2008 Bordeaux: choose wisely

I recently had the opportunity to taste over sixty wines from the 2008 Bordeaux vintage at the UGC Bordeaux tasting in New York.  These are only preliminary notes (I’m a big believer that tasting small samples at a large tasting can’t give you the full picture the way following a bottle over extended time can) but overall, I’m not a big fan of the vintage.  For me, the 2008 Bordeaux vintage suffers from “in-between” complex – meaning that it can’t compete with exceptional vintages like 2000, 2005 and 2009 in providing pleasure, nor in my opinion can it compete with vintages like 2001 and 2006 for providing charm and what I view as the “classic Bordeaux” experience – 2008 falls in between these extremes on a lot of parameters and therefore lacks enough sense of identity for me to seek the wines out.  I feel that too many of the wines suffer from a plummy tartness and sometimes a bitterness to the tannin, especially on the finish, that keep most of the wines from being fully satisfying.

Many of you probably know that Robert Parker rated the vintage quite highly, and generally more highly than other professional critics.  And other commentators have followed and declared 2008 to be the best vintage of the decade outside of 2000, 2005, and 2009 – which I simply can’t agree with.  I easily prefer 2001 and 2006, for example.  I hadn’t read anyone’s views in depth before tasting the 2008s, but after the UGC tasting, I decided to find out what Parker was seeing in these wines that I didn’t.  After looking at his report and scores, I concluded that on wines we both tasted, our scores were actually often not that far apart, and our ordinal ranking of the wines in relation to each other were pretty consistent too.  What was striking was how much we differ on descriptors.  Parker liberally uses terms like “stunning”, “gorgeously ripe fruit” and “incredibly sweet tannins” to describe the 2008s, where I might be more inclined to say “take a bite out of a plum that’s not quite ripe, then chew on the skin for a bit at the end of that, and you’ve got 2008″.

I don’t think I ever imagined that I would take a stand involving me asking for more ripeness than Robert Parker. So what’s going on here?  Is it that I’m only capable of appreciating only fruit bombs (and I assure you, this isn’t the case), or has Parker gone and joined the “anti-flavor wine elite” that he derided in one of his more memorable tweets?  Well, it’s not the latter either, as the 2008s are not lacking in flavor.  When I first tasted some 2008 Bordeaux in September of 2010, I got to taste ’08 Gruaud Larose and ’08 Beausejour Becot in vertical tastings including 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001 and various other vintages.  At that time, my first impression of the 08s was that they had stark flavors and considerable power, but not much charm to recommend them.  The UGC tasting last week did nothing to change my impression; if anything, those two wines were above average for the tasting.

One aspect that merits some comment is the acidity in the vintage.  Parker often notes the crispness and freshness that the acidity provides, and there is no doubt that the vintage has no shortage of acidity.  And my reservations about the 2008 vintage do not mean I don’t value acidity.  I would say, not all acidity is created equal.  When there is ample balance coming from sweetness of the fruit, and enough tannins for ageability, it’s acidity that makes a wine juicy to me, and keeps me coming back for another sip.  However, when the fruit isn’t quite ripe enough, acidity can come across simply as tartness rather than inviting juiciness, which I find to be the case here.

A few quick caveats that bear mentioning:  I did not taste many of the big-name wines, as they were not present – First Growths, high-end wines like Ausone, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, etc., and it’s entirely possible that these wines lift the level of the vintage, but it’s hard to imagine they are categorically different in kind from the likes of wines I did taste. Plus, if you’re reading a blog called The Amateur Wino, it may not matter whether wines like these move the needle, because you’re probably not buying them.  It’s also worth noting that Parker was especially high on the wines from Pomerol, of which I only tasted a few (though I wasn’t particularly impressed with the ones I did have).  Finally, I was a bit disappointed to see some wines that were notable for me at last year’s tasting of the 07s not represented this year, like Pontet-Canet and D’Angludet.

Overview observations

To me, the most successful commune was, somewhat surprisingly, St. Julien.  Without any First Growths and arguably only one of the top “Super Seconds”, this commune isn’t known for its star power, but I think in 2008, the chateaux of St. Julien did the best job of playing within the limitations of what the cool vintage gave them.  Leoville Barton was one of my favorite wines of the tasting, achieving full ripeness in its dark-fruited flavors and adding in some peppery spice for interest.  Gruaud Larose was another standout, showing nice Old-School floral and herbal character and some exotic spice; solid performances from Saint-Pierre and Talbot buttressed the commune’s performance as well.  Even a wine like Beychevelle at least had an identity that could be recognized as having a common thread with past vintages.

