First and foremost, Bordeaux has another incredible vintage on their hands with 2018. Following the opulent 2015s and the pure class of the 2016s, the 2018s resemble a hypothetical mix of a sunny, dry year such as 2009 or 2015 mixed with a cooler, more classic year such as 2010 or 2016.
At a high level, the 2018s are ripe, sexy wines loaded with fruit and texture, yet they also display a remarkable freshness and purity (as well as singular characters) that make the vintage so special. It’s not a year that favored one side of the river over another, and there are truly profound wines from both the Right and Left Banks. However, while quality is high across the board, the vintage doesn’t have the uniformity in style of, say, 2016, 2010, or 2005. This is not what you’ll hear from the press (it makes you look critical and discerning to say, “There’s a sea of bad wines,” while rating everything as good) or the estates (where their wine is good… but those neighbors!). But after tasting close to 700 barrel samples, the reality is that the vintage is loaded with terrific wines.
To reiterate, while there are dramatic differences in wine styles (between regions and even neighboring estates), unless you’re randomly pulling bottles from the bottom shelf at the grocery store, bad wines are few and far between. Unquestionably at the lower end, you can find some rustic tannins, but even these wines offer fruit and texture. In addition, some of the cooler, lesser known regions (Castillon, Fronsac, etc.) produced a wealth of beautiful wines.
I don’t think any region in the world has more detailed weather analysis than Bordeaux (as well as way too much overthink), most of which are readily available online. Nevertheless, the important factors to understand the 2018 vintage are:
- A rainy, cold winter. The months of November 2017 through March 2018 saw below average temperatures and more than twice the average rainfall of an average year. Bud break was later than average and occurred early in April for most estates.
- A rainy, warm spring. From the period of December 2017 to May 2018, Bordeaux received 800mm of rain, which is more than an entire year of average rainfall. Temperatures, which had been below average through March, took off starting in April and kick-started the vineyards and growing season, getting the vegetative cycle back to close to average by the end of May.
- A warm and relatively dry June. Flowering occurred at the end of May and early in June – only a few days behind average – and was even and consistent. Despite just about every estate mentioning that June saw heavy rainfall, the weather data says otherwise, and the month saw relatively normal temperatures and rainfall. I believe this is critical to understanding why flowering was so successful and why many estates had normal to above average yields.
- Historic mildew pressure. The rainy spring (particularly the month of May), which saturated the ground, was followed by quickly rising temperatures in May and June, resulting in perfect conditions for downy mildew, which thrives in damp, cool conditions. For those estates locked into organic and biodynamic viticulture, which allows for little in the way of fighting this fungus, and for those estates who were unable to perform treatments at the right times (i.e., over the weekends), their vineyards were infested by downy mildew. Several high profile domains lost as much as two thirds or more of their crop. Adding insult to injury, isolated May and July hailstorms, mostly in the Graves, the southern part of the Médoc, and in the Bourg and Blaye regions on the Right Bank, decimated the vineyards of an unlucky few.
- A hot, dry summer with cool nights. Starting in mid- to late June, the climate changed dramatically, with rainfall amounts plummeting and daytime temperatures soaring. Daytime highs matched 2016, 2003, 1990 and 1947; however – and critical to understanding the vintage – nighttime temperatures remained cool. It is this combination of high daytime temperature followed by cool nights that gives the 2018s their beautiful mix of sunny, sexy characters paired with terrific purity and freshness. Between June and September, the region recorded a record-breaking 1,136 hours of sunshine.
- A warm, dry Indian summer and stress-free harvest. The sunny, dry, and hot summer months allowed the vineyard ripening cycle to catch back up to normal, with veraison occurring for most estates at the end of July and beginning of August. Small rain showers at the end of August and early in September helped alleviate hydric stress on some of the younger vines, and warm, even weather persisted through the end of October, allowing estates to pick at will.
If you consider the old saying that June makes the quantity, August makes the style, and September makes the quality, in 2018 you have a warm, average June resulting in a large crop; a hot, dry, and incredibly sunny August with cool nights; and picture-perfect weather in September and October.
This adds up to a brilliant vintage for Bordeaux.
Certainly, you have to consider the massive winter and spring rains, as well as the resulting mildew, but this was far from homogenous in the vintage and was a small factor in the overall quality of the vintage.
Due to the ideal weather during harvest, with little in the way of rain pressure, estates were able to make whatever style of wine they wanted. If you wanted to harvest two weeks ahead of everyone early in September, no problem. Wait until mid-October? Have at it.
Therefore, while 2018 has high overall quality, the style of the wines spans from fresh and lively to powerful and opulent, driven primarily by harvest decisions. Both the limestone soils of Saint-Emilion and the deeper clay soils of Pomerol excelled, with both soil types holding ample moisture that helped the vines weather the hot, dry summer months. Also, the higher calcium content and high pH of limestone soils resulted in wines with lower pH and better acidity. The wines of Saint-Emilion, especially from the upper, limestone plateau, have some of the lowest pHs in the vintage and show incredible freshness and purity. It’s also worth noting that while all the grape varieties excelled in 2018, mildew adversely affected the Merlot on the Right Bank. This explains why some blends are shifted more toward Cabernet Franc than normal. The result is wines that show slightly more elegance and purity, with less overt Merlot richness and sexiness.
