For such a small seaside town, Southwold in Suffolk is extraordinarily famous. The dominant company, Adnams, has played a part in this, thanks to both the affection inspired by its ales and the company’s independent ethos, which has helped to retain Southwold’s individuality.
Not being a beer drinker, I enjoy an intimate relationship with this East Anglian jewel for very different reasons. I spent my teenage summer holidays here, and even today my pulse starts racing whenever I see Blythburgh church on the horizon and know that the Southwold turn off the A12 is just around the corner.
As a teenager, I never thought that I would find myself back on the greens overlooking Sole Bay in the middle of winter as part of my work, but every January an upper room at the Swan Hotel is the scene of a major reassessment of the Bordeaux vintage four years before, a chance this year to see how the 2008s have been settling in to bottle.
The wines are donated by the producers themselves and are gathered and despatched to Southwold by Bordeaux negociant Bill Blatch of Vintex. What makes this particular tasting special is that all the wines are served blind (in suitable flights), thanks to some hard work by Rob Chase of Adnams and Aidan Bell of DBM Wines. They are tasted and scored by a crack corps of wine merchants and writers. This year our 16 tasters included six Masters of Wine, my fellow wine writers Neal Martin and Steven Spurrier, and experienced buyers of Bordeaux from many of Britain’s top wine merchants and wine traders.
Unfortunately I had to leave before the white wines were tasted but I was left with the impression that with the reds, the disparity between the top wines and the rest is particularly marked in 2008, certainly much more than in 2009 and 2010. And although top bordeaux has become a luxury, the 2008 prices are not as silly as some considering the quality. If you wanted to put one case of very smart red bordeaux in your cellar for consumption (how sad that I have to add this rider), 2008 is worth considering.
The left bank first growths all cost four-digit sums in pounds per dozen bottles but you could get a case of second growth St-Julien Château Leoville Poyferré, a wine that impressed us all, for £600 a dozen, or the high-flying second growth Château Pichon Longueville (Baron) for £800, when the two subsequent vintages of these wines cost up to twice as much.
What all Bordeaux lovers are now wondering is by how much the Bordelais will reduce their prices for the 2011s, made in a “challenging” vintage, to be shown in April. I polled members of my website on what price might tempt them to buy 2011s, and most felt that the 2011s should be offered at prices lower than current 2008 prices. With a massive proportion of the 2010s unsold, this is surely one of those years when the château owners will have to eat humble pie.
The 2008 growing season was not easy either and the harvest was one of the latest ever as growers waited and waited for the grapes to ripen fully. To judge from many of the lesser wines we tasted in Southwold, full ripeness was never achieved in many cases, with many less exalted wines pretty light and austere, some with distinctly green, underripe notes. But, as always, there were exceptions. Some less expensive 2008 red Bordeaux did smell fully ripe and had decent fruit weight on the palate – even if they are lighter and tarter than the sumptuous 2009s and 2010s.
Left bank over-performers from the lower ranked châteaux included Branas Grand Poujeaux, Chasse Spleen, Grand Puy Ducasse and Haut Bages Libéral. I don’t think they will continue to improve into the next decade but they should provide solid, classic claret to enjoy over the next eight years or so for under £250, sometimes well under £250, a dozen.
On the right bank, although winemaking has become more sophisticated, there were still instances of oak and toast being used to disguise less-than-perfect fruit. Two wines, Châteaux d’Aiguilhe and Joanin Bécot, from the supposedly lowly appellation Côtes de Castillon (recently renamed Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) performed particularly well. Both have the advantage of being run by top St-Émilion properties, Châteaux Canon La Gaffelière and Beau-Séjour Bécot respectively, and so presumably they benefit from very superior oak and the means to make sacrifices in terms of yield and selection. Financial pressures presumably explain many disappointing 2008s among the lower ranks.
Higher up the ranks on the right bank in the Pomerol and St-Émilion appellations, both Château Pétrus and Le Pin showed well, but these wines are strictly for plutocrats. I found all the wines from the J-P Moueix stable – the likes of Belair Monange, La Fleur Pétrus, Hosanna and Trotanoy – to be especially delicious and well-balanced and, looking back at what I wrote about the Moueix 2008s in April 2009, I see that this confirmed my original impression.
Another early impression that was confirmed last month was that in general the Graves and Pessac-Léognan reds were particularly successful in 2008. In any tasting one flight has to come last, when palates can suffer tannin fatigue. But even though we tasted these wines at the end of a very demanding day, many Pessac-Léognans shone out. The range included some of the freshest, fruitiest, most beguiling wines, with the structure to develop well over the next 10 to 20 years. Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, at the very top of the tree, both compared beautifully to other first growths, while in the Pessac-Léognan flight, Branon, Carmes Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut-Bailly, Malartic Lagravière and Pape Clément all showed extremely well.
In fact there was no disappointing first growth in our blind tastings. All of them, with the exception of our single bottle of Ausone, presumed in poor condition, performed as luxury goods should. I have therefore omitted first growths from my list of favourite smart red bordeaux.
For full notes on the tastings, see Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com