I spent last week in Bordeaux. There were fairytale castles and expanses of perfectly raked white gravel; trimmed topiary, fearsomely expensive wines (which we spat, it still makes me feel a bit funny to do that with a £600 bottle), equally fearsomely suave Frenchmen (and women) and wineries that instead of being a bit grubby and dishevlled gleamed like the honeymoon suite of a five star hotel. I was there to taste the wines en primeur*and have three observations to make after six long days of 8am appointments and dazzling late dinners.
1. Wardrobe crisis? What wardrobe crisis? My annual Bordeaux trip always begins with a wardrobe panic that involves spending eight million pounds in Reiss on smart black things (never wear white near a spittoon, you will only get Pollocked) and taking everything back the following week. Bordeaux is all about show and polish. But. It is impossible to out-French the French and therefore ridiculous to try. This is why my hero of the week is Neal Martin. Neal is the indie kid of the fine wine world. He writes for the massively influential Wine Advocate but as the rest of the wine trade is striding and scrunching over gravel paths and into grand chateau after grand chateau, pristine-dark-suited as if auditioning for a part in Reservoir Dogs, he is usually alone in scruffing around in specs, a pair of jeans, an old cardie, or a zip-up top, carrying his stuff in a battered record bag or exchange-student-style rucksack. And he gets away with it. I was disappointed not to bump into him this year. But then, I don’t eat at KFC in Merignac which is where Neal hides out from the asparagus and lobster lunches.
2. Never listen to anyone else This applies big-style in Bordeaux where everyone is desperate to make important pronouncements on the vintage FIRST before ANYONE ELSE. Exhausting! Like being on the school bus. So I will say something about 2009 which I did not taste en primeur but which was lauded as one of the (three so far, or is it four?) vintages of the century. There have not been many but every time I taste a grandly expensive 2009 in bottle, I am a tiny bit disappointed. I do not fall in love. They are so warm and ripe (delicious out of barrel, I suspect, all lovely and fruity) but it’s like you booked tickets to the opera and found yourself at the Folies Bergere. Of course they are not so bathed in hot and over-wrought sun as the 2003s but even so. My notes for 2012 throw up a lot of “delicate” “gentle” “perfumed” and “elegant”. Let’s see how much they all cost before we say any more.
3. On fairytale castles I slept two nights in Chateau Pichon Baron, which has a gorgeous pale front and grey turrets. Here’s a picture. Amazing from the outside, decorated inside in a style the restaurant critic Bill Knott calls, “French Awful.”
Funnily enough my nearly-god-daughter (age 6) was not terribly interested in hearing about how the heartland of the first wine is the 25ha of vineyards right by the chateau, overlooking Latour. But she could hardly believe her eyes when I showed her the picture and told her that this magnificent place was empty for almost 50 years (Why?), save for a brief interlude during the war when evacuees were sheltered here. I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her that the local Rotary club used to meet in the great salons on the ground floor, or that the attic is now just a big office for AXA Millesimes who own it. Instead I passed on to her, in case she ever needs it, the words of a very wise man. “A castle only becomes enchanted when it has a beautiful princess in one of the towers. Otherwise it is just a pile of stone inhabited by a selfish giant.” And I told her that she holds all the power and she must never forget it. She seemed quite pleased with that.
*What is en primeur? It is a cunning system devised by the Bordelais to sell their best wines as early as possible. Long before they are bottled, let alone finished. It means merchants and critics taste violently purple wine taken shuddering from barrels just a few months after the grapes have been picked and sell them on the basis of a combination of judgment and hype. How can you tell if these tasting samples will accurately represent the final wine? You can’t. How is it possible to know whether a wine tasted so freakishly young will grow into a pleasant or a tormented adult? It isn’t always. Lots of people get it wrong a lot of the time. Why do we continue with such a crazy system? Because it works for the Bordelais, and until it stops working for the Bordelais, nothing will change. Why do I go? Because primeurs week acts as a crash course for what’s happening in a region that makes almost as much wine as Australia and is still the backbone of the investment market.