For hedonists and intellectuals: Bordeaux 2018
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
14 April 2019
After an initial look at the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux last month, before I got through the bulk of my tastings, I struck a cautionary note, albeit extolling the virtues of Petit Verdot, which seems to have thrived in parts of Bordeaux in the 2018 vintage. After tasting the wines, I stick with some caution, because, here we go again: Bordeaux is communicating yet more “best ever vintage” talk.
Last year’s Janus-like vintage, with loads of rain in the winter and spring, followed by dry, hot weather up to the harvest, was in fact rather problematic. It included devastating hail and a virulent mildew attack. Some estates in Sauternes and Barsac made but minuscule amounts of wine, or none at all.
Widespread mildew ravaged especially organic vineyards, including such famous estates as Château Pontet Canet and Château Palmer, where you wind up with a “winemaker’s” vintage. Both estates, by the way, managed to make excellent wine!
But in terms of the weather, and ease of viticulture and winemaking, this ain’t no 2010 or 2009 or 2005 …
For more on the weather factors that make up 2018, read this excellent report by Gavin Quinney.
In any case the dry, hot summer and harvest period made the vintage, and while talk of “my best ever” often is exaggerated (tailor made for bloggers and writers to echo), virtually no one talked about 2017 last week during the barrel tastings. 2017 is a respectable vintage that winemakers did not categorize as “best ever”. So, yes, there is something to 2018.
Much as there was something to 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003 and 2000. 😉
Many are posting feverishly about 2018, as you read this, some with (many) potential 100 point scores for barrel samples that are not even halfway finished with their aging process before bottling. Vintage hype aplenty.
“Did you taste Château Montrose, Panos?” one eager American buyer who had flown to Bordeaux last week asked me via WhatsApp.
And a Bordeaux-based wine trader marveled at how “enthralled” the wine trade has been with Château Calon Ségur.
Other estates impressed tasters from barrel, too, but why focus on these two?
Because they have the highest alcohol levels I can recall ever tasting from barrel, from the Médoc.
Montrose clocks in at 14.8% alcohol. Calon ups the ante to 14.9% – in a blend that is 80% Cabernets (Sauvignons and Francs). 😳 If that is the new normal, well, welcome to climate change! By the way, as I write this, I learned that later in June this year, there is a symposium on alternative grapes for Bordeaux that would ripen less quickly … But that is another story.
At Château Mouton Rothschild, one not recall ever seeing such high alcohol levels for Cabernet Sauvignon, as his Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus two per cent Franc) reached 13.8%.
In Saint Julien, Château Ducru Beaucaillou, with 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, reached 14.5% alcohol.
So high alcohol content matches the high level of buzz, as visitor records were said to have been broken: Some 1,300 people at Château Ausone in Saint Emilion last week broke a record, said co-owner Pauline Vauthier.
Larger tasting rooms at Médoc estates seemed more packed than in previous en primeur campaigns (the French word for barrel tastings of the latest vintage aging in barrels).
The 2,000 last week at Château Cos d’Estournel topped records. I do not recall seeing such a full parking lot there, with some 20 cars having to park along the D2 highway.
2016 or 2018?
Many observers I met last week were contrasting 2018 with the last Bordeaux vintage with some buzz, the 2016. The two are different, and one can understand how – for some – the 2018 vintage is being called “American” for its higher alcohol and lower acidity. Fellow taster Christer Byklum from Norway is hardly alone in saying that some 2018s reminded him of Napa.
Such was not the case in 2016, as illustrated in tasting notes from a 25-vintage vertical I did at Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux last week. All 25 tasting notes from the Rauzan-Ségla vertical will be published in The World of Fine Wine. But two tasting notes illustrate my point.
