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By John Salvi
December 2005

One more year! One more year of “en primeurs” – the buying of “Futures”. A system, which was introduced some 15 years after World War Two, when the world was still famished for wine and particularly for fine wine. It really got under way after the horrible fiasco of selling “sur souche”. Selling “sur souche” or “on the vine” meant selling before the wine was made. Unfortunately for the growers they did this in 1961 and sold the wine at the same price as the mediocre 1960 vintage. As we know the crop then turned out to be just about 1/3rd of an average sized vintage, so that they had not only sold it at a lousy price but had sold far more than they produced. This put an immediate end to the practice.

The En Primeur system then grew and grew and became immensely popular and an “incontournable” event in the Bordeaux wine calendar. Also a fundamental part of Bordeaux’s marketing strategy. Buyers lined up in droves, often far too early for the wine to be really ready to judge, to taste, assess and buy. From a vogue it passed to a rage. The famous names had larger queues than the Stade Bordelaise. Prices soared, then soared higher and soared again. Latour carelessly revealed that the profit margins were greater than any they had ever known in their long history. Buyers haggled with each other to swap exchange and even rebuy in order to try and get their desired quantities of the wine in question. Much of it was already committed to their regular customers. The better names were on strict quotas. The “En Primeurs” tastings became the pride and joy of Bordeaux.

Unfortunately the wine of many of those sought after names became a commodity for trading at ever higher prices regardless of the tasting note that they might have obtained. The advent and rise of the great Robert Parker exacerbated the furore.

Then, more recently, things started to slow down. Buyers began to feel that prices were outrageous, especially when Bordeaux made the mistake of increasing the prices in a year which was less good than the previous one. They also found that they could get great wines cheaper in Burgundy. The warmth went out of the campaign and buyers started to accuse those Bordeaux wine proprietors of being both greedy and arrogant. A comment, made by a leading light of the Union des Grands Crus and very much a leading Chateau owner, is given here in a verbatim translation – “Si nous allons dans le mur autant aller les poches pleines” – “ if we are heading for a crisis at least let us go into it with our pocket full”. The list of the sought after wines at the En Primeur tastings slowly dwindled. Today there is hardly a single Bourgeois wine left on that list and VERY few Chateaux that are not 1st, 2nd or 3rd growths.

At the same time Bordeaux began to suffer from the increasing and infinitely more efficient and aggressive marketing from other countries who France dismissively termed the “New World”. Australia was bidding fair to overtake France on the UK market – something that it ultimately succeeded in doing! France itself was drinking hugely less wine and at the same time exchange rates were moving against them. Brussels kept promulgating more and more ridiculous, bureaucratic and restrictive rules and the famous LOI EVIN made advertising, and therefore publicity, extremely difficult. The polarity increased between the small growers, many of whom started to go bankrupt, and the Great Chateaux who continued to live on caviar and Krug 1988! Bordeaux had lost many of its friends due to its excessive greed and unfortunately the small growers of good reasonably priced wine suffered more than the greedy ones. In England buyers were heard to say “As soon as I can manage without Bordeaux I will”. What is more they found that they could. Bordeaux had entered a period of serious crisis.

It is truly very hard to sympathise. We, in the English wine trade, have been warning them that this would happen for all of 15 years. They were like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand so as not to hear the warnings. “Bordeaux is the greatest wine in the world” they said, “you have to drink it, the consumer cannot do without it, only idiots and those with no taste do not drink Bordeaux”. Alas, the world is full of intelligent wine lovers and drinkers, with excellent palates, who find plenty of wines to give them pleasure and satisfaction elsewhere. The premise was false as almost 1000 growers, who “went to the wall” in 2004, bear testimony and know to their cost.

Are the Great Chateaux secure and above the crisis? This is not sure! The list of wines, which sold well “En Primeur” in 2005 was down to around 20, although the number of tastings, which were organised on the back of the Union des Grands Crus tastings, numbered over 30 – I was invited to 34. Far too many! The Union des Grands Crus tastings remain the benchmark and the great event of the week. They are superbly organised in the different Chateaux. As far as the effect of the crisis on the Great Chateaux is concerned, they are surely above any crisis for quite a while, but this crisis is not just cyclical and will be with us for a long time. It is entirely possible that nobody will be immune. Also, Professor Guimberteau, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University, recently wrote “there is no point in buying En Primeur if you can get the same wine two or more years later at a cheaper price. En Primeur only applies to the rare and dear”. Things are certainly moving that way.

