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Critics: The Primeurs Marketing Machine?

The world’s wine eyes are beginning to turn towards Bordeaux now, as en primeur season looms. Well, that opening statement might have been true a few weeks ago. Now it would be more accurate to say that the en primeur season is already underway; the early-bird critics are in Bordeaux, and making sure their presence is felt through social media.

Critical opinion is important because, as noted last week, there is a very good association between perceived quality of the latest vintage and prices, on the upward trend at least. This is very relevant to 2014, because while the last three vintages have been equivocal in terms of quality, or obviously poor as was the case in 2013, the 2014 vintage looks as though it might be a step up in quality. After all, following 2013, it can hardly be worse. If this were so we would have heard about it, as it would have involved tornadoes, earth-shattering hailstorms (more extensive and more severe than Bordeaux has already seen in recent vintages), rampant mildew, apocalyptic earthquakes, tsunamis washing over Bordeaux, that sort of thing. It is going to be a better vintage this year.

Nevertheless, the Bordelais are only human, and they (I realise I shouldn’t lump such a diverse group of winemakers together – they are all individuals – so forgive me for that) naturally look for external reinforcement of their own perception of the wines. And although only Parker has enough power to drive prices up or down, the Bordelais have always been willing to listen to other opinions (and indeed they only have other opinions now he has retired). They like to hear positive comments of course, and negative opinions are perhaps rather less welcome. I would be lying if I said I have never heard proprietors express frustration at critics who don’t “get behind a vintage”, and if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of emails along the lines of “how can we expect to sell our wines, when you score them so low?” (both comments made in the context of the 2013 vintage).

I don’t mind this. It is the right of the Bordelais to be positive about their new wines, if they so wish; it is a business after all, and the wines have to be sold, true of the 2013 vintage just as much as 2010, 2009 or 2005. Who wouldn’t put a positive spin on their product? It’s called salesmanship. And I’m confident enough in the honesty and fairness of my opinions to publish them, even when they aren’t so positive, or are plainly (although always politely) negative. Nevertheless, it is clear that proprietors who make statements like those above have misunderstood the very raison d’être of critics, who are there to provide independent opinion on the wines, for their readers. They are not part of the Bordeaux marketing machine, and I feel uncomfortable with any activity that exists on the borderline between independent reporting and marketing. It is a grey area though, so here’s my take on how I will report on the latest Bordeaux vintage.

● I won’t visit the region before the official en primeur week kicks off, and won’t make any comment on the wines at all before then. The need to have a ‘scoop’ on the wines only drives vintage hyperbole, and prices follow hyperbole.

● I won’t publish tweets on every château I have visited, or fleeting off-the-cuff impressions of the wines, because these are undeniably skewed towards the positive (can you imagine a visitor tweeting “I just visited Château [insert name here] and the wine was dreadful”? – no of course not – but of course there are plenty of “Château [insert name here] rocks!” tweets). Barrel samples need more careful consideration than this, and multiple tastings helps.

● I won’t use obvious expressions of hyperbole – “this is the best wine since the 1945″ and the like – especially not on social media. This also drives hyperbole.

● I will visit the region during the primeurs week, and I will publish free-to-read blog posts about the regions of Bordeaux I have covered each day, so readers can track my progress, but this will involve overall impressions only, and as in previous years, and won’t include comments on specific wines tasted, for the same reasons as above.

● I will publish a report, for subscribers, after synthesising the tastings of the week, after my return, which will be crammed with factual information and wall-to-wall honest opinion, but no hyperbole and no marketing spiel.

I would be very interested to read feedback on this approach, especially any comments on how I can use the primeurs season as it stands (accepting flaws inherent in the system, such as the vagaries of barrel samples and the fact the wines are very young) for the benefit of my readers but without being part of the marketing machine.

Bordeaux 2014: Prices will Rise

The 2014 Bordeaux primeurs draw near. The almost traditional pre-primeurs back-and-forth is already behind us. The UK wine trade called for sensible pricing in an open letter printed here in The Drinks Business. Bordeaux says no, of course.

