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Primeurs Visits: The Double-Edged Sword

Next week I leave for two weeks of tasting in Bordeaux, looking exclusively at the 2018 vintage. My primeurs tasting trip seems to get longer with every passing year, necessary for two reasons. First, if I am going to succeed in getting to grips with the vintage, this means talking to proprietors and technical directors, quizzing them on the growing season, harvest and vinifications. Tasting at the primeurs, indeed any tasting trip, should be more than a race where victory falls to the critic who has tasted the largest number of samples. And so I always factor time for ‘chewing the cud’ into my visits. Secondly, as in previous years, the number of visits and tastings that I have to squeeze into my trip has expanded a little more. There’s always another château that wants to join the exclusive club of non-participation.

Visits in Bordeaux are a double-edged sword. It is fashionable for critics visiting the region to complain about them, and I have certainly been a dedicated follower of that fashion in years gone by. This is because the more visits I need to cram into a week or two of tastings, the longer the trip must be. The alternative is just to make shorter and shorter visits, which begins to encroach upon that ‘chat time’. One day last year, on the northern Médoc, starting at 8am, and finishing in the early evening, and skipping lunch (save for a quick sandwich between visits) I crammed sixteen visits into one day. It worked well, but it was hardly conducive to ‘relaxed’ tasting, and it’s not something I will be repeating during this year’s primeurs trip. Driving from one château to another (especially sixteen times) is also tiring, and all that stop-start driving (and remember, there are many hundreds of visitors to the region doing this) is hardly environmentally friendly.

Bordeaux 2017

On the other hand, the benefit of visiting a château is that you know the sample is gong to be in tip-top condition. While the cynic in me accepts there are many reasons why a château proprietor would prefer a critic to visit (to influence critics with their surroundings, or to influence through non-blind tasting, for example) one of the principal and very valid arguments is that it ensures sample quality. This is really important. If a château sends multiple samples, to a UGC tasting, to a négociant tasting, to a consultant’s tasting, to a tasting hosted by a PR body such as Cercle Rive Droite, they lose control over its quality. These aren’t finished wines, they are often drawn from the barrel one or two (or more) days prior to the tasting, and this combined with frequent small pours, sloshing the wine back and forth, contributes to earlier oxidation than you might expect. The serving temperature often isn’t optimal, and this also has a major impact on how the wine feels. There is at least one négociant tasting in Bordeaux I stopped attending because the samples often felt too loose, too warm, too grainy and too tired, sometimes with oxidation on top. Others, to be fair, such as the Dourthe tasting, always produce samples in perfect condition. As a regular visitor to the primeurs, I soon learnt which tastings to go to, and which to avoid.

To be fair, sample quality isn’t a problem unique to Bordeaux. I discovered a lot of wine that matched this description when tasting at the Salon des Vins de Loire earlier this year, including some brut de cuve samples from 2018 (so a little like unfinished primeur samples in Bordeaux) but also some finished wines. It suggests to me that making multiple repeated pours from a bottle using pour restrictors such as the Slo-Flo® pourer, in warm exhibition centres, lit with glaring fluorescent lights, might not be the best conditions in which to get acquainted with the newest wines. But, as I have hinted above, even bottles left unattended in the relatively cool and calmly lit cellars of a Bordeaux château that has agreed to host a generic tasting can succumb to this degradation. Maybe having two weeks stuffed full of ‘enforced’ château visits isn’t such a bad thing after all. Roll on the good quality samples!

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