What's it Like to Review Bordeaux Primeur for The Wine Advocate?

Well, it’s probably like being in the eye of a storm except that this whirlwind is silent. You’re aware of the attention and scrutiny, all part of the job, but mentally you bed yourself in an oasis of calm that is essential to remain objective. You have to shut out the noise. I guess working in a house inhabited by howling children is the best training—many articles have been composed with daughters squabbling over a Pokémon card in the next bedroom or Mrs. M vacuuming between my feet.

I have been attending the en primeur tastings since not long after the Dutch drained the marshes. The first few primeurs were invaluable, often accompanying merchants whose business and livelihoods depend upon this time of year. The mercantile aspect of en primeur has never left me and I have never been so naive to think that primeur revolves around reviews and scores. It pivots around business. Primeur is, essentially, châteaux setting up their stands and persuading négoçiants and merchants to invest in the previous year's vintage. Strip away all the gloss, the fancy dinners, carefully worded/raincloud expunged press releases and febrile atmosphere, primeur is about laying down cash on the table. Reviews are part of the process. They influence demand via third-party "independent" endorsements. They oil the wheels of transactions. However, fact is that only a handful of critics' opinions hold sway over demand.

Every person approaches en primeur in different ways. Those to be taken seriously will spend a minimum of two weeks in Bordeaux to obtain a comprehensive overview, glean information from winemakers and most importantly, re-taste samples in order to extrapolate forward. Then there are "professionals" cramming everything into four or five frenetic days, like tourists flitting from one attraction to another. Winemakers watch in dismay as they rattle through unfinished wines as if they had just necked a handful of amphetamines, then deliver their pearls of wisdom.

I commence tasting around the middle of March before the week of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeauxthe fulcrum of primeur tasting. Best not start too early, when the samples have only just ended their malolactic fermentation, yet there are tight deadlines if I want to file copy for the end-April issue and so I am wedged into a small window. The period prior to UGC week is quieter; that's the ideal time to conduct tête-à-têtes with winemakers up and down the Left and Right bank. Winemakers are usually fresh and enthused, not yet jaded by explaining the level of new oak for the umpteenth time or prevaricating over release prices. Roads are quiet apart from the Rocade, the eternally congested Bordeaux ring-road that is ostensibly a car-park each rush hour.

En primeur should never be a race to publish notes. The inane rush to be the first to publish scores is like bragging to your wife that you can come really quickly. And it's just as (un)satisfying. Even though I taste early, I never reveal off-the-cuff impressions until the report is published at the end of April. I dislike using social media to post evaluations, thereby reducing a year's work into a 140 syllables. Take stock. Contemplate. Pen something meaningful. The wines are not released until late-April onwards, so what's the rush (apart from self-promotion)?  

Packing my suitcase there is essential equipment. The two most important are passport and iPad. I can lose everything else but as long as I remain in possession of these, the wheels won't fall off. I take basic clothes, often an inappropriate gaudy t-shirt to wind up courtiers in their spotless suit and ties, maybe a tuxedo if forced by invite, a real bow-tie or a clip-on depending on whether I want to shout expletives into a mirror. Usually the latter wins unless there is someone who can do it for me, just like my personal assistant, on hand to tie up my shoelaces. Apart from this, just a copy of the itinerary that I will lose on the second day, euphemism cream to protect from excessive hyperbole, a tear-stained comfort blanket, first aid kit and a Scream mask in case I need to go incognito. This year I will be debuting my olive green New Balance trainers, my token gesture towards smartness.

I usually leave my home at the crack of dawn: taxi pick-up at 5:30 a.m., caffè latte at Jamie's in the Gatwick airport to reactivate metabolism, EasyJet it down to Merignac, hire a car, and off I go. I can get to the first château by 11:30 a.m. unless, a) I miss my flight, which happened once and banjaxed my visit to Haut-Brion or b) there is a French air controller strike, which is the first Monday and every other Wednesday of every month.

The first week is spent visiting châteaux: six or seven, sometimes eight per day. You have to be efficient. It's usually a handshake or smalltalk en route to the tasting room and then the winemaker, often flanked by vineyard manager and/or cellar-master, gives me the inside track. You have to parse factual information from sales patter because, essentially, each château is selling their wine and putting it in the best possible light. Every winemaker has an emotional attachment to their last wine. It’s their baby. In their heart—if not their head—it is a 100-point masterpiece. And actually, that's a good thing, because if you care now, then you cared when you were making the wine. Nowadays many châteaux, at least at the top of the hierarchy, have changed from family concerns to multi-million euro corporations and the omnipresent weight of shareholder expectations is palpable. Dismissal dangles over managers' furrowed brows. Sometimes I see it etched on faces, that soupçon of doubt in a "difficult" growing season. I want to say, "Hey, it's not your fault it pissed down during the entire harvest," but businesses do not accept excuses. However gargantuan your wealth and however many millions have been invested in a state-of-the-art winery, your product is at the mercy of Mother Nature's caprice. Unfortunately, that does not appear on the balance sheet.

