The Future’s Definitely Not What It Was: Bordeaux 2018
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 09, 2021
Left Bank: Listrac & Moulis | Margaux | Pauillac | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Saint-Estèphe | Saint-Julien | Satellites
Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Sauternes | Satellites
The title of my 2018 en primeur report was “The Future’s Not What It Was,” a nod to personal circumstances and to the way climate change is reshaping the future. Who knew that within a few weeks, a global pandemic would make that title so apposite? And yet, despite the radical change in human lives and the unpredictability of the weather, Mother Nature keeps pushing the pedals of the season cycle. Year after year, like clockwork, vines bud, flower and produce fruit that turns into wine and ultimately lands on my desk for review. This is the first major report where I look back at a vintage born in pre-pandemic times. It’s like peering through a steamed-up window onto the past. So let’s rewind to 2018 BC (before COVID) and reexamine the growing season, when face masks were only worn by wrestlers, bubbles were what made kids laugh, “Zoom” was a guilty pleasure by Fat Larry’s Band and social distancing is what you did when your mother-in-law came round.
The Growing Season
The result of global warming is not simply an increase in average temperatures. It manifests binary growing seasons that, in 2018, witnessed deluges in the first half of the year, followed by continuous sunshine and barely a raindrop in the second. This pattern is being replicated in 2021, the Dordogne having burst its banks after more rain fell through the winter than the region has seen since the 1960s.
In 2018, the persistent rain in the first half of the year led to intense mildew pressure that particularly affected organically farmed and especially biodynamic vineyards; just ask Thomas Duroux at Palmer. The vines were then compensated with a hot, dry summer all the way through to harvest. You might presume that there was nothing to worry about since vineyards had sufficient water reserves to see them through the dry spell until harvest. But it’s not quite that simple. Vines dislike extremes, especially the jolt from very wet to very dry. They have no time to adapt to the new environment. Imagine if you were ordered to drink all the water you wanted from Monday to Thursday, but could not drink anything from Friday to Sunday. Wouldn’t you prefer to drink a little each day?
With plenty of nitrogen in the soils, the vines developed large canopies and, to use Lafleur’s winemaker Omri Ram’s vernacular, could easily become “sugar machines.” This risked divergence between sugar and phenolic ripeness levels and often presented vineyard managers with a dilemma: pick early and avoid high alcohol or pick later and accept it. How chefs de culture tended their vineyards in this warm, dry period, when they decided to pick, and how they treated the concentrated, sugar-rich fruit in the winery all determined individual success or failure in 2018.
Umbrellas up visiting Coutet during primeur that year. Photo copyright Johan Berglund.
How the Wines Were Tasted
With my fortnight tasting in Bordeaux canceled at the last moment, my key was barely in the front door when samples began washing up on my doorstep, no doubt expedited by concerns over impending Brexit. Like last spring, the steady deluge resulted in the largest in-bottle Bordeaux report that I have ever authored, encompassing over 1,000 wines, many of them tasted multiple times. In addition, I was able to decant and assess some of the bottles over 24 and sometimes 48 hours, revealing aspects of wines that would have been impossible to see in a fleeting Bordeaux visit. Though I eschew Zoom conversations that are little more than sales pitches, I have included those that add insight to my review.
General Overview of 2018 Bordeaux
The expanded number of wines in this report afforded me a more representative picture of how Bordeaux performed in 2018. Vintages judged solely by the performance of top estates will inevitably skew average scores upward and color one’s overall impression. True quality is determined by consistency down through the ranks of the hierarchy, which underpins the reputations of, say, 2005 or 2016. Top estates blessed with the deepest pockets have become almost insulated from the ups and downs of growing seasons. A truer litmus test is the performances of châteaux exposed to the caprice of Mother Nature and whose wines are molded by its challenges.
So how about the vintage in question?
