Bordeaux 2018: The Right Bank overview

In my first article on Bordeaux 2018 I sought to capture some of the complexity of a potentially exceptional yet heterogeneous vintage defined by climatic extremes. In the second, my aim was to paint in a little more detail the character of the vintage on the Left Bank. Here I seek to do the same for the Right Bank.

It is difficult if not impossible to step off the train in Bordeaux for the week of the en primeur tastings without a certain sense of anticipation, excitement and expectation about the vintage ahead and 2018 was no exception.

Expectations were certainly high for a good, possibly excellent, vintage, but one in which the wines of the Left Bank, and particularly those grown on the cooler clay soils of the northern Médoc were likely to be the most fêted.

And there is of course a certain logic to this. For 2018 is an extremely hot vintage – with 1,136 hours of sunlight recorded in Pomerol between June and September (the highest in the 50 years in which records have been kept) and with average temperatures in August, September and October in St Emilion a whole 1.5 degrees above the average.

Arriving at Bordeaux’s Gare Saint-Jean, then, the suspicion was of over-ripeness and excessive alcohol – in short, a vintage in which freshness and the cool soils of the northern Médoc were likely to be at a qualitative premium and in which high proportion Merlot cuvées might suffer.

But like most such pre-judgements, while the logic might have been impeccable, the inferences drawn were far from entirely accurate. Above all, this is not a ‘Left Bank vintage’ any more than it is a ‘Right Bank vintage’.

And, as I explained in my previous article, it is not really a northern Médoc vintage either – though some of the best wines of the Left Bank undoubtedly come from St Estèphe and Pauillac.

Yet it is a vintage in which alcohol levels are a concern, in which freshness is the watchword and in which that freshness was always going to be more difficult to find in 100% Merlot cuvées. In short, 2018 is a year in which even a little Right- Bank Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon was always likely to go a long way.

So what kind of a vintage is it? And, above all, what kind of a vintage is it in St Emilion and Pomerol? The short, if perhaps frustrating, answer to that question is ‘complex’.

2018 is certainly a vintage in which one needs to be very careful in selecting what to buy – and undoubtedly more selective still among the wines of the Right Bank.

But the best wines of the vintage are pretty much evenly spread between Left and Right, with a particularly high concentration of them in Pomerol and on the argilo-calcaire plateau and côtes around the village of St Emilion itself.

As with the Left Bank, if we are to paint a detailed picture of this complex vintage, it is useful to start with the data on average vineyard yields, by appellation.

Here they are for St Emilion and Pomerol and, to aid with the comparison, I show also the average figures for the four key Médoc appellations (St Estèphe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux).

2016 2017 2018 Average (2008-17)
St Emilion 46.2 21.7 39.7 38.2
Pomerol 44.4 23.9 36.2 37.5
Left Bank average 47.7 43.1 40.8 40.8

Average vineyard yield by appellation (hl/ha)

Source: calculated from @GavinQuinney, Duane/CIVB

The story here is, above all, one of relief. 2018 yields in St Emilion and Pomerol are, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to get excited about – either just above or just below the 10-year average (and with that average itself significantly lowered by exceptionally low yields in both 2017 and 2013).

Yet they are twice those achieved in the frost-ravaged 2017 vintage. After the anxieties of intense mildew pressure in the late spring and early summer, to get even close to average yields was remarkable. It massively exceeded expectations in June or July. That said, in both St Emilion and Pomerol yields in 2018 are lower than for 2014, 2015 or 2016.

The factors involved are, by now, familiar.

A relatively late bud-burst, delayed by a cool start to the year and already water-logged soils, in fact reduced the threat of hail and frost damage. But a steep rise in temperature in mid-April combined with incessant rainfall led to optimal conditions for the spread of downy mildew. This significantly reduced potential yields in all but a handful of the airiest and most exposed vineyards of St Emilion’s argilo-calcaire plateau and côtes.

Troplong-Mondot, arguably the windiest and certainly the highest vineyard in St Emilion, saw essentially no mildew and achieved an impressive yield of 49 hl/ha.