Photo by Johan Berglund

Growing season summaries are endless blue skies, idyllic harvest conditions and problem-free vinifications. Utopia essentially. Nobody is going to say: "Yeah, we totally screwed up and picked the Merlot on the wrong day..." or "It was a bummer when the pickers went AWOL" or "The electricity cut out just as we switched on the de-stemmer." These things happen, even in Bordeaux, so you have to eke out that information. It's a bit like interviewing a film star promoting their new film when what you really want to know is the co-star they are shagging. Sometimes this information is off-record and, of course, you respect that absolutely. About a quarter of all the information I learn is unpublishable but it enhances understanding of the vintage. 

These days, en primeur runs like a well-oiled machine. It's organised months in advance: temporary parking to cope with all the Audi 4x4s, marquees that can withstand tornadoes, catering that would make Robuchon blush, stemware (Riedel or Zalto?), babes clad in designer garb to escort sexually-frustrated single men to the tasting room. Make them feel special, if only for 30 seconds. (I am sure there is a model agency that specialises in "primeur femmes fatales".) Bordeaux is on show to the world and it must look its best. If you plough your vineyard by horse than you can guarantee that equine employees will be working overtime in March or April. 

Covering Burgundy, I appreciate the chichi tasting rooms in Bordeaux. They are clean, warm and well-lit. Many have wifi, which has not been invented in the Côte d'Or. There is often a large gleaming white table hewn from the last remaining strata of super-rare marble and a panorama over the vines down to the Gironde. Usually a horse will be ordered to plod across the vineyard escorted by the most grizzled and bucolic-looking vineyard worker, just before the Grand Vin is poured, then both sent back to their stables before the next visit. Compare this to Burgundy, where I am often balancing my laptop between two barrels in an Arctic cellar covered in black mould trying desperately trying to prevent losing sensation in my fingers. (In fact, I have been known to stop a tasting and run my hands under warm water to restart circulation). Of course, one significant difference is that in Bordeaux you taste pre-prepared samples and in Burgundy the pipette is dunked straight into barrel. There is much speculation re. the infamous "journalist" sample. Certainly I have first-hand accounts of the malpractice and even the recipe of what was done in the past, albeit from winemakers who did a vintage in Bordeaux and scarpered. You have to be wary of pimped up samples, therefore I always ask how they are prepared, especially in terms of new oak that preferably is in proportion to the final blend. That is certainly not always the case. Some samples are from a new barrel and some château eschew new wood entirely. You need to know that information. This is just one reason why tasting en primeur blind is complete sham. 

I have written several times how blind tasting unfinished barrel samples is total bollocks—it's like watching a child who has just learned to ride a bike shout "Look dad! No hands!" before they crash into a wall. Firstly, barrel samples are highly changeable so fingers crossed the sample turns up on a good day. But how does the taster know it's bad (and I write this having rejected several bottles because they just didn't feel right and tasting wine multiple times). Secondly, some samples come from a spanking new barrel. Some from used. Some from a proportional blend. If you don't know, then how do you conjecture what the sample might become? Answer: you cannot. Thirdly, it’s unfair that one set of château are racked up and assessed blind whilst others get free PR. Go visit the properties that are willing to submit samples instead of genuflecting at those that wisely refuse. To repeat, tasting en primeur blind is not just fooling readers, it is the taster fooling themselves and if you are unable to remain objective in sight of a label then why are you a critic.

I type my tasting notes directly onto my iPad which is connected to a "cloud." Look up in the sky and you can see hundreds of Wine Advocate scores that will rain down every two months. Fortunately I am a bit of a demon typist therefore by the time I finish en primeur, 99% of the notes will be written and simply need proofing, which saves several decades of work. Not only that, but typing the finished note directly tends to concentrate the mind. From a priori you get a "live" retelling of your encounter rather than a retrospective edited version. Essentially, the thoughts ticker-taping through my brain flow out through my fingers and as a consequence I can type "Cabernet Sauvignon" in a nanosecond. Sometimes the software that the WA uses to log tasting notes can suddenly freeze. This will result in the reviewer grinding to a halt as they pray to God that their epic and meaningful tasting note has not been lost. One tries to control frustration as the perplexed winemaker wonders whether this is some kind of game and whether they should take part too? (This is probably where the mannequin challenge began.)

Wine Advocate's Neal Martin with Olivier Berrouet, Winemaker at Petrus in Pomerol.

If you aspire to be a poker player than primeur is perfect training. You have to keep a stoic facade. Someone once told me that my default expression is one of utter boredom. I feign ennui and I'm quite good at it. In fact, the more bored and pissed off I look, the more I probably like your wine. Maybe I smile out of sympathy? Often I might be asked for feedback and I’m happy to give vague comments, but no more. I am not a consultant. But I think it is fair that if someone has made the effort to present their wine that I should give some food for thought that they can either use of ignore. Sometimes winemakers will actually describe the wine that you yourself are garlanding with adjectives. This is natural but distracting, so I blank out the audio, and put the interlocutor on mute until they've stopped telling me about the brilliance of their "baby." I would probably do the same if I was a winemaker, so I never hold it against someone when they enthuse about a year's hard work. But you cannot allow it to influence judgement. 

