Bordeaux 2018: The Wines of the Vintage
In this, my final piece on Bordeaux 2018, the aim is to offer a more general appraisal, piecing together this complex and heterogeneous vintage from my reviews of the Médoc, the Right Bank and Graves/Pessac. In the process I have sought to identify a few potential wines of the vintage in a range of categories and at a range of price points.
Overall, this is an exceptional but uneven vintage forged in exceptional and extreme climatic conditions – albeit conditions that are becoming more and more the norm.
Those conditions posed (as they are likely to pose in future vintages) a series of very serious challenges, above all and most obviously in the vineyard, but also afterwards during the vinification process.
Unremarkably perhaps, differential exposure to these challenges and, of course, differences in both the capacity and strategies for responding to them have contributed massively to the uneven character of the vintage taken as a whole. In 2018, climatic conditions, terroir and wine-making have each played a role in stretching the qualitative spectrum.
As this suggests, while there are many great wines in 2018 there are just as many disappointments. On the Right Bank in particular, too many wines are just a little too forced and extracted, just a little (and, in some cases, rather more than just a little) too alcoholic, and just a little lacking in freshness, delicacy and finesse.
This is also a ‘red’ rather than a ‘white’ vintage – with many Sémillon-dominated wines coming across as fat, oily, undefined and flabby unless in the hands of exceptionally skilled winemakers.
But that should not put one off. For the highs are very high indeed. The best red wines of the vintage are definitely on a qualitative par with the best of 2015 and 2016 – even if these are the exception rather than the rule.
This poses a particular challenge to the consumer who, invariably, has to rely on the opinions of others in selecting what if anything to purchase en primeur. In the absence of a strong price- and market-shaping critic like Robert Parker and in a vintage in which a great many wines covering a great stylistic range have been identified by the aspirant successors to Parker’s crown as potentially great, it is important to know that one shares the taste of the critics one follows.
All I can do is to offer a few of my own personal highlights. I have resisted the temptation to add scores to my notes and I have not sought in any way to provide a fully comprehensive assessment. I have preferred instead to concentrate on wines that I both enjoyed and was able to taste under optimal conditions (ideally, more than once). I have also sought to identify the wines of the vintage rather than to dwell on the disappointments.
So here are my wines of the vintage in a series of categories. The pick of the vintage in each category is highlighted in italics before a series of close contenders, listed alphabetically. Full tasting notes for these are other favourites appear below, arranged by appellation.
Médoc wines of the vintage: Léoville-Las-Cases; Calon-Ségur; Latour; Margaux; Mouton Rothschild; Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande; Rauzan-Ségla;
Right Bank wines of the vintage: Lafleur; Belair-Monange; Canon; Cheval Blanc; Evangile; Le Pin; Trotanoy; Vieux Chateau Certan; La Violette
Pessac-Leognan wines of the vintage: Haut-Brion; Les Carmes de Haut-Brion; Domaine de Chevalier; La Mission Haut-Brion
White wines of the vintage: Domaine de Chevalier; Bouscaut; Les Champs Libres; Haut-Brion blanc; Pavillon Blanc de Margaux; Smith Haut-Laffite
Exceeding all expectations: Berliquet; Canon La Gaffelière; de Fieuzal; Gruaud Larose; Latour-Martillac; Léoville-Poyferré; Marquis d’Alesme; Quinault L’Enclos; Montviel; Réserve de la Comtesse;
Confirming the best of expectations: Brane Cantenac; Beychevelle; Canon; l’Eglise-Clinet; Haut-Bailly; La Tour St Christophe; Rauzan-Ségla
Potential value picks: Branas Grand-Poujeaux; Capbern; Le Crock; La Tour St Christophe; Les Perrières de Lafleur; Montlandrie
Read more: Vintage overview
The Left Bank
Read more: Left Bank overview
Margaux (90% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot). 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 (53% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 7% Petit Verdot). This 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 finishes in a crescendo of floral-tinged fresh fruit that lingers long on the palate.
Rauzan-Ségla (56% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot). Arguably their 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. A second sample, tasted four weeks later, is even more lifted, layered and refined. Very complete.
