The greatest wines owe their success to location and climate. The French famously use the term terroir to capture the idea of the unique style arising from all the nuances of a vineyard’s position. Equally important, but not always given equal credit, is the human element: decisions made by individuals in both vineyard and winery also hugely influence the glorious nectar that ends up in our glasses. The 2018 Bordeaux vintage embodies this special relationship between man and nature better than any other I have tasted in 30 years in the wine trade.
Bold, astute decisions at the right time have resulted in estates making some of their greatest wines in recent years. Missed opportunities, often a failure to act at the crucial moment, however, had far-reaching effects and in those cases the end result does not reflect this very fine year. Vintage comparisons are not always helpful, but there is reason to take note when one of our favourite proprietors, Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, says that, while until now 2005 and 2010 were his greatest achievements, for him his 2018 surpasses both!
To use a sporting analogy, 2018 was most definitely a game of two halves. The first six months of the year saw as much rain as growers expect in an average year. Christian Seeley of Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac commented that this was the most difficult period for producers. The weather conditions were suited to the development of mildew on a dangerous scale. Skilful human intervention was paramount. Proactive management techniques in the vineyard, in particular ahead of these conditions, were vintage saving. For the less attentive and those caught napping the consequences were potentially disastrous.
Those châteaux who follow the much-admired biodynamic methods found their hands tied. With limited forms of control available, their vineyards suffered the ravaging effect of mildew with the attendant significant reduction in yield. Most notably Château Palmer harvested a miserly 11 hl/ha, an almost 75% loss of crop, with Château Pontet Canet at similar levels. Here maximum skill was required in handling the grapes to make the most of such miniscule volumes.
For some, the crucial months of May and June had their own challenges. On May 26th there was an extremely harsh hailstorm in the city centre of Bordeaux and its surrounds. This impacted the southerly vineyards of Pessac-Léognan, hitting some of the earlier flowering sites. Château Haut-Brion reported some loss of potential fruit, but nothing catastrophic. Véronique Sanders commented that Haut Bailly escaped unscathed. At their neighbouring property, Château Le Pape, they lost 50% of their crop, which shows how localised these storms can be. A slight dip in temperature in early June caused some coulure (aborted fruit set) reducing potential yields in some vineyards. Arguably this was no bad thing, as at this stage some producers were fearing an excess of production from their vines.
A dramatic change in weather conditions at the start of July saw the second half of the match get underway with a bang. In Pomerol Edouard Moueix described four months of amazing luminosity, the longest period of consistent daytime sunshine since the fabulous 1990 vintage. This was crucial for the development of the excellent fruit quality that characterises the vintage. In addition, while the total temperature for the same period was warmer than 2003, it kept below the excessive peaks of 40 degrees or more, which impacted on that vintage. Furthermore, most evenings the temperature dipped significantly. The cool and fresh nights helped maintain much required acidity levels, so vital for wines of true quality and balance.
There was just one caveat in this summer of sunshine. Sadly on July 15th, the very day that France won the Football World Cup, and as Hugo Lloris was raising the trophy, the heavens opened. Hailstones the size of golf balls fell on some of the greatest estates in Sauternes. In the satellite vineyards of Bourg and Blaye and at Château La Lagune in the Haut-Médoc the crop was completely wiped out.
Outside this localised calamity, the only real concern in the three summer months up to the harvest was, ironically, a lack of rainfall. It was now that vineyard location and terroir really came into play. Vines planted on sandier free-draining soils were at risk of suffering from water deprivation. However, the best located estates in the Médoc and the superbly positioned clay-based vineyards of Pomerol and St Emilion escaped hydric stress; they not only coped but truly excelled.
The harvest took place in perfect conditions from early September through to mid October depending on the proportion of slightly earlier ripening Merlot to the later ripening Cabernets. Excellent quality fruit meant the sorting tables were virtually redundant, apart from the exclusion of a certain proportion of minute, mildew-affected berries.
As the grapes entered the cellar the final pieces of the 2018 jigsaw fell into place with the element of human instinct and experience again coming into play. Berry sizes were noticeably small, as the warm dry summer months had encouraged strong, thick skins. While this had the potential to deliver wonderful intensity and concentration of flavours, careful handling was critical to avoid excessive extraction of colour and tannin. At Château Figeac, Frederic Faye commented that to make a great wine in 2018 meant minimal handling in the winery. Having selected your best berries, it was vital to ferment at low temperatures and keep remontage (pumping over) to a minimum.
The greatest vintages are often not without their difficulties: 1961 suffered a severe frost, 1945 risked the vagaries of drought as did 2005. 2018 falls into this category. It tested vineyard managers to the extreme but, as the fruit was picked, there was a huge sigh of relief throughout the villages. Today, with the vinifications complete and the blends made in early January, there is little doubt that the best wines are exceptional.
There are some tremendously successful red wines this year. The best have a very relaxed feel, but also a controlled intensity. The berries were on the small side due to drier summer season, which contributed to a deep colour and firm central tannic core. The long warm summer meant that the fruit was exceptionally ripe giving a lovely richness to the wines. Harvest dates were as always crucial (particularly for the Merlot) to avoid an excess of alcohol. Many châteaux owners suggested the wines balance the richness of the 2009s with the freshness and drive of the 2016 vintage. I also found a touch of grip and intensity reminiscent of the 2000 vintage. If the outstanding red wines in 2018 develop as we think and have a mix of these three vintages, then we really are in for a treat.
Each and every appellation has produced some superlative wines. Singling any out seems unfair, but Pomerol really did not put a foot wrong and it was a joy to taste the uniform brilliance of St Estèphe. We take for granted the tremendous quality and reliability of areas such as St Julien and Pauillac and, yet again, they have not disappointed.
I also hugely enjoyed the dry white wines in 2018. The majority have a high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc in the blend, but the fruit was beautifully ripe and the wines have less of a herbaceous bite than in some years. The scented flavours are floral with ripe white fruits. With softer acidity they will be approachable for early drinking, have a delicious balance and will give great pleasure.
In Sauternes, sadly, it was not an easy year. Certain estates, such as Châteaux Guiraud and de Fargues, lost their entire crop due to the July hail storm. Those who did produce wines saw yields at their lowest levels for many years, down to 5 hl/ha for some estates. As a result, we have not included any sweet wines in this brochure, but we will be making the wines available when they are released during the campaign.
To conclude, 2018 really is a high class vintage. Less homogenous than some years as most vineyards faced difficulties at some stage during the growing season, it is a year where the human element was so very important. The top wine directors and vineyard managers certainly earnt their crust in 2018 with some sensational results. The best wines will stand the test of time with an amazing life ahead of them, and have excited us at all levels.
David Roberts MW