Bordeaux 2018: The Left Bank

In my previous article I suggested that 2018 is a complex, heterogeneous and yet potentially exceptional vintage in which the watch word is ‘freshness’. In this the aim is to begin to paint a more detailed portrait of the vintage starting with the classed growths of the Left Bank.

That is no simple task. For, like 2017 before it, 2018 defies simple categorisation. It is a vintage of extremes arising from a year of climatic excess – monsoon followed by drought.

Yet remarkably perhaps, it has produced (for the most part at least) balanced, accessible and engaging wines that have a very long life ahead of them and yet which will typically be approachable almost as soon as they are in bottle.

The key to that is the quality and the consistent quality of their tannins, which even at this stage are strikingly soft and gentle and which immediately give an opulent signature to the vintage. The obvious comparison is with 2016. But the 2018s are a little sweeter, a little less austere and, at their very best, fresher and more energetic.

But they are also less consistent and considerably more alcoholic – though rather more so in Pauillac, St Estèphe and points north than in Margaux and the southern Médoc. If we take, for instance, the three great estates of St Estèphe – Calon-Ségur, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose – the average alcohol level in 2018 is 1.2% higher than that it was in 2016 and a staggering 1.6% higher than it was in 2017.

Recall that in the late 1970s Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Médoc were typically picked at less than 9.5% and 10.5% potential alcohol respectively, with a full two degrees of alcohol effectively added through chaptalisation in the vinification process. None of these Cabernet-dominated wines in 2018 will be bottled at below 14.6% alcohol – with, of course, no added sugar.

Yet if we take the three greatest wines of Margaux – Château Margaux itself, Palmer and Rauzan-Ségla – the average alcohol level in 2018 is in no case more than 1% higher than it was in either 2016 or 2017.

To understand why we need to start to paint a more differentiated picture of the vintage. A first set of clues as to the character of 2018 in different parts of the Médoc is provided by the data on average vineyard yields.

In 2018, as in 2017 before, these varied significantly both within and between appellations. Here are the appellation figures as we ascend the Médoc.

 

2016 2017 2018 average

(2008-17)

Margaux 49.4 32.3 37.4 37.6
St Julien 46.0 44.3 42.6 42.1
Pauillac 44.9 46.2 38.5 42.1
St Estèphe 50.5 49.7 44.6 41.2

Average vineyard yield by appellation (hl/ha)

Source: @GavinQuinney, Douane/CIVB

These are immediately interesting. For, contrary to some impressions, they show that yields were in fact typically lower in 2018 than they were in the ‘frost-ravaged’ 2017 vintage.

The exception is Margaux. But this is less a story of 2018 than it is of differential exposure to frost damage in 2017 – with the southern Médoc particularly badly affected.

Indeed, though yields recovered in Margaux in 2018 they were still lower than for any other Médoc appellation. Overall, 2018 is an average yielding vintage for the Médoc.

Indeed, in St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe it is the lowest yielding vintage since 2014 – in Pauillac and St Estèphe by some distance.

So what is the story on an appellation-by-appellation basis?

Let’s start, again, in the south, with Margaux. As the overall figures on yields suggest, among the Left Bank appellations this is where the 2018 vintage was perhaps most difficult. Margaux as an appellation suffered more from downy mildew, black rot, hail and, indeed, hydric stress in September than any other Médoc appellation – with each contributing to suppress potential production.

But, odd though it might seem, there was at least a grain of good news in this. For, as Sébastien Vergne explained to us at Château Margaux, one of the effects of the hydric stress in the late summer was that alcohol levels peaked in late August and early September and then plateaued or, in some parcels, even fell thereafter, allowing for a very leisurely and extended harvest. The result was the perfect maturity of the tannins that is characteristic of the vintage combined with rather lower alcohol levels than in other Médoc appellations.

That said, and with a few notable exceptions (such as Palmer, Rauzan-Ségla and Margaux itself) this is not really a southern Médoc vintage.

Overall, the appellation is less consistent than it was in either 2016 or even 2017. A number of properties seem to have struggled to moderate extraction and, in so doing, to preserve the freshness that was the key to capturing the levity and florality of their terroirs in this challenging vintage.

This, of course, makes those who did stand out even more. Margaux has produced, for me at least, the Southern Médoc ‘wine of the vintage’ – its best since the (already legendary) 2015. It is sinuous, pure, precise, cool, dark and elegant with a beautiful vein of expressive Cabernet Sauvignon (90% of the blend) running down its spine – and it finishes with a sappy, floral freshness that speaks eloquently of its supreme terroir.

Palmer, too, is exceptionally poised and polished. From a biodynamically-managed vineyard blighted by mildew (reducing yields to a tiny 11 hl/ha and resulting in no second wine being produced at all) it is remarkable to find a wine of this quality.

It has an atypical composition for Palmer, with a significantly higher proportion of the more mildew-resistant Petit Verdot and rather less of the more mildew-prone Merlot than is usual in the blend. But it has all the textural finesse that so characterises Palmer in the best vintages, allied with the gorgeous dark, sombre mellow richness of 2018.