Once a seemingly innocent device designed to provide early cash flow for the châteaux, which then mutated into merely the first step in a now well-established investment system, in recent years en primeur prices have risen almost interminably, as the châteaux sought to keep more of these investment profits previously enjoyed by third parties for themselves. In recent years this has resulted in a paradox, in that we now have many wines released at prices that are more expensive than mature vintages of the same wine. Add this to the many other criticisms of en primeur – samples that are tasted too early prior to blending, the exclusion of press wines from the blends, and even the failure to complete the malolactic fermentation before tasting in some cases, and of course the continued unproven suggestions of manipulated and misrepresentative samples – and today the en primeur system provokes more ire than joy. Some call for its abolition. Some pray for its collapse. When I read such criticisms I often think of what we would lose if that were to happen. I often also wonder, it has to be said, in what ways those making the calls might gain.

The tragedy is that en primeur as a system does work. It has worked for decades. All that is required is a drop in prices to regenerate lost good will and renew interest. I think anyone looking for significant price falls in the 2014 vintage will be disappointed though. The Bordelais are adept at matching their pricing to the perceived quality of the wines on an upward trend, as we have seen multiple times since the mid-1990s (and probably back further than that), but they are not so good at matching quality and price on a downward trend, as we have seen in the last three vintages. From 2013 to 2014 we have an upward trend in quality once again (you can’t go down from 2013!), and so to expect a contradictory price fall is rose-tinted wishful thinking. This isn’t another 2008 – there isn’t a global economic meltdown brewing. Prices will rise.

There are some obvious counter-arguments to my belief that prices will rise, and so I thought I might look at one or two of these here. The first and most obvious is Robert Parker. Will his retirement from the reporting of en primeur put a downwards pressure on pricing? After all, without Parker’s scores, how will the châteaux set the prices – won’t they just have to flog the wine off cheap? The answer to this question is no. Anyone who believes that Parker’s absence means cheaper wine has looked to the wrong vintage; that might have been the case in 2002 (although I believe it also reflected the despondency of the Bordelais who thought they had a much worse vintage on their hands than was actually the case, a factor that might have also played a role in 2008) but that’s not the Bordeaux we are dealing with today. I sense a more confident critic-free independence in Bordeaux these days. Parker’s absence does not begin in 2014 – do not overlook the fact that Parker didn’t report on the 2013 primeurs either. Because of recent surgery, he visited Bordeaux long after the 2013 primeurs finished.

The 2013 vintage was one that many in the region openly admitted to be the “worst in thirty years”, or “the worst in my lifetime” according to the younger folk. Not a 2002, or a 2008, but a 1984-style washout. So how did Parker’s absence influence the pricing in such a disastrous year? Many prices saw barely a token reduction – cuts of a few per cent – or none at all. Indeed, annoyed by the press having written off the vintage before even coming to Bordeaux to taste, Alfred Tesseron released his wine before the primeurs week had even got underway, and at a very strident price too. This was not really the action of a man who was lost without Parker. No doubt Tesseron was content (he certainly told me he was) as his wine sold very well (as far as the négociants at least, which isn’t quite the same as selling through to a consumer of course). And so if the Bordelais are content to price so aggressively without Parker’s support, why look for anything other than a price rise in 2014, obviously a better vintage?

The other major factor that might conceivably push prices down is the strain that exists in the system. Every year we hear en primeur is at breaking point. And then what happens? It doesn’t break. Nevertheless, there is a huge volume of wine in the system, and the négociants who have soaked up the recent difficult-to-sell and over-priced vintages must now be under great pressure. All the same, I doubt this will have an impact on pricing by the châteaux. I think it will take a major collapse, such as bankruptcy – the result of the banks who are supporting the négociants through these leaner years simply pulling the plug – to result in that. That’s not impossible, although I cannot imagine a bank doing this during the next few weeks as we head into the primeurs season. And those unloved vintages will eventually sell, discounted, or through the foires aux vins, generating cash flow for the négoce once again. So don’t hold your breath for lower prices based on the perhaps precarious state of some of the négociants.

The third reason we won’t see any drop in price is the current state of the Euro. The pound and dollar are both strong, and the Euro is weakening by the day. I have read that some hope this will produce a fabulous buying opportunity outside France, as whatever decisions are taken in Bordeaux the favourable exchange rates will mean a 15-20% reduction in price, on top of whatever cuts the Bordelais might make. But here’s the reality; the Bordelais are fully aware of the exchange rate, and know that potentially lucrative British and American markets are already getting a good deal based simply on these rates. Prices, despite the world’s obsession with Parker, are not set on his scores alone (and certainly won’t be this year). Everything else matters too, from the global markets (one reason why the 2008 prices were slashed) to the naivety of new markets (hence the dramatic price rises as China suddenly fell in love with Bordeaux), even what your neighbour sells his wine for has an impact. And so, of course, do exchange rates. Why lower prices, when all your prospective customers in the UK and the USA are already getting a super exchange-rate discount? This will certainly be taken into consideration when price setting.

