An Amateur’s First Taste of En Primeur 2017

An amateur’s first taste of en primeur should be a special memory. Read on to find out why.

You might have read Donal’s en primeur (EP) trilogy of blog posts last year (here, here and here) and may have come across the term in subsequent posts and articles. This year we decided to invite a ‘non-wine-expert’ to accompany us on our recent 2017 EP tasting trip. This is his account of same – James.

A guest blog post written by Jim Kelly of O’Connor & Kelly recounting his visit to Bordeaux and first taste of en primeur, with the Green Acres Team.

Would I be interested in a visit to Bordeaux to taste some wine? “Absolutely yes,” I responded to Donal and James when they suggested the trip and this guest blog post. I mean who wouldn’t like a leisurely three full days in sunny south-west France, sipping wine? All agreed then, the Aer Lingus flights were booked for Monday 9th April.

I must come clean here and advise that my two passions in life are rugby union and wine. So, on the wine front, I do know a little about it i.e. I have sampled a lot in the pursuit of that ‘one bottle’, obviously under the guise of research. Plenty of my friends do wonder why I resort to a glass of wine when they are swilling pints – but I am relentless in my quest.

However, this was to be my first taste of en primeur wine! I mean like, out of a barrell!!

This trip was to form part of my journey of discovery. To mentor and observe me on the trip were James and Paula O’Connor, Donal Morris and Patrick O’Connor. Experts in their field, I hasten to add.

What I didn’t realise was that this sojourn in France was a working one for the Green Acres gang and that I really knew almost nothing about the wine industry. Read on.

En Primeur 2017 – Touchdown in Bordeaux.

Our flight on Monday was a little delayed, which I had no problem with until Donal advised that our first appointment was scheduled for 4.30pm. What? Our flight landed at 4.15pm! While the plane taxied in, Donal rang the Chateau (as you do) and through his relationship with them, they slotted us in at 5.00pm for our first tasting of EP 2017.

I should have realised what the rest of the week held in store for me when by 4.50pm we had gone through airport security and customs, picked-up the hire car, battled our way through rush-hour traffic and arrived at the Chateau with a smile.

It was only when we arrived at the Chateau Haut Brion /Mission Haut Brion that the full legacy of its history impacted me. I mean, it was Napoleon III’s 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris that prompted what now is called the Classification of 1855 and this Chateau was one of the top five on the list (called 1st Growths).

(Here is what a quick google search found: The 57 appellations of Bordeaux are not classified in a single official ranking. The Medoc, Sauternes and Barsac, Graves and Saint Emilion districts have their own internal systems.) I’m not going to attempt to list them all here but suffice to say that there I was ready to taste in one of the most historic Chateau in Bordeaux. No pressure so.

We were checked off the invite list and led to our places by a very smart looking young lady dressed in black. As we entered the mahogany-clad room, James explained that it would be a long three days and that I should not swallow the wines when tasting.

Donal outlined how to spit without dribbling, Patrick laughed at me when I wondered how I could taste without swallowing and Paula hoped that I had brought plenty of shirts with me.

This was serious stuff. The Chateau’s tasting room was almost church-like. Hushed tones, stained glass windows, and long wooden tables. Seven glasses of wine poured stood defiantly in front of me and a spittoon on my right filled me with trepidation.

I did not want to let the side down at my first taste of en primeur – especially here! Anyway, there was a bottle of water, which I thought to myself – in the worst case scenario, I could drink that without looking like a fool.

I noticed that each glass had the name of the wine underneath it on the table mat so I looked around to see if I should start and realised that everybody was already swirling, sniffing, slurping and spitting. Dilemma – which glass do I start with? I noticed Patrick starting on the left and working his way to the right – and I was off.

So as to avoid anybody’s sensitive nature I will not describe my first spittoon adventure. Suffice to say, I put my mouth too close to the implement and there was splashback (I don’t think anybody noticed though).

I was impressed with how professional and accommodating the Chateau people were and how they assisted your efforts in every way. They even took the picture below for this amateur (that’s me saying cheers instead of working). This would be a busy week for them entertaining hundreds of wine experts from around the world.

They supplied us with pens and a little tasting booklet with notes on the vintage. You know the usual stuff – varietal mix, climatic conditions, harvest dates, vineyard size, soil types and winemaker’s description. Phew!

