by Bill Blatch
In meteorological terms, 2008 looks to be the identical twin vintage of 2007. Each month’s temperatures and rainfall figures are about the same and show that both vintages started with a mild winter; continued into a wet spring; had a mediocre, dull, and damp summer; and were then saved by a miraculous last-minute turnaround in the form of a glorious autumn. Additionally, 2008 was the second year running to reverse the recent warming trend-and the second year running of 13 moons! 2008 was also the second La Niña year running. It is strange to imagine how the cooling of the Pacific Equatorial current can have an effect on faraway Bordeaux, but it is certain that it does upset the whole world’s airflows and causes a more southern flow over the Atlantic during the summer months.
The result was that, for the second year running, a series of depressions slammed into Ireland and England, rather than veering off to the North as they normally do, creating diagonal rain-laden fronts over western France. So how come the bright, fruit-driven, finely styled, and elegant wines of 2007 turned out so different from the darker, richer, more generous, and more tannic wines of 2008? Even to most growers, the outcome came as a surprise. They were expecting 12.5% ABV and suddenly it all came in at 14%. Despite the apparent similarities, the answer seems to lie in the vine’s radically different behavior in each year. In 2007, it had got off to an early and rapid start, with a quick, early budding, followed by an early, if erratic, flowering, and it was only then that it got slowed down by the dreary summer months, achieving a flash, last-minute ripening in those fine September days.
2008 was entirely different. From the beginning of the season to the end, the vine did not do anything fast all year. It took its time, seemed lazy, didn’t want to bud, grow leaves, flower, or do anything at speed. Consequently, it had very slow cycles that, despite the strain put on it by the April frost, by the excess of water in May, and by a mediocre summer, allowed it to ripen its grapes effectively, gradually and very inconspicuously.
In 2007, the turnaround had happened two weeks earlier. But the vineyard cycle had been three weeks earlier, so in reality 2008 had a week in hand going into the fine weather, and in July it had also enjoyed a much better preparation for ripening.
July’s virtues went virtually unnoticed, and amid August’s and early September’s atmosphere of doom and gloom-in the vineyards as well as at the investment banks-every day it was raining a little and there was a distinct possibility that the crop was going to be lost. Unlike at the banks, things were in fact not that bad. The precipitation figures were finally not that high and nobody had noticed that the soil was in fact much drier than we had thought. This was of immense importance since it meant that there would be no risk of rot, and therefore no need to pick in a hurry, so everyone could wait for that final touch of concentration, some even right into November.
Ultimately, though, it was the small size of the crop that allowed all this ripening to happen so effectively. With a crop the size of ’92 or ’04 there would have been too many bunches for them all to stay healthy. Growers had cursed the naturally low sortie at the start, reduced further still later on by frost damage, by the poor flowering, by mildew, by culling and green harvesting, and by the final dehydration effect. But it paid untold dividends on the quality of the harvest, and without it, there may not have been a harvest at all.
This year, it is necessary to start further back than we usually do. The origin of the vines’ reluctance and of the low yield is to be found right back in the 2007 growing season. This is because the number of inflorescences-the microscopic embryo bunches-is determined by conditions during the flowering of the previous year, and their vigor is decided at the véraison of the previous year.
The weather in June 2007 had not been ideal and this seems to have discouraged the vine from producing a large number of embryos for 2008. For the véraison, August 2007 was rainy and cold, which seems to have accounted for 2008’s lack of vigor. So that makes 2007 and 2008 more like father and son than twin vintages!
Spring 2008 and the budding
Apart from a few small cold snaps in late January, mid-February, and early March, these three months were much warmer than usual. February was exceptionally warm, the second warmest since records began in 1920.
Such warm and wet conditions were just what the vine needed to get off to an early start. Some swellings were noticed as early as February 22. Nobody really understood why the buds didn’t burst there and then. But they didn’t, and everyone was thankful for that. It was the first sign that the vines were going to take their time this year.
By the end of the first week of April, the early start to the budding had got spun out into a late finish. On the night of April 6, a shallow low-pressure system sucked Arctic air round it and down into France. For those buds that were still bursting, especially those in Sauternes, Southern Graves, and the Entre-Deux-Mers, the damage was serious, and it was the beginning of the year’s severe shortfall in white wine.
Early summer and the flowering
Apart from these badly hit areas, the frost itself was not the main problem. It was more a question of the effect of the frost on further weakening already weak embryos and on slow-functioning vines, especially less resilient older vines. By the end of April, the vegetation was getting late, and as we went into a very wet and very warm May-normally ideal conditions for rapid growth-it just got later and later.
Now there was another problem to deal with-mildew. It had been bad last year, and now growers were saying it was more virulent still and appeared even earlier. After last year’s experience, however, everyone was ready, and did preventative sprayings just in time. And so we arrived at the flowering, most of which began during the warm, stormy last days of May, and then continued for a full month.
Everyone had a little coulure, but the main problems were right at the beginning, so affecting primarily the white varieties and the Right Bank Merlots. Due also to the effect of millerandage, the size of the crop had taken another serious hit.
