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April 15, 2019

IG Wines – Bordeaux 2018 Vintage Report, ‘A Tale of Two Seasons’

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The 2018 Bordeaux vintage seeks to contrast two extreme weather cycles. The two excesses taken in isolation would have been detrimental, yet the balancing forces of these partitioned seasons complimented one another to create something exciting, often brilliant and sometimes potentially great. We should rejoice in another great vintage; however, this will be the fifth strong showing in a row, perhaps the second best? There are question marks; Does the market have great vintage fatigue? Will political and economic conditions deter buyers, or will it suppress prices of what really is a great vintage? Let’s start with the vintage.

The 2018 Vintage

The vintage began with an extremely cold and wet winter, Pichon Baron reporting that total rainfall in December to March exceeded 500mm, 180mm above average. Chateau Latour saw unprecedented rainfall, a total of 330mm from December to January, while March saw 130mm, double the average of the last 18 years. Leoville Las Cases reported vine growth getting off to a slow start due to the cold onset of Spring, pruning ended on March 23rd, the same as Leoville Poyferre. March was one of the wettest months on record with 20 days of rainfall. Budbreak occurred under good conditions at the start of April in the Northern Medoc, similarly on the Right Bank, Cheval Blanc the 10th to 14th. In the context of phenological ripeness, the 2018 was considered behind average at this point, the constant rain for months having saturated the soil. April was relatively warm, encouraging regular growth, yet wet with nearly 60mm of rain; May rainfall was even higher than this. Adding to the inclemency there were also hailstorms through Bordeaux on the 21st and 26th of May. It is worth pausing here to say that Chateaux were keen to point out that the early rain provided sufficient water reserves and this would result in above average water content during ripening.

The word of the vintage: Mildew

Then came June, a scorching month with temperatures of nearly 33 degrees, which might sound like respite for the weary. However, in early June, Chateau Palmer – one of the worst hit – saw the first symptoms of mildew. Heat and rain combined to create perfect conditions for powdery mildew, which was the bane of the vintage. Here are a few things you need to know about mildew. Grape powdery mildew winters happily in the cracks of grape bark, when warmer spring weather rises it quickly becomes active, its spores sticking to plant tissues, damp from rain. Many organic and biodynamic vineyards were hit badly, with the likes of Chateau Palmer and Pontet Canet ‘in good conscience’ not employing chemical assistance. Rauzan-Ségla, who although not being certified, normally practice organic viticulture, suspended this entirely for the 2018 vintage.

July saw high humidity, coupled with heat, though Palmer reported a return of Mildew on the 4th of July, post a spell of rain. July had the highest average temperatures since 1954. July and August had more luminosity and sunshine than 2015 and 2016. Most of Bordeaux experienced a 20-day stretch of dry weather, with well-timed showers on the left bank in late August. Mid-veraison (colour change) was observed around the 4th of August, the fine weather restoratively ending all mildew attacks. It is noteworthy that the last week of July and early August, while lower than in 2003, saw temperatures exceed the 2005 vintage. This formula continued into September, with only a handful of days of rain totalling around 17mm. September’s maximum temperatures were 2 to 4 degrees above average, one of the sunniest in 70 years.

Glorious September

The exceptionally hot, late season meant that despite the wet foundation, many estates reported one the hottest average temperatures of the last 25 years. Harvest was conducted in an ideal situation, estates well-knowing there was blue sky ahead. They picked when they felt the grapes were in perfect balance. Maturity in 2018 was comparable to 2005, with earlier development than 2015. High temperatures and water stress were optimum for anthocyanic richness and early ripening of tannins. Potential alcohol increased quickly, though in general, malic acid levels were low, conversely PH high. All Chateaux harvested in what they reported as ideal conditions. Mouton Rothschild harvested between the 10th Sept to 3rd October, Cos d’Estournel started on September 19th and ended October 12th. On the Right Bank, Figeac harvested from 17th of September to 12th October, Cheval Blanc 10th September to 11th of October. Merlot was said to be picked quickly by most, while the weather was ideal for late ripening varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc – shining monuments to the vintage.

