No elbows were needed at this year’s annual Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) tasting in London, and the Leoville Barton didn’t run out – the new tasting environment for the assessment of the Bordeaux 2018 vintage was seated, took five hours with 130 wines tasted. Our man at the tasting, Geoffrey Dean, selects the best wines, appellation by appellation as well as gets the views from 13 of the top châteaux owners on where lies the strengths and weaknesses of Bordeaux 2018.
“Hailed as a great year by certain Bordelais, the wider consensus is that it has produced some outstanding and indeed exceptional wines, but not across the board,” writes Dean.
The annual October Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) tasting in London was like no other: not a single Bordeaux producer in attendance, and all tasters seated at individual tables so as to observe social distancing. It was, therefore, not the usual scrum, and with five hours allotted to taste the 130 wines on show, it was a great opportunity to get truly to grips with the 2018 vintage. Around half of the classed growths in the Medoc made their wines available although the percentage was a little higher for their Graves and Saint-Emilion counterparts.
Hailed as a great year by certain Bordelais, the wider consensus is that it has produced some outstanding and indeed exceptional wines, but not across the board. Climactic conditions ensured this, notably with white wines, both dry and sweet, which did not reach the heights of some of the reds. Parts of the Left Bank dazzled – notably Margaux and Saint-Julien – but it appears to have been more of a Right Bank year.
What is undeniable is that weather conditions in 2018 were far from straightforward, with all sorts of extremes that both threatened and assisted quality grape production. Hailstorms in May and July caused damage, with a big one falling on the same day France won the football World Cup. A very wet winter was followed by a particularly damp spring, with rain lasting through till the latter half of June. This meant that one of the five conditions for a perfect red wine vintage, as laid down by the Oenological Research Unit from the Institute of Vine and Wine Science at Bordeaux University, could not be met: namely no significant rainfall after fruit set.
Downy mildew was a major problem throughout much of Bordeaux, with yields reduced accordingly. Christian Seely, general manager of Pauillac second growth Château Pichon Baron, admitted that “mildew pressure was so virulent that it was extraordinarily scary.” Organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards were especially badly hit, with Margaux third growth Château Palmer’s yield cut to a mere 11 hl/ha. By contrast, neighbouring estate Château Rauzan-Segla, which is conventionally farmed and could spray against downy mildew, produced 28 hl/ha (down from a normal yield of 40 hl/ha). Timings of sprayings were still crucial, with Seely declaring that being out by as little as two hours could prove too late.
Crucially, though, flowering, which began in late May under satisfactory conditions, was thankfully quick, ending within ten days with very little ‘coulure’ (where small berries fall off due to shrivelled stems). The timing was fortunate as rain then fell from 9-18 June before sunny weather arrived for most of the rest of the month.
What now made the vintage was wonderful sunny and dry weather from early July till late October, with above average sunshine hours and temperatures for that period. All the black grapes reached optimum ripeness and could be harvested at winemakers’ time of choosing with no risk of dilution or rot. Total acidity levels were not an issue thanks to the water reserves from the wet winter and spring. Patrick Maroteaux, whose family co-owns St-Julien fourth growth, Branaire-Ducru, declared that “the alcohol is one of the highest but the pH is one of the lowest.”
Etienne Charrier, technical director at Margaux fourth growth Château Prieuré-Lichine, said his pH was 3.69, with no need to correct it. Veronique Bonnie Laplane, owner of Graves estate Château Malartic-Lagraviere, revealed the pH for her reds was 3.50, while her whites came in at 3.22. The pH for Paulin Calvet’s whites at his Pessac-Leognan estate, Château Picque Caillou, were even lower at 3.10. Sufficiently low pH levels – so crucial to freshness – did not appear an issue therefore.
Those who considered this “un grand millésime” included Ludovic David, managing director of Margaux fourth growth, Château Marquis de Terme. “This is a great vintage of Bordeaux: one more – thank you global warming!” he told The Buyer. “The wine is rich and powerful because the berries had a very beautiful maturity. It is a more classic vintage than 2015, with more acidity; more powerful than 2016 and with perhaps more elegance. Difficult to say which is best because each vintage has its personality, but what connects all these wines is their quality and their balance. They are all of a very high level like the 2019 … and the 2020 that is coming.”
Likewise, Olivier Bernard, owner of leading Graves estate, Domaine de Chevalier, considers that his 2018s are the best he has made. Certainly, his white possessed vibrant acidity, layers of complexity with glorious concentration and length; and his stunning grand vin was similarly complex with gorgeous red and black fruit, sensuous tannins and a very long finish.
A general difference between the red 2018s and the much lauded 2016s is their higher sugar, and often higher alcohol levels, rendering them exuberant and almost untamed. By contrast, the 2016s are in a more classical mould. Bruno Borie, owner of Saint-Julien second growth Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, called 2018 “a revolutionary vintage that sets new standards.” His comparison of 2018 to the legendary years of 1945, 1961 and 1982 may reflect the notable Bordelais capacity to talk up the vintage.
Prominent Right Bank estates showed especially well, helped by the fact Merlot and Cabernet Franc reached optimum ripeness. Nicolas Audebert, managing director of one of the stars of the vintage, Château Canon in Saint-Emilion, declared pertinently: “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.”
Neighbouring Château Canon-La-Gaffelière, a certified organic estate, was another standout, leading Count Stephan von Neipperg, its general manager, to tell The Buyer: “We have a pretty perfect balance and freshness that becomes for me more and more important…..there’s energy in this wine. 2018 is a little between 2016 and 2015. It is less ‘easy’ than the 2015, but the tannins are more integrated than in the 2016.” Ronan Laborde, whose family own Château Clinet in Pomerol, said that 2018 “is a vintage that does not show off but has a lot of class.”
As far as the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac were concerned, the lack of botrytis until late in autumn militated against a memorable vintage. Seely revealed that only three tries were made at Château Suduiraut, yielding a tiny crop of 5 hl/ha. Its wine still shone out, along with those of Château Coutet, Château Sigalas Rabaud and Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey.
TOP 12 MEDOC
Marquis de Terme
TOP 10 GRAVES (red)
Domaine de Chevalier
Smith Haut Lafitte
TOP 6 GRAVES (white)
Domaine de Chevalier
Smith Haut Lafitte
TOP 12 SAINT-EMILION
La Tour Figeac
TOP 6 POMEROL
La Croix de Gay