Each year Bordeaux organises tastings of its latest vintage from barrel. En Primeur happens a few months after the harvest so that potential buyers from all over the world can get a sense of the vintage, albeit a very, very young vintage. Wines are purple-black, with ferocious tannins; some of them may not have finished malolactic fermentation, the process by which malic acid turns to the softer, riper-feeling lactic acid, rendering them even more raw.
Some 6,000 wine professionals from every corner of the world – journalists, critics, wine merchants, sommeliers, restaurateurs – descend on Bordeaux for the couple of weeks that constitute En Primeur. This year’s numbers are a record, we hear; it seems that the 2018 vintage has lots of buzz.
It also has loads of alcohol. At Château Mouton Rothschild, for example, director Philippe Dhalluin could not recall ever seeing such high levels of alcohol for Cabernet Sauvignon, which typically is harvested at no more than 13% natural alcohol. In 2018, the Cabernet-dominated blend reached 13.8%. Not too far away, Château Ducru Beaucaillou reached 14.5%. And some estates went even further: Château Montrose in Saint Estèphe weighed in at 14.8% while its neighbour Château Calon Ségur reached 14.9%.
Along with the high alcohol, many producers reported record tannins, that mouth-puckering compound from the pips and skins of grapes (and you also get it from oak barrels).
But because of a long and dry summer, with record levels of sunshine, the overall tasting experience was not particularly harsh. Indeed, it was rather warm and welcoming, to the extent that some observers are calling 2018 an “American vintage”.
Some bloggers are already echoing winemakers in talking up 2018 as “the best vintage ever”
Initial reports from the army of critics in Bordeaux pulse with superlatives. There have been several 100-point wines. One Bordeaux wine trader expects “massive scores” from influential American wine writers, and some bloggers are already echoing winemakers – who need to sell wines – in talking up 2018 as “the best vintage ever”.
But not all critics are buying into the hype. French wine writer Bernard Burtschy compares 2018 it to the controversial 2003 vintage, when the heat wave blocked proper vine development, but got loads of media attention at the time. Many wines from that vintage have not aged so well. “Where are the 2003s today?” Burtschy asks.
One of the ways the wines’ longevity may be affected is oak ageing. Many Bordeaux wines are traditionally aged in oak, and that process is meant to soften grape tannin. Using new oak barrels also means extracting flavours from the oak itself, and when alcohol levels are high, as in 2018, oak tannin is more easily extracted. So to avoid this double whammy of high grape tannin and high oak tannin, some winemakers will reduce oak-ageing times. But it’s ageing in oak that gives the wines longevity, so there’s a danger that they may have a shorter shelf-life.
So where are the best wines to be found in Bordeaux 2018? It seems at this very early stage the top barrel samples came from cooler soils and climates that did not suffer as much from the dry heat of the summer. It is not so much a vintage of Left Bank (the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blends from the Médoc and the Graves region) or Right Bank (the Merlot and increasingly Cabernet Franc blends of Saint Emilion and Pomerol), but rather cooler terroirs. So for example in Pomerol, a wine from deeper colder clays like Château Latour à Pomerol fared better than a wine whose vines grow on hotter gravel, like Château La Fleur Pétrus. But that is a simplification, as the vintage had other complex factors, including massive rainfall in the winter and spring that unleashed a massive mildew attack. Such factors make 2018 all the more difficult to classify with one word like “great” as some people are doing already.
Wine professionals love to compare vintages. The legendary 1982 is being cited. Winemaking has changed very much since then, and tannin and alcohol levels were lower in that year. But from barrel, many observers dismissed the 82, one of the most famous Bordeaux vintages ever as “too accessible, too early”, just as some say about 2018 vintage. We all know just how wonderfully 1982 has aged. Will 2018 follow suit?