2018: let’s fall in love again
There are undoubtedly regions that are more fashionable than Bordeaux.
Burgundy, of course, with its tiny production and soaring prices. Italy, with its myriad of grapes and its incredible friendliness. Or South Africa, with its dynamic winemakers and crazy blends.
Yet every time I go to Bordeaux and taste the wines, talk to the winemakers and owners, and enjoy its older gems, I come back more enthused than I thought possible.
The equation is simple.
Wines that age better than any others in the world, from remarkable terroirs, produced in quantities that still make them accessible.
And what’s more, prices are, despite what some write, undeniably still reasonable.
Of course, for those seeking the first growths, those prices are high. But these wines have history and precedent on their side: they will wow over decades, or even centuries.
And away from that very highest league, let’s not forget that you can still buy some of Bordeaux’s greatest names, like Lynch-Bages, Léoville-Barton, or Domaine de Chevalier, for the same price as Burgundy’s premiers crus.
I know which I’ll be more sure of in thirty years time.
Furthermore, at the most accessible level, the value is astonishing. Lay & Wheeler favourites like Montaiguillon, Caronne Ste Gemme, or Rahoul will continue to delight well into the next decade and beyond. They’re wines that will impress over Sunday lunches, at dinner parties, and on Monday evenings at home to come. And they’re wines you and I can afford to fill our cellars with. I suggest we do just that.
We visited Bordeaux twice during last year’s harvest, followed by an intensive week of tasting in early April 2019.
And the conclusion: 2018 can be astonishing. It might not be as homogenous as some other great vintages, but the highs are some of the highest I have ever tasted.
This is a year that will thrill and excite. A vintage, if you will, for the ages.
I intend to fill my cellar with its delights in all formats. I suggest you do the same.
The growing season
It’s hard to imagine a more varied year than 2018.
The season started early, with warm temperatures and sometimes apocalyptic rainfall. Indeed, during last year’s En Primeur, we were caught out in more than one monsoon-like storm: something that’s rarely seen in Bordeaux, and even less in April.
By the time the end of June had arrived, an average of 361mm of rain had fallen on the vineyard: 80% of the season’s total rainfall.
And with this rainfall came a huge problem: mildew. Attacking leaves, and then nascent grapes, it has the potential to wipe out whole vineyards if not swiftly treated. Yet with waterlogged soils, getting into the vineyards to treat was near impossible. A Catch-22.
Those worst affected were producers working organically, or worse still, biodynamically. Château Palmer and Château Pontet-Canet were decimated, with both reporting yields of less than 10hl/ha.
Add in sporadic hailstorms (including one that wiped out the production of Château La Lagune), and by the end of June, 2018 looked like it could be a write-off.
Fortunately, at the moment when all seemed lost, Bordeaux’s fortunes changed. The sun came out, and stayed out until the end of October.
And because of the monsoon conditions of the earlier months, the vineyards could thrive without fear of hydric stress. Ripening was even and consistent, with just a few showers at the end of August refreshing the vines.
Come harvest time, producers could scarcely believe their luck: the travails of early in the season became a distant memory for most.
Basile Tesseron at Château Lafon-Rochet told me he couldn’t remember a harvest like it, with no interuptions for bad weather. In mid-October in Saint-Emilion, I was still able to relax in the vineyards in just a t-shirt, such was the warmth from the sun.
This allowed producers to pick variety by variety, parcel by parcel. Some of the grapes we watched entering the cellars were remarkable: tiny berries, all perfectly homogenous.
At the moment of the harvest, there were whisperings of a great vintage.
So where does 2018 sit?
Making comparisons can be challenging.
This year it seems harder than ever, as winemakers seek less extraction and more elegance, searching for drinkable, delicious wines rather than critics’ top scorers. This is a change that will undoubtedly benefit those who buy Bordeaux to drink, and continues a trend that has dominated over the last few years.
But if we were to compare 2018 to another vintage, where would it sit?
One winemaker suggested the ripeness of 2009, and the structure of 2016. Another proposed the merlots of 2009 and the cabernets of 2010.
In terms of analyses, this is borne out. Alcohol levels are often high, while IPT (the scale used to measure a wine’s density and tannins) totals are sometimes through the roof: at Château Margaux this reading was even higher than the super-charged 2010.
However, taste-wise, the situation is (and the wines are) far more nuanced. Some wines wow with their power and intensity, while others charm and beguile with their elegance and finesse. What is clear: Bordeaux winemakers are paying increasing attention to each wine’s sense of place, its terroir.
In 2018 St-Estèphe is St-Estèphe, Margaux is Margaux, and Pomerol is Pomerol. These are wines that speak of their origins, but where success is not homogenous. Indeed, some wines have come in wide of the mark: we will not offer these.
However, ignoring stylistic similarities and differences, but speaking solely in terms of quality and longevity, I am in no doubt that some of the wines made in 2018 will, in time, sit in the pantheon of greats.
With time in the cellar they will sit alongside 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990, 2005…
You’ll want to ensure that time is spent in your cellar.