On En Primeur
Here's a piece I wrote for a cool kids magazine that switched issue focus. Lolz. Wine writing is something I really want to focus on this coming year, as it's fun and rewarding. I had an amazing transformative time visiting Bordeaux this past March for my first En Primeur. It really surprised and changed my vision of these wines. I hope you like it, lemme know yeah? x n
Why yes, I will have another piece of bread to soak up the last of my velouté de cèpes (with foie gras poélé, obviously). I dip carefully, watching the white bread swell, as I take in the scene.
It is March 30th 2015, I am sitting in the event room at Haut Bailly, one of Leognan’s most prestigious estates. I was invited three months ago rather out of the blue and it seemed like a good enough reason as any to fly to France. The group of guests is small, under fifty. To my left, the most handsome Assistant Winemaker I have seen in some time. He is young, lean, shy. A true claret. The ’82 vintage, I later learn. I hear from the general address, completely in English that he works with other Medoc producers doing research. I am delighted. Nothing brings me greater joy than debating yeast strains with handsome vignerons with rough hands and an encyclopedic knowledge of soft cheeses.
“Your research, tell me about it.” I ask, in the uniquely shameful, rusty French of a Canadian anglophone. “Oxygen and sprays”, he responds, amused. I think of the world’s highest paid consultant Michel Rolland in the cult film Mondovino shouting into the telephone of his chauffeured BMW to ‘micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate’. It’s a line played to death to demonize the homogeneity of Bordeaux in particular and the commercialization and sterilization of global food and drink in general. Where do the youth of Medoc stand?
“So, what are your results?”, I ask, not before speed-checking my white silk jumpsuit, yet unstained. “Well, it’s the same”, he responds, matter of factly. “More, less, we can’t find a difference.” What do you mean there is no difference? He shrugs. ”It’s the same”. And spraying? “Less.” For the vines or for the neck-tags?, I prod. He shrugs again, “both, I guess”. And what of organics? “Too wet”. Huh. “Do you want some more ham?”, he differs. Tuck in your top buns wine snobs we’re not in Paris anymore.
Welcome to Bordeaux En Primeur 2015.
You know the ticket. That week in late March where trade and journalists are invited to taste six-month-old unfinished wines and assign them a score out of 100. This score will largely determine the later price of an extremely different final blend. Lolz. Following the release of these prices, trade will buy and sell to consumers years before the final wine is bottled, let alone shipped. Double lolz.
The Bordelaise call it a campaign. And it is just that, political, ideological. It’s about capturing imagination, year after year. This is Who We Are Believe in Us. There is a disquieting lavishness to the week-long spectacle. Lunches, dinners, tastings. No one pays - how vulgar! There are no prices on bottles – that comes months from now - only shiny tasting books, limitless cheese and free pencils. I took three! "These are the fireworks", one particularly smarmy negociant recounts near the end of the week. "See our show, but you better open your wallet when we pass the hat".
Bordeaux, more than any other appellation, is synonymous with wealth and power. We know this. It’s a port town. The famous Gironde Estuary and its tributaries do more than moderate climate, they allow for easy shipping. In 1855, when Napoleon III called on the region to rank Chateaux for the Paris World Fair, it was done by traders on price. Imagine if today’s Michelin stars were based on restaurants’ average cheque the year Charlotte Brontë died. Really it means very little. A self-fulfilling prophecy re-cemented with each foreign purchase, each shiny new chai and yet this above all others, is the classification that most people know. The campaigns work.
It’s easy to think the history of en primeur extends back over a hundred years, just like the classification it’s based on. But this is a new history. 1982 produced more than my handsome seatmate. It was the year that Michael Jackson, still black, released Thriller. It was the year that The Times Man of the Year, still called Man of the Year, was a computer. It was also the Bordeaux vintage that launched the career of a young American. Robert Parker defied his British peers and lauded the vintage with an easy to understand 100 point scoring system. Americans bought in droves. An influx of cash for the chateaux and cache for the consumer. Wine before it’s wine. The internet pre-sale before the internet pre-sale. I have this special rare thing and I have it first!