Firstly, the overall style of 2018 is that it is concentrated, ripe, and finishes powerfully, with firm tannins and markedly high alcohol levels. The 2018 vintage is bold and brassy. It is not an elegant vintage compared to others and does not possess the subtleties of 2016 and possibly 2019. In essence, the 2018s pack a punch. There are similarities to the 2009 vintage, but with finer tannins and in many places even higher alcohol levels. Indeed, I had forgotten just how high the alcohol levels are on the Right Bank, a majority measuring in excess of 14.5% and numerous examples stating 15.0% on the label but tasting even higher. Basically, the 2018 is going to be ideal for anyone wishing to get drunk or drown their sorrows. Of course I’m being facetious; it is more than that.
The 2018 vintage exaggerates the differences between the haves and the have-nots. Those with great terroirs and those getting by with what they have; those practicing meticulous vineyard husbandry and those who cut corners; those prepared to pick at the optimal moment and those who play safe and pick at the earliest opportunity; those with modern wineries and those with only rudimentary tools at their disposal. These factors wedged a gap in quality, none more than quality of terroir. The dryness of the growing season amplified the differences from one terroir to another and winemakers’ decisions pried them further apart, when doubtless their intention was the opposite. While top châteaux could essentially take the 2018 growing season in their stride, to the point where they had to resist intervention and doing too much, other estates felt compelled to buff up a good wine into a great wine through winemaking techniques. The skill and experience of the winemaker came into play, and this enabled some small châteaux to conjure splendid wines that represent outstanding values, while others made a pig’s ear of it.
In 2018, you do not have to step too far away from the best terroirs to find that quality dropped off faster than you might have hoped. This is not something I relish writing at a time when many estates worry about their future; however, it is the truth.
In terms of the performances of each appellation, I found little to distinguish between the Left Bank and Right Bank, so I approach each in turn, starting with the former.
Saint-Estèphe put in a solid performance, partly due to its higher proportion of clay soils, which retained more water compared to the free-draining gravel soils elsewhere. There is also the yawning width of the Gironde, whose waters help moderate summer temperatures compared to, say, the urban setting of Pessac-Léognan. Pauillac was also advantaged by deep gravel croupes that helped drain water during the sodden first half of the year, though these could handicap younger vines during the long dry stretch. At times, the best Pauillacs, such as Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, Grand Puy-Lacoste and Mouton-Rothschild, made it look easy. Following the retirement of Philippe Dhalluin, I caught up with the new team at Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Ariane Khaida is now in charge of all Baron Philippe de Rothschild estates, and Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy is now technical director of their French properties. “I think the vintage demonstrates how Cabernet Sauvignon can handle dry conditions,” Danjoy explained. “But there was a lot of mildew pressure. You have to go back to the Seventies to find the same levels. The loss was most severe for the Merlot and lesser vineyards, so that in the end we cropped at 28hl/ha for Mouton-Rothschild.” I also admired the sublime 2018 Lafite-Rothschild that demonstrates the maxim of “less is more.” They are one of several estates releasing a commemorative bottle in 2018. Lafite-Rothschild celebrates 150 years of ownership by the de Rothschild family at Lafite, while Talbot marks a century under the Cordier family and Sociando Mallet and a half-century since its acquisition by the late Jean Gautreau.
Spot the balloon.
Saint-Julien is ever reliable even without the peaks that distinguish 2010 or 2016. There remains plenty of choice for those seeking decent claret. Predictably, Léoville–Las Cases and Ducru-Beaucaillou deliver superb 2018s that should give 20–30 years of drinking pleasure. (Readers should note that Bruno Borie had reorganized his properties since I tasted them from barrel with the introduction of Le Petit Ducru de Ducru-Beaucaillou, a Saint Julien, which is essentially Lalande-Borie augmented by younger vines from the Ducru-Beaucaillou vineyards (La Croix and Ducru). The Ducluzeau (Listrac) is now incorporated into the new Haut Medoc cuvée, Madame de Ducru-Beaucaillou.) Scanning my tasting notes, in 2018 there are hardly any Saint-Juliens that disappoint; by the same token, none made me sing hallelujah.
