The last three days have been spent filming the build-up to the 2010 en primeurs season for www.decanter.com, visiting three chateaux on the Right Bank and three on the Left with a videographer (it's still 'cameraman' in french) who had flown out from London. The intention was to capture the traditional March preparations in Bordeaux, when life is all about surface calm and behind-the-scenes frantic preparations, made slightly more stressful this year by a protracted vinification process due to a combination of high alcohol/low malic acid and low pH. This has meant that many estates only finished their malolactic fermentation a few weeks ago and the final blends for the 2010 vintage are just making their way into barrel, just four weeks before thousands of buyers and journalists descend to form their opinion of the new wine.
Filming started on Monday morning with Charles Chevallier, standing outside Chateau Lafite in bright Spring sunshine. We were taken on a tour of the new cellar extension, which will be finished in a few weeks, meaning that this April tasters will be received at Lafite, unlike Duhart-Milon last year. As of the 2011 vintage, Lafite will be vinifying in a mix of stainless steel, traditional wood and new cement vats, and there has been a sharp increase in small-sized vats to allow for greater micro-vinifications.
From there it was over to Hubert de Boüard in Saint Emilion, where we followed him on his wine consultancy duties, first to Chateau La Pointe in Pomerol, and then to Chateau Laroze in Saint Emilion, before heading back to Angélus. At all three of these estates, the focus was on the intricacies of tasting the different vat samples and grape varieties to decide the final blend for the 2010 vintage. Cue lots of pencils, equations, measuring jugs and purple-stained fingers and teeth.
This year, it’s fair to say that everyone seems pretty confident about the state of their wines, with a feeling on the Right Bank that Cabernet Franc has done particularly well (de Boüard expects to have his highest level of Cabernet Franc ever in Angélus, perhaps even up to 50%), and that the acidity that came from cool nights over the dry summer months will have saved the high alcohol worries.
At Chateau Margaux on Tuesday, the blend for the first wine had been finalised and put into barrels a few weeks ago, with the blend of Pavillon Rouge just finishing up. This meant we were able to film the next stage of the process – the mechanics of getting the right proportions of the selected plots and varieties for Pavillon Rouge into the blending vats (using low-impact peristaltic pumps), and then back into the barrels to start the ageing process. Director Paul Pontallier was equally positive about the success of the vintage, and this year’s Chateau Margaux will contain its highest ever levels of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Then yesterday it was back up to the top of the Medoc again, with Phelan Segur in Saint Estephe. An interesting time to visit this estate, which has recently left the Cru Bourgeois system to go it alone (it is still in the more prestigious Union des Grand Crus), and has seen its owners the Gardiniers purchase the Taillevent properties in Paris, adding another Michelin-starred restaurant to the Hotel des Crayeres in Champagne that they have owned for almost 10 years.
We tasted the 2010 Phelan Segur (the first journalists to do so), and again the signs for the quality of the vintage are exceptionally promising – this had depth of fruit, plenty of well integrated tannins, and a strong seam of acidity that promised long life.
Along the way we asked, of course, whether there will there be a market for the wines, following on the heels of the excellent but highly-priced 2009s. Pontallier seemed to speak for all of them when he said, without missing a beat, ‘It is always easier to sell high quality wine that mediocre.’