Another commune that fared relatively well in my eyes is Pessac-Leognan.  These wines had the advantage of having the very recognizable Graves terroir to help add interest in a vintage that was otherwise a little short on character.  Haut-Bailly was one of the few wines where I think the ’08 version wasn’t at all marred by some measure of tartness in the acidity, and may well be even better than the ’06.  Haut-Bergey was solid in a lower price range.  Also, the Graves blancs were decent if not as good as the 07′s tasted last year.  Larrivet Haut-Brion was a standout in the richer vein, while Carbonnieux’s blanc turned in a very nice performance in a lighter style.  Pape Clement blanc ’08 was overrich and failed to show any of the wonderful nuance and dimension that I noted last year in the spectacular ’07; Domaine de Chevalier’s 08′ blanc, while good, wasn’t as successful as their very nice ’06, tasted at about the same age.

In general, the vintage may be somewhat more suited to Right Bank wines, especially ones that aim for a generally riper style.  My favorite wine from the Right Bank was Figeac, which will be pleasing for those who like classic (and sometimes leafy) cabernet franc and merlot character.  For those desiring ripeness and power in a dark-fruited package, Canon-La-Gaffeliere is a good choice; Troplong Mondot had a modern style but some definition; Larcis Ducasse and Pavie Macquin offered pleasing wines in the tongue-coating, rounded modern style.  Beausejour Becot is a perfumey sleeper worth keeping an eye on if prices go low enough.

Otherwise, however, St. Emilion had its share of disappointments or otherwise unmemorable wines.  Angelus was not a bad wine, and has power and concentration that may well pan out in the future, but I found it actually less engaging than their ’07, which at least had the virtue of being pretty in a lighter way.  Ch. Canon and Clos Fourtet had some varietal character but were not wholly successful because of tartness, and wines like Grand Mayne and Franc Mayne had a hard time getting past pedestrian tart cherry licorice flavors.

Gazin was solid in a modern Pomerol style; however, La Conseillante was quite disappointing to me because of an apparent style change.  Where I found their ’07 to be a standout in Pomerol with classic lead pencil and slightly herbal merlot character, the ’08 edition has apparently succumbed to the trend of wines trading distinctiveness for rounded, modern styles that beat every last bit of green out of the wine.  As a result, La Conseillante for me has gone from being a leader to just another one of the pack.

For me, Margaux in ’08 was the opposite of St. Julien in that it seems some Margaux chateaux seem to be trying to do too much; where I hoped to find lightness and prettiness in wines like Rausan-Segla and Prieure Lichine as I have in the past, I found little, at least at this point, and some of the other wines from this commune showed signs of overextraction; Malescot St. Exupery was a bright spot and is a prime candidate for purchase given the reasonable price it’s currently selling for.

Pauillac was unspectacular – though I missed trying Pichon Lalande before it was poured out.  Pichon Baron and Lynch Bages put in merely solid showings.  In the value side of things, D’Armailhac pulled an upset over its sibling Clerc Milon, which I prefer in most other vintages.

Wines I tasted from St. Estephe, Haut-Medoc and Moulis were generally competent without standouts save for a very nice La Lagune, although I wasn’t particularly taken with my perennial favorite Chasse-Spleen; this year I preferred the Poujeaux.

Because of time constraints I was only able to taste a few dessert wines, which I have not rated but have included stylistic notes.

Full tasting notes follow here, all wines are from the 2008 vintage:

Pessac-Leognan whites

Bouscaut blanc – flinty and earthy nose, with a bit of stink.  On the palate, medium-gold in color, decent typicity but nothing great. 86-87 Continue reading

PSA/ Health Alert: For people who turn red when they drink

This post is a PSA of sorts to any wine drinkers out there who turn red when they drink – experiencing what has been colloquially termed “Asian Flush” or “Asian Glow” (because about 30-50% of people of East Asian descent seem to experience this problem) but can affect drinkers of many different genetic backgrounds.  I came across a study published by the medical journal PLoS Medicine that finds that people who are subject to this condition are at a greatly increased risk of developing esophogeal cancer; the study was published in 2009, so it’s not news, but it was news to me, so I thought I’d share it with wine lovers who may be reading this who experience the flush response to drinking alcohol.

For those who are averse to tracking through the details of the article about the study, here’s my super-simplified, in-a-nutshell-but-I’m-not-a-doctor version.  If you are a person who turns red when they drink, but can actually drink at some level of comfort, you may well have an inherited deficiency in an enzyme necessary to properly metabolize alcohol (called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, or ALDH-2).  Apparently, alchohol in alcoholic drinks is metabolized in 2 steps: step 1) from ethanol to acetaldehyde and then step 2) from acetaldehyde to acetate.  People who experience the flush reaction but can drink more than a nominal amount of alcohol turn red and experience other symptoms when their ALDH-2 deficiency causes them not to be able to metabolize acetaldehyde quickly enough.

