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The En Primeur Tastings: 2002 Vintage

By John Salvi

The en primeur tastings have become a long distance course, which makes the Medoc Marathon look like a 100 yards sprint. This year I received 29 invitations to 29 different tastings of all the appellations in all the wine regions all between 31st March and 4th April. Had I been able to do them ALL I would have had to taste over 400 wines per day!

The major five-day event is still the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tastings (UGC). They were the founders, movers and shakers of all these en primeurs and remain by far the most important, the best organised and the most serious. They take pride of place over all the others even though some of the others are very fine.

This year their organisation, once they had accepted me as a journalist (which took something of a struggle), was slick, generous and comprehensive. The UGC tastings were in fact superb which is perhaps more than can be said for most of the 2002 vintage.

Let us look briefly at the conditions leading up to the vintage, as I have always believed that weather shapes the wine and gives it its structure. The winter was dry. From October 2001 to the end March 2002 311mm of rain fell (statistics taken at Villenave d’Ornon in the Graves) whereas the average over the last 25 years has been 556mm (1004mm in 2000/2001). 1988-89 was the last time it was drier (301mm).

October was hot, November and December were cold. January, February and March were above average for temperature (+1.6°C, +2.6°C and +2.2°C respectively). Budbreak was early (this is important), end March thanks to this warmth.

April was dry and warmer than usual but with cold nights and some frosts. Warm days even topped 20°C. Budding was abundant which promised a large crop. May had average temperatures but was wet (20 days rain), especially at the end of the month. This wet weather coming so close to the flowering was certainly responsible in part for the COULURE or “shatter”, especially as end May was particularly fresh.

June was very hot (+2.9°C above average for the month) and relatively dry. This naturally supposes a good flowering but overall or average figures can be misleading. A more detailed look shows a hot dry start to the flowering, and then as it developed the weather conditions worsened.

From 4th - 11th there were 27mm of rain and the thermometer never got over 15°C. Better from the 11th- 20th, but again the 21st - 30th was both cool and rather wet. Flowering was therefore often perturbed, became heterogeneous, and progressed slowly and with coulure. There was also millerandage especially on the old Merlot vines and those that were virused. Cabernet Franc was affected but Cabernet Sauvignon hardly at all. It was very hard to fix an exact date for mid-flowering — probably about June 7th which is similar to 2001. This date is important as original estimates of the vintaging date are based on it.

To a certain degree the coulure turned out to be a natural form of green pruning, allowing good healthy grapes to ripen, especially for the Cabernet Franc. July was cool and only moderately sunny and relatively dry. Three-quarters of the rainfall was from 1st - 10th.

August — and now we come to the rough stuff — was both wet and cool. Rainfall varied hugely from place to place, which make these generalisations difficult. For example the rains on 19th and 20th varied from 5mm - 70mm depending upon locality. Where the rains were heavy some berries burst and some botrytis appeared. Cool weather fortunately helped keep this in check.

Those who read my article “Preview of the En Primeurs” will have seen the September weather in detail. Until 9th September it continued poorly as in August. Ripening was slow, botrytis developed. From 9th things changed radically. Dry, hot sunny days but cold nights with winds from the Northeast, which is unusual for September. Grey rot was stopped, maturation continued slowly but surely. The wind concentrated the grapes. In some cases berries shrivelled but rarely whole bunches.

Grapes were very close to ripe when on September 20th a short, sharp, violent storm, in some cases with hail, crashed down. Hail damage in some places was very serious forcing growers to pick at once without waiting for further ripeness. Again hugely irregular, the storm rain varied from 5mm to 80mm from place to place and the hail was very spotty.

Then it dried out, and for the most part the wind prevented a new attack of Botrytis. From this time onwards conditions were favourable, dry and clear, and those who wanted could pick more or less ripe grapes.

Must weights were high thanks to this concentration by the wind, and in some cases this caused fermentation problems. Acidity levels were high, thanks partly to the concentration and partly to the less favourable July and August conditions, and again in some cases this delayed the Malo-lactic fermentation, which made it difficult to assess the wines and therefore delayed the assemblages (blending).

So what did all this give us in the end? What was the quality and what are the characteristics of the wines? That is what this article is really all about if you have managed to plough through the weather!

As far as whites are concerned there are good regular Sauvignons of decent quality, not perhaps exceptional or particularly vibrant. These were generally picked from around 10th September. Fruity, fresh and fairly intense. There is less regularity in Semillon whose picking was finished later, but of course there is not a lot of 100% Semillon wine in Bordeaux.

It is without any doubt a Cabernet year, which of course favours the left bank (Medoc) and at last it is therefore a Left Bank year. Merlot sometimes lacks its usual vigour, grace and charm and goes to prove that it is a grape that does not much care for excessive ripeness or very late picking.

The right bank learned an important lesson. It is not always good to extract too much during the fermentation, especially when the quality and composition of the grapes do not really allow for it, and also when the wines are destined to be drunk young, say within three to four years.

Also perhaps in a year when a famous American wine writer chooses to use the political situation as an excuse for not coming to Bordeaux, and is therefore not there to give high marks to highly extracted wines! A lot of wines have huge, hard tannins which are rather bitter and which I feel may never be able to truly soften and velvetise.

