The beautiful châteaux of Bordeaux really come to life during this time. As if hosting debutante balls, they put on lavish luncheons, dinners and soirées to showcase their wines in the best circumstances; journalists, and critics sharpen their palates and their pencils; merchants gauge consumer sentiment while conducting negotiation behind closed doors…On Bordeaux’s en primeur week, excerpt from The Chinese Wine Renaissance
Forgive me for quoting from my own book, and reminiscing about the buzz and magic that used to be Bordeaux’s en primeur week. Bordeaux has had its fair share of rough rides in the last decade for all sorts of reasons (which I go into some lengths in my book, in particular its complicated relationship with Chinese buyers), but COVID-19 must have been the mother of all tribulations. Yet it has dealt a detrimental blow to this age old tradition with one fist, and extended another open arm to allow Bordeaux to show resilience and its surprising ability to adapt rapidly when really pushed.
What is en primeur?
En primeur is a forward purchase agreement underwritten by wine merchants. The buyer pays upfront for a wine that is still barrel aging and will be delivered 12-18 months later, when the wine is bottled.
One of the most important calendar event for Bordeaux, therefore, is the annual en primeur tasting – when barrel samples across Bordeaux appellations of the most recently harvested vintage are tasted by wine professionals. The world of wine trade and press would descend upon Bordeaux during the en primeur week, usually early in April, to taste, remark and exchange thoughts about the wines and the market at large. In the ensuing weeks prices of the wines would be set, taking into account of the opinions of merchants and critics of the wines and market appetite.
Well, that was before COVID. Inevitably, the pandemic had disrupted the 2019 en primeur campaign, and alas, now also the 2020 campaign. Few have travelled to Bordeaux to taste the latest two vintages. But at least we have all got used to courier delivered goods – including wine samples well wrapped in the post. So the show still goes on!
Bordeaux is the wine region that first ignited my love for wine and where I sought knowledge and found inspirations to start my wine writing career. I have been following Bordeaux en primeur campaigns keenly since 2008, initially just curious about the intense interest from Chinese buyers at the time, but gradually applying some of my old ‘day job’ knowledge in financial trading to pick out interesting wines to buy for myself and close friends and relatives. Though I would not claim to be a Bordeaux expert, and certainly don’t judge wines for a living, I have over the years established a decent network in Bordeaux among the chateaux and negociants (merchants) to have the privilege of getting some insider scoop about the wines. Admittedly, Bordeaux wines are facing increasing international competition from other wine regions, on quality, style, value, even age-worthiness… of course my own passion and expertise in wine has also taken a huge swerve in the direction of China since I first started, but there is always a place in my heart reserved just for Bordeaux. It is a place and terroir to return to time and time again. So you can imagine my euphoria, after a year of lockdown in the ancestral home, boxes of wine samples started to trickle through the front door on nondescript frosty April mornings, bearing barrel samples of the Bordeaux 2020 vintage.
Tasting Château Séraphine and Clos Cantenac at home
Since I don’t judge wine for a living, I’m afraid I’m not disciplined enough to write about most of the wines I taste. I write when I have something to say, and about wines that are particularly memorable. And today, I want to write about Martin Krajewski‘s Bordeaux properties – Château Séraphine in Pomerol and Clos Cantenac in Saint-Émilion.
Martin was born in England and is of Polish descent. After a 30-year City career in London, he decided to follow his true calling and make wine. Luckily, Martin has had some previous work experiences in wine in Bordeaux and Australia. In his own words:
My first investment in wine was in Bordeaux in 1995 at the famous Chateau de Sours Property, a beautiful old estate in ‘entre-deux-mers’ which was well known for producing excellent red, white and rosé AOC Bordeaux wines that were highly appreciated and sold all over the world.
Over the years, I completely rebuilt the 150-hectare estate, turning it into a classic brand, but then sold the Property in 2015 to Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, whom I also advised on the running of the Property over the next 2 years following the sale.
