The Society Bordeaux buying team of Sebastian Payne MW, Jo Locke MW and myself has recently spent a second week in Bordeaux, retasting many of the 2011s that we had sampled a fortnight previously during the annual ‘en primeur’ bunfight, and tasting many other 2011s for the first time. It is remarkable how in that short time many of the wines have evolved, and the week proved invaluable in helping us to distil down our selection for the main en primeur offer that we will be sending out next month. Over the course of our two sojourns in Bordeaux we have tasted several wines three, four and occasionally five times, so we feel we are well placed to put together a coherent and considered offer for members.
Week one had been a whirlwind, visiting some of the best-known wine names in the Bordeaux firmament, with one day that involved visits to Châteaux Léoville Las Cases, Lagrange, Pontet Canet, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Ducru Beaucaillou ? and that was just in one morning?
Our second week was, with one or two exceptions, more modest in terms of the global renown of châteaux visited and wines tasted, but no less interesting or enlightening. The vast majority of châteaux that we have followed for a number of years have made fresh, attractive and classically proportioned red wines that we have no hesitation in recommending subject, of course, to the wines being sensibly priced. Examples include Château Le Conseiller, Château Bouscaut, Château Belgrave, Château d’Angludet, Château Cantemerle and Château Batailley, to name but a few. 2011 was also an excellent Sauternes and Barsac vintage, with consistently high quality across the board, and we will be offering several of our favourites in our main Bordeaux opening offer.
Week two was also an opportunity to taste at the esteemed premises of JP Moueix in Libourne. Having “extinguished” our mobile phones [see above], we were treated to a procession of delicious merlot-dominant right bank wines in the splendid Moueix tasting room ? a cavernous but tranquil setting for the Society tasters [right]. We also paid a visit to the strikingly Burgundian-looking cellars [below] of François Mitjavile at Château Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint Emilion, our annual opportunity to shoot the breeze with one of the most cerebral winemakers in Bordeaux, and taste the delicious fruits of his labours.
Our week ended with a visit to Château Reynon in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux to see our old friend Denis Dubourdieu, wine guru, lecturer and oenologist to some of France’s most famous names; and a tasting at Château Climens in Barsac with owner Bérénice Lurton. Bérénice took us through no fewer than nine different barrels of 2011 Barsac, each cask containing the production of a single-day’s picking last autumn ? the later the harvest day the sweeter, more lush and complex the wines tasted. The 2011 Climens is a true labour of love.
All that we are waiting for now is for the châteaux to release their prices, and we are hoping that the owners and decision makers will take a pragmatic view this year and release the wines at sensible prices. We are expecting a flurry of activity from the Bordeaux négociants in the coming days, although the profusion of public holidays in France this month may hamper the process somewhat.
Head of Buying
The Society has put in place new procedures for ordering Bordeaux 2011 this year. The first of our two 2011 Bordeaux Opening Offers, containing 30 of the most sought after wines of the vintage, requires members to pre-order the wines before the prices are confirmed by the chateaux. The remaining, generally less expensive, wines will be offered as normal, in print and online, in June or July.
Primeurs week in Bordeaux is a marathon of tastings of inky young red (and a few dry and sweet white) wines, a whirlwind of meeting and greeting, top and tailed by fine food and wines. You may be thinking that we wine buyers are spoiled – and you’d be right (we’ll spare you the detail, but these experiences re-affirm why Bordeaux remains unrivaled in the world for its potential finesse and keeping potential) but the pleasure is greater, and the debate all the more stimulating in the good company of buyers and sellers from all over the world.
At Château Haut-Bailly this year our tasting group included contingents from the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Chicago, and Texas (featured). The debate was open, friendly, and lively thanks to General Manager Véronique Sanders’ invitation to all of us to give her our views on the prospects for the Bordeaux Primeurs campaign this year. Irrespective of national and personal preferences, all nationalities were of one voice in asking for Bordeaux to reduce its prices significantly this year.
Generous hospitality is not unusual in Bordeaux, but this relaxed and open discussion was as refreshing as the very fine range of wines we enjoyed. Wines that could not come from anywhere else.
Please remember that we will be offering the 30 or so most sought-after wines from the vintage in a different way this year, requiring members to pre-order them. For more information, please refer to our website.
Joanna Locke MW
It’s the producer – more precisely the vigneron – that counts this year; far more than location, appellation, or classification. It is no surprise that those who walked their vineyards and acted early on the vagaries of the growing season, and who could then afford to wait for ripeness, have made the best wines.
It looks unlikely to be much of an investors? vintage; it could be a good ‘drinkers’ vintage, if – and it remains a big if – prices are correct. Our purchases will be a tight selection this year, and we’ll taste a lot more wines, including several numerous times, in order to finalise our Opening Offer which is due to be published in June.
