Expertise

Sebastian Payne MW on assessing Bordeaux en primeur

When it comes to tasting young wines from cask and getting an overall picture of a vintage, context is every bit as important as content.

Sebastian Payne MW with current Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes
Sebastian Payne MW with current Bordeaux buyer Tim Sykes

Friends sometimes ask how it is possible to tell whether a young wine in cask will be any good. Mostly they are asking about claret. A short answer is experience. I have been tasting young wines for over 40 years, so I have seen them develop and mature. I have notes of the previous vintage with me when I try the new one and retest last year’s. More importantly, I have learned how to judge from people who had the experience before me.

I first visited some Bordeaux châteaux on holiday with my brother in the early seventies. Two memories stand out. A visit to a famous property in Pauillac, whose 1961 vintage helped to persuade us that claret was exciting, resulted in us buying a case of their 1971 vintage. When opened 10 years later it turned out to be acetic. What we had not known was that the property was badly run at the time and cellar handling was sloppy. A lesson learned. That property makes great wine now.

Christian Moueix inspecting grapes at Dominus in the Napa Valley, just one of the hands- on producers whose judgement I came to trust
Christian Moueix inspecting grapes at Dominus in the Napa Valley, just one of the hands- on producers whose judgement I came to trust

The other memory is a delight. We were driving round Pomerol looking for Château Trotanoy because we had drunk excellent earlier vintages and were lost (Pomerol had no road signs in those days). We asked a tall man we saw in a vineyard where it was. He turned out to be Christian Moueix who became head of the family company that owned and made Pétrus and several other top right bank properties. He explained that this was Trotanoy and showed us round, giving us a taste of other wonderful Moueix wines. Christian has always been hands on, familiar with every part of the Moueix estate and has shared an honest assessment of a vintage whenever I have visited as a buyer in my subsequent professional life. Trusting people who make the wine is as important as judging the sample.

Trusting people who make the wine is as important as judging the sample.’

I began going regularly to Bordeaux every year from the 1982 vintage and learned hugely from seasoned professionals who lived there: Nathie Johnston (one of Bordeaux’s most respected négociants, a family firm with good allocations of all the top châteaux), whose sons Archie and Ivanhoe inherited his finely tuned palate; Peter Sichel (owner of Angludet, part-owner of Palmer, with a dynamic merchant business as well), who understood how to find good inexpensive wine as well as classed growths; and later Denis Dubourdieu, who transformed the quality of Bordeaux whites and who was a brilliant viticulturist as well as winemaker; John Kolasa who ran Latour and subsequently, who then transformed Rauzan-Ségla for the Wertheimer family.

Then I benefitted too from the knowledge of Wine Society buyers, Albert Cable, Christopher Tatham and John McClusky, by tasting alongside them. Albert’s notes were unfashionably succinct. His greatest compliment was ‘A complete wine’. ‘Complete’ meant that a wine had perfect balance. It might apply to a simple wine or to a complex multi-faceted wine whose flavour lingered long in the glass and which therefore was entitled to cost a good deal more. The wine smelt good and tasted right from beginning to middle to end. He used the word sparingly.

I was lucky that the first year I was responsible for buying was the 1985 vintage. So many wines smelt wonderful immediately of healthy ripe fruit exuding charm – a promise they fulfilled. 1986, whose young clarets were closed and often fiercely tannic, was a tough lesson. Some critics loved them but with some honourable exceptions (the best are just coming round after 35 years), I never like the vintage as much as 1985.

Heading to an en primeur tasting of 2015s at Château Montrose. Gone are the days of one-to-one chats with cellar masters
Heading to an en primeur tasting of 2015s at Château Montrose. Gone are the days of one-to-one chats with cellar masters

There were fewer buyers in Bordeaux then and cellar masters, who were often more candid than their owners, had time to let you taste from several casks in the cellar at primeur time. Now, with so many visitors, samples of the final blend are usually tasted from bottles prepared in advance. Châteaux have also made efforts to make their wines more accessible young; some use the gloss of a new oak, or encourage malolactic fermentation in cask to soften them and nearly all pick later to ensure that grapes are fully ripe, with the help of better scientific analysis. For us, time spent in the vineyards, in the cellar and with people who make the wine, is invaluable for assessing potential. A lot of new oak can hide a hollow wine and super-ripe, super-concentrated grapes built to impress markets that prefer power to finesse, do not necessarily age well. Claret should be well-balanced and digestible, inviting a second glass; so, I am glad that the suspiciously deep-coloured super-charged wines of a decade ago are now less common.

One of the joys of wine is that no two vintages are alike. 2020 is quite different from 2019. The best 2020s are lower in alcohol (Lafite is 12.8% alc), usually more reserved with tannins evident. The great wines will need time. Managing the tannin and keeping the fruit fresh so that the balance is right is the key. There are more ups and downs in 2020 than in 2019 but there are lots of ups. No one district outshone the others. We found many excellent wines from the southern Médoc and Margaux. Cabernet sauvignon wines of the left bank succeeded best, as ever, in the most favoured sites which were harvested when their grapes were fully ripe, before the rain began on September 24th. Merlot grown in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion and on heavier clay soils of the Médoc, matured early, so was favoured; but quality on the right bank is always uneven. This is why we taste.

The best 2020 wines, less immediately appealing than 2019, recall an earlier age of wine that will benefit from 10, or in some cases, 20 years to show their best. Wines to lay down with confidence. But if Léoville Barton deserves 20 years, Beaumont will be lovely after four or five; and Angludet and Cantemerle will be delightful after six or seven years.

Sebastian Payne MW

Society Buyer

Sebastian Payne MW

Sebastian, our longest serving wine buyer, joined The Wine Society in 1973. He served as Chief Wine Buyer from 1985–2012.

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