The Future’s Not What It Was: Bordeaux 2018


Left Bank: Margaux | Pauillac | Pessac-Léognan | Saint-Estèphe | Saint-Julien | Satellites 

Right Bank: 
Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Sauternes | Satellites 

“L’avenir est comme le reste: il n’est plus ce qu’il était” – poet Paul Valéry (1937)

The opening quotation translates as: “The future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be.” It pertains to this article on multiple levels. Firstly, the macro environment and the issue of global warming. No, we will not see Greta Thunberg sailing down the Gironde quite yet, but unusually dry and hot growing seasons have become the norm, and in conversation with winemakers, I notice how even the most skeptical accept that it is not passing phase. Warmer temperatures will shape future practices required to counter higher alcohol and lower acidity levels. Secondly, the quotation applies to the economic factors that confront the en primeur system. Châteaux withholding stock and withdrawing by stealth from the Place de Bordeaux; competition from ever-improving wine regions snapping at their heels; release prices that range from reasonable to comical; the changing role and consolidation of négociants; merchants cherry-picking primeur releases and ignoring the rest; fluctuating demand, consumer fatigue at yet another hyped vintage and the risk of oversupply; and don’t let’s start on the nasty surprise of 25% import tariffs. Thirdly, that phrase is apt on a personal level. For the first time in 20 years, I was prevented from attending the spring barrel tastings, by a spot of surgery. My future? It isn’t what I thought it would be.

Nevertheless, I resolved that once shipshape, I would report on the latest vintage; I would rather look back upon 2019 as a year when I had to postpone my primeur report, not cancel it altogether. Moreover, I had always entertained the idea of tasting barrels later in the year, given numerous winemakers imploring that their newborns taste better further down their élevage. Here was an opportunity to discover how true that is.

I spent two weeks in Bordeaux in late September as the secateurs were being sharpened for the 2019 harvest, enabling me to witness the new crop up close while judging the previous one. My trip was slightly shorter than usual, so the number of visits and tastings had to be rationed. I had no desire to hurtle from one château to another, squeezing in as much as humanly possible. A couple of estates were understandably occupied with the harvest and could not see me, but totting up the notes, only a handful of names are missing. (I will make sure they are included in my in-bottle report.) As usual, photographer-cum-wingman Johan Berglund was indispensable while driving the length and breadth of Bordeaux, and his photos adorn this report.

Tasting at Latour. The First Growth produced an outstanding 2018, although the château having withdrawn from offering their wines the following spring, it will not be available to buy for a number of years.

The Growing Season

I will not dwell on the growing season since Antonio Galloni has summarized it on Vinous already. Simply, 2018 falls into a type of vintage that is becoming more regular: Rainy in the first half, sunny in the second. I recommend reading Baptiste Guinaudeau’s analysis of patterns in the Pomerol section. Persistent rain caused intense mildew pressure that acutely affected organically and especially biodynamically farmed vineyards such as Château Palmer. Once you had survived the traumatic first part of the season, the vines enjoyed a blissfully hot and dry summer all the way through to harvest. There is only one point I wish to add to my colleague’s vintage summary. He made a crucial point that much success stems from wineries being equipped with various-sized vats that are smaller than in the past, enabling pickers to zone in on specific parcels at a specific time (as long as it’s not the weekend) and ferment those plots individually. The challenge is twofold. Firstly, picking earlier in the season, when there are more daylight hours, means that daily sugar accumulation is more rapid than if it were later; ergo, picking a day or two tardy may result in higher alcohol than intended. Secondly, the desired sugar level must be attained when the fruit achieves phenolic ripeness, which nowadays tends to lag behind due to shortened hang time. In some cases, I found potentially good 2018s marred by one or two vats that clearly contained green fruit.

Assessing wines further down their barrel maturation meant that in some cases I tasted the final blend, whereas back in March/April they would have been an estimation of that blend. I had to be mindful of when racking had been done, just like in Burgundy, and I accounted for the fact that the gestating wines would have absorbed more oak by that stage. Some growers opined that their 2018s had become “more serious” since en primeur. Then again, I am sure they prefer their wines flatter exactly at the time when journalists migrate down in spring.

The Wines

The 2018 vintage is very good to excellent in quality. However, it does not demonstrate the consistency of 2005 or 2016, and it lacks the pinnacles that mark 2010 and, again, 2016.

It is clear that 2018 is a flattering vintage and, coupled with the well-oiled promotional machine cranked up each primeur, I see how it prompted occasionally eulogistic reviews. The style of these, let us not forget, unfinished wines, with all their succulent ripe fruit and silky textures, renders them seductive. But I aver that Bordeaux should aspire toward more than sensory fulfillment. This is a vintage where I sought to look beyond the obvious tangible elements of the samples and focus on more intangible elements. Does the potential wine communicate the signature traits of the château? Does it translate the typicité of the appellation? Behind the sensory appeal, does it bestow an intellectual aspect elevating it above its peers and toward the pinnacles of those aforementioned vintages? Away from the hullabaloo and high production values of en primeur, tasting at a slightly slower pace in tranquil surroundings, one could really dissect the wines and probe winemakers face-to-face, objectively examine the samples in the context of the previous twenty vintages that I have appraised from barrel. This approach revealed a handful of genuinely astonishing 2018s. Others fell a bit short of the high expectations that are justifiably attached to wines where no expense is spared.