Rauzan Segla 2018 – Elegant and smooth (this is Margaux, for Pete’s Sake). It is an opulent wine to be sure, with refined tannins. I like the wine’s reassuring grip and freshness, but the balance – at 14+% alcohol and 3.8 pH (low acidity) is not quite as “fresh” as 2016, where the pH is 3.6 and the alcohol 13.5. And there is more Merlot than usual. Indeed, director Nicolas Audebert said that his “best vat” from the 2018 vintage was Merlot. The wine blends 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 2% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. 94-96
Rauzan Segla 2016 – A gorgeous wine of elegance and pristine fruit: it is more Cabernet driven (you know, Left Bank), with 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. Superior purity, more crystalline in expression, with focused fruit and the balance of lower alcohol is more “Bordeaux” in feeling to me, as compared to the 2018. The palate exudes such elegance and freshness as well as substance, and higher yields at 45 hectoliters per hectare. The 2018 clocked in at 32. 96+ points. 😁
For 2018 in general, I have heard of much disagreement in terms of “top wines”, as much depends on stylistic preferences. Don’t get me wrong, the 2018 vintage has many gems, but it comes across certainly as more “hedonistic” in style, with much opulence.
Several observers said 2018 barrel samples needed to be sampled at lower ambient temperatures, so that the alcohol would not come out too much. Keep in mind that Château Rauzan-Ségla is already one of the more classically styled wines of Bordeaux, that never favors excessive extraction and high alcohol as a style, so the 2018 here is one of the successes. But I feel that the 2016 is more suited to my palate, at least at this early stage.
Generally speaking for the vintage, the rather low acidity levels revealed “warm and welcoming” sensations. But the wines were not soupy in any way. Indeed, high tannins lent structure, so these should not be short-term wines. That high alcohol Mouton? A tannic index of 88. The Ducru Beaucaillou? A whopping 95. But such numbers are not, in and of themselves, so important. It comes down to balance. And terroir. Those estates with northern exposures, and deep clays that kept some of the moisture from the year’s earlier rains better withstood the dry heat of the summer and harvest period.
Not everyone is buying the 2018 hype, as evidenced by hyper inflated point scores from, say, James Suckling. Some rather compare the vintage with the more controversial 2003, as famous French wine writer Bernard Burtschy does in a post from Facebook last week. In addition to my rough translation into English, below, he says that yields were sometimes too high, as vines wanted to make up for the frost affected 2017 (he compared the 2018/2017 pattern to the copious 1992 coming after the frost of 1991). Below translated excerpts from his posting:
Exceptional, the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux? The media machine is launched; the owners want to be persuasive, all in one goal, that the whole world rushes to Bordeaux to buy them indiscriminately, as in 2015, and at a high price.
However, after more than 1,200 wines tasted at all price levels, I am far from sharing this enthusiasm, and I am not the only one.
Certainly, alcohol levels are very high, tannin levels (the famous IPT) too. And besides, they are very fresh (oh well, in a hot vintage?). But strangely enough, we never speak of a fundamental parameter, the dry extract, which is often lower than that of 2017.
I remember in passing that the 2003 vintage had been praised a bit for the same reasons and prices had exploded. Where are the 2003 today? Strangely, nobody talks about it anymore. The buyers paid for them at golden prices, but they are the stuffed turkeys today.
For his part, the Wine Enthusiast’s Roger Voss uses two words to describe the vintage: “heartbreak and happiness.” Voss describes the vintage as “controversial”. In explaining the ambivalence: “The test of a great vintage is when the wines are of superb quality at every level, from First Growths to simple appellation wines. That is not the case this year.”
Surprising Saint Emilion and Co.
I would say that 2018 is not generally better than 2016 (there are notable exceptions, to be sure, and you can read that below), much less “the best ever”, especially since a vintage like 2010 has superior acidity and perhaps more focus. But I am not as bearish as Burtschy on 2018 vintage quality, which brings us to the “intellectual” aspects of 2018. The mildew for example offset the high yields and many winemakers sought high yields as a way to “dilute” the alcohol, no kidding! In short, 2018 was a challenging vintage that favored great terroir (cooler soils and micro climates, and not as affected by mildew or hail) and intelligent winemaking.