Exploring Sherry #7: Emperatriz Eugenia

It has taken me quite a while to get around to the next instalment of my infrequent and informal Exploring Sherry series, but the wait has been worth it. This wine, an oloroso from Lustau, is a wine worth experiencing. It comes from a solera begun in 1921 to celebrate the visit of Emperatriz Eugenia (i.e. Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III and Empress Consort of the French) to Jerez. Eugénie de Montijo died in 1920, many decades after her husband had also passed away, and years after her son was killed in a Zulu attack when serving with the British in South Africa. I can only assume that the visit for which the solera was established to commemorate occurred some years earlier.

Lustau Oloroso Emperatriz Eugenia

Nearly a century on and the solera is still going, and going strong too if this wine is anything to judge by. The Lustau Oloroso Emperatriz Eugenia has a golden amber-bronze hue, with lightly golden rim. It has a bright and rather high-toned nose, some tell-take driftwood oxidation notes, with scents of walnut, toast and dried citrus fruits. It has fine complexity, with smoke and toasted almond character coming in later. There follows a beautifully composed palate, gloriously full and broad, finely polished with a seamless feel at the start, so harmonious and yet so characterful. It slides gently into a very vinous midpalate, before the velvet curtains part to reveal some strident grip and energy within, along with fine acid brightness. Although this has a very typical oloroso profile I find the precision and bright character in the middle of the wine completely enticing. Long, gliding flawlessly into the finish. Excellent. From a 50 cl bottle. 17.5/20 (February 2015)

Salon des Vins de Loire 2015 day 3

Well that is the annual Salon des Vins de Loire over for another year. It’s been a busy few days; in combination with the preceding weekend salons, I’ve just completed five long days of tasting, almost every wine from the Loire (with just a handful from Bordeaux).

Yesterday I caught up with the domaines and growers (mostly Anjou) that I didn’t get around to seeing on Tuesday, including Pithon-Paillé, Domaine FL (pictured below is Julien Fournier, proprietor) and one or two others. After that it was anything goes. I revisited some old friends, such as in Vouvray Vincent Carême, and Château Gaudrelle. Then up to Pouilly-Fumé, to taste with the new superstar of the appellation, Jonathan Pabiot, whose wines I first tasted and reported on a year or two ago, and also Masson-Blondelet.

Julien Fournier

During the afternoon it all got a little bit random; at least a couple of domaines I was hoping to visit I had to skip as even though the salon runs until about 7pm each day, quite a number of growers started packing up after 3pm. Nevertheless that only freed up more time to taste at a number of domaines new to me, in some of the more diverse areas of the Loire, including Haut Poitou and the Côte Roannaise. In among these new discoveries were some other familiar names, such as Charles Joguet for example and Domaine de la Cotelleraie.

It was only today that I managed to make it up to La Levée de la Loire, the fair which this year has been incorporated into the Salon. I was glad that I did, as I discovered there a couple of the domaines I usually taste with but who weren’t at this year’s Salon, including both François Pinon and Domaine de la Pépière. La Levée is very different to the Salon, no big stands, just a simple table with whatever samples you have to pour on it. No doubt it is a much cheaper option than the Salon proper. Anyway, it was great to taste with Rémi Branger, including my first taste of a new cru communal cuvée from the Gras Moutons vineyard, and also with François, who happily had a much better vintage in 2014 than he did in hailstruck 2013, with several deliciously balanced demi-sec cuvées on the way in this vintage.

That’s it for now – I’m off to catch a train and a plane, and hopefully get my Loire 2014 report written up.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2015 day 2

The more meticulously you plan things, the more likely they are to go wrong. Thus it seems to me that the path to success involves never planning anything; then, when things go even half-right, it is a major victory worth celebrating. If I had this attitude yesterday would have been a success. As it happens, I succumbed to temptation, and made a plan; I drew up a shortlist of domaines I wished to visit, the end result of course being that I visited only about 60% of them, while visiting a number of domaines that weren’t on my Tuesday ‘hit list’ at all. I tasted some interesting wines and found some real quality (in 2014 again), so the day was certainly a success, but having stopped short of completing my list it still feels a bit like a failure.

