Château Pichon-Baron on the Left Bank produces beautiful reds.

Damien Grelat of Château Palmer, who visited Australia recently, declared Bordeaux’s 2018 vintage to be showing great variation of character early on. After a traumatic 2017 vintage, was nature kinder to winemakers in 2018? The beginning of the year will be remembered for its high rainfall. It began with a wet and windy month but it was exceptionally mild despite the absence of sun. Very frequent rain fell over 20 days during January, exceeding 120 millimetres.

February was rather dry and cold, with a cumulative rainfall deficit. Under the influence of northerly winds, recorded temperatures were 2 to 3°C lower than normal, with 16 days of frosts and even snowfall on a couple of days.

The weather conditions in March weren’t getting any better, with showers and wind gusts almost daily. It has rarely rained more in March, with twenty days of rainfall. Despite a fairly mild first half, the average temperature was nearly 1°C below average.

The swelling of the first buds was noticed in early April. Temperatures rose again between the 17th and 24th, with some days reaching greater than 25°C. Under these conditions, the phenological stages evolve rapidly. The vintage, considered late at budburst, was comparable to the average at the 10-leaf stage of development.

Grape expectations during harvest  at Château Croix  de Labrie in Saint-Émilion.
Grape expectations during harvest at Château Croix de Labrie in Saint-Émilion.

Rainfall was variable and close to normal and at the end of the month, three weeks after budburst, the first bunches were visible.

May started cold in some appellations and while temperatures rose again to summer levels, the month was also characterised by violent showers and two hailstorms, one in the south of Gironde then another which hit Blaye, Bourg, part of Médoc and Entre-Deux-Mers.

The first flowers appeared at the end of May, under auspicious conditions, in spite of often cool afternoons for the season. Flowering was fast and took place over 10 days, without significant incidents of coulure. However, the many manifestations of mildew were of concern. Indeed, such a level of pressure has rarely been witnessed in Bordeaux. The aggressiveness of the mildew led some châteaux to lose up to 50% of their potential crop overnight as at Château Palmer and Pontet-Canet. Once symptoms were spotted on leaves, it was often too late, especially for organic and biodynamically farmed estates.

Temperatures were above average during the first half of July but there were further hail events. These humid and hot conditions caused considerable mildew pressure. As the bunch-closing stage was reached in mid July, the first damage to the crops was apparent. Fortunately, the weather changed dramatically after that, giving way to a dry and warm summer, particularly favourable to slow ripening. The end of July and the month of August were characterised by sunshine and rare thunderstorms.

Véraison took place from the end of July and, with the exception of vineyards affected by hail, it was fast and homogeneous and ended on 15 August. The important water reserves built up over winter prevented early hydric stress. Although it was deferred, the stop in vine growth was sudden and brutal, from the end of the véraison, because of the dry and hot summer.

With the beginning of ripening in warm conditions but without water shortage and with cool nights, red grapes had acquired colour and tannin levels synonymous with a great vintage.

September was also unusually dry and sunny, with an excellent diurnal temperature range, essential to fix anthocyanins, decrease vegetal notes and help development of fruity aromas while retaining the all-important acidity. The accumulation of sugars was quick and the ripening took place in ideal conditions. With the exception of a few moderate showers, the weather remained summery until the end of October, making it possible to harvest perfectly healthy grapes, at desired maturity.

Château Canon in Saint-Émilion.
Château Canon in Saint-Émilion.

Unlike 2017, when the harvest of merlot had to be rushed, the beginning of the 2018 harvest was freely decided by each château. Harvesting of the first red grapes began on 7 September to become widespread on the week of the 17th.

By the beginning of September, the sugar content of merlot was very high and total acidities were lower mainly because of low to very low malic acid concentrations. The pH of musts was often at average levels but varied significantly from one property to another, especially on the Right Bank. Thick skins enriched in anthocyanins during their long ripening period, ensured a very good level of easily extractable colour compounds. The slow dehydration of the soil also allowed a ripening of the seeds rarely reached before.

The end of August and September were, even more so in 2018, significant for the success of the vintage. Merlots have benefitted from perfect conditions to reach optimal maturity.

The ideal weather conditions in September lasted until mid-October, allowing a perfect ripening of cabernets for all soils without fear of rot. Very sweet, not very acidic, with no vegetal notes because of the high temperatures at the end of August, the grapes had an easily extractable colour potential and, like the merlots, rare quality seeds. The aromatic intensity of cabernets was remarkable, with complex notes of fresh red and black fruits.

Despite the heat of summer, white grapes have retained a good acidity and interesting aromatic potential. Perfectly healthy and rich in sugars, they were harvested early in dry weather.

