May review: Expensive mistakes, Mother Nature and other stories

The end of May, if you’ll forgive the cliché. Whatever next?

June, you say, and a fair amount of sport still. It’s also an important few weeks ahead in the vineyard as the vines have just started flowering, and this unspectacular yet critical period can potentially make or break a wine grower as it plays a huge part in determining the yield. A poor flowering and you won’t get decent bunches.

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Ten years on and two May hailstorms

Ten years ago but it’s still in fresh in the memory. 2009 turned out to be one of the great Bordeaux vintages for reds (okay, so 2010 and 2016 and now, arguably, 2018 would sit alongside it) but for us it was close to disaster with not one but two hailstorms in May. The vines that didn’t get clobbered on the 13th May were whacked on the 25th.

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Late spring frosts and the luck of the draw

Damaged vines from early May frost, Montagne Saint Emilion 17 May 2019.

Late spring frosts in May are extremely rare in Bordeaux but there were some icy mornings on the weekend of the 5th to 7th May. Some friends here lost the crop from a parcel or two of vines, and although the damage was bad in some spots it was not nearly as widespread as the devastating frost at the end of April 2017. We were spared, fortunately. Keep reading

That £4,500 bottle of Bordeaux served by mistake

If we had a pound for the number of times this will be mentioned by visitors this summer, we’ll be able to buy a bottle. Well, maybe a half. Here’s a quick recap of this cracking story that went around the world, and a brief look at how that bottle of Le Pin 2001 ended up being quite so expensive on the wine list in Manchester. Funnily enough, I was treated by some generous, wine-loving friends at a famous restaurant in northern Spain some ten years ago, and spotted the exact same wine on the list. “Wow!” I said. “They’ve got Le Pin ‘01 on the list for €600. The trade price, if you can find a bottle, is three times that.”

“Great” they said. “Order two.” Keep reading

Château-bottled isn’t what it used to be – in pictures

We’ve been bottling again this week, bringing in the same contractor but using an even smarter machine than before. This one comes in at a couple of million euros on the back of a few trucks, with all the bits, according to Thierry Bergeon who wrote the cheque. He’s the bottling guy and the logistics partner for many of Bordeaux’s leading châteaux. And us. Keep reading

The same vines pictured year on year in May

22 May 2019

We’ve taken a picture of the Merlot vines in front of the Château on the 23rd May each year. This one was taken on the 22nd because it was so grey and rainy the following day, but it shows how it compares to previous years. (23 May pic below.)

The odd thing is how some vintages are completely different to others. The early budding and growing season of 2011, compared to the late one of 2013, and the hail damaged crop of 2009. Touch wood, so far so good for 2019.

Ten days after a hailstorm at Ch Bauduc on 23 May 2009

The earliest growing season – a burst out of the blocks, 23 May 2011

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Bordeaux 2018 – an independent guide. April review

It’s Bordeaux en primeur time and 2018 is actually a vintage to get quite enthusiastic about. There hasn’t been such a great year since, erm, 2016.

The fine wine world descended on the region earlier in April and, along with thousands from the global trade and scores of journalists and critics, Gavin tasted hundreds of barrel samples.

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Bordeaux 2018 en primeur buying guide

I do think 2018 is a Bordeaux vintage to consider buying into – given the right wines at the right price. Here are my ‘en primeur’ scores out of 100 for most of the leading wines, with scores close to 90 or above, from the top appellations. The rating for 2018 is on the left, 2016 on the right. Although the vintages are not the same in style, the wines are often not far apart, quality-wise, and the châteaux will price their new 2018 wines with 2016 in mind.

The first EP price is the opening en primeur price of the wine in the UK in May or June 2017, and the ‘£ now’ is the average list price you’d find, according to Liv-ex. Prices are per case of 12 ‘in bond’ (excl duty and VAT).

These tables are a simple guide to relative values: if my score for the 2018 is the same or higher than the 2016, and the price is the same or cheaper, then it’s worth a look. (And vice versa.) You can compare my 2018 ratings with other critics’ scores on the Livex page here.

The 2016s were bottled in 2018 and are physically available. Many have a long life ahead of them but some are already approachable, such is the purity and freshness of the fruit, and silkiness of the tannins.

In general, the 2018s will require patience, despite the opulence and hedonistic appeal of the wines. I’d reckon on drinking windows of 2028-2043 (10-25+ years) and beyond for many of the top estates.

Some personal favourites in their class in 2018, and for which we hope pricing is reasonable, are in highlighted in bold/italics.

At the foot, there’s also 50+ ‘Bordeaux on a budget’ 2018 reds en primeur. Keep reading

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 Keep reading

March review

Good Lord. The 29th of March 2019 already.

Now we’re into time added on – what in football we used to call injury time – we still don’t have an answer to the most popular question from visitors in the last two and three quarter years – ‘how will Brexit affect you?’ As Brits in France, exporters to the UK from the EU, and as importers in the UK, we’ll put some answers on a postcard in due course, once we’ve got a stronger indication as to where we’re headed.

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