The merchants will descend during en primeur week although nowadays more come before or after. They will roam in packs, postbox red corduroys with handkerchief folded perfectly into their breast pocket for merchants with royal seals of approval, normal attire for the proles. Bloggers will be sporting specially made t-shirts printed with their website address in day-glo lettering and Masters of Wine wear velvet capes embroidered by MW students toiling in a Dickensian sweatshop beneath Vintners House. I will probably be the most scruffy person in the room, as if some homeless person has wandered into the Saint Estèphe tasting by mistake. 

Many châteaux will host merchants and journalists, but I have stayed in the Hotel Ibis since my first en primeur. In fact, the same hotel has gone through three incarnations, although the hardcore porn was discontinued when its clientele changed from truckers to families. The Ibis is basic and clean, the croissants flaky and that's all I need. I am constantly offered accommodation at châteaux but I cannot understand how you can critique somebody's wine and then remind them that you like your eggs poached in the morning. 

Towards the end of my primeur "marathon" I usually attend comprehensive tastings at négoçiants. Though they vary in professionalism, there is one in particular whose conditions are so perfect that it's like tasting in a library. I have a specific set of conditions, ideal ergonomics for primeur and indeed all large-scale tastings. I need the wines poured. I need a precise order. I need spec sheets printed. I go quicker in the morning and slow down in the afternoon. I like breaks every dozen-or-so wines. I need a shoulder massage whenever I am stressed, and, occasionally my brow will need to be gently mopped by a courtesan. Sometimes I might put some music on in the background but that's where it must stay. Jazz or classical works well because I am not passionate about either. Sometimes winemakers aware of my musical predilections will play my favorite artist but its too distracting. John Coltrane—yes. Radiohead—no. J.S. Bach.—yes. Arctic Monkeys—no. 

Nowadays I usually spend three weeks tasting en primeur. By the end I am knackered but of course, there is still much to be done. You have to turn dozens of random files into a cohesive report. Back to Blighty... 

You sit in the cattle pen that is the EasyJet "Billi" terminal, the adrenaline wearing off so that your head seems to be undergoing some kind of reverse osmosis and your hands get the shakes. However, that's when the work starts because it has to be typed. As I mentioned, the notes are already done, which means I can focus on the introductions and numerous interviews, piecing the jigsaw together. My goal is to avoid identikit primeur reports and author something that is individual. Why not use imagination and offer prose that is entertaining and humorous because despite the importance of en primeur, it's kinda funny. A lot of my early reports were quite surreal, as anyone who remembers the "A to Z of Primeur" will attest. Even today, working for this esteemed publication, I'll write a preamble to ease readers in, the jocular and sardonic tone of a Trojan horse by which you can not only communicate the main points of the vintage, but entertain controversy. You have the protection of a fictitious third-party voice (actually an amalgam of real acquaintances). It's all written with the wink of the eye. The remainder of the report is relatively straightforward but important because it gives reason to your views and score. Why is this one amazing and why is that one poor? Scores will only tell you so much. 

The size of the report coupled with the time to write it can be ominous, as anyone in my position will tell you. You are looking at 700 to 800 wines in total, about 70,000 to 80,000 words once you include all the interviews and introduction. This year, it will take about five days to write that. The print copy varies because you need a longer lead time to complete the pagination and printing. We normally make space for 250 to 300 words that are essentially the last passenger leaping aboard a moving train heading straight to the printers. Last year I had 24 hours to file copy. It's intense. It's the real work. This is what my salary is for, not galavanting around Bordeaux. But I like the rush. I've gotten accustomed to it over the years, notwithstanding that everything is still fresh in the mind. And after pushing yourself to the brink both mentally and physically, you'll still get someone complaining that you missed the acute accent off Prieuré-Lichine

The day of publication will be the end of April. (Last year I was tasting in Oregon so I kind of missed it.) Once a report is filed, corrections made, I move on. Primeur is done. It's over. There's no going back. There are more wines in the world than Bordeaux. I am aware that the scores will be devoured, but you hope that all the effort that has gone into writing means that the entire piece will be read. Truth is that only a small percentage have time to do that. A majority will just register the numbers. They'll be fed into algorithms that boil a vintage down to some kind of DNA soup. What can you do? I certainly don't see a vintage like that. It’s about pleasure, enjoyment, stories and people. But scores are a vital and essential means of translating your appreciation into a lingua franca understood by everyone. It holds you accountable and that's a good thing. There's no hiding. But as I have said before, they are just the first snapshots of a wine that you will track throughout its life. 

And that, my friend, gives you a taste of what it's like reviewing Bordeaux for the Wine Advocate. It's a lot of responsibility. It's kinda crazy. And it's kinda fun.

Banner photo by Johan Berglund.

More articles from this author