Bordeaux 2018 - A Roller Coaster Vintage

Bordeaux 2018 - A Roller Coaster Vintage

Monday 15th April 2019
by Tom Jenkins

There were no magic micro-climates in 2018. This simple analysis of the vintage is the same from St Estephe to Castillon. This is one of the great turn-around stories, from despair to elation, but it was anything but straightforward. Nicolas Audebert from Rauzan Segla and Canon coined it the ‘Grand Huit’, or a rollercoaster. Even when summer arrived, this brought its own challenges. Water stress is necessary to make great red wines, however, those without clay subsoils were at risk of hydric stress and the dangers of blocked maturity. 

After a natural crop thinning by virtue of mildew, the vines were not carrying an abundance of fruit. Most vignerons didn’t do much in the way of green harvests and many did minimal canopy thinning. What was on the vine was very healthy with thick skins and wonderful potential. 

A Game of Two Halves 

This footballing cliché seems to sum up the story of 2018. The first half was outright defence, a real goalmouth scramble to prevent mildew. It was agonising watching for all involved, a constant barrage of tropical conditions. Estates like Palmer and Pontet Canet, burdened by biodynamic certification, really had no answers; their yields are miniscule as a result. Even those of a more traditional mindset had their hands full keeping on top of their treatments – literally no one could take their eye off the ball in 2018. And then when most spectators were at the point of maximum despair, fortunes changed. Vignerons could finally relax and watch the big ballon d’Or in the sky. Summer arrived, and what a summer it was. Endless sunshine, very little rain, and cool nights; vines basked in perfect conditions throughout July, August, September and October. It was a vintage to match the World Cup triumph of Les Bleus. 

It was in some ways a manager’s vintage. Frederic Faye at Figeac described it as a ‘vintage of decisions’. Guillaume Pouthier from Carmes Haut Brion called it a ‘vintage of conviction’. Tough choices had to be made, both in the vineyard and in the chai. You could have all that natural concentration on the vine, but timidity or greed at harvest time would be costly. Equally, macerations had to be handled deftly to manage the flavour profiles and tannins. Many eschewed délestage and pigeage in favour of infusion. This was not a vintage to follow a recipe, adapting to conditions and situations was key. Big decision at big moments – not a vintage for the faint hearted. 

On the right bank the recent trend for earlier harvests and more freshness, which we would normally applaud was not necessarily the answer. Those who picked too early have something missing in the mid-palate, but still have those blockbuster tannins. Harvesting too late had all its usual pitfalls. The conditions were so perfect that there was no risk of botrytis or rot, cool nights retained freshness in the grapes; this was a vintage made by extraordinary climatic conditions, but determined by human hand. 

We approached the vintage with a natural scepticism – we have become impervious to Bordelais’ hyperbole. 2016 is our benchmark vintage and we were going to take some convincing. It became apparent that this is by no means a homogeneous crop, and it also defies technical analysis. These wines have much higher natural alcohols than 2016s and much higher pHs, yet the best wines neither seem particularly alcoholic nor lack for freshness and zip. We’d go as far as saying that the best of the vintage is actually a notch up on the sublime 2016s, albeit in a more concentrated more muscular style. What separates the good from the great is the tannin management and the quality of tannins. The best: Lafleur, Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Latour, Lafite, Pichon Comtesse, Montrose Leoville Las Cases, Margaux, Haut Brion and Petrus are epic in stature, but fine and detailed leaving the palate tantalised. These are staggering wines, which resemble turbocharged 2016s. There are also spectacular efforts from Calon Segur, Cos d’Estournel, GPL, Mouton Rothschild, Clerc Milon, Duhart Milon, Pichon Baron, Lynch Bages, Leoville Barton, Beychevelle, Brane Cantenac, Rauzan Segla, Domaine de Chevalier, Belair Monange, La Fleur Petrus and Ausone that must rank amongst the finest wines ever made at these Chateaux. We have become ardent believers, fans even! Whilst the vintage as a whole may not be as consistent and charming as the magical 2016s, the peaks are potentially higher.