This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
For my tasting notes on all these wines, see Southwold 2008s – right bank and ⁞Southwold 2008s – left bank, and for the dinner wines, Avery-underwritten La Mission dinner.
For such a small seaside town, Southwold in Suffolk (pictured) is
extraordinarily famous. The dominant company, Adnams, must have 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 with its beach huts and butter buns for very different reasons.
Like Michael Palin and countless others, I spent my teenage summer holidays
here, necessitating two-day journeys to and from Cumbria in those pre-motorway
days. Even today my pulse starts racing whenever I see the great ship of
Blythburgh church on the horizon and know that the Southwold turn off the A12
is just around the corner.
I never thought as a teenager 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 kindly donated by the producers themselves – the bottles
sacrificed costing more and more each year – and are assiduously gathered and
despatched to Southwold by Bordeaux négociant Bill Blatch of Vintex. What makes
this particular tasting special is that all the wines are served blind (in
suitable flights), thanks to some very hard work by Rob Chase of Adnams and
Aidan Bell of DBM Wines, and 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, and 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 level might persuade
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
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 actually 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 increasingly sophisticated,
there were still instances of oak and toast being used to attempt to disguise
less-than-perfect fruit. It was interesting to see two wines, Châteaux
d’Aiguilhe and Joanin Bécot, from the supposedly lowly appellation Côtes de
Castillon (recently renamed Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) perform so well. Both
admittedly 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 particularly 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 in Southwold’s blind
tasting 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 of
tasting, 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
In fact there was no disappointing first growth in our blind tastings. All of
them, with the exception of our single bottle of Ausone, which was presumed to
be in poor condition, performed as luxury goods should. I have therefore omitted
first growths from my list of favourite smart red bordeaux below.
If you were looking to buy a case of big-name red bordeaux, but could not
afford a first growth (nor a 2009 nor – heaven forfend – a 2010), these 2008s are
all worthy of consideration.
Dames de Montrose (second wine)
Pavillon Rouge de Ch Margaux (second wine)
Petit Mouton (second wine)
Pichon Longueville (Baron)
Domaine de Chevalier
Certan de May
La Fleur de Gay
Vieux Château Certan