Jeannie Cho Lee
It's that time of the year again and I'm preparing myself mentally and physically for the oncoming grind. For the past three nights, I have used fluoride mousse to clean my teeth before going to bed. I have kept my wine drinking and tasting this past week to a minimum because I know that big tasting days are ahead of me in Bordeaux.
The days are frantic and the pace is relentless during en primeur week, which officially begins on April 4 this year. During that week, thousands of journalists and Bordeaux buyers descend upon this most important fine wine region in the world to evaluate the latest vintage still evolving in the barrel. We all realise this is a crazy process - judging wines that are still not the final blend with rough tannic edges and dense, youthful flavours that just plop on your tongue. Experience helps but so does focus, concentration and stamina.
I dig up my 2009 en primeur notes from exactly this time last year and review them over my morning coffee. I notice the wines I swooned over and rated over 95, and place a check next to them so I remember to compare how different the 2010 vintage might be for that wine this year. I laugh at the 100th time I see 'cedar', 'tannic' and 'blackcurrant' in my notes, and chuckle at my terse notes of the last few wines of a long day - 'Simple, short, like bitter ginseng; would rather drink water.' Timing is everything and when wines come at the end of a 120-wine tasting day. Well, life is just not fair.
I do try to be fair to wines and attempt to taste the top wines and those I have rated low at least twice to compare two samples. The tastings are extremely well organised by the Union des Grand Cru de Bordeaux and the press are offered the option of tasting open or blind (I always choose the latter). The buyers also arrive en masse and the final commentaries of these combined groups will provide the Bordelais feedback to set the prices for the 2010 vintage. Hundreds of millions of euros are at stake; prices of top Bordeaux chateaux can fluctuate more than 50 per cent in either direction depending on the final evaluation of the vintage.
The 2010 is reported to be another phenomenal vintage. Wasn't it just last year that 2009 was declared the vintage of the century? In the Bordelais world, every other year is a vintage of the decade and every third year is the vintage of the century. Yet we fall for it every time - remember how prices rose to new stratospheric heights in 2000, then 2003 and again in 2005 and 2009? We may see more record-breaking in 2010. Let's hope not, but frankly I'm not that optimistic.
As a commentator to this very well-oiled marketing and business machinery with an apt name, the Place de Bordeaux, I do have reservations about my role. My growing unease was very well expressed by Jancis Robinson, master of wine and prolific writer, when she sent me this note: 'As I know you are well aware, we are all effectively used by the Bordelais to hype demand and inflate prices.' Recently, she has been writing about the role of the media and reflecting on how we are being manipulated to report on these infant wines to create excitement and media buzz, which ultimately contributes to higher prices. The opposite can also be true, when key critics condemn a vintage, prices will plummet.
One method of stepping away from this chessboard and becoming a player rather than a pawn is to stop publishing tasting notes and ratings until prices for these wines are released. Unfortunately, the ratings and reviews have already started to seep out and, this year, it seems unlikely that anything will come of Jancis' rally to cool the media hype surrounding every new 'great' vintage of Bordeaux.
I have to agree that this is the sensible thing to do. The only way for a movement like this to succeed is if all the major wine critics agreed not to publish until a set time. I can't see this happening any time soon, but if anyone can rally the world media together, it would be Jancis. This year, like last year and the years before, I will be a knowing clog in the wheel - swirling, sniffing, spitting more than 400 wines, trying to wrestle with tough tannins and cut through the baby fat to see what lies at the essence of each mouthful.
Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. Follow her at twitter.com/JeannieChoLee or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.AsianPalate.com. Her website will carry daily updates of the 2010 en primeur week.