In trying to understand 2018 in Bordeaux, some have been focusing on the balance between acidity and alcohol. You could say that about any vintage, but in 2018, the superlatives over barrel samples mirror bigger alcohol: “Did you taste Château Montrose?” one eager American buyer asked me. “It’s tremendous!” Château Montrose clocks in at 14.8% alcohol with low acidity. A Bordeaux-based wine trader marveled at how “enthralled” the wine trade is with Château Calon Ségur, which clocks in at 14.9% alcohol… and rather low acidity. It is worthy to note that 80% of the blend is Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc combined).
Alcohol levels have been creeping ever higher in Bordeaux, and for various reasons, including later harvesting and lower yields for more concentration and higher potential alcohol. Climate change has also been a factor.
It was not so long ago when the average alcohol level for Bordeaux was 12.5. A Château Léoville Poyferré 1982 that I recently enjoyed over lunch in Saint Julien was 12.5 and had been cropped at nearly 60 hectoliters per hectare. And it tastes delicious today. In 2019, average alcohol has inched up to nearly 14%, at least for Merlots on the Right Bank.
For some, that is a red line. The Wine Enthusiast’s European Editor, Roger Voss, remarked to me in a Twitter message recently: “I don’t think any Bordeaux should be above 14, and on rare occasions 14.5. If a winemaker in Bordeaux can’t get pH and alcohol right, then they should move to Châteauneuf.”
But maybe Châteauneuf du Pape-like climate is coming to Bordeaux sooner than later. Long-term climactic trends that could lead to higher alcohol and lower acidity levels are raising concerns. Current estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that temperatures in Bordeaux could increase by two to four degrees Celsius by the middle of the century. Later this month, Vinexpo in Bordeaux holds a climate change symposium to be moderated by CNN correspondent Jim Bittermann. Next month, Bordeaux wine producers will hold a forum on alternative grapes that would ripen less quickly, including hybrids that cross Cabernet Sauvignon with Tannat, for example.
Robin Kick MW, who has had seven years experience consulting for en primeur sales in Bordeaux, remarked, “It does not help that the (alcohol) goalposts often appear to be continuously moving.” Is a “balance” with 13.5% alcohol better than one with 15.3% alcohol? Should it matter? Some say that alcohol levels should not be a focus in wine appreciation, so long as one has balancing acidity or at least what Bordeaux consultant Thomas Duclos calls “aromatic freshness,” which he says can be achieved despite high alcohol and low acidity.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges climate change challenges: “Even for people like me, who pick earlier, we cannot avoid higher alcohol degrees of Merlot.” Furthermore, he says, “planting Cabernet Franc is not going to solve things, either, as we are see higher alcohol levels also from Cabernet Franc.” He emphasizes higher yields to maintain aromatic freshness, canopy management to reduce solar exposure (not de-leafing vines), or replanting in cooler soils with less solar exposure.
As climate change brings more frequent and longer heat waves, heat tolerance will be an increasingly critical factor for vintage character. “We are entering a brave new world”, says Kick. “Lots of research needs to be done to understand clones better that might ripen differently and yeasts that have a different ratio of sugar to alcohol so they will convert more sugar into less alcohol,” she suggests.
2018 is thus a rather complex vintage that consumers should read with a bit more caution and a bit less hype -- especially if prices for futures are higher than the recently bottled and now available 2016s. Most observers agree that 2016 is more consistent across appellations. The fruit is generally brighter, too. Given the warm and especially dry summer and harvest period of 2018, hotter terroirs had a more challenging time than they did in 2016.
My advice to readers is to wait for pricing and measure against off-the-shelf 2016s. If you see generally high ratings for a wine from 2018 -- and it costs less than its 2016 counterpart -- you may consider buying the 2018. But if not, better wait and taste from bottle to be sure.