Tasting red wine en primeur is not for the faint of heart or faint of palate.
Wine tasters participating in Bordeaux’s annual spring “futures” marathon go long and go hard. They must push themselves physically and mentally. Tasting schedules can be gruelling, demanding ~14 days of heavy lifting and one hundred plus Grands Crus Classé reps each day. Palate acuity must be finely tuned and ready for the daily endurance test that starts at 8am and often runs until late evening. Intellectual rigour cannot be clouded by late nights with Lafite and Latour.
No question – the primeur campaign in Bordeaux demands the endurance of the Marathon des Sables, the grit of the Hardrock 100 ultra-marathon and the determination of the Tour de France. There are other futures campaigns. But Bordeaux is, without a doubt, the ironman of en primeur. Drinking young Bordeaux wines with their esteemed provenance, structural fortitude and extreme expectations raises the challenge of identifying a winning ($$$) wine to new heights.
Fortunately, I was up for that challenge.
In fact, I was more than willing to “endure” a week-long tasting marathon of the 2018 Bordeaux futures -– the kind and generous award provided to the 2018 blog winners by the good folks at Millésima.
To be clear, I do not count myself amongst the best tasters, not by a long shot. First, I’m Canadian, so humility is baked into my DNA. Second, this was my inaugural primeur tasting. There was much to learn and I was out of my comfort zone.
If the wine critics can’t agree…..
So – arriving on the shores of the Garonne for the launch of the primeurs campaign – or wine futures week – I was a tad intimidated. I’ve tasted many wines in-barrel over the years, but most at a later stage of development, and never the freshly barreled, muscular, tannin-girded wines of Bordeaux.
But as my addiction to the Liv-ex en primeur feed has deepened – a handy dandy investment tool analyzing a wine’s release price vis a vis the top wine-critics’ scores – I’ve noted considerable variance in the scores. In many cases, a 4- 5 point spread. Take, for example, the 2018 Petit Mouton. Leading wine critic Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media scored it a 91 while similarly leading wine critic, James Suckling gave it a 97. Interesting spread. Then there’s Clinet. Again, the Scruge-like Galloni (no disrespect intended) scored it a 91-94; Decanter’s Jane Anson – a 97. Does one critic have more fungiform papillae – aka palate sensitivity than another? Are the evaluation criteria prioritized differently for each critic? Is palate fatigue, a potential barrier? Producer affinity?
Ironically…..okay – perversely, this divergence in critics’ scores was reassuring for this en primeur virgin. If the best palates can’t agree, I’m off the hook. And no one was sitting on their wallet at home waiting for my newbie primeur reviews (see my last post on the 2018 Bordeaux vintage and a 360° review of the en primeur process to understand the important role wine critics play in the pricing of Bordeaux wine). So – with the pressure off – I parked my nerves, and jumped into the fray.
Tasting en primeur wine
The en primeur campaign involves tasting young, in-barrel wines from the previous year’s harvest, wines that have only recently completed the fermentation process. Primeur tasting is all about assessing a wine’s character and forecasting the vintage’s future rewards – the taste profile that will unfold with time and the financial rewards that go with it. But it’s tricky. These young wines aren’t sharing much. They’re like a tightly closed rose bud, with only a hint of their vinous potential on display. It’s these early predictions which make en primeur tasting so darned challenging, testing the palate mettle and intellectual horsepower of the best wine critics out there.
For perspective on how to taste newly-barreled Bordeaux I tapped Ann Sperling, a respected winemaker here in Canada. “Barrel wines are not meant to be enjoyed,” she advised. “It’s early days for these classic wines and right now it’s all about structure. That’s especially true for Bordeaux wines – and Bordeaux varieties grown elsewhere in the world. They’re built for the long-haul.” She offered up some tips: “Give yourself time between each tasting to appreciate the structure, finish and persistence of the wine. And importantly, give your mouth time to create new saliva so you can flush the tannins from the previous wine away. Your palate needs time to process and recalibrate.”
Good advice: … tanned saliva out; fresh saliva in. It’s not a marathon.