A Word on Style

The narrative of 2018 should be a conversation between the prosaic, technical metrics and benchmarks, intertwined with the more idiosyncratic subjectivity: one leads irrevocably to the other in 2018. The result of mildew is greatly reduced production among many estates, especially those that are biodynamic; Pontet Canet making 1/5th of the normal production and Palmer choosing to make no Alter Ego and only 6,000 cases of their Grand Vin. What survived the Winter and Spring saw one of the finest Summers ever. The obvious benefit of the wonderful Summer and the late harvest was that the grape’s tannin, skin, pips and stalks were of the highest ripeness and the wines are dense, boasting rare concentration of aroma and profile. One question therefore is what was given away in equilibrium, was acidity the casualty? The luxury of no pressure at harvest is a blessing and a curse, when is enough ripeness, it must be tempting to push the envelope?

A Question of Freshness

The big question for me tasting any wine this year was freshness. Where it was present, the sexy, succulent tannin and fruit made the wine outstanding, when not, the wine a little dry and alcohol imperious. Palmer, for example, has a Total Polyphenol Index (TPI) score of 83, Chateau Latour 81, Lynch Bages 95. This is a measure of the quantity of tannin in a wine and while TPI has increased on average 20% in the last 20 years, these are high, at 2003 levels. In fact, this is the highest for Chateau Palmer in modern history. Yet these wines are exceptional; Palmer, Lynch Bages and Latour are every bit as good as in 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016. To make vintage comparisons; the rich, silky tannin reminds one of 2009 and 2015, it is very easy to taste from barrel. It is not polemical to compare the level to 2009, 2015 and 2016 and occasionally to 2010. We heard many comparisons to 1982, 1989 and even 1959, though I cannot attest empirically. This does suggest an all-time great vintage.

Appellation

Broad appellation brushstrokes are not effective in 2018. It is in many ways a winemaker’s vintage, decisions really defined outcomes. Most interestingly, these were free, unencumbered choices, rather than forced. Estates that picked later have incredibly rich wines with greater tannin: though always fine. Earlier harvesting lent itself to fresher, more elegant expressions. There is high quality everywhere and certainly across the spectrum, a defining character of a super vintage, which 2018 is. I have been trying to delineate Left or Right Bank, village by village. However, it is a vintage that is heterogenous in style, more than geographical truisms. Indeed, as posited above, different wines voice different vintage comparisons, though in Pauillac, Margaux and St. Emilion there is more than a passing resemblance to 2016, crossed with 2009. Forgive me therefore for isolating wines rather than appellation.

The Wines that stood out

Cos d’Estournel has had embarrassment of riches since 2015 and 2018 only adds another jewel; it is incredibly vibrant and thrilling, trumping 2015 and 2017, wrestling 2016. Calon Segur is outrageous, both fragrant yet roaring with complexity, rose, coffee bean and tobacco soar it to new heights, it surpasses 2016. Montrose is a walk-through dark chocolate and mint, it is very fine, though not quite 2010, 2015 or 2016. Ormes de Pez for example, along many other in the village are stellar, there is quality throughout. St-Estephe is a fortress, with the best vineyards sited close to the Gironde, which helps protect the vines, so the wines are plush, powerful and ultra-complex. Freshness is not an issue at all here.

Pauillac needs a drum roll. The three First Growths are brilliant, all three could be potential perfect scores one day. Latour is special, possibly the finest structure of the vintage, much in line with 2016, not far from 2010. Lafite Rothschild is sweet spice laid on silk. It is always hard to gauge when young, but there is no doubt in 2018. Mouton Rothschild is mighty, so much torque it spun me around my axis. It is worth noting here that the second wines of the First Growths were the best I have tasted from barrel. It is hard to know why, though Chateau Margaux mentioned a plot normally isolated for the Grand Vin went into Pavillion Rouge, the reason; too powerful!

Pichon Lalande is a must own wine, pending a sensible release price. The Estate pulled no punches saying it is a modern great in line with 1989, 2010 and 2016. I agree; cigar box, graphite, dark chocolate and smoke, it is an exciting prospect to see what this superstar becomes. Lynch Bages is the most Lynch Bages-esque one could hope for; it is a powerhouse, the tannin enormous, yet ripe and there is enough freshness to provide a tonic. Pauillac has quality throughout, some estates see alcohol confuse the resonance, some tannin gets a little too much, yet it has produced some masterpieces and probably my appellation of the vintage. This is a Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, in fact it is a late-ripening variety vintage; Petit Verdot’s nuance humming in the background and Cabernet Franc lighting up the Right Bank, more on that later.

In St. Julien, Las Cases dominates the landscape. Like Cos d’Estournel, it seems not to put a foot wrong, though one should not hold out hope on price. Ducru Beaucaillou says this marks a new chapter or benchmark, though again, price is a problem here. Leoville Barton really made me a little dizzy, no lack of structure or freshness, it could age for 50 years, Poyferre is brilliantly supple and precise. Beychevelle is rather like 2009, very easy to drink young. There is a lot to like in St. Julien, though the village of Margaux did more for me.

