The Bordeaux 2018 Vintage at En Primeur
Wine industry professionals from all over the world have come to Bordeaux, France, to taste the latest vintage, 2018. Though it’s still in barrel, the wine is already for sale for the trade members who have arrived with their taste buds and checkbooks.
In Bordeaux, the top estates, and an increasing number of others, sell their wine while it’s still in the barrel (two years before it’s released), rather than waiting to sell it when the wine is bottled. Typically, each estate sells portions of its production to several négociants, who then sell the wines on to other merchants or importers, through retailers or restaurants and finally, to the end consumer. In America, look for reputable retailers with experience offering, and track records of delivering, Bordeaux “futures.”
Click through to see how the left and right Bank fared, what wines to seek out and the top wine according to our European Editor, Roger Voss.
Two words best describe the 2018 Bordeaux wines presented at this year’s En Primeur: Heartbreak and happiness.
For many of the top estates, the 2018 vintage heartbreakingly produced two-thirds or less than the 2017 vintage. Throughout Bordeaux, the crop was 30% below average. The silver lining is that the final wine is so darn good.
There were two culprits for the small crop: mildew and drought. Rain and humidity plagued the region from spring through July, which brought about mildew. From mid-July until harvest, the rain turned to constant sunshine, and drought. To find these two issues in one year is exceptional.
For the left bank, where Cabernet Sauvignon is in the majority, two of the most eminent estates epitomize this tale of woe and relief. Château Palmer in Margaux and Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac, both ardent advocates of biodynamic practices, had low yields and great losses.
“Our choice to be biodynamic was a challenge under the enormous mildew pressure. We had three different mildew attacks, with the worst in early July,” says Thomas Duroux, CEO of Château Palmer.
Alfred Tesseron, owner of Château Pontet-Canet, says its vineyard losses amounted to two-thirds of the crop. But he vowed to continue the biodynamic path. “It is not a marketing tool. If you do not believe, then do not do it,” says Tesseron. “I just hope that nature is less drastic in 2019 than it was last year.”
Both made exceptional wines with what was left. The drought produced tiny berries with concentrated flavors. But it also caused thick skins and little flesh.
Sara Lecompte-Cuvelier, co-owner of Château Léoville-Poyferré in Saint-Julien, says the Cabernet Sauvignon “went into the tank and the level didn’t rise, there was so little juice.”
From Margaux in the south of Médoc to Saint-Estèphe in the north, there are undoubtedly some great wines. At the barrel tastings, the northern communes of Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint Estèphe had the most consistent successes. Margaux returned to its irritating habit of being all over the place.
In Saint-Julien, always the most consistent of the communes, Bruno Borie, owner of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, summed up the wines: “We have seen nothing like this vintage before, with big tannins, high alcohol and enormous acidity and freshness.”
Will American drinkers enjoy these Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the left bank? After all, they are what drives the region’s reputation in the U.S. market.
Hervé Berland, CEO of Château Montrose in Saint-Estèphe, has been quoted as likening this vintage to 2009 “but with the precision of 2016.” The opulent and ripe 2009 vintage was popular with American buyers. This 2018 vintage, mixed at it is, could prove the same. That, of course, will depend on the price, but that is another story, which I will come back to again later this week.
Top wines from the Left Bank
Château Margaux 2018 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 97–99 points. It is impressive how the serious structure of this wine has been totally absorbed by the depth of fruit. A dense black currant flavor and bright acidity are balanced by the core of dark tannins and an overall richness. Currently, the end is dominated with tannins that will allow the wine to age.
Château Palmer 2018 Barrel Sample (Margaux); 97–99 points. Dense and concentrated, this is a powerfully rich wine. It has a velvet texture that masks the tannins, which are solid, precise and impressive in structure. It is a great wine that comes from a very low-yield crop and it will age quite well.
Château Latour 2018 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99 points. The power of this wine is impressive. Elegance and stylishness mark this classic Latour which offers bright acidity and bold black fruits that shine strongly through the dense tannic structure. With the freshness typical of this vintage, it brings a smoky nuance from the wood aging and immense longevity on the finish.