Scores never tell the whole story. Perhaps mine are lower than others and sometimes by a significant margin. That does not bother me; I tell it like it is. I mention this because the lower number can be misconstrued as a damning assessment when in truth, relative to recent vintages, I certainly view the 2018s in a positive light. I enjoyed them immensely and have no doubt they will bestow great pleasure. And yet there was not a single occasion when I encountered a barrel sample that intimated potential perfection. Not once. That is not being mean; it is just a sober evaluation. There are two further points that I will make. When I questioned winemakers further, on several occasions I noticed how their initial unbridled enthusiasm for 2018 did not exactly burst under questioning, but seemed to gently deflate, perhaps to a degree more commensurate with the quality of the wine. And a majority of winemakers believe that their 2019s are superior to 2018 due to slightly better pH. Having witnessed the harvest first-hand, I believe their optimism is not misplaced. I anticipate that superlatives lavished on the 2018s will not be quite so forthcoming once there is the next vintage to sell.

As usual, this report breaks down the vintage by appellation (links provided at the top of this page). But let’s briefly scan the market for Bordeaux. Rough seas ahead? 

The Market

Where do you begin? You cannot speak of a “successful” or “unsuccessful” campaign that corresponds to quality because merchants no longer get behind a good vintage across the board. Those days are gone. Most pick and choose wines that are well received and sensibly priced so that they can make a decent margin. Those estates will get their full backing. The rest? They are virtually ignored, left for some other muggins to try and sell. The sales that really count – i.e., from merchant to end consumer – never see the light of day. If you are privy to this information, the picture is stark black and white. Some wines fly out the door and others barely register a single sale, even the most famous names. This has been the trend for a few years; however, what is changing is that this cherry-picking buying strategy is filtering back up the chain to Bordeaux négociants and knocking at château doors. Whereas négociants have acted as a buffer between the consumers/merchants and properties, reality is beginning to bite and allocations are beginning to be politely refused. This does not apply to every property and certainly excludes the First Growths. Yet down the hierarchy there are furrowed brows as proprietors speculate where future demand will come from.

There is a perfect storm brewing on the horizon. China’s interest in primeur was fleeting, and I have heard numerous reports of cases piled high and gathering dust in warehouses. Europe and the UK are at a stalemate over Brexit. The United States imposed a 25% tariff on imported French wines under 14% alcohol, although I am led to believe this is based on the level stated on the label, giving as yet unlabeled bottles a way to avoid it. (How ironic that as Bordeaux winemakers move toward lower alcohol levels, a major market encourages them to state higher levels on the label.) Civil unrest in the important Hong Kong market has apparently led to a 40% drop in demand, and like everything else, there is no resolution in sight. The tumultuous world does not play well for buying futures where buyers look for stability and long-term returns. At the same time, the fact is that Bordeaux produces a lot of wine. There are 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018s to be sold, and it is not long until the 2019s hit the market. Something has got to give, because châteaux withholding stock is a short-term remedy to control supply and demand. The problem with that strategy is that consumers are aware that this stock will appear at some point, weakening incentive to buy en primeur. However, despite all the talk of Bordeaux’s imminent demise, the fact is that when wines are priced correctly, according to market conditions and not the aspirations of a château seeking to “reposition their brand”, then primeur and the distribution system works remarkably well. It all depends on the price. Simple.

Final Thoughts

This is my belated take on the 2018 Bordeaux vintage. Would I conduct a late primeur tasting again? I enjoyed the experience and appreciated the calmer and less frenetic atmosphere. I seek barrel samples that do not necessarily taste better, but samples that are more representative of the final wine. In that sense, tasting in September allowed a little more clarity in conjecturing how these 2018s may evolve, especially as they had had more time to settle after malolactics and rest in barrel. Having said all that, it is my intention to return to tasting during March/April next year because at the end of the day, advice is required before the wines are released for sale in the summer.

There is a clutch of great wines in 2018, for certain, though I am not inclined to garland it with a “greatest ever” tag. It is easy to get carried away by the new vintage, at least until the next one arrives. There is already excitement surrounding the 2019 vintage, and you can bet your bottom dollar that in a few months’ time, the sales pitch will be summed up by “2018-plus,” a phrase I heard on two or three occasions. However analytical you think en primeur tasting is, in truth much has to do with intuition, tasting a sample and feeling tingles down the spine. I only began to experience those sensations once I broached the Right Bank, and this put the Left Bank into context. It explains why my adulation and highest scores lean toward the Right Bank. And that is quite unexpected, because in a hot growing season, you would anticipate the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon to handle such conditions more adroitly.

But Bordeaux is full of surprises.

The future is never predictable and it certainly isn’t what it used to be.


Saint-Émilion delivers in 2018. If you want to talk about genuine “best wines ever made” or “pinnacles of achievement,” then this is where to come. Having heard talk of – and I quote – “ridiculous alcohol levels” from other quarters, I steeled myself for migraine-inducing blockbuster wines that never actually materialized.

What are the reasons for this? Firstly, it is true that Saint-Émilion winemakers took a long, hard look at their wines and are changing tack, sometimes in dramatic fashion, and none more so than a reinvented Troplong-Mondot. Earlier picking, less dogma about ultra-low yields, gentler skin macerations and more prudent use of new oak all combine to create a different style of Saint-Émilion. An identical growing season a decade ago would have produced swaths of super-concentrated, brash and bold alcoholic wines, a majority of which would not age well. Not in 2018. You can still make a sumptuous and sensual wine – there’s always a place for that – but there are few examples of top-heavy, over-egged wines that forget they are there to be drunk.

Pauline Vauthier popped in for a brief bonjour since she was in the middle of picking, leaving tasting duties to her father Alain and her brother Edouard.

The second factor is the influence of limestone-rich terroir. I cannot recall a vintage where the positive effect of limestone soils is so conspicuous in the nascent wines, partly for reasons stated in the previous paragraph. The limestone clearly enhanced natural acidity, lowered pH levels and effortlessly counterbalanced the richness of the wines. These soils elevated a clutch of Saint-Émilion wines to the highest quality level in 2018. The likes of Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, Ausone, Larcis-Ducasse and Canon are all exceptional and rank alongside the best of the last decade. Nicolas Audebert summed it up when I visited Canon, saying: “We wanted to keep the freshness and limestone expression. We have to find that balance. We don’t want to lose that classic style but still follow the climate.”