I want to focus a little on Anjou during 2015, so tasted today with a number of significant domaines, including Château Pierre-Bise, Domaine de la Bergerie, Domaine Ogereau, Château Soucherie, Domaine des Baumard (pictured below, Florent Baumard), Thibaud Boudignon, my old favourite Domane Cady and one or two others. Perhaps the most striking wines were those of Thibaud Boudignon, who I have already profiled on Winedoctor, having visited him at his domaine last year. My tasting today only reaffirmed my view that Thibaud is one of the current stars of Anjou. Otherwise the big new as far as I am concerned is that Vincent Ogereau has managed to acquire two parcels of land in Chaume and Quarts de Chaume. I lamented with Vincent last year the absence of Quarts de Chaume from his portfolio, but it looks like he has done something about it. I look forward to being his first customer, when he actually gets to make some wine from these vines (fingers crossed for 2015).

Florent Baumard

Diversions into other regions pushed me in the direction of Chinon for Niolas Grosbois, to Vouvray for Sébastien Brunet, and back to Chinon for Philippe Alliet. In all cases I was impressed by the 2014 vintage, which as I said yesterday is good across all areas of the Loire, from Muscadet up to Sancerre, in all colours. It is not a vintage for grands liquoreux, although dedicated growers in Anjou have made tiny quantities of the great sweet wines, a typical volume being perhaps a single barrel of Quarts de Chaume, always at a potential that only just hit the 18º minimum for the appellation (the new grand cru regulations), with similar quantities of Chaume if applicable.

Today I have mixed bag of tastings coming up, everything from Pouilly-Fumé up to the Côte Roannaise, and from Vouvray down to Mauges, which is west of Anjou, in case you didn’t know. But of course, I’m not planning anything. That is, after all, the sure way to success.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2015 day 1

I’m not sure it is possible to taste more Muscadet, Sancerre, Vouvray and Montlouis than I tasted yesterday. I kicked off with Luneau-Papin, with some brut de cuve samples which only served to reinforce my rapidly forming opinion that 2014 in the Loire Valley is a lovely vintage for all styles of dry wine, white, rosé and red, but is perhaps less notable for its sweet wines. Certainly that is the case in Vouvray (where there will be no sweet wines this year, only demi-sec at best), but I will only be getting to grips with Anjou tomorrow, so I can’t comment on the Coteaux du Layon, Aubance, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux at present.

After Luneau-Papin, onto Domaine de Haut Bourg, one of the leading domaines in the Côtes de Grandlieu appellation in Muscadet, where the main attractions were the new releases of the long lees-aged wines, Signature 2010 (five years sur lie) and Origine 2005 (ten years sur lie). Then over to Domaine Vacheron, where I was pleased to taste two new cuvées, Le Pavé and L’Enclos des Remparts. Then, although this was a day for whites, just before I nipped off for lunch I noticed that Mathieu Baudry had nothing to do on his stand, so I took advantage of his quiet moment to taste through his wines. The major surprise here was how well his 2012s are showing, but those 2014s again! I only tasted the lower end of the range in 2014, but they are just super. Further delaying my lunch, I also tasted the wines of Domaine de Roche Ville, a Saumur-Champigny domaine new to me, where there are some very tasty 2011s, but also some superb 2014s in the pipeline, as well as some really good white wines.

Rocher des Violettes

After lunch it was back to white, with the wines of Pascal Reverdy first, then a detour to meet up with Catherine Champalou (who was only going to be present for two hours, so it was now or never), then back to Sancerre with François Crochet. Both Pascal and François have made great wines in 2014, as well as some smart 2013s, while Catherine has achieved the same. In Sancerre that wasn’t so hard, but making a good Vouvray in 2013 is a real achievement, certainly one to be proud of.

Then came more Vouvray and a touch of Montlouis, while I got to grips with the 2013 from Peter Hahn, which I tasted from barrel last summer, as well as the wines of Xavier Weisskopf (pictured above), then Bernard Fouquet, François Chidaine and Jacky Blot, not quite in that order but it is close enough. This was a real contrast to the Sancerre tastsings, because whereas all these domaines have made lovely 2014s, the wines here tend to show up the inadequacies in the 2013s, which are weaker by comparison. It was, of course, a much more difficult vintage in 2013 for Touraine Chenin Blanc (especially the hailed-out Vouvray vineyards, but Montlouis too it seems) than it was for Sancerre.

