Jancis Robinson OBE MW, the UK’s leading wine critic, recently sat down for a chat with Liv-ex. The first half of the interview is below, and focuses on her thoughts on Bordeaux and the en primeur market. In the second half of the interview, which will be published on Monday, she discusses her career as a critic and journalist, the development of her website, and her MW.
You didn’t go to Bordeaux this year because of your husband’s illness – did you miss it?
I did miss not having a personal experience of the liquids in situ and the intellectual challenge of getting to grips with the vintage. But it would be hypocritical of me to say that I was absolutely distraught, as only last year I had taken a rather public stand querying the wisdom of the whole primeur tasting business. I am an idealist in all sorts of ways, one of which is that I’d love the Bordeaux trade to take a two year break – which I know is never going to happen – and not show, price, or release the wines until they are in bottle. That would be my idea of heaven.
[Nick Lander, Jancis’ husband and the food critic for the Financial Times is now close to a full recovery.]
You talked last year about issues with tasting samples and the times of tasting. Are those the key issues for you, or is it the jamboree that surrounds the campaign itself?
I can see that for the merchants it’s a wonderful social occasion. It’s fun and they have lovely dinners with the top chateaux owners and nice old wines. I’m always too exhausted to do things like that. Unfortunately, rather anodyne and low-standard room service is generally a poor substitute. But at least I am fit and ready to go on the following morning. I suppose if you are going around in a big pack you can take it in turns to have a hangover, which you can’t if you are a lone taster.
I do feel uncomfortable about the relationship between those of us that go and score the new vintage and the market. It crystallises things for me for when someone gets upset that you miss a sample and don’t manage to taste something. But it shouldn’t be our duty to taste and provide a sales aid. It’s not our role as journalists to sell wine for merchants or proprietors. Our role is to comment on wine for the sake of consumers.
I enjoy tweeting myself, but I do think Twitter has become something of a malign influence during the en primeur season, when you have some merchants tweeting almost before they have spat out the mouthful.
And on the question of cask samples?
I do see variation between samples, we all do. Although I’m not saying at all that this is deliberate. I usually go and taste at the official UGC tastings for the press, which I absolutely love. They are very quiet, very calm and we can do them at our own pace, seated and blind – although not everyone chooses to do them blind. It is really assessing wine in ideal conditions. I am sad that every year there are slightly fewer proprietors prepared to show their wines in that arena. On the other hand I have come across samples that are tired at those events. I suppose it is up to the producers to make sure that they get the right samples to the right places at the right time.
You probably write more about Bordeaux than any other region, but you seem to have something of a love-hate relationship with the region. Is that fair comment?
There are some people in Bordeaux that I have grown to absolutely love – that probably isn’t too much of an overstatement. I have been going there for years, since 1976, but as someone who relishes frankness, I do find Bordeaux a very frustrating region. I find the level of dissimulation disconcerting. With the glorious exception of Anthony Barton, it is so difficult to get a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. There’s all this playing of cards close to your chests and never letting on how much you will be asking for your wine. That is the frustrating thing for me. It’s so time wasting, as we have seen campaign after campaign.
And what do you love about it?
The wine, when it’s fully mature, is unparalleled. It reaches greater subtlety and nuance than any of its peers outside of the region. But there is no shortage of champions for red Bordeaux – it certainly doesn’t need me. It’s an overdog and I tend to support the underdog. That’s maybe why I particularly love sweet white Bordeaux and act as a bit of flag waver for it. I feel so sorry for the producers, as it is such an expensive thing to produce. It’s bizarre, some of the merchants and brokers who take red Bordeaux so seriously haven’t been to Sauternes for years. And yet, Sauternes is a unique gift to the world, whereas so many producers around the world are making vaguely the same sort of thing as the reds.
Latour has recently announced 2011 will be the last vintage that will be released as an en primeur. What is your opinion on this initiative?
Latour has been moving towards this point slowly but surely for years now. It seems that Frédéric Engerer, who has never really run with the Bordeaux pack, is determined for Latour to be successful as an international luxury brand. It will be fascinating to see how prices are set for mature vintages straight from the Château and to see how much of a premium is demanded for the irreproachability of provenance. It also isn’t clear how the wines will be presented to journalists. It seems unlikely that the smart new tasting room will be mothballed! So with one or two caveats regarding how the wines are actually brought to market, I for one would love to see more Bordeaux producers following Latour's lead. I would love it if we would all only judge the wines only once they were finally blended, aged and in bottle.
