THE UNION DES GRANDS CRUS' members presented their 2008s some time back. While certain top estates, including the Premier Grand Crus, refuse to show their wines at this travelling showcase, there is always a sufficiently broad spread of styles, communes and quality tiers for any perspicacious taster to come away with a solid grasp of what a vintage has to offer. A look back at 2008 is a curious exercise, perhaps, given the less-than-stellar reputation of the year. However, for those who like to drink rather than look at wine, or for those who are impatient, a fresh peek at 2008 indicates that there is much to like for those who enjoy wines of a savoury restraint.
While the 2008 reds are far from blockbusters, their attributes are many. Moreover, the whites can be exceptional – streamlined with plenty of verve. The potential alcohols of the red wines were low, largely in the vicinity of 11-12 percent (meaning that virtually everything was chaptalised for palate warmth). As a result, while there are many meagre wines, the best are linear and classically astringent in a vein that reminds me of many that I guzzled in Paris as a university student in the late '80s.
While I was not necessarily drinking classed growths back then, there was a general proclivity for lower alcohols and mid-weighted wines of a sappy, crunchy and moreish palate profile. A hint of herbaceousness, or grassiness, was not considered heresy but the natural voice of the Cabernet family. How things have changed, as evidenced by the recent excitement over the alcoholic Cos d'Estournel 2009, a wine that I find undrinkable despite inflated scores among certain top critics. My question is: why let grapes get that ripe when other wines from the same vintage attained holistic ripeness at lower alcohols and with less sweetness? The 2009 Cos is in many ways an archetypal modern Bordeaux: polished and seamless, with any freshness and bite glossed over by a velour of oak and tannin management taken to the nth degree. It is likely to become a contentious wine, similar, perhaps, to the Pavie 2003. Fortunately, there are few such wines in 2008.
This is not to decry the general high quality of Bordeaux that developments in vineyard management and winemaking techniques have brought, bolstered by higher wine prices and grander investments. Rather, it is simply refreshing to come across a vintage such as 2008 that, at its best, offers eminently drinkable wines with a snappy freshness. Some are even mid-term agers.
The secret would seem to lie with the judicious selection of grapes in the vineyard and winery, as well as gentle extraction. Warmer, well-drained zones seem to have fared best, with Graves showing particularly well in the context. St Estèphe, in contrast, served up a rough-and-tumble bunch of wines due to the greater water retention of its clay soils and obdurate tannins in the wines. Their gristly scrawniness finds little affinity with the lighter weight and gentle astringency of 2008 reds.
Another telltale characteristic of many 2008s is a bright, candied, red-fruit aroma. This suggests a large portion of whole berries in the vats, extracted very gently. The result is akin to partial carbonic maceration, an approach that serves to accentuate fruit while softening a wine's structure. This has resulted in Cabernet's pliancy peeking through a softer carapace of tannins than is usual in Bordeaux. In contrast, more heavily extracted and ambitiously oaked wines are largely dried out, with ropey, under-ripe tannins.
Here are some names to look out for, across a multitude of price-points:
Château Haut-Bergey: slick, minerally and long with curd and citrus flavours. The oak is very restrained. Tensile. Excellent value. 91
Château La Louvière: viscous and rather slippery in the mouth. Hints of quinine and kumquat. Already rather approachable, despite high acid year. 88
Domaine de Chevalier: highly concentrated wine with curd, wax and a lick of truffle, judiciously offset by sensitively handled oak. Great persistence and penetrative length. Ricochets to the bottom of the throat. Really tangy and triumphant. Bravo! 95
Château Carbonnieux: stark contrast to the flamboyant Chevalier: tight and mealy from lees work. Almost surreptitious oak here, yet ultimately feels a little too skinny at this stage. Appropriately reductive. Will it flesh out in time? 92?
Château Smith Haut Lafitte: this domaine goes from strength to strength, evident in a wine that toes a very diplomatic line between flamboyance of fruit and mineral undertow. It gets it just right. Long and generous, with nothing out of place. 91
Château Olivier: restrained aromatically, yet oily and broad in the mouth. A wine of contrasts. Offers plenty of immediate pleasure, if not the grip and zing of the best examples of this vintage. 89
Château Pape Clément: bumptious wine with apparently a great deal of Sauvignon. Almost New Zealand-like in its tropical scope, with loads of grippy oak on the back. A bit over the top and flaccid, but may appeal to some. 88
Château Malartic Lagraviere: aromas of pineapple, ginger and lime curd. Very expressive. Balanced by a gravelly, detailed palate of tension and precision that will flesh out in time. Loads in store. 93
Château Larrivet-Haut-Brion: Soapy, grassy and rather forward despite its youth, but an attractive drink for the immediate term with hints of lemon zest and grapefruit pulp. Sappy finish. 88
Château Haut-Bailly: archetypal currant, cedar and floral aromas on a mid-weighted frame. Precise. Pristine. Perhaps a little too pretty? 93
Château Carbonnieux: earthy and mulchy. Very savoury and balanced wine, yet without the pristine precision of the best examples. 87
Château Chevalier: warm rock, violet and graphite. Fine aromas here, reverberating across an earthy palate. More the sturdy athlete to Haut-Bailly's ballerina. 93
Château Pape Clément: fat, rich and oaky. Lots of sheen and glean, but little finesse. 88
Château Phélan Ségur: aromas of mulch and currant, with nicely handled tannins. Long and fresh. Very good effort at tannin management, especially given the St Estèphe origins. 90
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste: cassis, leather, anise and cedar. Very well handled. Long and energetic. 92
Château Gloria: well poised. Moreish and highly drinkable, without quite the class of the very best wines. A consistently good drink, though. 90
Château Léoville Poyferré: a big wine with stolid tannins. Not of the pretty and well manicured idiom, but a keeper. 92
Château Léoville Barton: stupendous tannin management, mineral flow and grace. Effervescent. 94
Château Gruaud-Larose: carbonic , gentle tannins. Plush and long. 90
Château Beychevelle: rather mute aromatically, yet with a wonderful meld of plush fruit and fine tannins behind the aromatic carapace. A very elegant wine. 92
Château Giscours: violet scented and wonderfully poised graceful palate. Nothing out of place here. Long and finessed. Real class. 93