One other trend was how well some of the châteaux performed beyond the elite names. It is probably here where one finds the best value for money.

Here is a shopping list for you:

Clos Badon Grand Mayne
Clos de Sarpe Grand-Pontet
Faugères Poesia
Faurie de Souchard         Soutard
Franc-Mayne Tour Saint Christophe
La Gaffelière Villemaurine
Le Prieuré Yon-Figeac

Of course, given a wider range of châteaux from less propitious terroirs, either flatter or perhaps sandier, there is greater tendency toward overdone, labored wines that feel excessive and burdened by some alcoholic burn. That is expected. However, I would say that year on year I am finding more and more pleasurable Saint-Émilions, and it will be fascinating to see how winemakers navigate the future. To quote one: “I don’t want to make a wine just to get good reviews. I want to make a wine that I want to drink.” That should always be the way.


I broached Pomerol after visiting Saint-Émilion, so impressed by the latter that I feared Pomerol would not match up, since they are not advantaged by the limestone bedrock. But I was not disappointed. Pomerol has its own terroir on the gravel plateau and its blue clay soils, and it is here that, predictably, you find the best.

So let’s begin there. I dropped in at Petrus as the harvest was nearing completion, just two parcels still waiting to be picked. Olivier and Jean-Claude Berrouet were on hand to give their account of the vintage. “We started the harvest September 13 and finished September 27,” explained Olivier Berrouet, looking surprisingly chipper for a new dad. “It was a little more spread out although shorter than the 2017 [harvest], which was the longest. This was due to the véraison. It was a compilation of the best part of each vintage: 2015 was seductive, 2016 was more serious in terms of structure, and 2017 a different approach, elegant and aromatic, almost Burgundy style. The 2018s have good acidity and structure, fine textures and an approach that is easy to capture and to understand. It is very complete.”

Now, I am not inclined to dish out perfect scores simply because of a famous name. Petrus charts its own course; sometimes it is clearly the best in Pomerol, although that is not the case every year. However, Petrus is top of the pile in 2018. Interestingly, Olivier said that this wine had changed since en primeur and become “more serious.” That was obvious. This is not a flattering, sensual or even approachable Petrus evolving in barrel. It has backbone and structure and an uncommon sense of introspection for a Right Bank in this vintage. This cerebral wine might surprise those opening a bottle (let’s hope people still do drink it!) It is one of the few profound articulations of the growing season and it will rank among the many greats.

Tasting with Denis Durantou, with his daughter Noemie on the right, their assistant winemaker in the center.

It was great to see Denis Durantou at l’Eglise-Clinet with daughter Noemie, who is taking a much more active role in the running of his properties these days. He produced a stunning, almost profound 2018 l’Eglise-Clinet, one of the best that I have encountered in recent vintages, though in terms of value you cannot beat his crus from surrounding appellations such as La Chenade and Montlandrie.

Lafleur was my only visit separate from the two weeks in Bordeaux, since Baptiste Guinaudeau asked if I could visit outside the harvest. I rang the doorbell en route back from my family holiday in August so that my daughters could see what I do for a living. There was ample time to discuss the vintage with Guinaudeau and his right-hand man, Omri Ram. “For us, you must not forget the biggest change in the last 20 years is how winters have disappeared,” Baptiste Guinaudeau told me. “Winter always creates the base of the wine. In a way, it is more important than spring. We’ve seen this since 2016. That vintage was a huge experience, the first vintage with this kind of warm winter/spring. There was an average of 12°C in February instead of 9°C. It was an early and fast start. It was a very typical Bordeaux growing season. In two or three weeks in July, there was some water stress as the vines were not prepared, although it was not as severe as in 2016. In 2018 there was a smoother transition to the drier conditions in summer. We obtained tiny berries, about 1.2gm in size, with ripe skins and brown stems by the end of July. In fact, 2018 is one of the records in terms of IPT. It is almost like a California vegetative cycle.”

Guinaudeau made a fascinating analysis of the growing seasons that Bordeaux now experiences. “We now have three different types of vintages,” he told me. “Classical such as 2012 or 2014. The big ones like 1989, 2005 and 2010 that are solar ones associated with grape tannins. And a new type, such as 2016 and 2018, that combines punch and freshness with density from tiny berries, and the mouthfeel. In the 2016 and 2018 you can find a sense of brightness.”

Guinaudeau forewarned that his wines had just been racked and that his whites, Les Grands Libres and Grand Village Blanc, were possibly tight. Like Petrus, the 2018 Lafleur is a serious and perhaps even more backward Pomerol that obliges a decade in bottle. Of course, vineyards with a higher percentage of later-ripening Bouchet, a.k.a. Cabernet Franc, had an advantage in 2018 in terms of more hang time, offering winemakers a wider palette to play with. Cabernet Franc forms the heart of Lafleur, a grape variety that revels in a vintage where you must be prudent in the vineyard. On this point, note that while most of Bordeaux was frolicking down in Cap Féret that August, Guinaudeau was in the vineyard as usual. Readers should note an additional Lafleur – namely, the Les Perrières de Lafleur that is the new name for Acte G.

