James Molesworth is a Senior Editor at Wine Spectator with a tasting beat spanning Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, the Rhône Valley and South Africa. Before he headed to Bordeaux to taste the 2015s, Liv-ex caught up with him to find out about his approach to tasting, thoughts on the Bordeaux market and his personal experience of working in the wine industry.
Now back from Bordeaux, you can read James’ Bordeaux Barrels Diary on Wine Spectator by clicking here. A selection of his key scores are shown on the Liv-ex Blog. Full tasting notes are available on Wine Spectator (subscribers only).
Wine Spectator has a strict tasting policy that involves all wines being tasted blind. How important are blind tastings?
I truly believe single blind tasting is the only credible way for independent journalists to review wines. It’s critical to remove any possibility of label bias from the equation. Our readers seem to agree too: a recent web poll we conducted resulted in nearly 80 percent of respondents saying they felt reviews based on a blind tasting were the only way to guarantee fairness. There’s a lot more to the process than just sitting in an isolated room and tasting wines blind – the context that comes from visiting with producers in their vineyards and cellars is a crucial part of knowing and understanding the wines. But when it comes to the review, you have to remove as much subjectivity as possible from the process.
How should readers understand your scores for wines tasted from barrel?
Barrel reviews are just that – a snapshot of the unfinished wine, and that’s why we rate them with a score range. Generally, I think it’s pretty unusual for the vigneron to screw it up from that point, and I would generally expect the wine to perform as well, if not better, after the élevage. Consequently my score ranges on barrel tastings tend to be conservative.
At what point, and how, do you give definitive scores?
Definitive scores are always based on a blind tasting of the wine from bottle. For Bordeaux, the majority of the wines are tasted October through December following the summer they are bottled. This gives them time to recuperate from the mis – though I should emphasize wines are always rated based on ultimate potential when the wine reaches its peak, not on how the wine is showing just at that moment.
Is it harder for you to score impartially as you get to know the growers more?
Not at all – because I taste blind. I never know the producer or price when reviewing the wines from bottle. It’s true there are producers I respect and like quite a bit – and sometimes the hardest part of the job is when I take the bag off a blind sample and find I wasn’t as enthused about a wine as I thought I would be, based on the producer. On the flip side, there are producers whom I may not know as well, but I still need to respect and appreciate the wine they produce, if they’re good quality. This is how and why blind tasting protects the fairness of the process and promises as much objectivity as possible for the consumer.
In July last year, Suzanne Mustacich wrote in Wine Spectator that retailers reported “little interest” in Bordeaux futures, leading many to abandon the futures market altogether. Do you feel that US interest in En Primeur has been fading?
On the consumer level, it’s absolutely fading. En Primeur is becoming more and more trade oriented – for the negociants of course, and also the bigger retailers, both chain and individual to take positions on the vintage. I don’t think nearly as many end consumers in the U.S. buy En Primeur as there were during the hey day of say 2000.
Does 2015 have the potential to reignite interest in Bordeaux in the US?
Absolutely, But the re-ignition relies on more than just the quality of the vintage. To reignite interest in the U.S., the vintage would have to be superb, but also, and equally important, prices would have to be below perceived value.
Around what levels do you believe that the 2015 vintage should be priced?
I’m pro-consumer, not pro-trade. Prices should be as low as possible to move as much inventory as possible into consumer’s cellars as quickly as possible. Comparisons to previous vintage’s quality aren’t fair. Currency exchange rates, adjustments for inflation, other economic factors – all make straight up comparisons from vintage to vintage silly. There’s also a ton of great wine out there – not just Bordeaux.
Latour have already left the EP system and Mouton recently announced that it would be releasing fewer bottles EP. How do you see the future of the system?
Little will change. Only a few elite chateaus can afford to hold back greater portions of their inventory, or leave the En Primeur market altogether, as with Latour. But most other chateaus need to power of the place de Bordeaux to pay them for their crop before the wine is bottled. It’s still a fairly efficient market, and the negociants that are well capitalized and smartly run are a critical cog in the machine. If there were to be any significant change, I might see some non-Bordeaux proliferating on the place. There’s already a few super Tuscans, Homage a Jacques Perrin from Beaucastel etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if elite Burgundy producers and a few others decided to go that way, and circumvent the margins that are enjoyed by the secondary and grey markets on their wines.
Within Bordeaux, which chateaux are you most excited about?
It’s not my job to force my personal favorites on folks. Instead, I look at the big picture for my readers. It’s fun to compare the first growths each year. To watch the cluster of elite Pomerols push each other. To see how the different areas of St.-Emilion perform each year. And it’s also just as fun to turn folks on to the dry whites, or a great value from Castillon, or remind them of the pleasures of Sauternes and Barsac. It goes back to the rubric of blind tasting, and rewarding consistent quality. Telling that story to my readers is more interesting to me. I want them to make an informed decision about all the wines out there, and then they can home in on their favorites.
Which if any of the recent “great” Bordeaux vintages – 2005, 2009, 2010 – has been your favorite and why?
