Saturday, June 13, 2009

Coup de gueule: Follow the wine press or not?

Follow the wine press or not?

I will start this post by stressing the point that I'm more and more, and way to often, disappointed by the wine press in newspapers, highly distributed magazines and even sometimes by some Blogger's post and other highly regarded wine oriented internet websites... They all seem to follow the trend without really trying to understand the nature of the wine, the region of origin or the particularity of certain vintage.

Of course, don't get me wrong, I know, there are wines for everybody, and people have different tastes and palates and enjoy a wide array of things, from very esoteric, barnyardy, super earthy, acidic and tannic wines to ultra overripe, super extracted, high alcohol, super oaky, fruit bomb...but like with everything else, balance and harmony are everything (in my opinion), and when a vintage is mediocre or a wine is disgusting for whatever reason, people should refrain from writing good thing about it simply because a more influential wine critics or highly regarded magazine already tried to prove you and convince you of the opposite.

Let me open this debate with an annoying example dear to my heart:

Bordeaux 2003

I remember, when I came back from the 2003 "En Primeur" tasting in Bordeaux (where I tasted roughly about 600-700 wines, from both banks and in between, including more than once in diverse occasions for some), I hated the vintage and thought that, overall, the vintage was fairly inconsistent, unharmonious and I remain extremely cautious about what to buy. But the overall wine press, at the time, claim fairly loudly that the vintage was extremely good with a lot of ripeness and opulent fruit due to the infamous heat wave of summer 2003. The prices skyrocketed to unprecedented records and for months, the press tried to blind people about the quality of the vintage and the ageing potential of the wines.

You see, something incredibly unusual happened this summer 2003; a rarely seen before and somewhat unwelcome heat wave overwhelmed the agricultural world, and for our subject of the day, the wine world.

Most of the wine producing countries of Western Europe were badly touched, and most producers didn’t know how to react? What to do to counter the heat wave and still produce a good, juicy wine? As a result many producers made mistakes (which was normal) facing this somewhat unrealistic situation and rarely seen before high temperature rise, and more especially in Bordeaux (rain fall is usually high through out the year in Bordeaux and the oceanic climate, the gulf stream and the influence of the Gironde, The Garonne and the Dordogne River temperate the area and usually regulate the temperature).

Moreover, the previous Bordeaux 2002 vintage and the following 2002-2003-winter season were not that great and fairly humid, therefore even the vines were fairly unprepared to support the heat of the 2003 summer and react to it.

You see to better understand the situation; we can compare the overall climate and meteorology of 2003 and 2005 vintages which both experienced similar extremely hot temperatures through out the summer and fall season. The difference (between these two vintages) is that in 2005, the vines were more prepared to counter the heat wave because the previous 2004-2005 winter-spring seasons were fairly dry with less overall rain fall, lowering the level of the “Phreatic water cave” (naturally carved underground water reserve caves or layers, also known as “Nappe Phréatique” in French) and consequently the amount of humidity on the surface layers of the ground. Thus, during the 2004-2005 winter-spring seasons, the vines had to send their roots deeper into the sub-layers of the soil and reach lower into the ground to find water and moist layers, responding to a natural need and somehow involuntarily preparing the vines to better support and adapt to the heat wave of 2005. Which, as explain above, wasn’t the case in 2003. And we all know the result….

Bordeaux 2003 was an extremely hot, dry year where most producers harvested way to early to keep a maximum of freshness and acidity in their wines, forgetting to consider the needed full maturity and phenolic ripeness of the grapes to avoid unripe tannins (that occur in the seeds, stems and more importantly grape skin) and unwanted green bitterness. Realizing their mistakes, most producers stopped the harvest and decided to wait to take advantage of the sun and the temperatures to harvest (a 2nd time), but at full or even over-ripeness (sugar ripeness this time) to concentrate the fruit and counter balance their first mistake. So, we all know too that yields were lower, therefore the production was smaller and the unexplained excitement of the press soar the demand and prices skyrocketed.

However, what I wanted to say is that somewhat because of the press fooling around about the 2003 vintage and its qualities, blinding people, they forgot to mention the 2nd mistake: unable to go back on their mistakes and somehow ready to please the demand (seeing that prices could go quite high and even higher than the 2000 vintages which was already the highest prices ever paid “en primeur”) most producers blended both harvests together, resulting in unbalanced, unharmonious deep colored red wines with lack of acidity, high alcohol, over-ripe (even slightly to completely stewed, in some cases) fruit flavors, complemented by huge yet green bitter tannins and almost sour angularities (and again weird acidity). The whites were heavy, lacking in acidity and mostly unrefreshing. The sweets were also in my opinion too concentrated and lacking in balance.