“It is a vintage that does not show off but has a lot of class,” Ronan Laborde explained when I called in at Clinet. The harvest was coming in at full pelt since rain was forecast for the following two days. “There is power and tannins. In two and a half months we had 100mm of rain, but it was concentrated in heavy storms, so that by the end of August we were praying for rain. The clay’s water-retaining capacity was vital, [as was] possessing a decent proportion of old vines.” The 2018 Clinet is cut from a similar cloth to Petrus insofar as there is surprising structure to this wine, allied with plenty of freshness. While it might just miss the breeding of the very best vintages that I have tasted, it is a class act. Similarly, on the same day visit to Vieux-Château-Certan, the harvest was being expedited before the rain, the sorters working frantically alongside Alexandre Thienpont in his trademark straw hat (the same one as pictured in my Pomerol book). “It was an usually dry summer,” explained his son Guillaume Thienpont, who is taking an increasingly prominent role at the château. “We did not have a drop of rain between early July and September, which caused hydric stress on the young vines. They struggled a bit. The Merlot was picked because of the dryness. It was quite concentrated and tannic, which was unusual. Cabernet Franc was round and soft... sexier. We had to put in more Cabernet Franc [into the final blend] in order to balance the Merlot. It made for a classic blend.” Both father and son opined that tastes much better now than during primeur and that the contribution of Cabernet is crucial, lending the wine more dimension and personality than it otherwise might have had.

Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont on one of the busiest days of the 2019 harvest at Vieux Château Certan.

“We made the wine we wanted to make. " Marielle Cazaux told me during a brief respite from the harvest at La Conseillante. “It is a complete wine.” I agree. This is a fantastic Pomerol with impressive depth and perhaps with more expressive Cabernet Franc than I have noted in the past.

Finally, Le Pin. “I love this 2018 Le Pin. It could not taste like any other wine,” Jacques Thienpont’s better half, Fiona Morrison MW, told me in the cuverie, the 2019 vintage foaming in a plastic tub.  Again, the structure appears to have developed since en primeur, the gravel-based vines imparting almost a Left Bank backbone to counterbalance fleshiness presented by the warm growing season. In a similar vein to Petrus and Lafleur, it is a surprisingly “serious” Pomerol that should age with style.

Right Bank Satellite

Although my selection was limited, in 2018 both Fronsac and Lalande-de-Pomerol impressed, harboring some of the best values you will see. Not unlike the trend in Saint-Émilion, I am finding Fronsac to be producing more elegant and less bombastic wines than in the past, although they will always be comparatively well-built and dense wines that warrant bottle age.


Saint-Estèphe is one of the most interesting appellations in Bordeaux right now. Calon-Ségur, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose have all changed hands for millions of euros in recent years, attracting huge investments from seemingly bottomless pockets. This northerly appellation recently saw the opening of its first hotel-restaurant, Maison d’Estournel, in the erstwhile residence of Louis-Gaspard d’Estournel. This sprucing up of Saint-Estèphe is contemporaneous with a raft of sensational wines that could be seen as the pinnacle of what the appellation can achieve. At their best, these wines are no longer shaded by First Growths peering down their noses from over the border in Pauillac. But of course, this is all irrelevant when it comes to assessing the latest crop. Shut out the now salubrious surroundings and expectations, and how do the wines perform against recent vintages? Well, it is not quite the shoo-in that I was anticipating. While there are unquestionably excellent wines, I am not convinced that they will ultimately surpass their 2016 counterparts. My caution derives from the fact that out of all the appellations, this was where I felt some of the high alcohol levels masked the signature of the individual estates.

My first appointment during my fortnight of tasting was at Calon-Ségur. The reconstruction of the château is now nearing completion; the surrounding gardens have been restored and the magnificent orangery spruced up. It looked stunning in the early morning sunshine. “The 2018 growing season was very different from the 2017,” winemaker Vincent Millet told me, flanked by estate director Laurence Dufau. “The 2018 had a very nice, dry and hot summer and fortunately our vineyard has a high proportion of clay [which retains water more efficiently than gravel]. The main problem was choosing the date of harvest in September and how to keep the phenolic maturity and the acidity. We modified the way to vinify in terms of decreasing the fermentation temperature to 26-27°C and changed the yeast in order to extend the alcoholic fermentation, which can stop in a rich environment. We decided to inoculate the tanks to push the malolactic fermentation straight after the alcoholic fermentation. We also modified the pump-over, which used to be twice per day, to a very short micro-oxygenation in the tank in order that we don’t extract too much and maintain the level of acidity.” 

There is no question that Calon-Ségur is competing with Montrose and Cos d’Estournel these days, and doubtless the team will oversee some incredible wines in the future. But tasting the wine twice, this is one instance where I felt that the alcohol held sway on the finish, obscuring the identity of this great estate. That’s not to say I dislike the wine. It’s just that I think the 2014 and 2016 have the edge, and the 2017 tasted alongside is no slouch! I understand that this is a contrary view, but let’s see how it performs in verticals and blind horizontals in years to come.

From Calon-Ségur I headed directly to Montrose, which has undergone top-to-toe investment since the Bouygues’s acquisition in 2004. Head winemaker Vincent Decup was on hand to present their latest wines. “It is the opposite of 2017, as it is a very exuberant vintage,” he said. “They are powerful and with a lot of density. We had three factors that reduced the yield: drought, coulure and the fact that our vineyard is now 100% organic, though this contributed only around a 15% loss. This all meant that the final yield for 2018 was 25hl/ha, 40% less than 2017. All the grape varieties were completely ripe and the size of berries very small, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon. The concentration was similar to 2009 and I feel that it is the most demonstrative wine I have made. The alcohol is around 14.7%" 

I have to confess that this was a step up in terms of precision and tension compared to the Calon-Ségur. It is endowed with unerring symmetry, a nascent pixel-like detail that – fingers crossed – will be carried through in bottle. Decup is an extremely talented winemaker, and with ever-increasing attention to detail at Montrose, they are moving further away from the backward, tannic monsters of times gone by. Will they be as long-lived? I think so.

Cos d’Estournel has enjoyed a fine run recently. As is customary, proprietor Michel Reybier and head winemaker Dominique Arangoïts joined me for the tasting. First, I asked Arangoïts about the growing season from his perspective.

