Bordeaux 2008s: Those were the Days

Having just posted my 2008 scores for the Grands Cru Classés in bottle, I made the mistake of flicking through the article I wrote for Harpers Wine and Spirit for the 1 May 2009 issue, just before Parker posted his scores from the barrel tastings.

img_5462Here it is, in full. Let me say that, from the bottle, I can confirm that ‘St-Julien and Pauillac produced some top flight efforts’ but probably more than a ‘few really exceptional ones’. As for the prices, especially of Lafite and Mouton – now trading at £13,500 and £8,000 a case respectively – I think I’ll go and weep. For the wines, patience is required for all those Left Bank wines from the top estates, contrary to what some critics have said.

Late harvest, early kick-off: Bordeaux Primeurs 2008

The first days of April were full of surprises. A 100-1 shot won the Grand National, the Queen put her arm around the First Lady, and the first showing of the 2008s at the annual Bordeaux tastings showed that it was a much better vintage than most experts had imagined. But the biggest surprise was when Alain Vauthier, producer of St-Emilion’s most expensive wine at Château Ausone, confirmed that the Médoc First Growths would halve their opening prices from last year, and announce them just after Easter – a full two months earlier than usual.

img_5468‘Le marché est mort’ he explained.  Something had to be done to breathe life into an ‘en primeur’ campaign that was likely to fizzle out before it had even begun. Britain’s biggest Bordeaux resellers, Farr Vintners, had already made their point by ‘choosing not to attend the tastings’.

Now we all know we’re in a dreadful slump, the euro is too rich for most overseas buyers and that the 2007s were horribly overpriced, but few of us believed that the owners of the top Châteaux would actually do anything different: in recent years, the primeur campaign has dragged on from the early April tastings right through to mid-June, when the Firsts traditionally demand – and achieve – their lofty prices.

img_5466So for Château Latour to open the batting, straight after the Easter break at 110 euros, ex-chateau, was a real change in the order. This translated to an end consumer price in the UK of £1590 a case, in Bond (45% less than the 2007 in euros, or 34% less in sterling). Mouton Rothschild quickly followed at 100 euros. That’s half the price of the 2007 and so far ahead of the normal schedule that Robert Parker and even Jancis Robinson hadn’t got their scores up by then. Lafite and Margaux followed Latour’s price before the week was out.

As for the important bit in the long term, 2008 is a good – and occasionally very good – vintage. ‘The 2008 reds (not sweet whites) are much, much better than the overpriced 2007s’ Jancis informed her subscribers, as she rushed to get over 500 notes up on her website.

What’s new?

For the First Growths to set the pace in April is very unusual, even if many believe it makes sense. Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Margaux and Haut-Brion tend to release their prices after all the other top châteaux have come out in May and June.

Mouton Rothschild’s price drop from €200 for the 2007 to €100 for the 2008 is the biggest reduction from one vintage to the next since primeurs began in earnest in 1982, even if the hike from €80 for the 2004 to €300 for the 2005 was far greater.

The en primeur campaign started before most merchants had written up their tasting notes and, crucially, before Robert Parker published his scores at the end of April.

img_5464Most 2008 releases to date have been priced between the 2003 and 2004 vintages, from 10% to 42% below the 2007s.  Those that stayed with prices too close to the 06s and 07s have met with a less than enthusiastic response in the market.

The more expensive 2007s now look like a toxic asset on any Bordeaux merchants’ balance sheets. In a repeat of the 97s, expect deep discounting as they offload stocks.

2008 is a smart-buy vintage for buyers in the eurozone.

The vines

2008 was one of the latest harvests anyone can recall, but a long growing season and fine weather at the finish produced some excellent wines.

The season didn’t start well, and a sharp frost on 7th April literally nipped many bunches in the bud, especially for the whites of the Graves and Sauternes. After a late budburst, then a wet April and May, flowering was mixed in late May and early June – especially for the merlot – so yields were well down for many estates.  Then dry sunny weather for the second half of June and July proved crucial for the vines, before a rainy mid-August gave the impression of a poor summer.

