Bordeaux 2018: No smooth ride

Bordeaux winemaker and commentator Gavin Quinney’s analysis of the 2018 harvest reveals it was an average year overall in terms of yields but one where mildew pressure meant some communes came off worse than others.

In his report (published in full both on his own website and Liv-ex’s) he explains that while the overall volumes produced where more or less average, from grower to grower the story is very different and while it was, “a glorious year for some growers…for others the size of their crop was…the stuff of nightmares”.

It is, he argues, a vintage where – despite an apparently positive outlook – “the devil’s in the detail”.

To begin with, it’s true that the region as a whole has bounced back from the absolute pasting much of it took as a result of frost and hail in 2017.

The 2018 vintage produced close to 500 million litres overall – the equivalent of a suitably devilish 666 million bottles.

The 10 year average from 2008 to 2017, including as it does two very small harvests (2013 and 2017 and 2008 wasn’t huge either) is 507m litres so 2018 is pretty much on the average sizewise but it’s worth pointing out that it is a smaller crop than 2014, 2015 and 2016 (the latter being especially bumper).

As Quinney points out, production varies massively from appellation to appellation and producer to producer.

May and July caused damage to an unlucky few and the relatively cool and damp end of spring/early summer in Bordeaux led to widespread downy mildew which caused catastrophic losses in some areas.

The Right Bank did bounce back after terrible losses in 2017 but it was the Left Bank and in particular the communes of Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe and Saint Julien that experienced lower yields.

As is so often the case (despite the occasional derision it causes), the sunshine of July through to October served to save the crops of those struck by mildew and concentrated the crop for others leading them to hail the 2018 as an excellent year.

 

A question of yields

Looking at the yields from the main appellations in tables that Quinney has compiled, one can see that in 2018 all of the major AOC, to a greater or lesser extent managed to produce more than in 2017; though Quinney adds that, “judging by the huge crop in many vineyards in 2018, it’s clear that yields would have been significantly higher had it not been for the presence of mildew in the spring and early summer.”

Digging down into the key AOC of the Left and Right Banks so far yields some surprising results.

It’s worth remembering that in 2017, while vineyards across the region succumbed to frost, the AOCs along the Gironde such as Pauillac and St-Estephe were not as badly hit and those two communes actually managed higher yields in 2017 than in 2016.

Despite 2018 being a bigger crop overall than 2017, Pauillac, St-Estèphe and St Julien all had higher yields in 2017 than in 2018 (see accompanying table).

Later on in his report, Quinney looks at the hail damage in May and July. These were, however, localised, striking Pessac, a bit of the Haut-Médoc and parts of Bourg and Blaye in May and then Bourg and Haut-Médoc again and Sauternes in July. The damage was severe in places but not catastrophic.

The real problem was mildew, brought about by heavy downpours in April but most especially May and June during flowering and grape development.

As Quinney noted: “The pattern of rainfall in the spring coincided with the spread of mildew unless it was brought under control. Many organic and biodynamic vineyards were hit badly and those conventionally farmed vineyards that missed vital sprayings also suffered considerable losses. A day or two late, in some cases, was to prove expensive – mildew can affect bunches as well as the canopy. As much as a third of Bordeaux vineyards were impacted by mildew to a greater or lesser extent.”

It is a common knowledge now that estates in “Pauillac and Margaux” that have switched to biodynamic viticulture have suffered very heavily.

One of these is Pontet-Canet, which responded to inquiries from the drinks business on this topic late last year.

Although the château declined to discuss actual losses, saying that, “mishaps of an estate only concern that estate itself,” it did reveal that the “small volume of the harvest” meant that vinification, “could take place only in the new concrete vats of 40hl,” which suggests yields were under 40hl/ha, and if, as Quinney’s charts show, Pauillac’s average yields were 38.5hl/ha then Pontet-Canet’s overall yields may have been smaller still.

So 2018 was far from a smooth ride for everyone in Bordeaux, no matter the spin that may be put on it when visits begin in earnest next month.

On the other hand, as Quinney also concludes, there is no doubt that in terms of quality the Bordelais are right to be upbeat.

The harvest really did take place after three perfectly dry and sunny months and there should be some extremely high quality wines on offer.

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