Last week I was in Bordeaux with a small group, and as well as tasting through most of the top 2017s, we visited a couple of prestigious Châteaux, and got a very brief look at the 2018 vintage. It was a lovely experience, and we really felt like we were being granted privileged access.
This week is primeur week, and increasingly the leading Châteaux aren’t taking part in the main tastings. Instead, they expect people to come to them to taste. It used to be just the first growths who did this, but now there’s a whole slew of Châteaux with big ambitions who see themselves as part of the elite group. The invited guests will get special treatment, and given that the top places will be seeing around 1500 visitors over the week, each Château will get through around two barrels of the Grand Vin.
All this hosting is a considerable expense, but to the Châteaux it is worth it. The point is that by granting top trade and press privileged access, it changes the social dynamic of the interaction. I’ve been inside a few Bordeaux Châteaux over the last few years, and pretty much all of the top places have renovated their cellars since they started making serious money a couple of decades ago. They are spotless, with state of the art equipment, and the barrel cellars resemble cathedrals more than working wineries. These are places of worship.
For aspirational Bordeaux Châteaux, where external money has flowed in and they are now trying to climb the social ranking, the expensive renovation and hyper-functional winery is an important display: it says ‘we are now part of the club, and you must take our wines seriously – things have changed.’
It is very hard as a visiting journalist or trade buyer not to be at least subliminally influenced by the grandeur of the top properties, and to feel grateful for the chance – at least for a short while – to feel part of this world. It takes a strong conscious effort to evaluate the wines fairly.
It’s not just in Bordeaux that privileged access is used as a tool to try to influence the gatekeepers and opinion leaders. The wine calendar is full of single-producer new release tastings. All the top Grand Marque Champagne houses expect you to come to their event to taste. Often they will tempt you with access to the chef du cave (this can be useful for interviews), a vertical tasting (this is always handy) or, at worst, a fancy lunch or dinner. In the new world, top producers such as Penfolds do a new release tasting on their own, rather than participate in larger events.
This privileged access is nice if you get it, but the problem with it is the unspoken threat: it can be rescinded. You are meant to feel lucky. You are in the club. What happens if you break club rules? You are out of the club.
It is a brave person who scores a first growth in the low 90s, or suggests that the wines are too polished, or picks the wine too late. Only a foolhardy Australian journalist would score Grange lower than 97 points, or for an international journalist, lower than 95.
What do consumers think? I suspect they are tired of the lack of transparency, and the endless positive reviews for the established leaders in each field. I applaud those critic publications who refuse to rate in situ and insist on tasting blind, but then true impartiality is only of use if the critics are good at what they do and have good taste. Not all tick these boxes.
For me, most of my work is with less exalted producers. The privileged access there is the ability to visit them, talk and walk their vineyards, and taste together. Most of these people value honestly held opinions, though. They are happy when they get good ratings, but they tend to value transparency and honesty, and writers who make an attempt to understand what they are up to. This is a much happier place to be.