I’M on a bit of a Bordeaux roll at the moment. My bags are packed for a visit to some leading estates in the Médoc, Pomerol and Sauternes, and I’m much looking forward to the Dine with Bordeaux event tomorrow at Newcastle’s Café 21 that I reported on last week.
I’ve also recently had the privilege of helping behind the scenes again at the annual Bordeaux tasting held in London by the Institute of Masters of Wine.
It’s a curious reality that the most influential assessments of the top wines from each Bordeaux vintage are made well before the wines are finished. After vinification, the best red wines are aged in small oak barrels for anything from 12 to 20 months, a process that helps to fix the colour of the wine and, more importantly, makes it smoother and rounder.
Samples are first offered to the trade to taste after the young wine has spent only two or three months in the cask. As previous as this might seem, it usually works in the interests of the producers, because they are able to sell the wine without having to wait until it is bottled. In effect the purchaser, not the seller, pays the cost of its maturation.
A more accurate assessment of the wine is only possible after has been bottled. That’s the purpose of the Institute’s tasting.
This year the 2008 vintage was unveiled: 99 top red wines and nine of the very best sweet whites were on show, including a generous helping of the famous names: Châteaux Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild, Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem. It was a tricky year for the growers. Spring was no great shakes and the weather during flowering, in early June, continued cool and damp, which meant that the fruit set was poor and the crop small.
The holiday month of August was the most dismal I’ve known in 30 years of visiting the region. Downy and powdery mildew had a field day and reduced the crop further. By the start of September the growers were resigned to disaster, but the weather finally turned and a golden late summer continued right until the end of October.
Nothing could be done to increase the yield, but the quality got better by the day. Harvest was as late as almost anyone could remember, but the remaining grapes were picked ripe and healthy, with very fresh acid levels and fairly ripe tannins.
2008 is not a blockbuster vintage like the two years that followed, but its wines are elegant, perfumed and balanced.
Not all are successes, of course. One or two seem to me to be too extracted (stewed) including, to my mind, the much over-rated Château Pavie Macquin, but such failures are relatively few and far between.
What I really like about the better 2008s is that they reveal the unique character of each village and vineyard far more vividly than the wines of ‘great’ years – the elegant perfume of Margaux, the lovely balanced fruit of Saint-Julien, the power of Paulliac, the tannic richness of Saint-Estèphe and so on.
That said, 2008 seems to be a year in which those wines with a blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and to a lesser extent by Cabernet Franc fared rather better than those that feature Merlot. Though there are some very lovely Merlot-dominated wines from Pomerol and Saint Emilion, others show rather dry tannins.
Many wines have a lovely lightness of touch that will make them superb partners for food, but the best wines won’t reach their peak for a few years yet. Their fresh acidity will ensure they have a long life: it’s not always the biggest wines that age best.
If you want to try any of the 2008s now, I’d be inclined to look out for bargains, especially the Médoc ‘Crus Bourgeois’ costing between £10 and £20. Decant them if you can, an hour or two before serving and partner them with classic, simple roasts. With lamb, still pink, the tannins will melt away and cut through the richness of the meat.
Most 2008s are a treat for those who enjoy the elegant, dry, perfumed style of traditional claret; and they’re not too expensive, because investment buyers are much more interested in the more spectacular wines made in 2009 and 2010.
My favourites include Château Gruaud Larose, relatively speaking often a bit of a bargain, which has deliciously ripe, lingering blackcurrant fruit. Another wine from Saint-Julien, the impressive Château Léoville Las-Cases, is creamier, richer and is balanced by almost crunchy acidity.
In neighbouring Paulliac, Château Pontet-Canet impressed me more than either Lafite or Mouton. It has richness and power and wonderfully pure blackcurrant (Cabernet Sauvignon) fruit. An amazing wine. As for the sweet wines, Yquem stands head and shoulders above the rest, as it often does. Shame I can’t afford it!
The top wines have not yet found their way into the leading local Bordeaux specialists such as Richard Granger and The Wine Chambers, but online Berry Bros. already have a huge selection (www.bbr.com). Alternatively Majestic’s Château Bessan-Ségur 2008, a Médoc Cru Bourgeois, is a gift at £9.99 – even cheaper if you buy two.