What to Make of 2008 Bordeaux Wines

An overlooked vintage of a popular region

There’s no doubt that in many markets, Bordeaux is hot once again.

Given the amazing media hype of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, it might be easy to forget the situation the Bordelaise were facing late in 2008. Not only was the world’s economy melting down in just about every traditional fine wine market, but Bordeaux had just come off its 2005 high with a less acclaimed 2006 vintage, and the downright problematic 2007.

The growing season of 2008 didn’t promise much hope. It featured, with the exception of July, a very cool, damp growing season. The vines suffered because of it, enduring bouts of rot, mildew, and finishing out the summer in an un-ripe state packed full of the easily available water. The Bordelaise had but one hope: a long Indian Summer. Lo and behold, with just such a summer they were blessed.

So the wines are great, right? So many times I’ve heard that the quality of season is determined during harvest that it can easily be taken as some sort of gospel. The truth is that even though Bordeaux enjoyed weather that allowed for the latest harvest in decades, all is not love and roses in 2008 bordeaux.

The grapes had an abundance of both acid and tannins in 2008, which were married to a fine, ripe, yet fresh fruit profile. It was a year when delicacy and restraint were needed in the cellars. While many producers did in fact manage to express what Mother Nature had provided, a few seemed determined to squeeze a bit more out of the grapes than perhaps they should have.

This, unfortunately, is the tendency of the day. We rarely see delicate wines from delicate years. Instead, the upward push of pricing has created a marketplace where even a retrenchment of pricing leaves many chateaux having to justify their tariff. The easiest way to do this of course is to produce something important every year, whether the year warrants it or not.

I have to admit to being a fan of 2004 and looking back fondly on 1999 precisely because of the style of wines those vintages produced. They were leaner, lighter, and fresh. It is easy drinking bordeaux if there is such a thing, and easy in the pocket as well. Today we have people shooting for the moon in many vintages and, sadly, missing.

I have tasted a few 2008 wines so far. This set of wines, tasted blind, only add slightly to what is an admittedly small set of data points. If I need to extrapolate based in this limited set of data, and obviously I do, I would have to say that I am very hesitant to recommend the vintage as a whole.

While some wines did very well, notably the Leoville Barton, Branaire Ducru, and Potensac enjoyed in this tasting, many of the wines I’ve tried seem to be a bit muddled on the palate. I like the generally red-fruited nature of the vintage and the elegant, crisp mouth feel of the best wines, but quite a few seem simple to me while others come off as a bit chunky and clumsy. It was probably a more difficult vintage than many producers have lot, and this coupled with the generally aggressive pricing to be found in Bordeaux tends to leave me a little cold when it comes to the 2008 vintage.

In the end, I doubt I will buy any of these wines, though sale pricing may tempt me. This is not necessarily because they fail on their merits, but rather because the best wines are neither light and elegant nor robust and bold. They simply fall somewhere smack in the middle. Classic is what they should be called, and if you enjoyed the bordeaux produced in the 1980s these wines should be right up your alley. Come to think of it, I enjoyed the wines Bordeaux produced in the 1980s so perhaps I need to reconsider by position on these wines. That can only mean one thing: more tasting is in order!

— Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth