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Bordeaux 2018: Handle with care
As the annual game of sensationalising the latest Bordeaux vintage starts to get underway, there have already been claims that this is ‘the vintage of a generation’ and ‘a legendary vintage in the making’. As ever, such claims reveal the desire among the UK trade to see the vintage ‘work’ on a commercial footing and for them, ‘work’ means volume. Successfully selling wines from a dozen or so Châteaux simply won’t cut it, so marketing departments are bravely stepping up to the task to build hype. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this kind of hype is warranted (and frankly it seldom is).
If we look at the climatic data issued by each and every Château, which nearly forces us to declare excess baggage on our return flight after tasting in the region, it is clear that 2018 is an unusual vintage. Winter was very wet. When I say ‘very wet’, it is worth qualifying: Bordeaux had 800-850 millimetres of rain between December 2017 and May 2018 – equivalent to an entire year’s rainfall in just over five months! In wet and also cold conditions, budburst was delayed. Spring remained wet as well as cooler than the norm. This led to the first hurdle; in late spring/early summer, Bordeaux witnessed a particularly virulent outbreak of mildew. While this is not an uncommon fungal disease in the Atlantic climate, and one that can be prevented by both attentive viticulture and the use of Bordeaux mixture (a mixture of copper sulphate and slaked lime, which is employed as a fungicide), many vineyard managers were surprised by the severity of the attack. The outgoing vineyard manager at Château Palmer commented that this was the worst outbreak he had witnessed in 40 years. Palmer suffered some of the greatest losses to mildew with their crop reduced to a mere 11 hectolitres per hectare compared to an expected 35 hectolitres per hectare. Such a level almost equates to Sauternes production! By no means was Château Palmer alone in suffering dramatic losses of yield. Château Pontet-Canet retained just one third of their normal production; to taste at the Château we walk through two vast barrel cellars. The first, normally filled with barrels from wall to wall, was completely empty and the second was also far from full; a sad and sorry sight. The losses at these two properties are certainly the most dramatic and can be ascribed to the biodynamic approach to viticulture that both estates pursue. In simple terms, to attain biodynamic certification, an estate needs to eschew the use of copper as a fungicide, but that leaves them without a particularly effective treatment against downy mildew and can result, as this year, in devastated yields. The key point is an estate may follow biodynamic principles, should they believe that this approach is beneficial. But their hands are only tied if they wish to retain certification. In essence, they forego their flexibility for their philosophy. The mildew attacks were not limited to the Médoc. The Graves was also troubled, with estates like Smith-Haut Lafitte citing losses as high as 40%.
Once July arrived and the risk of mildew had passed, a hot dry summer set in, which assisted recovery. However, while the winter rains had built significant water reserves in the soil, the vines were nevertheless under significant water stress by the end of July. These conditions served to stunt berry development in terms of size (in some instances berries were 20% smaller than normal), but it strongly increased concentration in the skins. In such conditions, a small crop of wines with high tannins is often the outcome as there is a low juice to skin ratio (the tannins and colouring material being held in the skins). The dry and hot conditions continued through August with barely a drop of rain – some technical directors and winemakers commented that they had never known it so dry. While the days were hot, a key facet of the vintage is the switch between day and night temperatures – hot days offset by cool nights helped to retain aromatics and freshness and led to a homogenous ripening period. With a small crop to ripen, the vine’s work was easy, and fruit with excellent aromatic and tannin potential was harvested in fine weather conditions.
For most estates in the Médoc, harvest commenced around mid-September for younger vines and Merlot and concluded much later in the first week of October. There was no pressure from inclement weather, so it was possible to patiently wait for the optimum moment to harvest each vineyard parcel, when skins and pips were perfectly ripe. However, sorting the fruit was complex and critical this year on account of the mildew – many estates had adapted their techniques to ensure only the finest fruit made its way into the vats.