Brane Cantenac (74% Cabernet Sauvignon; 23% Merlot; 2% Cabernet Franc; 1% Petit Verdot). 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, with all the aromatic complexity and finesse of this great and singular terroir. It is svelte, lithe, lively and yet powerful and intensely structured too – the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
Malescot Saint-Exupéry (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 8% Cabernet Franc). A wine that is flattered stylistically by the opulence and velour of the vintage. This is, as it tends to be, unapologetically big – rich, powerful and bold. But very much of the appellation too. It should age gracefully.
Lascombes (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 40% Merlot: 5% Petit Verdot). Like Malescot, this is flattered stylistically by the opulence and velour of the vintage. Big, bold and rich; but rather 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.
Marquis d’Alesme (55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Franc). Worthy of a special mention as perhaps the most improved wine of the appellation. There has been considerable investment here in recent years and that investment is now clearly yielding results. Pure, precise and focussed, this has a rather lovely graphite minerality. Tense, poised and composed.
Léoville-Las Cases (85% Cabernet Sauvignon; 11% Cabernet Franc; 9% Merlot). This 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 of the appellation.
Ducru Beaucaillou (85% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15% Merlot). Undoubtedly excellent, but in comparison to Las Cases it 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.
Léoville-Poyferré (64% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 3% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot). This 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 (82% Cabernet Sauvignon; 18% Merlot). This completes the hat-trick of Léoville successes in this vintage. 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 (50% Merlot; 41% Cabernet Sauvignon; 6% Petit Verdot; 3% Cabernet Franc). This 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.
Gruaud Larose (67% Cabernet Sauvignon; 24% Merlot; 9% Cabernet Franc). This is strikingly good. I think of Gruaud Larose as the very epitome of St Julien – a wine that always seems to taste of its appellation. And in 2018 it does that yet again while also expressing the singularity of 2018. This couldn’t be anything other than Gruaud and it couldn’t be any other vintage than 2018. It is bigger, richer, plumper than it has perhaps ever been; but it is also fine, delicate and focussed. Its tannins are of cashmere and there is a lovely classically médocain cedar underpinning the fruit. This is quite exceptional and utterly seductive.
Mouton Rothschild (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot). The first growth of the vintage. This 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.
Latour (91% Cabernet Sauvignon; 9% Merlot). This is very close to perfection too. But, for me, it does not have, at least at this point, quite the same energy, quite the same poise and quite the same complexity as Mouton. But it is stunning nonetheless – and to achieve a yield of 25 hl/ha in a vineyard managed entirely biodynamically is, in itself, remarkable in this vintage of biblical climatic extremes.
Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (71% Cabernet Sauvignon; 23% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 1% Cabernet Franc). Another 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.
Pichon Baron (78% Cabernet Sauvignon; 22% Merlot). Separated only by the D2, this is a very different wine from its neighbour across the street, Pichon Lalande. 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 (70% Cabernet Sauvignon; 22% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot). A story of a 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. This wine itself is tricky to assess. I have now tasted three different samples, each poured by the château itself over the period of a month – with significant variation. Each time it has improved. It is pure and fresh, as ever, and there is good intensity and concentration in the mid-palate (something lacking in the first sample I tasted). But, for me at least, the fruit itself is ever so slightly baked. It is pure, focused and precise and accompanied by the signature all spice, cinnamon and saddle leather of a hot vintage cru. It is important to state that others see this wine differently, but it is not difficult to understand why this might not be at quite the level of the 2015 or 2016; indeed, it is difficult to imagine how it could be.
Calon-Ségur (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 17% Merlot; 15% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot). A truly remarkable wine. This might not be the Left Bank wine of the vintage, but 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 (74% Cabernet Sauvignon; 23% Merlot: 2% Petit Verdot; 1% Cabernet Franc). This 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.
Montrose (72% Cabernet Sauvignon; 20% Merlot: 6% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot). Montrose remains, 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.
