Bordeaux 2014 in barrel: Widen the critical scope
No use relying on a single palate
14 May 2015
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
Have you heard of Miguel Lecuona’s City Wine Journal?
Miguel has an excellent palate and takes some of the best pictures I have ever seen. We taste together on many occasions during the Bordeaux barrel tasting period. This year, we enjoyed a lovely dinner one evening and Miguel brought a fantastic Pomerol from 1970 that tasted fresh and still structured, with plenty of life and excitement. Low alcohol and perfumed aromatics. Lovely wine from another era. We dined chez Jane Anson, the famous English wine author and friend who is a superlative source of information – and influence.
For over 10 years, Jane has been decanter.com’s official Bordeaux news source and more recently covers Graves for the magazine. Her entertaining, informative and substantial book on the First Growths – Bordeaux Legends – is a reference for all #winelovers. Not only has Jane earned a diploma in wine tasting from Bordeaux, she also pens weekly wine columns worldwide, and her website, New Bordeaux, is fantastic.
While beavering away to post my (not entirely) complete notes on barrel samples from Bordeaux 2014, I came across an article about the Pope of Bordeaux wine criticism, Robert Parker, who pronounced that it would be “irresponsible” for any critic to not award 100 points to a wine that deserved it. Makes sense to me, but certainly not for barrel samples because they are not really final wines yet. They have not even been put in bottle.
But I bring that up only because Robert Parker is no longer writing about Bordeaux in barrel. He has passed the baton to the talented taster and author Neal Martin of the UK, who has been working for the Wine Advocates for several years already.
But why always focus on the Wine Advocate(s)?
Especially today, with so many reliable sources of information online – whether behind a paywall or not? More and more, we see retailers using point scores from a larger variety of critics. And then there is the burgeoning blogosphere.
Read from other palates – and trust your own
When it comes to Bordeaux wine writing, I urge readers to go to different sources to asses a given vintage.
With Facebook, Twitter, Vivino and Instagram, by way of blogs and wine forums – among so many other platforms and wine related media, we are in the midst of a (far) more democratic and (far) less egocentric world of wine criticism and points of view.
It is quite simply absurd to rely on one palate, no matter how saintly or talented.
I know that consumers often gravitate to a single so-called wine guru, but enough already.
The Bordeaux wine trade may be in a bit of a fix, as they can no longer just go to “Parker Points” to sell their wine… But for consumers, that makes the world of wine more interesting.
My advice always is to taste for yourself, go to your favorite wine seller who no doubt organizes tastings and assess with your own palate. Organize tastings with fellow wine lovers and assess things yourselves. Do blind tastings.
Of course some tasters have more experience than others, some work more than others at getting you their assessments. It is important for readers to get to know some of these fine writers and critics – and I would like to highlight a few of them here.
Take for example Jeff Leve, whom I have known for some 10 years. We meet regularly in Bordeaux during en primeur. Our palates do not always agree – Jeff likes what I call a more modern style of winemaking – but boy does Jeff work hard and he has a superb website devoted not only to Bordeaux but also to other fine wines of the world. So I encourage readers to check out Jeff’s Wine Cellar Insider. And to read his thorough notes on 2014 from barrel: HERE.
I have encountered talented palates who may not have their own websites (yet) but have incredible experience and talent in tasting wines. For example Kevin Shin, based in Washington D.C., regularly posts in the public online wine communities wine-berserkers.com and cellartracker.com. He tastes regularly with the Grand Jury Europeen and makes up part of the group of “Washington D.C. Winos” who know and appreciate fine wine better than most people – and I have the great pleasure and honor to taste with them when I return home for the winter holidays.
Another friend and member of the European elite tasting group Grand Jury Europeen is Jürgen Steinke, who is based near Freiburg, Germany and who – like me – has a full time job outside of wine, but with loads of experience and passion tasting Bordeaux.
Many other Bordeaux loving palates I appreciate include wine writers and educators Rebecca Leung and Julien Boulard, both based in Hong Kong. And the many bloggers associated with the #winelover movement… The list goes on and on. It may be bewildering but you can bookmark their blogs and get to know their tastes.
Adam Lechmere’s blog Rot entertains and informs. Adam has one of the best pens in the business: full of sharp, incisive and humorous wit.
And let’s not forget Bordeaux critics behind pay walls, from the superlative Bordeaux palate of Chris Kissack (Wine Doctor) to the anti-modern Bordeaux critiques of John Gilman in his insider newsletter View From the Cellar.
When writers visit Bordeaux for the annual barrel tastings, the Bordeaux grand cru union (UGCB) divides us into groups of 20 or so tasters. I belong to a group that tastes barrel samples blind, and I have gotten to know some great people in my group as a result, including talented tasters who reside in continental Europe.
These voices should be heard more often as well. Take for example Yves Beck in Switzerland and his website Beckustator. He has an ingenious and amusing way of critiquing wine as glou glou: it can be extraordinary glou glou or merely good glou glou. But seriously, Yves is widely followed in Europe because he has a fine palate.