There’s 2010 and then there’s everything else. Fruit and structure for days. Terrific spine, definition, precision. It’s all there. I’d be ecstatic if I got to review another vintage as good as 2010 before I retire.
Do you feel that any recent Bordeaux vintages have been underrated?
Right now both 2001 and 2004 are delights to drink, with no rush either. 2011 will win fans down the road too. On the flip side, there are overrated vintages. 2008 is a prime example. And 2003 is showing some really weird tendencies too.
There has been discussion about the appeal of Bordeaux wine to millennials. How do you think it competes with the new world/other regions?
Young people don’t have the discretionary income to spend on elite Bordeaux, don’t cellar wine long term (which Bordeaux requires), and are more interested in far flung regions and what’s ‘new’ rather than established benchmarks. Added up, these factors become quite the Gordian knot for Bordeaux to untangle. But any tasting I’m at, if there’s an older bottle of elite Bordeaux being opened, that bottle draws a crowd, millennials included. I think the pendulum will swing back and the millennial generation will eventually investigate Bordeaux, if it hasn’t started to already. Nonetheless, Bordeaux can’t just sit around and wait for that to happen by itself – Bordeaux needs to engage with these consumers on a personal level.
You say that the Rhone is your favourite region. Why is this? Which Rhone producers or appellations are exciting you the most?
The Rhone is where my heart is. I grew up with it. My first visit as a young boy to France was capped with a stay in Provence. My first job in the wine business was with a retailer who specialized in Burgundy and the Rhone. I love the terrain, I love the light, I love the feel of the place. I enjoy the people. I enjoy the shift from Lyonnais cooking to Provencal cooking as you move south. There isn’t a corner of the region I don’t dig. As much as I respect Bordeaux, I do love the Rhone, and it makes up more than half my cellar. But I still need to be objective when I review the wines from all my tasting beats.
Are there any regions in the New World that are exciting you at the moment?
I cover South Africa as well, and I do think the Cape is teeming with new, interesting stuff. I wish I got to taste California a little bit more than I do, but I dig the exploration into more coastal and mountainous areas that’s going on, when it’s driven by terroir and not because of a pre-ordained style. New York’s Finger Lakes has some growing charm and interest. But to be honest, the vast majority of what I taste and work on is French, and primarily Bordeaux and Rhone. So I’m not ultimately qualified to comment on much else.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Hmmm, well, I’ll put it this way. I’m not interested in being first to make a grand pronouncement on a vintage or claim to discover a producer or hang my hat on some catchy phrase. Winemaking isn’t a race, so covering it shouldn’t be either. I prefer to put my head down and do the work, and take a long term view. I want to focus on quality first, style second. I think it’s important to describe things to the consumer and educate them, and then let them decide. I’m here to be a conduit of objective information from the field to the consumer. And so when I retire, we’ll let the consumer answer this question.
Before joining Wine Spectator, you worked as a Sommelier. Has this experience informed the way that you communicate about wine in your writing? What information about wine is most compelling to consumers?
My somm stint was brief – just a year, and it was a long time ago. I’ve been at Wine Spectator 19 years now. I worked at a rather old school restaurant with a type of clientele that pretty much knew what they wanted – I wasn’t doing a lot of educating there and the clientele wasn’t too interested in branching out. I think I learned how to describe wines in a way that would turn people on to them, or to differentiate between wines in a way that would help the diner have fun with their decision. Pulling non-wine jargon into the wine lexicon is important for getting people turned onto wine. If anything, my brief sommelier stint gave me an opportunity to do that.
In your Twitter bio you state: “I work hard, I play hard. Tag along if you think you can keep up”. What does playtime look like for you?
Outside of the office I tend to dive into music – I’m a vinyl enthusiast with a passion for jazz and blues. I love cooking. I love the movies, art, photography and a good haiku. I love sport and exercise, from golf to running and more. No surprises really, for someone in the wine business, because we enjoy intellectual hedonism. And when it does come time to enjoy special things – be it wine, food, music – I’m not afraid to put the boat out. But as much I as enjoy hedonism, there needs to be a balance. Simple gluttony or excess is not particularly attractive to me. Consequently I think keeping fit and healthy is a critical component to this job and I work as hard on my 10K time or spinning class as I do on anything else. That’s why you’re just as likely to see a race bib posted on my instagram feed as you are a bottle of wine. You have to pay to play. You can set a pretty busy pace for work and play without burning the candle at both ends.
How do you see the role of critics/writers changing with the internet and peer-to-peer sites and apps such as Cellar Tracker and Vivino?
I don’t see it changing much really. People love to talk about the democratization of wine and how these sites allow for a greater range of discussion and opinion, and that’s all well and good. Wine is a big tent and I encourage that kind of exploration among consumers. But while we all love to talk about a movie or restaurant with our friends over the dinner table, we still reference the movie or restaurant critic’s review. Independent third-party reviews from experienced professionals will always play a huge role in this business.