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En primeur samples: translation or sorcery?

A recent article in Le Monde featuring an interview with one of the highest profile Bordeaux consultant enologists appears to have finally lifted the lid on an activity that some of us have suspected for at least 20 years, namely the practice of preparing samples for en primeur tastings which are not representative of the wine in the actual cellar.

It would seem that such suspicions are justified, for the consultant in question admitted that many of the samples being presented might not be true reflections of the wines that will end up in the bottle.

More remarkably though, he seemed to be defending the behaviour on the dubious reasoning that it was now standard practice in order to render wines easier for merchants and writers to taste at this early stage of their development.

This rather smacks of a brassy attempt to pre-empt any possible whiff of scandal being generated by such revelations. But the dolling up of samples (and the consultant actually used the word “poupée” here) looks likes deception and the statement as an attempt to justify dishonesty.

We have always known that the Bordelais have stronger commercial instincts than their Burgundian counterparts, but this might seem to be stretching things a bit far. As with the famous “dodgy dossier” concerning the WMD of Saddam Hussein, the purpose of “sexing up” something is to deceive, to make people believe something that is untrue, in this case we might say to swallow evidence that is fallacious.

The logical conclusion is that responsible merchants will want to avoid being fooled into buying en primeur on the basis of doctored samples and will wait until they can taste the real wine after the bottling. At a time when Bordeaux has been losing a number of its traditional friends with pricing policies that are perceived by many to be greedy and out of touch with the realities of the marketplace, any more bad publicity is not exactly what it needs.

It is perhaps unsurprising then if any interrogation on the subject of prepared samples is met by a wall of silence, and not just in Bordeaux, but also in the UK trade. The 2012 vintage has been a hard sell for the most part so the last thing the industry wants to find is any more bad news on the plate. But if Bordeaux wants to stem the growing tide of disaffection, it needs to become rather better at respecting the intelligence of its actual customers, instead of attempting to pull the wool over their eyes by seducing them with meretricious make-up in place of the genuine article.

We hear that some estates prepare one sample for an American critic and quite a different one for an Anglo-Saxon, thereby appealing to a taste for opulent fruit bombs laced with toasty vanillin from new oak as opposed to the more discreet austerity of what many would regard as typical Bordeaux. In some cases, however, we can assume that no distinction has been made with the origin of the tasters in mind.

One notorious example of an en primeur sample featured the 2003 wine from a top Saint Emilion vineyard that provoked lively disagreement at the time, from the wild enthusiasm of the transatlantic tendency who considered the wine to be the very apotheosis of great Bordeaux to the horror of conservatives in the traditional camp who regarded the wine as a grotesque exaggeration that had more in common with vintage Port than classic claret.

The good news is that the wine in question, once safely in bottle, began to taste as one might normally expect, any exotic character being attributable to the extraordinary heat of the year in question rather than to any special tricks in the cellar. Only those responsible are in a position to vouch for the honesty or representative nature of the samples presented prior to bottling.

The fact is the doctoring of samples is neither justifiable nor necessary. By the spring following the vintage the wines will have been racked sufficiently to allow for a professional taster to make a reasonable, albeit incomplete assessment of the wine at that early stage of its elevage. Sadly gone are the days when one could walk into a chai and be invited to taste from any barrel of one’s choice. There are very few places where such liberty is permitted today as the normal form is to be ushered into a tasting area where the wine is poured from a bottle, which would obviously simplify the process of serving specially prepared samples if so desired.

It would seem that the stakes have become so high that owners of leading châteaux must resort to anything that may help them steal a march on the opposition and help to guarantee their price and consequent status in the hierarchy. The likely casualty in this process would seem to be any proper respect for terroir and for their professional clients.

Incidentally, since Saint Emilion’s reclassification, we can now see the verdict of the actual market on the sharp price rises put in place by two of the promoted estates. Instead of an ugly rush to acquire cases of these jewels, the response to their opening price was tepid at best, strengthening the perception of arrogant château owners being out of touch with the realities of the marketplace.

Jacques Boissenot, that experienced and respected consultant to so many of the top Médoc estates, has suggested in the past that some owners seem to dream of a certain style of wine, one that matches the ambition and flatters the ego, if necessary at the expense of any reflection of terroir. The “garagiste” movement, mercifully shortlived, or at least in what I hope to be terminal decline, was an aberration that perfectly illustrated this egotistical approach to winemaking at the expense of nature and authenticity, with its focus on over-extraction and an obsession with concentration at the expense of finesse.

“L’homme toujours derrière le vin, jamais devant” (“man is always behind the wine, never in front of it”), advised Jean-Claude Berrouet, for so long the man at the helm of Pétrus. That motto must appear curiously outmoded to some of today’s proprietors who would seem to see themselves in the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice rather than a translator of terroir. It is thus easy to see why sexed-up samples make such clear commercial sense to them.

I can only hope that another remark from Berrouet may prove to have been an exaggeration: “Seduire a tout prix est devenu le règle” (“seduction has become the rule, at whatever cost”). But I will give the last word here to Dr Johnson: “Truth, sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”

This article originally appeared in the drinks business’ July 2013 issue.

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