Château Mouton Rothschild 2018 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 97–99 points. This wine is ripe and juicy, packed with black fruits and generous tannins that sit on a velvety texture. It is dense, concentrated and intensely structured in bold tannins, but still the purity of the dark shines through.
Château Ducru Beaucaillou 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Julien); 96–98 points. This is a powerful wine that shows big tannins and great concentration that are matched with intense acidity. The result is a magnificent wine with the dense fruit flavor and bold structure that will lend well to aging.
Château Lafite Rothschild 2018 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98 points. This wine is packed with plenty of dark fruits and structured tannins that offer an immense power, while also keeping the elegance and richness of a grand Pauillac. With 91% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, the wine has fine tannins as well as bright acidity. It is a great wine with a long-term future.
Château Léoville Las Cases 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Julien); 96–98 points. It is the tannins that mark out this powerful wine, presenting a fine balancing act between a firm structure and rich dark fruit flavors. It is the epitome of elegant Saint-Julien, with a welcome mix of weight and freshness.
Château Montrose 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Estèphe); 96–98 points. This superb wine offers intense, spicy tannins and rich black fruits that yield an impressive, ageworthy bottling. Its black plum flavor and juicy acidity are enhanced by the firm tannins, with a touch of nutmeg on the finish.
Château Pichon Baron 2018 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98 points. Offering big, powerful tannins, this wine shows an amazing density of immense black fruits. It has a rich structure that’s allied with great acidity and a strongly spicy character. There is a wonderful juiciness at the end that gives it an impressive lift.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2018 Barrel Sample (Pauillac); 96–98 points. Ripe and stylish, it is elegance personified and will be a very fine wine to age. Its structure and tannins are generous yet gently handled, giving density while preserving the bright dark fruit flavors.
See all of our en primeur Left Bank reviews.
Merlot has been getting riper as the climate changes, which in turn causes alcohol levels to rise in the final wines. This has recently led many observers to write off Merlot as a variety that would not survive in Bordeaux.
But this could be the year Merlot fights back. The 2018 Merlot-based wines of the right bank are superb. Pomerol especially produced some its finest wines in many years.
In a rare combination for Bordeaux, the 2018 wines have heft and alcohol, but with an intense freshness. And it has made the top wines from Pomerol irresistible.
“Merlot is thriving,” says Christian Moueix, whose family firm, Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix, manages several estates in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. “It just needs to be managed correctly in the vineyard and picked at just the right moment.”
“While we had the summer drought, our deep clay soil kept all the water from the rain earlier in the year,” says Olivier Berrouet, winemaker at Château Pétrus. “And then although there was plenty of sunshine, the temperatures were not high [enough to dry out the soil].” When combined with cool nights, the season’s weather allowed for perfectly ripe Merlot with retained acidity.
The vineyards of Saint-Émilion virtually touch those of Pomerol, some separated by just a small road. It is fascinating to see how the chateaus on both sides of the border have produced some of the greatest successes of 2018. Vieux Château Certan, La Conseillante and Pétrus all lie along the eastern edge of Pomerol, while Cheval-Blanc, Figeac, and La Dominique are in the westernmost section of Saint-Émilion.
There were many other notable bottlings from Saint-Émilion in the 2018 vintage: Angélus, Ausone, Le Dôme, Trotte Vieille and Canon. Here, Cabernet Franc ripened into concentrated berries that bring structure, perfume and a lighter touch to the ripe Merlot. The Cabernet Franc was “so full of sugar, so concentrated and beautifully ripe,” says Pauline Vauthier, technical director of Château Ausone.
According to Stéphanie de Bouärd-Rivoal, managing director of Château Angélus, the grape was able to bring “finesse, elegance and precision.” Both estates produce top bottles with high percentages of Cabernet Franc.
Saint-Émilion’s size, soil diversity, slopes and different winemaking approaches did lead to wines that did not make the grade. It was not nearly as consistent as the smaller Pomerol plateau. Instead, a large amount of new wood and tannic, concentrated grapes caused wines that are bitter and heavy handed. That’s where our scores and reviews come in to play.