Le Crock (44% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 10% Cabernet Franc; 6% Petit Verdot). What’s not to like about this? The Merlot here comes from parcels just next to Cos d’Estournel and the Cabernet Sauvignon from parcels next to Montrose and Haut-Marbuzet … and it’s made by the team from Léoville-Poyferré. In 2018, this is stunning. A candidate for the cru bourgeois wine of the vintage? If you have ever wondered what Léoville-Poyferré from St Estèphe would taste like here’s your chance to find out. The 2018 is a very good place to start. Suave, elegant and fresh with intense ‘croquant’ fruit and very true to the Poyferré style.
Capbern (62% Cabernet Sauvignon; 37% Merlot; 1% Petit Verdot). If Le Crock is a potential cru bourgeois wine of the vintage, then here is another – for me really the only other serious contender in 2018. It is very difficult to choose between them – and there is really no need to do so. This, too, is from excellent terroir in St Estèphe and is made by the team from Calon-Ségur. And, like Le Crock, it captures much of the elegance of its more famous sibling for a fraction of the price. It is a little richer and more serious than Le Crock, reflecting the higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon, but similarly fresh and strikingly energetic. A consistently excellent wine; and in 2018 quite simply better than ever before.
Branas Grand Poujeaux (70% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Sauvignon; 5% Petit Verdot). Made by the team from Villemaurine in St Emilion, this is something of a revelation in 2018. The terroir here is, of course, excellent – Branas is a small property located between Poujeaux and Chasse-Spleen. And in 2018, for me at least, it surpasses both of its more famous near neighbours. This has a lovely mouthfeel and a delightful spine of graphite minerality. Spicy, deep, yet fresh and elegant, this is the product of most accomplished winemaking. Shockingly impressive; the considerable ambition is well rewarded.
Read more: Pessac-Léognan overview
La Mission Haut-Brion (53% Merlot; 43% Cabernet Sauvignon; 4% Cabernet Franc). In 2018 La Mission is remarkably open and attractive, seemingly just a little darker in colour and a little more accessible at this formative stage than its twin. It is beautifully limpid in the glass and that gloss and sheen is immediately present on the palate too. One knows one is in the presence of very serious tannins – but they are at first imperceptible other than in their contribution to the wondrously soft and supple mouthfeel. But towards the long and composed finish they start to crumble and roll on the tongue releasing little waves of sappy pure griotte and red cherry fruit. This is very complete, very composed and very integrated with a very gathered and precise finish.
Haut-Brion (49% Merlot; 39% Cabernet Sauvigon; 12% Cabernet Franc). This is, as it so often is, remarkable. It is more obviously grand, more restrained and held-back, less immediately accessible but at the same time gloriously cool, composed and brimming with potential. It is sombre, yet lithe and energetic too. Here we find dark black cherries and raspberries enwrapped in a rich graphite minerality and a deep, spicy, peppery finish elongated by powdery, chewy tannins and the signature juniper and smoky notes of this extraordinary terroir. Needless to say, it has 50 years of evolution ahead of it. The potential for this wine is staggering.
Domaine de Chevalier (65% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot). This is, for me, quite simply the best Domaine de Chevalier that I have ever tasted and, Haut-Brion and La Mission excepting, the wine of the appellation in 2018. It is wonderfully layered and complex, rich, full and opulent and yet extraordinarily focussed and multi-dimensional. Its fruit and mineral signature sings of the Chevalier’s DNA. We find cherries and cassis, with little picquant notes of redcurrant too; there is a spicy pepperiness, hints of tobacco smoke and just a touch of vanilla. But above all this wine is characterised by its remarkable purity and freshness – a product of managing to hold the alcohol level to an impressively low 13.8 degrees.
Haut-Bailly (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 35% Merlot; 5% Petit Verdot; 5% Cabernet Franc). Veronique Sanders has also produced a great wine in this vintage, better in my view even than the fabulous 2015 and pushing the wondrous 2010 in terms of quality. It has over half a degree more alcohol than Domaine de Chevalier (at 14.4% – just exceeding the 2010’s already considerable 14.3%) but it is imperceptible because of the beautiful purity, precision and focused freshness of this wine. The personality of Haut-Bailly in 2018 comes from the crispness of its fruit (cassis, blackberry and brambles), its filigree tannins, its graphite minerality and the delightful notes of liquorice root, cinnamon and nutmeg spice. It is elegant, stylish, poised and singularly balanced. Haut-Bailly is, as Veronique Sanders put it to us (in the words of Jean de la Fontaine), “tous, mais rien de trop” (everything, but not too much of anything).
