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Category: Bordeaux

Challenging and complex: the 2017 vintage in Hawke’s Bay…

Here is one perspective on vintage 2017 in Hawke’s Bay… More will follow on this site. Watch this space…

Two words beginning with ‘c’ sum up vintage 2017 in Hawke’s Bay for Bordeaux oenologist Ludwig Vanneron, consultant to the small Waimarama Estate: challenging and complex. I asked him to share his thoughts on how he responds to heavy rainfall pre-harvest on late ripening  grapes. Here are his thoughts.

“When it’s rainy in Bordeaux, we say it is better to pick grapes more ripe under rain than green (and dry) with sunshine.

“There are actually several factors to take into account: dilution (water makes berries bigger), tightness (compacité) of bunches, risk of burst, split, and rot infection (where it starts, and how fast it grows depending on the vineyard, the plots and the grapes).

“The look,  analysis and weight of grapes can give an idea of the dilution effect. If we must pick green grapes like unripe Cabernet (high pyrazine content), fining, oaky adjuncts and micro-oxygenation could improve the wines.

“Bursting effects and rot infection require high attention and care. Everyday we have to take a look in the vineyard and check how it grows. If it is located only in some bunches, which are very tight, and weather is forecast to improve, then a healthy sort by hand before picking can be done. Then, another problem is the cost, but making good or very good wines in bad conditions is always more expensive.

“Rot infection requires a change to enological practices by taking care of aeration and oxidation effects, due to laccase compounds produced by botrytis. If there is lots of oxidation, mostly from the beginning, as soon as must is free out of the berries, then laccase starts and we lose aromas and colour degradation is more sensitive as well. So adjunctions of specific tanins (proanthocyanidic) are required, and fermentation needs to start quickly by putting yeasts straight into the vats. The goal is to fix the colour, as much as possible, by using other types of tannins and adapted winemaking practices.”

What is the biggest challenge in a rainy vintage when you would like to leave grapes hanging on the vines for longer?

“Our only goal is to make the best wine we can from the best grapes possible. The first point to consider is the work in the vineyard and how the vines were managed during the growing season to maximise healthy ripe grapes.

“Among the keys are: well timed pruning, the spread of bunches from one vine to the next, the removal of young shoots (pampres, in French), the quality of tucking on trellising system (main shoots have to be straight up, no crossing), removal of lateral shoots, leaf plucking, crop thinning, applications of specific products (natural defense stimulators, among others) and timing along with quality of sprays for treatments.

“The type of grapes is important to consider. If red, they may be able to  wait, in the anticipation they could become more ripe, even if the risk of rot infection is high (natural tanins in the berries act like a fence against botrytis attack). For white grapes, we must have a different approach as we are looking after aromas first but rot produces laccase and early fining of must (at settling) helps to create clean juice early, which is a good start for keeping varietal flavours.

“To leave grapes hanging on the vines for longer, the aim is to reduce green characters. Pyrazines are at a higher level during veraison, then they decrease week after week during maturation. Merlot is easier as pyrazines are not as high as they are in Cabernet, and the maturation time required to get ripe grapes is approximately 45-50 days after the colour change of veraison whereas Cabernet Sauvignon’s is 60-70 days. This makes it more difficult to get lower amounts of pyrazines in berries.

How can you eliminate green pyrazine flavours from Cabernet?

“One way is to remove the first leaf in front of the bunches at an early stage (2 to 3mm berry size). Then by doing this practice, you “cut” the factory of pyrazine production, and the level at the veraison time is lower, making easier to reach ripening at the end because we start with lower quantities of pyrazine, so we can expect lower amounts when the grapes are ripe.”

What are the key differences in the winemaking process for Cabernet grapes harvested earlier than ideal?

“The risks are pyrazine and green flavours, including green and harsh tannins. Specific fining like PVPP, the use of micro-oxigenation, combined with external tannins adjuncts (toasted oak chips) and adapted enological practices during the winemaking roadmap will make the wines taste better.”

Will this impact on pruning and crop levels for next year?

