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Bordeaux 2008

2011 March 7
by Mike

Trade tastings are an imperfect answer to an insoluble problem. Wine writers can’t be everywhere; there’s only so much traveling one can do, only so many winery visits that one can squeeze in. It helps when the producers come to us, and in large numbers. The downside to trade tastings is that there is invariably a lot of ground to cover in a very short period of time, there is usually not much elbow room, and the pours can sometimes be a little short (as in barely a sip). For all these reasons, I seldom take detailed tasting notes at such events (plus, my handwriting stinks, and is especially bad when I have to write while standing up). It is certainly possible to form some general impressions—to get a sense of a vintage, and to identify wines that are particularly promising or unappealing. But I think trying to do anything more than that is a disservice to the wines.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, or UGCB, recently brought its annual road show to New York.  The UGCB is a trade organization representing more than 100 châteaux, and each January it holds several tastings in the United States at which the newest releases from its member properties are poured. None of the First Growths or their Right Bank equivalents (Pétrus, Lafleur, Cheval Blanc, Ausone) participate, but there are enough quality estates taking part to give a good snapshot of a vintage. This year, it was the 2008 vintage in the spotlight. The tasting took place at the Metropolitan Pavilion, the same venue used for the Paulée de New York; a number of winemakers were on hand, and a large contingent of journalists and retailers came to sip, swill, and spit. There has been a lot of talk in the last year or two that Bordeaux has lost its cachet on these shores—I’ve said as much myself. Many Americans, especially younger drinkers, see Bordeaux as the plaything of rich collectors, and have turned to other regions. But the UGCB didn’t have any difficulty attracting a crowd for this tasting: it was a full house.

The 2008 vintage has generated some controversy. The growing conditions were pretty abysmal—a cold, rainy spring, more rain during the summer, lots of mildew and uneven ripening—and although the weather turned benign in September, even the carnival-barking Bordelais knew better than to try to pretend that 08 was going to be anything special. The consensus among critics who tasted en primeur was that the wines were surprisingly good but hardly great. But then Robert Parker weighed in: he claimed it was a vintage of “at least excellent quality” and that some of the wines were “as profound as 2005”, and his barrel scores reflected this unexpected enthusiasm. Because it was Parker, the market was suddenly wracked with uncertainty, and the 08s remain a source of heated debate.

So how were the wines? Based on what I tasted at the UGCB event, and reiterating the point that the biggest guns were not present, I think the consensus view is the correct one—there were some good wines in 08, but overall, it is not an outstanding vintage. By and large, these are medium-term wines that can keep you busy while you wait for the 2000s and 2005s to mature. That said, the wines that are good have a classic Bordeaux profile that I happen to adore—they show ripe fruit, but also plenty of acidity and firm tannins. These are true clarets, with a refreshing quality that has become all too rare with Bordeaux. My favorite wine of the tasting was the 2008 Château-Figeac, an elegant, earthy Saint-Emilion that struck me as exactly the kind of wine you want from a vintage like this. It is not a wine to cellar for three decades, but it will offer a lot of pleasure over the next 10-15 years.

Some other wines that I liked:

2008 Léoville Barton

2008 Langoa Barton

2008 Rauzan-Ségla

2008 Clinet

2008 La Conseillante

There were also some wines that I did not enjoy. I am not a fan of the New Wave style that has become so prevalent in Saint-Emilion over the past 10-15 years. I think many of these wines are hideous confections—overripe, over-extracted, and egregiously oaky. To me, they define spoof. Name names? I’m talking about wines such as Angélus, Canon-la-Gaffelière, and Troplong Mondot, all of which were at the UGCB tasting (Pape Clément, too; true, it’s not made in Saint-Emilion, but it sure tastes that way nowadays). I was curious to see how the modernist contingent fared in a year as challenging as 2008, and the answer was: not well. If anything, the heavy handed winemaking seemed to stick out even more than usual. The contrast between these overwrought clunkers and the effortless grace of the Figeac was striking. Many winemakers will tell you that the most difficult vintages are often the most satisfying. I think those vintages are often the most revealing ones, too.

While we’re on this subject, a question for you: Do you drink much Bordeaux these days? In recent years, has your interest in Bordeaux increased, decreased, or remained about the same? Do you think Bordeaux has an image problem?

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 8, 2011

    I do still buy Bordeaux, but I’m kind of obliged to as it is the benchmark of the wine style I am making down here in NZ. I tend to stick to classed growths (or equivalent in quality/reputation), again as a benchmark, but also because cheaper Bordeaux in NZ tends to be completely lackluster. Strangely none of the quite fine, well-priced, relatively anonymous Chateaux that I often came across when working in Bordeaux seem to make it to our market.

    I bought my last bottle of first-growth Bordeax a long time ago though, barring a lottery win or a market collapse (which is bound to happen – I’m picking in a decade or less). I also find that it’s better value to buy older vintages that are ready to drink now. But I am looking for some 2008s to put down for my youngest daughter, so was interested in your suggestions Mike. Maybe we should plan to open them for her 16th rather than 21st birthday? I am tending to accumulate auslese rieslings for a more reliable and cost-effective alternative for the longer term.