It made infinite sense – but I’d also seen our oh-so glorious itinerary…..
Deconstructing Bordeaux Tannin
Of course, Bordeaux is the model world-over for classically structured, superbly balanced and artfully blended wine…. wine that begs for cellar time and generously rewards customers with patience.
I’ve drunk and been schooled on the finer points of Bordeaux so I knew to expect lots of “structure” – the umbrella term used to describe the architectural framework of a wine: tannin, acidity, alcohol, body and sweetness. I also knew from years of “training” to use the wine “grid” – a super-helpful, ‘deductive’ framework that helps makes sense of a wine’s structure, plus other sensory, aromatic and flavour features.
But all that theory was kicked to the curb as I tasted my inaugural baby Bordeaux. First impressions of these barrel wines were – like – “whoa!!!!”
This was extreme wine. I’d honestly never experienced this level of “grip” before. Plus, I was starting with an esteemed, left bank, cabernet-sauvignon-dominant-St Estephe – the most northerly of the Médoc communes, and reputed to be the best example of muscular, cellar-worthy Bordeaux.
So how to describe that sensory experience? Essentially, it felt like my mouth had been hijacked. These were big, spring-loaded, rubbery tannins that vacuumed my tongue, cheeks and gums dry …. especially my gums. It was not about taste – taste would imply bitter and these wines weren’t bitter. This was 100% sensory – a mouth-puckering experience that made my teeth feel squeaky against my tongue.
This experience was, of course, textbook “astringency”. The protein binding polyphenols in these hugely tannic wines were coagulating the proteins in my saliva, messing with my usually “fluid” mouth chemistry, and making my mouth cavity less slippery. That sticky tangled mess of proteins and all that friction created a dry, rubbery sensation – the telltale sign of a well-structured, made-for-the-long-haul Bordeaux.
Cool eh? Chemistry for dummies! (me not you.)
Why so much tannin, you ask?
I have a file ‘this thick’ on tannin behaviour and tannin descriptors – a blog post I’ve been wanting to write for awhile. Young Bordeaux makes for a great case study.
Why so much tannin? For one, cabernet sauvignon’s small berry size and higher skin-to-pulp ratio delivers more tannin per pound than larger berries. Add to that, the 2018 vintage’s heat, drought-like summer and fall conditions, and in some cases – dehydrated pulp …. the fleshy inside of skin that gives you all that good juice. All of these factors combined to produce thicker, tougher skins. Call it a weather defense. Together they created that famous Bordeaux grip – particularly in Left Bank blends.
Careful, gentle extraction was the name of the game with the 2018s.
Indeed, some winemakers say the 2018 tannin index – the IPT or indice polyphenols totaux – is the highest they’ve seen in years, requiring more of a gentle, tea-like ‘infusion’ approach to extraction of pigments, tannins, body and flavour vs the usual punch downs or pump-overs. In an interview with Wine-Lister, Technical Director Nicolas Labenne at Lynch-Bages explained “a normal tannin index (IPT) would be 70, a good year 80, and we’re at 95 in 2018.”
Huh. So perhaps my palate’s reaction to this vintage’s powerful tannins and the resulting wines wasn’t so surprising.
I’m happy to report that as I recovered from my initial tannic shock and tasted more (and more) wine, I was able to get beyond the acute angles of the wine and focus on its other pleasures. In sport, I believe we call this “training”.
Also reassuring was Château Pichon Baron’s technical director, Jean-René Matignon who helped make sense of my Bordeaux primeur experience.
“These are wines of exceptional structure and mystery,” said Jean-René when I had the good-fortune to sit next to him at a Pichon Baron lunch. “This is the pleasure and patience required of Bordeaux. The wine’s tannin will eventually crystallize into something pure and well-knit, but these wines need time to unfold. In 10 years – the window for classic Bordeaux – the wine’s tannins will be rich, velvety and mouth-filling.”
