Early Birds

Some in the trade are against en primeur tast­ings. Not James Suck­ling, who finds them ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn about fledg­ling vin­tages straight from the bar­rel

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Ire­cently or­gan­ised the first en primeur tast­ing of Su­per Tus­cans. It wasn’t the first time pro­duc­ers tasted their fledg­ling wines to­gether, as wine­mak­ers ex­change bar­rel sam­ples to com­pare qual­ity. But the event, held in Septem­ber, was the first time an out­sider like my­self or­gan­ised a tast­ing of bar­rel sam­ples in Tus­cany—in this case 2015 reds— and just about all the 40 or so pro­duc­ers in­vited at­tended with plea­sure.

I used the French term en primeur for the event be­cause I wanted to em­pha­sise its in­spi­ra­tion, the an­nual tast­ing fest in Bordeaux of the new vin­tage from bar­rels. Of course, the Bordeaux en primeur has a com­mer­cial pur­pose, as wine pro­duc­ers sell a per­cent­age of their young wines the spring af­ter the har­vest based on ini­tial qual­ity as­sess­ments by crit­ics and the trade. This year was the ex­cel­lent 2015 vin­tage, one I rated ex­tremely high.

The Tus­can tast­ing has no com­mer­cial con­nec­tion yet. It served to en­able me to eval­u­ate what is des­tined to be an out­stand­ing vin­tage in Italy’s most fa­mous wine re­gion, and for a large group of pro­duc­ers to taste the wines to­gether and dis­cuss the char­ac­ter of the year. The wines in­cluded Anti­nori’s So­laia, Petrolo’s Gala­trona, Tua Rita’s Redi­gaffi, Pupille’s Saf­fredi and Sette Ponti’s Oreno. The only wines miss­ing were Sas­si­caia, Or­nel­laia and Mas­seto. These pro­duc­ers did not want to send pre­lim­i­nary blends to the event, but I tasted their 2015s in their cel­lars ear­lier in the year. Check out the re­sults on james­suck­ling.com.

The 2015 vin­tage is an ex­cel­lent one for Tus­cany. The young wines show the rich­ness of fruit and ripe tan­nins typ­i­cal of a top vin­tage. The grow­ing sea­son was hot and dry with lit­tle rain. Yet it was cool at night, which main­tained fresh acid­ity in the grapes. The tan­nins are par­tic­u­larly ripe and fine-grained. Some pro­duc­ers make com­par­isons to the ex­cel­lent 2008 or 2001, but I think 2007 is a bet­ter com­par­i­son, as the wines from 2015 are fleshy and fruity with an un­der­ly­ing fresh­ness.

I find it sur­pris­ing that some vint­ners and crit­ics are against en primeur tast­ings, say­ing the wines are not ready to eval­u­ate. Some even say the sam­ples do not re­flect the wine that will one day be in the bot­tle. I think en primeur tast­ing is an ex­cit­ing part of an­nual wine tast­ing for the trade as well as con­sumers. It al­lows every­one to learn about and un­der­stand a new vin­tage and make a men­tal note to fol­low the year, re­gard­less of whether it’s in Tus­cany, Bordeaux or else­where.

The 600 peo­ple who at­tended the Bordeaux 2015 en primeur tast­ing I or­gan­ised in Hong Kong ear­lier this year were en­thu­si­as­tic about the ex­pe­ri­ence and the vin­tage. I well re­mem­ber a par­tic­i­pant from Shang­hai say­ing, “I can’t be­lieve how at­trac­tively the wines show. This is fun.”

Granted, tast­ing and rat­ing raw bar­rel sam­ples is a tricky busi­ness. I’ve been do­ing it since the 1982 vin­tage in Bordeaux. Un­der­stand­ing how the con­stituents of young wine, the al­co­hol, fruit, tan­nins and acid­ity, in­ter­play and de­velop in the bar­rel and then the bot­tle is a com­plex mat­ter and needs years of ex­pe­ri­ence. But en primeur tast­ing is fun and ex­cit­ing—some­thing that every­one in­ter­ested in wine can ap­pre­ci­ate. I hope my Tus­can en primeur tast­ing be­comes an an­nual event. Maybe one day even in Asia?

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