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Tuesday Tributes
2008 Bordeaux: The First Report

By Stephen Eliot, with additional comments by Shaun Bishop

Without question, one of the more significant tasting events on any year’s calendar is the annual Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux presentation of soon-to-be-released bottlings from the region’s top estates. We make a point of attending the West Coast showing whether in Los Angeles or, as this year, in San Francisco, and spent a good bit of the day last Friday sipping and spitting our way through many dozens of wines of the 2008 vintage. We will offer up extensive tasting notes in our March issue, but our initial impression is that the vintage is a very good if not a great one, and there are assuredly a few trends worth noting.

By way of introduction, we asked our friends at JJ Buckley, the online wine specialist to comment on the state of the Bordeaux wine market especially in light of the changing world markets and the economic upheavals of the past few years. Thanks to Shaun Bishop for sharing his comments with us.

From a consumer perspective, '08 Bordeaux presents an interesting value proposition for a few reasons. First, the vintage produced wines with good freshness, ripe fruit, and sweet tannins – all characteristics that make for great near to mid-term drinking. Second, the vintage was initially sold into the marketplace ‘en primeur’ at a time when the economy was weak and unstable, forcing the Chateaux to release at lower prices than they would have liked. Last, the wines were purchased by US wholesalers and retailers with a dollar that was 10% stronger than it is today. Most of this low pricing is still available to the consumer, and after an expensive 2009 ‘en primeur’ campaign, savvy consumers will certainly take the opportunity to stock up on the vintage while they wait for their '09s (and 05’s) to mature in the cellar.

The sweet spot in 2008 appears to be the $25-75 category. Below $25, the quality is a bit uneven and consumers would be better off waiting for the 2009s with their across the board quality. Above $75, the premium spent goes to the label as much as it does to the quality (with Pomerol representing an exception). The First Growths were a good value when first released, but at this time have lost much, if not all, of the remaining near-term upside price potential. There were certainly some excellent releases from St Emilion in '08, but overall, it was a bit spotty in quality and one needs to select with caution as some wines were over-extracted with harsh tannins. On the Left Bank, most of the activity we have seen is from the 2nd through 4th Growths where in many cases, these are priced 50% less than their 2009 counterparts. I invite you to visit us at to learn more about our view of the 2008s as they begin to come in over the next several months.

The vintage was in some ways reminiscent of 2010 in California insofar as it was a long, late and slow one. Happily, for the Bordelaise at least, the harvest came with neither errant heat spikes in summer nor did it end with the damaging rains that proved such a bane hereabouts. Many of the winemakers we spoke with viewed the 2008 vintage as something of a miracle, for while it was a year which began with April frosts followed by a very damp May and one in which “the vines never did anything fast,” the day was saved, so to speak, by a sunny, wonderfully warm autumn. Others, such as Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier made the case that, while the harvest turned out quite well, winemakers and vignerons might also deserve a bit of the credit. He opined that it was the kind of vintage whose wines would not have fared nearly so well with viticulture and viniculture as practiced some twenty-five years ago. Of particular note, he pointed out that the grapes for contemporary Bordeaux are given longer hang time, and that while a vintage like 2008 would have once resulted in average alcohols of 11.0%, the norm now instead is nearer 13.5%.

If the meteorological numbers in 2008 look remarkably similar to those of 2007, the wines are generally darker and deeper, with good ripeness and ample weight. They are not as rich and ripe as those of 2005, but they are clearly not the weaklings that some have predicted.

On balance, the 2008 dry whites from Graves and Pessac Leognan are marked successes. At the least, they are bright and buoyant and charged with lots of fine fruity acids, while the best of the bunch, such as the deep and impressively layered Domaine de Chevalier are compelling, very well-structured wines of great poise and richness.

Not surprisingly, the reds seem a bit of a mixed bag, with many of our favorites coming from the Left Bank. Domaine de Chevalier’s slightly briary, very solid red offering was among our picks from Pessac-Leognan, and the estates of St. Julien and Margaux showed particularly well with high marks going to Chateau Beychevelle and Chateau Brane Cantenac. The sturdy Chateau Lynch-Bages and comparatively mannerly Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande led the way on our scorecards for Pauillac, and, while we found the featured wines of the much ballyhooed Merlot-dominated districts east of the river to be a bit spotty, Chateau L’Angelus is a winner, and the Chateau La Gaffeliere may well be the best we have tasted from this property in years.

The sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac were, perhaps, the most curious and difficult to gauge of the bunch. Both appellations were subject to disastrous frosts in April, and yields were down dramatically. In some cases, 70% of the crop had been lost before summer had arrived, and Didier Frechinet of Chateau La Tour Blanche explained that at picking, the estate brought in well under a quarter-ton of fruit per acre. The wines as a group are lighter, higher in acid and less demonstrative in botrytized complexity than a “classic” vintage might produce. That is not to say, however, that they are without richness, and, if different in their brighter, less-unctuous styles, they are fascinating variations on a theme.

As afternoon turned to dusk and things wound down to a close, we overheard the tiresome, downright boring California-versus-France debate starting as the participants made their ways out the doors. A moron’s argument, I thought. I would no more abandon great Napa Cabernet than I would the splendid wines we had just tasted. My ombibulous world has space for both Bordeaux and Napa and room left over for the likes of the ice-cold, early-evening Martini that proved the perfect balm to my tannin-numbed tongue.

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