The shy 2018 Grand Cercle bordeaux

Logo of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux

I liked the wines, but where can one buy them? Brexit is probably only partly to blame. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. For all the relevant tasting notes see More bordeaux 2018s and see this guide for all our coverage of this vintage in Bordeaux.

The Bordeaux wine establishment is very proud of its sales system, known as the Place de Bordeaux. Over centuries a system has evolved whereby the châteaux sell via brokers to négociants (merchants) who distribute the wines throughout the world.

This inevitably adds a few margins to the ex-château price along the chain but, the argument goes, the château owners don’t have to do deals with individual importers, wholesalers or retailers but can take advantage of an efficient distribution network. So efficient is it that dozens of high-profile wines grown as far afield as Chile and Napa Valley are now sold via the Place de Bordeaux – a system that suits both their owners and the négociants. These non-bordeaux are offered in September, where the main activity of the Place is April to June when the latest vintage of bordeaux is tasted, assessed, priced and put on the market at only a few months old – the so-called en primeur campaign.

This works pretty well for the most famous Bordeaux estates, the crus classés that feature in the best-known classifications, the most famous of which dates back to 1855. But Féret, the bible of Bordeaux wine detail, lists almost 10,000 different châteaux and associated brands. It is hardly surprising therefore that Bordeaux’s lesser properties can offer some of the best wine value in the world; it is so difficult for them to establish a distinctive identity and a long-term sales strategy.

It was initially in an effort to promote some of the many small wine properties on the right bank (rive droite) of the Gironde, whose most famous appellations are St-Émilion and Pomerol, that château owner-turned-winemaking-consultant Alain Raynaud formed an association of them called the Cercle Rive Droite in 2002. Well-organised tastings of their wines became a regular feature of the frantic en primeur season in Bordeaux every spring, along with the many opportunities to taste the crus classés.

In 2017 it merged with a similar but smaller association of lesser-known left-bank (rive gauche) châteaux in Médoc, Graves and Sauternes appellations called the Cercle Rive Gauche to become the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux with a current total of 136 different châteaux.

The smarter names, the crus classés, benefit from an extremely efficient generic promotional body known as the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which organises tastings all over the world and even, by a stroke of luck, managed to organise a proper sit-down professional tasting of the latest bordeaux vintage to go into bottle, the 2018, in London last October between two lockdowns.

Tasting red bordeaux, a wine that can last decades, in bottle is much more satisfactory than tasting cask samples en primeur but during the pandemic it has been difficult to get much airtime for the 2018s below cru classé level in terms of réclame.

Those in charge of promoting the crus bourgeois (all left bank) delivered 136 of them to my fellow Master of Wine and Bordeaux resident James Lawther, who tasted them at his home on behalf of last December. And last month, a lorry finally found my London address and delivered a pallet – yes, a pallet – of 2018s from members of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux, and I tasted the 105 wines that arrived on it.

I must confess that in its early years, it wasn’t always a pleasure to taste the wines of the Cercle Rive Droite. Too many of the winemakers involved, particularly in St-Émilion, were still in thrall to a style I would call pastiche, wines too obviously marked by alcohol, sweetness, concentration and oak.

But in recent years this has become much less common and in my recent tasting I was thrilled to taste well-balanced wines that showcased the glory of right-bank wines, dominated by the Merlot grape variety, usually complemented by Cabernet Franc, wines that are both rich and fresh with the character of the vineyard well able to soar above any alcohol. And the 2018 vintage was certainly hot and dry enough to produce potent wines but, as I have already reported, high-alcohol wines are much more comfortable to taste than they used to be.

I was delighted too to find some excellent wines from some of the less famous right-bank appellations such as Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux, Montagne-St-Émilion, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Fronsac. Indeed, I ended up giving a total of 36 wines (30 right bank and six left bank) a score of at least 16.5 out of 20, meaning they are really worth buying.

But when I went to try to find out where to buy these 36 wines, I was frustrated. My first port of call was the pre-eminent international price comparison site Five of these 36 2018s didn’t seem to be available anywhere. Some of them, not surprisingly, were available only in France, and, in general, distribution seemed to be best in countries such as France, Belgium and Switzerland.

For six of them, Millésima, the retail arm of one of the big Bordeaux négociants, was cited as a stockist. But any Brit placing an order is met with the message ‘Due to Brexit we are currently adapting our logistics to comply with the new regulations. We will keep you informed as soon as shipments resume. In the meantime we keep your orders safely in our cellar in France.’

