Tasting En Primeur Wines

In my post yesterday, I stated that one of the most challenging parts of the En Primeur system is the difficulty of tasting wines out of the barrel.  This is really important to understand because a lot of consumers base their purchase of thousands of dollars worth of wine on the tasting notes offered by professionals from Primeurs..

So, today I am going to explain some of the difficulties of tasting barrel samples, and offer some tips on how to barrel taste – should you ever get the chance.

The Difficulties of Tasting En Primeur Wines

Tasting en primeur wines is not enjoyable.   These wines assault your palate.  They are dark purple, incredibly acidic and usually have strong tannins that dry your mouth out.  They stain your teeth purple. They stain your clothes and anything else they come into contact with.  They tire you out fast.  Tasting them is hard work.

The wines are very primary. By that I mean, it is extremely difficult to taste the nuances in flavour that the wine will begin to show as it matures.  Wine, in general, has three sets of flavours and aromas: primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Primary flavours come from the fruit and in Bordeaux the basic primary flavours are cassis (blackcurrant) for the Cabernet Sauvignon based wines and cherry or plum for the Merlot based wines. Secondary aromas come from the vinification process (including barrel aging) and in Bordeaux the primary secondary flavours come from French oak which often add vanilla or caramel. Tertiary flavours come from the aging of wine in the bottle and these are the Bordeaux flavours that many wine drinkers (including myself) covet the most: earth, wood, cedar, barnyard, Asian spice, leather, floral, etc.

En Primeur wines are not even finished the vinification process – they have only been in barrel for 6 months – so it is unlikely (not impossible) for them to have any tertiary flavours.  It will also be difficult to assess the effects of the secondary flavours because they may remain in barrels for up to another 18 months.

On my first visit to Bordeaux, I commented on my difficulties tasting the wines to Christophe Reboul-Salze of the Wine Merchant and the owner of Chateau Gigault and Chateau Les Grandes Marechaux.  He told me that you can only gauge a few simple facts about a wine during an en primeur tasting: the quality of the fruit (is it ripe or unripe and how concentrated is it), the structure of the wine (the acid and tannin, and the quality of the tannins), the balance between the fruit and the structure (is there enough fruit to last until the tannins have precipitated out of the wine as it ages), and the finish of the wine (how long is it and is it pleasant and in balance?).  I have found it to be great advice. Trying to discern more in young wines will lead only to frustration.

This means that you should be really skeptical of any tasting of a barrel sample that reads like this:  “Stunning complex aromas of anise, flowers, and cedar with touch of Asian spice and liquorice.”

Another big difficulty with tasting barrel samples is that there are no standards on how the samples are assembled.  Is the sample pulled only from the best barrels or parcels?  Is the blend the same as the final wine?  You would like to think that the samples that are provided are representative of the final wine – but sometimes they are not.  One Chateaux owner this year (who will remain unnamed because of their honesty) admitted that the blend they were showing did not contain as much Cabernet Franc as the final blend because the Cabernet Franc was not showing well right now.  The final blend may contain 10%-20% more Cabernet Franc.  Obviously, that would significantly change the taste of the wine.

So, in short, when barrel tasting, you are never sure whether you are tasting the final wine and you have to guess what the wine will eventually be like in 10-15 years – when it is only half way through its vinification cycle.  That is not to say that people cannot develop this skill – there are many people who do it well.  It’s just that you should be cautious purchasing wines based on barrel tasting notes: For example, that Margaux Cru Bourgeois I bought in 2005 may never actually end up smelling like violets. . .

That being said – the 2009s are tasting extremely well this year and it is not as difficult as in past years.  In hot years, like 2009, the wines tend to have less acidity and more fruit concentration and generally show well en primeur.  For example, these wines are much more enjoyable to taste than the 2007s which were thin, green, acidic and had mostly bitter over-extracted tannins.  But wines that taste good en primeur should raise a caution flag because you wonder if they will have enough structure to age.

Some Tips of Barrel Tasting

If you ever do get to taste barrel samples here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Dress formal – this is Bordeaux.
  • As always – never wear perfume or other similar scents to any wine tasting
  • Don’t wear a white shirt or light coloured clothing.  It is not unusual to get wine splashed on you during the spitting process – either from your own spit or from someone else in our vicinity who doesn’t know how to spit correctly.
  • Practice spitting before you go.  This is actually quite important.  In the wine world you will be judged on the quality of your stream.  Myself, I am not very good at it – but I am getting better.  At the Primeurs the tasting buckets are very large and communal and often there is a crowd around them – so you want to be sure that you get the wine into the bucket without spraying anyone – including yourself.   Here are the keys: Keep your head mostly upright. Don’t take too much wine into your mouth.  Pucker your lips like you are going to kiss someone. Push your tongue up and seal it against your molars.  When ready – force the wine out of your mouth by bringing your tongue up to the ceiling of your mouth to shoot it out with a little bit of force. Don’t use too much force or you will get splash-back. Practice in your shower before you go.  If you want more info on it – Lyle Fass from the Organic Wine Journal has done a great instructional video on how to spit wine:  http://www.organicwinejournal.com/index.php/2009/04/how-to-spit-wine/
  • Carry a napkin with you at all times to wipe the side of your glass and your chin!
  • Learn the art of balancing a tasting book and a wine glass while you write a tasting note. There is often very little horizontal space to put your wine glass down.
  • Keep a toothbrush in your car (you will have purple teeth).

Happy tasting!

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.

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