2008 Bordeaux – relative value

A month or so after the annual Southwold tasting, a similar group join up for the annual “Ten Years On” tasting.  This year was thus the time for the 2008 Bordeaux vintage, a vintage that I’ve never really “got”, so I was looking forward to it.  The snow, or rather the spineless, unimaginative, defeatist, nannying, etc, etc, etc ad infinitum, attitude of pretty much everything and everyone in the UK these days made it tricky but, thinking of Shackleton, Adams, Marshall and Wild, I made the epic journey from Farnham to Wandsworth.  I was very keen to taste these wines.

My intrigue wasn’t to do with the anticipation of greatness, as with the 2005s last year, nor was it to do with seeing if I’d got a vintage right or not, as with the 2014s last month.  It was to do with the commercial story of this vintage.  2008s have always been commodity claret in my view.  Aside from the few customers who bought a six pack of Mouton or Latour (these were my picks of the vintage from barrel) on the basis that they might never again be able to afford a first growth, few customers bought these with future pleasure in mind.  Or at least that’s what I reckon.

2008 Bordeaux was released in the Spring of 2009 at a time when the wine market was pretty much busted.  In the second half of 2008, the market had plummeted; the Liv-ex 100, probably the best measurement of this sort of thing, dropped by a shade over 22% in six months.  In November 2008 I had cancelled orders on my accounts that topped a quarter of a million pounds.  It was scary and, as one does in a cold winter, one waits, and hopes, for Spring.

Spring brings en-primeur and the release of a Bordeaux vintage can act as a catalyst for the broader market.  A good vintage that sells well adds positivity.  A poor vintage that stalls adds negativity.  And lots more in between.  So the quality, and the price, of the forthcoming 2008 vintage was, at the beginning of 2009, something of intense interest to those that made their living selling wine.

Sadly, the news wasn’t good.  The anticipated quality of the wines was deemed as being so poor that some merchants didn’t even go to Bordeaux to taste them.  Some of those that did probably wished, at the time, that they too had the balls to stay at home and watch telly.

The wines were released at prices that, for once, seemed reasonable.  A case of 2008 Mouton or Latour would set you back £1,750 or so.  Lynch-Bages £360.  And these wines, the wines that had established themselves as the equivalent of FTSE 100 stock, more or less worked.  Not much else did.

And something happened.

At the end of April 2009 Robert Parker released Issue 182 of the Wine Advocate.  He too had questioned the point of travelling to Bordeaux to taste, though returned to write that “the quality of the 2008 vintage turned out to be excellent, with a number of superb wines that are close to, if not equal to the prodigious 2005 or 2000 vintages (two years with many of the best wines I have ever tasted from top to bottom)?”

Which rather left most merchants scratching their heads and got the sharper ones on to their phones.  Much business was done and much wine was sold.  The market recovered.  A year after its release, 2008 Mouton-Rothschild was selling for almost double its release price.  At the end of 2010, fuelled largely by speculation that the white-hot market of the Far East would be endlessly enamoured of the lucky “8” vintage, it had traded on Liv-ex at £8,000 per case.  You can buy a case today for £4,500 or so.

Writing up my notes on the wines is a little like doing 100 lines: I don’t want to do it, and the resulting text will have little worth.  If you do not own 2008 Bordeaux there is no reason at all to go and seek it out.  If you bought the wines early you will have done well, and I stress that Bordeaux does have this habit of softening out and somehow blooming in its decay.  Recent bottles of 1993 & 1994 La Mission have confirmed this.  There is nothing particularly awful about the 2008 vintage; it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good about it either.  A year without charm.

My wine of the tasting was Haut-Brion, with Latour and Mouton a whisker behind.  I scored Pavie well, though concede that even after my recent Pavie epiphany, it wasn’t really my bag.  Outside of the really big boys my wine of the tasting was a quite excellent Pichon-Baron.  There were no crushing disappointments aside from a bit of oxidation and cork taint.

So what started out as a review of the top 70 wines of the vintage turns into a paragraph, and the introduction, the opening paragraph, has turned into the piece itself because the 2008 Bordeaux vintage is and has always been a commodity vintage.  One that that sold, and sells, on relative value rather than intrinsic quality.  I have a feeling that the merchants, those of us that bought and sold the wines, are inclined to like them more than they would otherwise on account of the profitable commerce that they have enjoyed.  And I remain flummoxed by Mr Parker’s original reviews (since corrected).  It may well be the only vintage that he ever got wrong.  So not a bad record nonetheless.

I thank Liv-ex for the numbers. It’s a numbers sort of vintage.