September too was damp at first and there was general despondency about the prospects for the harvest. Then the weather turned on the 13th, with sunny days and a dry northerly wind for the remainder of the month. The red harvest began at the end of September and ran through mid-October – and beyond – in mostly fine weather.

The wines

2008 has turned out to be a very good but uneven vintage. As ever in difficult years, it’s the best estates, with the best terroirs, smartest managers and deepest pockets which have made the best wines.

The best red wines show delicate ripe fruit, supple but firm tannins and good colour, complexity and refreshing acidity. They don’t have the hedonistic richness and power of 2005, or the structure of 2000 – a lack of good August weather in 08 put paid to that – but many future drinkers will, I think, get more pleasure from many 2008s than any other vintage since 2000, 2005 excepted. More so if they pay less for them.

2008 is a difficult vintage to compare: it’s the opposite of the roasty-toasty 2003s, far better than the harder 2002s, a step-up from 2004, more charming than 2006, and ahead of the lighter 2007s.  Marginally better than 2001, quality-wise, if not stylistically. Comparisons with earlier vintages are misleading because standards across the board – and investment – have improved in the last five years alone.

Christian Seely, who runs the AXA estates including Pichon-Longueville Baron and Petit-Village, summed it up pretty well, albeit with a salesman’s hat on: “I think that the 2008s represent a fantastic buying opportunity: although not a uniform vintage, the chateaux who have succeeded have produced wines which are among the most exciting produced in many years. The economic conditions mean that prices are low.”

The question is, are they low enough?

Right Bank, Left Bank

img_5467The most successful appellation was Pomerol, with a string of superb wines – amazing given the irregular state of the bunches post-flowering in June, and the late harvest. There are also scores of very good wines from neighbouring St-Emilion, and elsewhere on the Right Bank, but it wasn’t all plain sailing, so selection is key.

The most up-and-down appellation was over the river in Margaux, which suffered trickier climatic conditions, including hail at the end of May which shocked the vegetative cycle. Some excellent wines here sit in direct contrast to others with unripe, green tannins.

Further north up the Left Bank of the Gironde, St-Julien and Pauillac produced some top flight efforts, if few really exceptional ones, and St-Estephe is mixed.  To the south of Bordeaux, Péssac-Léognan was more consistent, if not exactly thrilling, with very good reds and attractive whites made in small volumes.

For the sweet whites of Sauternes, many had seriously low yields, and there is a gulf in quality between the top wines and some of the lesser Crus, some of which are, frankly, grim. The best wines are delicious, honeyed and attractive, with refreshing zip. As in the vineyard, careful selection will be well rewarded.

Left Bank Top 10

Lafite-Rothschild       (£1590)

Latour                         (£1590)

Mouton-Rothschild   (£1590)

Pichon-Longueville Baron (£420 est)

Cos d’Estournel         (£550 est)

Léoville Las Cases      (£800 est)

Ducru Beaucaillou     (£500 est)

Palmer                        (£995)

La Mission Haut-Brion (£1000 est)

Haut-Brion     (£1590)

(UK end release prices in brackets)

Left Bank Top 10 for the cellar

Lynch-Bages (£360)

Pontet-Canet  (£375 est)

Duhart Milon  (£275)

Haut-Bages Libéral (£190)

Léoville Barton (£330)

Lagrange (£240 est)

Maléscot St-Exupéry (£250 est)

Ferrière (£160)

Calon Ségur  (£295)

Domaine de Chevalier rouge (£240 est)

Right Bank Top 10

L’Evangile (£700)

Lafleur  (£4000 est)

Le Pin (£4000 est)

L’Eglise Clinet (£600 est)

La Conseillante (£500 est)

La Fleur Pêtrus (£575)

Pétrus (£7000 est)

Ausone (£3000 est)

Cheval Blanc (£2000)

Pavie (£950 est)

Right Bank Top 10 for the cellar

Clinet  (£400 est)

Clos l’Eglise (£500 est)

Hosanna (£650)

Petit Village (£300 est)

Larcis Ducasse (£225 est)

Pavie Macquin (£300 est)

Troplong Mondot (£350 est)

Clos St Martin (£300 est)

Chapelle d’Ausone (£400 est)

Vieux Château Mazerat (?)

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