I’ve gathered a lot of information to slot into my forthcoming 2014 Loire report, and of course a lot of new notes on other recent vintages too. Today (Tuesday), it is a day for Anjou, so off I go to taste. Before signing off though, a quick update on the state of the Salon, which I alluded to yestersay. It has contracted much more than I had previously realised, the organisers having dealt with this by bringing in false walls around at least two sides of the exhibition hall, hiding space behind which would normally be filled with stands. Other notables that are absent include François Pinon (perhaps not surprising, he was also absent last year, almost inevitable after the disaster of the 2013 hail) and – to my great disappointment – Domaine de la Pépière.

The Salons of Angers

There’s a change to the usual programme of updates on Winedoctor this week, as last Friday evening I arrived in Angers for the annual Salon des Vins de Loire. There is little if any time to make the usual additions to the site, and so instead I will provide some brief reports on what I have been up to here in the Loire Valley.

Most of the weekend has been taken up with the Renaissance tasting, although there are many other salons; the choice of tastings has snowballed over the past few years and there are now far too many to cover in just two days. Renaissance is the brainchild of Nicolas Joly (pictured below), although Lalou Bize-Leroy has long been associated with the group and she was present at the tasting over the two days (you can imagine the crowds around the Domaine Leroy stand – four deep at the best of times). Renaissance was also, as far as Angers is concerned, the original ‘off’-salon, although La Dive Bouteille was actually established first. The problem with La Dive is that it is held in Château de Brézé, near Saumur, which means it is a pain to get there if you don’t have convenient transport, and a waste of good tasting time even if you do.

Nicolas Joly

In Angers, however, there were this weekend also the Pénitentes tasting (Thierry Puzelat, René Mosse and friends), Les Anonymes (Jean-Christophe Garnier, Jérôme Saurigny and pals), a Demeter tasting and probably others I was unaware of. I say this because, other than the Renaissance event, which was the only tasting I received notification of (by email, from four or five different vignerons), none of these salons seem to have been very well advertised. If you want journalists to come to your salon, it might be an idea to shout about it a bit. With so many to choose from this salon business is getting competitive, and a simple Facebook page or static blog page doesn’t cut it, as how do I know where to look? Maybe salon organisers should build a mailing list, and fire out some invitations? Maybe they should get Charlotte Carsin (of Clos de l’Èlu) on the case; taking down my email address today, she added me to her mailing list to advertise La Paulée de l’Anjou Noir, another relatively new event (in its fourth year I think) planned for later this year. She just increased the likelihood of me attending one-hundred-fold.

Anyway, the weekend has been filled with the likes of Richard Leroy, Domaine de Bellivière, Mark Angeli, Clos de l’Èlu, Philippe Delesvaux, Patrick Baudouin, Philippe Gilbert, Jo Landron, Domaine de l’Ecu, Château de Coulaine, Sébastien David, Coulée de Serrant, Domaine des Huards, Domaine Mélaric and more than a few others. I also popped over to the Bordeaux stands to take a look at Château Falfas, Clos Puy Arnaud and Château Gombaude-Guillot, three domanes worth knowing about. I don’t think I could have done better than that no matter how many other salons I managed to fit in.

As for the Salon proper, this will be a very different proposition this year. A number of big producers, some of whom have been asking for change at the salon for some years, have eventually pulled out. Champalou (Vouvray) pulled out years ago, last year and this year there was no Château de Tracy (Pouilly-Fumé), and this year they will be joined by Henri Bourgeois (Sancerre) and Domaine Huet (Vouvray). The salon is very expensive to participate in, and it isn’t surprising that producers should pull out if they feel they aren’t getting good value for their money. Even the absorption of another ‘off’-salon, La Levée de la Loire, into the Salon proper doesn’t seem to have eased the financial pressure that seems to result from the salon’s gradual contraction. InterLoire and their PR agency Clair de Lune have cut back support for journalists to attend the Salon this year. This rather reminds me of a short story I once read, perhaps by Stephen King (although I could be mistaken) about a surgeon castaway on a desert island who is so hungry he amputates a foot, and then eats it. And then the other foot, and then so on, to the inevitable end. There are some things in life you shouldn’t do, and cutting off vital parts is one of them. There are few enough journalists interested in the Loire Valley as it is, cutting them loose in terms of support seems like a worrying sign of the state of the Salon to me.
There is a lot of salon competition out there now (I spoke to one blogger today who says he comes only for the ‘off’ events, and doesn’t even go to the Salon), and they will be only to happy to take more visitors away from the Salon if they can. All they have to do is get their marketing right.

