Fiona’s blog: The power of 2018 primeurs

My “En Primeur” week started with a wonderful tasting at Cheval Blanc which unites the top producers from Saint Emilion and Pomerol in a wonderful evening that is organised by Pierre-Olivier Clouet the chateau’s charismatic technical director.  It is a tasting among peers; no judgements are made but it is a great opportunity to tasted each other’s wines.  During the harvest we are often in and out of each other’s cellars, experiencing the challenges and the decisions which we all face with each harvest.   Over dinner following the tasting, we all pondered over the reaction to the 2018 wines.  Would the alcohol levels stand out too much?  Were the wines too extreme? Some wines were juicy and fresh; others were strict and taut, hunkering down on their tannins and their barrels.  One thing was sure, it was a powerful vintage but would the quality be strong enough across the board to qualify 2018 as an outstanding vintage?

During the following 10 days, I tasted assiduously alongside Julia Harding MW who had the responsibility of writing up the vintage for  We judged over 200 wines, first for two days under ideal conditions at the magnificent surroundings of the Cité du Vin on Bordeaux’s waterside; a privilege reserved for a happy few thanks to the great efficiency of the Union des Grands Crus and then out to the countryside to taste at individual estates.  The first thing that struck me about these wines was their intensity, their bright, deep colours and their fresh juiciness. The best wines are beautifully balanced, rich and yes, even elegant in spite of the high levels of tannin and alcohol. I only have to remember tasting such absolute stars such as Lafite, Cheval Blanc, Léoville Las Cases and our Le Pin and Vieux Chateau Certan to feel the excitement about this vintage bubbling up inside me.  Yet there are also wines that are at their worst are hot, chunky, over oaked and very tannic and at their best are dull and lacking in freshness and charm, many of them produced from shallow, sandy soils that did not withstand the extremes of the 2018 growing season.   It is a year when one feels that the individual character of the domain and their ability to deal with the climate excesses comes to the fore and this is not surprising given that each estate could, thanks to the beautiful, dry autumn weather decide at luxury when they were going to pick their grapes. 

As I tasted through the wines, my own memories of the vintage became more vivid:  The depressing months between January and June when it seemed never to stop raining.  Okay, we had all spoken about how the water tables needed replenishing but this rain was incessant.  With the wet weather came mildew; not an abnormal occurrence but in 2018 it was virulent. Luckily, we were more or less spared in Pomerol and Saint Emilion but lost about 20% of our crop in Castillon where our organic regime is just not as powerful against the disease.  I remember the gorgeous summer weather, first during our holiday on the Bordeaux coast at Cap Ferret at the beginning of July and then towards the end of August as we feared for the young vines at Le Pin and saw the dead leaves dropping to the vineyard floor.  We gear up for the harvest from the beginning of September every year but this year, while we picked the young vines on the 20th, it was not until the 3rd of October that we began the harvest seriously.  I recall thinking how strange it was that the Médoc, especially St. Estèphe had finished its harvest before Pomerol when usually the Merlot dominated Right Bank is done well before the Left Bank picks its Cabernets.  I retain the freshness of the evenings when the temperature dropped by 20°C as the sun set and the grape skins seemed to expand and then contract as if they were polishing their tannins as they moved.  I loved the fact that when we did pick the grapes, they were so uniformly healthy that we barely used our selection tables.  I remember the deep, brilliant colours of the musts as we did the first pumping over and the heady, intense aromas of black and red berries that filled the cellar.  The yields surprised us also, even if there had been some mildew and the berries were small because of the summer drought, the flowering had gone well and there were plenty of buds plus the grapes were so healthy that there was little to discard.

Touring around the region, tasting the wines, both Julia and I were surprised by the different stories we heard especially in the Médoc.  Rainfall, for instance, was inconsistent, varying significantly from one area to the next. The rain that hit Bordeaux in early July was largely confined to the commune of Margaux. Further north in St-Estèphe, the rain came at a more opportune moment, in early September, and growers attribute their success to the drought relief that moisture provided.

