Bordeaux 2018: Pessac-Léognan

And what of the whites?

Bouscaut (Photo: Colin Hay)

2018 is not, for the most part, a great white-wine vintage. Sémillon, in particular, suffered in the long hot Indian summer, imparting a certain limp, fat, flabbiness to many wines throughout the region. However, there are exceptions and the great majority of those exceptions are to be found in Pessac-Léognan. Let me conclude by identifying just a few.

Haut-Brion (81% Sauvignon Blanc; 19% Sémillon). The selection here was very severe indeed, and there is a lot less Sémillon in the final blend than is usual. The wine really benefits from that. But, partly as a consequence, this is very distinctive with a rather singular fruit profile. It is rich, oily in the mid-palate and exotic, with tropical fruit notes – guava, passion fruit and mango – alongside grapefruit, spices, lanolin and even root ginger. The wine is beautifully crisp and fresh and, in the context of the vintage, it is a complete success. But it is not perhaps everyone’s idea of Haut-Brion blanc.

La Mission Haut-Brion (57% Sauvignon Blanc; 43% Sémillon), by contrast, is somewhat more traditional in both composition and fruit profile. But 2018, for me, is not a particularly great example of this singular terroir. The wine is rich, powerful and fleshy. The fruit is crisp and pure – grapefruit, lemon and lime cordial, with a touch of gooseberry too. But, for me at least, there is just not quite enough acidity to balance the power and oily richness of the mid-palate.

In the context of the vintage, Domaine de Chevalier (75% Sauvignon Blanc; 25% Sémillon) has made another extraordinary wine. This may not be the best Chevalier blanc ever, but that it comes close to achieving that feat is remarkable given the inherent difficulties of the vintage. It is, I think, my white wine of the vintage – and that is quite an accomplishment. It is ethereal in a way that no other wine quite achieves in 2018. It is rich and opulent, but it is strikingly fresh and it has a glorious natural acidity, giving it a remarkable tension. There is orange blossom, grapefruit, mango, passion fruit, eucalyptus and passion flower with just a touch of fleur de sel and on the exquisite, long aerial finish there is a lovely citrus-pulp freshness that brings the palate together in a crescendo of sappy fruitiness. This massively exceeds all expectations.

Smith Haut-Laffite (90% Sauvignon Blanc; 5% Sémillon; 5% Sauvignon Gris) is also very impressive in the context of a challenging vintage. There is only 5% Semillon in the final blend here and yet we have a wine that is very characteristic of both the appellation and Smith itself. It would not, I think, be difficult to pick this in a blind tasting, though it might be more difficult to pick the vintage. This, too, is rich and generous and it unfolds slowly across the palate with just enough acidity to keep everything in balance. The fruit profile is again dominated by grapefruit, with hints of ginger and white flowers and a gentle spiciness. It is long, juicy, sappy and, above all, fresh.

Pape-Clément (57% Sauvignon Blanc; 39% Sémillon; 4% Muscadelle), too, impresses, particularly when one considers that there is 39% Sémillon in the final blend here. This is unapologetically big, fat, rich and plump, with the same combination of tropical and citrus fruits that characterises the vintage. There is a delightful flinty note of minerality, too, even a hint of struck-matches and jasmine. But this is all held together, crucially, by a punchy sherbet freshness which manages to temper the richness and maintain the balance on the palate. Though it flirts with excess, it comes down just on the right side of the wire.

Altogether more classic is the stylish and composed Bouscaut. This is, and has been for some time in my view, an underappreciated wine. It is very consistent from one vintage to the next and still represents excellent value for money. It is something of an insider’s pick. This, too, would be easy to identify in a blind-tasting. It is very fine, very pure and marked, like virtually no other white wine in this vintage, by freshness. The fruit is citrus – lime and lime cordial with just a touch of grapefruit and white flowers. We also find the signature chalk/limestone notes of the terroir that are almost reminiscent of some Grand Cru Chablis. It is excellent and it is highly recommended.

Chateau Latour Martillac

De Fieuzal (50% Sauvignon Blanc; 50% Sémillon) too has made a spectacular wine in a tricky vintage. It might contain equal parts of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc (and hence just about the highest proportion of Sémillon amongst the leading crus), but you would never guess it given the energy, poise and freshness of this vibrant and exciting wine. It has an interesting floral complexity accentuated by the use (in part) of 400 litre acacia oak barriques. This too is highly recommended.

Finally we return to Latour-Martillac (54% Sauvignon Blanc; 46% Sémillon). Like the red, this is now very accomplished and on a steep upward trajectory that will surely only be further enhanced by the new chai in which the 2019 will be made. Tasted alongside the already impressive 2016, this is a significant step up in quality (in a vintage that was, of course, rather more challenging). Again we find sherbet notes which help to maintain the freshness across the palate. This is nicely delineated and complex and it has an impressively sappy finish.

Colin Hay is Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of la place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally. His Bordeaux 2018 coverage will conclude with a final piece on the ‘wines of the vintage’.

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