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Bordeaux 2012: South of the City

Monday started earlier than I would have liked. With an 8am appointment at Château La Mission Haut-Brion, in the southern Bordeaux suburbs, and at least a one hour drive (not accounting for rush hour on the Rocade, Bordeaux’s ring road) to get there, I left my accommodation at 6:10am. This turned out to be a fairly sensible decision, as the slow crawl of the traffic down towards Bordeaux added 25 minutes to my journey. As a consequence I arrived with a little over 20 minutes in hand; the last time I was this early for anything it may well have been my A-levels, circa 1988.

The weather was grey and drizzly; much is written of the effect of the weather on tasting during the primeurs, but as I have already explored in a post a year or two ago, entitled Pressure Sensitive, I have significant doubts about the reality of any effect of atmospheric pressure on wine. Nevertheless, the association continues to crop up in primeurs reports. Maybe it has some unknown affect on the tasters; this would be more difficult to explore or discount than carbon dioxide solubility, the focus of the post linked above. Certainly, some wines tasted this afternoon seemed quite leaden; very correct in terms of structure, but just not showing the aromatics I would have expected. Perhaps there is something in it after all.

The morning was given over entirely to Pessac-Léognan, starting with Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, then the Union des Grands Crus tasting at Château Olivier, followed by a tasting at Château Haut-Bailly early afternoon. In this appellation the white wines are very fine, but the red wines are more mixed. Given the story of the vintage, I was expecting green and lean wines, but strangely for many the problem was tannin quality. I have at least one theory about why this might be, but want to talk more this week before putting it down on paper.

Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon

Then, for the rest of the afternoon, I trundled down to Sauternes to visit Château Climens and then Château Raymond-Lafon. The visit at Climens was fascinating, incorporating a tasting of six or seven barrels from the 2012 vintage first. What this showed was that they have some good quality at Climens, which Bérénice Lurton accredited largely due to their biodynamic philosophy (Climens have been fully biodynamic since 2010 – anybody stating that Pontet-Canet is the only biodynamic cru classé estate in Bordeaux is a little behind the times). What the final wine will taste like I have absolutely no idea, although the barrels sampled would suggest that it will not be at the level of the 2011 (now assembled, tasted from barrel), nor the 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007 vintages, all tasted from bottle during my visit.

Then it was onto Raymond-Lafon, where Jean-Pierre Meslier (pictured above) was telling me – over a bottle or two of his wine – of his high hopes for exports to China in the next few weeks. The 2012 here is one of the lighter wines of the vintage, and as such has been demoted to a second label, Les Jeunes Pousses de Raymond-Lafon. It paled into insignificance against even the 2002, which Jean-Pierre also opened for me, as well as the 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005. Of all these, the 2009 is the one to buy, followed closely by the 2010 (although sticking with 2009s from other estates would also be a valid approach I think).

Tomorrow, the northern Médoc appellations; appointments are lined up for at Calon-Ségur, Pontet Canet, Pichon-Baron, Latour (yes, even though there are no 2012 primeur sales planned, I have an appointment), Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Montrose, Cos d’Estournel, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, and other sources of midweek drinking claret for those with money to burn. Another early(ish) start then.

Bordeaux 2012: With the Negociants

Sunday was pretty busy here in Bordeaux; despite having a reputation for generally shutting up shop on a Sunday, that rule doesn’t seem to hold true for those involved in the primeurs. There were no shortage of tastings to choose from today; I went to two of them, and just these two tastings gave me more wines than I could possibly get through in one day. I was able to revisit a handful of Sauternes (pictured below – not really the focus of the post but I just like the foil-wrapped bottles), fine-tuning and double-checking notes, especially where the wines weren’t really up to par. But, aside from that, it has been a day for dry whites and dry reds rather than sweet wines.

Bordeaux 2012: Sauternes

I kicked off at the Vintex tasting; although Bill Blatch doesn’t have ownership here any more he was in attendance, as well as a number of dedicated tasters, including Neal Martin and Steven Spurrier. Here I took in a range of wines, everything from basic Bordeaux Blanc up to classed growth Pauillac and St Estèphe. Despite some suggestions that this might be a good vintage for white wines, the quality here went right from green and grassy to polished and harmonious, although this reflected the varied appellations as much as anything else. At the top end – by which I mean the handful of white Pessac-Léognans included in the line-up – quality was good. Not at the level of 2011, on this very small assessment, but certainly good.

