The unfinished symphony: On reviews from en primeur tastings

musical scale

Listening to an interview with Philip Glass while driving home from the Loire got me thinking about recent discussions on completion in wine, in particular, assessing unfinished en primeur samples.


There was a story of one of Glass’ early performances. An audience member walked up to the stage where he was playing his new piece on the piano and banged down Glass’ piano lid in disgust.


When Glass retold the story on a BBC radio3 programme on the weekend, he admitted he did not like it, but he accepted the audience had their own reaction to the new style of music (and that it never really happened anymore). He was reminded of his mentor, John Cage, and his idea – it is the audience that completes the music.


After every en primeur tasting season in Bordeaux or Burgundy, the question comes up: how worthy are assessments of wine from a tank sample? It is a fair question if you pay for a wine reviewer’s report based on wines that are unfinished.


Neal Martin (The Wine Advocate) and Chris Kissack (Wine Doctor) seem to be in agreement on Kissack’s Wine Doctor blog post that Bordeaux en primeur should not be tasted blind because it is “about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage.”


It is good to know where they see the limits of their judgement on tank samples. But when the same wines will be reviewed again in the bottle a few years later, isn’t it better to simply wait to judge a wine in the bottle? At least the impact on the prices would be less speculative.


Customers In Real Time


Of course, that is not how en primeur works – someone along the chain takes the risk on the unfinished wines in one way or another. It’s a neat system where payment is made upfront to the producers and the wine drinker pays for the privilege to access the wines.


Once upon time, customers took the risk and the value increased. The old idea: great risk brought great reward. That has not been the case recently when the prices have been what you would expect to find in a retail shop. Then the customer is told that the wine reviewed is based on a wine that is not the same as the final product? That’s more than just risk, that’s changing the rules of the game.


Some wine reviewers, quite rightly, believe this process should be less opaque. Consumers would like to know if it is a tank sample (and what that means) when they are researching to buy a wine (and paying for a subscription to read the review). The wine reviewer can only do so much but it should, at the very least, be remembered the role the reviewer plays in the en primeur process – it is advice for the wine consumer.


What is a finished wine?


The simple answer is when it’s finished. All wines are only ever really completed – in the Philip Glass sense – when it is opened and the bottle is empty.


When looking at scores and reviews, remember all en primeur wines are in a fragile state. Even more so than when the wine is finally bottled. It is more of a problem with Bordeaux en primeur; Bordeaux is tasted at only 6 months old, while Burgundy is closer to 15 months – a little longer, but Pinot Noir can still be quite fragile at this age. Caveat emptor, of course, but it is also a good opportunity to meet the people behind the wines.


(It does not rate wines still en primeur, but, as an aside, that is why the reviews by the crowd on Cellartracker are so fascinating. It is watching the lifetime of a bottle through the eyes of its owners. Once there are a few comments on the same wine, it shows (in real time) how wine is truly completed by its audience. But, unfortunately, this is not a luxury for the en primeur buyer who must depend on a wine reviewer or wine merchant rather than the wisdom of the crowd).



photo credit: C Scale notation via photopin (license)