A Chauffeur Writes

Car collector Joel Hopwood plunges into the first week of Bordeaux EP 2022

The blue bubble appeared in the messages app of my iPhone on a Friday night in January. ‘LMK if you are interested in being a “chauffeur” for a few days in Bordeaux at the end of April’.

The last time the person in question – now a wine journalist of global repute – asked me to help out with something, it was a website. This was 2003, when the Circle of Wine Writers was still trying to figure out whether words on the internet counted as wine writing. The website was in need of a visual makeover and I had the skills, a passion for wine and, being a single 26-year-old freshly arrived in London, the time. Payment was in home cooking and fine old bottles after a hard day’s work at the computer. A friendship was born.

On the Road to Bordeaux

The trip began inauspiciously: on the first night, thanks to my poor planning. We pulled up in town just in time to see the blinds of every restaurant slamming down.

Luckily both of us are as comfortable with les nuggets as we are with le Michelin and so we passed a happy hour talking to the Irish hen party next to us. Their only worry was whether 2022 would turn out to be a carbon copy of the unhappy 2003 vintage.

It always takes longer than you think to drive to the south of France. This provided an opportunity for us to impress or bore each other with increasingly obscure music choices which could easily constitute an article of their own.

Despite drinking the wines for over 25 years, and buying and selling more than my fair share, I’d never actually been to Bordeaux. The connections in my head between communes, vintages and properties were entirely theoretical. To be completely honest, as the wine hyperinflation of the 2000s took hold, Bordeaux seemed less and less interesting. But I’m still an Englishman. Isn’t the noble wine of Bordeaux in some way hard-coded to our palates, to our very blood in fact – claret being the cockney (London) slang for blood?

The first surprise was the land itself. Bordeaux is so flat. I was almost concerned we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the Netherlands, but the lack of cyclists reassured me. The other notable feature is the scale. These vineyards are big. I was reminded of Crocodile Dundee’s comment about his place in the outback – “it’s not that big… you could ride across it in a couple of days”. And nothing prepared me for the châteaux. Yes, I’d been looking at drawings on labels, google images, photos of them my whole life. Who reading this hasn’t? But when you’re actually there, in the buildings – driving up the drives, walking up the steps, the long views and the tawny stone working their magic just as the original designers intended…  it’s difficult not to come over a little bit Brideshead Revisited. Or perhaps Downton Abbey for younger readers.

The Tastings

I hadn’t tasted barrel samples for over 20 years since my own brief time in the trade. A barrel sample is not an easy thing to evaluate. On the first morning, I was overwhelmed by wines that were not yet wines – a wall of dense fruit and tannin. Like prison, the first 10 are the hardest.

By the second day, approximately 100 wines in, my palate had started to re-calibrate, and while my notes can only ever be an amateur’s snapshot at best, the intellectual challenge of comparison and comprehension soon became the week’s obsession. From 8am until close to midnight we tasted. We sniffed and swirled. We sucked and sipped and spat. My notebook came to resemble Indiana Jones’ grail diary and over the week, a picture of this fascinating vintage began to emerge.

At its best the vintage offers a remarkable combination of purity and power. The St Juliens were genuinely thrilling, the Pauillacs not far behind. In Margaux I became aware of heat, with the alcohol noticeable in a way it simply wasn’t in other places. St Estephe we did on day one, before I had keyed in. I would love to revisit them.

The best surprise was the Bordelais. Given the grandeur of the properties and the scale of the business operation I was expecting formality, even froideur. These are surely, to quote Logan Roy, serious people? The winemakers were, with a very few exceptions, charming, engaging and funny to a fault.

On reflection, maybe that’s not so surprising; qfter all, they’ve got the best job in the world.

The Chauffeur’s Favourites

(2023) Inky purple-black with a pure magenta rim. Fantastically polished texture and mouthfeel. At 13.6% alcohol this is apparently the highest ever at Lafite, but the wine doesn’t taste hot. Incredible finish. This will be a superb Lafite which will outlive me certainly. Tasted en primeur so score is provisional. (JH)
(2023) The nose reaches up out of the glass and grabs your senses – absolutely gorgeous, there’s no other word for it. A clear step up from its stablemates. Pure blackcurrant dusted with a sense of blue fruits, and that Mouton spice. So exotic. Tons going on… if Leoville Barton is a string quartet, this is a closer to Led Zeppelin. Tasted en primeur so score is provisional. (JH)    
(2023) This wine is the precise colour of Rowan Atkinson’s McLaren F1. At first a trace of smoke on the nose, but swirl and swirl and this goes. Just the densest sense of pure violets, coiled power on the nose. Huge. And it’s all underpinned by a slab of pure blackcurrant fruit. Very long on the palate, fine tannins. This is up there with the very best I think. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot. There’s a freshness to the classically Pauillac nose – almost schisty with a hint of wet stone. In the mouth, there are layers and layers of flavour. A sense of compact elegance. Very correct. This has something special – balance and harmony. An honest wine in a special vintage. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) 13.6% alcohol, 14% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 83% Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a hint of wood on the nose at first, but this goes and it’s then so pure. Loaded with ripe fruit, like the LLC, and it feels like it’s punching at a similar level. Not a hair out of place and impressively low alcohol. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) Inky purple-black. A fully stacked nose of iris petals, violets and blue-black fruit. Massive but not forced. This shimmers in the glass. Really fine. So harmonious it’s like a perfectly tuned acoustic guitar – it sings, both in the nose and the mouth (in my memory, typing this later, I hear it!). Nothing out of place. Really exciting to think about what this will become. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) 54% CS, 42% M, 4% PV. 14% alcohol. Very dark purple/black. There is a huge nose straight away with massive aromatics. It’s so floral! All the winemakers talk about freshness (boringly, as they all do it and it’s considered an unconditional positive) but this really is like wandering into a meadow packed with flowers. Remarkable! This is lighter in the mouth than I was expecting, with lovely tannins, good length. This is a really elegant Beychevelle with so much charm. This wine makes me smile. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) There’s a very pure, restrained sense of compact power on the nose. This is so much more refined than most of the samples we’ve tried this campaign. Lighter bodied in the mouth than I expected. This is so harmonious; silken. It almost feels like you could drink it now. This is a wine that whispers rather than shouts – reminds me of the 1985 in that respect. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.
(2023) The nose jumps out of the glass, offering ripe black griotte cherry, violets – isn’t this property always the most exotic and black-fruited of its peers? In the mouth, very nice entry and lovely texture. Very fine tannins and acidity keeping it fresh and balanced on the long finish. This is a really fine La Conseillante. (JH). Tasted en primeur so score is provisional.