“The more I think about it, the more I wonder what to tell my clients”, quipped one Bordeaux wine trader…
Wine consultant Bill Blatch sees the low acidity (high pHs) as the vintage’s “weak spot”, and I see that in some of the wines, too. At the very least, from the perspective of one who prefers more verve and freshness in Bordeaux. However, one of the most pleasingly counter intuitive experiences tasting last week (more intellectual bits) proved to be Saint Emilions and – to a lesser extent – satellite appellations.
Sure, some big and brawny styles still revealed themselves, but 2018 solidifies what has been over the past few years a fortunate trend towards elegance in an appellation that had been gripped in previous years by modernist über extraction. By any measure, the high tannin, higher alcohol and rather low acidities of 2018 would have been crafted differently had this vintage come around 15 years ago. One would have experienced excruciatingly drying, over-oaky tannins in too many of the wines. As any enologist can tell you, the higher the alcohol, the more tannin drawn from new oak during its aging. And we all know the new oak addictions from so called Right Bank modernists, who tried to please certain critics caught up in a fashion: with new, medium- to high-toasted oak, combined with high alcohol Merlots from extra late harvesting and ultra low yields to accentuate the big sensation. “The tannin will settle” was the constant refrain. Maybe in come cases, maybe not in others.
All I know is that it was bloody refreshing to taste, for example, a Château Joanin Bécot (Castillon, Côtes de Bordeaux) cropped at over 45 hectoliters (!) per hectare. Tannin extractions were less pronounced compared to previous years and the 13.9% alcohol balanced by freshness (and somewhat thankfully diluted by relatively higher yields). The sense of drinkability was like no other vintage that I had tasted before. And much thanks goes to consultant Thomas Duclos, who emphasizes freshness and elegance.
This “refreshing trend” came into focus with regard to the 50 member estates of the Association of Saint Emilion Grands Crus Classés. Yes, most all of their 2018s are better than their 2016 counterparts. Late last year, I tasted these same wines, but from the recently bottled 2016 vintage. Too often, the extractions were more noticeable in the 2016s, and the tasting experience was not so positive. Of course the vintage character of 2016 mitigated the winemaking more than a vintage like 2009 would have done. But it was a let down from too many of these estates. So 2018 proves that you don’t get what you expect. And here this is a plus. At the press tastings of the UGCB, Bloomberg wine writer and author Elin McCoy and I looked at each other with surprise after tasting Château La Couspaude, a wine long known for excessively oaky flavors. We just marveled at how much better it was than we were expecting.
My overall impression of the vintage, then? Strangely enough, I found myself wondering what the 1982 might have been like back in 1983. Many critics who had tasted the 1982 from barrel had found it “too easy to taste” or too soft for long-term aging. Sure, that was another era, as winemaking and viticulture were different, and 2018 has more alcohol and more tannin.
But I was not the only one making such “modern day 1982” comparisons. Both the aforementioned Bill Blatch and famous Right Bank oenologist Dany Rolland mentioned 1982, as a “comparative tasting experience”… That is to say that 2018 detractors may decry the accessibility of the 2018s to a fault. But given the high tannin and in spite of sometimes high yields, many 2018s convey structure as well as sumptuousness. Furthermore, the judicious use of oak (Château Petit Village, in Pomerol, is aging in 40% new oak), for slow oxidation, will not only soften said tannins, but also “fill out” palates.
Curb your enthusiasm (and geeky stuff about pH levels)
As in any vintage, but perhaps even more for 2018, it is best to wait and see from bottle before rushing to buy, no matter what the critics recommend from barrel.
Hey, how about that? If people could curb their futures buying enthusiasm, that would give the châteaux pause about raising prices.
But there is another reason to be sure about some of these wines this vintage: pH levels. 2018 is vintage with a good number of wines with quite high pH levels, a theme that was bandied about to no end when I was in Bordeaux tasting and discussing.
