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Bordeaux 2020: encore, mon ami

Each spring, the wine trade’s eyes turn to Bordeaux for en primeur. But – once more – the campaign looks to be shackled by Covid-19. Here, we look ahead, considering how we’ll be tasting Bordeaux 2020 

A year after we went into lockdown, it’s hard to believe we’re still here. At the start of 2020, we were blissfully ignorant about facemasks, hand sanitiser and Zoom – but in a year the world has changed. And the wine trade with it. 

Our business revolves not just around the conviviality of sharing good wine with good food, and – most importantly – good company, but on tasting. And the way we’ve tasted – flitting from producer to producer, swanning about in crowded rooms, sipping, swilling and spitting into communal spittoons – is a Covid-19 nightmare. 

Of course, we’ve adapted. Bemused couriers now ferry miniature bottles of the latest releases to our team – fascinated by the welcome smiles of those delighted to be receiving a drop of the latest fine wine releases. We’ve (mostly) mastered the mute/unmute for team tastings, managing to find a way to gather virtually, sampling and discussing the precious liquid that is the life-force of our industry. It’s even opened our doors a little wider – allowing our entire team to walk (digitally, at least) amongst the vines at Castello di Ama, for us to soar over the mountains at Promontory, and talk to winemakers far and wide with just the power of an internet connection.  

But at this time of year, we’re once more looking ahead to Bordeaux en primeur – the busiest time for our team, when the world’s most prestigious addresses release the nascent new vintage unto the world. Last year’s campaign was unusual: the spring’s uncertainty meant it started in a haze of clamours for the whole thing to be postponed or cancelled. It was rapidly clear that the en primeur week – when the world’s wine trade gathers in Bordeaux to taste the new vintage – wouldn’t be possible, but that didn’t stop the show going on. Instead samples were sent around the world, tasted in kitchens, offices and garden sheds rather than the glamour of Bordeaux’s Classed Growth châteaux. A little later than normal, the campaign proceeded as normal. 

Now we find ourselves in a worryingly similar situation, planning for a Covid-era campaign for the 2020s. It looks increasingly unlikely – with a third wave sweeping through France – that we’ll be able to make it to Bordeaux (although we’re trying our best), and if we do that it will be only with a much smaller team. In any other year, we’d have just returned from our first trip to get a feel for the vintage, preparing for a bigger team to go out for en primeur “proper”. 

The challenge with en primeur, in particular, is the fragility of these young wines. Drawn from barrel, not yet fully formed, these are relatively unstable samples, not yet braced for a rollicking world-tour. Tasting at a property, with the winemaker, means that everyone tastes the same wine – the wine at its very best, not a bottle that, perhaps, suffered a little on the journey, or has had the fruit dulled by a dose of sulphur to sturdy it for its voyage. When you think about the pressure for these bottles to perform, it’s no surprise that the Rothschild stable opted last year to fly in samples via private jet for an exclusive no-expense-spared tasting at Waddesdon Manor. 

For us, at least, the 2019s almost all showed superbly, with 99% living up to their potential – allaying our concerns regarding the delicacy of these Bordelais babes-in-arms. 

Of course tasting in the UK also comes with its pros – many of which were well-documented in the wake of last year’s campaign. Rather than rushing from one property to another, it’s possible to linger a little longer over a wine. To revisit it. You can taste – and re-taste – in comparative flights, rather than depending on your tasting memory.  

And – while it might not be nearly as fun as a whirlwind week of wining and dining – it’s that assessment which is key. We – and you – depend on us tasting the wines, forming our view of the vintage, to recommend the wines that deserve a place in your cellar. 

This year, we are basing our plan on tastings in both Hong Kong and the UK, with samples shipped to our offices, tasted as soon as possible after their arrival. We’ll be tasting in shifts to ensure social distancing, Zooming in winemakers to dig into the conditions and decisions that shaped the wines. It might lack the sheen and sheer fun of traditional en primeur, but the show will go on.  

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