Early Returns: 2018 Bordeaux is Taking Shape

The week is far from over, but we have had the fortune to taste through a large proportion of the Left and Right Bank after today’s marathon tastings took us to the northern-most regions of the Medoc and back through the heart of Pauillac and Saint-Julien. 

A few notes on the profile of the wines, varietals and stature of the vintage:

Ralph Sands is interviewed at Cos d’Estournel

Ralph Sands is interviewed at Cos d’Estournel

  • This is a dark-fruited vintage.  Whether it is the Merlot-driven Right Bank, or the Cabernet-based Left Bank, there is a trend towards black fruits in a vast majority of the wines.  This is often due to small concentrated berries that were common in the growing season

  • The wines are concentrated with serious tannic structure. There is enough fruit to make both of those work, but the best wines had the acidity to tie it all together and the textural refinement give it a note of distinction. The best wines are ageworthy without a doubt.

  • Merlot was the challenge.  The heat pushed this early-ripening varietal hard and some wines that didn’t handle it well were grippy, chewy, or short.  There are instances where the Merlot was brilliant (Mouton made a point of saying so for theirs), but it was a common conversation with winemakers that their struggles were largely with this varietal.

  • Cabernet Franc was very strong.  It was present in some of the more red-fruited examples and found itself more often in a larger proportion in the Grand Vin, while Merlot was more often relegated.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon was successful.  Perhaps not with the kind of consensus of a vintage like 2016, but there were few complaints. In the Left Bank (and those select Right Bank properties that use it) it is the backbone for some masterful wines.

  • Petit Verdot was also applauded, which is notable less so for it’s presence in any significant way in blends, but more so for the fact that it handles the heat better, and some forward-looking folks want to keep a good focus on it as our climate changes.

  • It is a very good to great vintage.  The top wines are stunning examples that will attempt to be in the same conversation as the best of 2009, 2010, 2015, and 2016.  That said, it doesn’t look as uniform across the board as other more structured or ageworthy examples such as 2010 or 2016.  But the fact that the conversation is steered towards that kind of quality means that we’re still in for a pretty great class of wines. 2018 is, indeed, a significant vintage for wine collectors and many examples will rival many landmark vintages.

And then the regions:

The team at Lafite-Rothschild, one of 2018’s biggest stars

The team at Lafite-Rothschild, one of 2018’s biggest stars

  • Saint-Emilion – this is a region where the Merlot sometimes caused headaches for producers.  Some wines we found were all dark fruit and chewy tannins, where others were able to find the balance in spite of the challenges.  Those that have recently put a push towards polished wines of refinement and elegance seemed to have the right touch this year.  I have mentioned names like Canon, La Gaffeliere, and Figeac, but there are also other more reasonably-priced wines like Bellevue and Fonplegade that hit the mark.

  • Pomerol – the overall quality here seems high, although on the whole it seems most chateaux didn’t hit the kind of epic heights they saw in 2016.  The ones that didn’t hit the mark were still very compelling wines that had round profiles and perhaps as not much depth as we expect from properties that operate in an elite space.  As always, they also deserve some time to see if they do round into shape – the potential is certainly there.  Vieux Chateau Certain was a winner again, and Feytit-Clinet, Le Gay, Client, and La Pointe also impressed. 

  • Saint-Julien – although the sample size is small, it seems widely agreed that the quality of Saint-Julien is very high, and it is the most consistently successful region in 2018.  The entire range seems to have its charms.  Our team was impressed by Gloria on several occasions, and Beychevelle and Branaire Ducru made some great examples.  But it was Leoville-Barton that captured our attention in a major way.  Sure, we’re inclined to enjoy the wines of the Famille Barton over the years, but their 2018 just has everything going for it and is a potential masterpiece.  Ducru-Beaucaillou also made a luxurious and complete wine that will rival the best of the vintage..

  • Pauillac – this is a region that has seen some of the best of the best in the vintage, but also has some wines that are massively tannic and hard in early tastings, leaving us wondering if they’ll resolve in time.  For this reason, it is a very difficult region to encapsulate.  For example, it is perfectly clear that Lafite Rothschild and Pichon Lalande were big winners.  Lafite is the essence of Cabernet in 2018 and a true classic for the estate that hit all the right notes.  Pichon Lalande has been no less than amazing in each of the four times we’ve tasted it.  Ironically, one of the things that these two properties also have in common is that they have other wines in their stable that nailed it.  Both 2018 Duhart Mion and Reserve de la Comtesse have been vibrant and delicious every time we’ve encountered them.

  • Saint-Estephe – they are intense wines that beautifully encapsulate their respective properties and it is a region that seems to have one hit after another.  Calon Segur was cool and composed with waves of pure fruit and the structure to match.  Montrose was layered and hauntingly deep, with an incredibly long, mouthwatering finish.  And Cos d’Estournel followed its trend over the past few years with a compact and elegant style that promotes refinement and precision.  Capbern, Lilian Ladouys, and Marquis de Calon Segur were also solid examples on the affordable side of the spectrum.  All the wines were powerful, and although not prominent in any way, they seemed to carry a half degree higher alcohol then their neighbors to the immediate south.

  • Margaux – Margaux wines are intense, darkly fruited, and some of the stress of the vintage showed up here more often than in other Northern Medoc appellations.  That said, there are many highlights in the region.  Rauzan Segla produced another extremely polished and rewarding red, while Marquis d’Alesme, Brane Cantenac, and Cantenac Brown all performed at a very high level. Malescot-St-Exupery produced another winner and has put together an incredible run in recent years

  • Pessac-Leognan – this was highly variable due to some hail damage and the issues with heat where Merlot that plays a big part.  Some of the high-proportion Cabernet Franc wines were strong like Carmes Haut Brion, while others were able to hit the mark like Domaine de Chevalier and Malartic Lagraviere.  Other wines struggled to find mid-palate depth or didn’t find the concentration that you expect from top vintages in Pessac.

  • Whites/Sauternes – a challenging vintage to say the least.  The hot, dry weather did not promote high acidity for the whites nor botrytis development for the Sauternes.  The result is a set of charming wines that will be early drinkers.  Domaine de Chevalier Blanc seems to be the crème of the crop, while Malartic Lagraviere also had a good showing.  Those looking for strong whites should revisit 2017, while 2015 seems like the last big winner for Sauternes.

The empty barrel room at Pontet-Canet

The empty barrel room at Pontet-Canet

One of the other noteworthy parts of the vintage that has been widely discussed is mildew, the prevention of which is extremely difficult for biodynamic producers.  It was such a dramatic effect, that some producers lose proportions of their vintage or the vintage entire.  One of the biggest examples is Pontet-Canet, who lost 70% of the vintage, which amounts to tens of thousands of cases.  Although they have experienced some of the biggest successes in the past decade, it was still humbling and somber to take a walk through the barrel room on the way to the tasting, and find it largely vacant of any barrels of the current vintage.  It was a striking reminder of how difficult the vintage was at the beginning, and another reminder of how beautiful the summer was to overcome all of these challenges to such a high degree.  For what it is worth, the 2018 Pontet-Canet that did survive is full-throttle, modern, exotic, and delicious. Palmer, who also suffered a similar fate, is left with a quarter of their production, but a masterpiece for what survived.

Our next few days will help us finish our immediate coverage to the south in Margaux and Pessac (now updated above), while revisiting the Right Bank and re-tasting a handful of wines.  As always, there’s nothing certain at this very early stage, but after three long days in Bordeaux, the picture is certainly starting to take shape.

Ryan Moses