20 (February 2016)

The Salons of Angers, Day 5

The final day of the Salon des Vins de Loire is, sadly, always dominated by the long trek home. A bus down to the station, a train to Paris (with two changes for added fun this year), several hours of hanging about in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then the flight home. Sometimes I think the airport wait is the worst part of it. Despite being a huge international hub, the facilities are lacking. After security there was only one café serving hot food, which I couldn’t even chase down with a coffee because their hot-beverage-pretending-to-be-coffee machine was broken. The options for shopping, if you are into that sort of thing, include gift shops selling over-priced and rather tatty gifts (pots of foie gras, factory-made macarons, that sort of thing), hugely expensive fripperies from branded stores such as Prada, Cartier, Hermès or Dior (scarves for €350, watches for €7500), and a rip-off upmarket-booze-and-fag store. The price of Bordeaux on sale here particularly took the biscuit – how about Château Pouget for €121? I snapped the price label below before being told photography was interdit. I’m not surprised – if I was running a business selling wine at such rip-off prices to unsuspecting travellers with more money than sense I would also want to suppress wider knowledge of these prices.

And to cap it all, when I logged on to the free wi-fi, I couldn’t look at any wine sites, because apparently they contravene the ethical rules of the airport (the blocking page puts wine up there with sites encouraging terrorism, domestic violence and unusual sexual tastes). So it’s not just the English Chief Medical Officer who has it in for wine, I see. By coincidence (I am sure), the block prevents access to informed opinion on wine quality and prices, about which the booze-and-fag retailer must be delighted.

Salon des Vins de Loire

Alright, what about the last day (or rather morning – I left just after lunch) at the Salon? It was pretty busy, with more frenzied tasting as the hours rattled on. I visited Sancerre, Vouvray, Montlouis, the Coteaux de l’Aubance and perhaps one or two other appellations that have slipped my mind. Looking back over the five days, I have of course tasted a lot of wines. Hundreds of wines, although I wouldn’t like to hazard a more accurate a guess than that. I have covered dozens of domaines, from Muscadet and the Fiefs Vendéens all the way up to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé and on to the upper reaches of the Loire. And yet these days my interest in the domaines of the Loire Valley is so broad I didn’t have time to taste everywhere. This year I omitted, purely through lack of time rather than any plan, a couple of notable Anjou domaines where I would normally taste. My apologies to anyone who was disappointed when I didn’t roll up at your stand, glass in hand; I just couldn’t spread myself thinly enough to get to you.

For every domaine that misses out, however, I taste somewhere else that is new to me, or catch up with a grower I haven’t tasted with for a few years. This year for example, I caught up with Damien Laureau, who I haven’t tasted with for about two years; as he is one of the top-tier winegrowers in Savennieres, that’s an important tasting. I also tasted with Ludovic Chanson, whose first vintages I found impressive when I tasted them in London about three years ago, and this was my first chance to check them out again. That’s important too. I also tasted with Tanguy Perrault from Vouvray, the first time since the summer of 2014; it is vital to return to see how these young up-and-coming growers are getting along. And I tasted with Romain Guiberteau (or rather with Robert, his father), who I haven’t seen at the Salon before. A leading domaine in the Saumur appellation, who wouldn’t want to check these wines out?

So, while I used every minute productively, I have to think of some solutions to this failure to taste everything, everywhere. The obvious answer is to return to the Loire again, which of course I will do. I have already warned Matthieu Baudry, Anne-Charlotte Genet and Jérome Billard that I will be coming to see them in July. I will make other visits too; probably Yannick and Benoit Amirault, maybe good old Couly-Dutheil, who knows? Other solutions and suggestions, such as looking at other Loire wine fairs (I hear rumours about a new Loire fair in Paris), or other fairs where Loire growers exhibit, are welcome.