“The 2018 vintage started with a rainy winter, around double the normal amount, so there was plenty of water. Budbreak was a little late, around April 6. Then the temperature increased, but it remained rainy, and so we were concerned about flowering. Fortunately it was warm during the night and it saved the flowering, but it did cause some mildew. June was rainy and then the weather changed completely in early July, when it became hot and warm. That was our dream. We had good water reserves and the vines needed this water. We had very good conditions for harvest, where we could wait [for phenolic ripeness]. One curious fact... When we started tasting the berries, the Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like Merlot with high sweetness. The Merlot looked like Cabernet as it still had freshness and energy. We started the harvest September 19 and finished October 6. We were able to cool the berries very quickly in our new facility. We modified the temperature, 26°C instead of 28°C, to maintain freshness.”

This is another extremely fine Cos d’Estournel, a step up from the 2017, although not competing with the otherworldly 2016 Cos d’Estournel that remains their apotheosis. It might be a little too decadent for my preference, and if you prefer, say, the 2009 over the 2010 Cos d’Estournel, then you might well pick the 2018 over the 2016. The 2018 is a formidable and beautifully constructed wine, though it will require a decade in bottle.

Lafon-Rochet and proprietor Basile Tesseron hit the headlines earlier this year when Tesseron announced that forthwith, he is stepping away from biodynamics in the vineyard. The reaction was predictably negative and seen as a backward step by some, but not by me. It is his vineyard and he can farm it however he wishes as long as the wine delivers in the glass. Speaking to Tesseron, it is not as if he is suddenly going to be dumping chemicals on his vines. He will use the minimal amount possible without risking his entire crop and livelihood. The 2018 was made by Lucas Leclercq, who left the property in July 2019. “In my opinion, [this is] the wine where we believe we are on the right track,” Tesseron told me. “The elegance, the fragrance, the expressiveness on the nose, also the length and structure are there. I hope that the wine keeps the fruit [throughout élevage]. We were constantly tasting the wines in the concrete vats, as it is important to have good oxygen, to keep the tannins and anthocyanins." I agree with Tesseron that this is a very great Lafon-Rochet, one of the best I have tasted, and one that does compete with the excellent 2016. Factor in the release price and you are looking at a very tempting buy.

Elsewhere, I did find Saint-Estèphe more inconsistent than expected. There are some wines that came across rather tough and alcoholic, where the sugar levels may have been excessive and not completely synced with the phenolic ripeness. Many winemakers expressed how choosing the picking date was tricky, and not everybody got it exactly right. But I must mention two “dark horses” that made excellent wines: Château Meyney, which has slipped up a gear in recent vintages, plus a very commendable Tronquoy-Lalande that does not deserve to be overshadowed by Montrose.


In 2018, Pauillac really pressed home their reputation, at least at the very top, with impressive wines courtesy of the three First Growths.

“It was an atypical vintage,” head winemaker Eric Kohler told me in the brand-new tasting room of Château Lafite-Rothschild, sorting tables stationed outside ready for the incipient harvest. “It was not difficult, but it was a lot of work because spring saw a bit of water each day that encouraged vegetative growth and high mildew pressure. We had a lot of storms with hail from the end of May until mid-July, though fortunately not here at Lafite. Unfortunately, Rieussec was impacted on July 15... during the World Cup final! It was an unstable climate and then it changed. It was dry and hot with a heat spike around August 8. By August 10 we needed water. We felt the growing season was not balanced, though the end was very good in terms of temperature and ensured perfect maturation. There was a bit more alcohol for the cuvées except for Lafite-Rothschild because of its terroir. It’s not a classic vintage because it is a bit excessive. People might say it’s too rich, but the results are great. Maybe it will not age as well as 2016, but you never know.”

The 2018 Lafite-Rothschild is certainly a great wine, though I would not go so far as to say that it is a masterpiece; my gut feeling is that that will come in the next few years, like a modern-day 1953. Pause for a moment to consider the alcohol level here: 13.3%. That is 1.5% below some Saint-Estèphe properties barely a few hundred meters away. Maybe this First Growth is traditionally less bombastic than those wines, yet it is imbued with intensity and a sense of drinkability that will stand it in good stead for the future.

“The risk was to make a big, massive wine,” Philippe Dhalluin explained when I popped in at Mouton-Rothschild. “In 2018 we had the best Merlot I have vinified since 2010, so a big majority is blended into Le Petit Mouton, since it does not blend so well with Cabernet Sauvignon. For us, the 2018 made extremely concentrated fruit. The yields were very low, 28hl/ha on average and with a lot of coulure in spring.  The berries were very small and dense, giving mass to the wines. But the tannins were very well integrated. In the beginning the profile reminded me of the 1995 that ended up a bit monolithic and the tannins not as mature as expected. We started picking at d’Armailhac on September 12 and finished October 3, Mouton-Rothschild starting September 10 and finishing the same day. We made sure the skins were fully ripe and fermented at 26-28°C to extract more easily. So the resulting wines are dense with no roughness.”

It was a splendid portfolio from Mouton-Rothschild, continuing a purple patch that is far more consistent than the wines preceding Dhalluin’s tenure. Le Petit Mouton is firmly establishing itself as a Deuxième Vin to be reckoned with, while d’Armailhac has become more serious in recent vintages.

I will not expend too much verbiage on Latour, since it will not be released on the Place de Bordeaux for a few years, though for comparison it is always included in my report. It is a superb Latour that flirts with the very best that Frédéric Engerer has overseen in recent years, although in my opinion, it does not surpass the stunning 2016 or legends such as 1982 or 2000. The one I would keep my eye on is the 2018 Les Forts de Latour, which is equal to many of the Grand Vins this vintage.

