The 2008 Clarets

Now that the 2009 and 2010 clarets have outstripped the financial wherewithal of all but the wealthiest Americans, many long-time Bordeaux collectors have virtually given up on the category and are looking elsewhere for medium-bodied cellarworthy red wines.  It's difficult for a critic to recommend futures purchases of 2010s at prices of $1,100 per bottle and up for first growths, and in the $200 to $300 range for super-seconds.  Right now I'm staring at old receipts for my futures purchases of 1982s by the case:  $90 for L'Arrosee, $125 for Branaire-Ducru, $157 for Cos d'Estournel, $202 for Leoville-Las Cases, $420 for Margaux and Latour.  I do this every couple of years in moments of nostalgia . . . okay, I'm over it.

But the classically styled 2008 vintage is a bit of an anomaly, as well as the least expensive vintage of the past six years.  The wines came out in a very weak economy following the overpriced 2007s, and the chateau proprietors, in a flash of lucidity, aggressively reduced their prices on these wines in the hopes of actually selling a vintage through to the ultimate end user (you and me).  While this strategy made it virtually impossible for wine merchants to sell any remaining 2007s and 2006s at their full prices, it did offer a very interesting buying opportunity for consumers interested in the 2008s.

I recently tasted most of the top 2008s from bottle, and I found a very consistent vintage of ripe-but-not-overripe, perfumed wines with surprising early appeal and good medium-term aging potential--say, 12 to 18 years for the more serious classified growths and Right Bank equivalents, and more like 15 to 25 for first growths and a handful of other highly concentrated, balanced, firmly structured examples.  There are many other lovely '08s that will be at their best over the next 8 to 10 years.

Acidity levels in 2008 are generally quite sound, and tannins ripe and nicely integrated.  In fact, I was actually surprised to taste 2008 clarets that are already so expressive.  This is no knock on these wines, by the way:  they offer lovely typicity and refinement, excellent purity, and the flavor intensity at relatively moderate alcohol levels that makes Bordeaux such an elegant and flexible wine at the dinner table.

As Ian D'Agata noted in his early report on the 2008s two years ago, the growing season was a difficult one, beginning with strong mildew pressures unleashed by a cold, rainy early spring; frost and hail in May; and then a poor fruit set for merlot.  A hot, dry July was crucial for the ultimate development of aromatic complexity in the wines, but then August brought much less favorable conditions, and some heavy rains.  Under cooler conditions, the ripening process slowed down and the wines almost certainly lost some of their potential structure.  Light rains continued into September but mostly sunny weather and cool nights from the middle of the month through much of October helped forestall the spread of rot and gave the fruit plenty of time to ripen slowly, without serious loss of acidity.  Where estates were in a position to delay picking, they were able to make fuller, more complex wines with smooth, ripe tannins and sound but well-integrated acidity.

In my recent tastings of most of the top 2008s, the Pomerols were consistently attractive, with lovely silky texture and good typicity, round but not flaccid.  Saint-Emilion also provided some of the stars of the vintage:  I especially liked the wines from the cool limestone plateau east of the town, where the vines could take maximum advantage of clement weather in late summer and early fall.  These wines are densely packed and true to their terroir.  But Saint-Emilion is a sprawling and varied appellation and it also yielded plenty of chunky, inelegant wines, some of them overextracted, as well as a few that were distinctly dry or even green.

The better wines from Pessac-Leognan are also rich and satisfying without loss of energy.  There are numerous standouts from Margaux up to the Northern fringes of the Medoc--the Pauillac first growths were consistently very good--but numerous wines from the Medoc, even when they're aromatic and suave, don't have quite enough mid-palate material to make old bones.

Consumers who purchased the best 2008s en primeur have done well, as prices for many of these wines have soared in the face of the shockingly high prices asked for subsequent vintages.  At the time the 2008 futures were offered, American retailers were in cash-preservation mode and were extremely careful about buying more Bordeaux than they could immediately pre-sell.  Thus it can be tricky to find the 2008s in the U.S. market, and some wines have not yet appeared on the shelves, as retailers who have not yet paid for the wines are more likely to use their spare cash for wines they can sell more easily.  As a result, shelf prices for the 2008s can vary widely, depending on when merchants paid for the wines and how eager they are to move them now.  Some retailers have raised prices substantially because the 2009s and 2010s will be so expensive.  The 2008s are not a vintage that's likely to be dumped in this country, as the wines are scarce and prices still reasonable.

I conducted my tastings of the 2008 clarets in New York in recent weeks.  I should point out that although the overwhelming majority of chateaux on my request list were willing to provide me with samples for tasting, some were not, and in a number of cases I was not able to find bottles yet in the U.S. market.  For several of these items, I asked Ian D'Agata to provide tasting notes on the finished wines, from his extensive tastings in Bordeaux this spring.  He had the advantage of tasting these wines alongside the young 2010s.

I expect to publish notes on the 2009 Sauternes and Barsacs on the IWC site later this summer.

Also recommended:  Bouscaut (86), Destieux (86), Fombrauge (86), Puy Blanquet (85), De Sales (85).  Other wines tasted:  Bellevue*.