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Bordeaux En Primeur 2018: Left Bank Report

 

A vintage report for the Left Bank - Bordeaux En Primeur 2018 by Andrew Caillard MW.

When I was studying wine in Bordeaux as a stagiaire way back in the late 1970s, I remember driving up the D243 each day during the vendange to Chateau Paveil de Luze near Soussans. The early morning mist lightly blanketed the road so that only signs or poles showed where to point the car. It was like flying on a magic carpet.

For those who remember the 1979 vintage this way, it was unforgettable, but for those who bought the wines it was not the greatest year, although by no means a disaster.

This year, 40 years later, the roads are busy with thousands of wine merchants and wine writers from all around the world travelling from one chateau to another to taste what is clearly a very fine vintage. Making appointments and planning the driving is getting harder as more Chateaux insist on their wines being seen in their cellars. The driving all up is around 1400 to 1500 kilometres including early morning and evening traffic snarls.

This year I have noticed very few Chinese flags. They used to flutter everywhere. The French know how to curry favour better than the Indians can butter chicken. After the enthusiasm and market bubble of the early 2010s the China market has settled down with significant challenges ahead.

Despite Brexit and economic uncertainty the Bordelaise seem to be courting their old markets again. If the ‘Tricolour’, ‘Stars and Stripes’ and ‘Union Jacks’ (many upside down – ignorance or retaliation?) are any indication China is not the Eldorado that was once envisaged. Those days seem well and truly past, although the number of Chinese-speakers at the chateaux suggests that the relationship is far from over. For those who truly wish to observe the wine business at its most refined, the primeurs offer a masterclass on how to engage with customers. 

‘While the 2018 vintage is the centrepiece of all conversations,
nothing can get in between the French and lunch.’

This daily ritual may seem time-wasting, but it’s actually something to admire and respect. There is little obesity in France and drinking is not a competitive sport. When the Bordelaise talk about emotion and sharing, they mean it and practice it. No wonder the wines from Bordeaux have proven to be so resilient and relevant throughout the ages.

The 2018 vintage on the left bank is a fascinating study of man’s struggle with nature. The wrestling match was in favour of the dark forces of nature during the first half of the growing season, but unseasonably warm-to-hot, dry weather in the second half allowed vignerons to harness nature and achieve stunning results. This narrative will repeat itself over and over again as the 2018 Primeurs get under way.

Much has already been said about the right bank wines already. Pomerol is very strong and St Emilion is a little more variable. These Merlot-dominant wines have really benefited from having a fresh whack of Cabernet Franc in the blends.

On the left bank Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety although it can be surprising to see the amount of Merlot in some of the wines. Many of the second wines have a higher proportion of Merlot than the Grand Vin. La Dame de Montrose has 52% compared to 20% in Chateau Montrose. Carruades de Lafite has 38% Merlot compared to Chateau Lafite Rothschild with only 8.5%. The left bank did not escape disease pressure either. Poor flowering also reduced the crop in some instances.

The quality of wines on the left bank is invariably related to vineyard sites and investment in cellars. In the last 10 years the very top Chateaux in the Medoc have rebuilt their cellars. Many are magnificent and almost all impressive. The barrel cellar at Chateau Montrose is a masterpiece of interior architecture.

The increasing attention to matching vineyard plots to individual vats is beginning to take hold. Chateau Lafite is about to go through a new renovation to allow this to happen. Meanwhile at Chateau Pontet Canet the stables have now been completed with room for 20 horses. Right now 10 Percherons are billeted with ample room to luxuriate their bulk after a hard day’s work in the vineyard.

‘Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety - although it can be surprising to see the amount of Merlot in some of the wines.’’

The 2018 St Estephes are quite variable but this is probably related to investment as much as terroir. The very best Chateaux have made some really terrific wines. For instance Calon Segur, recently overhauled and beautifully landscaped by new owners, is making classic wines without the muscular textures often seen in the wines some years back.

Chateaux Montrose and Cos d’Estournel, both second growths, are hugely ambitious and as a consequence have both made impressive wines this year. While their second labels, Pagodes de Cos and La Dame de Montrose, are not as well known, vintage conditions have allowed winemakers to assemble wines of lovely richness, proportion, density and length. The tannins are pronounced but they are ripe and should settle down over time. They shouldn’t require 100 years but a good five to seven will see these wines reach a good drinking window. Tronquoy Lalande, which neighbours (and is owned by) Montrose is a hugely impressive wine as well.

