Saturday, November 30, 2013

En Primeur and how to choose which wines to taste

I went to an en Primeur wine tasting hosted by Jeroboams recently and I was confronted with 70 wines. How do you choose what to taste? Unless you're a professional like Oz Clarke who wants to taste them all, it can be a daunting task if you're not sure what you're looking at.

First of all, what is en Primeur? En Primeur is when wine producers offer you the chance to taste wine while it is still in barrels before it has been bottled. This is a gamble, because the idea is that you get to buy wine cheaply now with the motivation that once it gets released it will be far more expensive. However, its not guaranteed it will develop well. I suggest if you want to try en Primeur that you go through a wine merchant, because you're pretty likely to bag yourself a bargain, as they will have selected the best producers to recommend to you. Tastings normally happen in November for Burgundy and Bordeaux. Rhone and Port en Primeur is becoming more popular, and other regions are likely to get in on the action in the future.

The Jeroboams 2012 Rhone en Primeur tasting was held at the Royal Thames Yacht club in Knightsbridge, London. Sixty-nine wines were up for tasting, although some were not available on the night, probably because the producers hadn't been able to get the wine to the merchant on time. The prices ranged from £65 for a case to £225 for six bottles, so quite a range.

I knew I wasn't going to taste them all, so how did I select which wines to try? En Primeur isn't like the sit-down tastings where a specialist guides you through the bottles. You need to know what you're looking for. I was given a catalogue, so I was able to have a look through and think about which might be interesting. The idea of trying almost 70 different wines from the same region might make you think "but can they really taste that different?" I wanted to pick a few that would stand out for quality and/or differentiation, but how? Of course if you're very experienced in wine you'll know all the villages, chateaus and possibly blends, but particularly in France its so hard to know them all.

Here are my tips:

  1. Look for villages that are best known, e.g. Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhone and Crozes-Hermitage ad Cote-Rotie in Northern Rhone.
  2. Look for wines where several have been provided by the same producer and two/three of them to gauge the difference.
  3. Look for wines that have special belnds, for example, I tried a Cuvee Felix from Domaine Versino, guessing that "Felix" must be someone important to the winery and has specifically chosen this blend. This one in particular I found to be very well balanced and the advice from the server was that once I found a producer I should stick with it.
  4. Look for "Reserve" or "Grande Reserve" as even if it doesn't offcially mean anything for French wines, it will be the best produced by a particular chateau.
  5. Look for wines that are the same producer and same name but two different years, as this will give you something to compare.
  6. Look for "Vieilles Vignes" as this wine will have come from old vines, which produce more complexity in their grapes, which will develop with time. I tried the 2012 Cornas 'Granit 60' from Domaine Vincent Paris and I could immediately tell the highly pronounced nose. With time, I would expect a brown tinge to develop. This was my favourite wine on the night, and was only £240 (£20 a bottle),and I would expect it to fetch a very large price once its on the shelves.
  7. Look for wines that have interesting names. One I particularly liked was the Cornas 'Vin Noir' which definitely lived up to its name, with intense black fruit flavours and an inky consistency.
  8. Try to find out if any are limited release - it may not increase the value on taste, but it means you will get a batter deal, because once its on market it will be at a much higher price tag and you'll be less likely to be able to find it. These are best for investment, or to impress others at the dinner table.
  9. Try something you wouldn't expect, like white from Rhone, as they're only going to showcase their very best at an en Primeur tasting.
My final tip for tasting en Primeur, is don't expect it all to taste nice! This is because you have to remember it hasn't even been bottled yet. You need to find wines that have some fruit so you can expect it to develop with time, and a lot of tannins which will soften and add complexity to the wine. All sorts of drying out and acidic taste is actually what you're looking for... but you still have to like the wine.

Its a fun experience, so if you get the chance, you should try it. Use the spittoons or you'll walk out legless, if that's possible. Consider buying something - once you've paid now and can drink later you'll be really happy when your case arrives, especially as it will taste far better than you remember.

If you'd like to go to Jeroboams next tasting, its usually reserved for customers, but they will let the public come for £25. They also do tutored tastings in their cellars if you prefer to taste wines that are ready to drink now.

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