2018 : A vintage for wines having a soul

2018 : A vintage for wines having a soul

Miraculous for some, exceptional for others, a calamity for an unfortunate few, the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux will remain memorable in more ways than one. It “began in hell and ended in paradise” according to the eloquent summary made by Stéphane Derenoncourt, winegrower and leading Bordeaux consultant. First, the long winter was rainy but mild, “with average temperatures + 3 ° C than usual,” according to Baptiste Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur in Pomerol. The rainy spring also took its time to take effect and these wet conditions led to the outbreak of fungal diseases such as downy mildew, which wreaked havoc in the vineyards. Fortunately, from the end of June to the beginning of July, the weather changed dramatically. Calm weather prevailed with sunny skies in July and significant daytime heat in August.

A few episodes of hail were devastating, especially in Côtes de Bourg or in the southern Médoc, where Château La Lagune was hit badly as well as its neighbour Château d’Agassac, but to a lesser extent.

High temperatures made 2018 the third hottest year since 1900 and after 2003, but with cool nights that prevented the phenomenon of excessive concentration as in 2003. These cool nights enhanced anthocyanin accumulation in the grapes which were also able to retain acidity, a source of freshness for the wines to come. The hot days brought the added advantage of destroying the pyrazine molecules (whose aromatic marker is green pepper) while perfectly ripening the berries and tannins of the grape skins.

In the end, three important elements left their defining imprint on this vintage:

  • Significant rainfall during the winter and spring that led to two distinct phenomena: a resurgence of downy mildew, the fungal disease that affects the leaves and limits yields; and water tables attaining very high levels to which each different terroir reacted differently
  • A prolonged, unrelenting fight against downy mildew that forced properties to combat it fiercely in a way that depended on their farming practices (organic or conventional)
  • A long, even leisurely-paced harvest period with sunny weather, the likes of which Bordeaux has rarely seen, and certainly not in living memory of today’s winegrowers

As said, the heavy rainfall led to fungal diseases such as downy mildew or black rot. Such diseases have a double-prong effect, attacking and drying out vine leaves and preventing photosynthesis, but also attacking the grape bunches, and, of course, this affects crop yields. In the case of black rot which spread in early July, it shriveled the berries prematurely. In this case, if these berries are not eliminated from the harvested crop, they can alter the taste of the wine by contributing rustic tannins as well as peppery or metallic notes.

 

Never before has mildew caused so many cold sweats among Bordeaux and French winemakers.

 

Indeed, never before has mildew caused so many cold sweats among Bordeaux and French winemakers. Even in the south of France, winemakers had to fight against this scourge on an unprecedented scale. The most affected were, without question, the practitioners of organic biological or biodynamic farming. The products available to such grape growers are not sufficient enough to stop a widespread and rapid proliferation such as the one that occurred in 2018. Many lost most of their crop. Château Palmer, in Margaux, could only harvest the equivalent of 11 hl/ha and will not produce their second wine, “Alter Ego”. Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac was even more affected, with production under 10 hl/ha. Similar fate for Château Durfort-Vivens in Margaux and many others.

The virulence of these fungal diseases will inevitably lead some to question their farming practices. But one thing is certain, it is necessary to feel solidarity with these pioneers who have borne the brunt of such climatic challenges in recent years. Credit must be given to them for their pioneering efforts in Bordeaux.

Fortunately, the change in weather during the summer helped to eradicate the disease, and the approach of the harvest was greeted with smiles on the faces of the tired, and at times disillusioned, troupe of wine growers. The early fall weather from September to mid-October was picture perfect, with an accumulation of positive elements that had not been since in a long while. Warm days, cool nights, light wind, some scattered but welcome rain. They all played their role in creating the conditions for harvesting impeccably ripe and healthy berries.

 

The equation of the terroir / grape variety / winemaker was crucial

 

Such an equation, often elusive, shows that the achievement of quality is not a democratic process. Certainly, the seemingly ideal weather of the autumn period leading up to the harvest helped ripen beautifully the grapes of the best terroirs having the conditions for waiting it out until optimal ripeness was obtained.  It was not always the case for lesser quality terroirs where the vines had trouble recovering from the stress of both the terrible spell of mildew mayhem in early summer and the hot, dry conditions that ensued. So, while the privileged terroirs managed to come out smelling of roses, so to speak, others wilted under the double whammy.