One fascinating outcome concerned the ripeness of Cabernet Sauvignon, the last variety to be harvested, along with the lesser-planted Petit Verdot. For the first time that anyone could recall Cabernet was harvested with a potential alcohol that was equal to Merlot; in a classical vintage it would tend to be as much as two whole degrees lower. The sugar content in the remarkably small berries delivered record-breaking alcohol levels for Cabernet Sauvignon at many estates across the Médoc. At Château Calon-Ségur, we tasted their impressive 2018, which had a declared alcohol level in the final blend of 14.9% – a dramatic shift when you compare it to the 13.8% of the 2014 vintage.
Alcohol per se does not cause an issue when the wine is balanced, but it does make the winemaking process trickier as, in higher levels of alcohol, tannins and colouring material from the skins are more readily extracted. When the skins are thick and so rich in colour as well as tannin, it is all too easy to over-extract; a gentle hand is therefore required. Nearly all estates we spoke with had reduced the number of times the juice was pumped over the skins, all too aware of the pitfalls. The technical director of one notable estate confided in us that he felt he had maybe taken things a little too far, a judgement that is far easier to make with hindsight. There was also a frequent reference to lower fermentation temperatures (these are controlled by cooling systems). More is extracted from the skins at a higher temperature so lowering the temperature targets a softer extraction. It is these decisions that render red winemaking so fascinating – it is all about how you choose to handle the skins, and this is a complex chain of decisions.
On the right bank, mildew was much less of a concern than in the Médoc, aside from at a few specific properties. Yields were therefore largely untroubled by the issues that had dogged vineyards in the Médoc. Various estates commented that their treatments in the vineyard were no greater in number than the norm. Of more relevance was their timing; when we quizzed a few representatives on the topic of vigilance regarding mildew in the early summer, they suggested that the biggest problem was manpower, as taking action on one specific weekend was crucial to combatting a particular outbreak. With the constraint of the French 35-hour working week and the practice of finishing early on a Friday, mobilising a workforce at the weekend had proven particularly onerous for a number of estates. It sounds like a minor point, but this reference was made more than half a dozen times so eventually you tend to take it onboard!
Things followed the lines of a typical ripe vintage, as Merlot ripens, and is therefore harvested, earlier, sometimes by as much as two weeks in comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon on the left bank. Frédéric Faye of Château Figeac told us that the pips had turned brown as early as the end of August – a sign that full phenolic ripeness has been achieved and that the resultant wine should reveal notably fine tannins. His harvest commenced with the Merlot on the 17th September and concluded with the Cabernets, both Franc and Sauvignon, on the 12th October. Nina Mitjavile of Château Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf commented that the fruit ripened quickly to display pure primary aromas. But the Mitjaviles invariably pick a touch later than many estates due to their desire to harness complex secondary aromas that they look for in the fruit prior to harvesting. She said she feared that these secondary aromatics would only develop at the cost of potential alcohol levels continuing to rise. Happily, this secondary complexity did arrive, and while it took longer than usual – with the associated stress – it did so without elevated sugar, revealing the benefit in waiting. They brought in their entire harvest on a single day – the 5th October.
One point to bear in mind regarding the topic of yields is that mildew only accounted for a proportion of the reduction in quantity. The reduced berry size consequent of the dry summer was another notable reason; basically, there was less juice. One estate told us they had a greater quantity of skins than juice in one of their fermentation vats! The Graves was additionally troubled by some hail in late May that compounded their problems. Reduced yields are, however, no concern when it comes to quality – indeed in some instances, with less fruit to ripen, the vine’s energy ensures the remaining crop ripens incredibly well. That is largely the case in 2018, where there is no lack of ripeness.
Two important factors helped to balance the fruit intensity in 2018. The shift between day and night time temperatures, as much as 17 degrees, was crucial. This is no 2003 where the temperatures remained high well into the night. Instead the 2018s have an uncanny freshness both in terms of aromatics and on the palate, particularly for such a bold year. Normally hot conditions lead to a loss of aromatic freshness. The second factor that shapes 2018 concerns the tannins. These are at near record levels in most instances, as measured by the IPT index, and this is due to the small berry size and the thick skins that resulted from the near total absence of rainfall.
