Bordeaux 2018 en primeur and vintage report

2018 is an exceptional vintage for Bordeaux. One of the most challenging starts to the growing season in living memory was followed by three glorious months, with record levels of sunshine, precious little rain and an unflustered harvest, resulting in red wines – at the top end – of extraordinary depth, opulence and intensity.

On show around Bordeaux during the en primeur tastings in late March and early April were hundreds of rich, lush and powerful barrel samples that fully expressed the overt ripeness of the vintage. It was far from plain sailing, however, with many leading châteaux having much lower yields than their neighbours, and there’s a fine line in 2018 between getting the balance just right in such a ripe vintage, with its naturally high alcohol and forceful tannins, and stepping a little too far towards the dark side. And, to be fair, such a full-on vintage might not be to every Bordeaux lover’s taste.

In this report, I’ll try and cover the ups and downs of an extraordinary year. This was my 20th harvest in Bordeaux and my 19th consecutive vintage of tasting the top wines from the region en primeur. A version of this article appears in the May 2019 issue of Harpers Wine & Spirit, the UK trade magazine, for whom I’ve written the Bordeaux en primeur report and complied a list of my Top 100 Wines each year since the 2005 vintage.

My scores for 100 of the best known wines are listed on the handy Critic Scores page for Bordeaux 2018 on Liv-ex insights.

18 things to know about Bordeaux 2018

  • Three warm and dry months from early July through to the September and October harvest, with record hours of sunshine, made for a very ripe vintage.
  • The first half of the year was one of the most challenging, with a wet winter and a wet, humid spring leading to mildew being a huge threat.
  • (It was always going to be a ‘game of two halves’ once France won the football World Cup in July.)
  • Production overall in 2018 was the same as the average of the previous 10 years, following on from the small, frost-affected crop in 2017.
  • 2018 is an excellent vintage for red Bordeaux, with powerful, rich and opulent wines across most appellations.
  • 2018 was a good to very good year for dry whites, with some soft and attractive sweet whites from a prolonged, dry harvest that didn’t lend itself to noble rot.
  • Alcohol levels for reds are relatively high, with 14% the norm for the Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot based wines of the Left Bank, and often higher still for Merlots and the Merlot-Cabernet Francs of the Right Bank.
  • Although the red wines are deep, lush and seductive, this can mask the tannic core and many of the top wines are built for the long haul. Think 10+ to 30+ years for the best wines.
  • 2018 is the fifth fine vintage in a row for the important northern Médoc appellations of Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe.
  • 2018 is not as consistently excellent a year as 2016, but it is right up there alongside 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2016 for quality – and, for Margaux and Saint Emilion, with 2015.
  • Eric Boissenot, the consultant oenologist for many of the leading châteaux in the Médoc, including the First Growths, told me that 2018 is like a blend of 2009 and 2016. Few château owners on the Left Bank are going to argue with Eric.
  • 2018 is unique among the top vintages this century for having such a huge variation of yields among the top châteaux. This is mostly down to the impact of mildew up until mid-July.
  • To bio or not to bio. 2018 is the vintage that really asked the question of growers following an organic (‘bio’ in French) or biodynamic approach in the humid climate of Bordeaux.
  • An untroubled harvest, with the opportunity to pick and choose dates, gave winemakers a range of options. On the whole, we’re seeing a move to more refined styles, rather than blockbusters.
  • 2018 might have been an easy harvest but it wasn’t a straightforward vintage for winemakers. Three months of sun and drought meant less juice, higher alcohol, powerful tannins, concentration, lower acidity – and therefore careful extraction.
  • The extraordinary investment in new cellars, new wineries and new kit continues unabated. Hundreds of châteaux have been transformed this century – many in the last decade alone – and we’re seeing this in the wines, with greater selection and far more precision.
  • Good terroir has a huge impact with a drought. Coupled with the full-on nature of the vintage, and the huge threat of mildew earlier on, high quality wine is not a given further down the price pyramid.
  • There are, though, hundreds of great wines from dedicated growers at all price points in 2018. But I would say that.

Links to previous updates on Bordeaux 2018

My previous reports on Bordeaux 2018 can be seen here – as published on Jancis Robinson’s website and on Liv-ex, the fine wine trading platform:

Hail in Bordeaux 31 May 2018

Bordeaux 2018 – a game of two halves 30 July 2018

Bordeaux 2018 weather and harvest report 31 October 2018

Bordeaux 2018 yields – a devilish year  11 March 2019

Primeurs in perspective

Bordeaux is a vast region and the primeurs tastings tend to focus around the top 250 estates or so, plus a few hundred of the more ambitious châteaux from the lesser known appellations. The Crus Classés and their equivalents (Pomerol, for example, isn’t classified) make up about 8% of production in overall volume terms, and about 20% in value.

For the bigger picture, 2018 saw total production return to a more normal level after the small, frost-damaged crop of 2017. Growers declared a total crop of just under 500 million litres (the equivalent of a devilish 666 million bottles) which is close to the average of the previous 10 years. This 10-year average includes two small harvests in 2013 and 2017, whereas the decade before 2013 produced an average of 567 million litres.