2014 Winedoctor Disclosures

Here comes my annual statement of support received by me in the work I do running and writing Winedoctor, a little later than planned (I have been rushed off my feet). Having said that, looking back to my 2013 disclosures, I see I published in late January and made the same excuse last year, so perhaps this is now the norm.

During the past twelve months there has been a little social media chatter concerning transparency and disclosure in wine writing, and I half-expected that by the start of 2015 I would not be alone (am I alone in this? – tell me if I have this wrong) in ensuring total transparency with regard to support received. It seems, however, that this is not the case. There was debate and discussion, a moment of flurry on Facebook and Twitter, but ultimately nothing changed – except for a few Klout scores, perhaps. That is a great shame. These days, when I encounter a report from a far-flung wine country such as New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa or even somewhere closer to home (insert wine region of your choice here), and when I read of all the “amazing” (this surely counts as the most cringe-worthy adjective in wine writing, although “mind-blowing” and “awe-inspiring” come close) wines encountered, I feel distinctly uncomfortable. Why are all the wines tasted so superb? After all, I never find this to be the case on my self-funded trips to the Loire Valley or Bordeaux. Who paid for the flights and accommodation on this wine trip of a lifetime? A producer, a generic body, or the writer? The people making the “amazing” wine, perchance? Yes or no, this is valuable information for the reader.

Last year I brought my annual disclosure out onto the blog to ensure it could be read by all, not just subscribers. I read one comment (I don’t recall where) that this was still ‘cheating’ as although accessible the disclosure is divorced from the original article, and this is a far point (although harshly put). So in the past twelve months I have been assiduous in tagging on (where relevant, i.e. where there is something to disclose) a disclosure at the end of every new article published, including a number of Bordeaux profiles, Loire visits, and a couple of my Bordeaux 2013 primeurs reports.

Sorry if the information below is a little dry. For the other writers who have complained about how dull and overly-detailed this annual post is, I look forward to reading your more entertaining versions in the future.

First of all, as is customary, details of support and other benefits received during the course of 2014:

Salon des Vins de Loire: I received much less support during 2014. Through the PR agency Clair de Lune InterLoire paid for only two nights accommodation in Angers during the Salon. During the Salon des Vins de Loire I had dinner at a restaurant courtesy of Charles Sydney, a Loire courtier, and his many dozens of growers. I covered all other costs myself (see below).
Loire hospitality: During my self-funded trip to Vouvray in July I visited Peter Hahn of Clos de la Meslerie during the evening for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and visited Vincent Carême at a later date for a tasting followed by a barbecue to which we all contributed (I brought the desserts – if you ever find yourself in Vernou-sur-Brenne you have to go to Huvet, the boulanger-pátissier on the main street – they make great desserts, including killer chocolate eclairs). During the same trip I had a picnic in the vineyards with Jo and Wendy Paillé, of Pithon-Paillé. All other expenses I met myself (see below).
Grands Chais de France: I participated in a press trip to Bordeaux to see the work Grands Chais are doing. This included flights, transport, accommodation and two dinners. I have made declarations on all associated profiles (as I have for the Vouvray growers mentioned above).
Bordeaux primeurs: I stayed in Château Preuillac, courtesy of Yvon Mau, during the primeurs week. I accepted three nights uncatered accommodation. Other aspects of the trip and expenses I met myself (see below). I had dinner with Jonathan Maltus of Château Teyssier one evening. I had a quick lunch at Château Pichon-Baron. I have made declarations in my primeurs reports.
Gifts received: A Christmas hamper from Sopexa, sent to all journalists who submitted suggestions for the Cracking Wines from France tasting. Two bottles of wine from Château Brown were also received.
Samples received: Only a small number of wine samples were received, where the wines have been written up this has been declared. Most wines written up on Winedoctor are encountered at open tastings, or purchased.

