Bordeaux En Primeur Season Begins

Spring is in the air, and Spring has been associated with Bordeaux for a long time in the wine world. The annual Bordeaux En Primeur season, in which members of the trade and the media get to taste the most recent vintage from all the major Bordeaux producers, is underway, and will culminate soon in the pricing of 2006 Bordeaux futures.

In Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring, based on the ancient pagan rituals that were so common this time of year, the plot involves the sacrifice of a virgin girl to the god of Spring to ensure his benevolence. In 2006 it’s looking like there will be two sacrifices — the Cru system in Saint Emilion and the outlandish profiteering of 2005. Neither are particularly virginal, and both are the source of wild speculation and rumor mongering among the French wine establishment.

To the average wine drinker, the En Primeur season may just be a distant rumble on the horizon, barely worth paying attention to, but to the establishment of the wine world, this event has all the must-watch appeal of a blockbuster daytime soap opera.

Personally, all I can ever muster up for this event is a sort of vague bemusement. I don’t purchase Bordeaux futures, so the potential revelation that 2006’s prices will likely be closer to 2004 than the excesses of 2005 amounts to little more than a bit of trivia.

For all my blasé, however, I do have a moderate interest in someday going to see what the fuss is all about — who wouldn’t be interested in the ultimate level of pomp and circumstance that the world of wine is capable of producing.

For the second year in a row, those closer to Europe, or those simply with more flexible schedules and available funds can actually partake in something modeled on the exclusive trade campaign.

Called Le Weekend des Grands Amateurs this publicly accessible event essentially offers an opportunity for any interested consumer to experience a toned down (and admittedly less complete) version of the En Primeur campaign. I haven’t attended this event myself, but after I wrote about it last year, Cuyler, one of my readers, decided to go, and he found it quite rewarding:

“I went to this event last year (thanks to your posting). It was a very well organized event and the tasting of nearly 200 wines was spectacular. There are no First Growth Chateaus representing but there are some top tiered producers showcasing their most recent releases.

The trip was an eye opening experience not only into the world of wine but also into the world of the Bordelais. Before the trip I had drank only a handful of French wines, but like most wine aficionados became quickly enamored with their elegant and understated winemaking style. I figured there is no place (other than Bordeaux) where I could taste that many wines from that many great producers so I booked my ticket and went (alone nonetheless). After it was all said and done; I came away with a permanent impression of how great Bordeaux can be and why it is revered as some of the best wine in the world. Its a great introduction into the region and a great way to learn which areas mesh with your own particular palate. For me, it was all about St. Julien and Pauillac. The town of Bordeaux is quite charming but I found the people a bit too proud of their worldwide wine reputation. There are plenty of great restaurants and tons of shopping sight seeing in the actual town of Bordeaux-all of which can be done in a weekend if you are determined enough.

The actual tasting is held inside a giant “hangar” which is the equivalent of an mini-convention center-except this one overlooks the Gironde river. The hosts were very professional and very friendly-most of whom spoke very good English. It was a much more formal event than any Californian tastings I have attended. The dress was semi-formal with most attendees sporting suits or blazers along with some pretty serious tasting faces. Upon entering the main tasting room you are greeted with one wine glass, a spiral bound notebook with each Chateau listed in order by region. It took about three hours to work through the u-shaped tasting layout but could obviously be done quicker or slower depending on one’s agenda. The event definitely has an air of professionalism that was a bit intimidating especially to someone who had never actually spit out such great tasting wine (I would highly recommend practicing these spitting skills in the privacy of your own home or hotel prior to trying it in front of hundreds of onlookers). Despite tasting over 200 wines, I left with a clear impression of my favorites and some great notes on one of the great recent vintages (2003).

The second day was spend on a tour bus driving through all the districts on the left bank. Once outside the city, it is pretty much flat farmland (think Kansas with beautiful French Domaine’s sprinkled about) with rows and rows of well manicured vineyards. I was really surprised by how small the actual vineyards are and equally surprised at just how majestic the Domaines were. We were invited into Chateau Lascombes to tour the grounds and to watch a brief video on the history of their winemaking. I was a little disappointed as there was no tastings involved at any of the Chateaux-only sightseeing from inside a tour bus. Nonetheless, it was a great tour of the region and a great chance to put a “face” to a label.

All in all, it was a great trip and a great introduction into the “taste” of Bordeaux. I plan on going again this year with some friends and look forward to trying some of my new favorites. If you have the time, you should definitely check it out.”

It’s really a shame that none of the first growths pour their top wines at event, but the fact that Bordeaux has even thought to organize an event like this at all speaks to the gradual awakening of the powers-that-be to the fact that one way to sell more Bordeaux will be to soften its intimidating and exclusive image.

The Weekend des Grands Amateurs takes place May 12th and 13th of this year in Bordeaux. The Grand Tasting is only about seventy bucks, and the full weekend with dinner and bus tour that Cuyler talked about will run you about $240. Not bad, especially considering some of the prices for similar events here in the States. Tickets can be purchased on the event’s web site.

If anyone else makes it over there, let me know how it goes.

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate spring, I hope you do it with a glass in hand and a full heart. Happy Spring!