Bordeaux 2015: Primeurs Week

8th April 2016

A first for me – attending the bizarre whirl which is the primeurs week in Bordeaux. It’s an absurd ritual. First, there are dozens of tastings going on every day: at the Chateaux themselves; held by any number of associations such as or Le Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux; tastings of organic wines; umbrella tastings organised by the consultants such as Hubert de Bouard or Stephane Derenoncourt for all the estates they and their large teams advise (there were over 60 at de Bouard’s tasting at Angelus); and tastings at the negociants, the businesses with great holdings of Bordeaux stock. There is a frenzy to it - can one fit in yet another tasting? - and snobbery too. For example, the grandest will only present their wines at their own Chateaux, and strictly by select invitation. Secondly, I heard about a big tasting of classed growths held by the Union des Grand Crus to be held on Monday at the new football stadium. As this is 10 minutes from the airport, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get an overview of the vintage - and it was, with a chance to chat to many Chateaux owners. But, wow, was it difficult to find out about (it wasn’t mentioned on the Union’s own website) and get into: one had to be accompanied by a negociant and booked into a two hour time slot. Surprise, surprise, the event was so discreet that there was hardly anyone attending – a bit like the empty stadium itself! 

At these multiple and overlapping tastings one inevitably tastes samples of supposedly the same wine which can vary alarmingly in colour, aroma and flavour. How the journalists are meant to make definitive pronouncements or wine buyers make important buying decisions on such young wines which can appear so different, I do not know.  And that is without the way the samples are prepared: in theory these are to give a representative sense of the Chateaux’s efforts, but they may be made up differently for different audiences – there is muttering about a “Parker” sample, one which is on the turbo-charged side!

So why did I go, when we at SVS have never yet made an en primeur Bordeaux offer?  Let me tell you – to benchmark the wines from some of the vignerons we work closely with and Chateaux we follow against higher classed and much more expensive names.  For example, on the right bank it was really exciting to see that the 2015s I tasted from our young(ish) stars like Frederic Borderie at Gravieres de la Brandille and Chateau Les Combes, Mickael Moze-Berthon in Montagne Saint-Emilion and Gregory Naulet at Vieux Chateau Palon stood up really well against many more famous St.-Emilion Grand Crus. So we may well make a selected en primeur offer of our favourites later in the year. (There was also the vital matter of topping up our Bordeaux stocks with wines which are already drinking well rather than being for drinking from 2018).

Now I suppose you want to know if it’s a great red vintage?  Well, it’s certainly a very good vintage, and some wines this year are great, but the wines are not homogenous. I won’t bore you with a lengthy exposition on the weather, but after a very hot midsummer it rained a lot from August to October, especially in the northern Medoc.  So vineyard management and the choice of picking dates were not easy. Some wines in the northern Medoc did appear dilute this week, but on the other hand many others felt more balanced and promising than a lot of wines on the right bank where the fruit at times seemed a little figgy and over-ripe. So it’s very difficult to make generalisations. 2015 is not 2009 or 2010, when one could buy anything with confidence. And I do have one specific concern.  In the summer heat of July I think some winemakers may have decided that this was another 1982 or 2009, that they had a “great” vintage on their hands, and they were determined to make the most of it. They then had to wait for the Cabernets to ripen, especially on the left bank, and in some cases the fruit, left to hang too long, lacked freshness.  But some, still in pursuit of that anticipated greatness, over-extracted as well, compounding the problem. One could spot immediately those overdone examples: with inkily flat hue, a lack of perfume, crushing tannins and a total absence of aromatics.  But it’s mean to end on a bad note – I enjoyed some really lovely 2015s: in no particular order these (many from the consistent over-achievers) offered a hint of greatness: Carbonnieux, Malartic-Graviere, Troplong-Mondot, Petit-Village, Cantemerle, Beychevelle, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Phelan Segur. And remember that Norman No-mates didn’t taste the first growths and super seconds!

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