The village of Margaux in 2015 was exceptional, homogenous brilliance. In 2018 this is not far off the mark again. Chateau Margaux is very powerful, vivacious and integrated. It is on par with 2009 and 2016, though falls short of 2015. At Chateau Palmer the Estate acknowledged with integrity its well-reported problems, the wine however had no existential angst, it is the sexiest wine of the vintage, combining violets with chocolate, succulent, seductive and while the Estate said it was a challenge to retain freshness, they did. Never economically priced, yet in 2018 forget the price tag! Rauzan Segla could exceed all modern vintages, only 2015 its challenger, displaying a sought of cognitive dissonance to the vintage, it is brilliantly fresh.

Haut Brion just falls short of 2015 and 2016 from barrel, though embodies the Havana cigar, tobacco leaf, meaty, white chocolate and charcoal notes that make it great. It is energetic and bright. It is close to true greatness without getting there. It outstrips La Mission Haut Brion in 2018, which despite being at a similar alcohol level, nearly 14.5% did not carry it as well. Pessac Leognan has some surprises in 2018, yet perhaps its general higher preponderance of Merlot and the struggle of this variety in 2018 to overripen reflects the generally very fine, yet not great nature of the appellation. That said Domaine de Chevalier is one of the value wines of the vintage, one to buy and cherish, every bit as good as the 2010, magnificent! Les Carmes Haut Brion remains very much on target, delivering another stand out proposition.

Moving to the Right Bank one worried it would be a bout of man versus rich tannin. It was not, St. Emilion is very impressive, the limestone terroir and clay gradients providing all the support the vines needed. The water retentive soils did their job and the Merlot, though subjected to stunning sunshine, held strong. The accolades go to Cabernet Franc here. Harvested fully ripe it gives St. Emilion and Pomerol a harmony of floral notes, backbone, freshness and immense minerality. There is quality throughout St.Emilion, a strong year here. Angelus has structure and power, Pavie Macquin is a great value buy. However, Figeac is majestic, embodying everything: style, complexity and elegance. It could turn out to be the finest ever, the natural peer of 2016. Cheval Blanc, which has plenty of Cabernet Franc and Merlot finessed on clay and gravel soils embodies elegance, so integrated it is a struggle to delineate distinct flavours. Smelling Ausone is like standing in the blossoming countryside, the palate succulent, with liquorice, chocolate and a finish that goes on and on. Just stunning and flirting with perfection. Chateau Canon is impressive, a continuation of current form, certainly on par with 2016.

Finally, Pomerol, with its clay-rich soils is very consistently impressive. The wines speak of the warm harvest, yet bend more towards dense fruit and alluring complexity, rather than over-extracted fruit. Chateau Clinet, La Conseillante are as good as in any vintage. However, Vieux Chateau Certan does not as much flirt with perfection than make it its own with wonderful complexity, rich tannin, freshness and balance that goes on and on. In 2018 it has 30% Cabernet Franc, the remainder Merlot, the blend like the wine is a concord of exquisite flavours.

The dry white wines in 2018 can be a little unstructured and unfocused; freshness, or lack of it is crucial here. There are some very fine examples in Pessac, though overall they lend themselves more to tropical flavours. At their best, Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement are excellent, though the vintage does not command one to part with money. Sauternes for me were hard work, slow development of botrytis leaves very little noble rot. The 2018 vintage is not one for the sweet of heart.

Market Conditions (Brexit) and Price

The Brexit noun was mentioned at every dinner, the Bordelaise appear to be taking it seriously. Its significance relates to pricing and might offer a handbrake. Rumour around the Place de Bordeaux is that most major 2018 releases, certainly the First Growths, will come after the annual Vinexpo event in Bordeaux, which runs from 13th to 16th May this year. This gives an approximate six-week window for all the releases as the campaign almost always concludes before the end of June.