The exceptionally long ripening stage before the harvest was also the stage where one could see how each producer dealt strategically with it depending on their stylistic benchmark. This is why the “the terroir / grape variety / winegrower equation” has never been so important. Being able to choose the harvest date for each plot in terms of a perceived optimal ripeness proved to bring a real advantage, but also a permanent stress for the pickers. Some properties did not hesitate to harvest the Merlots early and wait for their Cabernets, especially as the perfect weather made an ideal maturity of the grapes possible. Nevertheless, wine growers had to keenly judge and choose the correct harvest date for each plot and could not apply ready-made formulas that had worked in the past, as explained in the article “2018 A Vintage Where Personal Convictions Matter.”

Very clearly, global warming suits Bordeaux, at least so far. 2018 is, despite the extreme weather, a vintage that produced wines having freshness, thanks to the slow maturity of the berries, good acidity levels (although the pH is high, with some close to 4), and especially a harvest at optimal but not excessive ripeness levels.

In terms of organoleptic profile, 2018 will be singular. It has a strong, even soulful, personality like few other Bordeaux vintages. The wines are bursting with fresh, bright fruit flavors and have both fruit and tannic density, but for those who picked when the grapes were just “al dente,” so to speak, they can give a misleading impression of lightness. They certainly present more of a vertical profile with a linear purity than one of virile heft.

 

A Schismatic, Divisive Vintage

 

For these reasons, this vintage will be understood in very different ways. Winemakers who used ready-made recipes – and these include overripe grapes, numerous pump-overs, intensive extractions and the excessive use of new oak barrels – have clearly missed out on an exceptional vintage. Others, more prone to an infusion-like approach, purity of fruit, and a judicious, more delicate, use of barrel aging have produced wines impressive for their balance, precision, purity and sumptuous mouthfeels. Not creamy in style, but rather pure and crystalline for some, but especially linear for many.

As for the critical reaction by wine writers and the specialized press, it is just as schismatic. Think back to 1982 when many felt the wines would not stay the distance because of their plump, precocious style, while Robert Parker and Michel Bettane were the rare voices that praised the vintage and predicted long life for the best wines. Who remembers the name of those who got it wrong? One wonders about the critics who have emphasized the tannic density, or perceived imbalance in the 2018 wines. It reminds me of the reaction to the 1982s.

 

I’m on the side of those who think that 2018 is an exceptional vintage

 

Yes, I’m on the side of those who think that 2018 is an exceptional vintage. Even more, a grandiose vintage that has produced wines of rare quality and soulful character. This is the first time that I have rated wines at such high levels. What delights me all the more is that each type of terroir in the Bordeaux region – quite various in type and quality despite a tenacious cliché that claims the contrary – has rarely been so distinctive in the wines, with the differences being in sharp relief even between vineyards of close proximity. Who cannot discern the difference between Beau-Séjour Bécot and Canon in 2018, even though they both are vinified in consultation with the same oenologist?

One thing for sure is that the consumer will be the big winner. The wines have a special splendor to them, concentrated while remaining fresh and drinkable. They possess all the characteristics to satisfy the most discerning palates, but also the stuff to stay the distance. If the ongoing barrel-aging phase is adapted to such profiles, the wines should be enjoyable within a shorter period than in the past; there will be no need to wait 20 years for them to be approachable. Of course, different stages of enjoyment will be at play, with bright fruit and delicious drinkability for the wines in their youth, then more depth and complexity after ten years or so, and finally, they will reach their apogee of racy classicism.

2018 marks a turning point in Bordeaux. Styles are evolving as over-oaked and over-ripe wines fade into the background. Taking into account such a stylistic evolution, but also “haute couture” viticulture, a rediscovered drinkability factor and the attraction of aging potential, 2018 is indeed a vintage with an added element of “soulfulness.”. As the German poet Goethe (1749-1832) put it so well:“Make a better future by developing elements from the past.” This is now the road that Bordeaux is poised to take.

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Buying tips and price predictions

 

I do not have a divining rod to predict the future, so it is impossible for me to foresee a price orientation, all the more so in that the market platform known as the “place de Bordeaux” is a complex mechanism. If there is consensus on one thing, though, it is that many properties should maintain, or slightly increase at most, the prices of the 2017 primeurs. Be that as it may, the consumer should keep in mind the outstanding potential of the vintage and not hesitate to buy. This seems to be an ideal vintage for investing in the future, be it for yourself, your children or your grandchildren.

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