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Bordeaux 2019: Thoughts on grading itinerant tasting samples

The Bordeaux 2019 en primeur campaign is now well underway. By the end of this week, in all likelihood, all of the first growths (or at least all of the first growths that continue to play the en primeur game) will have released their wines. And, for the most part it seems, they will have been well received.

But this is a most unusual en primeur campaign. One of the strangest features of it is that many of these wines will have been released in advance of the publication of the critical acclaim (and, of course, the all-important scores) of the international wine press. True, a new ritual seems now to be emerging in which leading critics (notably Lisa Perrotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate and Jane Anson of Decanter) release their scores for specific wines on, respectively, the eve or dawn of the release date itself.

But that notwithstanding, most wines released to the market to date in this campaign, lack the usual armoury of critical notes, scores and appraisals which have conventionally informed both release prices and consumer judgements about relative value. It is tricky, for instance, for Liv-ex to calculate a fair value index for a wine when its evaluations are, as yet, unknown.

The principal reason for all of this is, of course, the exceptional global public health crisis that forms the immediate backdrop to the campaign – and the resulting reliance of international wine critics, most of whom have been unable thus far to travel to Bordeaux, on tasting samples sent or couriered to them by the châteaux themselves. This, of course, applies to me too – though, for what it is worth, and just to be clear, I prefer to think of myself as a commentator and appreciator of these wines rather than a critic (an important distinction that I will come back to later). Critics score; commentators seek to understand and to describe as best they can what they seek to understand (here, about the personality of a young wine).

Returning to the question of samples, a whole host of issues and questions, above all for the consumer (though to some extent also for international merchants and brokers too) are raised by this new reliance on mobile samples. They need to be aired and debated. This short piece is as much an attempt to draw attention to these issues as it is a contribution to resolving them.

So what are the issues here? They are closely inter-related but, for me at least, they concern the quality, variability and availability of samples. Together, they raise concerns about the reliability and even the value of critical appreciation and, above all, scores as guides to the purchase of wines in this vintage.

The first thing perhaps to say here is that none of the following can or should be taken as a critique of those châteaux who have chosen to send out samples, just as it cannot and should not be taken as a critique of those who have chosen not to. I am, above all, extremely grateful to each and every château that has sent me samples. I have been and continue to be privileged to receive them. But I am also extremely understanding of the carefully thought through and, invariably, entirely legitimate reasons of those who have chosen not to do so. These are not simple choices. Understanding why, I think, helps us understand the far from optimal character of the current en primeur campaign.

Of course, there is nothing unusual about critics tasting samples. En primeur has always relied on the international wine trade and international critics descending on Bordeaux to taste more or less representative samples of unfinished wines drawn from the barriques of the leading properties. In some cases those samples are of the final assemblage (or blend); but in many other cases what is presented to the critics is an ‘approximate’ final blend, produced solely for the en primeur tastings themselves.

There have always been questions, concerns and suspicions about the representativeness of such samples, especially when the blend is an estimation of the anticipated (but still yet to be confirmed) final blend. The more cynically minded have invariably drawn attention to the opportunity for mischief. Might not châteaux benefit from presenting subtly different samples to different critics with known (or perceived) preferences for this or that – greater or lesser extraction, more or less tangible oak presence and so forth? They have typically also suggested that the barriques from which the en primeur samples are chosen are likely to flatter somewhat the quality of the final wine. If barrel A simply tastes better, at this stage, than barrel B who could resist the temptation to draw the en primeur samples disproportionately from it?

Maybe. As it happens, I am not especially cynical. The evidence is very limited and invariably both anecdotal and historic, where it exists at all. That won’t convince the sceptic; and it is not really intended to do so. My point here is not about the ‘normal’ practice of tasting of en primeur samples (problematic, for some of these reasons, and many others) though it may well be.

My point is about the far from normal – and far from optimal – tasting of samples that we are all now engaged in.

Here, again, it is important to be crystal clear. I am not suggesting that there is a better way to conduct en primeur this year. The circumstances do not permit normality. But what I am suggesting is that we need to be very clear about the sub-optimal character of the en primeur tasting that is now going on. Above all, as critics and commentators, we need to take the responsibility for sharing our dilemma and our concerns with those for whom we write, who typically have no chance of tasting these wines before they decide whether or not to buy them.

An en primeur sample is a fragile thing. The clock starts ticking the moment the sample is drawn from the barrique. With every passing moment the sample degrades; though the rate of degradation varies greatly – depending on the wine itself, the specific barrique from which it is drawn, the preparation of the sample, the enclosure used to seal the sample and, above all, the conditions in which the sample is stored, the distance it has travelled, and the time it has spent in transit before it is tasted.

A week may be a long time in politics; it’s an eternity in the life (and demise) of an en primeur barrel sample. Yet an impressive (if that is the right word) proportion of barrel samples arrive a week after they were drawn. Some of them are fine; others are not.

Indeed, even that is a gross simplification. For, if you think about it, it is simply impossible to know if and to what extent the sample one tastes is genuinely representative (still) of the barrel from which it was drawn. Clearly, the older the sample, the more likely it is to be flawed; but relative probabilities can never give us certainty.

I typically reject 5-10 per cent of the samples I receive as damaged in some, often very minor, way in transit (or simply by having been out of the barrel for too long). Those wines I will not and do not comment on. Where it is crystal clear to me that the sample is damaged I notify the château – not least so as to explain to them why it is that a note will not appear in my article. Sometimes, of course, they send a replacement sample – and, typically (though not always), those are better.

But in many cases, I am simply not 100 per cent sure. In those cases, I reject the sample, delete my note but don’t inform the château (note to self – perhaps I should). The point is that deciding whether a sample is good or not is just another of those highly subjective judgement calls in a process based on a succession of highly subjective judgement calls.

I think my readers and our readers deserve to know that. They need to hear something from us about how we share the risk, with them as consumers and, indeed, with the chateaux who generously provide us with the samples we taste.

But what exactly is that risk? Put most simply it is that we taste and evaluate the quality of the sample as much as the quality of the wine itself. And that brings me to a final point. That risk is compounded by scoring and grading. The problem is bad enough for me and I don’t give, and never have given, scores to the wines I seek to describe (or at least, not scores that I share publicly). But what moves the market are scores. Notes are read and largely forgotten; scores leave market traces. And scores, when it comes to Bordeaux 2019 en primeur samples, and certainly for those reliant on long-distance itinerant samples, are potentially quite problematic. Treat them cautiously.

Colin Hay is professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of La Place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally. His Bordeaux 2019 coverage will continue with a series of appellation profiles in the coming weeks.

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