The better estates and better terroirs are much more successful in a challenging year as 2018.  Margaux as an appellation is more consistent than in many years due to the July rainfall as there is no evidence of heat stress or drought in the wines.   St. Julien wines are a little more compact and tannic but they have that characteristic sweet cassis fruit for which the commune is famous for and as always is successful across the board with shining successes from the three Léovilles, Talbot (where Jean-Michel Laporte previously at Conseillante is making the wines) and Ducru.   Pauillac is glorious:  the fruit is ripe but not too sweet, there are violets, cassis, cedar – all the elements of great Pauillac, power and very full tannins but without extraction – they remind me of the 2000s or 2009s.  St. Estèphe is so balanced – there is more power and more tannin here but across the board there are lovely wines and especially great values in the cru bourgeois wines such as Capbern, Haut Marbuzet, Phélan-Segur and Ormes de Pez.   On the Right Bank, the top estates came shining through with wines of great density and freshness and it is difficult to say whether Pomerol or Saint Emilion stole the show.   

Just as there is not one appellation that stands out, so was it fascinating to hear how winemakers praised the different grape varieties. Philippe Bascaules, director of Château Margaux, says that he has never seen such excellent Merlot while Pierre-Olivier Clouet spoke of 2018 being a year of Cabernet Franc at Cheval Blanc.  Alexandre Thienpont, at Vieux Château Certan, confirmed that Cabernet Franc added a beautiful note of freshness and cashmere structure to his 2018. The fine weather that extended the season allowed growers to pick later-ripening grapes when they wanted. As Nicolas Glumineau of Château Pichon-Lalande explained: “I needed two brains to make wine this year: a brain which is Merlot-driven and then the Cabernet-Sauvignon brain. The cabs were so healthy—not a glimmer of rot—that we could have harvested much later.”

Throughout Bordeaux, wine growers adapted their vineyard work according to the unusual weather conditions. Frédéric Faye of Château Figeac described stripping the leaves on the side of the rising sun, to shade the fruit in the afternoon while aerating the clusters. Many in the Médoc chose to pick Merlot early but to let the Cabernets mature slowly; they also cut way back on their extractions, by pumping over gently and often without oxygen. There are lovely wines throughout the region, so it is difficult to single out one area as being more successful than another.

Many wines have low acidity and high pH levels, around 3.5 to 3.8 pH, and alcohols hovering around 14.5°, and yet they taste very fresh. The high pH, according to Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion, makes the wines soft and velvety, despite the fact that they are rich in tannins.  That sense of freshness has left winemakers scratching their heads. Some attribute it to the great difference between day and nighttime temperatures in the autumn, which mitigated the heat, especially on the Right Bank; others point to the constant rainfall in the first half of the year that raised the water table and ensured that vines were not stressed by the summer drought.

When asked the inevitable question as to whether the wines would age well, winemakers pointed to vintages such as the legendary 1947 or the 1982 as examples of low acid, tannic wines that have proved their worth. Citing more recent examples, Véronique Sanders of Château Haut Bailly said that the wines have the charm of 2015 and 2009 combined with the structure of 2016 and 2010. One thing is for certain: These wines, with their high tannins and high alcohols, are built to last and we will be talking about the great wines of the 2018 vintage for decades to come.

Potential Legends

Château Lafite Rothchild, Pauillac
Château Latour, Pauillac
Château Léoville Las Cases, St-Julien
Château Palmer, Margaux
Château Lafleur, Pomerol
Château Calon Ségur, St-Estèphe
Château Cheval Blanc, St-Emilion
Château Ausone, St-Emilion
Château Figeac, St-Emilion
Domaine de Chevalier, Péssac-Léognan (red and white)

Affordable Investments
Château Les Ormes de Pez, St-Estèphe
Château de Pez, St-Estèphe
Château Le Crock, St-Estèphe
Château Capbern, St-Estèphe
Château Haut-Marbuzet, St-Estèphe
Château d’Angludet, Margaux
Château Potensac, Pauillac
Château du Tertre, Margaux
Château de Fonbel, St-Emilion
Château Puy Blanquet, Saint Emilion
Château L’Aurage, Castillon
Grand Village (red and white) Fronsac