“No. Each vintage is different and has its own characteristics. Frost or hail are much more annoying for the years that follow, compared to rain.”

Wines of the week… 17 August

Let’s just say it’s already been a surrounded-by-new-bottles kind of week because it’s only Wednesday and here we are with a best of the bunch blog. It’s no wonder, really. Not only is New Zealand wine one of the first things we see at the supermarket, it’s the sixth biggest export earner for this country – a significant rise from ninth biggest this time last year.

The following wines were tasted alongside a range of other comparable wines, which were all from New Zealand and all relatively new, with some very recently bottled, as the two 2016 wines show.

Chardonnay of the week

2014 Domaine Rewa Central Otago Chardonnay 14% ABV 

Domaine Rewa Chardonnay is made from grapes grown on a 5.5 hectare vineyard at Pisa, a short drive north of Cromwell in one of Central Otago’s most sun drenched grape growing sub-regions. This Chardonnay highlights what I believe is the strong potential in Otago for high quality whites, due to this wine’s rich flavours, full body, fresh vibrant (high) acidity and balanced creamy softness. Lingering flavours of ripe citrus, nectarines and white peach add to its appeal. www.domainerewa.com

Biodynamics is a philosophy of growing plants sustainably, which includes, among other things, planting, pruning and harvesting according to the phases of the moon. It also includes no systemic sprays, such as herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or pesticides. 

Top Pinot Gris

2016 Jules Taylor Marlborough Pinot Gris 13.5% ABV $23.99

There’s a reason Jules Taylor Pinot Gris keeps appearing on the wine lists at the Gypsy Tea Rooms and The Elbow Room – two small but busy neighbourhood wine bars in Auckland. This Pinot Gris consistently rates highly (with me) for its intensely fresh flavours of subtle white fleshed fruit, such as white pears, white peach and lychees. It’s dry with refreshing crispness and a medium body, all giving it a strong lead on many of its competitors. This is a very good wine with 3 to 4 years time up its sleeve, but why wait? It tastes great now. www.julestaylor.com

Disclaimer: I select the wines for both the Gypsy Tea Rooms and The Elbow Room wine bars in Auckland.

Sensational Sauvignon 

2015 Alluviale Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Hawke’s Bay 13% ABV $23.99

Hawke’s Bay winemaker Ant McKenzie bought the highly revered Alluviale brand earlier this year (2016) and has launched this wine recently, which brings his love of Bordeaux’ best to bear in this dry, fleshy, crisp white wine, which is pale in colour with intense aromas of lemon grass, lime juice, green apple and brie, thanks to the 14% portion of barrel fermented Semillon, which is nicely balanced by the crisp 81% Sauvignon Blanc and the 5% Muscat Blanc, which adds an aromatic je ne said quo. Not only stunning wine but outstanding value for money. www.alluviale.com

Best orange wine

2015 Aurum Organic Amber Wine Central Otago 13.5% ABV 

Lucie Lawrence is a French winemaker who married a Kiwi viticulturist and settled in Central Otago where she makes a trickle of the region’s best Pinot Noirs – and dabbles with 60 cases of this orange Pinot Gris. It was fermented with wild yeasts on skins (hence the orange hue) and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The wine is bone dry, with high (but balanced) acidity, and a light creamy influence adding softness. If rose is your thing, try this adventurous organic amber wine. aurumwines.co.nz

Best newcomer 2016

2016 Jules Taylor Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $ 23.99 13% ABV

Juicy, fresh and brand spanking new, this intensely tropical tasting Sauvignon Blanc shines the spotlight on the freshest wines on the market in this country right now – 2016 whites. It’s a super fresh sunshine-in-a-glass style of wine with tropical fruit – pineapples, papayas – a medium body and long finish. What’s not to like. www.julestaylor.com

Top Central Pinot Noir

2013 Domaine Rewa Central Otago Pinot Noir 13% ABV

Pinot Noir is the grape that occupies 80% of Central Otago’s vineyards, and this one is made from a single vineyard at Lowburn, just north of Cromwell. All the grapes in this wine were hand harvested and destemmed prior to fermentation, which keeps the dark fruit flavours to the fore while 8.5 months in French oak softens its youthful vibrancy so that each sip is a silky experience. A delicious newcomer made in small quantities, which puts the country’s southernmost wine region’s best foot forward. www.domainerewa.com

 

 

Bordeaux en primeur – time for a change?