There were a few people standing in the shadows (also wearing black), ready to answer any question that you may have on the vintage. Just when I was feeling that this is where I belong, I looked down and spotted red wine splashes on the front of my light blue shirt.

I did think of using the white wine on offer to rub it but didn’t think that was appropriate bearing in mind the quality of the white wines and Green Acres’ brand reputation.

Other attendees (the ones with no wine splashes) were writing on smartphones, laptops, tablets or in those old-fashioned devices – notebooks. Oh man, I’ll never be able to look a table wine in the face again, back home.

We headed off to check-in to our accommodation in downtown Bordeaux and a quick shirt change (for me). Later that evening we attended a wonderful evening hosted by Bruno Borie of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, tasting their vintages back to 1982.

Day Two Tasting En Primeur 2017.

6.00am – yes, six-o-clock in the morning the alarm went off to start the day of our Left Bank tasting. Breakfast consisted of a coffee and croissant from a roadside boulangerie. This was en route to our first appointment at Chateau Calon Segur at 8.30am.

A bit early you say, well I thought so too but at least it was easier to spit out the wine at that hour of the day.

Now, I’m not going to even attempt to describe any of the wines we tasted as the Green Acres team were taking copious notes on every single one of them – I think it was 71 in total on that day. Donal will be making his tasting notes available in due course, particularly when the EP offers are available to the public.

What I will do though, is list the Chateaux we visited and the Union de Grand Cru Bordeaux (UGC) events we attended. Of course, I have to mention that I got to visit three more 1st Growth Chateaux that day – Chateau Lafite – Rothschild, Chateau Margeaux and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. What a treat that was – walking through the gates of history and tasting their wines. I’ll never forget it.

Chateau Calon Segur

Chateau Lafite – Rothschild

Chateau Montrose

UGC at Chateau Pedesclaux

UGC at Chateau Beychevelle

Chateau Leoville Las Cases

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou

UGC at Chateau Siran

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Mouton

Allow me to explain the UGC, I referred to above. There are 134 Chateaux in the Grand Crus Union. The Union organises events where the Chateaux owners can get together to show their wines/vintages as a group from the area.

On this occasion, they would all show their 2017 vintage of their various vineyards/styles/brands. That would mean at each event there could be approx. 16/20 Chateaux showing 2 or 3 of their wines. And they all had to be tasted (and noted by Donal and the team).

I will admit right here and right now that I was shattered by 6.00pm on that day. I blame the 270Km covered (as a passenger), the walking, the standing, the concentration, the swirling, the tasting and minding my shirt. My palate was shot, my teeth and lips were purple and my feet were tired.

Yes, I did have a little doze in the car on the way back to Bordeaux.

I suppose what surprised me most during the day was the sheer pressure to get the tastings done, take your notes and move on the next appointment – on time. Approximately 6,500 wine experts from around the world alight on Bordeaux for EP week so just imagine all those cars, buses and people whizzing around the Chateaux of Bordeaux.

The Green Acres team had a very special treat in store for me that evening. Back in Bordeaux we were hosted to dinner by the Opus One team. We had an aperitif downstairs in their cellar (a wonderful ambiance) and they even allowed me to swallow their magnificent wines with my meal.

What a wonderful evening in great company but before I got too comfortable, Patrick reminded me that we had the Right Bank tastings to do on the next day – spoilsport.

Day Three Tasting En Primeur 2017.

On Wednesday, we were up at 6.45am for our day’s tasting on the Right Bank.

So with me in another fresh shirt, we headed across the river and off to the beautiful regions of St Emilion and Pomerol. Our first stop was at the fabulous, Vieux Chateau Certan.Once again, I have no intention of providing you with any tasting notes but I am happy to say that my spitting technique was getting much better. One tiny little splash late in the afternoon meant progress for me.

As I alluded to above, the classification for St Emilion and Pomerol is different from the Left Bank but just look at these names: I got to visit the Premier Crus (Classes A) of Chateau Ausone and Chateau Cheval Blanc and Premier Crus (Classes B) of Chateau Figeac and Chateau Canon

Some of the Chateaux we visited aren’t listed under specific classifications but command top drawer prices due to their quality wines. Le Pin was a special treat in this regard and one of my favourites was Chateau L’Eglise Clinet. All of them were extremely impressive and the owners/people were very welcoming.

