Château Cambon la Pelouse 2010
The Bordeaux primeurs – the most recent write up of which I finished just last week – tends to tip me into a state of quandary. There are many compelling reasons to go to the primeurs, and while for some it is certainly the parties and the private dinners at the châteaux with their favourite Pomerol producers that draws them in, I go purely for the barrel samples. I step out onto the tarmac at Mérignac with the knowledge that – regardless of what protest I might make against the en primeur system – in a few weeks time the wines will be offered for sale, and my subscribers will be looking for guidance on what is hot, and what is not. I go fixated on impartial assessment of the nascent wines, rather than making friends with the proprietors, and although I accept accommodation in some châteaux I otherwise pay my own way, and I tend to avoid dinners, parties or overtly ostentatious hospitality.
Partisan reporting is just one very particular problem with the primeurs, one that consumers can avoid by simply bypassing reviews from overtly tendentious sources of notes and scores. But there are other headaches for potential buyers, more insidious and more widespread concerns, not least the question of how much trust to put in the samples. Was the barrel sample presented to the critic you most trust a finished blend, including a percentage of press wine, or was it more of an approximation, a vision of what might be? Was that barrel sample representative of the wine in élevage, or was it drawn solely from new oak, or some other specially managed barrel? Was it the same barrel sample that was presented to all the other critics? Was it a freshly drawn sample? Are the wines just too young anyway? Would the primeurs be more useful to consumers if they were held six, twelve or eighteen months later, putting them in line with other regions such as Burgundy, or Tuscany, where the very notion of showing such embryonic wines would no doubt be laughed away as a farce. Should en primeur, which today offers no certain fiscal advantage to the consumer anyway, be scrapped altogether? These are all valid questions, many of which I ask myself each March.
Another problem with primeur reporting is that it inevitably focuses on a small selection – by which I mean perhaps a few hundred – of the grandest domaines. Yes, there is usually some time to taste lesser wines, from lesser appellations, from cru bourgeois rather than cru classé estates, but even so primeurs reports tend to be weighted towards the most famous names. They are often more about Château Haut-Brion and Château Ausone than good-value wines from Fronsac and the Médoc. Perhaps this is only right; after all, it is the wines that are most highly priced, or which with time become most scarce, where buying en primeur is most likely to be of benefit to your cellar, and to your bank balance. But let us not conflate an en primeur report of inevitably limited scope with a complete overview of the region; despite this focus on grand and expensive names, Bordeaux is still rich in wines that offer both quality and value, and quite often such wines pop up long after the April madness has finished.
The many cru bourgeois wines are a good example. Back in 2012 I reported on a grand tasting of the latest such releases (it is a tasting I attend most years), which at that time were from the 2010 vintage. There was one stand-out wine that really stuck in my mind, this being the 2010 Château Cambon la Pelouse. Nearly five years later I came across a bottle or two by chance, on the shelves of a local supermarché, and it didn’t take me long to buy one, and not much longer to pull the cork. In the glass this wine has a very rich hue, dark, showing a black tulip core with a very thin, crimson rim. Then there follows a nose of great conviction, very expressive and full of fruit, yet also classic, with toasted black cherry and damson, spiced berries and a violet cream. This is more than matched by a very confident palate, rich and voluminous, textured and perfumed, loaded with ripe tannins and yet delightfully fresh. This is a finely polished, substantially superlative wine, which finishes long, tannic and grippy. It has excellent cellaring potential, and is a fine example of why the 2010 vintage is a great one. 17/20
This wine from Château Cambon la Pelouse proves that, no matter what a primeurs report might suggest, Bordeaux is never just about the most famous names. And no matter what reputation the region might currently possess, there is still value in Bordeaux today. Although, I note with some degree of regret, neither of these conclusions settle any of my niggling doubts about the role of the primeurs today, and what relevence the en primeur system might have to modern-day wine consumers. (8/5/17)