I have a fairly cynical attitude toward the en primeur circus, and although I have attended religiously since the 2006 vintage was being shown in 2007, there are very few times during the week when I get excited. When I do it is generally for a wine that I will probably never taste again, let alone own. I can only liken it to being in the driving seat of a Ferrari 250 GTO knowing I probably will never drive one, let alone own one, in my life. So Lafite, Petrus and Le Pin aside I spend my time tasting, writing, debating and critiquing wines that have give me no satisfaction and bear no resemblance to the finish article anyway. What’s the point?
Well an answer to this lies in the outer rings of the circus, the fringe events and pure fun in observation and participating. This year I decided to completely eschew the main ring and only visit the side shows. My aim was to taste as many of the 14,000 other Château in Bordeaux who do not participate in the EP’s as possible and to spend as much time with growers as I could. This is what is uncommonly known as ‘doing the village hall tastings’ and can lead to some pretty strange encounters. The fact remains, however, that you have (to paraphrase) to kiss frogs to get princesses and that is our job, someone has to do it. Also, it gives you the air of the intrepid explorer when meeting over dinner, and whilst everyone else is regaling each over with the same old stories, your own seem vibrant and daredevil in comparison.
Young Bordeaux is a tough nut to taste. It is tannic, brooding, often reduced and seldom appetising. Only at Lafite and Tetre Rotebeouf do I ever feel like drinking the young sample, whilst at Château like Cos d’Estournel and Mouton one has to almost prize the wine out of the mouth. So young lower orders Bordeaux generally lacks the charm of the big guns but with all the structure. Even these wines are built to last, and some will for many years to be sure. My task was t find some wines for Caviste that didn’t blow the bank, had integrity in the vineyard and were made by people we could work with. No mean feat as I discovered.
I calibrated my palate at Lafite and the St Estephe/Pauillac/St Julien tasting at Union Grand Cru tasting hosted by Château Lagrange and then hopped into my rather cheeky little Fiat 500 convertible (I know, but apparently it was all they had) and set off for the Cru Bourgeois tasting at Château d’Arsac. Here I devised a way of being able to taste all the wines quickly and efficiently whilst ensuring I could judge each wine on merit. I would then go and taste the wines I liked from the 2009 vintage that were being shown in the next door room and then make a call. So head down and off i went. Normally a UGC tastings you taste 2 wines, meet someone you know, chat, say how busy you are, not much time etc, and then chat some more, taste two more wines and bump into someone else and so on. 60 wines takes 3 hours. Not here, I did not see a soul I knew, and not a single English speaker. The room was in fact populated only by people who make the wine. Promising
So, Médoc to Haut Médoc, and 120 wines tasted, 7 potentials. Now I am looking only at tannin, fruit purity and balance, and once you are in a rhythm these things become simple to spot. Moulis to Listrac, Margaux, now and the wines are really picking up and quality is noticeably improving, into Pauillac, St Estephe and the wines are singing, there is no doubt this vintage is one for Pauillac and St Estephe. So in all 25 wines hit the spot and need retesting. In 2009 the wines are sweeter, better balanced and with more complexity so it should be able to cut out the dross. 15 remain on my hit list, only to be whittled down to 10 when I discover the prices and availability of the five Château.
A quick stop for lunch, much needed after 250 or so wines, and then on to Margaux Village Hall for the Cru Artisan tasting. 25 producers showing 2011 and an one other older vintage. I love this tasting. There is no one here, even the producers seem to have given up and gone home, so I can get my head down again. This time the strike rate is low, only three producers work for me but the wines are exemplary, and balance is amazing, even in the Margaux I tasted. There something very honest about these wines, they are not cheap but they have a layer of something that although intangible, is so prevalent. I could drink these wines all day, but I will re-taste in my office lest my romantic streak is getting the better of me.
Back in the 500, and the roof is down. For the first time I am aware of how many gendarme there are about. I am not drinking and am careful to drink much water but nevertheless, any time spent engaging with this lot is both time sent not tasting and time spent raising the blood pressure to retirement levels. I arrived at a small tasting of Bio wines in Macauillou after a quick dip (read major detour) in Calon Segur (where once again my favourite wine of the year is being made, and it isn’t the Grand Vin). The Bio tasting was populated by beards, dungarees and strange smells, not unusual, and a healthy antidote to the formality of the Grand Château, but makes tasting the wines seriously quite hard. Here I tasted all sorts of things, but was notably impressed by a producer who has very unlikely labels making wines in the Bordeaux region near Cadillac. This is the end of the day so my palate is tiring but there are some gems here and I need to make sure I don’t miss anything, and unlike the last tasting, the winemakers are engaged in their wine so interesting stories and verbal pictures add to the wine’s character. I am charmed, but now need a beer so meet up with my old mate in the Brassiere de Médoc in Blanqefort, a spiritual home with a terrible wine list and modest food, and we share our day.
Lafite is great, Margaux the best ever, Angludet was so good/bad/average (erase depending on which journo you like) and so on. I am aware that this sounds like every year (“Oh the wines are so fresh/structured/mute/lively” depending on which sample was tasted and where). These are the vaguely repetitive expletives of the UGC campaigner, where as my vocabulary has changed completely, I have to use a different lexicon to describe my wine tasting experience and I am grateful for this. Long live the village hall tastings!
I have not listed any of the Château I am keen on here, as I am still in the process of sorting and refining, but suffice to say I am extremely confident that at least a handful of the frogs kissed will turn into Princes/ses.
Ben Llewelyn, March 2011