Green Acres have been visiting the Bordeaux region for over 22 years and are well known for their expertise. It was fascinating to hear them discuss the 2017 experience in the vineyard and how it compared to other years with the owners and winemakers. We visited:

Vieux Chateau Certan

Chateau Le Pin

Chateau Figeac

UGC at Chateau La Couspaude

Chateau Ausone

Chateau Cheval Blanc

Chateau Canon

Chateau Nenin

Chateau L’Eglise Clinet

More dozing for me on the way back to Bordeaux, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the day, now that I was becoming an expert (i.e. non-dribbler).

We went out to look for a local restaurant, that evening to wind down a little. We found Au Bistrot which is an authentic, cozy bistro close to the Marche des Capucins in Bordeaux. I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Great food and a superb wine list. I know this because while I was looking at the names of the Chateaux on the wine list, to see if I recognised any – James and Donal were discussing the merits of individual winemakers, with the restaurant owner! I’ve got a lot to learn obviously.

Our Last Day Tasting En Primeur 2017.

Donal had only planned four tastings on our last day as we had to be at the airport in the late afternoon. Our first appointment was in Petrus at 8.30am. Yes, I did mention that word – Petrus. There is no castle there, so quite often it is incorrectly called a Chateau (according to Donal) but the vineyard has been around since the mid-1750’s.

Once again I was over-awed to be in the hallowed tasting room of such a historic establishment. And when we got to chat with winemaker Olivier Berrouet (who is a rugby fan) – sure, I was in 7th Heaven.

After Petrus, we visited the JP Moueix tasting room in Libourne (a commune in the Gironde department), in the company of Christian and Eduourd Moueix. I expected another three wines to taste but such is the expanse of the Moueix empire, we had nearly 20 wines to taste and the lads were invited to taste some additional exclusive wines.

Leaving Libourne, we headed to Chateau Teyssier . After tasting their excellent 2017 vintage we were treated to lunch with Jonathan Malthus in his kitchen, with his team, Jean Pierre, and Ben. It really, really was a wonderful experience especially as us Irish and the French were allowed to slag the English about their 2018 6 Nations Rugby performance.

On our way to the airport, our final tasting was with an old friend of Green Acres Paulin Calvet at Chateau Picque Caillou. Their website describes their location as “at the gates of the City of Bordeaux, in the heart of the Pessac-Leognan appellation.” For me, we were back where we had started on the Monday, close to the airport. Nice planning Donal.

Despite how glamorous (?) all this tasting might sound, I will admit that with a blackened tongue and chapped lips I was ready to relax on the flight home.

What did I think of En Primeur 2017?

I suppose I could create a pastiche of all the information booklets I received (and brought home as souvenirs) but to be honest I think I should leave that to the experts in Green Acres. For my first taste of en primeur, I will say that some of the wines I tasted were a little harsh (green I believe is the word), and some were very drinkable even at this early stage. So it should make for an interesting vintage to taste in a few years.

By all accounts, there was almost a 40% drop in the Bordeaux wine harvest due to the frost in early 2017. Some Chateaux weren’t affected at all while others lost everything.  Personally, despite my four days in the company of experts, I cannot explain to you what the 2017 vintage is like. However, I did overhear people describe the quality of 2017 being better than some might have expected. And that it cannot be compared to the recent great years of 2015 and 2016 but neither is it as disappointing as 2013.

All in all, despite the purple teeth, the splashed shirts, and the chapped lips, I thoroughly enjoyed my Bordeaux EP 2017 experience. I could not imagine travelling with a better bunch (pun intended) of people. Their knowledge of Bordeaux wine is second-to-none, in Ireland. They’re also great fun.

One caveat – this trip would not be one for tourists, to be honest, so if you are considering a visit to this wonderful wine region I think I would recommend the harvest period.

Now, I wonder what Burgundy would be like at this time of the year? – à votre santé,  Jim Kelly.

Thank you, Jim Kelly for sharing your experience of your first taste of en primeur, and thank YOU for reading our blog. Feel free to drop-in to us here in Green Acres to discuss any aspect of en primeur 2017. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.

We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, James.

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