As mentioned, we will be offering the 30 or so most sought-after wines from this vintage in a different way this year, requiring members to pre-order the wines. For more information, please refer to our website.
Joanna Locke MW
The Mont Ventoux, known locally as the ‘geant de Provence’, dominates the landscape for miles around like a Mount Fuji, and it comes with a white summit that sparkles in the sun. The summit is white all year round but rarely thanks to snow: the Ventoux is a huge pile of limestone and at the summit it is quite bare.
The mountain features much in folklore and there are doubtless plenty of poems by Mistral. There are various stories about the name but one thing is certain and that is that it is seriously windy at the top. It stands at 1912m, making it the highest peak for miles around. An observatory was built on the summit and at the same time a road was built over the top. It’s a fun drive and only a wee bit scary near the summit, above the tree line where the rock is bare and white and when the gradient suddenly becomes interesting. The view from the top is fabulous, except on the day I chose to drive up, when low cloud reduced visibility to a few yards. It is of course one of the great cycling challenges and regularly features on the Tour de France.
The lower slopes are a sea of lavender and where there is shelter from the Mistral other crops are grown. There are fruit orchards and olives, and of course vineyards. The wines used to be called Côtes du Ventoux. Today the name has changed to Ventoux and it is very much a part of Rhône.
The Romans were possibly the first to grow grapes here; they saw the benefit of planting at slightly higher altitude amidst the ever-present cool Alpine breezes. There was a time when co-ops controlled all the production and then quality was not always good and prices always below that of simple Côtes du Rhône.
Things have changed. The climate is warmer and vintages here are more consistent. And the level of winemaking shows more skill and greater confidence.
Suddenly, too, there are a whole load of growers. The Ventoux has become smart. The fashion has brought higher prices (but not for all). A lot of Ventoux is sold to the Negoce – including Jaboulet, who make a very good wine at a very reasonable price. We are now buying from Château de Valcombe, which is excellent and which will feature in the 2010 Rhône opening offer.
The Society’s 2010 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon opening offer will be published next week.
One of the most challenging and interesting privileges of the buying job is to go out to Burgundy and taste a vintage from barrel in October, buy the wines and make an assessment of the vintage. October to December is the time when most buyers go to Burgundy to taste from barrel the wines of the main domaines and négociants of the Côte D’Or.
Last October I was tasting the superb 2010 vintage after a year in cask. A few wines are already bottled, mainly whites, but most are still in barrel or tank awaiting bottling usually January to March 2012. However, it is not without its pitfalls.
In theory, October is generally a good time to taste. Ideally the crucial secondary fermentation, the malolactic (hereafter malo) fermentation, will have taken place in spring.
Before the malo, wines are very difficult to judge, especially red wines, although the worst time is during the process itself where the reds can taste metallic and all sorts of buttery and cheesy aromas can occur in the whites as the malic (the sharper appley acidity) is transformed to the lactic acidity (the milder milk acidity). Then frequently for a couple of months after the malo the wine will not taste well. The aromas and the flesh of the wine seem to disappear leaving a hollow shell.
Temperature is one of the crucial factors required for the malo to take place. The process normally takes place as the temperature reaches 16-19ºC. Given Burgundy’s more continental climate, it is quite cool at vintage time (when the harvest is mid-September and global warming doesn’t mess it all up) and after the wines have finished their alcoholic fermentation they are sent to barrel to rest in the autumnal cool of the cellar and it is not until spring arrives that the temperature rises to the necessary level.
It has now been discovered that the traditional empirical Burgundy view that a six month delay between the two fermentations is beneficial for red wine, helping to soften the astringent nature of the tannins. It had long been held as controversial by the Bordelais. As sulphur blocks the fermentation none is added, and the men in white coats, the oenologues, considered that the wine is potentially at risk from spoilage yeasts and bacteria during this time. In Bordeaux’s warmer Atlantic climate, and because wines are stored above cellars in chais in the Médoc (because the water table is too high to dig cellars) the malo traditionally takes place in tank immediately after the alcoholic fermentation in October. It can be artificially inoculated to speed the process up. The wine is then sulphured and sent to barrel.
However, in the absence of sulphur, alcohol oxidises to acetaldehyde and this is a catalyst in red wines to encourage colour (anthocyanins) and tannins to form complexes that provide a round and velvety mouthfeel. Tannins not bound to colour are hard and spiky. For a number of years it has been the height of fashion in Bordeaux to delay the onset of the malolactic fermentation and for it to happen in barrel.
In very hot years like 2009 there is little malic acid in the grapes, whereas a cooler year like 2010 will have much more. In the cooler years the wine is transformed by this process and many ugly ducklings have become elegant swans. However, there is a Catch Twenty Two here. The higher acid the vintage, and thus the more beneficial to the wine for the malo to occur, the more difficult it is to start the process.
