Liv-ex interviews Neal Martin, part two

Neal Martin interview

On Friday we published the first part of Liv-ex’s interview with Neal Martin. In the second part, below, he discusses his new role as The Wine Advocate’s Bordeaux En Primeur reviewer and his views of the pricing for this year’s campaign, as well as the wine regions that are exciting him currently.


Will you taste En Primeur at each chateaux, rather than sit in a hotel with samples?

I do as many chateaux visits as I can. I have a week of doing all the chateaux visits, then I sit down with two or three negociants. This year I did two and a half weeks, enough time to go round two or three times to the big properties and taste on different days.


Do you feel increased responsibility now that you’re reporting on En Primeur for The Wine Advocate?

No. I think if you feel pressure it’s not a good thing because you’re going to think you have to up your grades to make people happy. I’m doing the exact same thing as I’ve done since 1997 and write it as I see it: that’s my job. If I deviated from that it would be a failure. Of course you try to see things from different angles. If someone likes bigger St Emilion wines you have to distinguish that there’s good and bad examples of those. You don’t want to say, “This is the only type of Bordeaux that counts.” There are good and bad examples of classic wines. That’s the way it is every vintage, every region. If it was all the same it would be boring. It is not just about saying “this is better than that” but also “this has got remarkably much better and this one hasn’t.” Wine’s a living thing and part of the interest for me is to see how they develop and change.


Will there be more vertical tastings in The Wine Advocate?

I think there will be. I think you will find less emphasis – generally – on Primeur. There will be more emphasis on what’s drinking now and how the wine is evolving, because people have a lot of wine in their cellars. A lot of Cellar Tracker’s success has been on where the wine is going, which is great. At the same time I’d like it from a critic as well – say someone who’s done a blind, horizontal tasting of a Bordeaux vintage or a specific Burgundy vineyard.


Do you think the shift in focus away from En Primeur is due to the last four campaigns?

I think it’s partly a generational thing. Mine was probably the last generation who could learn about wine by occasionally tasting the classics. If I was starting now it would be very difficult to do that because I wouldn’t have the money to buy them. How can you taste something if you can’t buy it? There was a time when you would do a dinner and every now and then somebody would bring a First Growth. I’m fortunate that I can still taste those wines but if I’d been born ten years later I would never have had the chance, and it’s sad. You meet well-known MWs who’ve hardly tasted any top wines. It’s not their fault – they’re just not millionaires.


How did you feel about the pricing for Bordeaux 2014?

It was a good example of a vintage where if the wine was priced correctly it did engage. I wrote in my last report that I felt a lot of people were saying “Primeur is dead”, and it’s not: the system works. It doesn’t work if you don’t price it right. If you get it right you see the wine sell and if you get it wrong it doesn’t. What’s changed is that En Primeur is losing momentum. Every April to June people would say how much money they were going to spend on En Primeur and we’re beginning to lose that ritual.


Do you think the chateaux are wilfully getting the price wrong?

At the end of the day they’re the ones choosing the prices. They can look at the market and see what their wine’s worth. But there are so many different cost factors. If it’s just a stock that is floating in the air, a wine that’s never going to be sold or drunk, that’s a different cost analysis than a wine whose intention is for someone to drink it.


Do you think there will there be more chateaux leaving the En Primeur system?

It wouldn’t surprise me. A lot of it depends on the vintage. You could say one thing now but if 2015 is a magical vintage they’ll all want to be back and doing it. And would no En Primeur be a loss? Of course financially, yes, especially for the smaller chateaux. First Growths don’t need it. If the proprietor’s a multi-millionaire it doesn’t matter. If you’re a good Cru-Bourgeois you need that money. The wines that actually need En Primeur are not the wines that grab consumers’ attentions. Bordeaux has become too bi-polar, in a way. You’re either on one side or the other. I think it’s a shame – at a certain price Bordeaux really delivers. If you’re a buyer looking for something for 5 Euros, you can get a decent Bordeaux. Try that in another region. Bordeaux does that so well but it has been characterised by greed.


When En Primeur started do you think Bordeaux wines were a luxury commodity?

No, not in the same way. Wine has become a luxury commodity. Even top Bordeaux wine, even Burgundy in the late 1990s was just something you drank, maybe with the exception of DRC. You would never have called it a luxury commodity when you’re buying it for 25 quid. I think Bordeaux has actively pursued that. The barometer of how good something is, is by price, which I don’t necessarily agree with. You’re then implying that every Crus Bourgeois is terrible because they’re cheap. Or that good value New Zealand pinot noir is terrible when they’re great wines. A luxury brand implies that it must be expensive because it must be aspirational. It’s expensive therefore it must be good. But the reality isn’t like that. Prices have given a skewed view of where wines are in terms of quality. That’s not to say that First Growths don’t make fantastic wines – they do. But the gap between them and other cabernets is a fraction of what the price suggests. Blind tasting is a complete leveller. If I gave you a bottle that had Romanée-Conti on it you’d think, “Oh my God it’s Romanee Conti.” If I took the label off it’s a bottle of pinot noir.


Is it harder for you to score impartially as you get to know the growers more?

After Primeur I got a couple of emails from people I’ve known for years a bit miffed about their score, but that’s expected. They know that when I taste their wine it’s just what’s in the glass that’s going to count. The really good winemakers never take it too personally. You have to write something that’s more than just tasting notes and scores. It has to be a well written argument, with a lot of effort put into it. When you do that then the winemaker will look at it and they’ll think: “OK, this guy’s not just tasted the wine. He’s sat down and analysed it. He’s spoken to me and he’s really tried to understand it.” If you just go up to someone and say, “I think your wine is 74 points,” it doesn’t mean anything.


