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Report from the Bordeaux en primeur circus

29 Mar 2002 by JR

My detailed wine-by-wine assessments of the Bordeaux 2001s will appear on the purple pages of this site from 13 April onwards.

London, 26 March - On the bus out to the plane at Gatwick airport the gossip is that James Suckling of the Wine Spectator is already touting the 2001 vintage with lots of wines given 95-100 already. A case of post-Oscars hyperbole?

I must say I'd rather not know these things. I'm approaching these infant 2001s with a completely open mind and half-open mouth. Let's just see...

Mind you, if this British Airways plane were to go down, there'd be very little fine wine trade left in London. The driving forces behind Bordeaux Index, Uvine and practically all the Farr Vintners team are on it.

Now, to the wines...

Bordeaux, 27 March - The sun is shining on a Bordeaux showing off its latest vintage with a little less assurance than this time a year ago.

Certainly in the Médoc, the only region whose wines I've tasted so far, there is no doubt that 2001 will remain in the shadow of the glorious 2000s.

Nor do the numbers of visitors staining their teeth and fingers with these quarter-formed ferments seem as great as last year. Heavens, one can almost always find a free spittoon!

The American commentators Big Bob and James Suckling of the Wine Spectator have come and gone so the Bordeaux trade will wait to read their verdicts long before deciding on how much to reduce prices for this vintage.

The restaurant Tupina last night was thick with the world's wine trade. Jean François Moueix (elder brother of Christian) of Bordeaux Millésimes delivered a mystery decanter of red to our table, including one of his most experienced colleagues. None of us could quite work out why he had taken the trouble to send us something so obviously young and, it must be said, not especially glorious. We were all guessing around the mid 1990s, left bank. Turns out it was Mouton '86, a wine of enormous réclame and price but famously backward. And how. Several of us had tasted the wine only a couple of weeks before, but this particular one was not the most glorious bottle. Very kind of him though. Apparently he keeps his own little cave at this admirably relaxed, hearty Bordeaux restaurant.

This afternoon I cross the Dordogne and start tasting some St Emilions.

St Emilion, 28 March - The vineyards and St Emilion's honeyed stone all look lovely in the morning sun, but I can't appreciate the view to the full. I'm sure I have alcoholic poisoning. The third fingernail on my right hand is, as usual during tasting marathons, permanently stained purple.

Tasted a heck of a lot of wines yesterday and a heck of a lot of make-up too. So many winemakers have been trying too hard, especially on this right bank. It's been tempting to over-reward the simpler St Emilions which have not over-extracted and overdone the sweet toasty mocha notes in this vintage which needed a much gentler hand than its predecessor.

Very usefully, re the question in purple pages (your turn) about fermenting red wines in barrel, met a young Italian winemaker yesterday who's launching his Testamatta wine alongside Tenuta di Trinoro chez Thunevin, who says he takes one end off barrels, stands them up and uses them like miniature fermentation vats, partly because his production is so small. Claims some people do even painstakingly load grapes in and out of the bunghole too. Amazing.

Mistaken yet again for Serena - at Ausone by a German Master of Wine candidate this time.

Onwards...

Bordeaux Lac (hotel zone), 29 March - Another jam-packed day yesterday tasting a wide range of right-bank wines (which are all over the place stylistically, but that's another story) and some more of the delicious Sauternes (the wines so heavily pointed by Jim Suckling of the Wine Spectator). These really are exciting, and Bordeaux's sweet white wine producers so desperately need some recognition of the effort and money that goes into their wines. It's a sad reflection of the wine world's current fixation on red wine that the producers of top-quality Sauternes and Barsac decided for the first time to hold their official tasting not in their own region south-east of Graves, which to many wine professionals is virtually terra incognita, but in Pomerol where they knew at least they'd attract a bigger crowd. And crowd there was at the sweet white tasting at Ch Beauregard yesterday afternoon, much the most popular tasting of the day, it seemed.

At various tastings I kept bumping into people I'd either not seen for years or never met but wanted to (including Patrick Valette, maker of El Principal, a recent wine of the week). It's terrible to have to smile black teeth and proffer a purple hand.

Others around the nucleus of the Bordeaux tastings include many a fine winemaker from elsewhere, some of them showing their wines. I caught up with Peter Sisseck of Pingus and Andrea Franchetti of Tenuta di Trinoro chez Thunevin of Valandraud where they have habitually shown their wines, but there is an increasing number of non-Bordeaux wines shown on the fringes. This year, the new Symington/Prats Douro red Chryseia featured at several tastings (read about it en passant in next week's wine of the week). Hubert de Boüard of Angélus was showing a couple of Spanish wines he's involved with. Thunevin was showing his new Roussillon wine, Domaine Calvet Thunevin, his first foray outside Bordeaux, an extraordinarily sweet-tasting 15 per cent red from Maury. But perhaps the most impressive non-Bordeaux were shown by the Vega Sicilia team - particularly Alíon 2001, which will really be worth looking out for (amazing concentration but gentle too, from frosted yields of 10 hl/ha) and their new, as yet unnamed wine from the fashionable Toro region. This wonderfully opulent, many-layered essence will be launched in a year or two and should be quite a bargain, to begin with anyway.

Ah, prices! An apt topic for the moment. I'm just off for a final foray up the Médoc to taste first growths, Palmer and Las Cases before what is usually an oasis of calm at Haut Brion (handy for the airport, as Clarence Dillon was supposed to have found when he bought it all those years ago).

Meanwhile, Frédéric Engerer of Ch Latour and Jean Guillaume Prats of Cos are tasting a range of Californian cult wines at Cos with their best California customers. Tasting the 2001 red bordeaux I feel a million miles from Screaming Eagle and closer to Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, with all these bracing acidity levels.

More detail on that from 13 April.

London, 30 March - Back home and jolly nice it is too. The wine-loving fingernail is scrubbed almost clean. I'm reunited with my electric toothbrush and my tongue is grey rather than black. (Sorry, I should have warned those of a delicate disposition to skip this paragraph.)

The last day was a tour of four first growths plus Palmer and Léoville Las Cases, so a chance to see a number of the second and allied wines of the firsts too. The Haut Brion/La Mission stable has lots of good things in it and Mouton's and Lafite's had their stars too. (Caught up with Mouton's 2000s which also impressed.)

At Margaux perhaps the greatest success is Pavillon Blanc, a massive wine that has always been difficult to believe is 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc, while Jean-Philippe Delmas (Jean-Bernard's son) was not quite so enthusiastic about his dry whites, Laville Haut Brion and Haut Brion Blanc in 2001.

It was interesting tasting with Pierre Lawton of Alias who had toured these châteaux and their tasting rooms many a time over the last couple of weeks (and will continue to do so over the weeks to come). According to him the persistent high pressure I had the pleasure of tasting in last week made the wines taste noticeably better than in the more humid weather of the previous week.

Even so, it's a vintage without 2000's sheer spread of quality from top to (approaching) bottom and across the region. One or two producers claim to have made a better 2001 than 2000, notably in Pomerol, but otherwise, if you paid through the nose for some 2000s, you are at least owed the pleasure of knowing you've got something special.

Now to work on my report and detailed tasting notes to be published respectively in the Financial Times and purple pages on 13 April...

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