So that seems clear and fine then! The buyer must arrive in October when the wines will be tasting beautifully after a spring malo. If only it were that simple!
In practice the malo takes place when it wants to. Even in the same cellar in October there can be some wines that went through it early, some late, and some have yet to do it. The process is still only partially understood. Some say a new barrel which has less sulphur residue and allows more oxygen ingress helps the process, others say old barrels carry the malolactic bacteria, and help inoculate the process. Once the malo has finished, the maturation process begins and the wine starts to change. One should really consider a wine’s age and maturity not from the date of the harvest but from the date of the malo.
After the malo each cellar may then proceed quite differently. Some cellars rack from barrel to barrel. In this case the individual character of the barrel is preserved. Some cellars rack all the wine into tank and then back into barrel. In this case the barrels have been assembled and should taste similar. Some, like Jean-Marie Fourrier do not rack at all, which means his wines have more carbon dioxide in the wine, which can cut the richness of the wine, but against that the wine has been left to enrich itself on its lees without disturbance. Some add more or less sulphur at this time which can ‘bleach’ the flavours from the wine, which may require 6-8 weeks to recover.
Principally for this reason, I do not pay too much attention to assessments of Burgundy between one and six months after the vintage. In this media age we are all being pestered to give instant opinions but, in my view, it is very dangerous to assess a wine before malo as they can totally change character. A famous agent Russell Hone describes the 1993 red Burgundies as ‘performing a backflip’ after malo. It was very harsh and metallic before malo, softened appreciably after it and is now considered a great vintage.
Thus when one arrives in a cellar and before tasting one of the first questions to ask is when the malo, or malos took place, and were the wines racked afterwards, and in which case were they assembled in tank or racked from barrel to barrel. Now one can begin to assess the wines before you and make allowances if necessary for the blessed malo!
The Society’s opening offer of 2010 Burgundy will be available in late February.
On Monday evening 100 members and their guests were treated to a wonderful tasting of Fonseca and Taylor’s Ports, presented by the MD of The Fladgate Partnership Adrian Bridge, aided and abetted by The Society’s Port buyer Mark Buckenham. Adrian spoke with great enthusiasm and clarity, also fielding the numerous questions, many coming from interesting angles, with aplomb. This 319-year-old company is certainly being expertly steered through the 21st century with Adrian at the helm.
Five wines from each house were tasted, in pairs. As an experiment 140 character tasting notes were tweeted as we tasted (which engendered both positive and negative feedback with some enjoying the interaction and joining in the banter, while others felt bombarded by too many tweets – we’re still learning when it comes to social media).
The 140 (max) character notes, complete with stylistic errors, went as follows. Caveat: These are of course my own personal, spur-of-the-moment, tasting notes.
Taylor ’70 More heat of alcohol, more structure than Fonseca. Still beautifully mellow. Leather, tobacco and soft red apple skins?
(NB, both of the above will be available on our November Fine Wine List, priced at £135 per bottle)
Taylor ’85 savoury in character, edgy, nervy, bitter orange prevalent. Prunes and dates on finish.
Fonseca Guimaraens ’98 Rich violet nose. Smells like teen spirit! Rich chunky smooth black fruit. Pontefract cakes.
Taylor Vargellas ’01 table wine, rather than fortified, nose – light, structured, delicate berries and chammy leather.
Taylor 2000 – upright, edgy, mineral, damson, licorice, structured, delicious, tannins need to soften. Tight (the Port, not me!)
09s have a light gunpowder tea aroma about them. Mineral edge. Fonseca immediately softer on the nose than the Taylor.
Both 2009s rich on palate, Fonseca still showing more velvety texture. Deeper. Spirit hidden by bags of fruit. Taylor has finesse.
It was an excellent evening drinking some glorious Port wine. If anyone else would care to comment below with their own notes and opinions, whether you were present or not, we would be most interested to hear them.
Head of Tastings & Events
The weather in the mountains is always changeable, sometimes dangerously so. In two weeks in the Haute Savoie this summer we saw the extremes of 32.5C – the hottest we’ve known it – and well under 20C, as well as storms and torrential rain. On June 1st, more snow fell in 24 hours than on any single day last winter (it wasn’t a great season for snow here, and our local resort closed early, with April temperatures up to 28C).Nevertheless, this was a local first, with children rejoicing in being able to make snowmen with the help of parents much freer than they are in the ski season. Then when the ‘bonhommes de neige’ melted, the Alpine flowers were revealed once again. But the tragic consequence of such a heavy, late snowfall was that thousands of trees, already in leaf, were lost, unable to bear the weight. Under their unseasonal blanket of snow, trees broke and the forest resonated with the cracking of trunks and branches. Many survived but remain bowed, in deference to the extremes of nature.