Before we actually review the 2005 vintage, which is what this article is all about, I must unload a heavy burden of frustration and irritation, which concerns the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. How is it possible that somebody who is a member of our Circle of Wine Writers, co–editor of a glossy three–monthly wine review dedicated entirely and exclusively to Bordeaux, a committee member and treasurer of the Association Française de Journalistes et Ecrivains de Vins and a member of the Association de la Presse du Vin, as well as writing freelance for other Wine Reviews and wine Websites, should not be considered worthy of an invitation to the Press tastings of the Union des Grands Crus? Not considered by them as a journalist or a wine writer but as some sort of Négociant, which this person has never been. It is an unfortunate fact that a few of those invited by the Union do not write a single word on their return. Would it not be a good idea to look with care at their list of invitees and sort some grain from some chaff? Reasons given for not inviting this person are that the spouse is already invited (what about our good friends Serena and David Peppercorn?). Also that the person lives in Bordeaux and the tastings are for the International and not the Bordeaux Press ( what about our close friend and colleague James Lawther? and anyway the reviews for which the person both edits and writes are all non French and strictly international). I find this attitude quite astoundingly arrogant, insulting and at the same time pathetic, ridiculous and small minded.

Also could Bordeaux please STOP treating us all like young and rather stupid schoolchildren, recalcitrant to boot if not blithering idiots. They must realise, somebody must, that we are tired of being told, every single vintage, how truly fantastically, wonderfully, superbly marvellous it is, even if it is the worst vintage that God has allowed to happen. What is all this talk about transparency? Could they not introduce an element of honesty and of self criticism? It would not go amiss and might almost be appreciated! I deeply admire the ingenuity with which they inevitably find their reasons why it is so good. One year it is winds that concentrate the grape juice (OK!), the next it is lack of wind which allows a plentiful crop. Then it is rain that gives needed volume, followed by lack of rain which allows concentration. Soon it will be lightning that fries the grapes to the perfect state of cooked fruit for Michel Rolland style wines and thunder whose booming sound causes the pips to roll over in ecstasy, scratch their backs and turn brown! “N’importe quoi!” as the French say. Please Bordeaux, credit us with some element of primary intelligence and discernment – or if that is too much to ask then at least pretend that we have some!

OUF! And all the above from a man who has lived in Bordeaux for 35 years and loves it deeply. A man steeped in Bordeaux up to his eyeballs and for forty years a fanatical supporter of REAL BORDEAUX WINE.

The 2005 is not overall a great vintage. It was an extremely difficult vintage for the vigneron, due to a decided climatic rollercoaster. First and foremost 2004 had to cope with the knock–on effects of the 2003 life–threatening summer heat. Like us, the vine has an advanced sense and mechanism of self–preservation. It felt severely threatened and felt that it had to preserve its species at all costs. Its immediate response was to produce a vast extra abundance of pips in 2004. Pips mean grapes and more pips, which can grow into grapevines. This in turn means survival and the continuance of the species. In 2004 control of yield was absolutely vital and the first key to success. Most fine 2004s come from vines that were green–harvested not once, but twice and even three times. Even then the crops were heavy and Bordeaux produced almost 7 million hectolitres, one of its largest ever crops, for a market which can absorb 4 ½ million or at the very maximum 5 million. Over 1 Million hectolitres, 100 million litres, 11 million cases of wine are being sent to the distilleries. Can this possibly be healthy? Suppose Bordeaux uproots some 30,000 hectares of vines, would this re–establish a balance? Some say yes and some say no. The Government is offering money to compensate growers who uproot and the CIVB is more than doubling this offer. Nevertheless the sum is still a derisory compensation, and then what? What would they plant on the land instead? Most of it is entirely unsuitable for other crops! And now the Government think it will be a solution to let AOC Bordeaux areas produce Vine De Pays. This is more likely to make matters worse than better since the permitted yield for Vin de Pays is considerably greater than that for AOC!

