There’s something about Bordeaux gravel that shouts opulence as surely as a slate-lined shower stall. Sometimes it’s so deep as to hamper your stride — you don’t so much walk as wade. And on a beautiful Monday morning at the end of April, as I crunch up the pathway to Château Figeac, I’m thinking it’s all so familiar, yet so novel. Thanks to the pandemic, few of us have been back for more than three years.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Bordeaux châteaux and their brokers, known as negociants, have developed a system whereby they sell their wine as futures. This means selling some two years before the wine is bottled, and the Bordelais invite critics and wine merchants to assess the wines in April.
The Bordeaux wine circus
En Primeur week, as this event is called, has developed into a wondrous circus of tastings and lunches, parties and dinners; each April some 5,000 wine professionals descend on Bordeaux like a swarm of purple-toothed locusts. The British are in force, as always — after all, we owned Bordeaux for 300 years. Despite the arrival of Americans, who have had a taste for the best Bordeaux since Robert Parker’s endorsement of the 1982 vintage, and then the Chinese, who are some of the world’s most enthusiastic collectors, the relationship with London is as strong as it ever was.
So for a couple of weeks in April, every restaurant is full of critics and wine merchants in tweed jackets and loafers. Every road — the fast D2, which takes you past a who’s who of great châteaux from La Lagune to Lafite, and the N89 to Libourne and Saint Émilion — is overrun with rental cars and minibuses that can become raucous as the day wears on. Everyone is bent on a single mission — to taste, and taste, and taste. And to party, of course.
This is the first time that most critics will have seen the wines, and the tacit assumption is that château owners rely on their assessments to set their prices. That’s only true up to a point. Glowing write-ups may shift the prices by a few euros here and there but the top properties decide their prices well in advance of En Primeur week. But still, critics play a role.
Here’s how En Primeur works
Here we are on Sunday night on the Bordeaux quayside and Moelleuses et Persillées is busy. It’s a restaurant beloved of the wine trade and tonight eight of the ten tables are taken by lively groups of wine merchants and journalists, ordering steaks the size of hot-water bottles and wine to match. A few locals stolidly attend to their own dinners in the midst of this hubbub.
A British wine critic, I’ve been covering Bordeaux for more than 20 years. It hasn’t changed much since the early 2000s. This year, as often before, I’m with Jane Anson, whose bestselling book “Inside Bordeaux” is regarded as definitive, and friend Panos Kakaviatos, an American writer with a true Bordelaise love of la table. We’ve scheduled about eight visits a day. We arrive, taste, and leave in a spray of gravel. The next group will be arriving as we go, although the American and Chinese critics are missing this year. There’s a pleasing democracy to the system — everyone has to make an appointment and wait their turn. As I leave Château Angelus one afternoon, the team from London merchant Bordeaux Index is filing in; in a typical year, they will sell some $10 million worth of en primeur wines.
There are two types of tasting this week: the private, and the public. The latter takes place in either vast hangars or handsome château rooms. I’d forgotten that peculiar exhilaration as, glass in hand, you survey the massed ranks of bottles and the clusters of merchants, negociants, courtiers — the middlemen who broker deals between châteaux and negociants — and château owners, gargling and expectorating into brimming spittoons.
Private tastings take place by appointment. You’re greeted by the proprietor, or the technical director, who at the most exalted properties may be treated with the reverence normally accorded a dynastic head of state. I was once with a group of British journalists that gave a — wholly unironic — round of applause at the end of the tasting.
This year there’s no clapping. The summer of 2021 was damp and sunless, in a growing season punctuated by Siberian frosts and violent hailstorms. Mildew was rampant. The sun shone in July but come harvest the vignerons gnawed their fingernails as more rain was forecast for September and October. However, the Bordeaux wine machine is adept at spin, and for months there’s been a drip-feed of stories about the awfulness of the vintage. By the time we get to taste the wines, the fact that they aren’t actually hemlock is seen as a boon.
The taste of baby Bordeaux
Tasting young red wine from the barrel can be an exercise in pain. A Cabernet Sauvignon in the final stages of fermentation is viscous, dark as squid ink; its tannins work on your tongue like a sandblaster, and any fruit is beaten into cowering submission. Many times, far from sipping and swirling and ruminating on the wine, your every instinct is to expel it fast between lips puckering like a drawstring purse.
That’s not the case this year, simply because many of the wines are thin affairs. I hear someone comment, nose in glass, “The thing about these wines is that they’ve got lovely aromatics, and then it’s a car crash.” But those that sing, sing. They’re fresh, bright, and juicy. Many great properties have pulled some superb wines from the wreckage. From Saint Estèphe in the north to the Graves in the south and Saint Émilion and Pomerol to the east, there are delightful surprises. The whites are fine and refreshing and outclass the reds.
But vignerons had to have their wits about them to make anything like a decent wine. Many picked early before the expected October rains and ran the danger of under ripe grapes. If they held their nerve and waited till the grapes were fully ripe, they had to take care with the extraction, the process of getting color and texture from the grapes. Too much and the wine might end up with the astringency of a bitten grape pip; too little, and there would be no fruit and a wine that disappears on the palate. Every step of the process was fraught.
The overall feeling is one of relief. At Château d’Yquem, Pierre Lurton is throwing a party for the press. A vast tent has been erected in the courtyard, and journalists from half a dozen different countries gossip over glasses of Yquem 2019. Lurton, president of Yquem and Cheval Blanc, makes the same quip he’s been airing since about 1997. “I speak English, with a very sexy French accent.” It’s a lovely night, and the mood is upbeat, but nobody’s turning cartwheels. All the talk is about how patchy the vintage is. “It’s like finding gems in a dunghill,” one veteran member of the wine trade tells me.
The next day we visited Le Dôme in Saint Émilion. This is the just-finished, Norman Foster-designed, $14.9 million headquarters of Jonathan Maltus, one of Bordeaux’s original garagistes who, 20 years ago specialized in super-charged wines that some found egregious and others loved. There’s a full-size photograph of him in the entrance, channeling late-period Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. Circular and elegant, Le Dôme’s wraparound views and swooping curves make you feel as if you’ve landed in the vineyards on a ship from some far-out galaxy. This year’s top Le Dôme cuvée, a Cabernet Franc-Merlot mix, is dark hued, concentrated, and powerfully structured. “It has walls to it,” says Anson. Maltus, pleased, surveys his brand-new citadel and notes how busy it is. “We were never this popular before,” he murmurs.
He’s right. Wine is conviviality — one makes no sense without the other. Even though everyone recognizes the absurdity of commenting on blends that won’t be ready for years, we’re drawn back to the lure of En Primeur every season like fruit flies to an open bottle. I don’t think any of us realized how much we missed it.
Reflections on the experience
On my last night, I stay at Fleur de Boüard, the wind-swept estate on the Pomerol plateau that Château Angélus owner Hubert de Boüard has just sold. At dinner, he’s in an elegiac mood. His sense of humor is intact if battered by his experiences of the last year — he’s been convicted of willful conflict of interest in a byzantine Saint Émilion court case and fined tens of thousands of euros. He expands on the difficulties of the vintage and concludes, with a shrug, that wine is his DNA. “This is my life.”
The gravel here is the deepest I’ve ever seen; my feet disappear almost to the ankle. There are zebra-skin rugs on the floor of my room, and the shower is indeed lined with slate. This is no more part of my normal life than drinking thousand-dollar wines is — but it’s interesting to press one’s nose against the window now and again.