Generally speaking the higher the pH, the less acidic a wine tastes, and vice versa. The pH of wine measures the strength and concentration of acids. It is calculated using the concentration of hydrogen ions in the formula pH = -log10[H+] and can be adjusted through the addition of acid or base.
But pH is not just about sensations of flabbiness (or freshness) in wine. A pH between 3.3 and 3.65 is generally in the ideal zone for reds. But pH also plays a critical role in many aspects of winemaking, in particular stability.
Indeed, according to many specialists, pH influences microbiological stability, affects the equilibrium of tartrate salts, determines the effectiveness of sulfur dioxide and enzyme additions, influences the solubility of proteins and effectiveness of bentonite and affects red wine color and oxidative and browning reactions.
So one thing to keep in mind – and what I heard from more than several winemakers and enologists for this vintage – is that the higher pH levels in many quarters of Bordeaux for 2018 means that extra care is being taken to prevent bacterial growth as high pH levels make wine more susceptible to such problems. You do not want your wine to end up being a Brett bomb now do you? Of course we can trust the many talented winemakers to ensure against instability, but that is an added factor for this vintage.
In any case, it has been said that if prices are not at or below 2016, the en primeur campaign may be a wash anyway, and we all know the Bordeaux propensity for over pricing in some vintages … For me, 2018 at its best is a “great vintage”.
But it is heterogeneous in quality, and style, and lovers of freshness may want to consider buying in bottle 2016s, rather than 2018s as futures. For that matter, lovers of Right Bank big and brawny may feel let down by the reinforced “freshening trend” there, as well.
So, 2018 is not so clear cut 😁.
I tasted over 1,000 wines over a ten day period, so have a decent idea of the vintage from barrel. More detailed tasting notes to be published within the next two weeks, but here some top wines in three different categories. I am leaving some wines out (certainly Château Angélus, Château d’Issan and Château Pavie are left out, because I did not get a chance to taste them).
It is important to note that 2018 is not necessarily a “Left Bank” or “Right Bank” vintage, with successes on both sides of the Gironde. It is not easy to limit yourself to just 10 wines in this “price no object” category, so I am not.
Price no object? (In no particular order of preference but certainly Lafite was amazing)
Needless to say, in my “system” of general rating, all of these wines are red bold and underlined 😉
Château Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac) – Defies the high alcohol of the vintage at “just 13.3%” and manages pristine balance and opulence. Cool graphite nose. The palate reflects impressive density, freshness, pencil lead and suave finesse, yet also satiny tannins, with a Pauillac edge. A great wine in the making, with 91% Cabernet Sauvignon. Comparisons are being made to the 1959, by experienced tasters who actually know the 1959. (98-100)
Château Cheval Blanc (Saint Emilion) – Sumptuously floral and fresh. A wine of both elegance and (near) decadence. “The densest wine we have made since 2011”, remarked director Pierre Olivier Clouet. The blend of 54% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon has enough acidity for balance. “Early picking helps to maintain that,” he said. Fine freshness and opulence, with black fruit and floral notes, leading to fresh mint and licorice on the lifting, long finish. “The balance comes from (higher) yields”, says Clouet, comparing the 2018 to the Cheval 1990 and 1998, but the 1990 especially makes me think of the 2018. (98-100)
Petrus (Pomerol) – Rich, dense and juicy. Excellent depth and even freshness, even though it strikes 14.5% alcohol. Director Olivier Berrouet says that 2018 resembles a combination of the “fleshiness” of the 2015, the more “classical style” of the 2016 and “perfumed elegance” of the 2017. “Because the weather was so good, the temptation was to extract more and to pick later, but “we resisted”, he said. Quicker approachability than the 2010 or the 2005, he said, yet ripeness may be “greater” in 2018, than these two other great vintages. In any case, a brilliant wine where the Merlot is so fresh and refined. 97-100