July and August
Apart from the thunderstorms of 21-22, the final 14 days of June were totally dry. With temperatures a full 7°F (4°C) over the norm and with 25 percent more hours of sunshine than normal, the foliage started catching up. July ended up with a total 20.2mm (0.79 inches) of rainfall, way below the norm of 54.5mm (2.15 inches) and equaling the drought year 2005. The temperatures were just above normal, especially in the final ten days, with good, regular heat. These dry, regular conditions of July were to become the determining feature of the vintage’s relative success. They created the only period when this year’s lazy vine was jolted by any drought stress. It had the effect of creating an early synthesis of the phenols and tannins in the young grapes that would arm them to resist the damp August.
August started off damp and got wetter, with 17 of the 31 days registering rainfall. The total for August ended up at 82 mm (3.23 inches), above the norm of 59mm (2.32 inches). But the average temperature was only marginally down on the norm- 68.9°F (20.5°C) instead of 69.6°F (20.9°C). Consequently, the véraison got off to a good start in the hot conditions of late July, but then got spun in the cooler and rainier middle part of August. This had the effect of creating even further disparity in the ripening cycles that had originated from the frost in April and from the irregular flowering in June, and of ensuring that after all the harvest would be very late.
Nowadays, such disparity is corrected at this time by green harvesting. Teams had already been in the vineyard in late June and early July, thinning out the bunches where necessary. It was now time to go round a second time, culling all the bunches that could now be seen to be laggard, and at the same time to pluck the lower foliage. So the yield, already low, took a further knock. None of this would have been done 30 years ago.
Such a difficult August drifted into an even damper September. The grapes were beginning to swell dangerously, and there was beginning to be an atmosphere of despair. More of this and rot would attack the splitting grapes. Would what was left of the harvest simply get washed out?
September to harvest
Over the weekend of September 13, the weather started to change radically. A North Atlantic high-pressure system gradually ballooned over all of Europe, attracting cool, dry Scandinavian air into Bordeaux. Apart from an occasional innocuous shower, this weather pattern persisted until mid-October.
For the second year running, it was just too good to be true. As the vineyard dried, the rot risk receded and any split grapes healed quickly. The recovery was instantaneous and its rapidity surprised everyone.
At the end of the first week of September, the white harvest started, as usual, with the Pessac-Léognans. Most of the straight Bordeaux whites were picked under the permanently blue skies of the second half of the month. Most of the red producers, apart from those very early vineyards of Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan that started in the final week of September, wanted their grapes to take the fullest advantage possible of this ripening process and did not plan to harvest until October. But once again there will be an ocean of difference between generic wines and those of well-tended estates.
Autumn green and gold in the vineyards of Château Rayne-Vigneau in Sauternes, where the good but very small harvest was very hard won
Apart from a storm that dropped 0.39 inches(10mm) of rain on the Right Bank on September 18, the latter 16 days of the month were totally dry, with exactly double the normal amount of sun hours. The white pickers could take their time and the reds could wait.
October opened with a seven-day relapse to those all-too familiar English depressions and their attendant damper westerly winds. It rained lightly on several of those days just as the earlier Merlots were starting to be picked (on both banks). But most of this rain fell at night or in the early morning, so it had little effect on the quality of the harvest.
Most of the Merlots started on Monday 6, right at the end of this patch of lesser weather, and enjoyed a second, totally dry 20-day period that was to last right up to the end of the main part of the Cabernet harvest around the 27th.
Unlike the cooler one in September, this dry period was very warm, and with the wind mostly in the southeast, the middle ten days of October were a full 5°F (2.8°C) warmer than normal. This accounts for all the dehydration that occurred in the grapes, and their unexpected concentration. Of course, by the same token, the yields went down even further. Meanwhile, in Sauternes, after a tremendous first picking in September, these dry conditions made the botrytis very slow for the second and third pickings that were being undertaken now.
On October 27, just as everyone was finishing, the fine weather came to an end with five days of heavy rain that continued with light showers into the first few days of November. This was now of concern only to the Sauternais, who were hoping for a small, final, glorious mid-November trie (which would now lose concentration to the rain) and a few resolute Saint- Emilionnais who can never resist holding out for just that extra bit of concentration, which they ended up getting-it rained half as much on the Right Bank as on the Left. So ended a very late harvest that everyone could finally be proud of. If only its volume had been as satisfactory.
This was to be a naturally low-yielding vintage from the start. From then on, it just kept getting smaller and smaller, first of all from the effects of the April 7 frost, then from a very imperfect flowering; from the mildew; from the nonetheless necessary crop-thinning and green harvesting measures undertaken over the summer; from the year’s frequent local hail-storms; and finally from all that dehydration of the grapes in the dry run-up to the harvest.
The lowest yields of all were in Sauternes, especially on the top of the gravel slopes, with nobody higher than 14-15 hectoliters per hectare, many at 7-12, and some as Lilliputian as three or four (the maximum permitted is 25 hl/ ha). Next were the dry whites, especially in the Southern Graves and Entre-Deux- Mers, most around 20-30hl/ha. The reds are more variable, some as low as 20hl/ha, most between 30 and 40hl/ha, with just a few at almost 50. Overall, it was the lowest yield since the Great Frost of 1991.
