Reproduced from Year 5, Issue #21 of Spirito di Vino Asia...
The first week of April is normally the time when wine pros from the whole world descend on Bordeaux to taste the wines “en primeur”. This tasting helps them ascertain the quality of the previous vintage using samples of wines that are still in barrels in various Châteaux and will continue to do so for some time to come. The key question is how to taste such young wines that are not ready and still judge its quality? Readers of Spirito diVino noticed that we score wines on a 100 points scale. To reach our conclusion, “en primeur” tasting are not that different in that we still look for balance, persistency, complexity, precision of style, and finesse with the additional element of “ageing ability”.
The challenge of tasting wines like this is that the wines are approximate samples made from an approximate blend of what the wine maker feels the wines will taste like when they have finished their maturation. Because these samples are taken directly from the oak barrels in the cellars, they will show various characteristics that will not be present in the final wine. Indeed, residual fizz from the alcoholic fermentation, tartness of acidity because the malo-lactic fermentation might not be complete, and unusually high intensity of aromas stemming from the oak itself will all be more integrated once the wine is ready to bottle several months later. Key, when tasting will be to make abstraction of these factors and not let them affect our score.
Vintage variation is also a important factor in climates like the one found in Bordeaux. Years like 2005 and 2009 were magical for the region and produced wines of exceptional quality. But other vintages were not so fortunate and therefore, the wines were generally less impressive at the outset. However, not because a vintage as a whole was discounted in terms of quality that all producers should be judged equally. The hard-working producers can mitigate to a great extent the poor hand that nature served them that vintage. Therefore, it is during those difficult vintages that the work of a pro becomes critical. Tasting such wines requires concentration and experience to ascertain the various elements of quality while making abstraction of the issues mentioned above and extrapolate how the wine will develop over time.
In fact, the importance of tasting “en primeur” in Bordeaux is surely related to the fact that many of the wines offered to taste are those that have a long ageing ability and are normally considered in the rarefied category of “fine wine”. In other words, wines that will be trading in the secondary markets and will be expected to do so over a long period to come. Therefore, key for these wines is that the are able to age, and that they are able to do so beautifully, reliably, and consistently. Therefore, the focus of the pros will be on tasting for ageing ability. As we have seen in a previous articles, the key factors for this ability will be a firm structure with plenty of tannins but also a plush fruit concentration to feed the long voyage of time the wine will be expected to age and develop.
These young wines are very concentrated and in actuality reveal very little of their complex aromas from fruit and terroir due to the oak, unfinished fermentation and other winemaking factors overpower them. Therefore, the focus of tasting “en primeur” will be on the quality of the tannins themselves and determine of they are smooth enough to integrate into the wine over time, or are they so harsh and drying that they will never completely harmonize over time. Another question will be to ascertain the fruit concentration and how much of it there is to estimate how long the wine in question will age. Finally, the acids and alcohol levels will be considered to determine if they are in balance and will contribute to lift the wine, when it is actually ready to drink.
In the next issue, we will discuss the various factors that influence the quality of Rosé wines…