The headline in the Margaux appellation is the sui generis that is Palmer, or, to use Thomas Duroux’s words, a freak. It dazzled not only with its complexity and audacity, but because no 2018 came close in terms of blossoming over not just 24 hours after opening, but 48 hours. I penned my tasting note and ruminated over this wine for many hours, finally nailing my colors to the mast and deciding that while I had erred on the side of caution from barrel, since it could easily have tipped over into something quite vulgar, in bottle it reveals itself as a legend in the making. Although I was familiar with the background, I spoke to Duroux, and our candid conversation gave me a deeper understanding about this 2018.
Chatting to Palmer winemaker-cum-risk-taker Thomas Duroux via Zoom.
“It is a story of blood, sweat and tears,” Duroux told me. “We started losing control in early July and were looking at a reduction in crop of 20–25%. Then we received an incorrect weather forecast and on July 5, when we thought it would be sunny, we had showers. Around July 14–15, we suffered widespread brown rot that affected the berries before véraison. It was like a nuclear attack. We were left with one bunch per vine, and in some plots there were nothing. I phoned the owners and explained to them what had happened. Then, from the end of July it was dry and sunny with cool nights, just perfect. We picked at 11hl/ha, around 600hl in total, with no Alter Ego. It is an atypical Palmer in terms of grape varieties. The rot severely affected the Merlot, so there is just 40%, with more Petit Verdot at 7%, and the rest is Cabernet Sauvignon.”
I asked Duroux how he approached the vinification, expecting the same “softly, softly” approach I heard from every other winemaker. Au contraire:
“As you know, I am usually cautious with extraction. But with the 2018, I did more extraction than I would have done for a great vintage of Palmer. I just thought, we have to let it go. It was like a wild horse. It couldn’t be tamed. It was a risk because it could have become completely unbalanced. Yet there was a velvety texture and I could still see the DNA of Palmer.”
You could say that Bordeaux has become more risk-averse in recent years. There’s too much money at stake, and few head winemakers are now willing to risk losing their crop or job for the chance to make a wine that pushes boundaries and ends up a legend like the 1947 Cheval Blanc. But long after I’m gone, the cognoscenti will be talking about the 2018 Palmer in exactly those terms.
Château Margaux’s managing director Philippe Bascaules chatted over Zoom and provided some interesting insights.
“Mildew was the biggest challenge during the growing season, sensitive in some blocks and not others. But the best blocks were much less affected, so we maintained the same percentage of Grand Vin, around 36% of the production. Then from mid-July to mid-September there was just 16mm of rain, one of the driest ever. Fortunately, this stopped the mildew completely, even though we would have liked more rain. There was just a little at the end of September. We picked from September 17 with the Merlot, which was high in sugar, but we waited until October 10–13 to pick the Cabernets.”
I asked Bascaules about whether soil type made a big difference. “Usually, the clay soils are very successful in vintages like 2018,” he replied. “But it was in these types of soils that we produced wines with too much tannin.”
He then went on to compare the 2018 with the 2005 vintage. “[Both] wines are very concentrated, so I was a little afraid of their evolution. In 2005 there was a little more acidity than in 2018 as the temperatures were not quite so high. Yet it was much more massive and full-bodied, with more tannins than 2018. Tannins are finer and more integrated in the 2018 because of the higher temperatures. In 2005 we were seeking concentration and power whereas in 2018 we selected the lots based on their elegance and freshness. There were two lots that usually enter the Grand Vin that we left out because they were too tannic. Maybe we extracted too much in 2018, and the one thing we learned is that we need more infusion for some blocks and to stop pumping over. This is something we applied in 2019 and 2020. In the future we will have more vintages like 2018, so we have to adapt.”
