I’ve written this having just finished my second en primeur report for Decanter magazine. Four weeks of intensive tasting, two weeks of intensive writing – Primeurs is both the best and hardest period of the year, exhausting and rewarding. But, where one tasting finishes another one arises: tomorrow, I fly to Canada for a tasting of Bordeaux 1982 wines – with the legendary vintage showcased in 40 top bottles at a charity dinner in Vancouver. Sometimes my life feels like a dream.
Despite not having a background in wine before joining Decanter in 2011, and certainly no family cellar filled with dusty treasures, I became enthralled the moment I was handed my first glass of fine wine – at my desk, no less. “How is this a job?” I thought to myself.
Many years of tastings and trips passed, meeting the world’s foremost winemakers and writing about wine in various ways, however the “critic” role (more of an American designation than British, I think) was never one I coveted – and certainly not one I expected to ever have.
The barrier to entry seemed so high, even though I was already working at Decanter, which understandably tended to only use “regional experts” and Masters of Wine, many with decades of experience and often living in their chosen region – something I now fully understand and would encourage any budding wine writer to do.
Skip forward a decade or so and I’m now responsible for Decanter Premium, overseeing the digital strategy for subscriptions and content behind the paywall on decanter.com – and now Bordeaux correspondent too, having taken over from long-time Decanter contributor Jane Anson in July 2021.
When Jane moved on, the question was who would fill the position. A combination of desire on my part and the lure of a challenge (who wouldn’t want this job?), happenstance (in that I had not long moved to live in Bordeaux city, placing me in the perfect location to take up the role), and a shortage of qualified candidates in the region, all seemed to work in my favour.
While Decanter authoritatively covers wines from all around the world (one of its biggest selling points for me), Bordeaux is what we call “heartland content” – and the stats don’t lie. It’s consistently the most-read and paid-for content we produce, by far. From Primeurs to livrable “in-bottle” tastings to estate verticals and incredibly old horizontals, there’s always something to taste, at every price point, in every conceivable style. And with around 7,000 estates, there’s no end of new cellars to see, new vineyards to walk into and new winemakers at the helm.
So there’s pressure, especially writing for the magazine with its expectation of quality and deep understanding. But, there’s also non-stop dynamism, and living here brings the action so much closer, something I never truly understood before. An hour each way from my home, I can be in Saint-Emilion, Sauternes or Saint-Julien.
The Decanter name is hugely respected in Bordeaux and I’m extremely fortunate to have been welcomed so generously and thoroughly. The last 22 months have been spent tasting and visiting estates as much as I can. I’ve done dozens of verticals that have yet to be published, spent weeks with winemakers in vineyards and cellars, talked to consultants about changing styles and négociants about market trends. I took part in my first harvest last year (thank you Cheval Blanc) and my first blending session this year (thank you Nicolas Glumineau, General Manager at Pichon Comtesse).
I've also been inducted into the Commanderie du Bontemps of the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac, as well as the Hospitaliers de Pomerol (two historic brotherhoods, now modern-day societies that encourage, support and help promote the wines and winemakers of their respective regions). These are all enriching experiences that are the building blocks of my Bordeaux knowledge.
Somehow I thought having done the 2021 en primeur tastings and report last year (as well as two in-bottle reports since I started – all with around 900 wines sampled each time) the 2022 report would be easier – it wasn’t. Tasting is actually really tough – not only physically demanding and tiring, but mentally exhausting. It goes without saying that experience is helpful, comprehension and context are key for notes and scores, but passion is also a must. I’m building the first two, the latter I still have in abundance.
Despite sometimes pinching myself, looking back there’s a strange sense of destiny attached to my current role. My first ever work trip was to Bordeaux (and I ended up buying an apartment almost round the corner from the hotel I first stayed at). My first fine wine vertical was – amazingly – of First Growth Ch. Mouton Rothschild with the then brilliant winemaker Philippe Dhalluin at Café Lavinal in Pauillac. My first article was about a Bordeaux panel tasting and I even had maps of Bordeaux vineyards on my bedroom wall in London, something I had forgotten until I came across some old photos recently.
An added bonus, my father only drinks Bordeaux wines so this job definitely earns me favourite child status.
As much as it’s serious and hard work, it’s also huge fun, interesting, glamorous and ever-changing. I think humility and gratitude are important, as well as a genuine enthusiasm to tell the stories of these wonderful wines and the people who make them.
Is the role of “critic” my true calling – above publishing, improvement strategies and brand building? I don’t know. What I do know; I love writing. I love Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc)! I love mature Bordeaux (and am currently seeking out as much 2001 as possible). I love blind tasting the region’s wines to try and place them in their appellations (despite myriad differences in viticulture and vinification this is somehow still possible – the power of Pauillac, the prettiness of Margaux, the minerality of Saint-Estephe). I love the light in Saint-Emilion at dusk during the summer – is there a more romantic wine region?
But most of all, I love the joy and passion surrounding winemaking – not limited to Bordeaux, but the family histories, long-standing traditions, connection to gastronomy, focus on innovation and investment – they all give the region an extra glint in my eye.
What I don’t love, however, is my dentist telling me off and trying to find a place to store all my bottles... but there are worse problems, admittedly. (Speaking of which, if anyone wants to drive me round the region for next year’s Primeurs, applications open soon!)
For now, I'm excited to see how this year's Primeurs campaign goes. There's no doubt that many producers have created exceptional wines worth buying, but whether the market is sufficiently dynamised by the prices is another question. I'm eagerly awaiting a copy of this year's Bordeaux guide (on sale with the June issue of Decanter) filled with all the wonderful happenings in Bordeaux right now, as well as looking forward to discovering some of the hidden non-classified gems of Margaux. The sun looks set to appear for the first proper time this week, sending temperatures up and kickstarting the 2023 growing season – and, as with any vintage, there’s already so much to look forward to.
Photography: Luke Carver