There are many impressively balanced wines from Pauillac. Chateaux Lynch Bages, d’Armailhac, Duhart Milon and Grand Puy Lacoste typically show great fruit expression and tannin quality. The richness, concentration and vigour assures longevity. In most years the tannins are grainy but in 2018 many examples were densely packed and graphite-like.

Chateau Pontet Canet is different from all of the neighbouring wines. The combination of a difficult growing season and adherence to biodynamic principles has led to a more approachable young wine with aromatic complexity, very good richness of fruit and suppleness, but without the raw vigour often seen in elemental young Pauillacs. Alfred Tesseron’s belief in biodynamic principles is remarkable, especially in the face of nature’s destructive forces. The 2018 Ch Pontet Canet really is an interesting, well made and highly evocative wine, articulating a very emotional account of the vintage and man’s struggle – and ultimate triumph – over nature. There is something highly admirable about believing in something and sticking to principles in the face of adversity. Pontet Canet’s production this year is miniscule, yet authentic and meaningful.

By the way, for those who don’t know Patrick O’Brian’s famous novels based on the adventures of fictitious 19th Century British naval officer Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander, etc), Pontet Canet is a dastardly French spy from Burgundy who gets his comeuppance after trying to kill a British agent on the run in Boston. But O’Brian wrote the story when the Chateau was an obscure left bank producer making wine mostly sold in supermarkets. Over the last decades Pontet Canet has steadily improved its image to a “super second” Chateau and now makes a successful killing out of the British! Nonetheless 2018 Ch Pontet Canet represents one of the great conversations of the vintage. Whatever the perspective of where it sits in the pantheon of Chateau gods, there is plenty of heart in the wine and as a consequence I think this year’s vintage is really worth following.

Pichon Comtesse de Lalande is an exceptional wine this year. Its vineyards are right next door to Latour. Some while back it swapped vineyards with Leoville Lascases – both wishing to consolidate holdings in their respective communes, Australians have had a love affair with Pichon Lalande going back years and years. For a time it dipped a little below the radar, but under the ownership of Louis Roederer it has excelled. I am particularly impressed by this year’s vintage. Grand Puy Lacoste and its stablemate Borie Lacoste are generous and full of life – just like their owners.

The First Growths are powerful and dense. Chateau Latour is pristine and precise with great polish and structure for the long haul whereas Mouton Rothschild is warm and chocolaty with superb density of fruit, plentiful tannins and linear freshness. Lafite Rothschild is more of a conundrum. It is extremely refined, graceful and balanced with beautiful tannin quality, but on the day, I tasted the wine, it was unyielding. Perhaps it was a root day.

St Julien has performed extremely well in 2018 as well. There is quite some consistency across the board, perhaps without as many big guns, but certainly in terms of richness, concentration and tannin quality. Ducru Beaucaillou is often a standout in top vintages and this year it excels once again. Lalande Borie, a separate estate under the same ownership, is really good in its price category. Leoville Las Cases, which many believe should have been classified as a First Growth in 1855, is also impressive. Others worth looking at include Chateaux Beychevelle, Leoville Barton (always a consistent and reliable punt), Leoville Poyferré, Clos du Marquis, Gruaud Larose, Talbot and Lagrange. 

‘This year Palmer is not a third growth. It is the very best wine
on the left bank, not by a mile but by at least a head.’

The wines in the Margaux appellation are not as consistent as Pauillac or St Julien. There were greater challenges in the vineyard for some estates as a consequence of hail, particularly Palmer which was very nearly wiped out. Mildew pressure did not help, but this is a miracle year for the estate. Thomas Duroux is an exceptional thinker and completely on top of his game. The harvest was painfully slow - a month to pick the crop across 66 hectares - with a yield the equivalent of one bunch per vine. This extraordinarily concentrated vintage had a silver lining for Palmer.

Although no Alter Ego was made, the Grand Vin is exceptional and soars in the company of legends. This year it is not a third growth. It is the very best wine on the left bank, not by a mile but by at least a head. This extraordinary vintage is one to buy, but it will be highly allocated and no doubt the price will need to reflect the paucity of bottles that will be produced.

Chateau Margaux is a lustrous wine too. It is never as powerful as the Pauillac First Growths, but it has a grace and energy that will allow it to build richness and volume as it ages. Chateaux d’Issan, Marquis de Terme, Pavillon Rouge, Rauzan Segla, Prieuré Lichine and Brane Cantenac are really good. I was also very impressed by Blason d’Issan. It may look odd seeing it rubbing shoulders with bigger names, but the point is that many second wines are very good this year because the fruit ripened so well. If the prices of the grand vins seem out of reach, there are many second wine alternatives that are pretty good.

