Bordeaux '08: Far Better Than Expected

Vintage 2008 in Bordeaux will long be remembered as one of the most pleasant surprises in decades for claret lovers. Against all odds the wines are far better than the weather during the growing season had any right to provide. Producers had to put up with spring frosts, hailstorms, much less summer sunshine than normal, and cool temperatures all along, yet the wines are, for the most part, quite successful. In fact, it is in vintages like ’08 that Bordeaux reasserts itself as the most magical place in the world for outstanding, perfumed cabernet-and merlot-based wines, not by chance referred to as Bordeaux blends the world over. While there are great terroirs elsewhere in the world for cabernet sauvignon (certainly Napa Valley), cabernet franc (the Loire) and merlot (parts of Tuscany), a year like ’08 really does showcase the way only Bordeaux can pack so much flavor into wines with medium body, firm acidity and moderate alcohol.

Make no mistake about it: the ’08 wines from both the Left and Right Banks are better than anything made here in ’02, ’03, ’04 or ’07—and many of the best wines are as good as, or superior to, the ’06s as well. The wines have remarkably deep colors (indeed, these are some of the most deeply colored Bordeaux I can remember at a similar stage of development), high but harmonious acids, and, on the whole, smooth tannins and good overall balance. Though they are not powerful, blockbuster wines, they have lithe, refined structures and lovely purity of flavor. In fact, I would describe them as classic Bordeaux, and I don’t use that term to imply a lack of sweetness or flesh, as some critics do. And there’s more good news: en primeur prices for the ’08s have been cut by roughly 25% to 40% from the over-inflated, unrealistic levels of ’06 and ’07.

Growing season blues, harvest smiles. Anyone you asked about the growing season had a horror story to tell. Charles Chevalier, the talented technical director at Lafite-Rothschild, told me that tasting grapes in late August and early September was disheartening, as the fruit seemed to have no flavor whatsoever. Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville-Las Cases felt that had it rained one more week in September, the vintage might well have gone down as one of the worst of all time. In fact, Jacques Guinaudeau of Lafleur joked that it had been an “English summer” (meaning wet and cool) but feels that his wine will ultimately turn out to be a classic, reminding him of his very successful 1988. Patrick Maroteaux of Branaire-Ducru said ’08 was “a viticultural year rather than an enological one,” with the ultimate success of the wines dependent on the work done in the vineyards”—words echoed by many of his colleagues. Christian Moueix summed it up: “Two thousand eight was a vintage of paradoxes. We were all so worried about the weather we didn’t recognize the quality that was there in our grapes. In fact, it was the wine writers who told us, hey, you know, these are actually pretty good wines you have here.”

It is generally admitted that in ’08, an exceptionally long and dry harvest rescued the show. In fact, harvest dates were crucial to making fine wine, but only part of the story. Cool but dry weather from mid-September through October permitted those estates that waited the longest to harvest to make potentially the best wines, as the long, slow, late-ripening season allowed extended hang time, better site-specific expression and real aromatic complexity. And for those who live by and love terroir, there have been few other years in which superior terroir really did make a such a difference in wine quality. There is no doubt in my mind that, with few exceptions, those estates blessed with the best terroir, all other things being equal, made the best wines.

After a relatively mild winter, March and April were cold and rainy, resulting in a later than average budbreak, and the flowering of the merlots was hampered by untimely rains (the later-flowering cabernets generally did very well). The result was a poor fruit set for merlot, which significantly cut yields from the outset. The cold and wet spring also led to mildew pressure and triggered other vine diseases. Springtime frost and hail in May compounded problems and reduced yields further. In fact, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel told me that yields for Cos were the lowest since 1991. Debudding, leaf thinning immediately after the flowering (to allow grapes better exposure to the sun), green harvesting, and even aeration of the soil during the previous autumn and winter to improve natural drainage and prevent compacting were all-important in guaranteeing healthier, more concentrated grapes at harvest time.

The veraison (the color-change of the grapes) was helped greatly by a hot and dry start to the summer, especially a dry July, which was the other key element that explains the surprising quality of the ’08 vintage. July weather is essential for the synthesis of phenolic compounds, and it is important to note that July of ’08 was as dry as July of ’05, a great vintage. In August, rains were problematic, which explains at least in part the lighter structure of the ’08s, though the worst downpours were concentrated essentially on two days, with other rains light but continuous right into the beginning of September. Coupled with cool temperatures, the rains slowed down the ripening process, but plenty of sunshine, mild breezy days and long cool nights from mid-September through the end of October allowed adequate build-up of sugars, good alcoholic and phenolic potential, fine aromatic complexity and the full expression of site-specific characteristics, while preventing the spread of diseases.

