When esteemed members of the wine community like super consultant, Michel Rolland, and Head Winemaker at Lafite, Eric Kohler, are suggesting that the 2018 may be one of the greatest ever, one sits up and takes notice. Those two were just a couple of the various winemakers, negotiants and critics that we met as we criss-crossed Bordeaux over four days who waxed lyrical about a vintage that surpassed tempered expectations and delivered wines that we couldn’t quite believe.
In the words of Monsieur Rolland, “across Bordeaux the wines are, on average, the same quality as the 2016s, but in a small number of cases the wines surpass even those superb quality levels”. Kohler at Lafite who was as humble when we met as he is proud of his 2018 creation said he compared the wine to Lafite 1959, widely regarded as the finest Lafite ever. The bar then has been set high, and pleasingly it was rare that we were left disappointed.
Star appellations were Pauillac, St Estephe and St Julien, with Margaux also having a bumper year, whilst the wines on the plateau in St Emilion were outstanding, too. In 2017 it was the blue-blooded Chateaux either on the banks of the river, or on the plateau on the right bank, who survived the frosts, and it was these properties who found success again, with their older, deeper vines being able to access crucial stores of water deep under the ground to keep the vines going during a scorcher of a year.
This was a vintage that began with rains and even a little hail, and so producers like Palmer, Carmes Haut Brion and Pontet Canet were hit by mildew: quality levels were still exceptional, but yields badly hit. In the case of Pontet Canet, Alfred Tesseron, the wily old operator still at the helm, stuck to his biodynamic principles and the result when we visited was a three quarters empty chais, which would otherwise be populated with barrels. “For us, maybe the poor yields is the pain, and the special quality of the wine the reward, for sticking to our principles”, said Justine, Alfred’s daughter and heir-apparent.
Once the vintage got motoring along the weather was exceptional, uninterrupted sun for months, with a sprinkling of rain just when the vines needed it to give them a second wind. This created ripe fruit, full of sugar, which means more alcohol, and alcohol was the real winemaking challenge of the vintage. Remarkably most producers managed to disguise the higher alcohol levels and instead allow the opulence of the fruit to shine forth. Acidity was essential in all wines, to stop that high alcohol and tannic structure from giving the wine bluntness, and in nearly all cases balance was achieved.
What struck all of us more that anything was a welcome return to appellation typicity. Perfect weather conditions during usual harvest months, in the words of Michel Rolland “gave the Chateaux the unusual and very welcome freedom to pick when grapes were at perfect ripeness - so important for Cabernet Sauvignon, of course”. At two tastings we went to, with the room divided up into appellations, there was real, tangible differences between the different areas: St Estephe racy and spicy, Pauillac fresh and possessing of a graphite core and St Julien elegant and regal in its delineation.
How then to sum up this vintage? In one word: “Triumph”. For drinkers and investors, this will most likely go down as one of those magical years in the world’s most famous wine region where the wines were extraordinary and will last for decades and decades. We now await the pricing and hope that the Chateaux will be reasonable: if they are then we will be wholehearted in our advice to snap up as much as you possibly can.