(For the tannin curious – you may want to seek out Emile Peynaud’s famous book Le Gout du Vin – or The Taste of Wine. The Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux – has provided the original source material for many Bordeaux and international wine industry practices for the last 40 years, including a complete examination of the science and practice of winetasting. He uses the term “tannin verte” to describe astringency; it doesn’t mean unripe – but rather the green tannin that all young wine has).
Tasting the Nectar of the Gods – Bordeaux 2018
Our itinerary in Bordeaux didn’t involve the ‘Ironman’ pace adopted by Bordeaux’s famous wine critic’s, but it provided a good and thorough workout for my evolving primeur palate.
And what a glorious itinerary it was. Our good hosts Millésima ensured we walked away with a 360° education in wine futures, the classified estates and the key appellations of Bordeaux. The schedule included:
- An introductory tasting of the 2018 vintage at a Unions des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UCGB) launch event with 134 châteaux wines from key grand cru appellations across the Bordeaux region.
- Tasting of 19 UCGB classified châteaux in the Margaux appellation at Château Dauzac – Médoc – Left Bank
- Tasting of 1855 second growth Château Pichon Baron’s 2018 vintage – Pauillac Appellation – Médoc – Left Bank
- Tasting of 1855 second growth Château Cos d’Estournel’s 2018 vintage – Saint-Estéphe – Médoc – Left Bank
- Tasting of Château Fonréaud (Cru Bourgeois) 2018 vintage – Listrac-Médoc Appellation
- Tasting of the Saint Julien Appellation at Château Brainaire-Ducru – Médoc – Left Bank
- Tasting of 1855 fifth growth Château Clerc Milon 2018 vintage – Pauillac Appellation – Médoc – Left Bank
- Tasting of 11 UCGB grand cru châteaux in the Pomerol appellation at Château Beauregard – Right Bank
- Tasting of 23 UCGB classified châteaux in the Saint-Emilion appellation at Château Larmande – Right Bank
- Tasting of premier grand cru classé B Château Canon’s 2018 vintage – Saint-Emilion – Right Bank
- Tasting of 19 UCGB 1959 classified châteaux in the Graves and Pessac-Leognan appellation at Château Carbonnieux
- Tasting of 1855 premier grand cru classe at Château Lafaurie Peyraguey – Sauternes
Early tannin trauma aside, what did I learn from my en primeur “Tour de Bordeaux” tasting?
That understanding the climatic idiosyncrasies of ‘the vintage’ is really at the heart of the primeur experience. The quality of the grapes, the winemaking techniques used to ferment the grapes, the final wine blend, the quality of that blend, the critics’ assessment of the wine, the release price to trade – it’s the annual cycle of wine-making in Bordeaux, with each move determined by “the vintage”. And the famous Bordeaux blend – Bordeaux’s contribution to wine lovers everywhere – is a beautiful generous, gift that gives winemakers flexibility and creative license to take what the vintage provided and showcase the best of their terroir and vineyards to the world.
At the end of the day – the wine in my glass, the structure, the tannin – it all tracks back to Mother Nature’s agenda and the vintage she bestowed on the region.
The end of the primeurs: Vintage 2018 highlights
So how’d it go?
My sense is…. it was a good campaign. The future looks bright. 2018 has been widely praised as a very good to excellent vintage for Bordeaux. The season started off with a great deal of humidity and rainfall – creating mildew challenges and reduced yields for some estates – particularly bio or organic chateaux. But then, magically, in early July Mother Nature turned off the tap. July through harvest proved idyllic for grape-growing with long hot, sunny days.
From a pricing and ROI perspective, there was lot riding on the 2018 vintage. The international trade has not exactly been bullish on buying Bordeaux futures – really, since 2005. Unreasonable price hikes, unsold inventory turned many investors off of buying ‘early’ Bordeaux.
Chateaux goodwill and reasonable, market-competitive pricing was absolutely critical for this 2018 futures campaign to succeed.
With en primeur now wrapped for the 2018 season – most pundits agree châteaux pricing on the 2018s was spot-on. The majority of primeur pricing is at par with the lauded 2016 vintage and priced slightly higher than the mixed-review 2017 release. The first growths – left and right bank – are priced at a premium to 2016. Clearly, this has not been a barrier to sales. Most négociant and trade allocations have sold-through, according to market tracker Liv-ex.
