See our guide to coverage of Bordeaux 2015.
28 April As we draw to the end of our coverage of this interesting vintage, I thought I would republish free my report on how it all worked this year – not least because so many of you were kind enough to answer our survey about your preferences for en primeur tasting at the very end of last year.
13 April addition Correction! I see that I was in fact able to taste La Lagune at Joanne, for which I am deeply grateful to both the négociant and Caroline Frey, who owns the château. Hooray. I have also added below a picture of tasting in one of Joanne's boîte-like tasting booths in their massive warehouse on the outskirts of Bordeaux.
12 April I think my bloodstream is now clear of the generally charming 2015 bordeaux, on which I will report next week with a series of tasting articles and an overview on Saturday.
But since I made such a song and dance about the new organisation of presenting primeurs samples that was announced by the Union des Grands Crus (see Bordeaux primeurs tastings to be shrunk), I feel I owe you a report on this year’s primeurs logistics. Not least because so many of you were kind enough to answer our survey about your preferences as to how we tackle the Bordeaux primeurs tastings.
In the past I have gone to the five tasting sessions organised geographically by the UGC in châteaux all over wine country and spread over a full week. (We used to be given the option of tasting blind at these, of which I always gladly took advantage.) In addition to this, in a group of anglophones led by my friend Steven Spurrier of Decanter magazine, we would supplement these geographical tastings with other tastings, chiefly visits to those châteaux which refuse to have their wines shown in the geographical tastings (first growths and, annoyingly, an increasing number of others). I also tried to go to as many other large tastings as possible – that of all the properties at which Stéphane Derenoncourt consults, for example, or perhaps one organised by a group of producers.
This year, concerned that the new shrunken schedule would not give us sufficient time to taste everything we wanted to, and because we enjoy the countryside and châteaux where the wine is grown, Steven and I decided not to attend the UGC’s proposed tastings in the new Bordeaux football stadium on the outskirts of the city.
Instead, we came up with a programme that was even more complicated and no less intense than usual (and which yielded the pile of bumpf photographed here next to a pottery mug thrown by my cousin's wife www.plaxypots.com – plus data sticks galore of which the one below, from Angélus, takes the prize for prettiness). For me it involved filling in the gaps with visits to the tasting rooms of three négociants: Joanne, Ulysse Cazabonne and Dourthe/CVBG, the last two of these at their wine properties Chx Rauzan-Ségla and Belgrave respectively. (I would have also gone to the excellent tasting organised on the Sunday before primeurs week by négociant Vintex but alas this year the rearrangement of appointments required by attending Paul Pontallier’s long funeral precluded this.) The négociants offer a very wide range of wines – much wider than is shown at each UGC tasting – so tasting the négociants’ samples is extremely useful.
My first day was spent in Joanne’s cavernous warehouse on the eastern outskirts of the city (see picture below), where my long-suffering contact had initially assured me that I would be able to taste the wines blind. But apparently the UGC then contacted them to decree that all blind tasting was to be banned – and of course the négociants cannot afford to rub their suppliers, the château owners, up the wrong way. Incidentally, the only tasting I attended this year at which media tasters were allowed to taste blind was that organised by Dr Alan Raynaud’s Grand Cercle de Bordeaux of properties rather less well known than those of the UGC. Unfortunately Richard and I had already tasted some of these wines so it didn’t really make sense to ask for a blind tasting – especially since more than 200 wines were on offer.
With all this toing and froing, it was more difficult than usual to ensure that I tasted all the important wines – and as many of the less important ones as possible since 2015 looked on paper like a vintage that might well be interesting (and good value) in the lower ranks. I must thank Julia enormously for masterminding and maintaining a giant spreadsheet of all the hundreds of possible wines (to which I still had to add some). My trawl through it on the plane home suggested that the only significant omission – though I may well have missed some other(s) – is Ch La Lagune, the Haut-Médoc third growth which for the last few years has refused to show its wines anywhere other than at the château, a property that I rarely seem to drive past. My apologies. (Though see my addition on 13 April above correcting this mistaken impression. The picture below shows me tasting at Joanne flanked by two of the Castéja brothers, swathed in the tasting smocks specially designed by the wife of the missing Castéja – Pierre-Antoine, who had a lunch appointment – to minimise sartorial splashback.)