This essay was originally written for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma, which I have studied since 2014 and nearly completed. It is republished here by request from a fellow student.

Controversial, convoluted and complex, en primeur is a simple French term with an extremely complicated meaning.

The words en primeur are French for ‘in youth’ and are a wine trade term for selling wine as a future investment before it has been bottled.

The system has been in existence since the late 20th Century, but the practice dates back to the late 16th and 17th centuries in various different forms of trading wine before it has been made.

There are many regions in the world where wine is sold as ‘futures’ and the buyers pay in advance of receiving it. The most famous are Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in France; parts of California, Australia and Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.

The subject of this essay, however, is Bordeaux; a region in which en primeur sales are now highly controversial because of steep price rises of up to 700% in the past 25 years1. This means that demand now outstrips supply, there are counterfeit wines on the market and waning interest in Bordeaux en primeur. Astronomic price rises have often been apportioned to the influential United States lawyer-turned-wine critic, Robert Parker, who began scoring wines out of 100 in 1978 in his publication, The Wine Advocate. En primeur already existed at the time but when the 1982 vintage came along and Parker rated it highly, it began a rapid trend of speculative wine buying, which drove prices up, initially by consumers in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Japanese and Chinese also began buying Bordeaux en primeur. Prices have now risen so high due to the increased global demand and the nature of the en primeur system that most wine collectors can no longer afford to purchase the best Bordeaux wines.

It has been suggested that a case of 1980 Petrus that sold for £130 in 1981 would now be worth £30,0002.

Has Bordeaux en primeur now outlived its purpose? Or does en primeur remain a crucial part of the annual fine wine calendar in Bordeaux, albeit one that is changing?

In this 2800 word essay, I examine en primeur as it stands and look at the recent departures – permanent and temporary – from it. I look at possible changes that could benefit Bordeaux and encourage positive evolution, as is healthy and normal in any living body3 (Peppercorn, 1982).

The history of en primeur

En primeur is a relatively recent system4 (Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, 2006), but its origins stretch back to the late 1600s and 1700s.

One of the earliest mentions of selling Bordeaux wine5 in advance of bottling was in 1620 by the Dutch Negociants, Beyerman (www.TheCellarInsider.com). The wines purchased in advance of bottling at this time were bought sur souche; the grapes were still hanging on the vine. The Beyerman negociants were followed by other early negociant firms such as Nathaniel Johnston, Schroder and Schyler and the Lawtons.

At this time, the Bordeaux chateaux tended the vineyards, made the wine and placed it in barrel but the negociants blended the wines, bottled and aged them at their cellars on the Quai des Chartrons in Bordeaux. It was not until the 1920s that wines were bottled at the chateau.

This began when Baron Philippe de Rothschild took over Mouton-Rothschild in the early 1920s and proposed the radical change to bottling grand vin on site at the chateau (Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, 2006)6. He convinced the other first growth Bordeaux chateaux to follow suit and bottle their own wine too. This involved initial investment but paid high dividends by lowering the incidence of fraud and raising the quality of the wine. It also provided Bordeaux’ first growth chateau with a new cachet on which they could pin that quality; authenticity. These wines are labelled mis(e) en bouteille au chateau7 (The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, Oxford, 2006) and their makers can show that they have grown the grapes, made the wine and bottled it; providing a guarantee of control from the vineyard to the wine glass.