Oh happy day!
I thought I’d key in on a few of the amazing chateaux that hosted Millésima’s group of writers. I’ve selected these both for the magnificent 2018 wines enjoyed during the primeurs, but also for their incredible legacy on the world stage. I’d like to add the brilliant wines of Cos d’Estournel to this list – and our host château – but I’ve already written extensively about this landmark estate. One of our talented winning writers has penned a great piece on Cos that you can see here.
I hope to tell more stories of the chateaux visited, but for now a few wines that will stay with me….
Château Pichon Baron’s 2018 vintage – Pauillac
- Second Growth – 1855 Médoc Classification
- Pichon Baron 2018 released at €114 per bottle (ex-negociant) +18.8% on 2017 and same price as 2016.
- September 24 & 25/2018 – Merlot = 22%
- October 3 – 10/2018 – Cabernet Sauvignon = 78%
- Ageing: 18 months in 80% new barrels & 20% one year-old barrels
- Alcohol: 13%
This iconic, historic chateau drew me in when I visited Bordeaux for the first time in July 2018. The second growth estate has been producing wine since 1694. Situated on a deep gravel terroir with a view that overlooks the Gironde Estuary, Pichon Baron has 73 hectares of vines and with the superb managerial hand of Christian Seeley steering the ship, is firmly positioned at the upper echelons of Left Bank Bordeaux.
The grand vin is the very definition of classic, left bank Bordeaux and all fruit is sourced from the original vineyard. The technical director – Jean-René Matignon has been at the helm of this estate since 1989. He got his start – interestingly – in Canada in 1982, working at Vineland Estates in the Niagara region and then moved west to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.
The 2018 tasting we enjoyed included Château Pibran (fresh, approachable and soooo delicious), Les Tourelles de Longueville (second wine – nice drinkability), Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (black current plus!) and the grand vin, Chateau Pichon Baron…..
Château Pichon Baron Tasting
Chateau Pichon Baron is a bold, intense, powerfully concentrated wine. Purple-black in colour, my first inclination was to get a knife and fork. It’s that dense and that intense. Aromatics include classic mineral notes of graphite lead pencil, warm spice and sun-drenched saskatoon berries (which I spent many a summer picking in southern Manitoba). The palate is full of pure end-of-summer berry fruit –blueberry and blackberry – with a hint of vanilla and truffle. So full-bodied and dense with freshness and powerfully firm tannins that plead for cellar time. The wine is delicious, and offers an amazingly long finish – the sign of a great wine. IMHO – a brilliant case study in classic Bordeaux.
Château Canon’s 2018 vintage – Saint-Emilion
- 1er Grand Cru Classé (1954)
- Canon 2018 release at €84 per bottle (ex-negociant) +27% on 2017
- Canadian/Ontario currency: $219 per bottle at LCBO (we like our taxes)
- September 7 – 27/2018 – Merlot = 72%
- October 2 – 5/2018 – Cabernet Franc = 28%
- Ageing: 18 months in 52% new barrels
- Alcohol: 14%
The team at Canon described the 2018 harvest as exhausting but exhilarating. It took more than a month to bring in all the grapes at Château Canon – a luxury afforded by a sensational harvest. First off the field: the young merlot vines from the Carrieres and Thomas vineyards. The older and wiser merlot grapes from the Côte Nord and Marie Gabrielle followed, and finally the longer ripening cabernets from the Portail Simone vineyard.
Château Canon’s 24 hectares of clay-limestone vineyard, dedicated to the grand vin, stretch to the walls of the delightful village of Saint Emilion.
Château Canon Tasting
What I loved about this tasting was it actually started in the cellar. Our group was able to taste the 2018 grand vin – in barrel – and compare the vintage across two different barrel cooperages. We were also able to compare & contrast the 2018 and 2016 vintages, and taste the difference a couple of years in-barrel makes.