The 2018 Château Margaux offers everything you want from this First Growth, demonstrating a little more precision and complexity compared to the 2017, though without the panache of the 2016. Elsewhere there are strong performances from Rauzan-Ségla, Malescot St. Exupery, Brane-Cantenac and Cantenac Brown, while Desmirail and Siran both offer fantastic value for the quality.
I made a special effort in terms of Listrac and Moulis-en-Médoc. Located further from the Gironde estuary, at around 3km from its waters, these vineyards do not have the same degree of temperature moderation, which potentially made controlling the accumulating sugar levels more challenging. That was certainly borne out in my tastings, which ranged from the sublime to the, well, ridiculously unripe. There are excellent examples courtesy of Château Clarke, Fourcas-Borie, and Lestage. Highlights in Moulis really center around Poujeaux and Branas Grand Poujeaux, whose deep Günz gravels over clay afford them superior terroir in terms of moderate water reserves, not unlike Pomerol.
The 2018 vintage is less consistent in Médoc and Haut-Médoc. As sugar levels threatened to go through the roof, many producers could not benefit from the mitigating influence of gravel/clay soils compared to those closer to the estuary on gravel croupes. Tasting some of the poorest 2018s was a reminder that many estates churn out average or faulty wines because low price stymies investment, or because they are unmotivated by quality. On the other hand, plenty are reminders that when it puts its mind to it, Bordeaux is a wellspring of wines of exceptional quality and unbeatable prices at decent quantities.
The Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc gives an opportunity for any estate to gain official classification, providing a guarantee to consumers that their wine meets a certain standard. The 2018 Cru Bourgeois classification is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the introduction of a three-tier grading system, in ascending order: Cru Bourgeois (179 châteaux), Cru Bourgeois Supérieur (56) and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel (14). Secondly, instead of an annual reclassification, the 2018 classification will remain in situ for the next five years. Olivier Cuvelier, current President of the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc, explained how applicants submitted wines from five vintages between 2008 and 2016 to be assessed by an independent body of tasters. This classification will remain in place until 2022, when the properties must submit the five vintages between 2017 and 2021, and it will continue in this way going forward.”
It is always a thrill finding hitherto unfamiliar château that over-perform. I loved this Médoc Cru Bourgeois.
I put it to Cuvelier that theoretically, a member could release a substandard 2018 and retain their ranking, since the classification is based on previous vintages. “That’s true,” he replied. “But we had to start somewhere.” He went on to say that the body will randomly check two vintages between 2017 and 2021 and if quality falls short, then they could revoke the classification for 2018. This has consequences because that producer would then be ineligible to apply for classification in 2022, since 2018 must be one of the vintages submitted. There were Cru Bourgeois that, to my palate, displayed obvious winemaking faults: green tannins, imbalance, not to mention clumsy use of oak and, in one or two cases, brettanomyces. As Cuvelier said, the assessment is conducted prior to the wines being bottled, like en primeur, so it is feasible that something went awry during the remainder of the barrel maturation. Even so, I believe the bar should be set higher or the classification risks losing credibility. On a positive note, this selection of wines did throw up some really wonderful examples. Below I list 12 of the standouts from the 2018 vintage, not necessarily all Cru Bourgeois.
2018 Arnauld (Haut-Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois Exceptionel
2018 Devise d’Ardilley (Haut-Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois
2018 Girolate (Bordeaux AC)
2018 Grand Puy Castéra (Haut-Médoc)
2018 La Cardonne (Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
2018 Clos Manou (Médoc)
2018 Noaillac (Haut-Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
2018 Peyrabon (Haut-Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois Supérieur
2018 Prieuré de Beyzac (Haut-Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois
2018 La Tour de By Héritage Marc Pagès (Médoc)
2018 La Valière (Médoc) – Cru Bourgeois
2018 Villa Carmin (Médoc)
Pessac-Léognan/Graves was less consistent vis-à-vis other appellations. That is partly because many properties occupy less propitious terroirs where the very wet and then dry growing season seemed to discombobulate the vines, which translated into the final wines. There are pockets of excellence, but scanning my tasting notes, there are a few misfires, including one or two from well-known estates.