Within Bordeaux, which chateaux have impressed you?

I like chateaux that keep their style, year in year out, whether it’s a great or bad vintage. That’s why I like Grand Puy Lacoste, Vieux Chateau Certan and Domaine Chevalier. Tertre Rotebouf is a richer style. Tertre Roteboeuf is a good example of a wine where, if I read the way Francois [Mitjavile] makes it, I think that I wouldn’t like it. When I taste it, it’s fantastic. There’s a style of doing things that is very Francois, which I think is great. He does it every year. I think consumers like their chateaux or their domaines or estates to be true to what they are, whether that’s terroir or the philosophy of the winemaker.


And beyond Bordeaux what has impressed you?

In South Africa there are some really exciting things happening. Slightly more for the whites. Some really lovely Chenin Blancs, and some reds, especially the Rhône varieties – even pinotage, which I used to hate. South Africa is a very exciting country.


In a Wine-Journal article from 2013 you say: “Like Dylan, jazz, golf and corduroy, wine is an occupation that should not be approached until you are in your thirties.” Do you also believe there’s a point at which the occupation should end?

Many things that I write is drawn from experiences before I was into wine: travelling, partying, meeting loads of people, just having a life. I wrote that because I meet people in their early 20s and all they’re talking about is Brettanomyces or premox. Oh, just go out and live a little. You can always come back to wine later. But should there be an upper limit? When you speak to people who have tasted so many wines then I completely respect them. Barry Phillips, for instance. You sit down with him and you learn so much – incredible knowledge that you don’t read about in books because he’s lived it. So I think no upper age limit is OK.


Do your tastes change when you’re older?

People say they do. But everybody’s taste is changing. Your taste might change in tandem with the people that grew up with you. One thing I worry about is where the next generation of wine writers will come from. Who’ll be able to write about the classics? How many Bordeaux do you see in restaurants? How many offline tastings are centered on Bordeaux? They’re not happening any more. I assume it’s just going to get worse. Who’s going to do the Bordeaux 2010 blind First Growth dinner? It will happen in a professional sense, but not in the sense of a group of mates getting together in a restaurant.


Have you noticed a difference in ex-chateaux, ex-Asia, ex-UK wines? Is there a quality premium?

I think it’s important to comment where you’ve tasted a wine in a tasting note. In Britain we’re lucky that we have some fantastic cold dark cellars and old houses. I think it’s more a case of how many times it has moved. The 1961s are really up and down because they were traded so much and moved around. If you go to an off-vintage they tend to be above expectations. Somebody buying a 1987 Bordeaux will just keep it. I always like off-vintages.

You’ve got the safety aspect, too, especially with the provenance of older wines. If somebody says to you that a wine’s never moved for 100 years then you’re going to be pretty happy. Then again I’ve had that and it’s been corked. It was the last bottle in existence as well. I’ve been in one chateau where they brought out three bottles of 1953 Bordeaux and every one was corked. They gave up in the end.


What would you consider your greatest achievement?

I am proud of the Pomerol book. And I’m proud that I did it myself, which is quite unusual to do with a book that size. On and off, it took three years. It wasn’t easy. To write a book like that you have to have a real hunger – an obsession – trawling through parish records and so on. I had to push the chateaux proprietors to help. Some were fantastic: two or three had to re-write their own histories because I came across things by accident. When I wrote it there was a discussion with my editor about putting scores in and I said no, it wasn’t the place for scores. And I’m glad. It doesn’t need them.


In the wine sector there’s a healthy rivalry among the chateaux in Bordeaux and among the trade. How is the rivalry within the critics’ world?

I still have friends from the trade because I always liked the way they tasted wine. The thing with working for The Wine Advocate is that you’re on your own quite a lot. When I went to Chablis last week I wasn’t with a little group invited by a PR company. I’ve never done the press thing for Primeur – I always did my own itinerary. At the beginning, before I was writing, I’d tag along with somebody like Farr or BI. I learned a lot from them. I don’t really like going round as a group. I like one-to-ones.

I think there is competitiveness, but in a good way. I guess I’m not really into this “let’s all join hands” thing. I’m writing up a tasting at the moment and five quite famous writers were there. I want to write the best article possible. That’s not disrespecting what they’re going to write but you have to be driven to do that. I’m the one that’s got to sit there and think in a different way, make it original, make it memorable. Put a Harry Potter quotation in! Competitiveness is healthy. It sometimes gets bitchy but I don’t get involved with that.


What are your views on consolidation? Magazines such as LE PAN, for instance.

There’s a lot of money behind LE PAN. You have to have a lot of money to survive. Outside that there are bloggers, great ones and some not so good ones. Nowadays it seems difficult to make the jump from one to the other like I did, and others in my generation: Jamie Goode, Chris Kissack. Now if you actually look at the top and who’s doing well, it’s the same: Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson. It’s a shame really because when the internet started I thought it would democratise everything. It did for a little while. I was able to go from zero to something. There are some excellent blogs but when I ask them how they survive, or where their money’s coming from… Usually it’s their partner paying the mortgage.


The Wine Advocate still has a hard copy – is that going to stay?

Personally I think it should be phased out because the world has moved on. At the same time – and I know this from my experience doing the Pomerol book – if you have a few hundred people that want a hard copy and are prepared to pay for it then print on demand is an option.


The Bordeaux 2005 report created a lot of questions as some parties appeared to have scores before others.

I was in Chablis and had a couple of emails about that. If the hard copy was phased out it would be completely avoided. Inevitably that’s the way that everything’s going to go.


To read the first part of Neil’s interview, please click here