The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, the group that overseas the 133 châteaux that form the heart of classified Bordeaux, held its annual general meeting last week.
This year marked the handover of the presidency from Olivier Bernard, of Domaine de Chevalier, to Ronan Laborde, of Château Clinet, which meant there was a particularly good turnout of members.
Even without this major event, the AGM is always held at this time of year, and is a good time to take the temperature of the upcoming en primeur campaign.
The wider the smiles, the better the vintage is likely to be. I can still remember the cartwheeling in 2009 and 2010, and the triumphalism over pricing – something that has thankfully been toned down a little now.
I have to confess to being more sceptical than most of the châteaux owners I’ve been speaking to about the upcoming Bordeaux 2018 en primeur tastings.
I know that 2018 was a complicated year, no matter what they are saying today. I remember just how rainy things were through Spring and early Summer, and I saw the devastation of the mildew. It was definitely a year when you needed to work weekends to stay on top of your vineyard.
‘These are likely to be high impact wines.’
But I was also here as things turned hot and dry, and stayed that way right through to the end of October. It was clear during harvest that the grapes coming in to the cellar were clean and fragrant, with extremely low incidence of rot and beautiful looking skins.
Tasting vat samples
And I’ve since tasted some excellent vats of juice, both immediately after harvest and during blending sessions at châteaux.
All of this made the Enosens wine consultancy tasting even more interesting than usual.
A group of 14 consultants overseeing 30,000ha of vines and 1,400 clients across nearly every AOC, the tasting gives an overview of 40 samples, all presented blind, from different appellations at three quality levels – entry, mid and high.
It definitely helped clarify what we’re looking at, particularly when put together with my conversation this week with Axel Marchal, professor at the Institute of Wine and Vine Science (ISVV), as he prepares his annual vintage overview.
It’s still too early to say if 2018 will live up to the hype of course – en primeur doesn’t start for another month. But, taking all of that into account, what should we be looking out for as we approach this vintage?
Bordeaux 2018 weather recap
Let’s keep this quick. Winter was cooler than usual but not much, spring 1.5 degrees warmer than the 10 year average, with a lot of rain falling from January to the end of June, and into early July. Overall, however, 2018 saw more rain than 2015 and 2016, but less than 2017 and under the 30-year average when looking at March to September.
‘August to October were extremely hot, and overall we had the second hottest summer after 2003, but there was very little blocking of ripening because of the rain in early season, except for young vines and extremely dry soils,’ said Martin Lasserre, of Union Régionale Agricole Bordelaise.
‘Budding was late but prolific, possibly because the vines were compensating after the frost of 2017.
Colour change on the other hand came two day earlier than average because the drought was fully installed by August, and harvest was near perfect. The conditions overall meant lots of concentration, high sugars, and very little rot. Most winemakers brought in small berries with thick skins, full of anthocyanins’.
Expect big bold wines, high tannic content
All of the above means these are likely to be high impact wines. Patrick Meynard, owner of Châteaux Lalaudey and Pomeys in Moulis-Médoc, said 2018 will deliver the most structured wines since 2010, and expects ‘a vintage marked by climate more than terroir’.
Having said that, it’s always impossible to discount the impact of soils entirely. Both rain and drought can be challenging to certain soil types.
Almost certainly the worst affected by the drought will be sands, because sand can exacerbate drainage, and heat. Therefore the berries on these types of soil are most likely to be shriveled, and to have extremely high pH levels, which means low acidity. The weather pattern means clear similarities to 2016 on paper – a rainy start to the vintage, a drought-like finish. But in terms of how the grapes reacted and behaved, the two years are quite different.
‘For a start, the drought came later in 2018,’ says Marchal, pointing out that early July saw less rain in 2016. ‘But when it came in 2018, it was more abrupt, with the green growth stopping across the whole region at pretty much the same time’. He sees it closer to 2009, but with more density to the fruit.
… and high alcohols
There was some disconnect this year between technical and phenolic maturity, greater in reds than in whites, so look out for high alcohols as a result. The hot summer meant that pyrazine was easily burnt away, so we should find very few green notes.
Alcohols will be highest on cooler soils that needed a long time to ripen, so the Côtes, the Satellites and the cooler parts of St-Emilion have alcohols at 14.5-15%abv and more. I heard of one Cabernet Franc coming in at 16.5%abv, but that is an exception. In earlier-ripening areas, such as Pessac-Léognan and Pomerol, alcohols are likely to be more balanced at 13.5% or 14%abv, as they will have reached full phenolic ripeness earlier.
‘Pessac-Léognan did the best perhaps because it’s an early ripening site,’ said Marie-Laurence Porte of Enosens, ‘so they were able to get grapes in before over-concentration. If you had to wait for phenolic ripeness, that is where things could get difficult’.
The final averages per grape, according to Fabien Faget of Enosens, are Sauvignon Blanc 13.5%abv, Sémillon 12.5%abv, Merlot 14.5%abv, and Cabernet Sauvignon 14%abv’.