85% of production was red, 4% rosé and 11% white (over 90% of which is dry).

2018 and the game of two halves

Much has been said about the growing season, not least by me (see the links above). Back in July, soon after France had won the World Cup, I was writing about 2018 being a game of two halves. It may be an old cliché for describing Bordeaux vintages – a wet spring followed by a dry summer is nothing new – but it applies to 2018 more than any other.

After a thoroughly wet December and January, then a rainy March, the vineyards were sodden as budbreak approached. It was then a combination of the timing of the downpours and fairly humid weather over the next few months that put growers on red alert against downy mildew, a fungal disease that can affect bunches as well as leaves. Flowering from the end of May through mid-June was surprisingly successful on the whole and just as the bunches were forming, the sun conveniently came out in the second half of June. At the time, the heavy showers at the start of July seemed like a continuation of the same watery pattern and mildew proved, again, to be a continuing threat.

Worse for some was the damage caused by hailstorms at the end of May and on 15 July. The southern end of the Haut-Médoc, zones of Bourg and Blaye, and parts of Sauternes were the most affected.

In hindsight, those rainstorms in early July turned out to be a useful top-up, for those vineyards that weren’t hit by mildew, before the long summer drought. 2018 saw an exceptional summer and a dry and sunny back-end to the season. The months of June, July, August and September were all warmer than the average, with record levels of sunshine. Bordeaux often gets two fine months out of three during the summer and the early autumn harvest, with little rain and lots of sun, but rarely three in a row. And it’s those three months from early July onwards, on top of the rain before then, that was the platform for such ripe fruit and a potentially outstanding vintage.

It’s worth comparing 2018 with other great years, notably 2016 (another wet spring/dry summer scenario), 2009 and 2010.

The dry whites were picked from late August onwards. With sunshine and no rain forecast from the second week of September onwards, red wine makers could pick and choose their harvest dates at will. The majority of the red grapes were brought in during the latter stages of September and in early October, with no pressure of rot.

The bigger picture

The famous seven appellations which feature most prominently in the primeurs campaign, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estéphe, Pessas-Léognan on the Left Bank and Pomerol and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru on the Right, have 11,375 hectares between them (and 4,230 of those are St-Emilion GC). That’s 10% of the total Bordeaux vineyard of 111,398.

Most areas of Bordeaux have had a topsy turvy few years, what with the risk of frost in 2017 and mildew in 2018, following on from a bumper 2016. The yield figures in brackets demonstrate this, and these are averages for each appellation; some growers would have had maximum yields, which are capped, depending on the appellation, at around 51-60hl/ha for red and 54-65hl/had for dry white in 2018.

Consider, say, Bordeaux Côtes de Castillon on the Right Bank. With average yields of 44hl/ha from 2014-2016, just 19hl/ha with the frost in 2017 and 33hl/ha in 2018. The maximum yield allowed was 52hl/ha (plus 10hl/ha for keeping back as future cover).

The most stable hotspots over the last five vintages have been the three celebrated northern Médoc appellations that run alongside the moderating influence of the Gironde estuary – Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. When we consider though that the maximum permitted yield in all three areas was 57hl/ha in 2018, there were some pretty obvious shortfalls in many estates – most notably in Pauillac with its 2018 average of 39hl/ha.

2018 yields – mind the gap

There are scores of outstanding red wines to choose from in 2018, at every level. What sets 2018 apart though, for me, is that we’ve not yet seen a great vintage for the red wines of Bordeaux in which the yields of the leading chateaux were quite so variable. In all the best years this century, production levels per hectare at the top level have been relatively consistent across the region in 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2016. 2018 is the first great vintage where yields have been so dramatically different from one vineyard to the next.

We remember the wine, of course, not the yield. What lies behind these variations in production was the impact of the mildew. Those heavy downpours and humidity from April to early July coincided perfectly with the development of this awkward fungal disease: ‘conditions très favorables’ was the regular and somewhat perverse refrain in memos from viticultural consultants. The trend towards organic, biodynamic and more sensitive viticulture by numerous estates made decisions about what and when to spray even tougher.

Yields were also reduced across the board for reds due to the concentration from the drought and continued sunshine as the harvest approached. There was simply less juice.

All the following châteaux made excellent wines but it was revealing to hear about the experiences, and taste the results, as I went from one estate to the next: 40 hectolitres a hectare at Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol, compared to 20hl/ha at L’Evangile next door. 49hl/ha at Troplong Mondot in Saint Emilion and 18hl/ha at Le Prieuré next door. 45hl/ha at Haut-Brion in Pessac, then 21hl/ha at Haut-Bailly near Léognan in the same appellation. 41hl/ha at Calon Ségur, 25hl/ha at Montrose down the road. 11hl/ha at the biodynamic Château Palmer in Margaux, yet 45hl/ha around the corner at Brane Cantenac. 40hl/ha at Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac, while opposite they made just 10hl/ha at Pontet-Canet – also biodynamic. The list goes on.

Total output, of course, depends on the size of the vineyard, and the selection process for first and second wines and so on. The good news is that for those who had lower yields, the saving grace is that the quality is extremely high. The second bit of good news is that there is no lack of quality from those with higher yields – which are, after all, simply closer to the norm.