The dry white 2018s are generally good, but I found fewer riveting wines with nervosité and tension, which is logical when you consider the warmth of the growing season. Even the 2018 Haut-Brion Blanc, which I tasted over 24 hours, was a fine Sauvignon Blanc blend. Yet tasted blind in a lineup, would I pick it out as a brilliant expression of the variety? I’m not sure. That was thrown into sharp relief by the superior 2018 La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, principally because the higher proportion of Sémillon imparts greater complexity. The variety handled the warmth better than Sauvignon Blanc, which thrives in cooler conditions. This is hands down the best dry 2018 white. Elsewhere, yes, there are notable successes, such as the Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Latour-Martillac Blanc, Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Château de France Blanc and Malartic-Lagravière Blanc. All are excellent wines, even if none of them thrilled me to the core; these châteaux have made better vintages in recent years. Moving on to the reds, again, there are notable successes from the likes of Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Smith Haut-Lafitte, Malartic-Lagravière and Pape-Clément. Their challenge was to contain the precocity of the growing season and control the Merlot, which could overwhelm the Cabernet side of the blend and lead to a loss of definition and terroir expression. The above listed châteaux managed to do that, even if the wines do not equal their 2016 counterparts. I would add that it was good to see a fine white and red from Château Olivier, which hopefully bodes well for the future.
Examining my scores for Pomerol, it seems clear that producers whose vines comprise a good proportion of Cabernet Franc had an advantage; likewise those occupying a prime spot on the Pomerol plateau. Free-draining gravel soils intermixed with clay are good at controlling underground water levels compared to the sandier soils that form the plateau’s lower reaches. However, it is not as binary as you would think. As I will highlight later, there are a clutch of less familiar names away from the plateau that performed well in 2018.
The remnants of some bottles were tasted again at dinner to see how they performed. Whether Le Pin deserved my homemade chicken and leek pie is another matter.
Fiona Morrison MW, at Le Pin, averred that the key to the 2018 vintage was that the summer was dry, but not too hot. “You had to have the means to act quickly if you wanted to be precise,” she explained. “It was not a deck-chair vintage like the 2016. You had to work in order to keep things simple. It is a vintage where the Cabernet Franc gives the wines beautiful lift. You also had to reduce the pumping over and instead just wet the cap. You could easily overdo it. We have also reduced the alcoholic fermentation temperature. Five years ago we fermented at around 32°C whereas now we reach a maximum of around 28°C. Another change is that 2018 is the first Le Pin not aged entirely in new oak. I’m not sure how it changes the wine directly, but rather, it’s more a feeling of the wine being tamed, perhaps.”
“The vintage was like 2016 but with more rain and more heat. But it was not the heat that is a major influence but the dryness,” remarked Omri Ram directly from Lafleur. “Clay theoretically holds more water than gravel, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – the clay terroir is not necessarily a savior of the vintage. The vines on clay are comfortable in the wetter conditions but find it more difficult to adapt when there is a dry spell. Winter and spring were not cold, so the soils began to heat up early and started mineralizing organic matter and creating a lot of nitrogen in the vines, so they were almost over-nourished. The vines developed big canopies, and they become like sugar machines when you have a lot of heat, unless the dryness blocks the ripening cycle. Some growers don’t mind that. But if we have to choose, we don’t want them to get blocked, and you can see that on the alcohol levels of the wines. Great Pomerol vintages have high levels of alcohol, so it is not necessarily the ‘new normal,’ and in 2018 we still have freshness and balance. In the second half of the season, in the dry conditions, the berries became smaller and naturally concentrated, synthesizing a lot of polyphenols, as there was a lot of sunshine, which is why it is a tannic vintage.”
This is a great Lafleur, without question, though I need to see a little more earth-shattering complexity on the finish in order to place it on the mantelpiece alongside 1982 or 2010. I should point out the quality of the Les Pensées de Lafleur, which can sometimes approach the Lafleur. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better second wine than this.