“I think we succeeded keeping enough freshness,” proprietor Xavier Borie opined at Grand Puy-Lacoste. “We picked a little earlier, encouraged by [technical director] Christelle Spinner. The cycle of grape maturity is maybe a bit shorter and the sugar content increased toward the end. We did a soft vinification as there was more alcohol, with just three or four light remontage each day.” Quite simply, if you like the classic style of this property, you are going to love the 2018. I am prudent with my score because I am not convinced that 14° alcohol sits as comfortably here as with other Pauillacs, but there was no sense of warmth in the nascent wine.

At Lynch-Bages, Jean-Charles Cazes was overseeing the final stages of a new winery that dominates the village of Bages and neatly blends the original buildings with a modern glass-paneled facade.  “We lost a bit of Merlot due to mildew,” Cazes told me. “The berry size was very small. At Haut-Batailley we are around 40-42hl/ha.” I enjoyed the 2018 Lynch-Bages very much, but it does not rank alongside the likes of 1989, 1990 or, for that matter, the brilliant 2016. It is made in a bold and slightly brash style that I appreciate, but it does not quite engage the intellect or exude finesse like Lynch-Bages at its very best.

I don’t know what is currently exciting Nicolas Glumineau more these days: the impending new album by The Cure or his 2018 Pichon-Lalande. Glumineau organized a mini-vertical of the Grand Vin in order to put the Pichon-Lalande into context. Though I pull no punches in opining that 2018 might not rank among the very best Bordeaux vintages, that does not apply at this address. Everything here is perfectly in place, managing to translate the character of the exuberant growing season while retaining the essence of Pichon-Lalande. If the bottled wine lands at the top of my banded score, or even beyond it, I would not be surprised.

Christian Seely was on hand at Pichon-Baron to guide me through the AXA Millésimes range that included their Sauternes, although I failed to note the absence of Petit-Village before it was too late. “The alcohol levels hover around 14 degrees. It was extraordinarily scary in the first half of the year because of mildew pressure. There was a question of luck, as it was so virulent. It was possible that you could arrive a couple of hours too late to be able to treat it effectively. Our yields were down at Pichon-Baron and after that everything was ideal. Summer was lovely with a wonderful September and October. There is something exuberant and almost untamed about the 2018s, whereas the 2016s are in a more classical mold.”


Saint-Julien put in a good, solid performance in 2018, so there’s nothing new there. Wine lovers would not expect it any other way. “It was a tough season,” said the ever-genial Philippe Blanc, technical director of Beychevelle. “I make parallels to the 2009 vintage. It was difficult until June with a lot of rain and high disease pressure, especially downy mildew. We lost 60% in one organic vineyard. After that the weather was perfect. There was just 4mm of rain in September. It was difficult deciding when to pick, as we were at the highest level in alcohol, but when we tasted the berries we could not find a good taste. So we didn’t start to pick, which is something I don’t regret. We actually started on September 18. I’m very happy with the wine. There is around 52% of the production in the Grand Vin.” This is a great Beychevelle, although its charming flamboyance just detracts from its typicité. I have a preference for the 2016 Beychevelle, but this will not lag too far behind.

Jean-Hubert Delon at Léoville Las-Cases.

At Léoville-Las Cases it was a pleasure to see Jean-Hubert Delon again, his voice still resonating with the timbre of Barry White (had the “Walrus of Love” been French). Interestingly, they reduced the level of pressed wine in 2018 to avoid any excess, a prudent move that resulted in an unusually floral bouquet for this estate, and a suppler finish that could render this more approachable than many recent vintages. That said, it often closes up after bottling, so I would not advocate cracking a bottle open for several years. Across the road at Léoville Poyferré, where Sara Lecompte Cuvelier has taken the reins following the retirement of Didier Cuvelier, I tasted the Grand Vin on two occasions. It is in the mold of recent vintages, quite rich and powerful, one sample showing slightly more dark chocolate character than the other.

François-Xavier Maroteaux has a tough job guiding Branaire-Ducru forward after the passing of his father, but Patrick Maroteaux would be proud of the job he is doing. “It has a little more Merlot than previous years,” he told me. “It kept a lot of fruitiness and it had a good balance with the Cabernet Sauvignon. It also gave us good yields, even in old parcels. Plots affected by frost compensated [with more vigor] in 2018. We had perfect weather conditions, so we took the opportunity to achieve maturity with every parcel and to pick exactly when we wanted. That’s easy when you have these kinds of conditions. The alcohol is one of the highest but the pH is one of the lowest. I think 2018 is a good ambassador for Branaire-Ducru.” What I like here is that they are finding a little more substance on the midpalate, more horsepower. Of course, the growing season itself would have gifted some of that, but it engendered one of the finest Branaire-Ducru wines that I have tasted from this estate, and they are only going to get better.

Unfortunately, Bruno Borie was away when I visited Ducru-Beaucaillou, but let’s be frank: the wines did all the talking. Tasting with his winemaking team, they opined that their 2018s are now more representative and show more elegance compared to en primeur. They are certainly superb wines that are bold and extravagant, yet the Grand Vin perhaps shows a little more composure than the La Croix de Beaucaillou at the moment. 

At Gruaud Larose, 50% of the vineyard is now biodynamic. Consequently, they had to tackle serious mildew pressure, and the yield was reduced to 36hl/ha. This is a very fine Saint-Julien, though I believe that current improvements will yield even better wines in the future. The same could be said at Talbot. Technical director Jean-Michel Laporte has not really had time to stamp his authority and implement serious changes, but I have no doubt that he will. A bit like Branaire-Ducru, this is a Saint-Julien that often lacks a bit of midpalate weight. The 2018 Talbot is definitely a step in the right direction, delivering noticeably more freshness and energy at this early stage. As I said to Laporte, this is a lovely Saint-Julien, but the fact is that the bar is now raised and Grand Cru Classés must strive harder and harder to put themselves in front of their peers. Talbot is an estate to watch over the next decade.

