Anthony Rose: 'En primeur is a funny old game, but when it works, both consumers and the wine trade benefit'
Saturday 23 April 2011
Late for Lafite. I swing into the gravel driveway of the Pauillac first-growth château at half past noon. The place is a morgue. All week, elbow room in Bordeaux is at a premium thanks to the thousands of trade and press visitors thronging from around the globe to taste the new vintage. Lafite, though, along with the global travelling circus, is out to lunch.
Château Lafite is the only one of the Famous Five first growths I don't get to taste. I console myself with the thought that at £4,500 a case last year, and probably £5,000 when the prices of the 2010 vintage are revealed in the coming months, I'd only be tasting investment product anyway.
There's a disproportionate amount of focus on Lafite and the two-dozen-odd châteaux whose wines will be snapped up by Chinese billionaires and investment funds. It's natural, because the top wines are a measure of the quality of the vintage as a whole and act as a yardstick of price for the many hundreds of château wines that trail in their wake.
At this stage, the wines are raw, unfinished and therefore imperfect barrel samples. Yet the press is required to pronounce on a snapshot in time with tasting notes and scores. Bordeaux then decides what to charge when it releases its wines in a couple of months.
En primeur (unbottled samples of the new vintage, delivered once the wine is in bottle) is a funny old game, but when it works, both consumers and the wine trade benefit. We win by paying less now than if we bought the wine once in bottle and on the shelf; the château wins by banking our dosh early.
This only works in practice if the vintage is good enough to make the gamble worthwhile. Hence a week of mastication, expectoration and cogitation. Word at the start of the week was that this would follow 2009 as another great vintage. If so, it would be a rare occurrence indeed. In the last century, only 1928/29 and 1989/90 qualified as great "twins".
For a supposedly great vintage, Bordeaux is afflicted by a rare attack of sheepishness. "It's an embarrassingly good vintage," pronounces Bill Blatch, one of the region's most respected négociants. When an honest producer like Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan tells you it's a "once-in-a-lifetime vintage", his words also have a ring of truth.
Ultimately the proof, or evidence at least, is in the tasting. Unfinished young Bordeaux is hard enough work as it is, but 2010 is tougher than usual. Extreme weather conditions – drought in particular – produced wines with an exceptional concentration of fruit, tannin and acidity. In contrast to the opulent 2009 vintage, 2010s tend to be richer, denser, stronger and fresher, with even greater ageing potential.
They are more uneven, though. Cabernet sauvignon, which predominates on the Left Bank, is often better-proportioned than the Right Bank's more alcoholic merlot. The dry white wines, meanwhile, are deliciously vibrant, sweet Sauternes – lively, but not quite the success that Bordeaux is trumpeting.
So yes, 2010 Bordeaux may well take its place in the pantheon of greats. The best news, however, is, as négociant Mathieu Chardonnier of CVBG says, "There will be some tremendous values in this vintage".
That's what I aim to examine once prices emerge. Only then will we have a better idea of where the best values lie.
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