But I should wait until tomorrow before making such statements, as I have tasted only a few wines. But by sundown tomorrow the gravel of Pessac will be flowing through my veins; I commence at La Mission Haut-Brion at 8am, followed by the Pessac-Leognan syndicat tasting at Château Olivier, then on to Château Haut-Bailly in the afternoon (before a run down to Sauternes).

After the whites came the reds, and these were mostly from the left bank, everything from the cru bourgeois level upwards. Quality here was better than I expected. To put that statement in context, what I was expecting – for reasons which I will explain in my full vintage report to be published on Winedoctor next week – were wines that were lean, possibly green, and on occasion overtly rotten. Instead the wines were largely blessed with clean fruit characters, occasionally (but not often) laced with notes of mint or similar. They are clearly not from a great vintage though; so far thay lack many markers of that, including (a) exciting aromatics – largely we have solid, often poorly defined fruit, (b) midpalate substance – they often flatten out here, and (c) energy/vigour/vitality/lift – call it what you will, the wines lack that sense of life through the middle, the definition and frame that makes then interesting once in the mouth. I think the Bordelais have probably done very well to make wines as good as they have in this difficult vintage. That does not mean, however, they have made very good wines.

As above, though, note these are preliminary thoughts, based on a hop, skip and a jump through the appellations within a negociant’s portfolio.

Bordeaux 2012: work at Rauzan-Ségla

Thereafter I moved onto the right bank, where the wines did seem to have more confidence. And this thought was reinforced by my second tasting of the day, with the négociant Ulysse Cabazonne, which belongs to John Kolasa and is based at Château Rauzan-Ségla (which is undergoing a significant expansion of its facilities – the new half-buildings above sit on the plot of land directly in front of the pre-existing chai). Here I tasted more minor right bank wines, from Castillon, Fronsac and St Emilion too, taking in wines which don’t show up at the Union des Grands Crus tastings. Certainly these wines have more texture through the middle, and more confidently expressed fruit characters than those from the left bank.

I finished the day by revisiting a few of the whites from earlier on, from Graves and Pessac-Léognan, before driving back to my accommodation – only stopping to take a few pictures of the vines and one or two Margaux châteaux in the hazy, evening twilight.

Bordeaux 2012: Back to Sauternes

Arriving in Bordeaux yesterday was something of a shock to the system. In the last week East Lothian seems to have progressed very rapidly from winter to spring. To illustrate my point, only one week ago I was beginning to consider the possibility that my flight to Bordeaux might be delayed or otherwise affected by the ice, snow and sleet under which much of the UK has been labouring recently. Then, suddenly, sometime on Wednesday I think, the sky began to change colour, displaying patches of blue between the cloud. I honestly don’t think I have seen blue sky in Scotland since last year. By Thursday, the sky was entirely blue, and it remained so through to my flight on Saturday. The snow all disappeared, and crocuses and daffodils seemed to advance their growth, perhaps worried that they had missed out on spring. I boarded my flight thinking summer had arrived; it was even warm!

Then I alighted in Bordeaux, under grey skies, misty fog, and it was colder than it had been in Scotland. If it wasn’t for the call of the wine I might have turned around and boarded the next plane back.

Fortunately I managed to get at the front of a long queue to collect my hire car. Ten minutes later I was outside, telephoning Bill Blatch to check he was still on for our tasting. Another ten or fifteen minutes later I was looking for a parking space outside his house. Two more minutes and I was confronted by a line up of 31 Sauternes. Hurrah! Also there were three greats of the UK wine scene, starting with Derek Smedley MW, who – having first come out to the Bordeaux primeurs on a buying trip in 1961 – has now seen out more than fifty vintages. Alongside him were Tim Atkin MW and Charles Metcalfe, both well known figures and – in my opinion – both voices that are certainly worth listening too. The cynic will ask what on earth this minion was doing there, in such exalted company. Well, I was there by the gracious invitation of Bill, facilitated by Charles. Thanks Bill and Charles.