This radical qualitative change became compulsory in 1972 for the classed growths of the Medoc and also, generally, for the more important properties properties of Graves, St Emilion and Pomerol8 (The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

When futures trading in Bordeaux wines began in the 1600s and 1700s, many of the region’s landowners did not wish to trade directly with foreigners because of wars between British and France. This created the need for middlemen; known as courtiers. They brokered deals between the British and the French, often travelling long distances to negotiate prices. The couriers were French and their travel enabled them to develop a detailed knowledge of the vineyards as well as forge strong relationships with land owners. They earned a brokerage fee for their work and they later devised the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, which was based on their detailed vineyard knowledge. Courtiers matched the supply of the landowners to the demand of the negociants who bought the wines. This trade grew fast because Bordeaux was a busy and powerful trading port in the 17th century. The first negociants were Dutch and English.

The significant recent history of Bordeaux begins in the 1970s with Robert Parker’s 100 point scoring system. This, coupled with the rise in popularity of Bordeaux fine wines in the United States in the 1980s, saw prices rise rapidly. The en primeur prices rose again in the 1990s when Japanese wine buyers discovered Bordeaux and in the early 2000s when the Chinese began to purchase it. The unprecedented popularity of the best Bordeaux has now created a situation where price has outstripped supply and counterfeit wines have become rife.

How en primeur works

En primeur wines are not sold when they are ready-to-drink. They are sold as unfinished wines, which are still maturing in 225-litre oak barriques. Their taste changes significantly from barrel to bottle and, based on this, the spring tastings of en primeur from barrels are increasingly viewed as a poor guage of quality and style by a number of well known, wine critics, including Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson9 and Tim Atkin10, among others.

The first link in the annual en primeur chain is the annual spring tastings of the Cru Classe for the trade and media in Bordeaux. The most sought after wines are predominantly red, many of them still going through malolactic fermentation when tasted. These wines are still maturing in barrel to soften the characters that enable them to be long lived, cellar-worthy wines – their high tannins. Top quality sweet whites with barrel aging and botrytis (aka noble rot) are also included by some producers in the annual en primeur.
Critics at the en primeur tastings comment on the wines and many award scores, which are published swiftly and followed immediately by pricing fixed by the chateaux, which is sent as a first offer to negociants. This is called a tranche; a proportion. Each subsequent tranche rises in price but the chateaux are obliged to offer each tranche to all negociants at the same price, regardless of quantities purchased.
If a negociant does not purchase in one year, they risk losing their allocation the following year and thereafter. The buyers then wait two years to receive the wine, when it has been bottled. Shipping costs are invoiced to the customers prior to sending them the wine.
The process involves price increases from the chateaux to the brokers to the negociants to the consumer. The consumer only sees the final price.

Advantages and disadvantages of en primeur

Price was once heralded as a key reason to buy wine en primeur. The theory was that by getting in early, a wine collector or investor would secure the best price. This is only of relative merit today because en primeur prices are higher than they have ever been.

In a good vintage, such as 2005, the average price rise of cru classe Bordeaux sold en primeur was 68%11 from the previous year and 93% of the wines available sold. By contrast, just 74% of the wines sold in 2004.

Demand drops in less well regarded vintages, which is reflected in less buoyant sales. Despite difficulty in selling their wines in a lesser vintage, many chateaux are reluctant to drop their prices.

This means that great vintages of Bordeaux en primeur can be an excellent investment for those with money to pour into fine wine but investment in wines from poor vintages can lead to large losses for those who invest heavily.

Wine collectors who once enjoyed buying Bordeaux’ best wines to drink are now largely excluded from the en primeur market, unless they are extremely wealthy.

This roller coaster of prices is one of the biggest criticisms of en primeur, particularly because the wines tasted from barrel in an unfinished state can at best be only “hazy approximations”12 of what they will taste like when bottled. This has led to the criticism that en primeur wines tasted in the spring following vintage are “notoriously difficult” to make accurate assessments on13, in terms of both quality and style.

This contributed significantly to the departure of Chateau Latour from the en primeur system in 2012. Latour director Frederic Engerer14 said he decided to stop selling his wine when it was unready to be properly assessed or drunk because he wishes to sell Latour when it is – in his opinion – properly marketable. This decision was a response to growing consumer demand for wines that are ready-to-drink after being aged in optimal conditions – rather than wines that are too youthful to drink.

