Thoughts on 2018 Bordeaux - Andrew Caillard MW
Friday, March 08, 2019 in News
The forthcoming Bordeaux Primeurs campaign promises to offer many fine and exceptional wines. As usual Langton’s will be attending the tastings and assessing the 2018 vintage. As a regular visitor to Bordeaux, I am both excited and daunted at the prospect of tasting hundreds of young 2018s from many of the great Châteaux of the region.
Yet I am convinced that our presence in Bordeaux makes a huge difference to how we buy and sell these Grand Cru Classé wines, and others, to our clientele. Although our experience is second-to-none, I am very aware of the expectations and traditions established over the last few centuries!
A bottle of 1958 Château Haut-Brion
The 1855 Bordeaux Classification is one of the enduring trust marks of the Bordeaux fine wine scene. Asides from the elevation of Château Mouton Rothschild to First Growth status in 1973, this hierarchy of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th growths has barely changed since its inception except for a few changes of Estate names. The Bordeaux Classification, based on the prices paid by merchants for a tonneau (900L shipping barrel) of wine from estates on the left bank of the Gironde, was first published at the behest of Emperor Louis Napoleon III for the 1855 Paris Exhibition. As the most powerful instrument in building Bordeaux’s fine wine narrative for over 150 years, it has enabled an aristocracy of wine that has survived the political discourse of France. In many respects, it defies the revolutionary promise of liberté, egalité et fraternité (freedom, equality, and fraternity).
All the concepts that make Bordeaux wines compelling (aside from taste) are related to the economic power of land, generations of effort, exclusion zones (subregions), complex wine laws and a pecking order developed over centuries. These elements are so intertwined with tradition, families and land ownership that it is almost impossible to see Bordeaux through a revolutionary eye.
Château Cos d'Estournel's famous 'Zanzibar door' - imported from the Sultan of Zanzibar’s palace by Cos’ first owner, Louis Gaspard d’Estournel, in the early 1800s
This year marks 40 years since I first travelled to Bordeaux as a young stagiaire. I worked vintage at Château Paveil de Luze at Soussans, near Margaux, and then worked in the cellars of Baron Alfred de Luze et Fils on the Quai des Chartrons.
Bordeaux was a grimy place then. Every building was blackened by coal smoke and polluted air. Much of the Bordeaux wine trade was based on old families and expectations of another age. The Bordelaise were “more English than the English” with traditions that promoted snobbery and elitism. From a 19-year old’s perspective, Bordeaux was intimidating, stuffy and unfriendly. Yet the experience was the beginning of a career in wine.
Bordeaux has changed almost beyond recognition over the last four decades. Most of the old buildings are still there, but they have been cleaned up revealing the original beautiful honey-coloured sandstone and grandiose facades of the 18th and 19th centuries. During those times Bordeaux was a major transatlantic port best known for its lucrative trade in slaves and wine. It was also a centre for political refugees, particularly rich Spanish families escaping political tensions and the Carlist wars. It is no coincidence that Bordeaux became the centre of Emperor Louis Napoleon III’s mid-19th ambitions. It was here on 9th October 1852 that he made one of the defining speeches of the era. He declared,
"We have immense unploughed territories to cultivate; roads to open; ports to dig; rivers to be made navigable; canals to finish, a railway network to complete. We have all the great ports of the west to connect with the American continent by modern communications, which we still lack. We have ruins to repair, false gods to tear down, truths which we need to make triumph. This is how I see the Empire, if the Empire is re-established. These are the conquests I am considering, and you around me, who, like me, want the good of our country, you are my soldiers."
The opulent Château Margaux
The scientific knowledge, inventions and innovations that took place during the mid-19th Century re-defined fine wine. The Bordeaux method of making wine was exported all around the world, including Spain, (particularly Rioja), Italy, Australia, Chile and California. The genesis of modern-day Bordeaux wine began with the steam age, new economies of scale from industrialisation and grand ambitions. Under the stewardship of outgoing Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé (former Prime Minister of France), the city has enjoyed a new and extraordinary renaissance with new buildings, bridges, a brilliant tram system, faster TGV railway (two hours between Paris and Bordeaux) and more services. During the same period, all the major Châteaux have invested significantly in new state-of-the-art winemaking facilities, barrel cellars and their vineyards. While some Châteaux have fallen into corporate hands or foreign ownership, most estates remain family-owned.
