During the third week of January each year, a dozen or so tasters, predominantly trade but with one or two scribes, meet in the nicely old-fashioned East Anglia seaside town of Southwold to taste more than 200 ‘cru classés and equivalent’ wines from a Bordeaux vintage that is entering its fourth year. Southwold is known to beer and wine drinkers as home to Adnams, founded in 1872.
The Great Claret Tasting was first convened in 1980 by Simon Loftus – formerly Adnams chairman, now a director, and who was responsible for pushing his family firm into the most individual, even eccentric, wines – a policy that has continued.
It is hosted for a small group that included two MWs this year (Clive Coates and Jancis Robinson), as well as John Thorogood, claret buyer for Lay & Wheeler. In the early days, the wines were sourced from participants’ cellars, but by the turn of the century, Bill Blatch of Bordeaux négociant Vintex began to get samples direct from the cellars, and now drives them to Southwold himself.
My first invitation to join the Southwold Set came in 2005, when the vintage was the then-underrated 2001. The cellarmaster was and still is Rob Chase of Adnams, who now double-decants every bottle to give them oxygen necessary for such young wines, and ensure that recognisable bottles – think Haut-Brion and Pavie – are changed before they are wrapped and numbered.
Flights are limited to 12 wines, served by appellation, which is the only information given. In the frequent event of there being more than 12 wines in an appellation, the ‘lesser’ châteaux are together in the first flight, the more high profile names in the last. The first growths and the ‘challengers’ – a new and quite apt description this year – from the Left and Right Banks are served in separate flights.
Tasters remain in the same place facing each other around a large table, so that each mark (out of 20) they call out is entered in the same column on the computer. The atmosphere is relaxed, for everyone knows and respects each other and the point of the three-day exercise is to arrive at a balanced judgement.
The trade is represented by buyers for some of the most established names in the Bordeaux business, and this year’s writers were Robinson, Neal Martin (Robert Parker’s man in the UK) and myself. Some of the group tend to be rather severe markers until it comes to the very best wines.
Thus the average mark of ‘lesser’ St-Julien and Pauillac 2006s was 15.24; St-Julien crus classés 16.23; and the Left Bank first growths and challengers 17.91. To my knowledge, 20 out of 20 has never been recorded (presumably since a four-year-old vintage is viewed as a work in progress) although there were several scores of 19 for the best Médocs and the surprisingly great Sauternes.
The reason why the châteaux continue to provide samples seems to be that they want to receive the views of the tasters, which are relayed in detail by Blatch. Each wine is discussed and in the event of a wide variation of opinion, he will ask for comments from both the high and low markers, causing him to observe that ‘we are all saying the same thing, just marking it differently’.
Tasters tend to stick to their guns, ‘an early-drinking wine, 16/20’ for one being ‘not for drinking at all, 13/20’ for another. Silence tends to reign during the flights, replaced by gentle banter when disagreements are evident, for we know that our hard work will be rewarded by fine wines at dinner at Adnams’ Crown Hotel.
Dinner wines were the preoccupation of the late, great Bill Baker, who told the tasters to dig deep into their cellars and ‘don’t bring crap’. Inspired by Baker’s enthusiasm and generosity, bottles were both varied and memorable. Without him, we had to choose a theme for the two evenings.
The first was 1999 red Burgundy, with Domaine des Comtes Lafon’s Volnay-Champans, Georges Mugneret’s Nuits-St-Georges Les Chaignots, Domaine Armand Rousseau’s Gevrey-Chambertin Clos-St-Jacques and Domaine Dujac’s Clos de la Roche, preceded by Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Auslese 1999 as an aperitif, Louis Carillon Puligny-Montrachet Les Perrières 2004, Pierre Morey Meursault-Perrières 2002, Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet 1996, and ending with Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum Sélection de Grains Nobles 2006.
The next evening the theme of 1985 clarets provided Pape-Clément, Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Lalande, Cos d’Estournel, Latour, L’Eglise Clinet, starting with Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas-François Billecart 1996 and Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1985, 2001 and 2000 Meursaults from Coche-Dury and ending with Raymond-Lafon 2005. Blatch was much missed, but at least we got to bed a little earlier.
Written by Steven Spurrier