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Bordeaux, Wine Blog

the cheese stands alone: my humble opinion of the 2008 bordeaux vintage.

(Deep breath.  My most daring, opinionated leap yet…)

I’ve tallied the votes, and the verdict seems clear…

I am greatly outnumbered by those who would disagree with my unfavorable opinion of the 2008 Bordeaux vintage.

But how could this be?  My palate may overlook a detail or two—a hint of lavender or a touch of tar—but to totally miss the structure, longevity and charm that impressed so many other critics in 2008… you got me.

True, to be fair, I have had only one introduction to the wines of this troubled vintage—a beautiful luncheon that is put on annually in the Denver area by a very well known, experienced importer—Tom Lane.  He always pull out the stops for the affair, this year held at one of the top restaurants in the Denver: Frank Bonanno’s Mizuna, where both he and the talented Tony Clement were cooking up some of the most brilliant dishes yet to pair with 5 flights of Bordeaux (my favorite being the Squash Blossom Quiche with a fight of youthful, lighter reds).  At roughly four wines per flight from highly received Chateaux, prefaced by a reception of about 30 other lesser heard of yet very solid estates, I felt that my brief encounter was fairly thorough, though hardly anointing me an expert on the topic.

So perhaps, to be clear, before moving ahead with my evaluation, it is important to point out that I am, by no means, a Bordeaux connoisseur.  I have tasted hundreds, though, of many vintages and classifications.  I have a decent palate.  I know what I like.  I know what I don’t.  And I can articulate why.

2008 was a rough year for Bordeaux.  April saw an early frost, which severely diminished the crop.  During flowering (mid-May) and fruit setting (end-May), buckets of rain resulted in uneven berries, known as millerandage.  This is stressful for winemakers, as the ripening occurs at various times and often produces grapes of lesser quality.  The potential for a grape is particularly vulnerable during the flowering and fruit set stage and can often be enough to make or break a vintage.  The setting for 2008…was grim.

June only saw more rain, creating an ideal breeding ground for mildew and rot.  A small yield toughed it out, though, and found better weather around the corner.  August was variable—still stuck in a two-week rain streak, but September brought relief.  In fact, had everything gone right, it was remarkable harvest weather.  Warm, dry…lovely.  October carried out this song with superb, steady measure, giving Bordelais hopes that 2008 wasn’t a total washout.

And it wasn’t a total washout.

According to some, including the controversial yet oh so revered Robert Parker, 2008 was “vastly superior to ’07, ’06, ’04, ’03, ’02, ’01, and ’99…[2008] had all the qualities that make…a great vintage so special: exceptionally dark opaque colors, gorgeously ripe fruit, stunning purity almost across the board, great freshness…remarkable density as well as concentration…the tannins are unusually velvety.”  Several articles concur that while maybe it was not spectacular, the vintage certainly delivered impressive wines.

And so, here I am… the cheese… standing alone.

I just can’t wrap my mind around these wines.  I tried the exact same from a similar 2007 vintage last year, but I was able to find the charm, the appeal… the justification of price in a time when they were even a bit more than now.  This year, some were masqueraded by oppressive oak, such as the lesser expensive 08 Le Haut-Medoc de Beychevelle and 08 Chateau Beaumont (I was told the treatment was not significant, but that in itself seems to tell me whatever oak it did see overwhelmed the assumedly weak grapes).  Others were ‘green’ and not in the enticing, signature Cab kind of way.  They were thin and under ripe in character—wines like the everyday 08 Chateau d’Arvigny Haut-Medoc as well as the 06 L’Enclos Pomerol and the 08 Amiral de Beychevelle St. Julien. Still others, the ones that shocked me most, could have been mistaken for Spanish Grenache.  You may think I am absolutely nutso, but mentioning it to a few others in the industry, I saw their furrowed brows relax with recognition—“Ah, yeah, that’s what it is!  What the f*^#??”  Jammy red fruit, kirsch, spice, granite and tomato leaves came together like a sweet melody—sweet except for one detail… it didn’t taste or smell like dusty, old, stinky Bordeaux!  Wines such as 08 Les Fiefs de Lagrange St. Julien, 08 Blasson d’Issan and 08 Chateau Fonbel St. Emilion had me bemused for minutes on end.

Never, even if off vintages like 03, 04, 06 and 07, have I experienced such un-Bordeaux like Bordeaux.   These wines seemed higher in acid and lower in tannin than usual, making for tarter flavors of cranberry and sour cherry, the finishes on many were fast and forgotten, the overall impression was one of monotony and…meh.

Bordeaux is on sale this year, did you hear?  But apparently not for the vintage, according to experts.  This is purely a result of the recession.  Makes you wonder when so many casually make note that 2008 saw a 40-50% price drop, not to mention that the glorious, much-anticipated 2009’s will probably see a 500% increase.  You heard it.  500%.  What other wine region on earth has such range of value?  Well, that’s another blog, but what I wanted to point out is that regardless of the high praises they are shelling out for 2008, my palate begs to differ.  These are on sale because they should be.  The only ones that demonstrated decent personalities and ageworthiness that day included the 08 d’Issan and 08 Giscours—both from Margaux.  They were the only ones that had that tough young tannin I look for in Bordeaux that immediately calls attention to my back palate and the enamel on my teeth.  They were very well-structured and balanced.  They were Bordeaux.

If you have been reading my blog, you would know I rarely criticize unless I feel compelled.  I am simply not digging the 2008 vintage.  I am baffled beyond words as to why so many in print seems to push them.  I fear it is because Bordeaux has seen a couple off years and there is a great vintage looming—and 2009 does, indeed, seem to be as good as they say.   I was fortunate to barrel taste a few 2009 reds last month when traveling in Bordeaux, including Lynch-Bages.  Return to point: who wants to sit on a ton of 06, 07 and 08?  I certainly don’t.  There are too many magnificent wines from other parts of the world to collect and sip on until more terroir driven Bordeaux become available—a crucial descriptor that, I feel, truly does make a Bordeaux the phenomenal wine it can be (and at a price that can be rationalized).  And that was a descriptor I just had difficulty finding during that luncheon.

Try some for yourself and chime in.  I know I was not alone among colleagues that day. Despite the glowing reviews, we all walked away a little miffed and mute.  Waiting with baited breath for 2009


About mistralwine1982

Originally from Wisconsin, I moved to Colorado in 2005 in order to get closer to the mountains and rock climb. When it occurred to me that I would never make money with that hobby, I went to grad school. I received a masters in English and American Literature from New York University in May of 2009. I have since then opted not to pursue a PhD, for studying and writing about wine is far more fascinating (well, perhaps not moreso than Virginia Woolf, but still… for the long haul?). My favorite wines come from the old world, especially the Rhone, Burgundy, Rioja, Piedmont, and Tuscany. I am also smitten with roses, Italian hard-to-pronounce white varietals, and dessert wines from around the world. By day I run a wine shop. By nite, I sip and tell. It’s rough… but someone must do this.


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