What is there left to say about the 2018 Petrus? Well, maybe that the sample landed on my doorstep while I was out buying some lettuce from the supermarket. I considered a Zoom chat with winemaker Olivier Berrouet, but – no disrespect to him – the wine says everything. It disproves the notion that you had to possess Cabernet Franc to create the finest Pomerol. The blue clay soils masterfully regulated water reserves to the vines above. There is something audacious about this Petrus, not unlike the vintage exactly 20 years earlier. You just have to stand back and marvel at a strong contender for wine of the vintage.
If you are not a multimillionaire, there are plenty of alternatives. Not to claim they are inexpensive by any means, but two wines challenge the Petrus/Pin/Lafleur triumvirate: a Trotanoy that is astonishing in terms of detail and energy, and La Conseillante, where I feel winemaker Marielle Cazaux has given the wine greater identity in recent years. Not far behind this pair there is a very impressive Clinet that has gained sinew and backbone since I tasted it from barrel. There are plenty of other Pomerols that performed strongly, such as Clos de Clocher and La Fleur-Pétrus. I expected more from L’Evangile, which should be competing at the highest level. Certan-de-May continues to show evidence of greenness. Once off the Pomerol plateau, quality does become very inconsistent, although there are fine contributions from the likes of Bellegrave and Clos René.
Saint-Émilion, a vast and varied appellation, highlighted the bifurcation in quality between those vineyards blessed with great terroir on the limestone plateau, the côte or the gravel protrusions from Pomerol, and those that make do on flatter or sandier soils. This does preclude the latter from producing excellent wines, and I hope this report helps readers sort the wheat from the chaff among the lesser-known estates. Winemaking decisions underpin success and failure in 2018. There were numerous occasions when a wine had clearly been picked at the wrong time and fallen short of phenolic ripeness, and instances of excessive maceration, excessive high temperatures or pressing too hard, or a preponderance of new oak. When I did encounter a wine where the correct decisions were made, they shone like rubies in the sand.
Jean-Antoine Nony at Grand Mayne explained the challenges. “The window to spray the vines was small and our [spraying] machine was broken. Fortunately, the Cabernet Franc showed good resistance to the mildew. We had one row of Merlot next to a row of Cabernet Franc. The Merlot was badly affected, whereas the Cabernet Franc was untouched. This explains why we have 33% Cabernet Franc in the final blend.” Certainly, just like in Pomerol, those estates with higher percentages of Cabernet Franc had an advantage, the grape variety’s later picking extending the hang time by a few days, which can make all the difference.
There has been much ado about the shift in style toward more elegant, terroir-driven wines. Like a shoal of tuna changing direction, there is a collective desire for less powerful/extracted wines. But the question is whether the 2018 growing season made that possible, since many wines exceed 15.0° in alcohol. While I concede that today the tannins are finer and less brutish, it does not alter the fact that cruising at this level of alcohol shapes the resulting wine. Maybe that is better than picking early and afflicting your wine with vegetal notes; I would rather drink a balanced wine with high alcohol than one with hard, green tannins. But ideally, I’d like my wine somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
Assuming you can abide the high alcohol levels, Saint-Émilion has plenty to offer. Most of the top estates delivered sumptuous, pure, ravishing, precise wines burgeoning with floral aromatics and opulent sweet fruit, often black cherries, wild strawberry, blood orange and blueberries. The roll call of most successful wines is predictable, so I make no apologies for singing the praises of Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Bélair-Monange, Canon, Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, Angélus, Clos Fourtet, La Gaffelière, Péby-Faugeres, Troplong Mondot and Valandraud.
