It always strikes me that everyone seeks to create a sound bite about a vintage; everyone seeks to encapsulate a year's work by nature and the winemakers within four or five words.
It always strikes me that this only succeeds in creating misleading headlines which do little to highlight what has actually been achieved in the vintage.
No single statement can possibly cover what every individual estate has achieved each year. When Robert Parker labelled 2005 “the greatest vintage of the last century”, does that mean every wine from Bordeaux in 2005 is stunning? The answer is “Of course not.” In every vintage you will find some great wines to enjoy and the question we should be asking each year is not, “Is it a good vintage?” but rather “What is good this year?”
Many stories and rumours spread about vintages before anyone has really had the chance to taste and compare notes. The UGC tastings are when your wine merchants and journalists go out and earn their pay and the trust of their customers. When we taste, it is not about us coming back each year and telling customers everything is great and they should buy anything we offer, it is about us coming back and saying you should buy these wines for these reasons and this year you should not buy certain wines because they have underperformed or are overpriced. (Overpriced will certainly be an issue this year with the exchange rate between Sterling and the Euro in its current state).
I made the trip to Bordeaux this year with our Buying Director, David Round MW. Below is a brief diary of our travels in Bordeaux (Full review and tasting notes will be out later in the week):
Monday 31st March, 2008
Early morning flight from Gatwick at 0755 means you get to see the English wine trade at it's best, staggering around seeking strong coffee and in some cases a large fried breakfast in preparation for shooting up the Medoc to begin the tasting marathon.
David and I began our day with a spot of lunch at Pauillac's new restaurant ‘La Salamandre' where many negociants and a lot of the hierarchy from local Chateaux were mee David Round and Piers Germanting up. We did not stay long as we had to race off for our first appointment with Jean-Guillaume Prats at Chateau Cos D'Estournel. Huge building works are still going on here a year after they started but they still found time to make some good wines so we were in a positive mood when we set off for Chateau Montrose a short distance up the road. The Chateau changed hands last year and the wines are now made by the revered Jean Delmas, who previously was the legendary wine-maker at 1st Growth Haut-Brion. I am not sure he has really hit his stride at the new job yet but he has a huge reputation to live up to and Montrose is certainly a property where he can do so.
On to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild where we made our way to the tasting room and while the Grand Vin certainly lived up to expectations it has to be said we left a little uncertain about the 2nd wine, Carruades de Lafite and distinctly underwhelmed by Duhart Milon. Next, Chateau Latour – surely the hardest property to enter! The gateman religiously checks his clipboard and your names and I think we can fully expect retinal eye-scans in 2009. The wines here rarely disappoint and this year was no exception. The only wine that did not completely live up to expectations here was the 3rd wine, Pauillac which they do not sell in the UK anyway so it will not be missed. That said there have been other years when it has been extremely frustrating we are not granted allocation of this wine in the UK.
We ended our day at Chateau Pichon-Lalande, now out of the hands of the Lencquesaing family but little has changed. The wines have always had a strong UK following and I am sure that will be the case this year as well.
Dinner that night was at what David Launay of Chateau Gruaud-Larose calls his staff canteen – Le Bouchon Bordelais, located just a minute's walk from the Opera House in Bordeaux. Judging by the number of people crowding in to try and secure a table this has obviously become a restaurant to keep in the diary.
Tuesday, 1st April 2008
If you are going to start a day well, you could not do much better than First Growth, Chateaux Margaux. Arriving early we had just four of us in the chai with Directeur, Paul Pontallier. It was refreshing not to hear him trying to tell us that in its own way, this was one of the property's greatest vintages. Instead he admitted it was not a great vintage but that he believed with the difficult conditions they had succeeded in creating a good wine. We certainly agreed with him and would not argue with his comment that “the purity is exceptional” in the Grand Vin. The white Pavillon is also a revelation and should be quite sought after in this vintage when white wines have been a great success – M. Pontallier considers Pavillon Blanc 2007 one of the finest yet made.
Next at Chateau Palmer where a television crew seemed intent on filming us at the most unattractive moments such as spitting into the spittoons. Certainly Palmer has struggled with the vintage and rather like Margaux the results are good rather than exceptional. To round off Margaux we made our way to Chateau Lascombes to try the rest of the wines at the UGC tasting. I have to be honest and say that it was possibly one of the more disappointing tastings, The appellation has obviously struggled with the vintage. Exceptions were to be found of course, Chateau Kirwan and Rauzan-Segla to name a couple.
The UGC Médoc tasting at Chateau La Tour Carnet was next on the way. This is usually a tasting where you can taste a plethora of Crus Bourgeois within half an hour and be on your way. But this year was different since our host was Bernard Magrez, the owner of about 30 wine estates around the world (it was rumoured last week that he has even bought a vineyard in Japan).