Don’t get me wrong some yet very few (in my opinion) did an excellent job; and a good winemaker will always be a good winemaker (good years, bad years), even more with today’s technologies that almost allow any winemaker to play Jesus by turning (it is a figure of speech) water into wine (and vice and versa…. knowing that nowadays, you can acidify, de-acidify, chaptalize, Reverse Osmosis, Micro-Oxygenation, Carbonic Maceration, add nutrients, yeasts, artificially increase aromas and flavors, etc…).

During the “En Primeur” campaign of 2003 Bordeaux, the prices attained higher ceiling than ever before, making the booed and almost unnoticed 2002 vintage a real bargain (some of those 2002 Bordeaux reds are quite nice and drink fantastically well now by the way). The press was pushing the 2003 vintage, especially in the American market, promoting the quality of its unprecedented super ripeness, apparently “en Vogue” among the non-connoisseurs usually despising Bordeaux wines for lack of ripe fruit (..but this fascinating subject will need another post, another day).

Then when the vintage was in bottle and just before it arrived in the various warehouse of the multiple Bordeaux specialized Négociants, importers, distributors and wholesalers, as always it was the war between the American press and the European press, the American more in favor of the super ripe, intense wines of the lot and the European press a bit more conservative, especially the British, which generally prefers Bordeaux wines being less ripe, with higher acidity and tannins.

I tasted a lot of these 2003 Bordeaux wines again, once in the bottle, and found pretty much the same defaults, as during the “En primeur” campaign: ultra ripe even slightly stewed fruit (totally cooked for some), somewhat unbalanced and unharmonious in the mid-palate, with, in some cases too much wood topping the stewed-cooked-prune fruit flavors, but more especially some kind of green-bitterness in the finish, brought surely by the mix of high alcohol and some unripe tannins and seeds oil. Which, even with age, won’t disappear or attenuate to the point of getting better, they will remain green, bitter and surely unpleasant. The high alcohol will not settle down either. And it is only with good amount of acidity and ripe, present yet integrated tannins that the wine will be able to last and age properly. Therefore I didn’t like this vintage and didn’t think that the wines will last and will be better with time (of course, some surely will, but overall very few of them, and in Bordeaux they are often the same…but this subject as well deserves another post in itself).

Nearly two years later, the 2003 in bottle campaign was a nightmare. The international press started to realize its errors and some people lowered some of their scores, although the “Négociant Bordelais” were selling like crazy due to the demand, the prices continued their ascension and the American market couldn’t stop buying.

Then the problems began. I remember telling my old boss, my concerns regarding the vintage and on how many cases we should buy. I remember being very conservative. Trying to tell him that the prices were too expensive and that despite the huge demand, consumers may refrain at the last minute of buying such wines at these prices. Moreover, words that the vintage wasn’t as good as anticipated, and that it won’t keep, started to spread around. The press was somewhat confused, concern and shared in too many ways regarding what will happen. The difference of opinion in between critics on both sides of the Atlantic startled consumers, buyers and speculators.

At first, the press’ passion and excitement for the 2003 vintage created waves of rarely seen before attitudes among beginners, amateurs and connoisseurs (except may be for the 2000, 1982,1985 and a few more vintages), but then the confusion that followed destabilized the market. In Europe and Asia the market was all right and sales were soaring. In the US, with a degrading market in regard to the French and their wines due the Iraq war and the insanity of the prices, the campaign didn’t go necessarily has plan and the Dollar devaluation didn’t help either.

People realized that the wines were not as great as expected and wouldn’t last for as many years as predicted. Some people even cancel their pre-order cases or bought less than anticipated. Many retails found themselves with huge lot of 2003 Bordeaux vintage in-stock (in their basement or warehouse) that will not move for a little while, a costly sleeping beauty. If you ask the Négociants Bordelais or the Chateaux owners, they will tell you that it was a great campaign for them, but for the retailers around the planet, and more especially in the US, it was another story.

Although prices for the 2003 vintages continued to climb in Europe and Asia, they were declining in the US. Retailers and even restaurateurs had to lower their prices and barely make money on them to be able to sell them. Even worst, I remember, going to Bordeaux (for some “En Primeur” tastings in 2005, 2006and 2007) and even in some of the various well-established and highly recommended restaurants where we were going, the Sommeliers were trying to get rid of their 2003s (may be because we were American, but I especially think that it was because they knew the wine will not last and that it was better to sell it to an American known for their fruitier and riper palate, then to try to fool some French or British buyers (who will, in some cases, sarcastically and eventually reject the wine or have difficulties to be convince).

