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Journalist tasting Rauzan Gassies

By Panos Kakaviatos for Total Wine

We asked our friend Panos Kakaviatos of Wine Chronicles to recount his days this year
at en primeurs week (or “wine futures” week) to help bring our readers to latest information on the 2014 vintage from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and Port. In the weeks to come, we’ll relay his thoughts, tasting reviews and recommendations from his time in Bordeaux here on our blog. 

When I arrived in Bordeaux on Saturday March 28, excitement was in the air. Reports about the harvest were positive. Initial reports indicated that the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) registered the highest number of merchant visits to taste 2014 from barrel since at least the 2010 tasting.

The UGCB is a useful gauge of interest for a given vintage. It makes up over 100 top Bordeaux estates including famous brands like Lynch Bages and Rauzan Segla, Figeac and Haut Bailly. It tours the United States each year – including a tasting of the 2012 vintage, co-organized by Total Wine in Florida this past January.

It also organizes meticulous tastings for the some 100+ wine writers who travel to Bordeaux each year from around the world. I always choose to be put in a group that tastes the wines “blind” – meaning that each day we may focus on a known appellation, such as Pauillac, but we do not know which wines from Pauillac we are tasting. It is also a great way to compare notes with fellow wine hacks from around the world, from China and Russia to the UK and Denmark. I then taste as many of those wines as possible again at trade tastings, where I can confirm (or not) previous notes taken.

Like other wine writers in the hectic week that is en primeur, I visit chateaux that are not members of the UGCB, including the five legendary first growths, many great wines from Pomerol including Petrus and super seconds such as Ducru Beaucaillou, Léoville Las Cases, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose. We took part in countless other tastings, including the massive grouping of estates that make up the Grand Cercle – about 200 chateaux that include less well-known appellations from Fronsac and Blaye to Listrac and Moulis.

It proved a long week. But packed with fun, too. Culinary highlights included freshly shucked oysters at the first tasting, hosted by Bordeaux négociant Ulysses Cazabonne. Once done tasting the wide range of wines they proposed, oysters and crispy dry whites were just what the wine doctor ordered.

Indian Summer promises at least a very good vintage

As fellow London-based Adam Lechmere wine writer told me at Ulysses Cazabonne: “You cannot avoid the fact that since at least September, many observers began to think that 2014 was going to be a good vintage.”

We both saw grapes being brought in during the harvest last autumn, and we appreciated how the fine late summer brought grapes to maturity.

And yet: “As a journalist, you take such claims with a grain of salt, as Bordeaux chateaux always seek to hype a vintage – and how often have we heard that a late season saved the vintage,” Lechmere said.

But 2014’s September proved truly unique. It brought 265 hours of sunshine: 31% higher than the average over the last 30 years.  There were only two days of light rain (5.6mm on 8 September and 11mm on 17 September, for example in Saint Julien), with maximum temperatures during the first three weeks well above the monthly average at 79.16 to 88.7˚F.

Nice lineup at Cos LMD
Image courtesy Laure Marie Ducloy

Cautious Appraisal

Old timers may recall that Bordeaux’s 1975 vintage was met with much fanfare, too, particularly as it came after three challenging years in 1972-1973-1974. Similarly, 2014 follows 2011-2012-2013, so it was no surprise to see so much interest in 2014 just because of that fact.

The problem with 1975 was a very high tannic component that resulted in very hard wines. Even today, may 1975s are tannic beasts that have lost their fruit. By the same token, 2014’s high acidity can accentuate the sensation of tannin, which was also high in the vintage. So the vintage is not uniformly successful, as some barrel samples seemed hard and tart on the finish, with somewhat indifferent palates.

On the other hand, the 1975 comparison is simplistic on most other levels. First because 2014 is far better than 1975, which represents a bygone winemaking era of higher yields and few if any second wines. Second, as we shall see in the tasting section, many successful barrel samples combine charm, elegance, structure and freshness – and across all price points. So Total Wine buyers will be able to find gems indeed.

It is nonetheless important to strike a cautious tone at this very early stage. The French adage août fait le mout means “August makes the must.” (Editor’s Note: “Must” is a term for the crushed grapes used to make wine.) In 2014, it didn’t. Bill Blatch – who drafted a harvest report for the Bordeaux Grand Cru Union (UGCB) – told me: “There were more problems with Merlot than there were with Cabernet, because the Merlot grapes got big and were picked closer to that very indifferent summer than the Cabernets, which were able to profit more from the Indian Summer.”

And yet, as we shall see, the vintage features success stories across the region – including Merlot-dominated wines. In fact some of the best wines of 2014 come from Pomerol and Saint Émilion, even though Saint Émilion in particular proved patchier as an appellation than any of the Cabernet-dominated appellations in the Médoc and in Graves.

Stay tuned for our next entry in this series “What Tasters Seek from Barrel” to be released later this week.

Any questions on the character of the vintage, please contact me at panos@wine-chronicles.com.