With a new extension to Brexit granted by the EU, negotiations will be ongoing throughout the En Primeur campaign. Swings in currency have been symptomatic of the entire Brexit process and a sudden downturn in sterling could equate to less attractive release prices. The most significant drop in FX would most likely be seen if the UK edge closer to a No-Deal Brexit and would likely throw cold water on the whole En Primeur campaign. However, the House of Commons seem committed to steering the UK away from a cliff-edge exit from the bloc. Moreover, a softening of Brexit stance could still be seen in the coming weeks. The cross-party talks are still underway with a hope of breaking the parliamentary deadlock. Should Prime Minister May concede to pressure from the Labour Party and come back to Parliament with a softer exit plan, keeping closer links to the European Union, a sizable bounce in sterling could be seen. Such a move could invigorate the campaign and reward those buying the 2018 vintage in sterling. FX changes could determine pricing as much as the Chateau owners!

Pricing

Chateau owners are verbose: 2018 is great. This normally inspires a pricing model that at least matches the last great or highest priced vintage, this would mean 2016. Thankfully, after the ‘Bordeaux bashing’ seen post 2009 and 2010, there is some sense of refrain. Indeed, it was rather unnerving to hear that while most estates view 2018 on par with 2016, they had resigned themselves, Brexit looming, to pricing between 2015 and 2016. That said, since the 2015s release, Sterling has fallen 16.62%.

The pricing mechanisms used in investment grade wine are complex. Primarily because wines are subjective. There is no watertight metric that can be applied to a new offering to empirically rank it among other producers’ efforts, or vintages of the same wine. Critic scores are heavily relied upon and much of the release prices are decided on by the wines perceived worth. This qualitative metric has been watered down further since the retirement of Robert Parker; now there are more voices, which equates to greater subjectivity as we live in a poly-critic world. One of the most important voices, that of Neal Martin, will also be absent during the campaign, due to personal reasons. These greater aggregated scores could also impact release prices.

On our return we viewed the 2018 vintage as excellent and exceptional in parts, however since then the game may have changed. We have seen the release of James Molesworth’s Wine Spectator scores, certainly a fine taster and influential across the pond. Though his First Growth scores are not released, the remainder of the 15 leading Left and Right bank Wines score on average 97.17, which is higher than 2016 (96.63) and 2015 (96). James Suckling has also joined the party, the same basket of wines in 2018 average 98.80, outstripping 2015 (98.45) only bested by 2016 (98.95). However, Suckling places the First Growths higher, which reach the peaks of 99.40 in 2018, compared to 99.60 in 2016 and 98.80 in 2015.

In short, among the finest estates 2018 has taken poll position. While the vintage maybe heterogenous stylistically, it is homogenous in uniform opinion, most professionals seemed to agree on the peaks of the vintage, the same estates venerated. Molesworth and Suckling are likewise singing from the same page.

Since their respective releases, the First Growths from the 2015 and 2016 vintages have increased an average of 28.42%. In 2015 they had an average release price of £4,253 per case of twelve. This has increased to an average market price of £6,600 since, equating to a 55.12% appreciation. First Growths from the 2016 vintage had an average release price of £5,335 per case of twelve. This has increased to an average market price of £5,425 since release, equating to a 1.69% appreciation. If the 2016 First Growths released today at the current FX rate, the average twelve pack price would be £5,273.41. This defines a probable range, if the First Growths release between £4,330 (2017 adjusted) and £4,710 (2015 adjusted) and lead the market with this pricing sentiment, the campaign would be electric.

Now the word is out that 2018 could trump 2016, the formula will be simple, where 2018s score on aggregate par or better than the 2016s yet are priced at a discount, there will be demand. This would certainly improve on the 2016s 1.69% appreciation, which on the face of it, were fully priced. The Chateau however may now feel vindicated in matching the 2016 release prices, assuming collectors willing to pay the same price for hitherto another great wine. That raises the question of demand, can the market bare another great vintage? The hope is that at least in word the owners understand that Brexit and currency suppression need to be factored into release prices. One party needs to bear the burden of the supressed GBP, one fears it will not be the Bordelais. In the past, the Bordelais have stretched the elasticity of the market beyond Hooke’s law, something they were guilty of in 2009 and 2010, the market requiring years to regain its footing.

Asia have retracted from En Primeur, the US are fickle to it; the UK will define the success. However, if the mutterings from the négociants hold true and the releases fall somewhere between the release prices of the 2015 and 2016 vintages, there is certainly value to be found. Though that sounds rather like a discount and purposely leaving money on the table really is not their modus operandi. The Grand Crus will be driven by the continuing model of holding more and more stock back, unburdened by capital raising requirements. This does not provide any checks or balances against unsold wine, especially with the negociants forming a phalanx of protection, a safety net. The 2018 vintage is a great one, one we really should be excited about, one we should own: it is now down to FX and the Bordelais, a heady unforgiving place to be.