30-35 hl/ha was more the norm among the leading estates, and yields were typically lower still in Pomerol.

Moreover, as on the Left Bank, the more windy and exposed vineyards, though more protected from the threat of mildew, were also most prone to yield loss in the long hot summer through the concentration and desiccation of the grapes on the vines in a particularly windy September.

The result was an optimally ripe crop of highly concentrated grapes with high potential alcohol picked à la carte and vinification tanks in which, in some cases, the ratio of juice to physical matter (grape skins and pips) exceeded 50%.

St Emilion

Of the two leading Right Bank appellations, St Emilion is certainly the more heterogeneous in 2018. Indeed it is by far the most uneven of the leading appellations in the vintage.

As already suggested, 100% Merlot vineyards and special cuvées are a tricky proposition in a vintage like 2018 and many lack freshness, precision and definition. They are often uncomfortably sweet-tinged, their svelte tannins becoming almost ‘soupy’ on the palate and they finish with just a little too much of a hint of alcoholic ‘heat’. They lack terroir specificity and taste, in the end, a little ‘samey’.

Some of these wines, of course, come from the ‘usual suspects’. But the point is that many do not – this is rather more a characteristic of the vintage than it is a reflection of a particular style of wine-making (now very much in retreat anyway). There are exceptions (to which we will return), but they are relatively few and far between.

If vintages like this, marked by the long hot summer, are to become the norm one worries about the future of wines like this.

But if St Emilion has plenty of the vintage’s ‘lows’ in 2018, it also has more than its fair share of the ‘highs’, if perhaps no very obvious ‘wine of the vintage’.

Indeed, those highs represent some of the most pleasant surprises of the week of the en primeur tastings.

Though it is, of course, difficult to generalise, they tend to be characterised by a number of factors.

The first of these is hardly surprising – the nature and quality of their terroir. However, the complexities of this are fascinating. For, controversial though it might well be to say so, not all of the best terroirs of St Emilion in my view were similarly feted in 2018.

The great estates have, in the end, all made great wines. But those which most exceeded my expectations (some notable exceptions notwithstanding) come from essentially the same argilo-calcaire terroir. Indeed, they come from a relatively narrow band or strip running from Troplong-Mondot, via Trottevieille and Villemaurine, through Les Grands Murailles and Clos Fourtet to Canon and on to Belair-Monange and Angelus.

I am not saying that these are the St Emilion wines of the vintage (though some of them are certainly contenders for that accolade). But I am suggesting that these wines – by virtue of their distinctive terroir and, above all, its capacity to protect against hydric stress – are strikingly fresh and rather lower in alcohol than many of their peers. They are pure, precise, racy and energetic in a way that few wines in this vintage are, and each and every one stands out in this vintage.

A second factor, not of course entirely unrelated, is encépagement. In general, vineyards with a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc and/or Cabernet Sauvignon (and, of course, the terroir and exposure to bring them to optimal ripeness) produced more complex, nuanced, energetic and exciting wines in 2018. It is difficult to think of a St Emilion Grand Cru Classé with less than 50% Merlot in the final blend that has not made a truly great wine in this vintage. That may not be much of a revelation but it is still important to say so.

Finally, and inevitably, vinification is crucial – even more so in a vintage of climatic excess. Sulphur-free fermentation; the fermentation of uncrushed berries; parcel and micro-parcel vinification; micro-vinification en barrique; cold pre-fermentation maceration; reduced temperature fermentation; and, in general, careful extraction were all much in evidence and, more significantly, each appears to have been rewarded in qualitative terms.

This brings us to the wines themselves. Limits of space prevent a fully comprehensive picture, so my aim instead is to pull out a few highlights.

Let’s begin with the near neighbours, Cheval Blanc and Figeac, on the gravel soils near the appellation boundary with Pomerol. These have so often in recent years produced, between them, the potential wines of the appellation.

And, don’t get me wrong, each has produced a glorious wine in 2018. But for me neither stands out in quite the way that Cheval Blanc did in 2015 and Figeac did in 2016.