The lesser-known communes Listrac and Moulis harbour some classified growths. By far the best is Chateau Clarke, which has been a beneficiary of significant investment by (Lafite shareholder) Esmond de Rothschild. These communes, along with the Medoc and Haut Medoc appellations, often represent better value. But the narrative surrounding the high density of tannins and high extraction rates by some estates is to some extent exemplified by the 2018s from these localities.  

The 1855 Classification is still relevant despite changes of ownership and shuffling of vineyard assets over the last 160+ years.

With the conversation about climate change becoming more vocal – especially after the challenges of 2017 and 2018 – it is interesting to witness the differences in sub-regions around the left bank. Although it is not really a classic year the quality of the tannins reveal sub-regional tendencies quite profoundly. The 1855 Classification is still relevant despite changes of ownership and shuffling of vineyard assets over the last 160+ years.

Pessac Leognan has probably seen more climate change than any other sub region in Bordeaux, largely because of urbanisation and concrete. Chateaux Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion and Carmes Haut Brion and vineyards are located on the outskirts of Bordeaux’s urban areas. High-rise apartments, walls and roads must have altered the micro-climate considerably since the 1850s. The reflected heat from surrounding concrete, localised wind patterns and other factors may not necessarily be a bad thing, though.

 

The 2018 Haut Brion is a generously proportioned wine with plenty of tannin density and richness. The quality of tannins is very good and no doubt the wine will evolve well. At this stage it is looking quite elemental and my score reflects this. Considering the expectations of the customer I think the order of preference for First Growths on the left bank is Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Lafite, Haut Brion… but in the end it’s all personal.

As a general observation, the wines of Pessac Leognan and Graves are quite mixed, reflecting the nuances of terroir and the reality of investment. The wealthier and most technically focussed estates seem to have tamed the tannins really well. Chateau Haut Bailly – which earlier in the 20th Century was comparable to the very top growths of Bordeaux, has really jumped a notch in the last five years. It is not only back in form but genuinely challenges the hierarchical status quo. At the very least it now sits on the same plane as the super-seconds.

 

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte has also achieved extraordinary things. Both these Pessac Leognan estates, in rural settings, bring glamour and the height of refinement to this rather staid sub-region. Domaine de Chevalier is also very well respected. In general the wines are ripe and warm-fruited with vigorous textures and integrated acidity. I have a feeling they are just a touch riper in expression than their Medoc counterparts. La Mission Haut Brion is also very impressive.

Many of the Pessac Leogan Chateaux produce white wine – but they can only bottle under the Graves appellation. One of the most expensive white wines in the world is Chateau Haut Brion Blanc, based primarily on Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Although the 2018 is a wonderful wine the price is absurdly high. Barrel fermentation, oak maturation and lees (yeast) stirring can bring extra complexity and interest, but when the price to the customer is over $2000 it really does need to show something for it. The answer of course is in the real estate and the story of the wine, including the elusive narrative of terroir.

 

On the other hand there are First Growth estates that make more modestly priced examples, including Chateau Margaux’s iconic and well-respected Pavillon Blanc. The best-value whites are undoubtedly the lesser celebrity estates including Chateau Carbonnieux and Domaine de Chevalier. But considering the matrix of exchange rate, value and pleasure, there aren’t that many that are genuinely worth buying - unless it is about buying a dream.

 

For the most part the white wines from Cos D’Estournel, Aile d’Argents (Mouton Rothschild), Lynch Bages and others all look strikingly similar and hardly support the narrative of exceptional terroirs. But they are delicious to drink.

 

It is definitely not a classic Sauternes Barsac year from a weather point of view. If it was not for a drench in late October, this could have been a very disappointing vintage, but having tasted many of the wines, there are some very expressive and beautiful wines Ch Climens, Ch Lafaurie Peyraguey and Ch Rieussec are notable examples. They are not overly unctuous and move nicely across the palate with plenty of energy. Honeyed characters, crystalline fruits, supple viscosity and freshness make them very appealing.

 

Overall for those who love Bordeaux, 2018 is an exciting vintage. From a weather perspective it is an atypical year. From a tannin and colour viewpoint, it is off the charts. But for all of the challenges and disappointments along the way, this is a vintage of great character and resilience. I am certain the very best wines will last for a very long time. Maybe it will be remembered like 1947 or 1961. If not, there are a heck of a lot of vintages it can rub shoulders with. None of us can entirely predict the future, but I am confident that 2018 Bordeaux (reds!) will be seen by many people as an exciting triumph.

 

- Andrew Caillard MW, May 2019

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