    It’s probably true that the current mega-trophy image is not helping the average Bordeaux grower, but it’s certainly a boom time at the top end of the market. I don’t think it’s sustainable in the medium term though, all the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing is that the prices are being driven by investors rather than drinkers. And if practically no one is drinking the stuff eventually you are going to wind up with a glut on your hands. The speculator/drinker balance I think is also reflected in the disparity between the values of old/recent vintages that I mentioned before.

  2. March 8, 2011

    Great article and well written, it’s interesting to note that the St Emilion wines you mentioned are made by the same consultant.

  3. Brent permalink
    March 8, 2011

    Scott, thanks for linking that site. I’ll have to dig through it a bit some time. Also, thanks for the recommendations of a few QPR Bordeaux. I’ll definitely try them if the opportunity arises!

    I didn’t mean to come off as having totally written Bordeaux off. I am very curious to try the wines and see what they’re all about, because they undoubtedly have their excellent and unique qualities. I just think the value proposition is simply greater elsewhere in the world. (I realize that a wine that is a “value” buy can be $50 as well as $15. Value is a loaded term that is a little too indiscriminately thrown about, in my opinion.)

    I have to work really hard to find information and tasting notes on lesser known estates. It’s nearly impossible for estates that aren’t classified. So I think your point, Mike, about getting the word out is right on the money.

    At my stage of wine appreciation (obsession?), my goals might be a little different than others: never drink the same wine twice over a six month period (but buy in multiples to taste over long time periods), drink from lesser known regions (top flight wines cost less here), and try to develop a more discerning palate to accurately distinguish *why* I like wines that I like from wines I don’t.

    Cheers!

  4. Michael Smith permalink
    March 8, 2011

    I appreciate your candid and reasoned observations. Unfortunately when Parker comes out with a proclaimation, the world go a twitter (pun intened). I have been stepping up my consumption of Bordeaux during the pas t several years in addition to the Northern Rhone. The California Cabs are leaving me flat and without enthusiasm. It’s no secret that the Chinese are buying everything in sight with a “name” at auction so I am sure the price points of thses wines will remain lofty.

  5. March 8, 2011

    Scott,

    Thanks for the comment and the tips. Yes, there is good value in Bordeaux, but the Bordelais have not done a great job of getting that message out. Admittedly, it is not easy, when so much attention is focused on the top chateaux, but there is clearly an image problem, and they need to figure out a way to get consumers, especially younger ones, excited about Bordeaux again. Thanks for stopping by.

    Mike

  6. March 8, 2011

    Brent,

    Thanks very much for this. I think it shows that for oenophiles coming of age today, Bordeaux is just not the Holy Grail that it was for previous generations. China, of course, is an exception, but the Bordelais cannot survive on the China market alone. I think they need to figure out a way to make Bordeaux appealing to younger drinkers like you, but it’s not going to be easy–not with so many interesting, affordable wines from other places.

    Mike

  7. March 8, 2011

    Sebastien,

    Thanks for the comments. I think you are right–Bordeaux does offer some decent values, too, but the headlines belong to the top growths, and that has unquestionably colored perceptions. I suspect, too, that the obsession with ratings has limited our choices to a certain extent. There are probably some very good, inexpensive Bordeaux that never make it to retail shelves because they haven’t been reviewed or because their scores aren’t high enough to interest retailers.

    I jump at the chance to drink older vintages, too–great old Bordeaux is a treat.

    Mike

  8. March 8, 2011

    Some of the first wine I fell in love with were left bank Bordeaux from the Medoc or Haut Medoc. They were by no means the creme de la creme, but they were expressive, exciting and for the most part graceful. And there are always some great values out there if you bother to chat with a wine merchant. I don’t drink many of them much these days mostly because of my diet: I don’t eat a lot of red meat, and I find them unpleasant with lighter foods. Still, I always jump at the chance to drink older vintages. Its not that I’m avoiding them, I’m just more interested in other wines.

  9. March 8, 2011

    Brett, no offense, but you’re dead wrong about Bordeaux. I can name without notes at least 5 damn good 08′ Bordeaux that are all under $40. I’ll give you 3 to check out: Château d’Aiguilhe, Château Le Conseiller, Château Vrai Canon Bouché. My suggestion to you before you totally give up on Bordeaux is to check out Planet-Bordeaux.com it is an effort to show people that Bordeaux does indeed have value wines with good QPR and they have them in abundance. Don’t give up on Bordeaux Brett. Cheers!

  10. Brent permalink
    March 8, 2011

    I’m 25 and have been exploring wine literally since I turned 21. I think maybe 4 bottles of Bordeaux have passed my lips and maybe 2 of those bottles were decent (they were all sub-$40). For my wine-buying dollar, Bordeaux is exactly what you describe: the plaything of wine trophy hunters. I feel like I’ve read about Bordeaux, have heard that it’s great and all that, and would rather drink aglianico from Campania.

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