After the first major tasting of the wines of the new group “Rive Droite” the palate was thickly coated with furry tannins that took 24 hours to get rid of. It was a situation of good juicy fruit trying hard for freedom of expression and being covered, blocked and silenced by more powerful tannins. This is in no way a reflection on the excellent, dynamic, well organised and forward thinking “Rive Droite” group.

It was a year that demanded a great deal of work in the vineyards but also a great deal of hard work by those endeavouring to taste and assess the wines. It is a difficult and complicated vintage, and in order not to use the overworked expression “year of the vigneron” it would be better to say a “Year for experience”, a year in which it was essential to know every plot of one’s vineyard, every vine and its quirks, and the way it would react to the difficult weather conditions. It was far from a year in which to work by the rulebook.

For these reasons the great success stories of 2002 (and there are a number as we shall see) were made by our most experienced and talented winemakers who picked a skillful path through the maze to bring in ripe and healthy grapes, and who used flair and “feel” rather than rules and regulations.

On the Rive-droite there are still too many Rolland/Parker style wines, which put power before elegance, but less it would seem than before. A lot of new oak was used, which given the vast amount of natural tannin in the wines, was totally unnecessary and added to the hardness and bitterness.

Happily also perhaps less than before which is a good sign. The tastings on the Monday, which was in some cases the first day, were a little perturbed due to the fact that many samples had been drawn on the Friday and were already tasting a little reductive

A lot of change is taking place in winemaking methods. More and more producers are doing ”cold prefermentation maceration" for anything up to 15 days in a few cases. More people seem prepared to bottle without fining or even filtering or both. If the wine is going to be exported the producer must be very sure indeed of the stability to take this course. More people are carrying out delestage rather than remontage.

The fine “Vin de Garage” Chateau Valandraud admits freely that it was a Cabernet year and that his wine is more austere than usual — he vintaged 10th October. In the final analysis there are a few truly splendid wines but indeed they are few. They belong to our great winemakers regardless of locality. The tastings of the Union des Grands Crus sorted the men from the boys, and those men were highly experienced men. Many wines lacked charm, mainly due to these hard tannins.

Many of us played a game of “Find the fruit”. We also played at “who has good tannins and who has bad tannins?” and “guess the polyphenolic index?” In many cases in Bordeaux this index was an all time record. The UGC fielded 87 journalists from all over the world in five groups. The English contingent was important and included many of the top names in wine writing. For that reason there should be plenty of other reports on the 2002 wines available and some may be more generous than mine, although I think it is fair to say that we were all more or less of a same mind — decent but not exciting! The UGC wined us well, dined us well, looked after us well, but could not change the wines for us!

Bordeaux was hoping that on tasting the 2002 vintage in depth, the press and therefore the trade and the public would be impressed and modify or change their extremely lukewarm pre-impressions. This did not happen. The situation is difficult here. Few people seem interested in buying en primeur this year except for a handful of famous names.

This is because firstly they have a lot of stock, some of which like the 97s are proving hard to move. Secondly they do not feel that it is a vintage in which they have to invest and are suitably relieved. Thirdly the political situation, whether or not one feels strongly about it, provides a perfect excuse for holding off. So far not many prices have been declared, but unless they are considerably lower than 2001 there may not be any market at all.

Cos d’Estournel have quite cleverly put their second wine on the market first in order to test the waters. My serious advice to would be buyers and investors is NOT to buy on name but only on careful and reliable tasting and advice. If you do that you will acquire a small selection of splendid wines.

Among the finer, well-made and truly excellent wines, the following stand out.

Sauternes and Barsac: Rieussec is head and shoulders above all the rest. Fine botrytis, long, rich and honeyed. I found it hard to see the botrytis in most of these wines although we were told that it was there, and they do not have the weight, elegance and richness of 2001. Also very good are Myrat, Malle, Rayne-Vigneau, Rabaud Promis, Guiraud, Coutet, La Tour Blanche and Climens

Saint Emilion and Pomerol: Canon, Angelus, Troplong Mondot, Pavie Decesse, Conseillante, Croix de Gay, Petit Village, Cheval Blanc, and top of the pile Vieux Chateau Certan. Le Pin is fine but less so that the fabulous 2001.

Graves: Smith Haute Lafitte, Haut Brion of course and with a remarkably fine white. Domaine de Chevalier, Haut Bailly, Pique Caillou and Carbonnieux.

Medoc: As we have discussed, the left bank is the winner this year and overall standards are rather higher. Among those who have truly succeeded are Palmer, Rauzan-Segla, Margaux absolutely (and we are delighted that Corinne Mentzelopoulos has bought back the property from the Agnelli heirs rather than Bill Gates who wanted it), both Leoville and Langoa Barton, Leoville Lascases, Ducru Beaucaillou, Pichon Lalande, Pichon Baron (this is a pleasant surprise), all the first growths of Pauillac (with Lafite very much right at the top and truly a splendid wine), Montrose and Ducru-Beaucaillou.

I do not think that we need to weep yet for the Great Growths of Bordeaux. It is possible that we may be entering a less flourishing period, but any classed growth that has not stockpiled a great deal of financial reserve over the last decade should probably not be in the business at all!

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