Hortense Bernard, in charge of sales and marketing for Millésima UK, explained by email, ‘Brexit has changed a lot of things in the UK. We are working on it and we do not have yet our complete solution so we cannot discuss it. As you know delivering to private customers from Bordeaux is not an easy thing.’ This mirrors the delays and extra costs caused by additional form-filling reported widely by UK wine importers.

I chased up other listings of my favourite Grand Cercle 2018s that seemed to be available in the UK only to find in Laithwaite’s case that either the vintage was wrong or there was no sign of the wine in question. Or there were just two cases available (Feytit-Clinet at Jeroboams). Or there were 16 cases of six available (Fleur Cardinale at the young company Warwick Banks & Jenkins) but they are lying in Bordeaux and were not expected here for quite a while.

Availability in the US is better. American merchants have always been much readier to sell fine wine by the bottle rather than the case. The large Fronsac estate La Vieille Cure, for instance, is available from several US retailers (it used to have American owners) but the only merchant offering it in the UK, Cru World Wine, suggest that it will not be delivered until September 2021, almost a year after the first 2018s arrived in the UK.

There are UK merchants offering some of these 2018s in bond (see my list) but I could find only two out of the 36 that are actually available to buy now, both Vieilles Vignes (old-vine) bottlings: Faizeau from a village store in Cornwall and the Bordeaux Supérieur Sainte-Marie that has been sold direct to The Great Wine Co, and several US retailers, for many years. Both of these are delicious already and are bargains.

When I raised how difficult it was to find his association’s wines with their president, Dr Raynaud, he admitted that some of them lack the fame to sell easily internationally and added, ‘which is why your meticulous tasting is fundamental’.

But, as with the primeurs tastings in April, I have to admit that I’m happier providing a true service to readers than simply churning out scores for château owners.

Favourite 2018 red bordeaux châteaux

I have added Ch Grand Village from the family responsible for Ch Lafleur in Pomerol because it is excellent and even less expensive than most of these Grand Cercle wines.

UK offers

de la Dauphine, Fronsac
£240 per case of 12 Millésima UK

Faizeau, Vieilles Vignes, Montagne-St-Émilion
£18.99 Drink Finder (aka Constantine Stores, Cornwall)

Feytit-Clinet, Pomerol
From £295 per case of 6 ib Albany Vintners, Jeroboams (limited supply), Justerini & Brooks

Fleur Cardinale, St-Émilion
£160 per case of 6 ib Warwick Banks & Jenkins

Grand Corbin Despagne, St-Émilion
£420 per case of 12 Millésima UK

Grand Village, Bordeaux Supérieur
From £67.50 per case of 6 ib Justerini & Brooks, Armit Wines, Jeroboams

Laroze, St-Émilion
£370 per case of 12 Millésima UK

La Marzelle, St-Émilion
£550 per case of 12 Millésima UK

Mazeyres, Pomerol
£130 per case of 6 ib, Nickolls & Perks

Sainte-Marie, Vieilles Vignes, Bordeaux Supérieur
£12.75 The Great Wine Co

Sansonnet, St-Émilion
£140 per case of 6 ib Nickolls & Perks (limited supply)

La Tour de Bessan, Margaux
£250 per case of 12 Millésima UK

La Vieille Cure, Fronsac
£171.50 per case of 6 ib Cru World Wide

Vieux Maillet, Pomerol
£390 per case of 12 Millésima UK

US offers

Ampélia, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
$16.94 Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY

de la Dauphine, Fronsac
Many retailers, from $29.37

Feytit-Clinet, Pomerol
Many retailers, from $66.99

Fleur Cardinale, St-Émilion
Many retailers, from $39.95

Grand Corbin Despagne, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $32.88

Grand Village, Bordeaux
$24.99 Zachys

Laplagnotte-Bellevue, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $35.99

Lynsolence, St-Émilion
$39.88 B-21, FL

Mazeyres, Pomerol
Several retailers, from $36

Rol Valentin, St-Émilion
$33.99 Michel Thibault, TX

Sainte-Marie, Vieilles Vignes, Bordeaux Supérieur
Several retailers, from $13.99

Sansonnet, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $39

La Tour de Bessan, Margaux
Many retailers, from $29

La Vieille Cure, Fronsac
Several retailers, from $23.29

Vieux Château Palon, Montagne-St-Émilion
$29.98 Total Wine

Vieux Maillet, Pomerol
$33.98 Allendale Wine Shoppe, NJ

For tasting notes see More bordeaux 2018s and for more stockists see