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Bordeaux wine consultants in lockdown: ‘We have to adapt’

Travel plans have been shelved and they can't taste as many samples, but top Bordeaux wine consultants have been getting resourceful to help clients in recent weeks...

Top wine consultants are always on the move, with schedules planned months in advance and work spanning vineyards and cellars in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

For some of Bordeaux’s best-known consultants, restrictions on movement that have now been in place for several weeks have meant new ways of working.

‘The world changed a few weeks ago, what we’re doing now is completely different,’ Hubert de Boüard, co-owner of Château Angélus and also a leading consultant, told Decanter.com this week.

However, from his Angélus base in St-Emilion, de Boüard said he’s still been very active. ‘I’ve not stopped at all.’

Fellow consultants Michel Rolland and Eric Boissenot, also based in Bordeaux and presently confined, told of how they would normally have been on client visits and focusing on the 2019 primeurs.

Rolland had trips planned in Italy and Armenia, before coming back to Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings, followed by two weeks working in South Africa then a meeting with his importer in Panama. After that, he had planned a few days in Seville as a breather.

A short trip to Russia and three weeks in the US would have followed, and of this between 15 March and 7 June. Rolland isn’t known as one of the world’s ‘flying winemakers’ for nothing.

‘Never have I stressed more in my life,’ Rolland told Decanter.com via email. ‘Every morning I ask myself what I can do better. Suddenly we’re not able to do what has been planned – work and pleasure is just frustrating.’

Despite widespread travel restrictions, all three have been able to make short trips to nearby vineyards and their respective laboratories, which Rolland said has ‘never been closed’.

While respecting social distancing measures, de Boüard and his team of four oenologists have been visiting Bordeaux clients to taste samples ‘at least four times a week, advising on racking, fining or adjusting in some way for bottling’.

Boissenot, who consults to many of the most famous names on the Left Bank, has also continued with some solo visits, but said that overall, ‘The advice part has greatly decreased because trips have been cancelled’.

While ‘activity has continued in the laboratory at a lower rate than usual with limited staff’, he added that analysis of wines was ongoing and that the team was managing to keep on top of the work. ‘Preparations for bottling have been made,’ he added.

Video conferencing was ‘working well’, said Rolland.

De Boüard said, ‘I can’t be in a plane, but I’ve had contact with clients in the Lebanon, Spain, Portugal and South Africa.’ He has assisted Vin de Constance’s head winemaker, Matt Day, with the 2020 harvest, for example.

‘I obviously prefer being there in person, to touch the grapes and taste them, but with video we can talk together, exchange information and data,’ said De Boüard.

‘Working with a team 10,000km away is a challenge but we did a great job in South Africa. It’s not the same when you’re not there physically but you have to adapt.’

Boissenot added that, in Bordeaux, he has been able to taste the same samples as clients while on video calls, enabling him to discuss the wines and impart advice.

Rolland and de Boüard, who are both based in St-Emilion, have also been working in collaboration with each other regarding the Bordeaux 2019 vintage and the postponement of the en primeur tastings.

The shipments of wine samples from the Left and Right Banks has been organised en masse to wine critics around the world, for instance.

This arrangement has seen around 150 wines, including between 60 and 85 wines from de Boüard’s clients, sent to 15 critics across the globe. Samples have arrived in the UK, US and Hong Kong, as well as at the home of Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent, Jane Anson, who lives locally.

‘With no primeur we’ve tried to be more efficient,’ de Boüard said. ‘Bordeaux is very conservative, but my message is don’t be shy. It’s a great vintage, we want to be inventive and pragmatic and proud to present the wine.

‘What I try to do with my clients is to say “We have to go ahead and do the job, to send samples”.

‘We’ve had compliments that the wines have been received in good condition and we know it’s not a good argument to say that all the wines are too fragile to send.

‘Bordeaux needs to be a little less arrogant, to be more adaptive, to be more open. It’s a unique chance to be as close as possible to consumers and journalists. If Bordeaux always wants to be a leader in the world we have to change something.’

With regard to pricing strategy, de Boüard believes there is potential for the eventual Bordeaux 2019 campaign to be successful if the prices are right.

‘There is a big crisis in the world but we have had some interest. I’m not sure it will be a big campaign but we know we have to do a good effort for the consumer and release at a good price.’

Looking ahead to the immediate future, de Boüard said he was hoping to be back in the vineyards ‘within 10 days’, at least in Bordeaux. However, international travel may have to wait until September or October. Until then, video conferencing shall continue.

‘We can’t taste the grapes but we’ll do our best with the information available. I don’t know if the world will have changed after COVID but I think we’ll be able to work differently.’

Read an exclusive interview with Eric Boissenot in Decanter magazine’s upcoming Bordeaux guide, in the July 2020 issue.

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