2014 Winedoctor disclosures

During 2014 the support received by Winedoctor has been reduced again, thanks to my subscribers for facilitating this. As is customary I also document below the expenses I met myself during the course of 2014:

Loire Valley: I covered the costs of travelling to and around Vouvray (pictured above, the Clos du Bourg) and all my accommodation myself. Other than the meals described above I received no support. I stayed in accommodation owned by Peter Hahn next to Le Clos de la Meslerie; I paid full price for this.
Angers, Salon: Most travel expenses for the Salon des Vins de Loire were met by me; this included flights, rail fare in France, three nights accommodation in Angers and subsistence on all nights but one.
Bordeaux, Primeurs: I met most costs myself; this includes transport to airport, flights to Bordeaux, and hire car for eight days. Other than one meal at the home of Jonathan Maltus with another journalist I met all subsistence costs myself. I paid for two nights in a hotel in Libourne and two nights in a hotel in Bordeaux city to complement my three nights in Château Preuillac.
London, RAW and Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé tastings: In 2014 these fairs were on consecutive days. I paid for train fares, one night in hotel, and subsistence.
Three other London tastings: These were one-day affairs, including a Bordeaux Index tasting, the Loire Benchmark tasting and the Real Wine Fair. I paid for my own parking, flights and transfers in each case.

The list of trips is slightly shorter than usual as an illness in late 2014 meant I had to cancel two trips to London tastings and a planned trip to Sancerre. Gutted? Yes!

This concludes my disclosure statement for 2014. During the year ahead I will be focusing on Anjou in the Loire Valley, updating and expanding all my profiles, and getting to grips with some of the less-commonly sighted sweet wine domaines in the Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. In Bordeaux I will be mixing it up with some new St Emilion profiles and updates, as well as filling in gaps on the left bank, in St Julien and Pessac-Léognan, and I am looking forward to devoting some time to ‘little’ names in the Haut-Médoc and Médoc appellations, who don’t get the same coverage as the grand cru classé domaines.

Of course, there is also my 2014 Bordeaux primeurs report, a 2014 Loire Valley report, a 2005 Bordeaux retrospective, 2002 revisited in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley with a couple of dozen wines from my cellar. I will also get started on a new appellation-by-appellation guide to the Loire Valley, ensuring complete coverage, from the Fiefs-Vendéens all the way up to the Côte Roannaise. I may (not yet firmed up) be visiting Jerez this year – although not a region I ‘specialise’ in the wines fascinate me and I don’t mind broadening my horizons now and then, as I have done in the past with trips (self-funded) to Madeira and Tuscany. That should keep me busy. Santé!

A New Year Wish

The year 2014 has flown by, especially the last four months, and so here is a moment or two of reflection. Winedoctor has grown nicely, both with regard to Bordeaux and the Loire. My march through Bordeaux, adding new profiles and updating old ones, having done Sauternes (from early 2012 onwards), followed by St Estèphe and Pauillac (during 2013) reached Pomerol in 2014. Back in January I was on Château Le Bon Pasteur (updated January 2nd 2014), and having progressed alphabetically I will finish with Vieux Château Certan in the next few weeks (today’s update, Le Pin, was slightly delayed). Alongside I also added my usual vintage updates, including an especially detailed look at the 2013 vintage, and there are other vintage-based tasting reports coming up. As for the Loire, I published dozens of new and updated profiles, with a leaning towards small, new, young and up-and-coming domaines. I could go back and count all these updates, but I think I would rather go and open something good to drink this New Year’s Eve, so I hope you will forgive me if I don’t.

Without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of 2014 for me was a chance to return to Vouvray, not merely for a fleeting visit but to linger a while, for several weeks in fact. I rented a cottage among the vineyards above Vernou-sur-Brenne, and passed the time visiting domaines in the morning, and chilling out at the poolside (weather permitting) in the afternoon. I popped in on some familiar favourites, as well as calling in on some domaines quite new to me, either young start-ups with only a vintage or maybe two under their belts, or domaines that I simply never got around to visiting before. It was a great trip, as everywhere I went the welcome was warm; I adore wine in all its forms, but nothing serves to heighten the experience like meeting the people behind the wines you drink. In Vouvray’s case they are charming and genuinely warm people, the seniors led by the gentleman ambassador Bernard Fouquet (pictured below), the delightful Catherine and Didier Champalou and the king of Vouvray Philippe Foreau, while new generation leaders are Vincent and Tania Carême, who march with Peter Hahn and a gang of Carême acolytes.