It was a great introduction to the vintage; unfortunately I started an hour behind everybody else I think, as my arrival time was dictated by my flight time, so by the end of the tasting I was ensconced in the corner while everybody else around me was tucking into barbecued sausages, chicken and unbelievably good steak (I did get some later, when I had finished my work!). It would be premature to make any comments on any one individual wine, as I have simply not finished with Sauternes yet; I will be visiting the region on Monday 8th, and I will be retasting the wines of the UGC members later in the week. Nevertheless, it is clear that this has been a difficult vintage, and although I don’t deny that there are some good wines, perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Yquem and a few others pulling out of the vintage, the range of quality within the tasting gave me a big message. But I will be more certain of this, and have reports on individual wines for Winedoctor subscribers, once my tastings are finished.

After the Sauternes came the barbecue. Poor Bill barbecued outside, while his guests sat inside in the warmth. Later our host regaled us with tales of his adventures uncovering wines for auction at Christie’s, his new role having given up his ownership of the Vintex négociant company last year. It was just one of a legion of stories that took in Latour’s performance in the 1980s, how he won his first allocation of Léoville-Barton, the ‘Jack Daniels’ factor in the 1989 vintage, opinions on the garagiste movement of the 1990s, and much more. Bill’s life in Bordeaux – he started work here in 1974, if I recall correctly – would make for an amazing set of memoirs. I would be first in the queue to buy it.

Sorry, I have no pictures of the tasting, as I was squeezed into a corner for much of the evening, so couldn’t escape to get my camera. I will try harder today. My timetable for Sunday includes the Vintex tasting first, and then hopefully the Ulysse Cazabonne (another négociant) tasting, assuming it is on. I never checked (a minor slip in my organisation). I guess I will just turn up and see.

Homeward Bound

Well, I’m not homeward bound actually, that’s just the particular Simon & Garfunkel tune swimming around in my head at the moment. I’m not sure what it is doing there; I haven’t listened to any of their work for a long time, apart from those numbers that crop up on the radio from time to time. Nevertheless, it seems somewhat appropriate. I’m sitting in an airport waiting for my flight to be called, destination Bordeaux. And the region does feel like something of a second home; I’ve been out this way a lot in recent years, and barely a few months seems to have passed since I was last heading out this way. In truth it is almost exactly six months since I was in Bordeaux, but let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a half-decent story, shall we?

The trip promises to be an interesting one. For the first time, contemporaneous with Winedoctor’s conversion to a pay-to-view site, I have made all my own arrangements for this primeurs trip, and I will be meeting almost all my own expenses. Previous trips have been a bit of half-and-half. I thought it important that I do this if my notes are to be taken more seriously. The only help I have accepted is a few nights in a Médoc château in order to be nearer the left bank appellations, otherwise I will be staying in a little quayside hotel in Libourne. Although some like to paint the primeurs as nothing more than a giant knees-up for buyers and bloggers, oiling the wheels of sales and publicity, I see it as an excellent (albeit inevitably flawed) opportunity to get to grips with the latest vintage, and that will be my focus for the next week. So sorry, I won’t be able to report on fireworks and parties at first growth châteaux, there will be no write-ups of lengthy tasting dinners, no signs of schmoozing with the Bordelais. This will disappoint critics who see fit to criticise the attendance and behaviour of other critics at the primeurs, but that’s the way it is.

I have also drawn up my own timetable for the primeurs, outside of that arranged by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. I see little appeal in being shipped around by mini-bus from one tasting to the next, a sort of conveyor belt of good opinion. I want to make my own timetable, making visits in a certain order to best make sense of the vintage, and allowing me time at those châteaux where the peri-tasting chat is the most informative. So I am certainly ‘going it alone’ this week. Few other journalists do this, as far as I know, although one that does is Neal Martin. Although as Neal heads out for two weeks not one, I suspect he gets quite a few more visits in than I will.

So, that’s my flight called. Bordeaux here I come, via Gate 20. First up is a tasting this evening with Bill Blatch, provided my flight arrives on time. Here’s hoping.

Sauternes 2012

Thoughts of Bordeaux 2012 are now filtering through to my frontal cortex. It’s only a few days before I leave for my assessment of the vintage; this year I have allocated eight days to the tastings, more than I have in any previous primeurs visit. And chatter about the vintage is building on blogs and Twitter; although the official tastings are next week, some very influential critics like to go out a week or two in advance, and this year thanks to a clash between the primeurs tastings week and judging for the International Wine Challenge, both next week, the judges – dozens of well-known British names and no doubt many from overseas as well – have chosen to go out to Bordeaux this week instead (or perhaps not to go at all, in a few cases).

