Letter from Bordeaux

FionaM_0609The vintage nobody wanted to love

Even if nobody is in the mood to buy expensive wines these days, nearly 4,000 members of the wine trade and press descended on Bordeaux during the first week of April to taste the 2008 barrel samples. The region was buzzing with gossip and rumor-châteaux for sale, négociants going bankrupt, wine merchants in the UK closing up shop or being bought out, US distributors folding or consolidating their product lines. Bordeaux has not been so hard hit by difficult economic times since the 1970s.

As for the wines themselves, if you love, cool, elegant, silky wines with pure fruit flavors, you'll love the 2008s when they hit your shores in two years. These are beautiful wines that reflect the individual character of each estate. A lot of it will remain in the cellars of the châteaux, however, since many merchants and importers do not have the cash available to tie up in futures. And though there may not be a lot of wine offered as futures, there will be no harm in waiting: You will almost certainly be able to find them at or around their futures' price in two years' time.
     As I reported last autumn, 2008 was the latest and longest harvest for more than a decade. The year was a real roller coaster ride, with rainy, cold spring weather until July's heat and warmth raised hopes for another 2000 vintage—which were again dashed when clouds and rain set in for most of August and the first week of September. By the time Indian summer arrived, few believed it could improve matters. Yet miraculously, with fine weather through the end of October, the grapes ripened under cool nights and balmy days; the diurnal temperature difference helped stabilize the polyphenols and kept those tannins smooth. As autumn progressed, rain did interrupt play a couple of times, yet even estates in the northern Médoc-such as Calon Ségur and Cos d'Estournel—made lovely, sweet, ripe wines with underlying tannin and structure. Yields are very low—not above 40 hl/ha in general and at some estates a paltry 28 to 30 hl/ha. Selection was vital during every stage of harvest and winemaking; there were few grapes left after eliminating the berries affected by mildew, coulure and rot.
     The quality is generally higher on Bordeaux's Right Bank than in the Médoc. The top estates here—Ausone, Cheval Blanc, La Fleur, Pétrus-made some excellent wines with pure red fruit character and a classic, somewhat austere backbone. While tannic, they remain very elegant. Bordeaux whites and the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac are also attractive, with pure, precise fruit flavors and excellent structure.
     In the Médoc, it is a testament to great selection that such good wines have been made given the cool weather, the short days and occasional patches of October rain. Where the merlot is great, as in Palmer, it has added its lush freshness to the blend. Where merlot does not do so well, as in neighboring Château Margaux or further north at Château Montrose, the wine has to rely on cabernet, which appears stern and tannic at the moment. There are many Médocs that are lush and pretty with cool, elegant fruit-from those who took care not to bruise the already fragile and highly tannic grapes with too much extraction. Some of the most attractive wines are those made at the former cru bourgeois level: Ormes de Pez, Phélan-Ségur, Gloria and Cantemerle. Though less ambitious than the First Growths and Super Seconds with their stringent selections, these wines have precise fruit flavors and concentration in the midpalate that suits them to early- to medium-term drinking.
     During en primeur week, we journalists tried to keep as quiet as possible about our thoughts on the vintage. We did not want directors such as Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer or Jean-Guillaume Prats of Château Cos d'Estournel—neither shy in charging high prices for their wines–to get any encouragement about release prices. As Prats said, this year there will be two schools: those châteaux that want to move stocks will probably come out at a price that could be 30 to 50 percent less than last year, bringing prices down to the 2004 level (even if it means that the 2006 and 2007 vintages will be shown up as being vastly overpriced), and those châteaux prepared to sit on their stocks for a few years. The tone is likely to be set by the First Growths. They are rumored to be considering prices between €100 to €150 per bottle (compared to the €250 release price in 2007), which could breathe some life into the Bordeaux futures market. Even at that price, however, they are unlikely to find many takers in the US and Britain.
     Denis Dubourdieu compares the vintage to 1988, but 20 years ago, Bordeaux did not fully understand phenolic ripeness. Now, the tannic content of grapes and the methods of vinification used to preserve them mean that these wines will be more successful than the 1988s. Though market conditions may shadow the vintage on release, in 20 years the 2008 wines will stand on their own merits, and I think they will be impressive.

—Fiona Morrison