Bordeaux 2008: A glass half empty

BRUSSELS — Since filing my story about Bordeaux’s 2008 vintage, the first results of the annual tastings have come pouring in.

The world’s capricious economic climate is creating a potential hangover, forcing many winemakers to lower their prices. The famed St. Emilion chateau Angelus decided on April 7 to put half its 2008 production on sale for 50 euros a bottle — still expensive, to be sure — but 40 percent less than last year. Another famed Chateau, Giscours, is offering a free 13th bottle for every dozen purchased.

At the same time, critics have expressed surprise about the quality of the actual wine produced in 2008.

“Bordeaux 2008 is, quite frankly, a vintage that has taken most of us by surprise,” noted U.K. wine merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd on its blog this weekend. “Who would have thought that after months of continuous bad weather and setbacks in the vineyards, and weeks of speculation about the quality of the wines, that we would actually come away with anything better than mediocre praise for these specimens? But there’s no denying that many of the wines surpassed our expectations.”

Jancis Robinson, the venerable U.K. wine critic, said many of these refreshing wines will be “an agreeable shock" to those who had doubted the vintage.

With prices coming down in 2008, some long overpriced, delicious Bordeaux finally may become affordable. Before giving some recommendations, let me express two caveats. First, I have not tasted the 2008 vintages, which remain in barrels and are only sold now as “futures” to be delivered in two years time. I have only tasted older vintages. And second, Bordeaux is a giant appellation, with wines running from $5 to $500 a bottle, with quality stretching from the barely quaffable to the sublimely exquisite. This means it is necessary to sift through the massive offering before buying.

My tastes are markedly modernist: I like wines with fresh fruit and a forward, pleasing favor, not traditional Bordeaux that I often find has too many notes of tough leather. I admire the new generation of Bordeaux winemakers who are leveraging technology and hard work to produce riper grapes and more full-bodied wines. Among my favorites, in a wide variety of price ranges, are:

1. Chateau Reynon, Clos Floridenne and Chateau Doisy-Daene: These are the family domains of oenology professor Denis Dubordieux. More than any other single individual, he has revolutionized the making of white wines in Bordeaux. Instead of stuffy, heavy whites, he produces clean, fresh wines. Chateau Renon, less than $10, is a flavorful, almost 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc. Clos Floridenne, $20 to $25, is a much more ambitious, full-bodied, oak-aged white. Doisy-Daene, a Sauternes selling for about $40, is one of the nicest sweet wines I know — tangy, not cloying.

2. Chateau Valandraud: This St. Emilion Grand Cru epitomizes the so-called “garagiste” movement. Instead of coming from a treasured parcel of land and being produced in a massive palace, it is made from Merlot grapes that come from an undistinguished vineyard that are vinified in the garage of Jean-Luc Thunevin’s St. Emilion home. But Thunevin picks such ripe grapes and concentrates them so much that he creates an annual blockbuster. Valandraud, made in small quantities, can run hundreds of dollars a bottle, but check out Thunevin’s other wines. He also writes an amusing blog.

3. Chateau du Pin: This is another famed “garage” red wine fancied by connoisseurs and collectors, with only a few thousand bottles produced each year and demand that drives prices to the stratosphere, often more than $1,000 a bottle. Belgian Jacques Thienpoint makes it in the village of Pomerol. A more accessible and to my mind, equally delicious Pomerol Merlot from the Thienpoints is Chateau Vieux Certan, with prices — about $100 a bottle — that are high but not totally out of reach.

4. Chateau du Reignac: An ambitious entrepreneur named Yves Vatelot has transformed this domain into one of the most dynamic in Bordeaux. Since Reignac’s vineyards are not from a prestigious village, the wine sells for much less, as little as $30 a bottle — though in blind tastings I have attended it has equaled Bordeaux’s best. Reignac produces both attractive, richly scented whites and rich, robust reds.

5. Chateau Fontenil: This is the leading wine from Fronsac, the home estate for famed “flying” winemaker Michel Rolland, who makes fantastic wine around the world, from Lapostelle in Chile to Harlan Estate in California. The movie "Mondovino" vilified Rolland as a wicked magician responsible for homogenizing the world’s wines — if ever an unfair portrait existed, it was that one. Rolland is a bon vivant, who produces generous, full-bodied, fresh fruit-filled wines that are simply delicious. Before he arrived, Fronsacs were uniformly harsh; he made them supple and sinuous. Fontenil costs about $50 a bottle and is a bargain.

5. Chateau Lascombes: All the previous red wines listed are from the “Right Bank” around the village of St. Emilion and are based on Merlot grapes. The Left Bank on the Medoc peninsula depends mostly on Cabernet Sauvignon. This estate is right across the street from Chateaux Margaux, one of the region’s Grandes Dames. In 2001, Yves Vatelot and U.S.-based Colony Capital purchased it and upgraded the wine (and the prices). The vintages I have tasted are luscious and full-bodied, yet retain a distinctive Margaux feminine perfume. Prices are about $75 a bottle.

6. Chateau Charmail: This Left Bank wine comes from an undistinguished part of the Medoc and often costs less than $20 a bottle. It’s a bargain. By harvesting ripe grapes and slowing fermentation by immersing the picked fruit in carbonic acid (sounds weird, but it helps preserve freshness), this is one of the fullest fruit, most pleasant year-in, year-out Bordeaux around. Another similar good name in budget Left Bank Medoc is Chateau Cambon La Pelouse.

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