Le Cercle Rive Droite Tasting

March 29, 2010

Millesimes Warehouse
Grand Cru Classe stacked in the Millesimes Warehouse

This tasting of wines from the Right Bank was held at the Grand Barrail Hotel in St.-Émilion.  This is one of my favourite tastings of the week because the vast majority of the wines are not the usual suspects (the Grand Cru Classé wines) and it includes wines from many of the smaller appellations where good value wines can be found, including: the Cotes, Lalande de Pomerol, and the St.-Émilion satellite appellations.

Overall, the wines were very good.  It is hard to describe the character of a vintage after a single tasting, but I would say that this vintage is characterized by pure fruit, seemingly sufficient acidity, soft or silky tannins, and higher than normal alcohol levels.  All in all – these are very good wines – but, I am concerned about two things with this vintage.  First, some of the tannins may be too soft.  Few of the wines had the characteristic tannic attack that comes with tasting en primeur wines, and most of the wines taste good now, which means that this vintage may age faster than expected.  In all fairness – this tasting did not have representation from many of the top Chateaux, and, it may be that the structure I am looking for shows up at the Grand Cru Classé tastings later in the week. Second, I am concerned about the creeping levels of alcohol in Bordeaux.   As many of you know, I am a huge fan of mature Bordeaux in the 12.5% range, and I wonder, as the alcohol levels rise every year, whether Bordeaux is playing a dangerous game with its distinctiveness.  In 2009, wine makers did not have much of a choice, because it was so hot that they had a lot of sugar in the fruit.  But, when given the opportunity to taste a number of wines from the same appellation, as we did at this tasting, I am always surprised with how similar they are. . .

I will post full tasting notes on all the wines after my return from Bordeaux.  But, here are my highlights and favourite wines from each of the appellations that I tasted:

St.-Émilion:   These wines are elegant and beautiful with ripe concentrated fruit and good acidity.  The two exceptions to this description are the Peby-Faugeres and Faugeres which, true to their character, were much darker, concentrated, and bigger than their counterparts.  The Ch. Rol Valentin in particular was very elegant.  Favourite wines: Peby-Faugeres, Ch. Faugeres, Ch. Rol Valentin, Ch. Fleur Cardinale, Ch. Fonplégade and Ch. Barde Haut.  Unfortunately, the Ch. Quinault L’Enclos, which is usually one of my favourites, was just a touch below where I expected it to be in comparison with the other wines.

Pomerol: These wines were bigger, darker and more concentrated than the St.-Émilion’s and showed very well.  More power over elegance here. The La Fleur de Gay especially showed some very interesting secondary aromas and flavours that should evolve over time.  Favourites: Ch. La Fleur de Gay, Ch. La Clemence, Ch. Feytit Clinet, and Ch. Le Bon Pasteur.

Lalande de Pomerol:  This appellation showed the best of the satellite appellations.  On the whole, the wines had lots of colour, body and concentration. Favourites: Ch. Peron Lafleur, Ch. de Viaud, Ch. Tournefeuille, and Ch. La Sergue.

St.-Émilion Satellite Appellations: These wines really surprised with their quality, but as a whole they were definitely a notch below the Lalande de Pomerol’s.  In good vintages, like this one however, they can be excellent value.  Favourites:  I am always impressed by Ch. La Rose Perriere in good vintages and it showed well again. Other favourites: Ch. De Courlat, Ch. Des Laurents, and Ch Guibot.

Bordeaux Supérieur:  Some, but not all, of these wines had ripe fruit and solid enough structure to last for a few years.  The Ch. Tour de Mirambeau was excellent.  The Ch. Thieuley (Rouge) was also good.

Later in the day, I went to the Planete Bordeaux – Bordeaux Supérieur tasting which was held in the storage vault at Millesimes.  Some other Bordeaux Supérieur wines that showed well at that tasting were my perennial favourite Ch. Tayet –Cuveé Prestige, together with Lacombe Cadiot, Ch. Prieure La Fayotte, and Liberty de Ch. Soussac.

What is the En Primeur System?

The En Primeur system in Bordeaux is often referred to in English as the buying of wines “on futures”.  It is not unique to Bordeaux (they also do it in Burgundy and some other fine wine regions), but it has developed to its most prolific and systematic form in Bordeaux.

Under this system Chateaux owners sell their wine while it is still in the barrel.  Negociants (or consumers) benefit because they are buying the wine at it’s the lowest price and/or they are securing allocations of wines that will be difficult to get after the vintage is released. 

The purchasing of wines En Primeur by consumers is a relatively new phenomenon and it has been greatly influenced by the increase in information on the quality of the wines that is available to the consumer.  The more information there is on a wine, the more comfortable a consumer will be to purchase it while it is still in the barrel.  In fact, there is a whole complex institutional structure that has arisen around Bordeaux in order to provide consumers with that information.

Every year the wine press, importers, and professional tasters descend on Bordeaux for the En Primeur tastings.  Even before the tastings, information starts to flow out to consumers about the quality of the wines.  For example, this year Wine Spectator had an initial assessment on the quality of the 2009 vintage published weeks before the official En Primeur tastings began.  Once the experts (read Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, etc.) have opined on the quality of the vintage and the quality of the individual wines – the Chateaux start releasing small allocations of their wine at prices set based on the feedback they are getting. The opinion of the wine critics, especially Robert Parker, has a tremendous impact on the price of the wines.

