Feature Story

Letter from Bordeaux: Vintage 2018
En Primeur

Let’s be straight: 2018 was a challenging year in Bordeaux. Nature threw two extremes at growers—heavy rainfall in the first half of the year; drought in the second. Some handled those extremes with elegance and grace; others fumbled, especially when mildew set in during spring and continued as a risk through to July.

Sheep roam through the biodynamic vineyards of Chateau Palmer Sheep roam through the biodynamic vineyards of Chateau Palmer
The effects were cruel, felt across the region but especially by those farming their vines organically or biodynamically. The latter method has been gradually adopted by leading estates such as Latour, Margaux, Palmer, Pontet Canet, Giscours and du Tertre, for whom yields fell to around 15 hectoliters per hectare, less than half of the normal crop. At Palmer, Thomas Duroux saw his vineyards succumb to a late attack when almost two inches of rain fell on the Fourth of July. “It was like having just one bunch of grapes left per vine,” he told me.

Even so, Château Palmer made a glorious, rich, balanced wine. And throughout Bordeaux, from St-Emilion to Margaux, Pomerol to Pessac-Léognan, there are wines worthy of the hype and excitement that the 2018 vintage has elicited. The big debate during en primeur week centered around whether 2018 is an exceptional vintage or a vintage where some exceptional wines were made.

Rainfall, for instance, was inconsistent, varying significantly from one area to the next. On the Right Bank, it was wet in the spring but dry in the summer. The rain that hit Bordeaux in early July was largely confined to the commune of Margaux. Farther north, in St-Estèphe, the rain came at a more opportune moment, in early September, and growers attribute their success to the drought relief that it provided. Just south in Pauillac, the deep gravel soils at top classified growths such as Mouton, Lafite and Latour exacerbated the drought conditions.

Winegrowers adapted their vineyard work accordingly. Frédéric Faye of Château Figeac described stripping the leaves on the side of the rising sun, to aerate the clusters while keeping the fruit shaded in the afternoon. Many in the Médoc chose to pick merlot early but to let the cabernets mature slowly; they also cut way back on their extractions, with closed-circuit pump-overs to avoid excess oxygen. Despite the drought, the wines produced by the triumvirate of Pauillac first-growths are so assured, beautiful and finely woven, led by a truly outstanding Château Lafite, that I think we will be talking about and tasting these wines all the way through the 21st century.

There are lovely wines throughout the region, so it is difficult to single out one area as more successful than another. Many wines have low acidity and high pH levels, around 3.5 to 3.8 pH, and alcohols hovering around 14.5 percent, and yet they taste very fresh. The high pH, according to Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion, makes the wines soft and velvety, despite the fact that they are rich in tannins.

That sense of freshness has left winemakers scratching their heads. Some attribute it to the great difference (as much as 36°F) between day and nighttime temperatures in September, which mitigated the heat, especially on the Right Bank; others point to the constant rainfall in the first half of the year that raised the water table and ensured that vines were not stressed by the summer drought. At harvest, when the grapes first laid in the vats, there were gorgeous forward-fruit aromas that winemakers worked to preserve.

Just as there is not one appellation that stands out, so was it fascinating to hear how winemakers praised the different grape varieties. Philippe Bascaules, director of Château Margaux, says that he has never seen such excellent merlot, while Pierre-Olivier Clouet spoke of 2018 being a year of cabernet franc at Cheval Blanc. Pauline Vauthier, of Ausone, and Alexandre Thienpont, at Vieux Château Certan, both confirmed that cabernet franc added a beautiful note of freshness and lifted fruit character to their 2018s. The fine weather that extended the season allowed growers to pick later-ripening grapes when they wanted. As Nicolas Glumineau of Château Pichon-Lalande explained: “I needed two brains to make wine this year: a brain which is merlot-driven, and then the cabernet sauvignon brain. The cabs were so healthy—not a glimmer of rot—that we could have harvested much later.”

When asked the inevitable question as to whether the wines would age well, winemakers pointed to vintages such as the legendary 1947 or 1982 as examples of low-acid, tannic wines that have proved their worth. Citing more recent examples, Véronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly said that the wines have the charm of 2015 and 2009 combined with the structure of 2016 and 2010. One thing is for certain: These wines, with their high tannins and high alcohols, are built to last.

Potential Legends

Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac
Château Latour, Pauillac
Château Léoville Las Cases, St-Julien
Château Palmer, Margaux
Château Lafleur, Pomerol
Château Calon Ségur, St-Estèphe
Château Cheval Blanc, St-Emilion
Château Ausone, St-Emilion
Château Figeac, St-Emilion
Domaine de Chevalier, Péssac-Léognan

Affordable Investments

Château Les Ormes de Pez, St-Estèphe
Château de Pez, St-Estèphe
Château Le Crock, St-Estèphe
Château Capbern, St-Estèphe
Château Haut-Marbuzet, St-Estèphe
Château d’Angludet, Margaux
Château Potensac, Pauillac
Château du Tertre, Margaux
Château de Fonbel, St-Emilion
Château Puy Blanquet, St-Emilion
Château L’Aurage, Castillon
Château Grand Village, Bordeaux Supérieur

photo by Antoine De Tapol

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2019.
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