Sweet wines are also part of the en primeur system. The most sought after is Chateau d’Yquem, which was first offered en primeur in 1999 at “a relatively modest price to kick-start interest in Yquem as a whole” by Yquem director Pierre Lurton, who has said that there were considerable stocks of unsold bottles in the cellars.”15.

Three years later, in 2012, Lurton, announced that he would release the 2011 Yquem at a “more suitable moment” than en primeur in 2012. This has heralded a three year hiatus from the annual Bordeaux en primeur campaigns for Yquem, which Lurton describes as temporary. Unless the wines are exemplary, he says he does not wish to promote them as early in their lives as en primeur demands.

Another radical change took place this year when Alfred Tesseron, the owner of Pauillac fifth growth Chateau Pontet-Canet, decided to release his 2013 ex-negociant “before almost anyone had tasted it”16.

It has been suggested that Tesseron’s decision was a self serving tactic “to get the wine out before anyone scores it” 16. But Tesseron set the price at the same level as the 2012. Such an evolution to the en primeur system may one day be welcomed rather than condemned.

The current en primeur system enables wine collectors and investors to purchase some of the great red and sweet wines of the world. It provides steady cash flow for Bordeaux’ most highly regarded chateaux, which have grown accustomed to receiving payment for their wines early in their life cycle and have established their business models around this system.

En primeur can also be helpful to wine investors because it provides them with access to many of the great wines of the world prior to their wide release on the market, by which time the prices rise even higher than throughout the en primeur tranches.
En primeur only provides a platform for the top 5 to 10% of Bordeaux wine. It overshadows and excludes other wines of Bordeaux. The Conseil Interprofessional du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) is the professional body of the Bordeaux wine trade and in 2010, it announced its aim is to improve the quality and reputation of generic Bordeaux wines.

Lag time

A major drawback to the current en primeur system is that the customer must wait two years to receive the wine and then pay additional costs relating to shipping in order to receive it. In times of recession, part of the commercial chain of supply may fail, so the consumer may never receive wine they have paid for. When such high prices have been paid for wine, the ultimate enjoyment of the wine can be forgotten, as has happened to many bottles of Yquem, which were once described as being “like a protected monument – everyone admired it but nobody drank it.”17  

 

 

Alternatives to en primeur

Why does en primeur work this way?
The British retailers Berry Bros & Rudd are the largest buyers of cru classe Bordeaux in the UK and have been trading for 300 years. Their website18 says that en primeur works this way “because it always has.” But it has been suggested that this system now needs radical change13, possibly by putting the current cycle back by a year to enable the wines to integrate, mature and be completely finished wines rather than barrel samples when they are tasted and rated.
This would enable the critics and trade who taste the barrel samples to make more reliable judgements. Given the price of the top Bordeaux, reliable judgements are more essential than ever and not possible to make when the wines are tasted in such a youthful state19.
If the commentary and scores were made on finished wines rather than barrel samples, the price might be a more accurate reflection of the wine quality. But because the wines are tasted so early, they do not communicate an accurate idea of how they will taste when bottled. Because demand for Bordeaux has outstripped supply, the price has ceased to be a direct reflection of quality. There are many other countries where high quality, Cabernet-based and Merlot-based reds – and sweet – wines are made, without the high prices of en primeur Bordeaux.

