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Bordeaux 2008: day two

Apologies for the lack of a lunchtime blog post; today has been our busiest day of tasting of the trip. And it’s been a very interesting day. We’ve tasted most of the Médoc now, and have a far clearer sense of the vintage than this time yesterday.

The wines of the northern Médoc have a nice purity of fruit, generally good concentration, ripe tannins and little evidence of greenness. Both fruit and, importantly, acidity show a pleasing freshness which make them very attractive. Many of the top wines have real ageing potential, whilst there are also some approachable early drinking wines. We are really pleasantly surprised.

If there’s a weaker area it is Margaux. I’m very aware that this appellation’s more elegant, delicate wines are not as showy at this stage of their evolution and more difficult to taste en primeur. However, too many wines have simple, crunchy red fruit, slightly awkward acidity and tannins, and too much oak and extraction. Several had a strange herbal note I’m not used to finding – basil is the best way I can describe it. Château Palmer bucked this trend, as you might expect.

As for specific wines we liked, it’s a case of the usual suspects really. Latour was delicious, albeit quite closed; only time will tell if it can match yesterday’s highlight, Lafite. Léoville-Las-Cases continues to impress, although its huge structure and concentration will again need a fair few years in the cellar to open up. Among others we liked, Pontet-Canet, Pichon-Baron, Lynch-Bages, d’Armailhac, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Poyferré, Lagrange, Calon-Ségur and Cos Labory stand out.

From talking to winemakers and vignerons we’re starting to understand the fragmented, complex and difficult growing cycle in 2008, and how it has affected the vintage.

The Indian summer conditions which the vintage benefitted from were really a repeat of 2007, the difference being that July was a pretty good month, and so despite a poor August the grapes were in better shape when the sun came out in late September. Conditions might have been conducive to rot, but again nature helped out with a drying wind which sanitised the canopy. The net result is that the grapes were not only riper but very healthy.

Earlier in the season, the difficult conditions around flowering and fruit set resulted in a naturally thinned crop and reduced yields. Along with difficult August weather, which slowed down ripening, the net effect was a very heterogenous pattern of maturity. As I reported yesterday, the top properties could afford to be more flexible and patient in their picking. Patience, and attention to detail, were important in making a good 2008.

This October harvest seems to have benefitted the later ripening Cabernet grape. In a classically Bordelais way most people reported all varieties as equally successful, yet it seems that an awful lot of Merlot has gone in to second wines rather than first. Latour is a whopping 94% Cabernet this year. Also telling is the fact that the appellation with the biggest plantings of Merlot is Margaux, our least favourite.

I’m writing this from the car as we head up to see our friends Alan and Sue at Château Méaume. Tomorrow we’re spending the day on the right bank, so it will be interesting to see if Merlot shone in its natural territory.

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