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 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?