Looking ahead to a vinous '16

AS we pause on the threshold of yet another New Year, what can or should we look forward to?

The brightest spot (to offset the somewhat sober economic outlook) is that the 2015 vintage promises to be by all accounts, the best since 2010. Reports by wine writers from England and the US have been very upbeat about the vintage.

The traditional Bordeaux en primeur campaign held in May every year showcases Chateaux tastings of barrel samples of the preceding year's vintage, providing a unique opportunity not only to taste the wines but to meet and discuss with Chateau owners and attending wine writers and critics.

Attendance at these tastings requires invitations from Chateau owners as they are not open to the general public. This year it will be eagerly looked forward to by wine critics, wine merchants and wine lovers. (I go much later than May, to avoid the crush.)

Traditionally also, during the campaign, the opening (en primeur) prices of these wines will be released from the Chateaux to the Bordeaux place (market), who in turn release their en primeur prices to their trade and (very) private mailing lists.

It is hoped that this year the en primeur prices will be more sensible, that is, it will reflect the general sentiment in the Bordeaux market (said general sentiment being not very encouraging!). Bordeaux is the only wine region which engages in this en primeur pricing. It does not happen in Burgundy nor in any other wine region.

For those unfamiliar with this marketing system, the en primeur sale is actually a pre-release sale.

The wines have only just finished fermenting, they are still in barrels to be elevaged (nurtured) and matured for another 18 to 24 months, following which they will be bottled, cellared for a few more months before final release, in the spring two years after the vintage, to en primeur buyers and for worldwide sale. 2015 Bordeaux should be on the market in the spring of 2018.

Why buy en primeur? Two benefits.

The first and more important is the assurance that the wine purchased will come directly from the Chateau albeit through the Bordeaux negociant via the wine merchants worldwide.

The second is that en primeur prices are lower than prices from wine merchants when they come on the retail market.

And it can be a significant difference. Most important of all, provenance is what it is all about.

The wine you receive comes directly from the Chateau via the wine merchant via the Bordeaux negociant. (It has not passed through any other private buyer before you.) The provenance could not be better. Hence the great interest worldwide in the en primeur campaign.

Sadly, this campaign in recent years has lost much of its attraction due to the inordinately high increases in the en primeur prices of the 2009 and 2010 campaigns.

They were not moderated sufficiently in the lesser vintages after 2010 despite feedback from the trade. A more sober and realistic pricing en primeur structure this year would greatly help to resuscitate the currently moribund market for Bordeaux wines.

A sensible pricing structure together with the anticipated very good 2015 vintage should breathe more life into the market.

Moving away from the business angle, what of wine in 2016?

First thoughts are what wines and which vintages are ready to drink next year? Wines first. The current preferences for red and white Burgundy are understandable but becoming a little bit overdone and, notwithstanding the lovely wines, a little monotonous.

Wine drinking, like the rest of life, is all about balance. Equilibrium. One of the great lessons we learn from the study of human physiology (in our medical school curriculum) is the paramount importance of equilibrium.

The human body's physiological system is designed, built with mechanisms mediated through the central and endocrine nervous systems, and based on the fundamental importance of, and the need to maintain and restore to EQUILIBRIUM all the body's functioning systems after any and every disruption, whether through trauma or disease. Equilibrium, equilibrium, equilibrium. (And actually if you extend this further, it applies to the universe also.)

It is a principle applicable to our daily life and indeed to all of human endeavours and existence. (I leave readers to work out what imbalance eventually leads to.)

Vintages? A rule applicable practically to all quality wines is the six- to seven-year rule. Six for lesser cru and seven for grands crus and first growths. EXCEPT for the great vintage years.

Here I tend to opt for at least eight years for the top echelons of Bordeaux Firsts and Burgundy Grand Crus. And for the really big wines such as Chateau Latour, Chambertin, Musigny et al, 10 years.

The same rule of thumb I find works reasonably satisfactorily for the top wines of other major wine regions in the Old World - Italian, Spanish, German.

I keep in mind that wines from warmer climate regions tend to be riper and have a shorter maturing period.Helpful while your old-world stocks mature gently.

It also depends on how much you have of a particular wine.

It would be natural and quite useful if you have a stock of a case or more of a First Growth or Grand Cru to try a bottle a little early to gauge its level of maturity.

I opened a Chateau Latour 2003 in 2011 when it was only eight years old, knowing it was far too young. (But I was dying to taste it.)

It was a huge wine, most impressive and very Latour, in all its brooding massiveness and unconscionable depth, still very much in its adolescence, but what a glorious adolescence. A second bottle drunk at 10 years of age in 2013 had a youthful maturity. Time for another bottle now at 12 years of age!

Which brings me to another thought for the New Year - the exploration of new wines. Human beings have the habit of inertia - a polite word for laziness, mental as well as physical. (Equilibrium again).

So we are reluctant to stir out of our comfortable laziness to explore. One important asset one tries to instil in one's students (to remind oneself) is curiosity.

No, it does not kill the cat. It leads to the exploration of space, the discovery of antibiotics, and the birth of the digital age. You name it.New wineries and new wines come on the scene all the time.

Spain and Italy in Europe (how about a German Pinot Noir!), the new wineries in Argentina and Chile, in Australia, New Zealand and China!

A problem in Asia is the relative lack of opportunities to try these new wineries and wines.

Asia is still too small a market, and still too brand-conscious, making it a difficult market for new names to gain ground. And too far away for the growers to come to personally present their wines, to see and be seen - and drunk!

This article was first published on December 25, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.