Bernard Fouquet

Of course there were less fun moments during 2014 as well. I enjoyed trips to the Loire in February as well as in July, and I was in Bordeaux in April and in June, but I had to cancel return trips to both regions later in the year due to ill health, a very depressing feature of 2014. This is one reason I will be glad to see the back of 2014. There was also the issue of Domaine Huet in February, when after my criticism of the 2012 vintage Sarah Hwang decided to ban me from tasting the Huet wines, either at the Salon des Vins de Loire or even if visiting the domaine (the 2013s I reported on earlier this year I purchased at the tasting room). This was also the year another wine writer accosted me at the Salon des Vins de Loire and referred to a review I had written as “nasty”. It certainly was an eventful Salon for me this year, one that opened my eyes to how adversely some people react to criticism, even when carefully judged and considered. I stand by every word I have ever written, because nothing on Winedoctor is off-the-cuff, jingoistic or gonzo in style. Nevertheless, here’s hoping for a more peaceful Salon in 2015! Sadly I believe Domaine Huet won’t even be attending, but I hope to be able to taste their wines at some point, sometime, somewhere. I still rate the domaine very highly, and I think their 2013s were some of the best in that very difficult vintage.

And so what of 2015? April will see me come to the end of another year as a subscription site, and subscriptions are already up 9.5% this year, so by the end of the year hopefully this will be more like 15%. I don’t worry about page views, Google rank or Klout scores any more; these are either irrelevant to pay sites, or what I call “vanity” metrics. Winedoctor is generally regarded as a “blog” I think, but I prefer to view it as a continually evolving electronic book or journal (hmmm…, if only I had called it “Wine Journal” before Neal Martin chose that name!), full of information-rich profiles, and what matters to me is whether the quality of this information is worthy of the subscriptions people pay, so that is where I focus my attention. Hopefully, climbing subscription numbers mean I am getting it right, but I am always grateful for feedback in this regard. During 2015 I will be moving on to updating and expanding my coverage of St Emilion, and as this is a huge undertaking I will alternate with some left-bank profiles and updates as well, especially looking at some ‘lesser’ regions such as Moulis, Listrac and the Haut-Médoc. There will be the 2014 primeurs, and a look back to 2005 Bordeaux too. And much more. In the Loire, I aim to add plenty more profiles, a 2014 vintage report, update and add new Anjou profiles, and also start work on a huge Loire guide which will touch on every appellation going, from the Côte Roannaise down to the Fiefs-Vendéens. That should keep me busy through 2015 (and 2016, and 2017…).

Best wishes to all, good health and good drinking in 2015. And thank you for reading.

Checking in on . . . . Cuvee Pif, 2012

Although the writing had been on the wall for a year or two, it was only when I visited Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche in October 2013 that I learnt with certainty that they were about to hang up their secateurs for good. They had been down-sizing for some time, a large portion of the vineyard having been handed over to Noëlla Morantin, but it was now official. It was also very hush-hush, as Catherine and Didier carefully looked for interested suitors. At the time there were two interested parties, the identities of whom were confidential.

At the time I imagined maybe one was Noëlla, but it seems I may have been wrong. As it turns out the first is Laurent Saillard, who started working in the vines of both Clos Roche Blanche and Noëlla Morantin several years ago. The second is a name new to me, Julien Pineau, who started out as a geologist but ultimately gravitated to wine, ending up working with Didier at Clos Roche Blanche.

Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Pif 2012

So 2014 is the last vintage for Clos Roche Blanche. The wines of this domaine are not that easy to locate in the UK, nevertheless I have one or two bottles tucked away, including the 2012 described below. Perhaps I will be able to add a bottle of the 2014, who knows?

The 2012 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Cuvée Pif (Pif is the name of Didier & Catherine’s dog, as I am sure all CRB fans know, and is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Côt) has a beautiful, vibrant hue, a fine black-crimson colour reminiscent of summer fruit pudding. The nose has some appropriate dark fruit-skin character to it, but there is also a savoury edge, and certainly a little methoxypyrazine greenness at first, veering into a more overt vegetal character with a little air. Ultimately, the aromatics here are heavily laced with the celeriac and celery character of Cabernet Franc in what was obviously a cool and cloudy vintage. The palate shows an elegant, clean, slightly juicy character, carrying flavours matching the aromas on the nose. There is also a nice cool energy to it, with peppery fruit, very light tannins, and bright acidity. To be straight I have mixed feelings about this wine; I like greenness when it comes with otherwise ripe fruit, but here it strays a little too far into the vegetal side for me. All the same, I like the cool, sappy nature of the palate. 14/20 (November 2014)