At Léoville-Barton/Langoa-Barton, they were finally putting up some signage to stop speeding past their estates – not that it seemed to be working during my frequent trips up and down the D2 artery. “It was extremely wet during the first part of the season,” Damien Barton told me. “It was a nightmare up to July 15. After that, it was totally stress-free apart from a little mildew pressure, but we got rid of that over a weekend. The maturity came slowly. You had to be careful in the cellar during the extraction since the alcohol was high. The pH was fine, slightly higher than usual. The wines were frustratingly closed early on but they changed very quickly after primeur.” Whereas in some years the gap between Léoville Las-Cases and Léoville Barton is close, in 2018 the latter clearly possesses greater backbone and breeding. I could have done without the slightly lactic finish, but I suspect that will disappear by the time of bottling and the result will be a splendid Léoville Barton.


Since the appellation of Margaux covers a comparatively large range of variegated terroirs, there is a wide variation in terms of quality.

Let’s begin with Château Margaux, one of the few estates that had begun the harvest when I visited. Philippe Bascaule took time out to escort me through their wines, briefly joined by proprietor Corinne Mentzelopoulos. “We hesitated as it rained a little in October before picking the Cabernet,” Bascaule explained. “We were surprised by the concentration. We eliminated some lots because they were too tannic. I think it will take time come together. The Grand Vin is around 14% but most importantly we wanted to conserve the balance of Château Margaux. Even the Pavillon Rouge might be tannic.” It is a typically svelte and sensual First Growth, opulent in style, but prudent winemaking curtails any excesses of the growing season. It is a luxurious rather than cerebral Château Margaux predestined to give maximum pleasure. Bascaule contained its power by diverting some of the Petit Verdot into the Pavillon Rouge, which as a result is one of the best that I have encountered from barrel. Moving on to the whites, I asked Bascaule about the background to the Pavillon Blanc de Château Margaux. “We picked one week in advance, like in 2017. We did not see any water stress for the white, but otherwise it was similar to that year and it has the same pH level of 3.10. I feel that Pavillon Blanc has found its style.” The Pavillon Blanc will undergo some changes down the road; Bascaule informed me that they have grafted some Sauvignon Blanc onto Merlot vines located on clay-limestone soils that they deemed unsuitable for Merlot. It is a superb 2018 that may well surpass the 2017, and bravo for bottling under Diam 30 closures to eradicate the risk of TCA.

At Brane-Cantenac, Henri Lurton summarized the season. “We had a big risk of downy mildew but we had a good flowering and we did not lose any grapes on the plateau. Summer was dry and warm. We tried to pick quite early to avoid excessive alcohol and finished with 13.4% alcohol with respect to the Grand Vin. Harvesting was very easy as the fruit was homogenous on the plateau.” This is a quintessential Brane-Cantenac that manages to express its own unique signature rather than the growing season, thanks to its gravel soils. It has a surfeit of freshness at this stage, although I suspect the 2016 will offer a little more in the way of complexity and breeding.

Alexandre Van Beek told me that they have undertaken extensive soil studies at both Château du Tertre and Giscours, concluding that the soils impart finesse in the former and power in the latter. Italian winemaker Lorenzo Pasquini has recently joined the team and Van Beek was clearly inspired by the new addition; he told me that they have begun picking the Merlots a little earlier and waiting longer for the Cabernets. I must admit I was looking for a bit more complexity with these two wines. I am not quite convinced that they will punch with the best Margaux once in bottle, although these growths do tend to improve once the cork is inserted.

Palmer was the most prominent château to suffer severe mildew in early July after constant rain upon the biodynamically farmed vines, resulting in a final yield of just 11hl/ha. Thomas Duroux was not a man to be beaten. He explained: “We had such a rich concentration of fruit, the key was to harvest each single part at the right time in order to obtain the phenolic ripeness. We took the time we needed. On paper this is the most powerful Palmer we have ever produced, but it is not a freak.” I agree insofar as I would not tag this Palmer as “exotic,” although it is incredibly intense. Duroux managed to keep a leash on the alcohol, which might have run out of control, and though I would favor a more classically styled Palmer, this has the substance and density to age with style.

Nicolas Audebert at Rauzan-Ségla pontificating on the 2018s.

Everything seemed to be happening at once when I visited Rauzan-Ségla, the early-picked Merlot entering the vat room while renovations of the surrounding gardens were in full swing. At the center of this maelstrom was estate manager Nicolas Audebert, the calm in the eye of the storm. “It was extremely tough at the beginning, with awful climatic conditions during spring and early summer. After that it was good,” he told me. “The challenge was to keep the volume to balance the concentration. We lost 30% of the production to mildew and so the vineyard manager was extremely stressed. We ended up with 28 or 29hl/ha instead of 40hl/ha but the result is interesting in terms of density, fruit and concentration.” It is intriguing to note how they managed to obtain more than double the yield of neighboring Palmer, which is surely down to biodynamics. But the resulting wine is outstanding, a “cool, calm and collected” Margaux with lovely hints of menthol toward the finish. Given its price on release, I can understand why this was one of the biggest sellers of en primeur.

The proprietor of Siran, Edouard Miailhe, told me: “The 2018 vintage is the year of mildew, since we had so much rain up until July 15. We had three hailstorms in the south of the Médoc, and the last one was on Siran and Giscours on October 10, fortunately when we had only two or three more days to pick. We cropped at 44hl/ha. Since the 2017 vintage, we are balanced [in terms of vineyard plantings] between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot by slowly increasing the former, so we now have 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot, the rest Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. We always make an elegant style of Margaux. I believe in the douceur of Margaux. That is what we look for.” This is a fast-improving estate (due for its own write-up once I can gather all the tasting notes together). It might not possess the flair of the 2016, being more linear in style, but given the same growing season, Siran would not have produced a wine that approaches this quality. Again, it has a much more reasonable price tag than its peers and therefore comes recommended.


