Bordeaux 2008 primeurs

by Charles Lea

A remarkable vintage which frankly no one is more suprised by than the producers themselves. Nobody was expecting the quality that has come from this late harvest. The year was wet and cloudy and miserable and ‘English’ and so on, and mildew was a real issue, but in the end the result is beyond any possible expectation, and now the growers and the critics are casting round for explanations for this undoubted quality with the benefit of hindsight.

Late harvests in Bordeaux are normally of poor quality, but here the lateness of the harvest seems to have been precisely what saved it. The ‘wind from the north’, which we end up talking about so often in the context Burgundian vintages saved from the jaws of rot, is now the saviour of a Bordeaux vintage, giving a long dry spell in which the harvest could be brought in and properly sorted. Denis Durantou of l’Église Clinet certainly said he had never made a wine of such quality from such a late harvest.

So why is it so good? Is it the added ‘hang time’ (ghastly American expression meaning the length of time between the flower and the harvest)? A longer time is meant to give a more even path to maturity and allow the greatest development of flavour. At Cheval Blanc, Kees van Leeuwen said he had ‘never come across a vintage with such a wide spectrum of fruit flavours’, from highest-toned red fruits to the deepest blackest notes. I was tasting a lot with a négociant friend, and he remarked that it was the first time in his experience that the flavour of blueberry was to be found in many of the wines – and it is true that it is the signature fruit aroma of the vintage.

At Montrose Jean Delmas (ex Haut Brion) has been coaxed out of retirement to consult. He described the ‘soft’ maturity of the vintage – ‘ripe without excess’. At Léoville las Cases, the maitre du chai said he saw the tannins being like 2001 or 2006, – but crucially went on to say ‘but they are not as harsh as 2006, and finer-grained than 2001’. For me this fine-grained finesse of the tannins, which keeps recurring in my tasting notes, is the other signature quality of the vintage.

‘What vintage is it like’ is the usual game question, and the answer is as difficult as ever, but qualitatively it is often better than 2004 in my view (this is high praise – I like 2004 a lot), with similarities to 2006 and 2001 and – maybe 1998. Philippe Dhallouin at Mouton went even further than this – saying that for him it had bits of 1996, 1998, 1988 – ‘a vintage to keep, with high acidity and high tannin and polyphenols indices’. I suggested 2001 as a comparison, and he agreed, but then said that the alcohol level of around 13.1% in Mouton was much higher – and indeed a rarity at Mouton – and similar levels were to be found all through the Médoc. He again said that there are a lot of similarities to 1996, except that the wines are not so expressive. Denis Durantou was keen to pass on his definition of a great wine as being ‘one which makes you accept its acidity’, and certainly few wines this year have obtrusive acidity despite levels being generally quite high.

Even all this is without the charm factor – the combination of the precise fruit and fine tannins has given a great number of wines which are really charming, which I really want to find in my cellar in ten or more years, and more to the point which I would really be looking forward to drinking.

Now we will have to see whether the prices offered are sufficiently reduced, especially with the background of sterling weakness, to make this an interesting vintage to buy en primeur. So far there have been some wines which look good value, and others which could probably have come down more, but we will continue to update by email as the prices are released. If you are after specific wines do use the facility to compile a wish list, and if you want to receive email updates please do send me an email.

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