Cheval Blanc (54% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Franc; 6% Cabernet Sauvignon) is deep, intense, elegant, cool and nicely focussed. Its fresh cassis fruit is accompanied by the vintage’s signature fresh mint with enticing hints of nutmeg, cloves and pepper. Its rippling tannins build to a lovely crescendo on the long finish. But at this stage it is a little difficult to penetrate and there is just a trace of a hint of alcohol on the finish that I don’t recall in previous vintages.

Figeac (37% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc and 33% Cabernet Sauvignon) is certainly no less impressive and, if anything, more intense and powerful still. This is not a wine that could have been made before the arrival of the affable and exceptionally talented Frederic Faye. The tannins, especially when one considers that Cabernet makes up nearly two-thirds of the blend for this wine, are immensely soft and seductive and the overall impression is of a golden fist in a velvet glove.

Lots of good choices were made here in the temporary wine-making facility put in place while the new chai is built. The wine is fresh and to have kept it to 14% alcohol is impressive (recall, the 2016 was 13.9%). But, for me, this is a rather monolithic wine in which one has the slight impression of winemaking techniques being deployed to counteract and compensate for the excesses of the vintage.

Three kilometres away, up the hill and back on the côtes of St Emilion, we find an awesome Ausone (60% Cabernet Franc; 40% Merlot). It is massive, it is profound and quite unlike any wine I have previously tasted from the property.

Ausone is often just a little impenetrable en primeur and the characteristics of the vintage accentuate that further. It is a wine that reminds me of my mortality – before it reaches its prime I will long since have shuffled off this mortal coil. Its texture is extraordinary; its depth seemingly limitless. Like many of the best wines of the vintage its tannins are so soft and its density and presence on the palate so considerable that it imparts an almost anaesthetic quality, leaving no discernible trace of tannin on the finish, just the lingering taste of grape-skins. Yet at the same time one is acutely aware of the heat of the summer – we have late season brambles, damsons and plums, but we also have chocolate ganache, mocha and a touch of liquorice. The finish is long and sappy, but sweet and I cannot bring myself to ask the alcohol level.

Looking down from its high perch above the village of St Emilion Troplong-Mondot (85% Merlot; 13% Cabernet Sauvignon; 2% Cabernet Franc) is a revelation – and, for me at least, one that is easier to appreciate at this formative stage.

With Aymeric de Gironde (formerly of Pichon Baron and, most recently, Cos d’Estournel) now at the helm, half way through the construction of a completely new chai and cuvier and with plans to embark on an ambitious programme of replanting linked to the acquisition of neighbouring Mondotte Bellisle and Clos Labarde, all is change here. But nothing has changed more than the style of the winemaking. Although the new Troplong is still very much a work in progress, the wine is already scarcely recognisable from its former self. This, for me, is the most improved property in St Emilion. The wine is a model of freshness, purity and precision. It is marked by a vibrant, clear, bright fruit – blueberries, brambles, blackberries and cherries – yet it is also remarkably composed, elegant, silky and full on the palate. Freshness and a lovely minerality course through its veins, beautifully revealed by the restrained winemaking.

Restraint and elegance also characterise Clos Fourtet (90% Merlot; 7% Cabernet Sauvigon; 3% Cabernet Franc) – though here the story is one of stylistic continuity. One notices immediately three things – the gloriously ethereal texture, the linearity and minerality that is the signature of the limestone plateau and the fresh almost croquant (‘crunchy’) dark berry fruit – cassis and blackberries with a hint of all spice and just a touch of vanilla. This is not a big wine in the context of the vintage, but it builds beautifully on the palate and it is stylish and long.

A revelation of a different kind comes in the form of the neighbouring and tiny production Les Grands Murailles (100% Merlot) from the same stable. This is the very antithesis of what one expects a Merlot monocépage to produce in a vintage like 2018 and it almost needs to be tasted to be believed. It is lithe and tense, pure and refined, and it is all about fruit and terroir expression. It is delicate (not a word found frequently in my tasting notes in this vintage) and it is highly recommended.

A little further along the plateau we come to Canon (72% Merlot; 28% Cabernet Franc). This is another wine transformed in recent vintages and its 2018 is every bit as good as one would now expect it to be. It is refined and focussed with that lovely chalky minerality so prominent also in the 2015.

It is pure, clean and fresh and marked, like Clos Fourtet, by an almost croquant quality to the fruit. The tannins are of pure velvet and there is a lovely cool refinement and elegance. It is not especially powerful, but it is dark, cool, quietly understated and very stylish. The alcohol, at 14%, is just not a factor.

The newly-acquired neighbouring Berliquet (78% Merlot; 22% Cabernet Franc) is another work in progress. There is significant replanting to come, but the signature of Canon is already present in this, the first full vintage under Chanel’s ownership. This will be a wine to watch in the years to come. At 14.5%, the alcohol is a little higher and certainly more obvious. The wine is a little less refined and a little more plush and has a more peppery signature. But it has a delightful graphite minerality and an enticing dark cherry and blackberry fruit.

A potential, if perhaps unlikely, candidate for the St Emilion wine of the vintage is Belair-Monange (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). The 2018 is the first wine from this property that I have tasted en primeur – and it is exceptional. Alongside Trotanoy, and every bit as good, it was the culmination of a very strong line-up at JP Moueix. It is radiant, bright and energetic, yet deep, sensuous and extremely complex – both aromatically and on the layered and remarkably refined long mid-palate. It has an alluring graphite-iron minerality that compliments beautifully the cherry/cassis fruit, with little hints of the purest darkest chocolate. I struggle to think of a more complete or more complex St Emilion in the vintage.

Back on the other side of Troplong-Mondot in Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes we find the home of Vignobles K and the very talented Jean-Christophe Meyrou (formerly of Le Gay and La Violette) at La Tour St-Christophe (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). This uniquely beautiful dry-stone terraced vineyard on an exceptional argilo-calcaire terroir has produced, as arguably it has since 2015, the best value wine of the entire vintage. It is strikingly different from anything else that I tasted in St Emilion. It is cool on the palate, fresh, precise, sleek and more linear than I think any other wine of the appellation in 2018. It has a lovely grainy limestone tannin that gives a beautiful intensity to the very long and composed finish. It is juicy, sappy, yet rich and it has an elegant graphite minerality.

Though altogether different, and rather more of a work in progress one suspects, Vignobles K’s more recently acquired Bellefont-Belcier (70% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Franc; 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) is also a wine to watch. This, too, comes from a beautiful sun-trap vineyard, a good part of which is also on argilo-calcaire terroir.

But its personality is very different. Tasted side-by-side the contrast is stunning. Where La Tour St Christophe is linear and precise, Bellefont-Belcier is bold and generous. It is big, rich and opulent – a sweeter wine with a lovely rolling fan-tail finish in which the freshness that one misses just a little on the front palate in finally unleashed in a rather dramatic crescendo. It is excellent, perhaps more characteristic of the vintage and very different from its stable-mate. There is a good argument to be made for both.

Just round the corner is another sun-trap vineyard, Tertre Roteboeuf (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). This is a perplexing wine that can only divide opinion. At 16.2% alcohol (yes, you read that correctly) it will not be to everyone’s taste, and I am not sure that it is really to mine. That said, I love this wine in bottle and it is not unusual for it to be a full degree higher in alcohol than any other wine in the appellation.

But at 16.2% alcohol there is nowhere to hide and arguably we cross over into something of a different kind, with a taste and fruit profile one associates more with port than St Emilion: dried plums and figs, walnuts and an array of sweet spices. Remarkably, though, there is freshness too and the tannins are extraordinarily polished. This is a wine to retaste. For now I reserve judgement.

Finally, we come to two wines, each unique in its own way, that attain new qualitative heights in 2018. The first is Quinault L’Enclos (71.5% Merlot; 14.5% Cabernet Franc; 14% Cabernet Sauvignon), made by the team responsible for Cheval Blanc in a completely renovated winemaking facility allowing, for the first time, parcel and micro-parcel vinification. There has been a significant programme of replanting here, with the still relatively recently planted Cabernet Sauvignon adding in each consecutive vintage more to the structure and layered complexity of the wine. Though it has the misfortune, in effect, of having to be tasted alongside Le Petit Cheval and Cheval Blanc, it always impresses – and the 2018 is the best wine I have tasted from this estate. Its pure cassis and earthy, cedary notes strike an impressive chord.

And last, but certainly not least, we have Jacques Thienpont’s tiny production L’If (74% Merlot; 26% Cabernet Franc). This is the 8th vintage of this wine from a small parcel adjoining Troplong Mondot – and it is surely the best. It is, quite simply, ethereal, with fantastically elegant tannins and a gloriously lithe texture and a tense and energetic finish. It sits very comfortably now alongside it rather more celebrated stablemate, Le Pin and that is some achievement.

Pomerol

If St Emilion in 2018 is an appellation of qualitative highs and lows, Pomerol is much, much more consistent. Indeed, if there is an appellation of the vintage it is, for me, Pomerol. That is not what I expected when I stepped off the TGV at Gare St-Jean at the start of the week of primeur tastings.

There is scarcely a single disappointment in the wines that I tasted – at all levels and at all potential price points. Moreover, in a vintage in which subtle terroir traits and characteristics have something of a tendency to be lost in a sea of opulence and alcohol, Pomerol stands out. Here, at last, no two wines taste the same. The 2018s are, above all, a study in the range and diversity of the fruit profiles of the leading estates. It is perhaps then not surprising that many of my wines of the vintage come from the appellation.

At the top of the pile for me is Lafleur (50% Merlot; 50% Cabernet Franc). It is as close as en primeur gets to perfection and a wonderful reward for the considerable investment made in the chai and cuvier over the last two years.

It is, as perfection tends to be, more difficult to capture in words than any other en primeur sample I have ever tasted and the attempt to do so brings back the tear to the corner of my eye that expressed at the time the emotional impact of this extraordinary wine. It is a veritable plunge pool of cool dark fruit. It is succulent, it is profound, it is supremely pure and balanced yet energetic and bright and its finish seems eternal – I can almost taste it now.

And, both Les Pensées de Lafleur and Les Perrières de Lafleur (from the limestone terroir of Fronsac planted with massal clones from Lafleur itself) are remarkably close in qualitative terms to the pinnacle that is the first wine. They clearly come from the same DNA.

Almost as impressive, but so very different in style and personality is neighbouring Evangile (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). After losing all of their Cabernet Franc to frost in 2017, Evangile is back on top form with a very complete, exciting and exuberant wine. There is nothing sombre about this; but it is gloriously opulent.

The fruit is profound – succulent black cherries and plums with a touch of chocolate – and there are wonderful floral notes – rose petals, peonies and violets. This is a rather sweeter and creamier wine than Lafleur, but it works fantastically well. It is breathtaking.

And in Blason de L’Evangile, they have made, alongside Les Pensées, arguably the Right Bank’s second wine of the vintage.

Just along the street we come to La Conseillante (83% Merlot; 17% Cabernet Franc). This, too, is excellent and very true to what is now a well-established, if still evolving, house style. This is limpid in the glass with a beautiful purple ‘robe’ – one can almost see the signature blueberries. On the palate, the fruit – cassis and blueberries (of course) – is fresh and accompanied by an engaging graphite minerality and notes of violets.

This is, as it always is, a very precise and focussed wine, but it is bigger, fuller and richer than usual. Many will really like that. But for me the density of this wine actually leads it to lose just a touch of its characteristic delicacy. If Evangile fully embraces and is flattered by the opulence of 2018, La Conseillante seems just a little more thrown by it.