Les Carmes Haut-Brion (37% Cabernet Franc; 34% Cabernet Sauvignon; 29% Merlot). Supremely pure and precise, this is a fabulous wine and wonderful testimony to the skill and craft of its deeply accomplished wine-maker, Guillaume Pouthier. Les Carmes is another serious contender for wine of the appellation and, like Domaine de Chevalier, simply the best wine I have ever tasted from this property. Here, though, this comes in part from an on-going progression in the technical craft of the winemaking itself. This is a vintage in which the whole berry (100%) and whole-bunch (53%) vinification practiced here in recent years really, really pays off. Like Domaine de Chevalier again, this is ‘only’ 13.75% alcohol. In combination with a pH of 3.61 (most wines in the appellation have a pH of 3.8 or above) this really helps to lock-in the freshness of the fruit. The wine is a beautiful limpid purplish blue in the glass, seemingly a visual reflection of the seamless purity of its crystalline blueberry fruit. There is a lovely vein of graphite minerality allied with an almost ferrous salinity that is one of the signatures for me of this distinct terroir. The finish is long, gathered and composed with ripples of croquant fruit releasing little injections of juicy acidity onto the palate. This is one of the most energetic and lively wines of the vintage and it is unlike any other wine in the appellation – a reflection both of its unusual encépagement and the singular character of the wine-making here.
Smith Haut-Laffite (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 34% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 2% Petit Verdot). As ever this is very different stylistically to the other leading wines of the appellation, but very good too. The alcohol level here is three quarters of a degree higher than at Les Carmes Haut-Brion (at 14.5%) and there is just a hint of its presence on the finish. But this too is a remarkably fresh wine in the context of the vintage and there are subtle changes in the wine-making style here, with less obvious oak influence at this stage and a greater emphasis on precision and purity. The wine is big and punchy, as ever, but clean, crisp, fresh and stylish. There are characteristic notes of tobacco leaf and a touch of pepper to accompany the cherry and blackberry fruit.
Pape-Clément (66% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc). Another top Pessac-Léognan estate that is undergoing a slight change in style. Here too there is less obvious oak presence and the extraction in 2018 is particularly gentle. The wine is serious, slightly sombre, elegant and accomplished. One finds fruits of the forest, cinnamon and five spice and a generous tobacco smokiness. It has a lovely lithe tension and is perhaps more obviously characteristic of the appellation than it has been in recent vintages. It is purer, a little leaner and more focused and precise. Like Smith I have a sense that a new style is still in the process of emerging and that the 2018 is defined more by the idea of what it does not want to be than it is by a clear sense of what it is seeking to become. But this is a very fine and very composed wine nonetheless. It is very true to the appellation and it deserves to do well.
De Fieuzal (55% Cabernet Sauvignon; 30% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; 5% Petit Verdot). Here the style has been well-honed, if subtly tweaked, over a number of years and in 2018, for me at least, it produces its greatest rewards to date. Though, at a final yield of 24 hl/ha, there is rather less of it than they were clearly hoping, the wine itself is fabulous. It is bold and ambitious and might not be to everyone’s taste. But I, for one, love the energy and focus of this wine. It has a very pure blackcurrant and red and black cherry fruit and gloriously svelte tannins. It is polished and subtly spicy, with a touch of fragrant sweet cinnamon and nutmeg and a gently saline note which accentuates the long fresh finish. It is attention-grabbing in all the right ways. After three rather trying vintages, to say the least, Stephen Carrier deserves very great credit for this exciting and distinctive wine.
