A very interesting vintage whose best wines are big and bold. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See this guide to our comprehensive coverage of Bordeaux 2018.
Every year, pandemics permitting, a group of about 20 of us wine writers and bordeaux-specialist wine merchants meet in the Wandsworth offices of fine-wine traders Farr Vintners to taste blind about 250 bordeaux well after they are safely in bottle, including all the most revered names.
Bottles are gathered from the châteaux staff themselves, who kindly donate the samples, by retired Bordeaux-based wine merchant Bill Blatch. Another major task, undertaken by Farr staff, is to marshal and open the wines, decanting them into neutral bottles (usually, most disconcertingly, burgundy shape) and ensuring that the way that they are numbered tallies precisely with the crib sheet for each flight of similar wines. None of us tasters knows which wine is which, although we do know which wines are in each flight.
Then there is the business of gathering our scores and entering them into a database while we discuss the wines in each flight without knowing their identities. Only after we have swapped opinions, and Blatch has made notes on our conclusions to share with the winemakers and château owners, is it revealed which wine was which, resulting in a combination of groans and knowing grunts.
We all score out of 20 and I stick to the doubtless very annoyingly restricted scale I use on my website, whereby a wine has to be faulty to earn fewer than 15 points and absolutely amazing to earn more than 18. (Many a half-point is awarded.) But some of the merchants, who don’t have to publish their notes and scores, are notoriously stingy with their scores or, on another view, use a more usefully extensive scale, and quite frequently award single digits.
The most recent vintage we assessed, last month, was 2018 and I think it would be fair to say that the range of scores was one of the widest ever for one of these tastings. This is very far from a uniformly poor vintage in Bordeaux, but there are some low as well as high points.
The whites, both dry and sweet, are less successful than the reds in general but there were exceptions. It wasn’t surprising that the whites of the Haut-Brion stable performed well, nor that Domaine de Chevalier Blanc did. More unexpectedly the other notable dry whites were the two newcomers on the white bordeaux scene that are modelled on Sancerre rather than Pessac-Léognan, the classic heartland of dry white bordeaux: Le Petit Cheval from Ch Cheval Blanc and Les Champs Libres from the Guinaudeaus of Ch Lafleur.
Unlike the glorious 2019, the 2018 vintage of Sauternes was blighted by a lack of noble rot. The warm, dry autumn may have helped those harvesting red wine grapes enormously, but noble rot thrives on humidity and it didn’t arrive until very late in October, so late that some usually reliable Sauternes properties such as Chx Rieussec and Suduiraut delayed their harvest to such an extent that they ran into winter weather. Many of the sweet white 2018 bordeaux from less ambitious properties taste decidedly simple.
As for the 2018 reds, it’s difficult to generalise but there are some truly thrilling wines here, wines that will be worth waiting for. Although official analyses from Bordeaux’s academic oenologists suggest that tannin levels were fairly average – a little lower than in the glorious 2016 vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and a little higher for Merlot – the wines tasted pretty tannic. This presumably reflects the thick grape skins resulting from a dry summer when some vines, especially those planted on well-drained soils, suffered some stress until relieved by late-August showers, although water reserves had been topped up by a rainy winter and spring. Cooler, damper soils with a high clay content, as in St-Estèphe and parts of Pomerol, should have benefited.
The only analytical characteristic to emerge from the analysts’ many charts is that acid levels in the 2018s were a little lower than average – perhaps that made us notice the tannins a bit more (even though they are lower in general than in 2019, for instance)? Or perhaps it was because in the less successful reds – and 2018 is not the most consistent vintage – the most common fault was a lack of fruit to stand up to some distinctly drying, punishing tannins. This was perhaps most noticeable in Pessac-Léognan while St-Estèphe estates seemed to cope especially well with the growing conditions of 2018 (which included rampant mildew and hail in spring – not a reassuring start).
Because September and early October were warmer and drier than usual there was no hurry to pick and clearly many producers decided to strive for extra ripeness (hence the lower acid). This meant that overall alcohol levels from these very ripe grapes were notably high. Assuming the percentages given on the labels were accurate, of the 205 red wines we tasted, only 19 were under 14% and 19 were at least 15%, of which four – Magrez Fombrauge, Péby Faugères, Quintus and Valandraud, all St-Émilions – had 15.5% on the label. The most common alcoholic strength was 14.5%. (White wines, whether dry or sweet, tended to be a degree or so less potent, although Valandraud Blanc was 15%.)
It was good to see some excellent second wines, less-expensive red wine offerings from glamorous châteaux, such as those from the St-Estèphe superstars Ch Montrose and Cos d’Estournel. Ch Pichon Baron of Pauillac, usually a strong performer in these tastings, effectively makes two second wines: the Merlot-heavy Les Tourelles de Longueville and the longer-lasting Les Griffons de Pichon Baron. Both were popular with the group though I preferred the Griffons in 2018.
The most contentious wines we tasted were the pair made by the Mitjavile family, Tertre Roteboeuf in St-Émilion and Roc de Cambes in a favoured enclave in the relatively minor Côtes de Bourg district. These are super-ripe and unashamedly sensual – the liquid equivalent of a full-blown rose on the cusp of losing its petals. Obtrusive tannins? Forget it! So the wines really stood out from the rest and garnered many a low score, but I loved them. And I know from experience of past vintages that they are well capable of ageing.
The wines were released at higher prices than the COVID-discounted 2019s so there may be fewer bargains but in my list of recommendations I have asterisked the wines that impressed me for their relative value.
Favourite 2018 bordeaux
I scored all these wines at last 17 out of 20 and give the total number of wines tasted in brackets. The more reasonably priced are asterisked.
Dry white (20)
Sweet white (22)
Latour and Les Forts de Latour
Mouton Rothschild and Le Petit Mouton
Pichon Baron and Les Griffons de Pichon Baron*
Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande