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Anson: How the Bordeaux 2018 vintage is shaping up – part two

Update: You can now find Jane Anson’s full Bordeaux 2018 preview here

As outlined in last week’s report on the Bordeaux 2018 vintage, you can expect wines with big impact, high tannics and high alcohol from this vintage.

It’s not Left or Right Bank

It seems that there is great quality fruit across both the Right and Left Bank. Where 2015 was pretty clearly a Merlot vintage, and 2016 pretty clearly a Cabernet Sauvignon one, 2018 is less clear cut. Merlots in the Médoc are approaching typical Cabernet Sauvignon territory in terms of their density and structure, said Axel Marchal, professor at the Institute of Wine and Vine Science (ISVV).

Despite downy mildew, most yields were pretty good

‘The story of 2018 was the mildew, the speed and the quantity of it,’ said Martin Lasserre, of Union Régionale Agricole Bordelaise.

It meant a big loss of yields in certain sectors, and yet those who avoided issues with mildew saw a big crop. The swings can be seen through the yields of Cru Bourgeois in the Médoc, which ranged from 15hl to 65hl. The impact on organic and biodynamic estates has been well documented, with Pontet Canet and Palmer at yields of around 12h/h. The organic Château Rocheyron in St Emilion, also biodynamic, came in at 28hl/hl.

‘We had 56 attacks of mildew this year compared to 30 in 2007 or 10 in a normal vintage,’ said Peter Sisseck, owner of Rocheyron. ‘We worked hard to stimulate the natural defences of the plant, and ended up with reasonable yields, but there is a lot still to learn about how to control the vines’ response to the threat’.

Even for those affected, there was comfort in the fact that downy mildew affects quantity but not quality. Frederic Engerer at Château Latour (where yields were 24hl/h, not too far below their average of 35hl/h) pointed out in December, ‘Mildew dries the berries and so is visible to the eye. This means it can be dealt with through sorting in the vineyard and cellar’.

This means, by the way, that machine harvesting is not a problem with mildew in the way that it is with rot, because the dried berries are easier to discard, so those with lower budgets are less penalised. If the affected grapes are not taken out, the flavours that are transmitted are not those associated with rot, but rather dried out fruits, dried leaf, so you might encounter a few of those.

Despite all this, and the hail that affected parts of the southern Médoc, plus Bourg and Blaye, the overall yield for 2018 is expected to be 5.7million hl, pretty much spot-on the 10 year average. Even in early September many thought it would be higher, but over-concentration from the continued sunshine through September and October reduced it further, by an estimated 10%.

Long harvest window means big style differences

‘I never put my boots on once to harvest this year,’ Marie-Laurence Porte of Enosens told me, ‘as conditions were so good’. This was one of the most spread out, relaxed harvests in living memory, with the red grapes coming in from early September right through to late October  – and Sauternes going even later still.

That is good news for quality potential, as most grapes will have had the time to get fully mature before picking. But it also means that you will see stylistic choices coming in to play, particularly as the last few years have seen a few serious changes in style. Troplong Mondot, for example, began picking extremely early  – 7 September – on certain selected plots, leading us to assume that the rewriting of its stylistic signature will continue. Beauséjour-Bécot has similarly brought its harvest date forward from where it was traditionally (and started using amphoras for some fermentations, to focus on the pure fruit flavours of the vintage).

‘Ten years ago, people were signalling how late they were picking,’ says Marchal, ‘whereas today it’s the opposite’.

Fermentations were not always easy

Mid September saw a rapid concentration of sugar and a drop in malic acid, with some shriveling of grapes, which will impact the aromatics, and some estates will have adjusted their acidity levels in the cellar to correct taste. High sugars and high pH levels always mean potential issues with stuck fermentations, and this year there were a number of vats that had trouble fermenting completely dry.

Porte said, ‘If grapes were picked late at high concentration levels, we think the type of sugar changed in the grapes, and this impacted the yeasts. I saw some pH levels at 3.8 or 4, even 4.2, so the technical teams needed to be careful’. Marchal agrees with this assessment in certain spots, but points out that overall pH levels were nowhere near as high as in 2003, and the majority of wines should display great balance.

Malbec and Petit Verdot did well, Carmanère less so

A very good year for Malbec and we might see high percentages in those that are able to use it. Petit Verdot and Carmanère were more complicated, both being thirsty grapes that like a more regular supply of water, and suffer more from drought.

Whites and stickies

Levels of malic acid were relatively normal in the dry whites, even if they were low in the reds. Generally the aromatics are good, even if some have high alcohols with perceptible heat.

We can expect lots of fruit, great concentration, with exotic fruits, mango, passion fruit and pear character. Sauternes had an extremely late harvest because of late-onset botrytis, but when it came it happened fast. The resulting sweet wines should be luscious, but look out for low acidities.

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