I think the region with the largest question mark hanging over it at present is Sauternes. Partly this stems from my knowledge of the weather as harvest approached, as I was in Bordeaux during the run up to the picking in early October. It also comes from news that has filtered out of the region since then, and in that case I think it can be difficult to tease out those decisions based on qualitative concerns, and those that are more to do with marketing and pricing.

From a qualitative view the growing season was hampered by relative drought through July and August (something of a surprise after a miserably wet and cool spring). The dry weather meant no botrytis, and this was still the case until the end of September, when the first smatterings of botrytis rot appeared. It spread over Barsac better than Sauternes I am told, but it was not the great sweep of noble rot many would have hoped for. In addition, there was little time for concentration of the mould-affected fruit before the rains came in October. Obviously I will provide more detail in my subscribers’ report when I return, but for the moment this is my understanding of the vintage.

Château Rieussec

For this reason we might expect some châteaux not to declare a vintage, either skipping it all together, or declassifying into a second wine. Nevertheless, there was plenty of skepticism when Pierre Lurton of Yquem announced that there would be no 2012, about which I wrote here: Yquem 2012: Time for a Second Wine? Many expressed the opinion that this was purely a commercial decision, based on a need to bolster desire for the 2011, a better wine which should achieve a better price, and which was not released en primeur by Lurton because of the perceived character of the vintage, which I imagine would perhaps hamper sales. It wasn’t long before Charles Chevalier took the same decision on behalf of the Rothschilds, at Rieussec (pictured above). Neither estate would produce a 2012. Rieussec would produce only a second wine.

“So what?” you might ask. The problem is that if these are purely commercial decisions, they do unwarranted harm to the reputation of the vintage and therefore downstream sales of wines from other estates, where perhaps the books are even more delicately balanced than they are at Yquem or Rieussec, and where perhaps the wines are good, and worth buying.

Jean-Pierre Meslier of Raymond-LafonThis week, however, I learnt from Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon that he too would not be producing a 2012 grand vin. Instead, like Rieussec, he would produce only a second wine. Jean-Pierre explained to me “We had tons of botrytis but the weather was often too wet at harvest time so we will not produce the very best in 2012.” He pointed out that this was not the first time this had happened (the same is true at Yquem – see linked post above) as he “produced no Château Raymond-Lafon in 1974” and “[v]ery little in 1982,1992,1993,1994,2000.”

This“, he concluded, “is the price to pay for excellence.”

This situation is clearly not cut-and-dried. It has been a difficult harvest, and Jean-Pierre has decided – on qualitative grounds – not to bottle a 2012 grand vin. As for the others, Yquem and Rieussec, I remain to be persuaded one way or the other.

I think what is important for me personally (and perhaps others too, although I do not dare presume to be in a position to tell other critics what they should or should not do) is to maintain a very open mind, and gather as much information as possible when in Bordeaux. I arrive Saturday and go straight from Mérignac airport to a tasting with Bill Blatch in Bordeaux. I have visits lined up to meet Jean-Pierre Meslier of Château Raymond-Lafon again, and also to taste through the barrels with Bérénice Lurton at Château Climens, which should give me a good guide to the real ups and downs of the vintage. I should also meet the wines at the négoce tastings on the Sunday, and at the UGC Sauternes tasting later in the week. So there should be plenty of opportunities to see what’s what. Then I can decide for myself, and for Winedoctor readers, whether these are likely to have been qualitative or commercial decisions. And, of course, whether or not we should be buying the wines.

More details on Sauternes to come!

Announcing my Latest Book

The Médoc: People, Power & DrainsBehind every great man you find a great woman, so the saying goes. The meaning is obvious; behind every success story there are unsung heroes, back-room girls (and back-room boys of course) who have contributed much to every victory achieved. Bordeaux is not short of unsung heroes, but their true identity is not well understood. In recent years, esteemed commentators on Bordeaux have obsessed over many different aspects of the region. For some it is the grapes and the soils that make Bordeaux what it is. Some have chosen to focus on the technology that lies behind the Bordeaux of the 21st century, everything from optical sorting to mobile reverse osmosis machines. The majority, however, more readily point a finger at the men and women of Bordeaux, from the saisonnier manning the sorting table, up to the consultants, the likes of Stéphane Derenoncourt and Michel Rolland, as if they weren’t famous enough already, as well as lesser-known names such as Gilles Pauquet and Barry Chuckle.