The setting of the prices is usually a slow and drawn out process.  No Chateau owner wants to go first and risk setting a price too high or too low – and so a dance starts.  Wines are released in small tranches – with the first tranche used to gauge the demand in the market.  If there is demand, then subsequent tranches will be issued at a higher price.

For consumers the most important thing to remember about the system is that its whole purpose is to sell you wine.  So, don’t be surprised when every vintage in Bordeaux is a “great” vintage. Because, even if the summer was poor, “a miraculous September” saved the vintage, or if the growing season was difficult, “the wines were saved in the cellars.”  Also, prices for an individual wine are set by the amount of attention (or marketing/hype) a wine receives and not necessarily by the quality of the wine. It is an institutionalized multi-party marketing machine.

Issues with the system

The biggest issue with the system is that tasting six month old wines while they are still in the barrel and assessing their quality is difficult.  I believe that this is a fact that is extremely underrated by consumers.  That 90 point score may be descriptive of the final wine – give or take a dozen points in either direction. I will post a more detailed piece about tasting en primeur wines tomorrow.

Also, because of the structure of the system, the consumer benefit of buying the wine at a discount is all but disappearing.  En Primeur prices are no longer cheap – in fact, they are quite expensive.  The result is that in great vintages – money can still be made buying en primeur, but in normal vintages, or worse, bad vintages – it is possible to have bought wine at en primeur prices that are actually higher than the prices the wines are eventually sold at in the market.  The 2007 vintage may provide us with an example of this.

Another issue is that very few Chateaux in Bordeaux benefit from the system.  In order to sell en primeur there needs to be enough information available on your wine to enable consumers to purchase with confidence.  Since very few of the wines in Bordeaux are tasted and reviewed by professional wine critics, only a few hundred Chateaux of the thousands in Bordeaux can sell futures effectively.  This is a compounding factor in the increasing divide in Bordeaux between the haves and the have-nots.  There are a few extremely successful Chateaux that sell their wines at extraordinary prices and then all the rest of the winemakers in Bordeaux who struggle to survive.

Conclusion

Buying futures is a gamble and its one that I am personally not willing to take – often. The only reason that I buy wines en primeur is to get an allocation of wines that will be difficult to get after the vintage is released.  I believe that the most effective way to buy Bordeaux wines is to wait until they are ready to drink and then pay the price the wine commands at that time.  In recent years, this has been a good strategy.  Because of the rising prices of wine futures in Bordeaux, it has been possible, over the last few years, to purchase a 10-15 year old bottle of a wine at a price less than the price the wine is being offered for as a future.  It is ready to drink, no storage required, and no risk – provided that you have tasted the wine before purchase or have a trusted source who has recently tasted the wine.

2009 Vineyard Report

The 2009 vintage is being hailed by some commentators as a ‘mythical’ vintage – one that will rival the 1982 vintage.  While that remains to be seen, and we will only know for sure 10-30 years from now after the wines have aged to their full potential, there is no doubt that the growing season in Bordeaux was excellent last year – providing the potential for excellent to classic wines.

Winter: Winter conditions were ideal with lots of cold spells and intermittent periods of rain.  The cold helps to eradiate disease and reset the vegetative cycle of vines.  The rain allows the land to store moisture for the rest of the year.

Spring: Spring came early and allowed a quick and even flowering.

Summer: July had alternating heat and humidity which allowed good development of both the bunches and the foliage.  August was hot and dry. 

Harvest: September had cool nights and hot days which allowed for a slow maturing of the grapes.  There was much needed rain mid-month – otherwise the vines would have been under too much stress.  Harvest was relaxed and lasted until Mid-October.

Early Assessment of the Vintage

Bordeaux Vins Select believes that the vintage could be mythical.  Here is how they concluded their December Vintage Report:

“Purely by analysing the year’s climatic conditions, we can already say that everything points to an exceptional vintage. Having visited many chais on both the Left and Right Banks during the harvest, we can attest to the fact that the grapes were gathered in incredibly good condition. The work in the chai however remains critical for any vintage and the technical teams worked as hard and as well as required even though the richness of the must has not been equalled since the 1982 vintage.”

“The wines for this year are rich in density, fruit and freshness. The PH, whilst being slightly higher than in other vintages remains sumptuously balanced. The roundness of the tannins and the succulence gained from a few weeks ageing makes us think more and more that this could be a mythical vintage. No two vintages are ever alike in Bordeaux – something that adds to the diversity and complexity of our region. Nevertheless we can begin to compare the 2009 with the 1982 and 1989. Some amongst us have even mentioned the 1947; despite our long experience, our memories don’t quite stretch back that far.”

The information in this report was taken from the Bordeaux Vin Select 2009 Vineyards Reports and Updates.

Blogging from Bordeaux

Welcome to the Bordeaux blog – a great source for current information about Bordeaux wines.

I am currently in Bordeaux for the 2009 Primeur Tastings. 

This vintage could be a great one, and so to keep you up to date on all the latest news and developments, I will be providing daily updates on the tastings as the week progresses, as well as general information about the people, the places and the wines that are Bordeaux.

I hope you enjoy the information. 

Michael Cody