Mr Magrez does not believe in doing things by half and the moated Chateau is looking immaculate. Hordes of attractive ladies are on hand to ensure you have everything you need and the tasting itself was not disappointing with quite a few good ‘drinking' clarets to be found. It seemed that a larger crowd than usual was gathering around midday and the reason was soon abundantly clear – lunch was being served in an adjoining marquee. Not just any old lunch, but a three course extravaganza prepared by 3-star Michelin chef Michel Guerard. David and I adjusted our schedule and decided to eat here rather than make our way to St Julien for the more usual bread and paté to be found at other tastings!
Feeling rather well-fed we motored on over to Chateau Pontet-Canet in Pauillac for the UGC tasting of the wines from the appellations of St Julien, Pauillac and St Estephe. We were delighted to find that winemakers here had managed to overcome the difficult conditions and there were plenty of good things to be found. Certainly my notes will be recommending a few of our old favourites here.
For the afternoon we had a series of appointments at the important local Chateaux, starting with Ducru-Beaucaillou, where M. Borie continues his practice of having guests led around by young ladies in riding boots and jodhpurs to give you the impression you are an extra in the Bond movie “Moonraker”. The incongruity of his art collection in this beautiful Chateau also adds to the feeling that Bruno Borie and his wife are very keen to make their own mark on this estate. The wines at Ducru did not disappoint and we drove on up the road to Leoville Barton.
Lilian Barton runs an open house for the week and between conversations you have the opportunity to taste a range of wines from this and previous vintages. Anthony Barton popped across and confirmed what we were feeling – the wines this year will certainly be drinking earlier than their predecessors of the last couple of vintages but there is some good drinking to be had – surely it will be a relief not to have to wait 15 years before pulling a cork on your 2007 purchases!
Next we paused at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild where they remain uncertain that much of the wine trade are still mobile by this time in the day and insist that you are driven around in golf carts even though you could probably cover the distance in much the same time on foot. The style at Mouton has changed over the last few vintages and I think it is much for the better, I can certainly recommend the 2007.
It is then a short drive to meet Francois-Xavier Borie at his home, Chateau grand Puy Lacoste. Here one tastes Haut Batailley and GPL, both of which have performed well in 2007.
Back in Pauillac we had a private tasting with Jean-Charles Cazes at Chateau Lynch-Bages. Following in the footsteps of his legendary father, Jean-Michel, could be considered a burden but he carries it well and we thoroughly enjoyed the wines here. Jean-Charles also kindly pulled out the Blanc de Lynch-Bages 2007 for us to try and that will certainly be a wine to buy if you can get your hands on some – it will also be packed in six-bottle packs from now on.
Last appointment of the day was at Chateau Léoville Las Cases where we found M. Delon's Pomerol property, Chateau Nenin had produced some very good drinking for the near future. And what of the Grand Vin of Las Cases and it second wine, Clos du Marquis? I think both of these will appear on many shopping lists this year as they are both strong performers for the appellation.
After a long day where we tasted well over 150 wines, it seemed time to head back to Bordeaux for a well-deserved dinner.
Wednesday, 2nd April, 2008
We managed to arrive on time for my 9am appointment at Chateau Haut Brion. We were met by both the winemaker, Jean-Philippe Delmas and owner, Prince Robert of Luxembourg. Demand for these wines will be strong and with the Grand Vin only making up 43% of the production there may not be that much to go round.
It is worth mentioning that 2007 will be the first year that the second wine is named Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (rather than Bahans) thus making it a landmark vintage for the property and collectors.
Motoring on to Chateau Larrivet Haut Brion, we tasted the wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan. As rumoured there are some great white wines here but I would not go so far as to say they are great across the board and some careful selection will be required here. The reds definitely need a careful selection of what should be considered here – there are a few you need to avoid.
Pomerol and St. Emilion are frustrating visits as so many different estates have fragmented into organisations other than the UGC so it is a trial to get round them all. We did somehow manage it and then were able to enjoy two of the premier properties of the regions: Cheval Blanc and Ausone – Cheval Blanc has produced it's first vintage of the adjoining property, La Tour Du Pin, acquired from the Moueix family in August 2006. Chateau Ausone's Alain Vauthier makes very little of his wines but it is always good – there is certainly nothing negative to say about his 07s. So is the Right Bank the hot spot for wine in 2007? I think there will be far more shopping in the appellations of St Julien and Pauillac but there are of course exceptions to be highlighted.
Thursday, 3rd April 2008
Our last day and it was back up the Médoc to Margaux's Chateau Desmirail where the estates of Barsac and Sauternes were showing their wares. There had been good rumours about the vintage and I was not disappointed – everyone will want to tuck one case away this year especially as some of them are so affordable.
It only remains for me to get back to the UK and begin writing up the H&H Bancroft review of the vintage with David Round. In it I will not seek to summarise the vintage with a phrase but instead answer the question, “What is good this year?”
I hope I will have it ready to send out by the end of the week!