Bouscaut (approximately 60% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Sauvigon; 5% Malbec). A property that is, of course, much better known for its (excellent) white wine. But in 2018 its red is most definitely worth the detour. There has been considerable progress here in recent vintages. But the 2018 takes Bouscaut to new qualitative heights. There is composed and accomplished winemaking here and the quality of the old-vine Merlot, on the little argilo-calcaire heights around the château itself, bring a certain singularity to this wine. The mouthfeel is soft and gentle, the tannins are velvety and the overall balance is exquisite. This is precise, tobacco-tinged and refined and it leaves one with the lovely sensation of chewing on grape-skins.
Latour-Martillac (60% Cabernet Sauvignon; 32% Merlot; 8% Petit Verdot). This is very much an up-and-coming property. The 2019 will be made in a brand new state-of-the-art gravity-fed wine-making facility allowing for more fine-grained and precise parcel-by-parcel vinification. But the pronounced upward trajectory in recent vintages is already very clear; and 2018 continues the trend. This will surely turn out to be one of the best value releases of the vintage. It is deep, intense and nicely concentrated and the bramble and dark berry fruit sits very elegantly alongside a cool dark graphite minerality. It lacks the layered complexity of the very best wines of the appellation and the alcohol level (at 14.7 degrees) is just a little alarming; but this is very much a property on the rise.
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). In comparison to Haut-Brion blanc, this 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.
Domaine de Chevalier (75% Sauvignon Blanc; 25% Sémillon). In the context of the vintage Domaine de Chevalier 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). This is 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). Deeply impressive, 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.
Bouscaut. Classic, stylish and composed. This is, and has been for some time in my view, an under-appreciated 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.
De Fieuzal (50% Sauvignon Blanc; 50% Sémillon). Stephen Carrier 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.
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.
Les Champs Libres (100% Sauvignon Blanc). From the Guinaudeau family of Château Lafleur and now in its fifth and finest vintage to date, this is an extraordinarily accomplished wine which gives all other Bordeaux blancs (including those likely to be released at several times the price of this) a serious run for their money. It is vinified entirely en barrique and comes from Loire massale clones. Its partly calcaire terroir makes this reminiscent of one of Dauvissat’s premier or grand cru Chablis (Les Clos or La Fôret perhaps) on the nose. It is strikingly pure and precise yet rich, complex and layered. There are peonies and white flowers, citrus fruits, hints of gooseberry leavf, nettles and green foliage. This is remarkably structured and extremely refined and the long finish is accentuated by just a pinch of fleur de sel. Very enticing and very difficult to resist.
Pavillon Blanc de Margaux (100% Sauvignon Blanc). Without question the leading white wine of the Médoc in 2018, as it invariably is. This is big, rich and structured, with a noticeable tannic presence (rare in whites, and perhaps particularly so in 2018). It is pure and so refined – gooseberry and blackberry leaves, a touch of menthol, and a gloriously fresh citrus fruit (grapefruit and tarte au citron) to give tension and balance to the slightly spicy richness of the mid-palate. Not at the level of the 2017, but a wonderful success in a very challenging vintage.
The Right Bank
Read more: Right Bank overview
Cheval Blanc (54% Merlot; 40% Cabernet Franc; 6% Cabernet Sauvignon). This is deep, intense, elegant, cool and nicely focused. 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). No less impressive and, if anything, more intense and powerful than Cheval Blanc. 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 winemaking facility put in place whilst 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.
Ausone (60% Cabernet Franc; 40% Merlot). Awesome. 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.
Troplong-Mondot (85% Merlot; 13% Cabernet Sauvignon; 2% Cabernet Franc). Looking down from its high perch above the village of St Emilion, Troplong-Mondot is a revelation. 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 wine-making.
Clos Fourtet (90% Merlot; 7% Cabernet Sauvigon; 3% Cabernet Franc). Characterised by restraint and elegance the story here 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.
Les Grands Murailles (100% Merlot). From the same stable as Clos Fourtet, the tiny-production Grands Murailles is a revelation of a different kind. 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.
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 focused 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 puissant, but it is dark, cool, quietly understated and very stylish. The alcohol, at 14%, is just not a factor. Tasted again a month later this is, if anything more complete, more composed and more integrated, with more lifted, refined and delineated fruit. Quite exceptional.