As for 2014, he sagely writes that a vintage cannot be saved in two months. How I love Yves Beck’s franchise ! Indeed, he speaks of skepticism that is honestly felt every time we hear about how an Indian summer “saving” a vintage… As he explains from his website in French:
Après 10 visites de châteaux tout était clair ; tout le monde expliquait la même chose : le millésime était prédestiné à devenir un deuxième 2013. Fin août le moral était au plus bas. Heureusement, l’arrière-saison a tout sauvé.
Yves takes the time to explain that an Indian Summer alone cannot a vintage make. While most writers focused on that very late period of the vegetative cycle, Yves stresses how important May and June were – providing a good basis for the Indian Summer. Indeed, as Denis Dubourdieu explained in his vintage report, certain other preconditions had to be met to ensure that 2014 turned out well. And May and June were essential for that.
As for the eternal question, Left or Right Bank, Yves echoes comments by other writers that it was indeed a vintage for vintners and winemakers – although allowing for “more bad wines” on the right side of the aisle. Indeed, Yves and I agree that the Médoc provided the most successes. Yves explains that the Left Bank was more “a vintage for terroirs” while the Right Bank “a vintage of the winemakers”.
By the way, the whole notion of “European palates” is somewhat hogwash.
You can either taste wine or you cannot. And I have met European wine critics who like more modern styled wines as well as the more classically inclined…
Another great taster and writer in my Bordeaux barrel tasting group this year is Belgian-based Hugo Van Landeghem, whose careful tasting methods are second to none. I will never forget how he noticed just slightly off aromas from some glasses before a blind tasting in Bordeaux a few years ago. His nose is great. And I often ask him what he thinks of a wine that we both tasted, at least for reassurance.
So, for example, when I was utterly surprised at just how delicious Labegorce was blind in 2014, Hugo confirmed that notion: “That was one of my top three wines from this blind tasting.” And that tasting included many classified growths (excluding Palmer and Margaux, but including Rauzan Segla, Giscours, Lascombes, Malescot St Exupery and others).
A few writers from our group kindly sent me summaries of how they see 2014 from barrel, and with their permission, I include them below. Their comments and blogs should be known to more wine consumers worldwide.
Take fellow taster Izak Litwar from Denmark and his recently revamped – and highly informative – website Great Bordeaux. Izak has been tasting Bordeaux from barrel for the past 20 years. He is savvy and opinionated and Izak’s opinions should matter to anyone who wants to assess Bordeaux from barrel – or Bordeaux in general.
What Izak says about 2014:
Harvested Merlot was fine but late ripening Cabernets and Petit Verdot did even better. White grapes also ripened excellently. My barrel tastings reveal that Pessac-Leognan with its reds and whites together with Pauillac and St.Estephe stand strongest, as does Sauternes and Barsac, closely followed by Margaux, St.Julien, Haut Medoc and Medoc. Not really a single bad wine. Pomerol and St. Emilion together with satellites are more indifferent and not so homogenous in quality, however some stunning wines have been made there. In my honest opinion, 2014 is a very useful vintage, but selling wines depends on pricing and I’m not that optimistic that prices will go below 2013 vintage’s ones. Certainly, we’ll not see prices on the level with 2008 vintage, no matter how much we would like them to be!
Also in our group is fellow taster Niko Dukan, who hails from Croatia. Niko was more skeptical about Bordeaux 2014: “Did perfect conditions in September & October alone guarantee great wine?” he asks.
“Tasting 2014 showed that it’s not the case. Well, at least I was a bit disappointed…” Niko wrote.
Niko notes how 2014 seems “unique” and that comparisons with 2008, 2001, 1988 and other previous vintages are not always on target. Overall for Niko, 2014 is “in its majority, a pretty charming vintage.”
He also stressed the winemaker’s role in 2014:
“So we could speak about another winemaker’s vintage. Why? It was all about the balance! And precision! Such late conditions could easily have led to dilution of concentration & acidity. That’s why we were witnessing so many light, less complex wines…but the good benefit was tannin which was soft, silky & charming.”
While Niko liked the dry whites, he seemed a bit let down by Sauternes. “The whites were not exotic as usual, often with lot of nice fruits & flowers but the real point was in beautiful freshness, this year often packed in a lot of tension,” he wrote. He loved Domaine de Chevalier, de Fieuzal, Olivier, Latour Martillac and Carbonnieux among others. “Ok perhaps it was not that complex as in 2001 or 2011…but still very vibrating, alive & focused,” he said.
As for the stickies: “I was expecting a lot more from the sweets but they was pretty decent. Just some of them like Yquem, Lafaurie Peyraguey, Guiraud, Clos Haut Peyraguey and Rabaud Promis managed to achieve good balance.”
Oh, by the way, you can read my notes on Bordeaux 2014 from barrel here:
I can add more fine palates to this blog entry but the point?
Avoid relying on just one person. That would be silly.