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Bordeaux 2018 red wines: Balance key amid high alcohol levels

As Bordeaux winemakers wrap up this year’s harvest, many say that they have never seen such high levels of alcohol, including for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Update: Our Bordeaux 2018 verdict after en primeur tastings

As final grapes were being brought in at Château Léoville Las Cases in St-Julien earlier this week, director Pierre Graffeuille said that he had never seen such high levels of natural alcohol for Cabernet Sauvignon, which reached 14.5%.

However, he also stressed that fresh fruit and acidity meant that 2018 will be ‘concentrated in alcohol and tannins, but with enough acidity to achieve Bordeaux balance’.

Further south, Château Margaux director Philippe Bascaules said that the 2018 grand vin may have a 14% abv indication on its label for the first time that he can recall, because Cabernet Sauvignons on both gravel and clay sometimes reached 14.5 per cent alcohol.

‘In 2015 we were at 13.5% and in 2018, we may be at 14 (for the label),’ he told Decanter.com. On the white wine side, Margaux harvested earlier than usual to maintain acidity.

Château Mouton Rothschild director Philippe Dhalluin said the vintage may be a ‘2009+’ but stressed that cool nights helped to maintain enough freshness. More water in the summer would have helped with yields and lowered potential alcohol, he said.

‘I have never seen such richness in sugar and polyphenol and no tanks measured lower than 80 IPT this year,’ he said.

Château Léoville Poyferré director Didier Cuvelier said that one important issue in winemaking this year will be to avoid volatile acidity, because fermentations will be longer than usual.

On the Right Bank, 2018 looks set to be a year for limestone, clay, deep gravels and vines with deep roots, said wine consultant Thomas Duclos.

‘Younger vines on more shallow soils suffered and were not able to withstand the heat stress,’ he said.

With alcohol in some Merlots reaching 15.5% and more, Duclos said that some estates may end up having very high alcohol second wines.

Laurent Brun, of Château Dassault in St-Emilion, said that the estate will finish its Cabernets by Wednesday next week, and that the final blend likely will have more Cabernet than usual to offset higher alcohol Merlots.

However, Château Canon cellar master Stéphane Bonnasse said that clever canopy management – such as less leaf clearing – and not picking grapes directly exposed to the sun would make alcohol levels irrelevant.

‘It is a shame to talk so much about alcohol in 2018, because not everyone has the same terroir or works the same way,’ he said. ‘We had more alcohol overall in 2015 than we will have in 2018.’

Christian Moueix, of Petrus fame and head of merchant house Jean-Pierre Moueix, said,’We had so much time to pick and choose, that I would say that the only danger would have been to have picked too late’.

He added, ‘Alcohol is higher than in 2016, but the balance is so great, that it compares to 1990, and for certain wines it counts among my top three vintages ever in 49 years of winemaking.’

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