Judging a claret vintage

Sebastian Payne MW

When I first joined The Wine Society, I took over the post of Promotions Manager, a role previously occupied by Clive Coates MW. He became wine buyer for Bristol Transport Hôtels and its Malmaison Club and subsequently Les Amis du Vin before becoming a full-time wine writer. It was he who inaugurated a group of independent wine merchants to meet once a year to taste and compare as many of the major clarets of one recent vintage that we could lay our hands on or had imported. The aim was to assess their progress, and I have been doing this annually since the 1985 vintage, the first for which I was The Wine Society’s Bordeaux buyer.

Clive Coates MW

The group, which now numbers 13 independent merchants and brokers, and now three wine writers (though Clive has retired), met this January in Southwold over two and a half days to taste 92 clarets, 20 white Bordeaux and 26 Sauternes of the 2011 vintage. All the wines are tasted blind in groups of 9 to 12 wines of similar appellation and price bands. Most of us will have tasted the same wines, not blind, in April 2012 in Bordeaux, some several times, at the en-primeur tastings when we make our selection.

The Southwold tasting is an invaluable way of finding out how the wines have developed and checking whether our choices were right. 2011 was a difficult year for Bordeaux, not in the class of the outstanding 2005, 2010, 2009 and 2000, more on a level with 2008. The top wines are very good, but in a rather strict sense will mostly need a good 12–15 years keeping. Some of the most enjoyable were made with a lighter touch and will be good to drink from about 2016/2017.

The top half-dozen dry whites stood out from the crowd, including La Tour Martillac one of the best value. There were a dozen really classy Sauternes which will give great pleasure and promise long life. Doisy-Védrines looks a snip.

Assessing drink dates for wines is an art not a science and the perfect time to pull the cork is also a matter of personal taste. This is why we tend to give wines a ‘drinking window’ rather than assign a dogmatic drink by date. Read more about this in Shaun Kiernan’s article.

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