The 2018 Canon that we tasted in the tasting room – is the final blend.
It’s a deep ruby, youthful, opulent, fruit-forward wine that’s lush and fresh. A hint of mint and rose petal aromatics compliment a deep and delicious offering of ripe red cherry fruit. Tremendous palate weight and roundness are supported by smooth, fine-grained tannins. This wine offers a reassuring level of structure – the tannins are definitely present – but it was also one of the most approachable wines I enjoyed. The silky texture is magnificent. The depth of juicy fruit ensures persistence and length. Harmonious, balanced elegance sums it up nicely.
Château Clerc Milon 2018 Vintage – Pauillac
- Fifth growth – 1855 Médoc Classification
- Clerc Milon 2018 released at €60 per bottle (ex-negociant) +19% vs 2017
- Canadian/Ontario currency: $155 per bottle at LCBO
- September 17/2018 – Merlot – 27%, Cabernet Sauvignon – 60%, Cab Franc – 9%
- October 10/2018 – Petit Verdot (3%) and Carménère (1%)
- Ageing: 18 months in 50% new barrels
- Alcohol: 14.5%
This estate was on my radar for a few reasons: first, the esteemed Rothschild lineage (in 1970, Clerc Milon was purchased by Baron Phillipe de Rothschild) and oversight of the estate by Mouton Rothschild’s Technical Director – Philippe Dhalluin. Second – Managing Director – Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy is a legend in Napa where he launched Opus One. And third, they are a “press darling” placing 7th in the My Balthazar research – with only the left and right bank first growths placing higher. I’d always wondered – what is their story?
As it turns out – attention to detail, year-over-year investments in the estate and stellar improvements in quality at every level. Plus, the 41 hectares of vines adjacent to the Gironde Estuary and the proximity to the great first growths of Bordeaux (Lafite, Mouton, Lafleur), tells you something about the magnificent terroir. A mix of gravel and clay- limestone soils, the estate has made responsible vineyard practices, and sustainable winemaking a hallmark of their go-forward strategy.
Château Clerc Milon Tasting
I had the good fortune to taste the Clerc Milon 2018 vintage twice: first at the UGCB Silent Tasting and then again at the estate.
Both times, my notes showed three stars for this grand vin. Aromatic lift helps make this wine memorable. A dark cranberry and purple hue, the wine is thoroughly enticing with fresh notes of violet, mint and graphite. The palate is beautifully layered and lively with ripe raspberry, sweet blueberry fruit, light menthol and cedar spice notes. The silky texture stood out – a full-bodied wine with a palate-pleasing sensuous streak. There is solid structure and firm polished tannins – which makes this a wine for the long haul. A very long finish with complexity that persists.
Also – a few honourable mentions – wines which were (mostly) tasted at the UDGC appellation tastings:
Pessac-Leognan – Château Haut-Bergey – vin blanc – crisp, just lovely
Pessac-Leognan – Château Carbonnieux – vin blanc – crisp, delicious, steely restraint
Pessac-Leognan – Château Larrivet Haut-Brion – stunning floral aromatics
Saint-Émilion – Château La Gaffelière – Cab Franc was singing to me – freshness, silky texture, great balance
Pomerol – Château Clinet – sweet plummy fruit, fine all embracing tannins
Margaux – Château Siran – Purity of fruit, silken texture that was a thing of beauty – so Margaux. Very approachable now….but perhaps a shorter life. Still….
Saint-Julien – Château Gruaud Larose – another beautifully balanced wine with sweet, fine tannins, and a hint of vegetable goodness for added complexity
Pauillac – Château Lynch-Bages – fresh, elegant opulent. Amazingly persistent finish. Great approachability.
Sauternes – Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey – fresh, delightfully indulgent, citrus heaven on earth. A gift.
Saint-Estephe – Goulée – A Merlot dominant, fresh, lively and opulent blend that is truly ethereal. Is it wrong that I keep thinking about this wine….. drinking it in a fishing hut with the salty breeze of the Gironde Estuary blowing in my face helped make it the perfect pairing.