The wines and vintage comparisons

One of the most frequently asked questions during the primeurs week is how the new vintage compares to previous years, especially when it’s so obviously a good one. In truth, I’ve yet to witness a growing season which closely resembles another and the wines always reflect that, and none more so than with 2018. After all, we’ve not had anything quite like the wet conditions and mildew pressure early on, the three months of sun and drought, and the prolonged harvest period that allowed for harvesting at will. But we could come up with mythical blends.

In my vintage and harvest report at the end of October, I wrote that “stylistically, it seems – again, for those estates for which everything went well – that we’ve got something close to 2015 and 2016 on the Right Bank, and a blend of 2016 and 2010, plus a dash of 2009, on the Left. Overall, it’s a bit like ‘2016 plus plus’ – 2016 with knobs on – not that everyone will want the ‘plus plus’ part. 2016, like 2018, also saw a long summer drought, though it wasn’t as hot throughout the summer and we had a fresher harvest period that year.”

As I’ve said above, Eric Boissenot, the consultant oenologist who advises the Médoc First Growths and many other leading Left Bank properties, told me he thought 2018 is like a blend of 2009 and 2016. His expertise has given managers and owners in the Médoc the confidence to express the same opinion, and I can certainly see what he means.

There’s a whole bevvy of estates that have made powerful, seductively ripe wines with relatively high alcohol and tannin content. In general, alcohol levels are around 14% for the largely Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the Médoc, and that and more for the Merlots and Cabernet Francs of the Right Bank. Where everything is in balance, these hedonistically-styled reds will be utterly delicious. It’s perhaps a shame for many that Robert Parker has long since hung up his boots for the primeurs, as he would have loved these wines.

As for when to drink them, many of these fabulous reds taste seductively lush now but I feel they will firm up in bottle. Many are built for the long haul, provided the acidity, tannins, structure and ripe fruit character are in line. When we think of the top 2009s now, they’re some way off from giving their best. So I’d suggest drinking windows of ten years plus, and well into 15-30+ years for best results.

On the Right Bank, Hubert de Bouard of Château Angelus suggested adding 1998 into the mix. I arrived in Bordeaux the following year so I can’t compare seasons, but I see a little of what he means in the wines. We are, though, twenty years on and so, so much has changed, not least on the Right Bank. What we’re also seeing in a post-Parker era is the emergence of new, fresher and more elegant styles, most notably in Saint-Emilion but elsewhere too. Troplong Mondot and Beau-Séjour Becot, to take two Premiers Grands Crus Classés as examples, have certainly moved in this direction in 2018.

Both Saint-Emilion with Margaux had terrific success in 2015 and their 2018 counterparts are on a par, or even better.

For the dry whites, there are some excellent Péssac-Lėognans and Graves, and the whites from the leading châteaux in the Médoc all produced fine, early picked wines. It’s a good to very good vintage for dry whites. For Sauternes and Barsac, careful selection is needed here. At the top level there are some fine wines – ripe, soft and lush, even if some lack some full botrytis character and the zip of refreshing acidity. Thoroughly pleasant stuff though for early to mid-term drinking. Sadly there are some missing wines here due to the hail in July and, in some cases, the effects of mildew.

Which wines to buy

One can argue whether Château Margaux made a better wine than Lafite, or Mouton than Latour. And on the other bank there are only 13,500 bottles of Château Lafleur, probably my favourite wine of the vintage from barrel.

For mere mortals, there are scores of wines that I rated in the mid to highish nineties, and that’s quite rare for me. There are plenty to seek out, just as with 2016.

Take a look at my Bordeaux 2018 en primeur buying guide.

I’d head to St-Julien and parts of Margaux for decent volumes of vaguely affordable yet utterly sensational Grands Crus Classés, and for their second wines too. There are, of course, some absolute winners in Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe and in the latter there are non-classified estates that made excellent wines. I think one has to be more careful in Pessac-Léognan although there are several truly outstanding efforts here.

Pomerol has excelled of course – so many gorgeous wines – but, unsurprisngly, there are few bargains to be had, and volumes are so limited at the top end. Likewise for the Premiers Grands Crus Classés in Saint-Emilion next door but I do think 2018 is a thoroughly successful vintage for Saint-Emilion at Premier GCC and at Grand Cru Classé level – much like I found for the 2015 vintage. And there are relative bargains to be found here.

There are scores of successes in the so-called lesser appellations, and there are some where it’s worth buying en primeur. As you go further down the price pyramid, the more I think it’s worth seeing how the wines turn out after barrel ageing and in bottle, but in 2018 there are wines from the likes of Fronsac near Pomerol, and from the Haut-Médoc, especially in the northern section there, that demand attention.

There are a few disappointing wines but overall the quality in the upper section of the Bordeaux hierarchy is extremely high.

I’d add the caveat that the quality isn’t quite so regular at the lower levels, and that the ripeness of the Merlot (Bordeaux is nearly 90% red and two thirds of that is Merlot) can lead to some obviously alcoholic and fairly tannic wines that seem imbalanced or simply lack refreshment value.

 

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