It too finishes in a crescendo of floral-tinged fresh fruit that lingers long on the palate. Rauzan-Ségla is scarcely less impressive. Indeed, arguably, this is its best ever wine. It is pure, it is fresh and it is beautifully layered. But it is also wonderfully intense, and concentrated – more obviously so than either Margaux or Palmer – and the rich ripples of fruit that course over the palate are elegantly accompanied by the florality and minerality of its distinctive argilo-grave terroir.

These three are, at least in this vintage, in a Margaux league of their own. But they are closely followed by Brane Cantenac, a wine that is now consistently excellent and once again on sparkling form in 2018. It is all that one might hope it to be – and perhaps just a little bit more. It is svelte, lithe, lively and yet powerful and intensely structured too – the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.

In their own very different ways, Malescot Saint-Exupéry and Lascombes are flattered stylistically by the opulence and velour of the vintage. These are, as they tend to be, unapologetically big wines – rich, powerful and bold. But Lascombes, in particular, is more refined than it often is en primeur, with pronounced scents of lilac, lavender and rose petals, and hints of herbs and cedar. It is uncharacteristically expressive of its appellation at this early stage.

Finally, Dauzac and Marquis d’Alesme are worthy of a special mention as perhaps the most improved wines of the appellation. Both have seen considerable investment in recent years and that investment is now clearly yielding results.

If Margaux is perhaps the most uneven Médoc appellation in 2018, then St Julien is undoubtedly the most consistent. It suffered least in terms of frost-damage in 2017 due to the quality of its terroir (approximately 95% of which is classified) and, not unrelatedly, the proximity of that terroir to the river. It is those two factors that are once again responsible for its consistency and success in 2018.

Léoville-Las Cases is, for me, quite simply the Left Bank wine of the vintage. It is, of course, not a first growth but on the evidence of recent vintages, above all this one, it is now on a qualitative par with Latour, Lafite and Mouton (the first growths with which it has most in common).

Tasting the 2018 with Pierre Graffeuille was an almost spiritual experience. It has a quite remarkable cool depth, complexity and persistence. It is precise yet profound, energetic and lively yet at the same time sombre and serious and it has the most extraordinary texture and tension. And yet it is also the very essence of St Julien, in a way that sets it apart from other great recent vintages of Las Cases like 2016. It is now, by some distance, the leading wine in the appellation.

In comparison, the undoubtedly excellent Ducru Beaucaillou feels just a little heavy, a little extracted and a little less lithe and engaging; one notices, too, the 14.5 degrees of alcohol. It is bold, it is layered and complex, it is rich, full and deep and remarkably intense but it is a touch less fresh and a touch less energetic. One is more obviously in the presence of a hot vintage cru.

If Ducru disappoints just a little, then Léoville-Poyferré exceeds all legitimate expectations, even in a vintage such as this. The style is unmistakable, but Isabelle Davin (Poyferré’s new oenologue) has taken it to a higher plain of refinement. It is as suave, elegant and silky as ever; but it is both more complex and spicy (the Cos d’Estournel of St Estèphe on this showing) and yet also more sappy and fresh. The mouthfeel is exquisite and the ripples of fresh fruit and cinnamon spice on the finish make the 14.4 degrees of alcohol undetectable.

Léoville-Barton completes the hat-trick of Léoville successes in this vintage, with a wine that is both very true to the style of the property and yet also rather more appealing and accessible at this early stage than is usual. Beychevelle, too, continues its rich vein of form. While its 2018 is not quite at the level as its exceptional and château-redefining 2016, it is an exotic, eloquent and elegant expression of a now well-honed style that is flattered by the vintage. It is not a wine that could have been produced before the arrival of Romain Ducolomb nor without the significant investment in the chai and vineyard that he and Philippe Blanc have overseen since his arrival.

But the St Julien classed growths are all very accomplished in this vintage. What impressed me most was how each spoke eloquently of its appellation and yet did so with a subtly different accent. The UGC St Julien tasting was a masterclass in appellation and terroir expression. Gruaud-Larose, Branaire-Ducru and St Pierre all stood out for me; yet each is remarkably different from the other.

Still heading north, we come to Pauillac. Here, as in Margaux, average yields took something of a battering, with mildew, black rot and hydric stress combining to send potential production tumbling. Quantity is certainly down (by some 17% with respect to 2017); but the quality, as in St Julien, is generally very high.

The first growths are all on top form. But top of the tree, for me, is Mouton Rothschild; and in Le Petit Mouton they have also produced (as they have done so often in recent years) the best of the second wines – and by some margin, in my opinion.

The first wine is ethereal, a veritable plunge-pool of potential perfection. It is cool, it is composed, it is seamless, it glides and glistens on the palate and its finish seems eternal. Lafite Rothschild and Latour get very close to perfection too. But I felt they do not have, at least at this point, quite the same energy, quite the same poise and quite the same complexity as Mouton.

But they are stunning nonetheless – and Latour’s yield of 25 hl/ha in a vineyard managed entirely biodynamically is, in itself, an unbelievable achievement in this vintage of biblical climatic extremes.