Through all these changes Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification has remained a centrepiece of the region’s fine wine agenda. This immensely powerful document continues to play with the minds of everyone dealing with Bordeaux Claret or Sauternes/ Barsac! The 1855 Classification is steeped in reality, mythology and tradition. As a consequence, there always seems to be a close correlation between perceived quality, wine annual reviews and the order of Bordeaux’s elite wine estates. These perceptions also extend to the Grand Cru Classé wines of St Emilion and the completely non-classified but unofficial prestige Châteaux of Pomerol.
Langton's visited Château Pavie last en primeur tastings.
Increasingly the vintage news out of Bordeaux is complicated. With so many agendas swirling around, it is sometimes difficult to understand where the truth lies. Over the last ten years many international wine commentators have attempted to fill the once-powerful void left by Robert Parker, but in reality, the narrative has become fragmented. There is no longer an “Emperor of Wine,” although there are a few critics who would feel entirely comfortable with this moniker. Personal brand building by some influential wine critics has created many potential conflicts of interest, in my opinion. But in the end, I think Australians “see” wine differently to the Americans, the English, the Europeans and other countries. We have higher expectations of freshness and as a result, I don’t really trust a single opinion.
The combination of all of these expectations, shaped by tradition, fashion, observation and personal wealth, makes Bordeaux wine endlessly fascinating and wonderful, yet subject to pretention and wishful thinking. As direct importers, it makes sense to bring in the best examples across the entire Bordeaux wine scene. At Langton’s, we have specialised in this category since inception. Our first catalogue of auction wines comprised a significant offering of Red Bordeaux and Sauternes etc. By 2004 we began to import wine directly recognising that our clientele would appreciate the service and the expertise. I have been travelling to Bordeaux practically every year since this time.
Château Angelus - a plot of very old vines at the centre of a natural amphiteatre
The forthcoming primeurs tasting, to be held in late March/ early April, promises to challenge and seduce all of those who love Bordeaux. By all accounts, the 2018 vintage is a blinder with some outstanding wines vying for an edge of immortality. On the other hand, the exchange rate is not as favourable as in recent times and hence there is bound to be some argy-bargy surrounding this and the Bordelaise habit of pushing up prices. These guys know how to optimise profitability better than any other merchants in the world. But as usual, we spread our buying across the open market called La Place de Bordeaux in order to secure the allocations we need, the wines we want and the best prices possible. We have always worked hard to achieve the best possible outcomes for our customers.
There are other geopolitics to consider as well. The international markets have softened a touch over the last year. China, always problematic when it comes to futures buying of wine, is not easy right now and merchants will be aware of this. Even the US is teetering in confidence because of the political confidence in that country. Brexit may well also frighten off buyers in the UK, so one never quite knows what will happen with price evolution.
I am expecting the vintage to be talked up but, reading some early reports and having experienced summer in Europe, I am confident that 2018 will be an exceptional Bordeaux vintage. After a fairly wet Spring, significant mildew pressure and pockets of hail, the weather stabilised with long periods of warm dry, sometimes hot conditions. Intermittent rains kept soil moistures at a reasonable level, although the vines sometimes struggled. As a consequence, the colours, phenolics and flavours are apparently impressively rich and composed. The harvest took place uninterrupted under open warm skies with absolutely no disease pressure.
We will be tasting as much as we can over a two-week period, starting from the 25th of March and finishing off on the 5th of April. Our plan is to look at all of the Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé wines that we regularly import. But we are also conscious of price evolution/ exchange rates and the need to find alternative options, particularly Cru Bourgeois type wines that can fill this void. We plan to send regular progress reports to build engagement and interest in the forthcoming Bordeaux primeurs campaign. We welcome questions and opinions, although compiling a final opinion and tasting notes will not be published until the eve of the primeurs campaign itself.