All, however, are shooting wide of the mark. To truly understand Bordeaux, to grasp which wines are great, which are mediocre, and exactly why, it is to the Médoc’s drains that we must look.

I am pleased to reveal today the publication of my latest book, entitled The Médoc: People, Power & Drains that tells all about this true unsung hero of Bordeaux. In a fact-fest suitable for everybody from the casual reader to the MW student, I begin in the 17th century, with the drainage of the swampy marshland by Dutch engineers, that which we know today as the Médoc, and then chapter by chapter I reveal never before-told stories about these masterpieces of modern engineering.

Naturally I turn first to the defining drains of the great first growth châteaux; beginning with the channel that runs between Château Latour and Château Léoville-Las-Cases (pictured below). Vital to the health of these two vineyards, the drain in question is host to an annual summer fête, on the Feast Day of Saint Salambao, widely regarded as the patron saint of fishermen and drainage technicians. Suddenly, all along the length of the usually sedate drainage ditch, pictured below, food stalls spring up, music plays, and the locals – usually led by Frédéric Engerer of Latour, and Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville-Las-Cases – dance late into the night. Such grand festivities are fuelled by wine, which cascades down the immaculately clean drain, the revellers able to dip their glass into the flowing liquid and imbibe. I can’t reveal the identity of the wine, for various reasons, but mainly for fear of receiving a lawsuit from one of the aforementioned managers/proprietors.

Drainage ditch between Latour and Léoville-Las-Cases

It is of course impossible to write a book on Bordeaux without mentioning Robert Parker at least 300 times, usually within the first seven pages, and I have naturally done my duty with this book. It was in 1983, during his spring visit to Bordeaux, that Parker uncovered one of Bordeaux’s long-lost drains. Long had there been rumours of a ‘missing drain’, from the very earliest days of Dutch drain construction, running down from Château Rauzan-Ségla through the vineyards of Château Margaux. Walking back to his car after a long lunch at Rauzan-Ségla Parker stumbled and fell down a 7-metre well-shaft, scraping his leg and tearing his trousers in the process. Having winched Parker out using a complicated system of pulleys and winches, the Bordelais realised the missing drain had been found. Its discovery was instrumental in augmenting the quality of the drainage and the wines coming out of the Château Margaux vineyard from the 1985 vintage onwards. Parker often claims responsibility for improving the quality of wines made in Bordeaux; here, for once, he is right.

Since those early days of drain rediscovery Parker has continued his involvement with great drainage projects of the Médoc. Working with drain enthusiast Jean-Guillaume Prats, the two mapped out the original drainage ditches and field drains of St Estèphe, work that led directly to an improvement in quality at Château Cos d’Estournel. Ever altruistic, and keen to cover up his good work, Parker persuaded Prats to say this improved quality was the result of the new cellars at Cos d’Estournel, the construction of which were in fact funded entirely by Parker himself. In my book I reveal the whole ‘cellars’ ruse for the farce it really is; having researched 21st-century milk-vat technology I have discovered there is in fact no such thing as laser-welded milk vat. Parker’s altruism left him in some considerable debt through, ultimately necessitating the sale of the Wine Advocate in late 2012, for the sum of $15 million. The majority of these monies has been used by Parker to pay off Antonio Galloni, who is rumoured to have built up an extensive dossier of Parker’s drain fetish. I can reveal, for the first time, that the rest is to be channelled into third-world projects, managed by his charity, the Parker Institute for Drain Development, Literacy & Education. Under the umbrella of P.I.D.D.L.E., Parker will be funding the installation of field drains in under-privileged vineyards, including Château Figeac, all of Beaujolais Côte de Py, Savennières and the viticultural wasteland that is the Côte d’Or, where without Parker’s gracious funding of field drain installation the vignerons have no choice but to go on producing horrible, mean, overly acidic wines.

Médoc drainage map

This text is, according to Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson in their joint foreword, “a book unlike any other we have ever seen before, and hopefully unlike any we ever see again“, which I take very much as a compliment. With 890 pages, 28 colour plates, and 238 hand-drawn drainage maps (as shown above), the book is I hope set to wow the Bordeaux community, and should make an ideal gift for wine drinkers and drain enthusiasts everywhere.

My new book is available now from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)