But the hyperboles do not stop there. For in Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande we have another (albeit, I suspect, controversial) potential contender for Left Bank wine of the vintage.

OK, it does not have perhaps quite the depth or intensity of Mouton or Las Cases. But what it lacks in intensity it makes up for in sheer elegance, poise, balance and finesse.

This is by no means the most powerful wine of the vintage; but it is perhaps the most beautiful. It is texturally sublime and a model of restraint, purity and freshness. Its rolling, rippling finish is a revelation.

Across the street, on the other side of the D2 we come to Pichon Baron. This is, as it always is, a very different wine. It is richer, bolder, spicier, more intense and punchy, a touch sweeter on the palate, with characteristic notes of cassis, blackberries, tobacco, mocha and a hint of spearmint on the long and racy finish.

Both Pichons are great; but they could scarcely be less similar stylistically given that they come from ostensibly contiguous terroirs.

Pontet Canet is a story of an altogether different and rather more tragic kind. Here yields were reduced to a miniscule 8 hl/ha as biodynamic treatments again proved no match for the ravages of mildew.

It is testament to the dedication of Alfred Tesseron, his family and his team that they were able to produce any wine at all in 2018. But it is difficult not to see the wine itself as a casualty of the climatic extremes of the vintage, at least on the basis of the sample that I tasted. It is pure and fresh, as ever, but for me at least that just exposes more clearly the slightly baked fruit and the slightly hollow core of the mid-palate.

It is important to state that others see this wine differently and samples, of course, vary. But it is not difficult to understand why this might not be Pontet Canet’s finest recent vintage; indeed, it is difficult to imagine how it could be.

Among the other wines of the appellation it was d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and Duhart Milon that impressed me the most relative to expectations, with more predictably impressive performances from Batailley, Grand-Puy Lacoste and Lynch Bages.

Finally, we come to St Estèphe. It is tempting to see 2018 as a northern Médoc vintage, like 2014 or the controversial ‘heatwave’ vintage of 2003.

But that I think is too simple. It is certainly true that St Estèphe suffered less mildew damage and, indeed, less hydric stress than its other Médoc counterparts. As a consequence, yields here were the highest in the entire Médoc.

The appellations’ airier and more highly contoured terrain helped the vines to cope better with excessive moisture and humidity in the first half of the season and its clay-rich soils protected them from hydric stress in the long hot Indian summer that followed.

But this brought its own problems. For it was hydric stress in the southern Médoc that stabilised potential alcohol; that effect was far less marked in the northern Médoc.

The result is wines with unusually – and in many cases unprecedentedly – high levels of alcohol. Calon-Ségur 2018 will show 15 degrees of alcohol on the label; its 2003 showed 13 degrees.

That said, the top wines here are, again, remarkable. And it is Calon-Ségur that, for me, is the most remarkable of them all. It is the best Calon-Ségur that I have tasted en primeur and, in 2018, the wine of the appellation.

The secret here is freshness. Unlike any other wine of the appellation its fruit is croquant (literally, ‘crunchy’).

The wine is intense, concentrated, ambitious and full on the palate and its tannins are velvety, soft and cool. The fruit is fresh – black cherries and red berries almost popping on the tongue with delightful hints of lavender and laurel. The overall impression is of a wine of great energy and precision; there is no hint of heat on the long finish.

Cos d’Estournel is very different in 2018 – and it will surely divide opinion. It is, as ever, exceptionally accomplished and polished. It is engaging, lively in its own way, and its tannins and texture are taut and beautiful.

It has a very clear, clean, pure and precise fruit profile, perhaps more so than in recent vintages and it has a cool depth and elegance that is very much of the vintage.

But it is much less extravagant and exotic than usual. And for me that means that it loses just a touch of its personality.

The Asian spice-box of 2016 and 2017 seems to have been left in the kitchen cupboard. Many, I suspect, will see that as a positive step; but for me this is a wine defined more by what it does not want to be than by a more positive stylistic signature.

If Cos has moved in the direction of classicism, Montrose is, as ever, a paragon of classic Médocain virtue.

It is much less seductive than either Calon or Cos and a touch austere, even stern. It is massive, deeply concentrated and a little unyielding (as it always is en primeur).

Its tannins are just a little more brutal, the finish reveals just a hint of alcoholic ‘heat’, and the wine is not quite as poised and balanced as the profound 2016.

Among the other wines of the appellation, Capbern, Le Crock, Ormes de Pez and Tronquoy Lalande all excelled – especially when one considers their likely release prices. Lafon-Rochet has also made what, for me, is the best wine I have tasted from the property.  Finally, it is perhaps worth singling out a remarkably accomplished Branas Grand Poujeaux – for me the cru bourgeois revelation of the vintage and the best wine I tasted from Moulis-en-Médoc.

Overall, then, 2018 is a fascinating and complex vintage in the Médoc. Its challenges – in both the vineyard and in the chai – were considerable and it is for that reason, above all, that is has produced quite so many surprises. Its highs are very high indeed; but there are just as many disappointments.

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 continue with three further pieces on the Médoc, St Emilion & Pomerol, and Pessac-Léognon in the coming weeks.

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