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How to taste young wine: Steven Spurrier’s guide – from the archive

With the 2020 Bordeaux en primeur campaign on the horizon , we look back at the late Steven Spurrier's wisdom on tasting wines en primeur.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Decanter.

The aim in tasting wines before they arrive on the retailers’ shelves is simply to assess their future. Wines that are tasted en primeur are generally those from the most recent vintage, just a few months old, or the vintage before and almost always not yet in bottle. The exception is vintage Port, where vintages are declared during the second year after the harvest and only tasted once in bottle.

In my view, assessments for the future can only be based on form in the shape of as much background information as possible. When asked how I can judge a wine so young, I compare it to those who judge racehorses, about which I know very little: they know the sire and the dam (the parents of the yearling in question), their parents, and the breeding and bloodlines going back several generations. With knowledge of such breeding and of the stables that bred them, an expert can assess the future of a foal when it is barely able to gallop.

Such background is essential for judging young wines – the lack of which renders a judgement purely subjective. This is why I do not taste the Bordeaux primeurs blind, for the knowledge of the vineyard, age of the vines, track record over a decade or more and style of the estate gives me information for the just-made wine’s future. The main reason to taste blind is not to be influenced by the label, yet this is precisely the influence I am looking for. Moreover, with more and more châteaux staying outside the Union des Grands Crus tastings each April, these wines must be tasted at the property, often with the owner and winemaker present: the opposite of blind.

Tasting young wine: Judging quality

Given this background information, what does one look for? First, the absence of faults. Wines will have been drawn from barrel or tank, so no cork taint is possible, but any unclean aromas or flavours, volatile acidity or unnatural sweetness will disqualify the wine. Such wines are rare and quickly disposed of.

Judging too-young wines is purely analytical, not hedonistic, so negatives, if present, must be recognised before moving onto the positives. Such negatives are ‘too little’ or ‘too much’. Red wines that lack colour and fruit will be too thin; if they lack acidity or tannins they will not last well. Any evidence of exaggeration will, for me, go against a wine.

A Bordeaux vintage like 2010 had lots of fruit, colour, acidity and tannins, and masses of oak to come, but this was the style of the year. Lighter years like 2008 or 2012 will have less of everything, but the everything should be in balance. In fact, balance or harmony is the key word for a wine’s future. Imbalance of any kind will not lead to a good wine.

Wines in certain vintages will often be described, once mature, in comparative opposites, such as ‘a charming 2004’ or ‘a robust 2008’, characteristics that would have been only faintly present a few months after the vintage. If there is one single thing to look for in a young wine, it is harmony. Only then can relative quality and staying power be assessed.

One important assessment to make is when a wine will be best to drink. The French like their wines younger than do the British. Having worked for almost two decades in Paris, I agree with the former preference, while from my own cellar abiding by the latter. As Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux said (about Margaux, of course): ‘If a wine is good young, it is good at any age.’ I find that the drinking windows I give to young red wines, whether Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône, begin perhaps a year or two after bottling and end perhaps a decade or two later. This is not very helpful, but is usually true.

Tasting young wine: When to drink

The rule of thumb from those with a varied cellar is that the first three bottles from a case are drunk too young, the next six when they are maturing well and the final three on the way down. (The Branaire-Ducru 1996 I had recently, opened an hour before and decanted, was perfect. I have four bottles left.)

When a wine will ‘come round’ is less an issue today as it was in the past when, except in a few fortunate years, most estates could not risk waiting for total ripeness. Some of these wines never made it. I remember asking Anthony Barton when his 1937 (a hard vintage in Bordeaux, excellent in Burgundy) came round and he replied ‘40 years later, for about 15 minutes’.

Burgundy has less tannin than Bordeaux. After tasting at the Hospices de Beaune in 1979 with Lalou Bize-Leroy, she asked for my favourite wines and quickly dismissed them saying , ‘You, Steven, are tasting for now. I am tasting for the future.’

Nothing is truer than the adage ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but this emotional approach can only apply to a very young wine when, analytically, one is convinced of all of its qualities, which will always be in relation to its peers. Un bon petit vin is always preferable to un petit bon vin. What we are looking for is the probability of enjoyment for the future and that, almost always, will be evident from the start.

Spurrier’s tips for tasting young wine

  • Know the characteristics of the vintage: weather patterns, early or late harvest, dry or wet. In short, know what to expect, for all assessments will be both individual to each wine and comparative to others.
  • Look for harmony above anything else, which will be the overall impression; the sum of the parts.
  • Beware of wines that are trying too hard, while dismissing those that have not tried hard enough.
  • If white and reds are at the tasting, taste reds first, as their tannins will have a lesser effect on the subsequent whites than the white’s acidity would have on the reds.
  • While being as analytical as possible, do not be afraid to have favourites.

Look out for our Bordeaux 2020 en primeur report, tasting notes and scores, from Jane Anson, coming soon to Decanter Premium

Jane Anson’s guide to tasting en primeur wines

Steven Spurrier’s top ten Bordeaux wines of all time

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