The Right Bank in 2018
Our first stop was Pomerol, with a visit to Clos du Clocher to taste a number of wines from Jean Baptiste Bourotte. Clos du Clocher is situated in some of the finest Pomerol terroir in the middle of the plateau neighboring Trotanoy and La Fleur Petrus. We have been following the Chateau avidly as quality has improved markedly in the last few years - yet Jean remains wonderfully, if unduly, modest when speaking about the quality of the wines. The most noticeable qualities of the wines from Pomerol in 2018 were the quality of the tannins, the concentration of fruit and almost exotic aromas. The wines are incredibly dense but the tannins so fine with an overriding elegance on the palate. Despite the power and density there is a freshness too. Jean said that throughout the whole summer there were cool nights, helping preserve the acidity.
The real concern in the Pomerol in 2018 was towards the end of the growing season. The drought and a drying wind saw 2% of the berries' juice being evaporated every day! Whilst this only concentrated the berries more it meant a massive reduction in overall yield. They waited an additional ten days to pick at perfect ripening which resulted in 20% loss of total harvest through evaporation! The quality, however, couldn’t be better.
If anything, the problem would be excessive alcohol levels, however Clos du Clocher managed this through deliberately shielding the grapes with a protective leaf canopy. They also pulled back on the extraction. With such a high tannin density it was important to keep the wine balanced. The fine weather allowed them to bring more Cabernet Franc into the blend, making up to 25% of the cuvee and adding exotic aromas and longer length. The final result is a beautiful wine with that small berry concentration you get from a great vintage, and a great Pomerol-esque mineral structure producing a well-balanced wine, despite the power. Even the more approachable cuvees made by Jean Baptiste were brimming with concentration. If these are anything to go by, 2018 on the right bank, even at the more entry level, should offer lots of wine for your money.
The Left Bank in 2018
According to Chateau Haut Bailly, 2018 was a year of extremes with an unprecedented wet start to the year followed by a significant onset of mildew drastically reducing yields, particularly in vineyards that are managed organically. When we visited both Chateau Haut Bailly and Chateau Pichon Lalande, both were ecstatic about the final result, but it was not without hardship. Haut Bailly lost 50% of their production and Pichon Lalande lost 30% of their biodynamic crop. Yet Pichon’s cellar master, Xavier Pallu, talked about 2018 being a very special vintage for the appellation. The summer drought saw a significant reduction in yields further concentrating the fruit. This brought production down to 35 hectolitres per hectare compared to normal years that are closer to 45 hectolitres per hectare. Haut Bailly was down to just 21 hectolitres per hectare. However they were not the worse hit, as Palmer’s yields in 2018 closer to just 10 hectolitres per hectare! At Palmer there will be no second wine (Alter Ego) in 2018 and Chateau La Lagune produced virtually nothing. Despite the sacrifices made in 2018, those that managed to produce a crop are incredibly happy with the results…that might be a slight understatement! All the Chateaux we visited have declared it an outstanding vintage.
In Margaux, at Chateau Brane Cantenac, we were fortunate enough to be the first people outside of the Chateau to taste their 2018 and we tasted it side by side against their exceptional 2016. Whilst still very young, the 2018 easily matched it. Director of the Estate, Christophe Capdeville, describes the 2018 as possessing the concentration of the 2010s, the mid palate density of the 2015s and the length of the 2016s. The length on this wine really is extraordinary and the tannins incredibly fine.
In Saint Julien, at Chateau Leoville Las Cases, although we weren't able to taste the 2018 we talked at length with Antoine Gimbert about the vintage. He couldn’t be happier about the growing season. They managed to avoid the mildew attack that plagued neighbouring vineyards and production levels were at the desired 35 hectolitres per hectare. This yield is still impressively low for the region. At Las Cases the vintage was particular for the small size of the berries providing incredible levels of flavour density, even just tasting the grapes off the vine. This is another Chateau that is confident they have produced one of their finest wines to date, which is saying a lot coming off a very good run of vintages from this top Estate.
In Pauillac, at Chateau Pichon Lalande, the positivity continued with the rhythm and timing of the vintage similar to 2009, 2010 and 2016. The long period of perfect weather enabled them to push the maturity as much as they wanted, the result is incredibly developed tannins with exceptional phenolic maturity. At Pichon Lalande the harvest stretched out over a month, with picking starting on the 8th September and finishing on the 10th October. Xavier believes the 2018s will come around sooner that the 2016s but will have the same long ageing potential and that the 2018 vintage is arguably more subtle and more elegant in Pauillac than the 2016s.
On tasting the Chateau de Pez, Xavier stated that compared to Pauillac, the Saint-Estephe appellation was a lot less affected by the drought and produced more normal yields. The wine was big, with a huge amount of broad shouldered tannins, more textured (as you would expect) but still deceptively silky on the finish. This tannin maturity makes even the big wines from Saint-Estephe easy to taste at this early stage.
Finally, in Pessac Leognan at Chateau Haut Bailly, the 2018 exudes all the class, freshness and purity associated with the Estate. The alcohol levels are higher than normal causing a longer fermentation but similarly to the other wines we tried in the Medoc, the alcohol does not stick out on the palate as it is absorbed by the concentration of the fruit and the density of the tannins.
This quick insight into the vintage confirms that 2018 is looking like an exceptional year. Thankfully with current trends seeing a move away from over-extraction, these ripe, warm wines of 2018 when handled carefully will bring decades of drinking pleasure. We look forward to returning back to Bordeaux in the next couple of weeks to taste the vintage more extensively, but this first insight couldn’t have been more positive.