The development of great sweet wines requires the appearance of noble rot at the right moment, that is to say as soon as the grapes are ripe, high in sugars and still sufficiently acidic. The dry summer followed by a long Indian summer delayed the development of botrytis cinerea. Its fast and homogeneous development became widespread following the rain episodes of mid-October. Without reaching the freshness and brilliance of the greatest years, 2018 will certainly be a good vintage for perfectly clear and concentrated sweet wines.

Jean-René Matignon, Technical Director of Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac.
Jean-René Matignon, Technical Director of Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac.

Most of the harvest was picked during the second half of October in several tries, such as at Château Coutet, who went up and down each row of vines seven times. With a great aromatic clarity, the sweet wines are rich and concentrated, often more colourful than usual. Despite their relatively low level of acidity, the best of them have preserved a balance of flavours.

The first part of the 2018 vintage was difficult for winemakers, however, the sudden and radical improvement in weather conditions in July changed the fortunes of the vintage. The exceptional conditions of August and then of the late season made it possible to harvest red grapes which were particularly rich in sugar, with tartaric acid levels mostly excellent and with high aromatic potential, although it appeared late. The thickness of grape skins and their high concentration of tannins required delicate extractions.

At the beginning of the élevage, the success of the vintage for red wines was evident. While there was, of course, some variability in individual situations, the quality of the wines was homogeneous across the region, regardless of grape variety or appellation. Better than the 2016s, and even more so than the 2017s, the merlots were deep and dense, while maintaining freshness despite their high alcohol content. The cabernets were racy, structured while remaining fruity, with the aromatic brilliance of the greatest vintages. Surprisingly, the stylistic difference between merlot and cabernet sauvignon seemed less than usual.

The first assemblages were impressive to taste en primeur. The comparison of the evolution of 2018 with that of other great vintages of this century, promised exciting tastings.

After the first day of tasting, my first impression of the vintage was: perfect ripeness of fruit and tannins; reasonably high acidity; average alcohol of 14% and over, which is to be expected in such a warm vintage; but mostly well balanced by a lot of red and blue fruit, and huge tannins due to the thickness of the skins.

Tannins will polymerise and mellow with the élevage in barrels for the next 12-15 months prior to bottling, but I must push the point that those big tannins are of extremely high quality and, in most cases, are silky smooth and already well integrated. Although in a few cases, some are completely out of balance.

One last aspect of importance to mention is that the percentage of new oak regime seems to be reflecting the past five-or-so years and is on decline, letting the high quality of the fruit speak for itself. Most château owners I spoke to during the week of tasting over 300 wines agreed that the new era of more refined, less oaky and extracted style of wine started with the 2015 vintage once the “Parker era” finished. It has been most pleasing to taste the stylistic evolution over the past few vintages back towards a more classic style.

As usual comparisons are being made in what seems to be an extremely good vintage, with some négociants saying it is more a 2010 in style as opposed to a 2009 due to higher acidity and freshness, and on par with 2016. To me, there is no doubt that 2018 is excellent but hard to compare with other vintages as I have never tasted such high tannins in Bordeaux during a primeur campaign and ironically those high-tannin wines are easy to drink.

There is more homogeneity on the Left Bank (especially Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe) compared to the Right Bank (especially Saint-Émilion), where there are some excellent wines, with only a few out of balance with warming alcohol and harsh tannins. On the Right Bank, those who are blessed to have cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon have produced wonderfully floral red blends that will age well.

With the subject of global warming ever present, the winemaking world is working hard to adapt to changing conditions every year. The 2018 was another example of the fact climate change is forcing winemakers to innovate in order to produce wine that still reflects a sense of place and the individual philosophy of each winemaker.

Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan noted they are adjusting their canopy management to give more shade to bunches and protect them from harsh sunrays. Olivier Berrouet at neighbouring Pétrus reflects the same attitude and has also adjusted the intensity of his remontage to limit the extraction of unnecessary tannins, while Pierre and Axelle Courdurié of Château Croix de Labrie and Laurent Dufau of Château Calon-Ségur believe in research of new yeast strains capable of fermenting more sugar while outputting less alcohol.

There are still a lot of critics of the en primeur system, but it is good to remind oneself this is a system that has been in place for a very long time and that Bordeaux is joined by its Burgundian counterpart in selling en primeur. While there are vintages that require a lot of consideration prior to purchasing, there are some, like 2018, where it is simply a matter of what to buy and how much space you have in the cellar.

Château Canon’s vast vine rows.
Château Canon’s vast vine rows.

