Firstly: let’s put this barrel-tasting thing into perspective:
Late last year I was in Bordeaux. The director of a fairly high-profile chateau was showing me around their new, or at least almost-new, almost-finished, winery. We walked past the 2013 vintage, which was just going into its malolactic fermentation. There wasn’t much of it, and most if it was in stainless steel tanks. I asked, roughly: “so malo in tank then?” The reply, roughly: “Yup. Wine turns out better.”
Which is fairly simple.
“So wot are those barriques then?”
“For the en-primeur samples. We do the malo in barrique for those. Tastes better in April.”
The Bordeaux en-primeur circus is most probably going to be a sideshow this year. 2013 was undoubtedly a tricky vintage and for a number of reasons the wine world is less than enamoured of the region’s wines at the moment. 2011 & 2012 are perceived as being average vintages at best and the two blockbusters that preceded them, 2009 and 2010, have fallen in price since they were released, the opposite of what they are supposed to do. The popular view is that the Bordelais have priced the past four vintages incorrectly. 2009 & 2010 were over-valued IPOs, 2011 & 2012 were failed IPOs.
More than the wines of any other region, Bordeaux is as much about what the wine is worth as what it actually tastes like. The nature of the top, say, hundred wines of the region is that they need time in the bottle to show their best. As a general rule, classed-growth claret needs ten years in the bottle to reach maturity, and that window of maturity should last another ten years. And you can at least double that when you’re at the top of the tree in terms of quality. So why buy it young? There are three reasons:
First, in the case of the very rare kit, you mightn’t be able to find it when it’s mature. This doesn’t happen much, certainly not with Bordeaux.
Secondly, you mightn’t be able to afford it when it’s mature. This used to be quite a compelling argument.
Third: if, like me, you like large formats, it’s easier to buy them en-primeur. See point one.
But, discounting my double-mags of Roc de Cambes and imperials of Batailley, the only real reason to buy en-primeur is a financial one. You buy wine early as it’s more expensive later on. But that hasn’t worked recently. Young wines are worth the same as the old ones for a start, and the most recent releases from Bordeaux, by which I mean the en-primeur releases, have nearly all dropped in price rather than risen.
Alfred Tesseron has added some relevance to this by releasing the 2013 vintage of Ch. Pontet-Canet. The cost ex-negociant is 60 euros a bottle, the cost in bond London is £675 per dozen or so. The release took many by surprise and led to all sorts of noise on twitter and the like. It started with “April Fool?” then distilled into “too expensive”, “wrong message” and similarly negative stuff. But here’s the thing:
Notwithstanding the fact that Pontet-Canet is again the most talked about wine of the vintage, Alfred Tesseron has decided the price at which he is prepared to sell the wine that he has made. You might say it’s quite high, that it’s not going to sell, that it doesn’t represent value in a vintage that has been more or less written off before anyone has tasted it. And there might be some truth in all of that. But if you don’t want to buy it then don’t. And aren’t the ones suggesting that the price is wrong the ones that would have made money out of it if it was cheaper? I’m in that bracket. And what part, exactly, have I played in the creation of 2013 Pontet-Canet? Zero. So why whinge? Do I have some right to say: “the price is wrong”? Nope. I’ll move on. And, Mr Tesseron: Chapeau.
Back to those barrels. Where again Pontet-Canet adds some relevance. The “modern” Pontet-Canet really starts in 2005, I think. The quality started rising in the mid-nineties but the turbochargers didn’t really start spinning until 2003. Full boost came a couple of years later. So “modern” Pontet-Canet is a yet unproven horse. The consensus is that the 2005, 2009 and 2010 vintages are fifty-year wines, but we don’t yet know if they’ll run the distance or fall at the first, third or fifth hurdle. Depending on your viewpoint this either demonstrates the farce of what the market for top young claret has become, or adds a bit of spice to the whole shebang. As is usual in these circumstances, I will stay on the fence.