My point for this post being that I will rather see and read less immediate passion and excitement from the press about wines that are not in bottles yet and vintages that are finally not as good as they appeared to be at first glance. So, please, critics and journalists, and other writers and bloggers (like me), be more cautious and more accurate regarding the wines you tasted and the overall vintage you described.

Try to understand my point. Like for anything else in life, you must diversify your source of information and be dedicated to what you do. You must write with conviction and interest, with passion and excitement but after mature reflection and study of the subject you going to write about. Do not follow the trend of the instant without really trying to understand the nature of the wine, the terroir and the region of origin or the particularity of certain vintage. Taste without any external influences (or as less as possible) and be true to yourself but more especially be true and honest to the wine you tasted, for your sake, the producers’ sake and the consumers’ sake. Don’t let yourself inspire by others, let the wine tells you what it has to say and deliver its perspectives and characteristics. Your taste buds need to express themselves in regard to the tasted wine and what it tasted like, not in regard of what it is supposed to taste or who made it or what brand it is, or even what price you paid for it You must pay attention to the terroir of origin, the different microclimates and all the other reasons why a wine taste like this or like that. And if the wine is not good or the vintage is bad, do not try (once again) to follow the current or the trend of others: say it like it is or don’t say it at all.

Over my last 17 years of wine tasting and wine buying, tasting roughly about 6,000 wines a year and at least 500-700+ during each “En Primeur” campaign, I always obey one rule: I only follow my nose and more especially my taste buds. I may have had some bad days (like anybody) where I wasn’t always 100% satisfy by my physical condition and my taste buds (tired, too many tastings, just ate or drink some coffee, etc..), but always taste the wine 2 or 3 times before I buy it. Like a doctor or more precisely a surgeon, I dissect it, separate every components of it, analyze it in every aspect, try to understand it, try to comprehend it, search for more info about where it come from, the terroir, the soil, the exposition, what surround the vineyard, how they care of the vines, etc…. I basically try to know the wine in order to appreciate it, buy it and especially recommend it.

Of course, don't get me wrong, I know, there are wines for everybody, and people have different tastes and palates and enjoy a wide array of things, from very esoteric, barnyardy, super earthy, acidic and tannic wines to ultra overripe, super extracted, high alcohol, super oaky, fruit bomb...but like with everything else, balance and harmony are everything (in my opinion), and when a vintage is mediocre or a wine is disgusting for whatever reason, people should refrain from writing good thing about it simply because a more influential wine critics or highly regarded magazine already tried to prove you and convince you of the opposite.

I took Bordeaux 2003 vintage as an example because (in my opinion) it is one of the most obvious and controversial wine press scams of this decade, and it is with this vintage that Bordeaux shot a bullet in its foot and started losing its reputation and sales in the US market.

The year 2003 seem to have been the year of “Blog”, with an explosion of bloggers (including many wine bloggers that year, -beginners, amateurs and highly regarded connoisseurs-, and even much more, over the past 6 years), joining the fight, tired of reading a press influenced in too many ways and ready to deliver their own messages.

In conclusion, I will say that I’m not against the wine press, I’m just asking openly the question: “Follow the wine press or not?” There are more (and more) wine educated consumers avid of more info and especially quality wines (moreover at a decent price of course) in the US and everywhere else in the world than 10-15-20 years ago. So, in fact, wine press should continue to exist in its many forms in order to educate, to orient, to suggest and to help consumers to make their buying choices. However, don’t overestimate certain vintages and don’t speculate about the prices.

The younger generations seem eager to learn and comprehend. Therefore wine press people, don’t follow the trend, respect the wine you taste, procure more info about it and be more specific and more details instead of constantly contradicting yourself. Fully review and accept your opinions, articles and scores before feeding us with, sometimes, unfounded and unreflected opinions, and articles thatare the opposite of what you said previously.

Like for the movies and cinema in general, wine press critics and mainstream crowds often disagree (amateurs and connoisseurs included on both sides), but in my opinion, the 2003 vintage (in most Europe) set a new standard for the gulf between what reviewers and mass consumers like. And after that, the market and the wine buyers and consumers’ way of buying has never been the same….


LeDom du Vin

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Read more of my “Coup de Gueule!” and follow of my stories about other vintages in specific wine regions on my wine blog at

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