There is a cluster of excellent wines that are off the beaten track but represent great value. Given the number of Saint-Émilion 2018s, I have parsed out a not-so-dirty dozen that should be on your shopping list:
Clos de Sarpe
La Fleur d’Arthus
Faurie de Souchard
Les Grandes Murailles
Do not ignore the numerous Right Bank satellite appellations, especially Fronsac. I will also draw your attention to the debuting cuvées from Marjosse, Pierre Lurton’s family estate in Entre-Deux-Mers. There is a very Burgundy-like ethos here, subdividing the vineyard into specific terroirs or grape varieties. Some of them were particularly successful. (Hats off to the eye-catching ornithological labels.)
To assist readers, I select two wines from each Right Bank satellite appellation that deserve the spotlight:
Bergerac/Côtes de Bergerac: Thénac and Expression from Le Clos du Breil
Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux: Haut-Bertinerie and Cuvée Absolu from Château Bourdieu
Bordeaux Supérieur/Bordeaux AC: Croix Mouton and Puygueraud Blanc
Cadillac-Côtes de Bordeaux: Château du Payre and Carat de Château Réaut
Canon-Fronsac: Château du Gazin (not the Pomerol!) and the Cuvée Préstige from Château Barrabaque
Castillon-Côtes de Bordeaux: Dubois-Grimon and Veyry
Côtes de Bordeaux: Le Doyenné and Cuvée Préstige from Château Pilet
Côtes de Bourg: Roc de Cambes (otherwise, this AC was a little underwhelming)
Francs-Côtes de Bordeaux: Infini de Château de Francs and Les Charmes-Godard
Fronsac: La Dauphine and Fontenil
Lalande de Pomerol: Sergant and Les Cruzelles
Lussac-Saint-Émilion: L’Envolée de Château la Grande Clotte and La Rose Perrière
Montagne-Saint-Émilion: Vieux Château Saint André and Messile-Aubert
Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion: Cuvée Sélection Parcellaire from Château des Laurets and Durand-Laplagne
Sauternes has to fight for column inches, visits and sales. It is ironic how the most successful run of vintages coincides with the continued, seemingly immovable apathy toward its wondrous golden wines. It was the first year ever where I had not traveled down to the region to examine the wines myself. They also experienced a growing season of two halves, many losing a lot of production from mildew in spring and later in July, not to mention a devastating hailstorm on July 15 (ergo no 2018 Guiraud and barely a thimble of de Fargues). Summer was fine and dry, leading to an almost leisurely-paced ripening. Showers on October 14–15 and heat during the following week prompted the major round of botrytis and the resulting concentration. Residual sugars are mainly between 115 and 135g/L, though yields languish at 5–12hl/ha.
Overall, the Sauternes performed better than I estimated from barrel, many exhibiting fine purity, freshness and satisfying botrytis levels. At their best, wines like Coutet, Suduiraut and Clos Haut-Peyraguey should age well in bottle, though there are few candidates for long-term cellaring.
The 2018 vintage would have provided a very different set of wines a decade earlier, probably akin to a super-charged 2009. Excessiveness has been reined in by a different mindset, particularly on the Right Bank, where winemakers pursue more elegance, freshness and terroir expression. It is certainly a very good vintage, outstanding in some places, though with one notable exception, the growing season precluded wines that genuinely approach perfection. The vintage will appeal less to those seeking “cooler” wines with lower alcohol levels. The best should mature well in bottle because they possess balance and purity of fruit, but since quality drops outside the best terroirs, choose carefully.
These 2018s enter a market buffeted by a global pandemic on one side and US tariffs on the other – tariffs that appear to have little chance of being withdrawn under the new administration. Bordeaux winemakers must fight in an increasingly competitive global market against regions unencumbered by appellation rules, despite the recent move to permit several other grape varieties. And Bordeaux can seem dowdy compared to other regions; it does not exude the artisan spirit that defines Burgundy. So there are serious challenges ahead. But the bottom line is that Bordeaux is producing more excellent wines than ever, and there has never been a better time to be a Bordeaux-lover.
The future is definitely not what it was. But you can guarantee there will be another vintage in 12 months’ time.
(Thanks to Bill Blatch for background information on Sauternes.)
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