Conclusion

Bordeaux en primeur has become a victim of its own success. The global rise in popularity of great Bordeaux over the past four decades has seen a radical departure from what it was initially intended to be: a high quality wine to enjoy drinking.
Instead, today’s en primeur system fuels the fire of wine as an investment from which to profit financially. Wine is not able to be a permanent investment in the way that art, for instance, can be. Unlike art, which can accrue value for centuries, wine will be opened and consumed one day. The value of independent critic’s ratings are compromised, if the wines are not in a suitable condition to be tasted, such as they are as barrel samples.
These dichotomies are at the heart of the current debate about Bordeaux en primeur. The 2012 departure of Chateau Latour from en primeur and Chateau Pontet-Canet’s early release in 2014 both shine the spotlight on these weaknesses in en primeur as it currently stands. Inadvertently or not, they both open the door for others to follow their lead.
I think that the Bordeaux chateau owners should consider selling their wines two years following vintage, evolving the en primeur system in this way. This would not destroy their reputations. It would enable the chateaux to acknowledge their greatest strength; that the muscular tannins and powerful flavours of young Bordeaux reds need time to come into their own before they are ready to drink. This is one of the strengths of the best cru classe Bordeaux; their great aging potential.
The debate between retaining a system that has already begun to change and actively encouraging that evolution is like watching a child torn between two households in a separated family; it is conflicted and does not know which example to follow.
The consequence for Bordeaux is that it could lose its foothold as world leader of ultra premium wines in a similar way that Champagne has now been eclipsed in global sales by the more affordable Prosecco.
Change could refresh the image of Bordeaux and the region’s system of selling its best wines. The en primeur system runs the risk of appearing staid and backward, if its producers hold onto the past and ignore the potential for evolution. The meteoric 700% price rise seems likely to backfire one day, given the rise in quality of great reds from other wine regions in the world, which are now growing in stature.
The owners of the cru classe chateaux in Bordeaux have the potential to forge a new path forward for selling their greatest wines, which could also allow the lesser known wines at lower prices to shine.
With history dating back to Roman times, extremely highly regarded wines and demand currently outstripping supply, Bordeaux has many great strengths.
I believe that the chateau and the negociants owe it to themselves – and to the wines that they make and trade – to encourage evolution in order to retain their position as world leaders.

 

Bibliography  

1 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.

2 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.

 

3 Peppercorn, D., 1982. Bordeaux, 1st ed. Faber & Faber.

4 The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edn, Oxford, 2006.

 

5 Bordeaux Wine History and Description of the Wines, Jeff Leve, 2010. www.Thewinecellarinsider.com, accessed 10 July 2014.

6, 7, 8 The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edn, Oxford, 2006, p158.

 

9 www.jancisrobinson.com The Bordeaux primeurs circus, 15 Jul 2005 by JR, accessed 14 July 2014.

This is excellent background material for a more indepth essay: “Last April the primeur (cask) samples of Bordeaux’s 2004s were even hazier approximations to what the finished wines are likely to taste like than usual, and that’s saying something. The harvest had been one of the latest in memory. The wines were stuffed with tannins. The winter and spring had been cold, so cold that some malolactic fermentations were still uncompleted and the wines in cask had evolved at a snail’s pace. And yet more than 4,000 otherwise sane people flocked to this busy city in south west France to see whether these wines were worth buying as futures a good two years before they are likely to be delivered.”

 

10 Bordeaux en primeur: the case for change, Tim Atkin MW, Off Licence News, June 2011. www.timatkin.com, accessed 14 July 2014.

11 Jane Anson, ‘New Bordeaux – En Primeur Prices’ (2013). http://www.newbordeaux.com, accessed, 12 June 2014.

12 www.jancisrobinson.com The Bordeaux primeurs circus

15 Jul 2005 by JR, accessed 14 July 2014.

13 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.

14 www.decanter.com, 2012 Chateau Latour to leave en primeur system by Jane Anson, accessed 16 July 2014.

15 www.decanter.com, Chateau d’Yquem: producer profile by Stephen Brook, 28 March 2014, accessed 16 July 2014. Also sourced information from The Drinks Business, 2012 Yquem to skip en primeur this year by Rupert Millar. www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2012/06/yquem-to-skip-en-primeur-this-year, accessed 20 July 2014.

16 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.

17 www.decanter.com, Chateau d’Yquem: producer profile by Stephen Brook, 28 March 2014, accessed 16 July 2014.

18 www.bbr.com, En primeur, Top 3 Reasons to Buy En Primeur from Berry Bros. & Rudd, accessed 14 July 2014. (As an aside, Berry Bros & Rudd include the shipping costs in their prices, but exclude taxes.

19 Harpers, 2014 Why Bordeaux en primeur isn’t working by Tim Atkin MW, www.timatkin.com/articles, accessed 12 July 2014.

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