Two days later I bumped into the Farr Vintners team who went to taste at the football stadium on their first day and were very pleased by how easy it was to taste a lot of wines in a short time at the walk-round trade tasting, with château representatives. But the wine writers I heard were not so pleased with the new-style media tastings at the Stade be Bordeaux. Apparently, you were assigned an individual pourer who in most cases insisted on taking you through the entire list of wines, in the designated order, even if you had tasted several of them already. Here’s a selection of what wine writers reported about the new tasting set-up:
‘It felt like sitting A-levels again’
‘The service was very slow’
‘The lighting was pretty grim’
I would certainly try out the Stade de Bordeaux if they would spread the tastings over a full week rather than trying to cram them into just two and half days, and would allow closer to a full day rather than just a morning for each. The UGC spokespeople keep saying they want a ‘level playing field’ for all the wines (hence banning blind tasting of samples not poured at the châteaux), in which case they should persuade all of their members to allow their samples to be shown at the stadium. I accept this may be difficult for the precious first growths, but I see no reason why everyone else should not agree to have samples of their wines shown at the level-est of playing fields at the football stadium. As for the last few years, the condition of the samples I came across was generally very good – and if there were one central place for tasting such as the Stade de Bordeaux then it should be easy enough to ensure they are all fresh. At a minimum, all samples surely should be marked with the date they were taken. We are, after all, tasting some of the most expensive wines in the world. A little care is surely not too much to ask.
As for the logistics of pouring samples, the Bordelais might like to read A miracle of wine service, in which I describe how beautifully, efficiently and sensitively VDP wines are served at the end of August each year (often in blistering heat) in Wiesbaden.
Although I always declined the offer, in the old days wine writers were given the option of accommodation and meals in châteaux Monday to Thursday inclusive as well as a communal welcome dinner on the Monday evening and a communal farewell lunch on the Friday (which was surely a pretty useful opportunity for the Bordelais to assess media reactions to the vintage). But this year those who asked to be lodged on the Wednesday night were refused, and one prominent British authority on Bordeaux found himself in a château on the Tuesday night without – sharp intake of breath – any dinner on offer!
I’m sure that most château owners find it a complete pain to provide bed and board to ungrateful wine writers, many of them with an over-developed sense of their importance (although this is not true of the British wine writer cited above, incidentally). I’m pretty sure that not all the media have been as sensitive and courteous as they might be. But I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to assume that wine writers should not pay their own way. Paying for them – and including transport in many cases – makes them even more part of the publicity machine for the quality of the wines in the primeurs campaign which can certainly affect release prices (see my previous diatribe on this topic Primeurs 2010 – when to publish? if you can face it).
That said, ironically perhaps, this year I decided to change my policy of staying in a hotel on the outskirts of the city at Bordeaux Lac. I was thoroughly fed up of room service and, more seriously, with having to get up at the crack of dawn to reach distant tasting appointments in wine country at 8.30 or so. (And that decision was taken before I realised how appallingly much slower the crucial Bordeaux ring road has become.) I therefore decided to spend each night close to my first tasting appointment the next day so that I would have some time early each morning to update this blessed website. (OK, I admit that the Stade de Bordeaux is virtually within walking distance of the Lac. Perhaps next year…?) The Médoc and Libourne are notoriously under-provided with hotel beds. There is a growing number of simple bed and breakfast places, but my ideal is to stay somewhere with room service so that I can catch up on emails and so on in the evening, which very much limits the options.
So this year, for the first time, I actually stayed mainly with château owners, those of Ch Smith Haut Lafitte, Rauzan-Ségla and Le Pin. Although I need not feel too guilty about staying with my old friends Jacques and Fiona Thienpont since they decided not to show Le Pin en primeur this year, I do feel bad about these exceptions to our ethics code. Both Rauzan and Smith happen to have made very good 2015s but I would hate you to think that I was swayed by the hospitality.
Any suggestions for future suitable, more neutral accommodation would be very gratefully received.
The wines themselves will be addressed in detail next week.