Barrels, eh?

How do you taste barrel samples?  This month there has been plenty of opportunity to find out: January is the month of the Burgundy en-primeur tastings, more of which later, but essentially if you’re a customer of a Burgundy merchant, you should be able to taste some of the most recently released vintage, 2011, a vintage that (a) I rather like and (b) is fairly easy to taste.  Most of the whites have been bottled though the majority of the reds are still in barrel, even if they are almost – and I repeat almost – finished wines.

These tastings are on the whole a good thing in that they allow consumers to get closer to producers, that they allow consumers to make their buying decisions on what they think, rather than what their wine merchant is telling them.  On the face of it this is a good thing, though examined in a little more depth, it gets a little murky.  And the potential power of notes from some critics bothers me a little.  I have a draft of a very chippy article on this that I may or may not tidy up and publish.

I tasted a few hundred 2011 Burgundies late last year and formed my opinions on the vintage on the basis of what I’d tasted.  I’ve been doing this for a few years now and have the confidence in my palate to make a call, which in this case is that 2011 is certainly a success for the reds, which are pure, seductive, approachable wines which speak of their origins (I’m talking terroir here) and won’t take decades to show their best.

In the very old days, back in that lovely time where Clarethound and I shared what has to be one of the best offices in London, Clarethound himself went to Bordeaux to taste the wines from barrel (these would have been 1999s) and I was definitely in awe of the whole thing.  He went with Corky, a man whose palate I rate right at the top.  I’ll get back to Corky (I haven’t asked him for the three bottles yet), but I can still remember asking Clarethound just how you did it.  Just how do you go and taste something that is so young – so undeveloped – and then make a call on its quality?  It’s a bit like judging a meal before it’s completely cooked, or judging a car just by sitting in it rather than driving it.

I can’t remember Clarethound’s answer in its entirety but it still helps, in that if you don’t know what you’re doing, it helps to have an instruction book.  Herewith my instructions:

Cleanliness: is what you are tasting clean?  Wine that tastes dirty is rarely good, and dirtiness is something that a wine can rarely grow out of.  If something tastes like the ladybirds went into the vat when it was young, those ladybirds are still going to be there when it’s old.  On the same note, if the ladybirds aren’t there in the barrel – how are they going to get there later on?  Over to you, Mr Nanson.

Ingredients:  wine has four key ingredients as far as I’m concerned: Alcohol, acidity, fruit and tannin.  Having all four is not always essential (2003 Bordeaux lacks acidity, for example, but the best are very, very good) but it’s a good start and 2003 clarets are probably the exception that proves the rule.  An excess of any or all of these four is neither good nor bad in itself but you should be able to taste, and define, all four.

Balance:  this is where for me it begins to get serious.  2005 Bordeaux has an abundance of all four factors – the dial is up to eleven on all four.  This is not what makes 2005 a truly great vintage.  What makes 2005 the real deal (Holyfield) is the balance between these component parts.  They’re all there, all singing, dancing, shouting but there is no part of the orchestra that dominates the music.  Ripeness dominates 2009 and acidity and tannin dominate 2010.  This is why, for me, 2005 Is the most complete vintage of this trio.

Taste: erm, quite simple this one.  Does it taste nice?  This sounds facile but it’s often overlooked.

Winemaking: tricky again.  Gerard Perse’s wines taste manipulated.  You can taste that man has been involved here.  Flip the coin and there is the argument that they have been extraordinarily well made.  You can taste the winemaking but the quality of the winemaking is outstanding.  I can still remember tasting 2003 Pavie from barrel in 2004 (along with another man who I rate right at the top though have yet to divine a good nickname for).  It tasted engineered.  The style was all fruit and oak.  It wasn’t for me at the time, but technically it was faultless.   A gold Rolex is not for everyone but it is hard not to admire the engineering.

Character: this is something I need more and more these days.  Belinda on Page Three might be the prettiest lady in Ongar but I’m just not interested if she doesn’t have an opinion on footballer’s wages or if I take her to Medlar and she asks for ketchup.  To translate: there is a winemaker in Puligny whose wines are perfectly competent, indeed very good, representatives of what you can make in Puligny.  They are clean, balanced and quite delicious.  And they’re boring.  A Ford Mondeo might well be faultless, but it’s still a Ford Mondeo.

Tailoring: this to me is the end game.  And more later on this.  But, briefly: you can look at me in my pinstripes and you may or may not think that I look quite sharp.  My wife does (or at least that what she says).  But the man who I tasted 2003 Pavie with would spot in an instant that my stripes are off the hook, that  they’re not tailored.  A winemaker is a bit like a tailor.  God provides the cloth and some have better access to fine cloth than others (largely through fate of wealth or wealth of fate rather than religious devotion).  A very good note on a wine from me will contain the words “well-tailored”.

As Clarethound would say: “Barrels, eh?”.

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