Château Lafleur (Pomerol) – Take note that Lafleur cellar master Omri Ram called Cheval Blanc “one of the best wines of the vintage”. But his Lafleur should make any top wine list from 2018 barrel tastings. Lots of hot gravel soils with a bit of clay could make you think that the wine may have been “hotter” in expression, too, but the nose is noble and conveys elegance, iodine, and complexity. Intensity and power, too, yet poised and even tightly knit. I sensed just a touch of warmth on the finish, but just vaguely. What reassures are the fresh, crushed mint aspects to the finish, with good acidity to balance the 14.5% alcohol. In technical terms a pH closer to 3.6, which is lower than many Bordeaux in 2018). A brilliant wine where the Cabernet Franc (54% of the blend) is so fresh and refined. 97-100
Château Léoville Las Cases (Saint Julien) – 2018 suits this estate, which can seem steelier from barrel in cooler vintages. In a sense it reminded me of the superlative 2009, but perhaps better. At 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc and 9% Merlot, the alcohol is just under 14.5% with high tannins and aging in 90% new oak. While some estates in 2018 may be cutting back on the new oak or the aging time (Cos d’Estournel), director Pierre Graffeuille may extendtime in barrel to “20 months or maybe more”. Fine Cuban Cigar. Very long on the finish and veritable velvety lift; maybe this surpasses Lafite in some ways. There is such density and yet fine finesse and lift. You get a sense of pure red, crystalline fruit, then tobacco, fine Cuban, and density as well as lift, as the alcohol is buffered by excellent acidity. Indeed, the finish is marked by gorgeous orange peel freshness. “This could shut down, as the tannins are there”, owner Jean Hubert Delon stressed. When talking about 2016, Delon says this “could be like comparing 1959”. . He recalls the aromas of the vat room for the 1959, as a kid smelling that in the cellar, and the 2018 reminds him of that. 97-100
Château Ausone (Saint Emilion) – Almost Médoc in approach, with cool fruit and graphite, and such precision. Such freshness and seriousness, conjuring images of a polished and elegant Hermes suit. Pure fruit, and focus – and a delectably juicy mid palate, with fine balancing acidity make this wine gorgeous. The limestone really helped to retain freshness here. 97-100
Château Latour (Pauillac) – At 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot, the venerable first growth clocks in at 14.3% alcohol with high tannins. Indeed, the impression of tannic power is more pronounced here then almost anywhere else, so that one senses a “true Pauillac”. The graphite and the cassis are pure and there is such impressive length, but at this pre bottled stage, the power and tannic edge is the highlight. A great wine in the making! (96-99)
Château Margaux (Margaux) – It clocks in at 14% alcohol, and registers even more tannin than Latour, but I am not sure it is the highest ever at this estate. I loved the pure expression of fruit, and almost sweet herbs that came forth with time in glass. Lots of depth and subtle power to the wine, but never “armored” in any way, so this conveys Margaux elegance but with a slight Pauillac touch. (96-98+)
Château Vieux Château Certan (Pomerol) – The wine results from a vintage of “contrast”, remarks owner Alexandre Thienpont. No Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend this year, as the vineyards were subjected to severe water stress. But water reserves that had built up over the spring enabled most other vines to cope with the stress, Thienpont explained. Certainly the 15% Cabernet Franc, harvested along with that of Cheval Blanc on 9 October (thankfully a bit of rain beginning of October helped to dilute a bit the wines), enhanced the blend with length and “pedigree” he said. The 40 hectoliters per hectare was a more than respectable yield for the vintage, with Merlots ensuring strength and opulence in this wine of 14.4% alcohol and low acidity. Lovely elegance, density and … length. 96-98+
