Bordeaux 2018: Pessac-Léognan

In this great if heterogeneous vintage, Pessac-Léognan has produced more than its fair share of the greatness while contributing less than its share of the heterogeneity. It deserves more attention than it typically receives.

Smith Haut-Laffite (Photo: Colin Hay)

When it comes to the Left Bank we typically think first and foremost of the classed growths of the Médoc and their famous classification system of 1855. The wines of the Graves (with a classification system only introduced in 1953) and of Pessac-Léognan (in which all of its classed growth are located but which only came into existence as an appellation in 1987) are often overlooked. This is unfortunate at the best of times. But in 2018 it is a particularly egregious omission. For in this heterogeneous but potentially great vintage Pessac-Léognan is more homogeneous as an appellation than most and it certainly has its fair share of the greatness.

In what follows I seek to give these wines some of the attention that I think their quality warrants – first in the most general terms and then in a little more detail.

As with my portraits of the Médoc and the right-bank before, it is useful to start with data on average vineyard yields. Here, to aid comparison, I present the figures for Pessac-Léognan alongside the averages for the the principal appellations of the Médoc (Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe) and the Right Bank (Pomerol and St Emilion).

The picture that emerges is already striking. Yields in Pessac-Léognan in 2018 were among the lowest of the appellation. Only Pomerol (with an average yield in 2018 of 36.2 hl/ha) suffered more. In fact, even that is potentially misleading. For expressed as a percentage of average yield over the preceding decade, Pessac-Léognan’s yield in 2018 was lower than any of the Left or Right Bank appellations bar one – Pauillac.

In short, 2018 was not easy; and it was particularly tricky in the northern Graves. Many of the factors for this are likely by now to be familiar in that they are shared with the other leading appellations– the spread of downy mildew in the first half of the summer; evaporation, hydric stress and the resulting concentration of the grapes on the vine in September; and (if much less significantly and only in some vineyards) the legacy of frost damage in 2017. But to these, as in some parts of the southern Médoc (Haut-Médoc and Margaux), we can add a fourth – hail.

On 26 May a significant part of the appellation was hit by the band of hail storms that extended south from Blaye and Bourg through parts of Margaux and the southern Médoc to Bordeaux itself and on further south to Pessac-Léognan. In the space of an hour significant damage was caused in certain vineyards.

Take Carmes Haut-Brion for instance. Here there are, in effect, two wines from two completely different terroirs. Carmes Haut-Brion itself comes from the commune of Pessac. It was untouched by hail and the final yield was 37 hl/ha – very close to the appellation average. But 12 kilometres to the south, in the commune of Léognan, in the former vineyard of Le Thil from which Le C de Carmes Haut-Brion comes, there was considerable hail damage. The final yield here was a rather more meagre 25 hl/ha.

De Fieuzal, a further six kilometres to the south and west, was suffering a similar – and not entirely unfamiliar – fate. In 2016 it lost a significant proportion of its potential production to hail; in 2017 it lost the entire crop (in both red and white) to frost; and in 2018 it suffered, once again, significant hail damage. Stephen Carrier was philosophical – and he has made two excellent wines; but there is not a great deal of either. The final yield for the red is a parsimonious 24 hl/ha.

It is difficult, of course, to look for the proverbial silver lining in the dark storm cloud. But in a sense things could have been worse – and Pessac-Léognan might even be said to have been spared to some extent. There are two factors at play here. The first is that, for those who suffered it, the hail damage reduced quantity but not quality. And the second is that in Pessac-Léognan more than perhaps in any other leading appellation, the mildew that spread like wildfire through the vineyards hit the grapes much more than it did the foliage. This was certainly not the case in much of the Médoc.

That might not sound like good news; but it was. For although mildew-impacted fruit needs to be removed, and removed carefully, its removal causes no damage to an otherwise perfectly healthy plant. Indeed, the effect is much like an (albeit early and severe) green harvest – it encourages the concentration of terroir notes in the remaining fruit.

Mildew impacting the foliage is another matter altogether. For this also has to be removed and, crucially, that damages the capacity of the plant to ripen fully whatever fruit remains. Arguably, then, it was more possible in Pessac-Léognan than in Margaux, for instance, to make a great wine with significantly reduced yields. That is undoubtedly one of the (unappreciated) secrets of the appellation’s comparative success in 2018.

This also helps to explain another intriguing factor. For, as in Pomerol, but not many other leading appellations, the climatic characteristics of the vintage seem in Pessac-Léognan to have accentuated rather than suppressed the terroir notes in the very best wines.

In St Emilion, Margaux and even Pauillac, it was sometimes difficult to tell wines apart. But in Pessac-Léognan, I was consistently struck in each leading property by the signature of a different and singular fruit profile. This, to be fair, is a product of wine-making just as much as it is of weather. The concentration of mildew on the grapes and not on the leaves certainly played a role. But as Guillaume Pouthier explained to us at Carmes Haut-Brion, this is a vintage in which wine-makers had the capacity to make very different wines, depending on the choices they made.

When it came to picking, in particular, their hands were not tied in any way by the weather conditions. It is a vintage, then, in which choices made in the vineyard and, afterwards, during vinification are very much on display. But although styles certainly vary, most of the leading crus seem to have gotten those choices right if my two recent visits to the appellation are representative.

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