I visited Haut-Brion just a few days before the passing of Jean-Bernard Delmas, who made every vintage between 1961 and 2003 before handing the reins to his son, Jean-Philippe. Three generations of the family have overseen this First Growth. Delmas simply continued the good work of his father, and the 2018s are no different. The Haut-Brion is certainly an impressive wine, although I find that the high, late summer temperatures, exacerbated by the urban location, just shave away some of the precision found in previous vintages. Going back and forth, it is actually La Mission Haut-Brion that could become the standout of the vintage. “The 2018 La Mission Haut-Brion is a mix between 2015 and 2016,” Delmas opined. “We had a warm year so you can feel the sun. But even if you have 14 or 15 degrees of alcohol you cannot feel heaviness. They are not jammy.” Moving on to the whites, Delmas said that the wood is less dominant than back in March but that the texture is softer. There was also a tweaking of the blend this year. “There is more Sauvignon Blanc in the blend because the Sémillon lacked acidity, so it was blended into the La Clarté.” Again, these are very fine wines, although it was not an ideal growing season to make dry white Bordeaux, and they are just missing the killer precision that separates the very good from the truly great.

Guillaume Pouthier at the reception at Les Carmes Haut-Brion in a momentary pause as the plastic cagettes arrive.

Down the road at Les Carmes Haut-Brion, winemaker Guillaume Pouthier was busy with the 2019 harvest at his “submarine” winery, which surfaced on the outskirts of Bordeaux city several years ago, replete with several innovations that distinguish this property from almost any other. This includes the use of whole bunches, a technique associated with Burgundy and yet rarely used in Bordeaux. (Indeed, when I broached the subject with another winemaker as a possible means of controlling alcohol levels in the future, he rubbished the idea, claiming that you could never risk putting unripe stems into the vat.) However, it does seem to be working for Les Carmes Haut-Brion, which includes 52% whole bunches in 2018. Perhaps it is the contribution of the Cabernet Franc, but stylistically this Pessac-Léognan reminds me of Lafleur in Pomerol, which is a comparison to be proud of.

“The 2018 Domaine de Chevalier is the best wine of my life,” Olivier Bernard rhapsodized. “I last said that in 2010. Since then we have a new cellar that from 2013 is installed with concrete vats and a new cellar equipped with wooden vats in both 2015 and 2017, an optical sorting machine and now half of the property is now biodynamic.” It is a superb Domaine de Chevalier. Whereas others seem to kowtow to the growing season, this takes it all in stride and feels fresh and disarmingly complex and persistent on the finish. Yeah... it might well be the best wine that Bernard has ever made.

“The 2018s were blended during May and racked in July,” winemaker Gabriel Vialard told me when I visited Haut-Bailly, which has what appears to be an impressive new winery facility taking shape and looming over the entrance. “It was a small crop so we had good concentration. The IPT is 86. In 2018 there is the structure of the 2010 but we do less pumping over these days. We have learned this since the 2013 vintage, that less can give as much or more precision.” In some ways, I feel that Haut-Bailly’s fuller and more opulent style marries well with this type of growing season. It is cut from a very different cloth than, say, Domaine de Chevalier, offering a velvety texture and succulence on the iodine-tinged finish. It’s almost a guilty pleasure, but you should have no guilt drinking this after a few years in bottle. Fabien Tietgen, Smith Haut-Lafitte’s head winemaker, explained: “It was a difficult vintage due to the mildew that first attacked at the beginning of April. We were always under pressure. As we are organic, we had to spray frequently, but it was difficult to be efficient. In June and May we had no windows to spray. We had a hailstorm in May, too, and that is why we ended up picking half the crop.” I loved this wine. In some ways, stylistically it is equidistant between Domaine de Chevalier and Haut-Bailly, marrying the opulence of the growing season with a sense of freshness, the draconian selection lending a sense of purity. The alcohol is kept within sensible limits, imparting drinkability. It should end up at the top of my banded score once in bottle. At Pape-Clément I tasted through the entire range of Bordeaux wines within Bernard Magrez’s constantly expanding portfolio, spread across what seems like every appellation. I enjoyed the 2018 Pape Clément, although I wanted to put the brakes on a bit.

With respect to the dry whites overall, I must confess than none really stood out. There are several delicious wines, but as I mentioned earlier, the growing season meant that while it was possible to pick early under ideal sanitary conditions, the wines were generally deprived of the nervosité of a truly great vintage.


Lacking the time to make my annual visit to Sauternes, I tasted the wines at a négociant’s premises, as well as at two or three châteaux. It is a good rather than great vintage for the Sauternais that boasts plenty of very decent sweet wines, yet nothing that really blew me away. I tasted the current releases of Yquem during my visit at Cheval Blanc. We first broached the two latest vintages of their dry white, Y de Yquem, and you will find both notes in this report for convenience. “It was a difficult year due to the spring. We had a little frost, but the major problem was in mid-July when we had a big hailstorm that damaged the Sauvignon Blanc in gravel and sandy soils. Therefore the quantity for Ygrec was low. We picked from August 23 to 28 and ended up with 14% alcohol and a pH of 3.15.” Meanwhile, Christian Seely explained: “We lost a lot of the crop to mildew earlier in the season. There were quite low yields since the botrytis did not really come as it was sunny and dry. Finally, we did three tries at just 5hl/ha and of that, only half represents the Grand Vin from the final two tries at the end of October and beginning of November. It was a tiny crop.”

Thanks to Johan Berglund for accompanying me on this trip. Photographs copyright Johan Berglund.

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