Top wines from the Right Bank
Vieux Château Certan 2018 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 98–100. While the tannins give this wine a firm character, it is the perfumed, ripe Cabernet Franc that is so expressive and gives the wine its structured, complex character. Spice from the wood aging shines through, but the weight of the fruit is impressive and adds elegance. There’s long aging potential for this fabulous wine.
Château Figeac 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 97–99.This is a rich, velvet-textured wine. The Cabernet duo in the blend gives this wine immense structure and brilliant acidity. The perfumed, black currant fruits are layered with the acidity and crisp freshness. The wine finishes with some formidable tannins for the future.
Château Pétrus 2018 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 97–99. This is a dark, serious wine, concentrated with richness and freshness at the same time. The ripe tannins are impeccably balanced by fine acidity and a ripe blackberry flavor. It shows the supreme quality of Pomerol’s Merlots in this vintage. Of course, it will age for nearly forever.
Château Angélus 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98. This is a dense, smoky wine, packed with ripe tannins and a line of fresh acidity that forms a fine contrast. It’s a great wine that is rich in tannins while keeping elegance and finesse.
Château Ausone 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98. This blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot is immensely rich, with a huge structure as well as a sophisticated perfume. It is a wine that is built by bright acidity and structured tannins, with a richness and elegance that demonstrates enormous aging potential.
Château Cheval Blanc 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98. This wine is densely textured in great tannins and wonderful perfumed fruits. It shows an elegant side, with bright shots of acidity and a black currant flavor. Topped with a pinch of Cabernet Sauvignon that adds to the structure, it is a ripe wine but with intense freshness. The tannins hold the key to the aging.
Château Valandraud 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 96–98. A very fine vintage from this estate, this beautifully structured with rich tannins, spicy fruit and great concentration. The juicy acidity and power of the wine are impressive, giving firm tannins, great ripeness and a solid, concentrated texture.
Clos Fourtet 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 95–97. This is a beautifully structured wine with smooth tannins and supple acidity. Its hidden power is masked by the vivid Merlot fruit. With the fresh acidity and the fine tannins, this is a wine that will age well.
Château Trotanoy 2018 Barrel Sample (Pomerol); 95–97. This is a powerful wine that is striated with big tannins from the Merlot. Dark and concentrated, its solid core of tannins contrasts with the bright acidity and beautifully fresh black currant flavor. It will age magnificently.
Château Trottevieille 2018 Barrel Sample (Saint-Émilion); 95–97. A light touch has come into this typically serious wine. The bright acidity and forward black currant fruits lift the tannins and spice. It has delicious freshness and concentration that will allow the wine to develop well.
See all of our en primeur Right Bank reviews.
The 2018 Bordeaux vintage is controversial. One camp hails it as another great year, while others are more ambivalent.
“A revolutionary vintage that sets new standard,” says Bruno Borie, owner of Château Ducru Beaucaillou in Saint-Julien. He compares it to other game-changer vintages like 1945, 1961 and 1982. To him, the wines of 2018 are “dense and velvet, but a thick velvet.”
It’s easy to be seduced by the big names. The test of a great vintage is when the wines are of superb quality at every level, from First Growths to simple appellation wines. That is not the case this year. There is variability from the major appellations, like Saint-Émilion and Margaux, and throughout the entire hierarchy. Because of this, I am in the “ambivalent” camp.
Prices are sure to be an issue as industry buyers digest the wines and think about orders. The 2018 vintage may see a 15% price increase over the previous vintage.
There is already a buzz about the vintage, judging by the increase in visitors to this year’s En Primeur tastings. Château Mouton-Rothschild’s managing director, Philippe Dhalluin, had roughly 2000 visitors, about 400 more than last year. Jean Garandeau, sales and marketing director of Château Latour says he received more American buyers this year compared to last year.
“There is density, tannin, color, concentration in the best wines,” said Céline della Ventura, East Coast sales manager for négociant Compagnie Médocaine. “That will appeal to American consumers.”
