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Bordeaux 2017: The Halfway Mark

It is Wednesday morning and I am pleased to say I am now past the halfway mark in my marathon of tasting the barrel samples of the 2017 Bordeaux vintage.

It has been a busy few days. I flew into Bordeaux last week, on Friday. The journey here was, as football pundits might say, “squeaky bum time”. I flew down from Edinburgh to Stansted on a 6:30am flight, followed by a 9:15am flight from Stansted out to Bordeaux. I take the 6:20/6:30am flights from Edinburgh to London airports quite frequently, and they are very rarely delayed. Of course, the one time it really mattered, an air traffic control restriction moved our departure time back by half an hour, wiping out a large chunk of what time I would have on the ground at Stansted.

When we landed I was off the plane like a rocket, leaving the other passengers far behind. This confused the airport’s security staff who saw a lone passenger exiting the gate area and they quickly assumed I was lost. Having reassured them I knew exactly where I was going, I made my way out of the front of the airport, back in through fast-track security, and I made it to the gate with about five minutes to spare. Phew!

Next year, I think I will have to come up with a different travel plan. Back in 2016 an air traffic control strike meant I ending up living in Gatwick airport for two days before being able to get a flight to Bordeaux. I have no desire to repeat the experience.

Bordeaux 2017

The rest of the day was uneventful. I picked up my hire car, drive over to St Emilion, found my accommodation, and so on. I spent the first few days tasting on the right bank, with a few visits to those willing to see me over the weekend, such as Jonathan Maltus, Château La Dominique and Château Pavie-Macquin, several large tastings and a Sauternes extravaganza. By the time Monday morning came I had already tasted hundreds of wines, and the weather had changed from sunny, to cool and cloudy, and it seems to have steadily worsened since then. I spent Monday in Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes, starting the day in a drizzly, foggy rush-hour gridlock (rail strikes in France have made the roads even busier than usual) en route to Château Haut-Brion, finishing the day at Château d’Yquem, when the sun came out momentarily, both above my head and, seemingly, in my glass. On Tuesday I made a marathon journey through the Médoc, with fifteen visits in one day, the most I have ever managed. But I started at 8am at Château Calon-Ségur, and I finished at about 7:30pm, having meandered south as far as Château La Lagune, and there were only a few minutes drive between most appointments, so I had plenty of time not only to taste the wines but to talk about the vintage. By Tuesday evening the weather had degenerated into heavy rain, with thunder and lightning.

The 2017 vintage is a fascinating one to taste, because quality is so variable this year. It isn’t an easy vintage that can be summed up in one word like we might try with a washout year like 2013, or with a great year such as 2005 or 2010. It is a complex vintage, one with highs and lows; there are wines that feel profound, composed, exciting and desirable, while others are simply everything that you don’t want in Bordeaux, with overtly green and vegetal fruit, light and loose textures, and bitter tannins. The vintage has been unkind to some in this region, frost and the response to it being a major driver (but it certainly does not act alone) of style and quality this year. And those that escaped the frost know this only too well. “We were very lucky, very lucky indeed” has been one of the most commonly heard refrains when visiting domaines where the frost did not bite.

During the week I won’t be making behind-paywall updates, but will be posting on Instagram and Twitter so it will be easy to keep track of my progress. My full reports, with weather report, harvest and tasting overview, soundbites and then my region-by-region tasting reports, will kick of on Tuesday 17th April.

Reprimandeur Week Approaches

I just wanted to give a quick head’s up to everybody in the wine trade that next week is the Bordeaux reprimandeur week. It’s that time of year (again!) when half the wine writing world disappears to Bordeaux to see what sort of wines the Bordelais have produced during the previous year’s growing season. The other half, meanwhile, stay at home and reprimand their colleagues for even daring to participate in such profane and immoral tasting activity.

I would like to thank all these reprimandeurs for participating in this year’s event – it just wouldn’t be the same without you! And in a spirit of collegiality I wanted to give you a few tips and hints on how you can stir things up this year. We’re counting on you…..

First, price. Remember to criticise anybody attending the primeurs because the wines are too expensive, because the hyperbole of early ‘scoop’ reporting drives up prices, and because Bordeaux no longer functions as wine and is perhaps better considered a luxury product or collector’s item. Don’t let anybody tell you that the alternative, a vacuum of independent opinion, would be worse than useless. Don’t pay any attention to the notion that sensible critics provide guidance to their readers on prices, value and the wisdom (or idiocy) of buying en primeur. And please overlook the hundreds of good-value wines that get reviewed. Just stick your reprimandeur oar in! And don’t let it put you off going to that DRC tasting you have been invited to (again). That’s obviously completely different.

Primeurs Sign

Second, remember to criticise primeur attendees for daring to taste barrel samples. It doesn’t matter that they are finished blends, and that decent critics provide an honest and clear indication that these wines provide a snapshot of what the future wine will be like. It is irrelevant that after attending years and years of primeur tastings, regular attendees worth their salt can see a clear correlation between their own opinions on barrel samples and the same wines when tasted from bottle for any given vintage. And don’t give any time to the thought that regular Bordeaux buyers and primeur-report readers are intelligent people who know about the fallibility of barrel samples. Stick to your reprimandeur guns! Every good reprimandeur knows barrel samples are the devil’s work, sometimes not even made from grapes. And they are largely undrinkable. Like a lot of natural wine, except there you can’t blame it on the barrels.

Finally, remember to criticise those attending the primeurs for using scores. Just because sensible critics use ranged scores to denote the uncertainty of a barrel sample, don’t let that dissuade you from letting people know how wrong this all is. And just because scores for wine weren’t exactly invented yesterday (have you noticed Robert Parker is now retired?) don’t let that kid you that a seasoned Bordeaux buyer might understand that scores are not an intrinsic element of the wine, swimming around among the tannins and acids. All good reprimandeurs know that scores are objective, exact and written in stone for all time, and are harmful to consumers, who must be protected from them at all costs.

Thanks for reading reprimandeurs, and keep up the good work. Bordeaux and all who sail in her ship, the primeur tasters, and the consumers who dare to buy and drink these wines are all counting on you to do your duty! If you are eager to get going, please start reprimanding now. While the official primeurs tastings begin next week, some immoral and frankly vulgar critics are already in the region, daring to taste the wines a week or two early. Your reprimandeur skills are needed!