2008 dry whites
This is clearly another good vintage for dry whites. As in 2007, the earlier ones were picked before the September good weather could really get to them, so they are similarly fresh-styled and have quite high acidities. They seem to have a bit more ’06-type fatness than the tighter ’07s, and also (so far), a much later development of aromatic expression.
2008 red wines
The best of the red ’08s surprised the people who made them and are certainly going to surprise others, too. Of course, with such disparity in the ripening cycles, there is enormous variation. The rushed harvesting of those unprepared estates in mid-September has nothing at all to do with the relaxed pickings of totally concentrated grapes, sometimes six weeks later. The hallmark of the vintage-for the more successful wines, at least-is clearly to be found in their common sweetness of attractive fruit and fatness, combined with a certain freshness of acidity, and in the strength of their tannins. This makes them a totally different style than their two predecessors, from which they also differ by their higher alcohol and their stronger constitution.
The skins were generally thick, perfectly healthy, and much more extractable than in ’06 and ’07. Only the nature of the pips sometimes held winemakers back from stronger extraction, but generally they could let themselves go much more than the previous year. The press wines are also almost universally of excellent quality and will be very useful later on.
Another general rule is that the Right Bank has made excellent Merlots, profiting more from the good July conditions, whereas the Left Bank’s Cabernet Sauvignons quite clearly benefited more from the final end-ofseason dry warmth. But it is not going to be as easy as that. There are some excellent, rich Left Bank Merlots and some extremely concentrated, lateharvest Right Bank Cabernets, whose acidity prevents them from losing flavor-so often a problem with these very late-harvest wines.
Last year, Sauternes was top of the vintage. But here your luck never holds long, and in ’08 they had the hardest time. At enormous expense, they have made a tiny amount of wine.
Their problems started early on, when Sauternes got harder hit by the April 7 frost than elsewhere. It was devastating to watch the crop gradually diminish, then to have to spend time and money combating mildew to save the few remaining bunches.
The summer went better for Sauternes than elsewhere. And if the damp conditions of August and early September were very worrying for the reds, they were beneficial to Sauternes, laying the basis for an excellent early botrytization. The totally dry and warm last days of September perfected and concentrated it, and these first tries were to become almost universally the best and biggest part of the harvest.
By the first days of October, this first trie was completed, and, with the help of a few showers, a second round of botrytis quickly formed. The nights were too cold, however, to get it really going. The desired rôti (roasted) stage only came very slowly, so the second and third tries were undertaken very gradually during the rest of October, producing again fine, pure musts but, apart from a few exceptions, generally less strong than the first ones.
By the time the rain arrived on October 27, most of the harvest was in, but many estates waited the rain out, then picked a fourth or fifth trie in relatively good conditions right up to November 20. Now the nights were warmer and the days rainier, so although the grapes did not deteriorate during this time, concentration was reduced.
The final assemblages will be interesting to see, most containing a majority from the pure, fine, very concentrated botrytis of the first pick, which at most châteaux contained more of the year’s stylish Sauvignon than the blander Sémillon. The balance is generally of moderate alcohol, high sweetness, and quite high acidity, stylistically quite similar to the excellent ’07s, sometimes even finer, but possibly less rich and less complex. Certainly it will be a very good vintage, giving Sauternes its unprecedented 14th very good vintage in a row.
There were some very relieved smiles on growers’ faces as the harvest drew to a close. Once again, how could such a year of crisis have been turned into such a tranquil dénouement? Even more so than in 2007, the play had touched on tragedy, then had a happy ending, with everyone wondering where all that concentration had come from.
This is the time of year when we are all thirsty for comparisons. With the caveat that such an exercise is always a bit dangerous, since each vintage is always so different, what other vintages does this one resemble? Comparison has to be made with other good vintages when a dull summer gave way to a dry autumn, like ’78, ’83, ’01, ’02, and ’07, and with other very late harvests, like ’78, ’88, ’98, and ’04.
Of these, the wines seem to bear little resemblance to the grassier ’78s; to the harder ’02s; to the lighter ’07s; to the greener Cabernets of ’88 and ’98; or to the stricter ’04s. Closer matches seem to be with ’83 and ’01, but both of these made tighter-styled and leaner wines than ’08.
The best of the 2008s will certainly have a darkness of color, a middleweight concentration, and a strength of ripe tannin that these vintages do not have, while retaining the slightly sharper character of all late-harvest vintages. ’08 will never possess the strength of ’00 or ’05, or the opulence of ’89 or ’90, and nobody is saying that this is a great vintage. But its density and weight clearly put it high in the ranks of “very good” vintages, well ahead of the lighter, more fruit-driven ’07s, and, by dint of the riper final tannins, probably ahead of the ’06s, too. Nobody is going to believe it, and I am not making this up, but 2008 in Bordeaux is rather a good vintage.