Highlights include the exquisite Merlot-based bottlings from Pomerol, beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the north Médoc and the special intensity and ripeness of the white wines of Pessac Léognan.
Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes: Mixing success and failure
Pessac-Léognan, the vineyards closest to the city of Bordeaux, brought an intense focus on Cabernet Sauvignon for red wine and Sauvignon Blanc for white wine. Cabernet’s tannins and concentration give the reds impressive structure and density.
For the 2018 white wines, winemakers emphasized a unique combination of tropical and herbal flavors, underlined with wood aging. To this end, they concentrated on fresher Sauvignon Blanc instead of fatter Sémillon.
There is also variability in Pessac-Léognan, particularly for the reds. Some have a stalky character that harks back to cooler vintages, as if producers couldn’t wait another week to harvest. The full-bodied white wines, though, are flaunting their ripe fruits.
The same problems that beset the rest of Bordeaux, mildew and drought, also hit Pessac-Léognan. As with elsewhere, organic and biodynamic vineyards lost crop. Florence Cathiard, co-owner of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, described her 2018 as “a beautiful half crop” because of vineyard losses.
Further south, in the sweet wine region of Sauternes, drought was the critical factor. Botrytis cinerea, the mold also known as noble rot and critical for Sauternes wine, grows on the berries in misty autumn mornings.
In 2018, that didn’t happen until October. With harvest beginning in November, growers had a tiny and derisory crop causing an expensive harvest in a region that is always on the financial borderline.
Wine of the 2018 vintage
My wine of the vintage is from Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol, where Merlot combines with ripe Cabernet Franc to produce a wine of complexity, elegance, freshness, concentration and enormous longevity.
Top Red Wines
Château Haut-Brion 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points. This wine has an immense structure that’s powered by tannins, yet backed by a dry core and bright acidity. The black currant flavor is very fine and concentrated while also having a juicy freshness that marks the vintage. It has all the structure that should be expected from this estate.
Domaine de Chevalier 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. The wine’s tannins are impressive and solidly structured, with a firm concentration of ripe black fruits to round it out. The black plum flavor and bright acidity offer a juicy feel, allied with a mineral note on the finish.
Château Haut-Bailly 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. This wine initially seems easy and just packed with fruit. As you delve behind the black fruits, the tannins come into play. The considerable structure shows concentration with a dense side that has power and a lighter side that has fresh fruit. The wine should age impressively.
Château Malartic-Lagravière 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. This powerful wine combines juicy black fruits with concentrated tannins to good effect. This density and grip lends to excellent aging potential.
Top White Wines
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 96–98 points.This well-rounded wine offers flavors of ripe yellow fruit, apple and pear, with bright acidity to balance. The texture, concentration and intensity linger on the finish. The wine will age well.
Château Haut-Brion 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 95–97 points. This wine has opulence and concentration, with crisp flavors of ripe yellow fruits. There is so much going on in this impressive wine. It has benefited from the hot summer, yielding a ripe wine that still manages to remain crisp and tight on the finish.
Château de Fieuzal 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. Always a classic, this wine shows great potential for aging. It has a steely edge to the ripe white fruits and zesty acidity which adds intensity.
Château Olivier 2018 Barrel Sample (Pessac-Léognan); 94–96 points. The wine is textured and tight, hinting at steeliness and showing a salty character that contrasts with the lemon flavor. These tones are joined by tropical elements, giving a ripe, fruity finish.
Top Dessert Wine
Château Coutet 2018 Barrel Sample (Barsac); 95–97 points.This wine’s ripeness is intense, just hinting at an impressive future. The dry core of botrytis balances the honey and the spice, along with fresh lemon curd. This is likely to be a very fine wine.
Château de Fargues 2018 Barrel Sample (Sauternes); 95–97 points. Great concentration and power are the epitome of Sauternes, and this hits the nail on the head. The fresher side of the wine, with its crisp lemon zest, balances a dense superrich botrytis tone.
See all of our en primeur Left Bank reviews.
- 1Bordeaux 2018: Left Bank Report
- 2Bordeaux 2018: Right Bank Report
- 3The 2018 Bordeaux Vintage: The Judgment