Performance by appellation and by estate. Quality was very good across the board in ’08, so it’s tricky to say which areas, or grape varieties, did best. Intriguingly, some notoriously underachieving estates made their best wines in years, and penny-conscious consumers will be able to find plenty of very good to excellent wines made in less famous properties and appellations. As a general rule, Pauillac and Saint-Julien performed best on the Left Bank, while Pomerol was best on the Right Bank. Margaux had both highs and lows, though this is more a characteristic of the appellation than the vintage, as Margaux seems to have the highest number of underachieving estates each year. Some very fine Graves and Saint-Emilions were made: with respect to the latter region, it was nice to see that winemakers widely avoided over-extracting and made gentler, more appealing wines (with Pavie leading the pack, by the way), welcome news to all those who actually like to drink wines, rather than wine scores. My favorite wines of 2008 are, in no particular order, Pétrus, La Violette, Le Pin, Trotanoy, Ausone, Angélus, Latour, Lafite, Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Pape Clément, Cos d’Estournel, Léoville-Las Cases, Branaire-Ducru and Pavie.

The better 2008s should age well, due to high overall extract and total acidity levels, low yields, and slowly achieved phenolic ripeness. While it’s quite likely that the most serious of these wines will firm up or close down shortly after bottling, many wines should give considerable early pleasure. But even these have the stuffing to last and improve for up to 15 years—another factor that adds to the appeal of this vintage. The vintage’s best examples should evolve positively for 20 to 30 years, or longer.

It is also a very good Sauternes vintage. Though the wines are neither as marked by noble rot as 1997 or 2001 nor as thick and structured as the ’07s, the more successful Sauternes and Barsacs are very well balanced, lighter-styled wines that are sure to win admirers. Here too, though, there is a very large gap in quality between the wines from estates blessed with better terroirs and work ethics than less favorably situated properties.

Bordeaux pricing and recommended buying strategy. Faced with the global economic downturn and diminished buyer interest in what had seemed at first to be a very disappointing vintage, Bordeaux was a bundle of nerves until the first prices were announced. Négociants keep their allocations by buying each year, and so had been forced to buy the overpriced ’07s, wines for which there is scarcely any interest at all. Though the primeur tastings this spring revealed that the ’08 vintage is in fact quite a good one, there was concern that the owners would not lower prices enough to spark much consumer interest and demand. But in a pleasant turn of events, the château proprietors did the right thing and slashed futures prices. Hubert de Boüard, always a step ahead of the pack, got things rolling, opening his Angélus at a price down a whopping 40% from ’07. Anthony Barton at Léoville Barton and Langoa-Barton cut prices by 22%. Better still, Château Lafite-Rothschild came out at 110 Euros per bottle from the château (130 from the négociants), a price that many collectors were happy to pay for what is one of the most famous wines in the world. Berry Bros. & Rudd, the renowned British wine merchant, saw its entire allocation of Lafite sell within two hours of its going on sale.

Whether you should buy or not is an individual decision. Given current international economic conditions, the ’08s are likely to remain in the pipeline for a while, and it’s hard to imagine that they will appreciate in value as quickly as other more famous vintages. It’s quite likely that 2008 will be a “drinker’s vintage” rather than a truly collectible one. But given the price reductions this spring, 2008 may well turn out to be the best-value vintage of the decade. And even though the ’08s will never be blockbusters, but rather very good to excellent examples of racy, elegant, perfumed Bordeaux, the very best wines of the vintage are quite fine. These are the kinds of claret that will appeal more to long-time Bordeaux lovers than to neophytes or fans of superripe, high-alcohol Napa Valley fruit-and-oak bombs.

All the wines described in the following notes were tasted in late March and early April. Wherever possible, I tasted the wines blind, and the majority were tasted more than once (up to four different times in some cases). I always taste the wines both at the blind tastings set up for the international press and at those organized for the négociants, not to mention in the course of individual château visits. Unfortunately, more and more estates appear to be withdrawing from the very well run blind tastings organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux in order to present the wines in their tasting rooms in what they feel are ideal tasting conditions. This is not a good decision, and it’s one I hope the owners will reconsider—not only because tasting wines with the label in full view is an imprecise process at best, but also because it forces visitors to the region to spend more time driving from one place to the next than actually to concentrate on tasting the wines. Whereas I can decide to extend my stay in the area for an extra week or more to give the wines all the attention they deserve, few visitors have that luxury. A rushed one-time taste of a very young, high-acid, tannic wine may not ultimately be the best thing for the wines or for the producers.

I should point out that although IWC readers have come to know me for my coverage of Italian wines, I have had a long-time love affair with Bordeaux and its wines since adolescence. I first visited the Bordeaux region in 1983 and have been back at least once a year since 1994, and usually twice or more (four times in 2001 and 2007). These repeated visits are essential to understanding the fabric of this region, its people and its wines.

Ian D’Agata, director of the International Wine Academy of Rome and the author of numerous in-depth reports on Italian wine in past issues of the IWC, also has a passion for the wines of Bordeaux. The veteran of dozens of visits to the Bordeaux region dating back more than 25 years, D’Agata has published extensively on the wines of Bordeaux in the Italian food and wine magazine Cucina e Vini, including annual coverage of the primeurs in recent years.