Top Left Bank Reds

Château Calon-Ségur (Third Growth Saint-Estèphe)
Château Léoville-Las Cases (Second Growth Saint-Julien)
Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion (Grand Cru Classé de Graves)
Château Mouton-Rothschild (First Growth Pauillac)
Château Pichon-Baron (Second Growth Pauillac)
Château Rauzan-Ségla (Second Growth Margaux)

Top Right Bank Reds

Château Ausone (1er Grand Cru Classé A St-Émilion)
Château Canon (1er Grand Cru Classé B St-Émilion)
Vieux Château Certan (Pomerol)
Château Cheval Blanc (1er Grand Cru Classé A St-Émilion)
Château Petit-Village (Pomerol)
Château Pétrus (Pomerol)

Top White Wines

Château Mouton Rothschild Aile d’Argent (Bordeaux Blanc)
Château Lynch-Bages Blanc de Lynch-Bages (Bordeaux Blanc)
Château Haut-Brion Blanc (Pessac-Leognan)
Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (Pessac-Leognan)
Château Pape-Clément Blanc (Pessac-Leognan)
Château Margaux Pavillon Blanc du Margaux (Bordeaux Blanc)

Top Sweet Wines

Château Suduiraut (First Growth Sauternes)
Château La Tour Blanche (First Growth Sauternes)
Château Coutet (First Growth Barsac)
Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey (First Growth Sauternes)
Château Sigalas-Rabaud (First Growth Sauternes)
Château de Myrat (Barsac)

Hidden Gems

Château Capbern (Saint-Estèphe)
Château Croix de Labrie (Grand Cru Classé St-Émilion)
Château Laroque (Grand Cru Classé St-Émilion)
Château La Tour Carnet (Haut-Médoc)
Château La Tour de By (Médoc)
Château Pibran (Pauillac)

Picking  at Château  Calon-Ségur.
Picking at Château Calon-Ségur.

Appellation Breakdown

SAINT-ESTÈPHE Following in the footsteps of the two southern neighbours, there were a lot of high-quality tannins, dark ripe fruits and lots of graphite but with that unique Saint-Estèphe almost smoky touch. There was great consistency in the quality of the wines of Saint-Estèphe with high tannin levels of very good quality refined by lighter extraction than usual.

PAUILLAC Like its southern neighbour, overall there was a great theme of ripe tannins, dark fruit and graphite with very refined use of oak. The key for châteaux is to extract less and more gently which was evident in the 2018 vintage. The other influence was the use of oak and the percentage of new oak. While 2018 seems to handle new oak well, I do not see the need to go overboard as there are already a lot of fruit tannins and certainly no need to add more oak tannins!

SAINT-JULIEN Ripe tannins, powerful structure, dark ripe fruits are to be found throughout the appellation. The overall theme in that part of the Médoc is definitely ripeness and quality of tannins. The skin to juice ratio of this 2018 vintage is something never seen in Bordeaux before with tiny berries producing dark coloured wines with a lot of colour pigments and high-quality tannins.

The barrel room at Château Rauzan-Ségla.
The barrel room at Château Rauzan-Ségla.

MARGAUX An interesting appellation to taste this year. Normally renowned for its finely chiselled tannins, this year tannins were high and some châteaux didn’t handle them too well. Others made pure and elegant wines full of class, but having said that, there were still wines out of control with oak regime and alcohol levels!

PESSAC-LÉOGNAN Pessac enjoyed a great vintage with the only dampener in some areas being the spring hail reducing crops greatly, especially for the whites. Juicy ripe merlot backed by floral cabernet franc and brooding ripe cabernet sauvignon that was the backbone of the reds. Overall, everything was perfectly ripe and even the lesser-known châteaux were showing some signs of greatness.

POMEROL Some truly lovely wines were tasted in Pomerol and while it might not be as homogeneous as parts of the Left Bank in 2018, there were some seriously good wines to be found at all pricepoints. Definitely an outstanding vintage for cabernet franc to express its glorious floral notes and cassis fruit to balance the richness of merlot.

SAINT-ÉMILION It was obvious that the sunshine and drought had their effect on the merlot-dominated region, with some noticeable high-alcohol content wines, but what was impressive was the amount of high-quality tannins from the cabernet francs and the floral notes that this ‘back-up’ variety brought. Clearly a great cabernet vintage, thus Right Bank châteaux did ensure to use as much as possible to balance the often-very-ripe merlot.

SAUTERNES Sauternes struggled due to the very late onset of botrytis. Very low yields were made and the lack of botrytis notes in some of the wines reminds me of the 2000 vintage. More passerillage (shrivelled grapes) than botrytis it seems in some pockets of the appellation, but it is too early in the élevage to make a final call. Sauternes are always difficult to taste en primeur due to their much slower fermentation plus barrel samples are still on their lees and often cloudy. The best ones showed their class with finesse, balance and high acidity breathing life into their lusciously sweet mouthfeel.