The more gravelly soils in the Graves region as well as in the Médoc fared well, with little in the way of vines shutting down due to excessive heat (also known as blockage). This is Bordeaux at its most opulent and sexy, and brilliant wines were made throughout the Graves and Médoc regions. Incredible ripeness was achieved, with alcohol levels pushing 14.5% (or more for some estates). While the pHs on the Right Bank are moderated by the limestone soils, you start to see higher pHs in Pomerol, Graves, and on the Left Bank, with most running between 3.5 and 3.8, yet with healthy total acids. These are far from freakish numbers, and the paradox of this vintage is the ripe, sexy style imparted by the hot and dry summer months is paired with a beautiful sense of purity and elegance due to cooler nighttime temperatures (even further enhanced by incredible precision and attention to detail in the sorting and winemaking).
In general, berry sizes were tiny and grape skins were ripe and thick. The resulting wines are inky colored, with tannin levels and polyphenols just about off the charts, surpassing 2010 and 2016 in many cases. Where I was able, I listed the IPT, or total amount of tannins, of the wines. It’s important to know that IPT only measures the amount of tannins, and not the quality of the tannins. In 2018, one of the main qualitative difference between the wines was the quality of the tannins, and gentle, cooler vinifications were touted by just about everyone.
As I commented earlier, there isn’t another single vintage that resembles 2018. A slightly more elegant and fresher 2009, a mix of 2009 and 2016, or even a mix of 2015 and 2016 all seem legitimate. While I don’t think it’s safe to say 2018 surpasses what was achieved in 2016 (or 2015, 2010, or 2009 for that matter), it is safe to say that this is unquestionably another great vintage.
While 2018 is not a great vintage for the whites of the region, there are plenty of solid wines, particularly from Sauvignon Blanc. A number of the more Sémillon dominated cuvées lack acidity and verve and can come across as heavy. I wasn’t able to taste enough Sauternes to form a strong opinion, yet the long, dry autumn was not ideal for the development of botrytis and vignerons has to wait, and wait, and wait.
Should you buy 2018 En Primeur? Maybe.
I think there are three reasons to buy En Primeur.
1) To buy wines at a discounted price. Make no mistake, you are taking a risk purchasing unfinished wines, and if prices are not substantially less at En Primeur than on release, you should have kept your money. Given Brexit, Trump, the 2020 election in the US, and a host of other factors, it’s impossible to know what the world market will look like in two years, but these are exciting wines that will be sold. US consumers also have a plummeting exchange rate in their favor.
2) To guarantee access to smaller production wines. This applies primarily to tiny estates on the Right Bank, but in a vintage like 2018, where several estates lost a large portion of their crop to mildew, it’s well worth considering. If you want Pontet Canet or Palmer, you should be considering En Primeur.
3) To secure special formats (half bottles, magnums, double magnums, etc.). As always, with future orders, consumers can request specific bottlings.
Given that 2018 is another great vintage, there are legitimate reasons to buy these wines En Primeur. I’ve bought a handful of cases and will continue to do so depending on price.
When to Drink
The 2018 vintage produced ripe, sexy wines that are loaded with fruit. In some cases, even the barrel samples were hard to resist. Nevertheless, these are concentrated wines with a boatload of tannins. Thankfully, in most cases, the tannins are ripe and polished, and with moderate acidity, the wines have plenty of upfront appeal. However, given their concentration, tannin levels, purity, freshness, and balance, they will also be long-lived.
It’s an uphill battle, but I will continue saying it: Wines from Bordeaux that required a decade (or more) of cellaring to offer pleasure are a thing of the past. Today’s wines are made with riper, cleaner, more uniform fruit due to an incredible focus on vineyard management. They are also made with better winemaking techniques, cleaner cellars, softer extractions, and a focus on purity of fruit and better tannin management. All of this results in wines that have beautiful upfront fruit as well as managed tannins, and that offer pleasure in their youth. Aside from a few relatively stubborn 2008s and 2000s, there’s not a vintage out there that’s not drinking well today. Yes, there are exceptions to every broad statement, but the “never ready” and “I’m too old to buy Bordeaux” dogmas touted by too many US consumers need to go.
All these wines were tasted in the middle of April, when I spent 12 full days in Bordeaux. I tried to indicate when I was able to taste a wine on multiple occasions, since young barrel samples, (particularly Bordeaux due to their higher tannins and structure) can show dramatic differences from day to day, generally due to barometric pressure (not to be confused with the moronic root and fruit days). It’s important to taste a wine as many times as possible, yet with more and more estates refusing to participate in organized tastings and demanding visits, that’s simply not possible for every wine in this report. Nevertheless, aside from a few cooler, rainy days, the weather was consistent during my trip and ideal for tasting.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a great vintage for the lesser appellations, and the report is filled with wines that will offer loads of pleasure right out of the gate as well as evolve gracefully. This a terrific vintage and unquestionably worth your time and money.