What would you advise a friend who was looking to build a Bordeaux cellar to buy?
I would advise them to fill their boots with 2009s from relatively inexpensive producers at the Cru Bourgeois, less fashionable Crus Classés and lesser Right Bank level. The vintage was just so good, right down the ladder. And they are underpriced. All of the attention is going to the top players. They are not difficult to understand, particularly for someone new to it, as you don’t have to battle though a wall of tannins or a veil of acidity. They have masses of lovely fruit and yet they have enough freshness to be in the Bordeaux mould. I suspect there will also be a lot of good 2010s as well, although they may be a little bit more difficult for a neophyte to understand.
If they wanted to get to grips with what more mature Bordeaux taste like, I would advise them to skip out and get as good quality 2001s as they could afford. They are just looking better and better and the gap between the 2001s and 2002s is widening.
Is there anyone that you particularly enjoy visiting?
Denis Durantou is always impish and agreeably unpredictable and I have a soft spot for the Guinaudeaus at Lafleur. It always appears to be sunny when I go to Pomerol, which helps. It is fun to go and visit the characters. There are so many strong characters, even if they are not always full and frank! It’s lovely too, to see the next generation emerge. Such as the young Berrouet [Olivier] after seeing his father [Jean-Claude] for so long [at Petrus], Pauline Vauthier and the like. And around the world bump into young Pontallier [of Margaux]. It’s a huge compliment to wine that the next generation is going into it. It’s only a generation and a half ago that wine was considered a sub-standard activity, as I know myself. When I graduated, I didn’t dare go into wine immediately because I thought all my friends would think it a waste of my education [Maths and Philosophy at Oxford].
Moving away from Bordeaux – what is your relationship with Burgundy?
I love going to Burgundy. You have so much more direct access and it is a more beautiful region, and more obviously historic. You don’t have those long drives up the Medoc at the beginning and end of every day. It is more intellectually challenging with so many wines in every cellar and much more variation between producers.
And your views on recent Burgundy vintages?
I haven’t tasted the 2011s yet. Burgundy tends to hit the heart more than the head and people tend to take a strong position on Burgundian vintages, which is probably a mistake. I think it was wrong to dismiss the 2009s as being simple, big, fruity things. There are some lovely wines there and I think they will probably last very well. I have found some excellent 2010s and the 2008s are doing something of a dance with us. They didn’t look very good, then they came round for us and now they are retreating again. I have a soft spot for the softer vintages of Burgundy that are never going to be great but are going to provide early flattering pleasure and I think the 2007s provide that.
I also love the Rhone; I usually go there towards the end of the year – the time when the difference in weather between Chateauneuf and London is particularly marked. The biggest revelation for me recently was the Northern Rhone 2010s, which were absolutely stunning. I think the 2009s are also better in the North than the South. But there is not that much wine to go round.
I am also very happy to see the revitalisation of St Joseph, there is more and more serious St Jospeh being produced.
Are you more of a northern Rhone person then?
Not necessarily, as I am a huge fan of the value to be had in the lesser southern Rhone. I suppose I am more of a drinkers’ writer than an investors’ writer and I am always looking for value. And by that I don’t mean the cheap stuff. I look for something which tastes like real wine but doesn’t carry investment prices. And France is pretty good at that.
What are your predictions for the fine wine sector over the next five years? What will be the major trends?
I rather hope there will be a greater appreciation of fine white wines. You know that I’m an underdog supporter. I’m sad that red wine takes up such a high proportion of column inches. In terms of actual drinking, white wine has just as much to offer and possibly with more variety.
And clearly the pendulum that swings between heft and nuance is coming back from heft: we’re seeing a much wider appreciation of subtlety and freshness. Acidity is no longer seen as a bug-bear but as a refreshing necessity. What I like most at the moment is the fact that the consumer has never been more powerful. I approve of that. I have said my whole working life that I do not want to dictate. I want to inform, educate and amuse the consumer and give them the power to make up their own minds, and I think that’s happening more and more.
Please visit the blog on Monday to read part 2 of our interview with Jancis, in which she discusses her career as a critic and journalist, the development of her website, and her MW.