A version of this article was syndicated. See also yesterday's account of our Purple Paulée 2018.
Every January the British wine trade goes a little bit crazy.
For some of its members it’s the forced withdrawal of their drug of choice as they attempt a Dry January. But for those who specialise in selling fine wine direct to well-heeled wine lovers, it is the latest vintage of burgundy that dominates the coldest, least bibulous month of the year.
Over the many years I have been observing the UK wine scene, a tradition has firmly established itself that the second week of January will be devoted to often-very-elaborate tastings of young burgundy with as many producers as possible in attendance. This opportunity to taste such a wide range of names from the world’s most revered source of limited-production wines is so unusual and valuable that we even see some of France’s top wine writers coming over to London to take advantage of our Burgundy Week.
In January of this year, for instance, there were no fewer than 21 showings of 2016 burgundies in London during the week beginning 8 January, including eight on the Tuesday, and so busy had that week become that there were five more tastings the following week.
I get in the habit of refusing any commitments other than daytime tasting of burgundy during the second week of January – so exhausting is it to concentrate on everything on offer for the sake of my readers while being surrounded by sometimes hundreds of other tasters, many of them potential buyers not short of opinions they wish to share with everyone in the room.
The two merchants who hold the grandest tastings are the rivals across St James’s Street, Berry Bros & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks. On successive days they take over the enormous marble-panelled Great Hall of 1 Great George Street (pictured) close to the Houses of Parliament. Favoured growers and their samples at tables are ranged around the perimeter of the room, with excited potential purchasers comparing notes in the middle. (The high, round so-called poser tables are an absolute boon for those of us who like to take our tasting notes straight on to our laptops.)
Some Burgundians show their wares at both Berrys and Justerinis’ tastings. Knowing how expensive London hotels are, I sometimes think that these merchants, along with treating them to raucous dinners on successive nights, should also provide camp beds in the tasting chamber. It’s always a surprise, when reaching the grand doorway to 1 Great George Street, to come across vignerons whom one more readily associates with vineyard tractors and work in the cellars of the Côte d’Or having a shifty cigarette on the pavement.
Inside, producers take the rare opportunity to try each other’s wines by table-hopping before the room really fills up from around 5 pm when customers leave their desks and screens early in order to work out what they want or can afford to buy from this year’s crop. Attractive young women armed with order forms are generally positioned by the exit. Berrys load a central table with La Fromagerie cheeses but for Justerinis, run by a Scot, the focus is on wine alone.
Justerinis are particularly proud of their aristocratic client list; Berrys is perhaps better at chasing the hedge-fund crowd. I have heard staff boasting of how many million pounds’ worth of orders have come in even before these tastings.
Because of course the most sought-after wines are not shown at these massive wine tastings. The wine is too precious to be poured to those who have not committed a penny to the experience. The likes of Rousseau and Roumier are allocated, in tiny quantities, to the merchants’ very best customers. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti hold their own tasting, of the vintage one year older than the one featured in early January, in the offices of their UK importer Corney & Barrow. The invitation list is assembled with extreme care; glasses seasoned with a lesser wine before the precious grands crus are dribbled in.
Tasting wines before they are bottled, which is the case of the great majority of these young reds, is an inexact science. I am deeply sceptical of the value of the annual en primeur tastings in Bordeaux where we all taste hundreds of samples of wines that are only a few months old, but at least these burgundies shown in London every January are in the middle of their second winter’s ageing. A great deal can happen to a wine as delicate as burgundy but it should be much, much easier to judge these wines 16 months or so after the harvest than the seven months that is the usual age of the bordeaux shown en primeur.
When these London burgundy tastings began, towards the end of the last century, it was common to come across samples drawn from barrel, sometimes as early as before Christmas and then driven across the English Channel to be stored who-knows-where, that were in poor condition, oxidised and very obviously treated with excessive sulphur. But nowadays everything seems to have become much more sophisticated and most samples seem to be in good condition, having benefited from a few more weeks’ ageing too.
The majority of them are taken from cask in the first week of January – not long after the producers decide on how they will allocate each wine to each individual merchant – before being driven back to London, typically by junior representatives of the merchants, thrilled to have an excuse to visit and make contacts at the better Côte d’Or domaines. One year the weather was so bad that several loads of samples ended up in a snowy ditch. I feel sorry for the merchants in that UK customs authorities insist on levying our punitive duty of £2 on each bottle even though these particular bottles are not for sale.
For obvious reasons, the merchants liberally scatter their printed wine offers around at their tastings. I have seen some producers raise an eyebrow at the merchants’ margins when they look at the prices asked for their wines. I am always particularly interested in how the new vintage is described. The art is to read the subtext. ‘Accessible’ or ‘charming’ can mean ‘soft, low in acid and tannin’. ‘Refreshing’ may mean ‘tart’. ‘Firm’ can be a reference to tough tannins.
One word is sufficient to sum up the vintage shown earlier this year, 2016, however. Thanks to vicious frosts at the end of April, the crop is undeniably ‘short’ even though the quality of many of the reds and some of the whites I have tasted is tantalisingly high.