Berliquet (78% Merlot; 22% Cabernet Franc). Newly-acquired by Chanel, this 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.
Belair-Monange (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). This is a potential, if perhaps unlikely, candidate for the St Emilion wine of the vintage. 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.
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 lovely grainy limestone tannins that give a beautiful intensity to the very long and composed finish. It is juicy, sappy, yet rich and it has an elegant graphite minerality.
Bellefont-Belcier (70% Merlot; 25% Cabernet Franc; 5% Cabernet Sauvignon). Very different from La Tour St Christophe, and still a work in progress, the newly acquired Bellefont-Belcier from Vignobles K 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.
Tertre Roteboeuf (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). From a sun-trap vineyard in a sun-trap vintage, 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 typically 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 re-taste, for now I reserve judgement.
Canon-la-Gaffelière (50% Merlot; 35% Cabernet Franc; 15% Cabernet Sauvignon). Startlingly different from Le Tertre Rotebeouf and at a slender 13.8 degrees of alcohol, Canon-La-Gaffelière is extremely high-toned and very elegant and fine. This is biodynamically farmed and it shows. It is intense, plump and opulent, with the most sublime cashmere mouthfeel. Yet it is also chiselled, layered and very refined. The structure is most impressive and the pure Cabernet-tinged blueberry and cassis fruit course through its rich veins, accompanied by violets and lavender. The oak has been seriously reined in and this is a gloriously stylish and elegant wine. It is something of a revelation in 2018.
Quinault L’Enclos (71.5% Merlot; 14.5% Cabernet Franc; 14% Cabernet Sauvignon). This has now been made by the team responsible for Cheval Blanc, now in a completely renovated winemaking facility allowing, for the first time, parcel and micro-parcel vinification. The transformation is almost complete though 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.
L’If (74% Merlot; 26% Cabernet Franc). Jacques Thienpont’s tiny production L’If is the eighth 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. That is some achievement.
Côtes de Castillon
Montlandrie (75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc; 5% Cabernet Sauvignon). Denis Durantou’s various satellite Right Bank wines always represent fantastic value. The pick of these for me in 2018 is Montlandrie, from Côtes de Castillon – a wine that has seen perhaps the greatest upward track in recent vintages. This offers a taste of St Emilion – or at least the kind of St Emilion one wishes more were capable of producing – for a fraction of the price of the leading crus of the appellation. Cool, dark and suave with lovely depth and characteristic Durantou purity and linearity on the palate. A great bottle in the making.
Lafleur (50% Merlot; 50% Cabernet Franc). The wine of the vintage. This 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 massale 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. Les Perrières de Lafleur (50% Cabernet Franc; 50% Merlot), is a ringer for Les Pensées de Lafleur – which is, in turn, a ringer for Lafleur itself. It has oceans of depth and a glorious cedar/graphite minerality. It is dark and cool with an impressive density of almost croquant cassis, bramble and wild blackberry fruit. Tasted blind, it would be difficult to believe that this came from anywhere other than the Pomerol plateau – it really is that good.
Evangile (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). Almost as impressive as Lafleur, but so very different in style and personality. 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.
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 focused 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.
Vieux Chateau 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.
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.
Le Gay (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). Stylistically unique and very different from the rest of the wines of the appellation – the 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.
La Violette (100% Merlot). With the individual grapes plucked by hand from each bunch before the same micro-vinification in barrel as Le Gay, La Violette 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.
Montviel (80% Merlot; 20% Cabernet Franc). Made, it seems, for those of us who cannot afford either Le Gay or La Violette. Again using 100% micro-vinification, Montviel takes one remarkably close to achieving the same textural effect. They produced no 2017. The 2018 is, by far, the best wine I have ever tasted from here and it is highly recommended.
Le Pin (100% Merlot). Jacques Thienpont’s sublime micro-cuvée is a wine of superlatives. It 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.
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). This is darker, richer, a little firmer even than Hosanna, 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.
Trotanoy (90% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc). Here 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.