Château La Conseillante is diaphanous and elegant, fresh and floral on the nose, and very long on the finish. Here a case where “best ever” or at least “among the best” would apply, surpassing even the magnificent 2016. The tannin index is a whopping 95, but you do not feel it. With acidities higher here than at neighbour Vieux Château Certan, and the alcohol 14%. For the first time, the estate is using amphorae to lessen the influence of oak flavors on the wine, even if these containers account for just 3% of the wine aging. In some ways, the 2018 at this estate most resembles their fresh and elegant 2016, and that is a good thing. Bravo! 96-98+
Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac) – Super Second, anyone? Here we have a tour de force that rivals both Latour and Margaux. Such a smooth Pichon Comtesse, once again proving the cliché that it comes across just as much Saint Julien as Pauillac. It stands out before all other Pauillac wines assessed last week at the UGCB tasting. At once supple and elegant, yet layered and long. What a great performance! Tasted twice again, at the negociant Joanne on 31 March and at the château three days later: sheer elegance, with iodine freshness. Alcohol is 14% precisely with just enough balancing acidity and plenty of tannin. “Many things made me think of 2010,” says director Nicolas Glumineau, as we have not seen such quality of must since the 2010 (when he was at Montrose). Powerful but fresh. Here a case where the 2018 enters legend and may well surpasses the 2016. 96-98
Château Palmer (Margaux) – No Alter Ego this year, as Palmer lost much of its potential harvest to the terrible mildew of 2018. The acidites are rather low but alcohol, with 40% Merlot in the blend, clocks in rather low, too (for the vintage), at 14.3%. Deep aromatics of cassis and plum prepare the taster for a wine of profound density and somewhat foreboding tannins. Director Thomas Duroux says that the wine may well shut down, as it is “the most powerful we have ever made”. So, in a sense, this is even more Pauillac with Margaux, but make no mistake, there is elegance to the wine. Aging in 70% new oak. (95-97)
Château Montrose (Saint Estèphe) – I amon the fence with this barrel sample, and we need to wait for the in bottle version more than most, because on one level, it is kind of Napa, while on another level, it may turn out to be … a legend. The 2018 low acidity and 14.8% alcohol. It is quite amazing in terms of smooth tannin. I get a sense of balance, but not the same energy as in the 2014 or 2016 vintages. Still, impressive, with silky tannins and polished aspects that work. Again, should we worry about the alcohol level and low acidity? I did get a slight sense of heat on the finish. By comparison, the 2016 at 13.2% alcohol and high acidity comes across more fresh… (94-98!?)
Château Cos d’Estournel (Saint Estèphe) – comes across nicely balanced in terms of freshness and makes the top list as well, as it is at 14.6% (a bit lower alcohol than the Montrose, for example) and seems more classical in style for the vintage, also with more acidity. It contains a touch more Merlot in the blend this year, at 23% and Cabernet Sauvignon at 74%. Deep on the palate, and quite a bit of tannin: they are present and good for aging. Juicy mid palate sap too, with a red fruit lift on the long finish! (95-97)
Top wines of up to about $100 per bottle (Will get notes soon!)
- Château Carmes Haut Brion Pessac Léognan (94-96) 2. Château Gruaud Larose Saint Julien (94-96) 3. Château Beychevelle Saint Julien (93-95) 4. Château Clinet Pomerol (94-96) 5. Château Latour à Pomerol (93-95) 6. Château Brane Cantenac Margaux (93-95) 7. Château Duhart Milon Pauillac (93-95) 8. Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Léognan (93-95) 9. Château Petit Village Pomerol (93-95) 10. Château Cantenac Brown Margaux (93-95) (this list may get modified …)
Some top bargain wines
Many to list here, too, but the ones that more immediately come to mind include the best “second wine” of all tasted, the gorgeous La Reserve de la Comtesse. Château Pibran in Pauillac, with colder terroir, was so well suited to the vintage. Châteaux La Serre and Château Simard in Saint Emilion. Château Lanessan in Haut Médoc. Château Puygueraud (Francs-Côtes-de-Bordeaux), Château Siaurac in Lalande de Pomerol, and Château Potensac in the Médoc.
Please stay tuned for my full notes in the next couple of weeks.