The problem is, acetaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  According to the study, people who experience the flush reaction have an increased risk of esophogeal cancer even if they drink only moderate amounts of alcohol; the New York Times article about the study notes: “An ALDH2-deficient person who has two beers a day has six to 10 times the risk of developing esophageal cancer as a person not deficient in the enzyme.”  Heavy drinkers have it even worse – the NIH article about the study explains: “Notably, these studies showed that individuals with the inactive variant who drink the equivalent of 33 or more U.S. standard drinks per week have a 89-fold increased risk of esophageal cancer compared to non-drinkers.”  Moreover, although the incidence rate of esophogeal cancer seems low (from less than 2% up to about 4% in most countries from what I’ve read), the survival rates are low – the PLoS study cites five-year survival rates of 15.6% in the United States, 12.3% in Europe, and 31.6% in Japan.

So what’s a wine lover to do if they do experience the flush reaction when they drink wine?  To eliminate the increase in risk completely, you’d have to cut out alcohol from your consumption entirely.  If that’s not an option, I would encourage drinking less often, and drinking lower-alcohol wines.  Perhaps you can drink less wine per week, take more days off from drinking any wine, or replace that 16% alchohol fruit bomb with a refreshing moscato d’asti or a wonderfully mineral and complex riesling that clocks in at only 8% alcohol.  Whatever you decide, please keep your health in mind whenever you indulge in the enjoyment of a wine hobby.  -Alan

A peek at a legendary wine

Happy New Year! I hope 2011 is off to a great start for everyone.

Recently I was able to taste one of my truly memorable “wow” wines of 2010 – one that was really squarely in my wheelhouse of favorite characteristics. Initially tasted blind, the wine turned out to be the 1989 Tertre Roteboeuf – a wine that I have sometimes seen discussed in reverent tones- one of the greatest hits of its time. HUGE thanks to M, who has been collecting wines for much longer than I have, and has been extremely generous in sharing with me some really special wines that I can’t really afford to have in my own cellar. I am so grateful -thank you M!  I have something special to share with you in return soon :)  My full note follows.

  • 1989 Château Le Tertre Rôteboeuf – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru (12/7/2010)My friend M was kind enough to bring this bottle to dinner, and I tasted it double blind.On the nose, this wine shows a tarry black olive note that made me think this was an early 90′s cab or cab franc from CA at first – some of the tobacco/bell pepper CF characteristics showed as well. The rim shows slight bricking, supporting my theory on age, at least. A sweet note on the nose becomes apparent with time. The first taste of this wine feels a bit tannic, and I stick by my theory.Told I am wrong on country, I re-examined the wine and guessed Bordeaux, slightly older… and noticed a sweetness of fruit that I realized was the merlot showing. Therefore I guessed St. Emilion, one of the wines with cab franc in the mix. I settled on guessing that it was a ’90 Figeac that M had mentioned owning before, and then I found out it was this wine, which I’ve wanted to try for a long time.

    Followed over the course of the evening, the nose opens up to reveal more red-fruitedness, and an exotic spice element that has hints of curry/cardamom, but also a faintly medicinal/mothball edge (another taster described it as “old books”). The palate opens up too, and becomes absolutely wonderful. The palate shows more red-fruit than before as well, and more transparency – this is a Bordeaux with finesse rather than viscosity. It also has excellent acidity, making this lip-smackingly juicy. The element that truly sets this wine apart for me is the lasting sweetness of the fruit. These qualities make this my favorite among a few other top Bordeaux of roughly the same age that I’ve had in the last year – I prefer this slightly to 1989 Lynch-Bages and 1990 Pichon Baron. M astutely remarks that this wine is starting to show some of the convergence that great wines from different regions can sometimes exhibit – and that I probably like this wine so much because it has some Burg-like characteristics; while this is clearly Bordeaux, it is indeed leaning toward Burgundian qualities within the spectrum of Bordeaux.

    On night 2 (stored in fridge in smaller bottle), this shows as less transparent, and a little more dark-fruited and muscular again; it has staying power but is giving less pleasure.

    On night 3, we are back to the wine I adore – juicy with transparency, and generous sweetness. The sweetish tarry note on the nose is showing itself more on this night.

    A truly memorable wine; wonderful, mature Bordeaux. 95 points. (95 points)

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