It must also be born in mind that green harvesting, deleafing etc. are luxuries. Luxuries that many lesser wines cannot afford. Green harvesting costs as much as vintaging and requires greater skill. Lack of that skill can prove a total disaster. For those who cannot afford it therefore, the yields remained too high and the must weights remained too low. Such financial restrictions do not affect many of the properties of the Union des Grands Crus of course, but they do affect the majority of all Bordeaux vignerons. The Union is a “closed clique of top brass” as a senior official of the Ministry of Agriculture recently described it. Give the Union its due, I am not sure this was entirely accurate.

Thus a great many of the 2004s were weak, coming from too many not very ripe grapes. Sometimes they were “aqueux” or “watery”. Often the tannins were harsh, raw, green or bitter because, under the circumstances, growers did not want to wait for phenolic ripeness. It is rare than perfect phenolic ripeness goes hand in hand with perfect acidity, perfect sugar content and perfect must weight. However tannin ripeness is today recognised as vitally important. Colour, on the other hand, was wonderful this year and came out of the grapes both generously and vividly, usually without any need for cold soaking. The problem of course is that you cannot taste and drink the colour! Acidities on the whole were perfectly correct, without all the ridiculous AND unnecessary fol–de–rol about acidification experienced in 2003.

This year showed an admirable and increasing restraint in the excessive use of oak in the new wine. This is a very welcome improvement indeed. Bordeaux wine is reverting to being Bordeaux wine and not a copy of new World wine!

The result of all the above was that few growers got everything right and picked their way unerringly through the meteorological minefields. But those who did – WOW!! These few could be great wines in every sense of the word, possibly truly GREAT wines. Classical, pure, gracious, elegant, deep–fruited, supple and “fin”. Sad indeed that a number of these, Bordeaux’s greatest winemakers, have quit the Union – Palmer, Léoville Lascases and others, and of course the First Growths of the Médoc have never been members. Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem are at least honorary members!

Whatever we may think of the wines of 2004, and that remains 100% subjective and entirely one’s own personal opinion, as does and should opinions about all wines, and apart from not knowing whom to invite and whom not to invite, the UGC did a magnificent job of organisation. The Press were divided into small groups on the age old principal of “ne’er the twain shall meet. I personally was tasting at Domaine de Chevalier, La Tour Blanche, Marquis de Terme and Phélan Segur. I missed the Saint Emilion tasting since none of the organisers of the great wine tasting competitions seem to consult each other on dates or keep a wine diary. The UGC tastings overlapped with tastings at Vinitaly, the Mondial in Brussels, and the Finger Lake Camp Good Days competition. Domaine de Chevalier, as usual, were the most wonderful of hosts and our little collation between tastings included 1986 Domaine de Chevalier White, 1985 Latour, Margaux, Lafite and Haut Brion and the 1945 Domaine de Chevalier Red. “Vaut le voyage” as the French say. If you judge by the above the Press are exceedingly well treated, but I found it rather petty and irritating that we, who live in Bordeaux, were penalised by being refused lodging in the Chateaux like the others, and made to drive some 200 kilometres per day to get to the tastings and back. There are very few of us indeed. Surely somebody could have found us a bed?

The UGC had organised the closing lunch at Branaire Ducru. This of course is the property of M. Maroteau, President of the Union. In fact, since he was ineligible for re-election after two stints as President, the Union changed their statutes at their end-of-June meeting to enable his re–election for a further 3 years. This because of some back–biting with regard to a possible candidate from the Graves. The lunch was a monumental gathering of the wine world. Fine wine, amusing food and for once Bordeaux threw off its mantle of doom and gloom and their protective cover of pomposity and arrogance. The speech was thoroughly banal, but the hospitality was warm and wonderful. It was there that I learned the sad news however that the owner of Du Tertre, and almost of Giscours, was recently paralysed for life through a fall on his yacht.

So we are left with some very great wines in a medium or mediocre vintage. Please buy on tested, tasted and tried quality and not on name. Select sparingly and make sure they are wines which will increase and not decrease in value.

Thank you UGC for another wonderful series of tastings and for your fine hospitality, but please consider looking carefully at your invitation list (you may decide that you don’t want to invite me in future!), taking a rather broader viewpoint, looking the modern wine world more squarely in the face and occasionally listening to what people try to say to you. One active, nay hyperactive, Bordeaux writer and supporter must surely be of more value to Bordeaux than two foreign ones who “passent le En Primeurs sous silence”.

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