The same cannot be said for Vieux Château Certan (70% Merlot; 30% Cabernet Franc). This is another potential wine of the vintage, stylistically somewhere between Evangile and La Conseillante. It is cool and composed and has lovely compact, dense filigree tannins. The nose and palate and wonderfully complex – with fresh raspberries and a compote of red berry fruit accompanied by violets, verbena, freesias and even camomile and menthol. It is beautifully poised, elegant, balanced and energetic without being in any way boisterous or brash.

On the other side of, and equidistant from, l’Eglise de Pomerol we come to Denis Durantou’s wonderful L’Eglise Clinet (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). If Evangile is Catholic Pomerol then this is Protestant Pomerol; and it is just as good, if very, very different. Here again we find fresh pure dark berry fruit, brambles and cherries (red as well as black) and a touch of mint. There is great tension in this wine and a rich iron minerality. It is leaner and more precise and layered than Evangile and it is sombre and serious where Evangile is youthful and exuberant. They are wines to be drunk together.

Back towards Lafleur, we come to Vignobles Péré-Vergé at Le Gay (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). Here the style is completely different yet again – a product of micro-vinification in new oak barrels. This produces, particularly in 2018, the most remarkable velvet texture. Le Gay itself is pure silk. Blueberries with notes of chocolate and mocha wrapped in the most alluring robe of tannic velour.

But that is not all. For La Violette (100% Merlot), with the individual grapes plucked by hand from each bunch before the same micro-vinification in barrel, takes this to another level altogether. In 2018 this produces a wine that is, in a way, the pure essence of Pomerol – an incredible textural sensation of cashmere-wrapped black cherry fruit.

It is sublime and, in 2018 more than any other previous vintage I have tasted, this serves to magnify, intensify and accentuate the terroir notes. In its own very distinct way, this is another potentially perfect wine.

For those of us who cannot afford either Le Gay or La Violette, there is good news too. For Montviel (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc), again using 100% micro-vinification, takes one remarkably close to achieving the same textural effect. They produced no 2017 but the 2018 is, by far, the best wine I have ever tasted from here and it is highly recommended.

The superlatives continue at Jacques Thienpont’s sublime micro-cuvée Le Pin (100% Merlot). This, too, is an extraordinary wine and it is a privilege to have the chance to taste it – in Jacques Thienpont’s living room no less! Once again we are in the realm of gossamer tannins. This is a remarkably precise, pure, linear wine. Yet, at the same time, it has that cool, slightly sombre deep elegance and quiet depth that marks out the truly great wines in this vintage. The texture is sublime; the finish seems endless; and one is left with no hint of alcohol or tannin, just the lingering taste of grape-skins.

Finally, we come to the extensive Pomerol range of JP Moueix in Libourne. Here one tastes through 10 different wines from different parts of the appellation. Each was, in its own distinct way, excellent.

But what was immediately striking was that the wines with higher proportions of Cabernet Franc or even Cabernet Sauvignon were fresher, most distinctive and more lively – Plince (79% Merlot; 21% Cabernet Franc); La Grave (85% Merlot; 15% Cabernet Franc); Bourgneuf (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc) and, above all, Certan de May (70% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Franc; 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) all stood out.

But among their very top wines, three in Pomerol particularly excelled. Hosanna (70% Merlot; 30% Cabernet Franc), on blue clay and graves terroir, is cool, plush and exotic with enticing graphite and cedar notes and, clearly, a great future ahead of it.

La Fleur Pétrus (91% Merlot; 6% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot) is darker, richer, a little firmer but with a very different fruit profile – more raspberries and brambles and a peppery spicy finish which, presumably, comes for the Petit Verdot. It is very distinctive and very elegant.

And finally, in Trotanoy (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc) we have a further contender for wine of the vintage. This is sombre and suave, pure and deep with intensely dark, velvety berry and cherry fruit. It is cool and svelte and like diving through crystal clear water.

It is, like so many of the best wines from Pomerol in this vintage, utterly glorious.

 

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 two further pieces on Pessac-Léognon and, finally, a summary piece on the ‘wines of the vintage’ in the coming weeks.

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