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Interview: Stephane Derenoncourt

Stephane Derenoncourt talks to Kyle Schlachter about the controversy surrounding En Primeur samples - and suggests that yes, he would leave the system if he could.

The process of how samples are selected for En Primeur has seen a fair share of media attention: in a recent interview for Le Monde newspaper, international consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt caused some controversy by saying that that he put his En Primeur samples ‘through a special process to speed up the elevage.’ More recently, Michel Rolland made headlines when he told journalists that En Primeur is ‘a game where the consumer can win or lose.’ Derenoncourt spoke with Decanter.com to clarify his statement to Le Monde, but he also echoed similar sentiments to Rolland. He told Kyle Schlachter that the system ‘should benefit the consumer, but the speculation is so high now in Bordeaux … and brings more risk to the consumer buying En Primeur.’

There has been a lot of media attention to En Primeur and the culture of omertà in Bordeaux recently. Michel Rolland called it a game. Do you think of it as a game?

No, for me it’s not a game at all. It’s a difficult job with lots of consequences for the reputation of the château and its further selling of En Primeur wines.

You were quoted saying that you put your wines through a special preparation. How do you choose which lots get selected for tasting during En Primeur?

I lately discovered the article of Decanter, which caused some debate. We use what we call the parcel method, which means, the final construction of the wine is already built in the vineyards, starting at harvest, when we taste the grapes. That allows us to respect the origin and the identity of each plot and to adapt vinification and ageing progress to each quality of crop. For some of the lots ageing takes 14-16 months, so it’s impossible to have the whole quantity of wines open and presentable from April on, without harming the quality in the end.
For an En Primeur sample, which needs to be representative of the whole crop, only a small quantity of each tank realizes its malolactic fermentation in barrels, in order to have more reductive ageing processes for the rest of the wines.

Do you believe some châteaux give different samples to different journalists? Members of the trade? Do you?

No, I don’t do that, I think it is stupid, a very short way of thinking.

But do you think the accusations and admissions by some that certain châteaux do try to play to their audience by giving different samples to different critics is a harbinger of problems in the En Primeur system?

I think it is an exception; most of the producers are honest with samples

Is En Primeur held too early?

Yes, absolutely. But it is an historical manifestation and you have to accept it and participate, if you decide to work in Bordeaux.

Can critics accurately score the wines before they are in bottle?

The most serious tasters taste the wine three to four times between En Primeur and after bottling.
That’s what I consider a serious way to judge the quality of a wine. But many journalists are only interested in Bordeaux during the En Primeur time. I can understand that, I mean they are received as kings with lots of add-ons and goodies proposed by the different bordelaise organizations. But I find it difficult to have an objective judgment when the wines are only tasted once. Some journals send their writers for the Primeurs, and then two years later when the wines are bottled, they taste again, but it’s not the same taster coming and writing about the wines. I consider that as less serious.

Do the scores given during En Primeur carry too much weight in how wines are priced? What is the importance of the scores?

First of all, it depends who gave the notes, because very few critics have real influence on the market today. A well prepared press-book with good scores is a essential for a winery.

Who are the critics that “have a real influence on the market today” and who are the critics you think do the best job reporting on the wines of Bordeaux?

Robert Parker is the most influential. It is always best when journalists taste En Primeur and after bottling.

Would top journalists boycotting En Primeur affect the system at all?

All top journalists are in Bordeaux during En Primeur tasting.

Does existing knowledge of the various properties affect the perception and the scoring of the samples during En Primeur because most of the tasting is non-blind?

Of course…

Do you think the wine media are being exploited to hype demand or inflate prices?

Yes, sometimes, for few labels.

If the practice of the château is to blend just before bottling, rather than in February, How representative of the finished wines are the En Primeur samples?

With our parcel-method, we already know the real blend of the wine at 90% from harvest on. To be consultant in a winery demands to respect the history and asks a reflection foresighted. If the wines are systematically better En Primeur than later in the bottle, it’s impossible to build up a good reputation. The truth always comes out, sooner or later.

How does En Primeur compare to Premiere Napa Valley in terms of the wines being sampled?

It’s not the same. The Premiere Napa Valley shows samples which are sold as it in an auction, so it’s not the same work as in Bordeaux.

Obviously with En Primeur there is no auction like at Premiere Napa Valley, but is there any similarity in the way the wines from each event are prepared or manipulated?

No, because you have to create a blend or something special for this event. It can be 2 or 5 barrels.

Is the En Primeur process at risk of disappearing in the future?

I don’t think so, no. But there is a danger that it will become smaller and to only be held by the most in-demand wineries, as it actually was a long time ago.

Might other top châteaux refrain from participating in En Primeur like Latour has done? Would you ever consider withholding your wines from the process?

Yes, all the producers in the world dream of a commercial organization like that.

What would you change about En Primeur?

I would prefer to have the tasting later, in June for example, because it’s very difficult to prepare the wines just after the winter. I would also prefer the critics, committed to En Primeur tasting, follow up their work and re-taste the same wines after bottling. If, as a consultant, we have to justify our professionality, we should demand from the journalists a little more responsibility in the way they score.

Do you or your clients price wines based on the scores given during En Primeur?

A little bit, yes, but the market has more influence than journalists in setting the price nowadays

Does En Primeur benefit the consumer or the producer?

It should benefit the consumer, but speculation is so high now in Bordeaux, that it and the resulting economic situation have become the most important part of the business. This consequently brings more risk to the consumer buying En Primeur.

Written by Kyle Schlachter

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