In the foothills, local vineyards fared far better, as this was not frost but far more benign snow, in a period of cooler weather which helped to slow down development which had been racing ahead following the unusually warm spring.
On a visit to the Loire in June, the normally majestic River was carrying only a third of its normal volume of water. Vignerons here were predicting harvest up to three weeks earlier than a normal year – though none could immediately remember when they last saw one of those!
Richard Mayson has not seen the prolonged heatwaves that persisted in his ‘cooler’ part of Portugal’s Alentejo last summer, and is expecting to pick around ten days earlier. On our Primeurs tasting trips to Bordeaux in April and May we had never seen such verdant vines, and the early fine weather had meant naturally healthier vineyards, with far fewer vineyard treatments necessary. Personnel were being asked to take their summer holidays earlier than usual, in expectation of an early harvest.
Since then in the Loire and Bordeaux, some welcome rain and cooler weather had slowed things up a bit. Then, on 2nd August, Bordeaux was apparently hit by ‘biblical rainstorms’, according to one of our suppliers, presumably alleviating the reported water stress in the vineyards. We are yet to hear of any negative impact, other than to those early holidaymakers.
It’s been a strange year so far, and, as always, the next few weeks will be critical. I’m off to the Loire again at the end of the month to get first impressions of the 2011 harvest, and to Bordeaux mid September. Fingers crossed for the all-important Indian summer.
And if the Mondeuse in the Savoie turns out as well as the 2010 we enjoyed this year, we may need to squeeze in fewer Wine Society cases on our next trip to the mountains.
Joanna Locke MW
Buyer for Bordeaux, Loire & Portugal
Edit: 25th August
I wanted to share a phrase from recent correspondence with one of our producers in the Loire updating us on the situation: All fun and games here as vineyards duck and weave to avoid the storms.
I shall be visiting Muscadet and Touraine next week so I will soon see for myself!
The first of The Society’s two Bordeaux 2010 opening offers is now live on the website, and will be mailed shortly.
We, along with record numbers of the world’s Bordeaux buyers, embarked on this year’s primeur tastings with some trepidation. A second good, potentially great, vintage in a row, with the crop down by as much as 50% in some cases, meant prices might be high again. That has since proved to be the case, with many significantly higher than the earlier fêted 2009.
We were also led to believe that the tastings themselves would be more challenging than usual given reports of record tannin levels. Would the wines have the balance and appeal after such a successful 2009 campaign?
In the event, the best wines have it all. They are ripe and balanced, solidly structured and with all the elements for a long and rewarding future; and they are different in style from 2009. More importantly for us, there are delicious and exciting wines at all price levels.
So, yes, for the Bordeaux drinker, enthusiast, collector, this is a vintage to buy. The Society has, and negotiations have now started at home!
Joanna Locke MW
I returned yesterday from a visit to Bordeaux with Jo Locke MW. While all the hype about 2010 continues, and prices continue to drip, drip, drip slowly out of Bordeaux (click here for details of timings of our 2010 en primeur offers), in Blaye, Bourg, Castillon and Entre-Deux-Mers, concern is for the current happenings in the vineyards rather than the markets.
It has not rained in these parts since February, and growers’ attitudes range from fretting over the lack of water right through to ‘que sera sera’. Those who have older vines with deeper root systems are less worried, as they will likely be reaching right down to the nappe phréatique (water table) but for those who have more recent plantings, these drought conditions are causing some frowns. Driving past the vines bore this out – the older the vines, the healthier looking the leaves. Some of the younger vines’ leaves were visibly wilting. There was one man in particular, however – Thierry Lurton of Château de Camarsac – who was particularly pleased with the wall-to-wall sunshine because of the way he powers his chai (see right)!
Flowering, which last year happened at the end of the first week in June, happened before mid-May! It hasn’t been that early since 1976. Pictured left is a young bunch of cabernet sauvignon at Château de la Dauphine. Hard to believe that we’re not even at the end of May. If things continue at the same pace, harvest is anticipated for 3rd September. It is early days yet, though – watch this space for further news as and when we get it.
Head of Tastings & Events
We are currently putting together a tasty selection of 2010 Clarets at affordable prices that will provide drinkers with plenty to enjoy over the next 20 years. This, our first Bordeaux 2010 Opening Offer, will be mailed and available online in early June.
Our selection of classed–growths will take longer to finalise. We had the first sign of silliness today when Château Beychevelle announced a 22% increase in its price, even though the wine is no better than last year. This is largely because the Chinese market knows the brand and likes the dragon and boat label.
But for drinkers this is a bad buy and we have refused it.
Prices of the more famous, highly priced Clarets are slowly being released. We will judge each wine on its merit and finalise a second offer as soon as we can.