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Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2008: a mini-horizontal

With some in the press talking the vintage down, what is 2008 really like?

Sandwiched between the glorious 2007 and possibly even better 2009 vintages, 2008 was always the ugly duckling but are comparisons with 2002 justified? Not at all if this trio is anything to go by. All three were tasted separately at the domaines around Easter but I wanted to compare them and only a mini-horizontal tasting would achieve this. One thing about all these wines: in top vintages, all these estates make prestige cuvees; in 2008 they started to make these wines but decided the economy and the reputation of the vintage rendered this self-defeating so blended them back into the "Tradition" cuvees. This gives the wine the potential to be much better than it would otherwise be.

With no other criteria to go by, the wines were tasted according to alcohol strength so at 14%, Raymond Usseglio was first up. This wine has changed the blend over the last few years from a straightforward GSM blend (75% Grenache) to a slightly different mix of 80% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 6% Syrah and 2% each of Cinsault and Counoise. This last variety has, I think, really lifted the wine even with such a small amount of it. It adds some lovely black fruit pepperiness and a little more zing to the wine.

On the nose, a whiff of smoke but black cherry dominates. A touch of sourness, perhaps because the fruit was less ripe this year. Some oak comes through (from the aborted cuvee "Imperiale", presumably) and the wine has big, chewy tannins although these are well balanced with the acidity and alcohol. There is a touch of rawness at this stage but in another six months to a year it will smooth out well. Probably best drunk by the middle of the decade.

Domaine Grand Veneur's 2008 weighs in at 14.5% ABV and has a smoother but less pronounced nose with oak quite evident alongside the black cherry. The palate is much oakier than the Usseglio and, consequently, the fruit profile much sweeter and softer/smoother. Much more drinkable than the Usseglio at this stage although it is less obvious where this is heading.

When I visited Domaine de Cristia, Dominique Grangeon was cross that Parker had awarded them only 87 points for the 2008 and, tasting the wine, I can see why she thinks he was wrong. I would put it at 89+ (in Parker terms), the wine just falling short of the magic 90 but only just. It's the strongest of the line-up at 15% and is made from a similar blend as Stef Usseglio's wine except that it is just GSM with the latter two accounting for 10% of the total. The fruit is more evolved here than in either of the other two wines, richer and sweeter than the Grand Veneur although this could be down to the different use of oak at this estate. The wine was more full-bodied and rounded than the other two.

On the night, the wine that slipped down most easily was probably the Grand Veneur although I preferred the Cristia for its more subtle use of oak. However, the Usseglio has, I think, more potential to evolve. The only question is whether anyone will be interested in monitoring the evolution of a 2008 when they could (and will) be saving up for the 2009s. The only reason for stocking up on these wines is if you have to wait for other vintages; 2008 will be a superb stop-gap.

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