I also worked from 2002 to 2012 in Australia with John Duval of Penfolds “Grange fame” where we built a brand called “Songlines Estates” which was also successfully sold in 2012 to allow both of us to concentrate with our individual wine interests.
After selling the Chateau de Sours, I focused much more on my small St Emilion Grand Cru Property that I bought at the end of 2006, called Clos Cantenac and which I still run with my daughter Charlotte Krajewski today.
Charlotte studied wine at university and then worked for 10 years worldwide in 6 different countries on 4 continents before returning in 2017 to become our technical director and wine producer. Matthew, my son, also studied wine at the University of Bordeaux after studying Evolutionary Biology in Edinburgh and he lives not far from us in Bordeaux, but is now working on his own little “natural” farming project.
Then in 2016 we also acquired Chateau Séraphine, a tiny but intriguing Pomerol estate with great character and charm, located close to the famous Chateau Le Pin and Chateau Petrus and where I now live and work with my wife Nicolette when we are in Bordeaux. The property is named after my grandmother Serafina (Omelańska) Krajewska.
Today, I also work in South Africa under the name of ARISTEA wines, which is a very exciting project I started just 6 years ago with Matthew Krone. Matthew is the 12th generation of his family from direct origin to work in South African winemaking. Our wines are also receiving great international Press reviews and selling strongly.
And finally, in 2015 I was also a co-founder of the first independent distillery in Norway since 1927 called Oslo Handswerkdistilleri, where we produce Gin, Akevitt, Bitters and of course Vodka.
Martin’s samples were the first to arrive and therefore my very first impressions of Bordeaux 2020. I also took note of the eco-friendly packaging.
The wine samples came in (rather generous!) half bottles. Though tasting at home certainly cannot compare to the atmosphere of tasting in Bordeaux, where you are immersed in the beauty of the chateau and vineyards and surrounded by movers and shakers of the international wine world, the home experience does have its own advantages. Firstly, tasting just a few wines at a time, as opposed to tens or even hundreds in a day, certainly gives you more time, not to mention acuity, to reflect on the wines. The half bottle also allowed me to revisit the wines, with some food, and on the following day.
Château Séraphine 2020
The colour is so deep somehow the first words that flashed across my mind was ‘Black Forest gateau’. The youth of the wine meant that it stained the glass like crushed wild forest berries – immediately gave rise to a mouth watering sensation. On the nose there were lashings of fresh cassis, cherries, with undercurrents of dark chocolates and coffee beans, topped with a hint of crushed black pepper and liquorice.
The aromas were affirmed and continued on the palate. This wine is already generous and round with fine, soft tannins. Fresh and inky mid-palate, good length and left a lovely aftertaste of red bean fillings (to which I am extremely partial).
Clos Cantenac 2020
Deep moody dark purple in colour; dense, rich nose of assorted fresh black berries with wafts of warm spices. First taste offered clear indication of lively acidity, grainy tannins and graphite on the finish. Over some time (and overnight), the wine just kept on unfurling to reveal more secondary aromas: coffee, cocoa, tight new leather…. There is certainly tension and feels tightly knitted at the moment with lots of potential to stretch and develop. Will be intrigued to taste this wine over its long lifespan to come.
Petit Cantenac 2020
Beautiful intense and bright purple colour invoking purple soft fruits and flowers on the nose: fresh damsons, figs and violets come straight to mind. This wine is already plush and soft with fine, supple tannins. It is firm and structured, already tasting well defined and rounded in the mouth. Perhaps I’ve been eating too many Scottish langoustines recently (to show a bit of support for the fishing industry blighted by Brexit), but do I detect a hint of salinity and sea reminiscent of crustacean shells on the finish there?
Although these wines are not the finished products yet – they will stay in barrel for further aging before being bottled and released to the wider market – they are already taking impressive shape. Like beautiful but unhemmed dresses, I can’t wait till their future is revealed in full grand glory!