The March issue has just landed through my letterbox with the results of a tasting of 2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. An overhyped vintage which deserves such a lukewarm reception?
I should start by stating that I find these things interesting reading. Some panellists really know their stuff and there is something to be said for a horizontal tasting on a large scale. But ...
I am interested to read the views of John Livingstone-Learmonth as he probably knows more about Rhone wines than just about anyone else in the UK and those of Steven Spurrier who has an excellent palate and an open mind but, frankly, some panellists at this and other tastings should be disregarded. I mean this with complete respect but, let's face it, who would be impressed to read my opinions in such a tasting when I have a vested interest in several of the wines? Even tasted blind, I should be able to recognise these wines and I cannot entirely trust myself to be unbiased so how can I trust others?
I would expect to recognise the wines I import in a blind tasting (although I still think I would be on the floor before I got to them if they were between 100 and 200 in the tasting order). Even if I didn't identify the precise wines, it would be reasonably to assume that, since I have put my money where my mouth (palate?) lies, I would prefer these styles of wines and mark them up.
I did attend a tasting like this many years ago and was led to believe that my own comments and notes on wines I imported would be disregarded. However, that does not get past the point that I am still likely to mark up all wines made in certain styles.
So, even if I am not lacking in integrity, my marks would be biased.
My view is that this tasting is fairly irrelevant really (as is any tasting by a panel representing different interests). Over 200 wines were tasted apparently (some boast!), many of which were never going to be top tier anyway; there are, perhaps, 60 or so estates in Chateauneuf making consistently world class wines. Even in a vintage such as 2007, there will still be a good number of the remaining 250-odd who won't make wine I would want to drink.
There is also the, perhaps more important, issue of development of the wines. Of the "Tradition" cuvees I import, Domaine de Cristia has real purity of fruit in 2007, almost Burgundian in style and very different from previous vintages. It desperately needs another three years to knit together. Domaine Raymond Usseglio manages to combine finesse and concentration but, true to form, has a lightness of touch about it which could be viewed as dilution now but will undoubtedly grow and be superb in another five years. Both these wines got very good reviews in the tasting but both were marked down for drinking from 2010. No-one in their right mind (and certainly neither JLL nor SS, I am certain) would contemplate them just yet.
Surely comparative tastings are always a waste of time. One of the more interesting articles in this month's Decanter was a profile of Haut Brion. Prince Robert of Luxembourg was emphatic that the wines don't perform well in such an environment (so he doesn't enter them) and few here would disagree that he makes extremely fine wines.
Similarly, you can't expect to taste over 200 wines from anywhere and get any consistency. Some wines won't show as well because, like Haut Brion, they just don't, others because they are simply not showing as well at the moment or because the bottle is not in A1 condition. Another possibility (probability) is that with so many wines to get through, no-one can remember what the first few were like once they've hit 50/100/200 wines (depending on palate fatigue levels of tasters).
A lot of consumers buy wines in exactly the same way as I do for myself or for BRW: they visit estates and taste wines in situ. They buy a case (or more) of wines they like and sit on them for a number of years before trying them out when they are ready to drink. At that point they may compare CDP1 with CDP2 but even then they are presumably looking less for qualitative differences than the panel tasters given that they already made the qualitative choice to buy the wine in the first place. Surely the best way to buy wines is to taste in a relaxed environment or, failing that, to buy from a trusted source - ie. a merchant with whom your palate coincides. A group of 8 or 10 different palates is not going to give a cohesive result so I suggest take them with a pinch of salt. (No doubt I will still include the reviews in my publicity though).