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Guest Column: Alex Hunt

"Assessing a wine en primeur is a bit like an unborn child’s ultrasound scan". Alex Hunt in this month’s Guest Column

Everyone agrees that Bordeaux 2005 will be a vintage to remember, and you can see why. The weather was unusual, the style incomparable, the quality superb, the hype unprecedented and the predicted price hikes petrifying. For me, however, there is a further reason for this vintage making an indelible impression, for it is the first I have tasted from a position of serene independence.

Since my debut with the 2000s, I have tasted to sell. Working for a small merchant meant I was less tied in to big allocations and could afford a reasonable degree of impartiality, but it is hard to avoid a commercial edge colouring your judgment and, in particular, the way that judgment is expressed. Tasting this year with neither a journalistic assignment nor a sales campaign at the back of my mind has forced a shift in perspective; as a first-time bystander, my eyes have been opened to another curious aspect of this extraordinary annual circus.

The really striking thing about the en primeur phenomenon is the way absolute certainty forms like a tortoise shell around speculative assessments. Deep down we all know that tasting these embryonic wines is an approximate business. It can give a useful early indication of the style of the vintage, and allow some basis for predicting where the successes and failures lie.

But when the time comes to sell the wines, or indeed sell a story, it is inconvenient to emphasise just how unfinished they are. Blends can change; élevage can make or break a wine; fining and filtration are distant chores on next year’s winemaking calendar. In 2005, malolactics were late to complete, so many of the wines had only just arrived at first base, panting and sweating, by the time they were tasted. Assessing a wine en primeur is a bit like an unborn child’s ultrasound scan: you can tell if all the bits are there, but it’s hard to say whether or not it will turn out beautiful. And unfortunately, such flimsy predictions are no good if you want hard cash. Imagine this:

Merchant: “This wine might turn out to be really great.”

Customer: “Well, I might give you £300 for it.”

Merchant: “I might send you an invoice, then.”

Or this:

Wine critic: “This wine is probably fabulous.”

Reader: “Brilliant. Let me know when you’re sure.”

Please don’t get me wrong; I think that 2005 overall has huge potential. Having tasted 200-odd of them, it is hard to doubt that it is an exceptionally good vintage. Moreover, the odds are that châteaux with tip-top track records, whose wines impressed in April, will end up delivering the goods. It would be an outrage if the Latour, for example, failed to be anything less than brilliant, given how staggeringly good it seems at this stage.

This year, though, the blissful certainty that the vintage was perfect set in early among the châteaux themselves. This is more than just the glorious Bordeaux hype machine, which has amusingly heralded three “vintages of the century” in the last six years. (And why not? The normally sceptical trade has a happy tendency to run out of salt just as a big pinch is needed, provided they can smell the blood of demand oozing from their customers.) What worries me is that some producers believed their own hype, and thought they were harvesting perfect grapes from which bad wine simply could not be made, rather than intensely tannic, unprecedentedly small berries whose stunning potential would only be revealed with consummate vinicultural care.

It is where châteaux and, to an extent, appellations are still feeling their way that particular caution needs to be exercised. Take the tastings of Margaux and St-Emilion staged by the Union des Grands Crus. In each case the atmosphere among
the tasters was thick with confusion, disappointment and divided opinion. Yet many of these doubts seemed to have evaporated by the time everyone was back home, presumably sucked up by a Boeing air-conditioner on the return flight.

These are communes that are struggling to establish a 21st-century identity. Historic underperformance is being addressed by high-powered consultants, and let me say, lest you think I’ve been brainwashed by the anti-oenologue brigade, I applaud any producers with the guts and vision to try to improve their product.

The problem comes when premature certainty rises like a force-field in the face of the unknown. Many of my fellow tasters and I were concerned that too many Margaux and St-Emilions were over-extracted, over-oaked, over-powerful and overdone. While a nobly-motivated move away from the weak, wimpy wines of decades past, the pendulum has swung
so far beyond the established benchmarks of success that we are in uncertain territory.

These new-school wines taste so very unlike Châteaux Margaux and Cheval-Blanc that we cannot possibly crib from the form book of the greats to work out how they will age. I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, but is now really the time to be acting all macho, pretending you can guarantee their future excellence, when there is such room for doubt?

It is natural to divide en primeur customers into drinkers and investors, but, whether they know it or not, they are all gamblers. How interesting it would be if critics and merchants published, alongside each score for quality, the chances of their having got it right. I certainly felt much more confident in some assessments than in others when tasting this supposedly consistent vintage. Everyone loves a flutter, but at least a bookie has the decency to give you the odds first. Surely this is the least consumers deserve before they place their bets on Bordeaux?  © db June 2006

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