Twenty-three years later and Parker isn't eating foie gras with the rest of us, yet the system he bolstered remains. Many wonder, what now? Most of the world’s great journalists have rallied against the spectacle. They point to change coming. “Look at First Growth Chateau Latour exiting the system in 2012!”, they cry. And yet, no one followed. Bring it up to the Bordelais and they roll their eyes and sneer. “A mistake they regret every day!”, they tell you, as they fill your glass with Sauternes (okay!) and pass the tri-coloured macaroons (I ate two! ). And really, no one should. The visiting buyers resent it, ‘I will not buy if I cannot taste!’, an American, Chinese and Canadian retailer each tell me on separate occasions. [An American, Chinese and Canadian walk into a Chateaux…] The other producers resent it, ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others?!’, they scoff with a loud guffaw.
And so, what now? There is no denying that en primeur as a way to quantitatively rank wines is ridiculous. Ranking unfinished wines meant to be aged for decades is crazy. Crazier still if these tank samples are manipulated without regulation and are in no way guaranteed to reflect the final blend. Crazier still if these tank samples, steeped in history are often served to trade and journalists without hiding their famous Chateau name or appellation.
So why is en primeur so important? General style, certainly. The most manipulation can’t hide trend. Duck, duck goose. The anomalies, good and bad stick out. Regionality shows. But more important than vintage notes, the year’s weather, is the reinforcement of cultural climate, the overarching narrative emboldened by the trade who year after year by attending the week acknowledge that Bordeaux is special. This is world wide content creation. Collective passport stamps from top journalists and buyers across the globe.
Because that’s the thing. It’s not about blind tasting. Countless blind tastings prove the equality, if not superiority, of Chilean, New Zealand, American and no-doubt-soon Chinese blends to their French counterparts. Bordeaux, tasted blind, is far from untouchable. Yet none of those regions make you want to pull over on the side of a 1 ½ lane highway with no curb to take a photo of an appellation sign you have been reading about since you were a kid.
Approaching the vintage, ticket booked, silks packed, I thought about Bordeaux, post-Parker, having a cool kids come back. We can only drink the same 25 natural wines with razor clams and tail-to-snout terrine for so long. What can be more forward than to go backwards? I can see it now, the well-dressed lanky sommelier to the young, adventurous couple, “yes, yes, the Saperavi is fine, but this 2008 Moulis-en-Medoc...”
But then, I went there. This place is as much about come backs, as it is about cutting edge research. [Do you want some more ham?] Bordeaux isn’t a kid, it’s an old man in a nicer suit than you’ll ever own. Bordeaux is bigger than a trend and that’s the point. It is history, prestige, romance and above all, luxury.
On the plane home, trapped between time zones, I watch the Hunger Games and cry, almost continuously. It is all just so unfair. The Capital enjoying luxury, costumes and hair styles. The outer regions bearing the brunt of the work without money or success, so dependent on the region’s heart. My cold, starchy banana bread sticks in my throat. Bordeaux as en primeur, as a public image of prestige and luxury is The Capital, the 5%. The Grand Crus combined represent less than 5% of the ocean of wine released from one of France’s largest AOC’s. It is also the 5% of Bordeaux we are least likely to consistently drink. And yet, it sets the tone. As another negotiant regails, “the critics are all over $20 New World wine: 91 points this! 93 points that! No one reviews a Bordeaux Superior from Entre-Deux-Mers, this is our shot. You tell me that is fair”.
And it isn’t. None of it. A yearly campaign. The image elect. We are here, we are drunk and we understand! These wines are special! These wines are important! These wines are exclusive! The whispers and silk and history weave a narrative we all want to believe and perhaps more importantly, sell. It's one France desperately needs to stay on top. Oh, and the wines this year were really pretty good.