In short, you have wines with significant concentration, a youthful freshness to their aromatics and a sense of freshness on the palate, high density of tannins and normal to high alcohols (higher on the left bank for the reasons stated above). These character traits were always going to present an impressive raw material but also necessitated intelligent approaches to extraction and fermentation. It certainly wasn’t straight-forward in the cellars. Moreover, the question of producing a balanced wine from relatively extreme conditions was always going to be a challenge. In instances of notably high tannins and high alcohol, one could wonder how the wines might evolve; while some appeared to show fine freshness, a question remains as to whether the acidity levels are sufficient to provide balance over the longer term. Unsurprisingly, every estate served their barrel samples far cooler than the norm, as lower temperatures go some way to mask the perception of warming alcohol on the back-palate. Equally, this assists in creating a fine impression of the texture – some of the wines had a thickness of texture, a positive in some wines and a negative in others, where it can remove the sense of precision and fluidity. It was certainly easy enough to be impressed by the richness and density of the fruit; the samples were relatively easy to taste en primeur for a vintage so packed with tannin. But I am not sure it was such an easy vintage to assess. A wine’s ability to age is related to its balance and this is our principal purpose of tasting barrel samples. Our assessments focus on tannins, acidity, fruit density and purity. With such exuberant fruit, I wonder if the perception of the tannins was rendered more difficult, as they were more than adequately veiled by the sheer volume of fruit and alcohol.
I don’t think it was a vintage where it was easy to make truly great wines, however, to my mind, there were some spectacular wines produced, notably on the right bank where the triumvirate of Cheval-Blanc, Ausone and Lafleur are all worthy of more than a mention. I keep pondering whether the 2018 Cheval-Blanc was the finest wine I have ever tasted en primeur. I am not sure I have arrived at a definitive answer, but it certainly ranks among the most impressive I have tasted in the last 19 years. No one individual appellation seemed to excel above and beyond another; we found exceptional examples in Margaux (Châteaux Brane-Cantenac and Rauzan-Ségla, for example) as much as we found impressive examples in St.Estèphe (Château Cos d’Estournel) and Pauillac (Château Pichon-Lalande). The complex chain of decisions that had to be taken in the cellars has yielded differing results. For me, the moniker of a great vintage is uniform quality. I certainly found uniform ripeness, but quality is something different altogether.
We are often asked at this time of the year to compare the new vintage to one from the past. This is tricky – frankly it is never easy and not always worthwhile. There is a richness and structure that remind me of 2010 in the best examples but coupled with a finesse and precision that is witnessed in more recent Bordeaux vintages such as 2016, with the renewed focus on precision and refinement. It made me smile when one Technical Director told us of a recent visitor to his cellar who, upon tasting the 2018 sample, affirmed that it reminded him of the 1959…the taster was only in his 30s and therefore had clearly never tasted the ‘59s from barrel. He wondered just how many 1959s he actually had tasted to be able to imagine how they would have tasted as barrel samples! As he told me this story, I merely thought, here we go again…welcome to the circus! While very few wines show in a cumbersome, heavy way that might remind me of 2003, I remain intrigued to see how these wines will evolve. Will the freshness of the barrel samples still show after 5/10 years of bottle age? Will the alcohol levels that tend to peek through on the finish of numerous wines become more evident over time? These are probably the two most fascinating questions of all. After all, greatness is not ascertained from a fleeting taste of an unfinished wine from barrel, it is delivered on maturity in bottle.
As ever, we will do our best to highlight wines where we feel confident in the quality and the value offered. This isn’t an exact science, but we won’t be shy in sharing the Atlas view. This year we will also flag the availability of a wider number of wines, as we acknowledge that some clients follow specific Châteaux and enjoy following each vintage. Equally, we fully understand if you have read something interesting by a critic that we haven’t opted to highlight ourselves. We have all, of course, appraised unfinished wines and have tasted them on different days and in different conditions. This year, the Atlas team made two separate visits to the region in order to form a far more comprehensive view – we hope our comments assist you in making your selections.
Simon Larkin MW
Atlas Fine Wines Ltd.