Wednesday 22 May 2013

'Of course Suckling gets his own sample': Bordeaux winemakers and proprietors on the tricky business of putting en primeur samples together

International consultant Stephane Derenoncourt has caused a minor controversy by saying that he puts his wines through a 'special preparation' for En Primeur – but there is little unusual in that, Bordeaux vignerons and proprietors say.

This one's for Bob...

Derenoncourt has told Le Monde newspaper his method was to take small portions of ‘each parcel and put them through a special process to speed up the elevage’.

The wines are put into barrel earlier than normal, straight after running off, ‘so that the marriage between the wines and the wood may happen more naturally’.

Most winemakers in Bordeaux that I spoke to said the practice of speeding up the elevage by putting the wines into new wood early is perfectly common. Only one – Yann Bouscasse of Chateau Cantinot in Blaye – admitted different journalists tasted different barrels.

At Teyssier in St Emilion, Jonathan Maltus is fond of quoting James Suckling, who tells him every year that his samples do him no justice. 'Of course I don't prepare special barrels. James tells me my samples are always the worst, that the stuff in bottle is way better. I don't try to make the wine more presentable.'

Certainly true (Maltus is outspoken and has a reputation for honesty). But any winemaker makes it perfectly  clear that of course he's going to present his wine as best he can for En Primeur. You'd be daft not to.

Henri Lurton at Chateau Brane Cantenac in Margaux said there are many different ways of putting samples together for En Primeur.

At Brane the wine is put into barrels very early and blended in February. For En Primeur they take the barrels that are showing the best: ‘You must show the wines at their best possible quality – but at En Primeur you must show the wines that will be bottled. The blend is the blend. It’s the birth of the vintage.’

The idea of a special preparation for en primeur, though, is quite straightforward.

An en primeur échatillon is far more likely to come from 100% new oak, even though final blend will be only a small percentage of new oak, simply because the wine matures far quicker in new oak than in second- or third-use barrels.

Fabrice Dubourdieu, who works with his father Denis at the family properties in Cadillac, Graves and Sauternes, told me, ‘New oak gives a more advanced picture of the wine than second- or third-use oak. We don’t use 100% new oak for the final blend.’

Similarly vignerons will favour certain coopers over others for the En Primeur sample.

‘Some coopers show nicely early and some show better after ageing,’ Dubourdieu said.

Philippe Magrez of Bernard Magrez, owners of Chateau Pape Clement and some 20 other properties in Bordeaux, said that the blend shown at en primeur may come from selected barrels.

‘We use 13-14 different coopers. In the first three or four months, one cooper may be impossible to taste, and some are ready after seven or eight months, so [for the en primeur samples] we may blend less from one cooper than from another.’

What many are adamant about is the logistical difficulty of producing ‘special’ barrels. Alexander van Beek, who runs Margaux third growth Chateau Giscours, said ‘blending is a nightmare’ for the sheer number of variables they are dealing with.

Giscours uses nine different coopers and vinifies 69 different ‘microcuvées’ individually. Over multiple tasting sessions, van Beek said, those 69 parcels are whittled down to four barrels which provide the en primeur wines. He described the process as being like ‘a family tree, upside down’, gradually arriving at the wine ‘which best which best represents our philosophy, the vintage and the terroir.’

Only one proprietor – Yann Bouscasse of Chateau Cantinot – admitted he gives different journalists different wines depending on their perceived tastes: American journalists or those working for American publications are shown samples from new oak barrels while Europeans get samples from second- and third-use oak.

James Suckling, Neal Martin or Robert Parker will get a new barrel, while Gault Millau, or Revue du Vin de France, will get second and third use. American tasters can cope better with oak – Suckling likes a wine with more body.’

But Bouscasse, along with everyone else, stressed that the final blend that goes into bottle comes from all the barrels.

The common thread that unites all those I spoke to was the fact that while it is possible to produce special cuvées for En Primeur, selecting only the very best parcels, it is a strategy fraught with difficulty. For a start, the blending process is so complicated in the first place – as van Beek said – this would just add another logistical headache.

Second, if the final blend were to be very different to the samples, then someone would notice. Most critics do a final tasting in bottle (Robert Parker will only give a range of scores, 92-96, for example, at En Primeur)

‘Of course you can take the very best if you are only making a few barrels, but when you have to make1000 barrels it’s very different,’ Magrez said. ‘To take only the best barrels would be dangerous because the wine would not be the same after 12 months.

‘Some chateaux have tried to play this game and they have lost. Now more and more people know how to taste so it’s best to be honest. There is a lot of rumour in Bordeaux – it would be too dangerous.’

A shorter version of this article first appeared on

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