It’s 9 a.m., and I’ve just been poured five glasses of inky purple wine from bottles labeled only with question marks. It’s primeur time in Bordeaux, and I’m sitting in a quiet room in a Médoc château overlooking just-spring vineyards, about an hour’s drive north of the city.
During the primeur week, the top châteaux present their unfinished, unbottled wines from the most recent harvest to wine critics for assessment and evaluation. This helps them determine how the wines will age and their opening prices on the market, as if they were futures. (For more about how this works, see my article Bordeaux Primeurs’ Primer).
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The 118 French and international wine writers invited to this annual ritual are divided between those who taste blind — about two-thirds of us — and those who prefer to know what they’re tasting as they taste it. The blind tasters get the list of producers after they’ve finished; it’s more fun that way. The only clue we’re given by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) — the federation that comprises the 131 top châteaux and organizes these tastings — is the appellation where each wine is produced.
The appellation divisions are geographical, as are the tasting sessions. On Monday, we start with the year’s crop of dessert wines, from Sauternes and Barsac, before moving to the Garonne River’s Right Bank for Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, then back to the Left, tasting and spitting our way up through the Graves area to the Médoc. We end on Friday at Margaux, one of the world’s most iconic production zones. Most of the first-growth châteaux send their wines to the group tastings; others only pour their wines at their château by appointment.
So what’s the point? After all, these are wines that won’t be released for at least another year and may take 10, 20 or more years to reach full maturity.
“The tasters’ first task is to form an opinion about the quality of the vintage,” explains Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University. “Beyond that, the object is to assess the wines of individual châteaux, giving them scores and valuations ahead of the châteaux’ price declarations. The aim is to decide which wines are worth investing in.”
That sounds straightforward enough, but there’s a catch. These are wines in their infancy whose exuberant fruit and often harsh tannins can easily mislead mouths more accustomed to the finely tuned balance between nose and palate of well-aged wines. Tasters trained in Bordeaux have developed ways to judge the wines fairly and objectively.
Bordeaux Primeurs and the secret to wine
“There’s no magic wand: A wine can only become great with age if it was great in its youth,” says Jean-Marc Quarin, an experienced Bordeaux wine critic who writes a successful wine blog and publishes a vast guide to Bordeaux’s wines (soon to appear in English too). “One of the secrets to understanding wines this young is to concentrate on what happens in the palate rather than in the nose.”
His approach is analytical and instructive: If the nose can deceive at this early stage, the experience of the wine once it’s in the mouth — including its structure and impact — shouldn’t lie and can be a more reliable indicator.
“You have to focus on each stage of the wine’s passage through the mouth, from the initial attack, as we call it, to the mid palate and the finish,” he says. “That’s when you can spot the differences between rough and fine-grained tannins, hollow and full bodies, and short and long finishes.” Quarin gives each wine about 10 seconds in the mouth when he’s tasting, and analyzes every sensation carefully to pick out wines whose potential will be fulfilled over time. It’s a complex art, but his method is helpful.
So how did the 2012 vintage fare? The year’s weather conditions were not simple, but some terrific wines were made nonetheless, especially by estates with the means — in financial and manpower terms — to carry out a lot of extra work in the vineyards to counter the erratic climatic effects. This went from removing under-developed bunches in summer to selecting the ripest berries — one by one, if necessary — before the winemaking.
The new president of the UGC, Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, emphasized this ability: “Bordeaux’s viticultural know-how and winemaking skills have come a long way in recent years,” he said. “We are now able to make very good wines even in difficult vintages such as this one, by making choices about how to adapt to the climate’s impact. It takes a lot more effort to produce these good wines, but those who rise to the challenge are seeing very good results.”
Professor Dubourdieu concludes: “Key factors in Bordeaux are our range of soils — from well-draining pebbles to moisture-retaining clay — and our diverse grape varieties: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in smaller quantities. They give us the flexibility in our blends to adapt to the vagaries of the weather.”
Indeed, we found silky Merlots that were wonderfully ripe yet not lacking in freshness on the Right Bank, and elegant white wines in the Graves: This was a good vintage for the whites. As for the Left Bank Cabernets, they varied, but in the terroirs where they achieved good maturity, such as at Haut Bailly, in Saint-Julien and parts of Pauillac and Margaux, they have produced finely textured wines when blended with the sweet Merlots. Many of these wines will be at their best in five to 10 years, so we won’t have to wait too long to enjoy them.
Photo: Bottles for blind tastings. Credit: Carla Capalbo