The 2018 vintage is the latest Bordeaux in bottle and as I had noted during barrel tastings, it is not the most homogenous, despite getting top billing from many quarters.
The term “great” often has been used to describe each new dry and hot vintage in Bordeaux, but – as ever – the devil is in the details. In recent months, including several visits to Bordeaux during official lockdowns in France, I tasted many 2018s mostly on location, after recent bottling, and the verdict is quite positive, but with a note of caution.
First of all, lovers of cooler balances in Bordeaux, with alcohol levels between 13 and 14 may not “kneejerk love” the balances of the 2018 vintage, which showcase more often than not between 14 and 15% alcohol.
While that’s good for avoiding the 25% Trump tariff on French wines up to 14% alcohol, it may not suite the tastes of all claret lovers, especially those who prefer a vintage like 2016, for example. It is interesting to note that many producers in Bordeaux with wines closer to 14% alcohol purposely chose to put 14.5% on the label just to avoid the tariff.
In any case, as enologists logically advise, one should not get obsessed with alcohol measures. Professional can tell you that a poorly balanced wine at 13.5% alcohol can taste more hot or alcoholic than a finely balanced one at 14.5%. Given talented winemaking in much of Bordeaux these days, many high-octane wines from 2018 are downright delicious. And the best ones come from soils and climates with low natural pH levels, that lend needed acidity for alcohol. Cooler limestone and deep clay soils proved how good wine can be in a hot, dry vintage like 2018, when paired with judicious extraction in winemaking.
And such winemaking is happening more in Saint-Émilion. Sure, some wines maintain the oaky, tannic obsession of the mid-2000s. Not long ago, I recall tasting the Grand Cru Classés blind and finding too many wines that were hard, over extracted and/or finishing on drying oak tannins. Had the 2018 vintage taken place 10 (or 15) years ago, the tasting would not have been as pleasant.
On the Left Bank, two go-to appellations are Pauillac and Saint Julien. Pauillac boasts superb wines in the vintage, many assessed in a blind tasting at Château Pedesclaux. Same goes for Saint Julien as tasted also blind at Château Léoville Poyferré. Most were elegant and suave and sometimes powerful, with grip, but overall refined and fresh. I give an edge however to the 2016 vintage for superior freshness, as does Didier Cuvelier of Château Léoville Poyferré. Still, 2018 wins on palate density in some cases.
Less successful were wines made from hotter soils in 2018, such as in the southern Médoc and the Graves region, although both areas boast some fine gems, too, including the very best Château Les Carmes Haut Brion I have ever tried. They are just not as consistently good as wines from the northern Médoc and from cooler terroirs on the Right Bank, including Saint-Émilion, Fronsac and Castillon.
One thing to keep in mind, however: As much as I like many 2018s, prices are better for the somewhat similar, but less-hyped 2019 vintage, which generally conveys greater freshness, even if alcohol levels are not so different. 2018 may win in terms of density, but cooler summer evenings from the 2019 vintage ensured some cooler blue fruit.
A few favorites below, including bargains and price-no-object wines, some of which I have purchased, including Château Larcis Ducasse, Château Canon and Château Léoville Las Cases.
For my full 2018 review with comprehensive tasting notes, please consult wine-chronicles.com
Six from Saint-Émilion:
Château Belair-Monange Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé “B” – If you could smell wet limestone, here it is. Elegant wet stone freshness. It was just at first difficult to appreciate, after having just tasted the mighty Château Trotanoy, as the wines are very different. While the Pomerol impresses with power and density this plays far more on refinement. The wine exudes ripe fruit, fresh and bright, with plenty of juiciness on the mid palate, leaving one with a sense of great balance between richness and especially elegance overall, along with much contour. Tasted with Jane Anson in Bordeaux. 97+ ($180)
Château Canon Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé “B”* – The limestone terroir here lends much needed freshness to this blend of 72% Merlot and 28% Cabernet Franc. There is opulence too: the word “exciting” comes to mind. The irresistible floral perfume of the nose combined with more “serious” wet stone terroir-driven appeal precedes a palate of subtle power that envelopes with ultra-smooth yet never glossy tannin leading to a long, lifting finish again marked by floral aromatics. 14% alcohol and a rather low pH of 3.69 ensure balance. Aged in just over 50% new oak. I bought a case. 97 ($120)
Château Grandes Murailles Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé – One of the best mid-range priced Saint Emilions, as it exudes plum, cherry, fresh fruit red and black. Succulent and tasty with tannic structure for another 10 years of aging before really hitting its cylinders. 14.5% alcohol. And the price is right, at about $40 a bottle and I’m a buyer. Bravo Philippe Cuvelier! 94+ ($55)
Château Larcis Ducasse Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé “B” – A great success in Saint Emilion with wet stone aspects, reflecting vines grown on limestone (and cold clay). I like the freshness on the finish, with a low pH of 3.56. But the blend of 89% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc boasts plenty opulence as well, clocking in at 14.5% alcohol. The overall impression left is of a nuanced wine, with vigor in its ripe fruit expressions and freshness on the long finish. 96 ($60)
Château Moulin Saint Georges Saint-Émilion Grand Cru – Under the same ownership of Ausone, the Vauthier Family has crafted a rich, scrumptious wine, made from vines grown on clay over limestone. The blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc has a very low pH of 3.4 so fantastic freshness in 2018, and the wine has appealing wet stone on its palate along with rose stem. The tannin has power and structure and will need a few years cellaring for a proper drinking window. I’m a buyer! 94 ($40)
Château Tour Saint Christophe Saint-Émilion Grand Cru – The other side of Troplong Mondot, with south exposure, but a cooler sector, because of the soils. Not as south, so you have south - southwest. The nose is already more interesting, deeper and even a bit floral. The palate is very pure and elegant. This is salivant indeed. 14.5% The pH 3.55, which helps balance the alcohol. 28 euro. 93+ ($30)
Six from the Médoc:
Château Gruaud Larose – Lovely, deep aromatics, vivid floral expressions, both violets and spring white, ripe dark fruit, with much freshness. Finesse and power on the palate, too, with notable tannic edge sans the “fire" which can be a sign of 2018. Overall a very successful Saint Julien: both elegance and almost steely power. The wine blends 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and the rest Petit Verdot. Aged in 80% new oak, it clocks in at 14.2% alcohol. The fabulous deep gravels of the estate combined with cooler clays maintaining freshness contribute to the success. 96 ($80)
Château Haut Batailley AOC Pauillac – Tasted blind. I have always liked this wine and it again proves its appeal in 2018. This has certain graphite aromas, and the palate a more supple aspect, measured and balanced. Not as "fiery" as some preceding wines, not quite as dense as, say, the Baron, but oh so very balanced, well put well together, and suave is the word to use. After having aged 14 months in French oak barrels (60% new), this blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon and 41% Merlot reveals a fine tannic structure, but with polish. A classy Pauillac that seems very "Saint Julien." 95 ($35)
Château Lafon-Rochet AOC Saint Estèphe – From the start, vivid dark fruit juiciness and ripeness but with a fine frame of suave and very present tannin (this is a baby). I love the “amplitude”, the palate density, too. It has already softened since the barrel tasting, and it comes across rather approachable and refined. The quality is excellent and well worth the $50 tax-included price tag in the U.S. 94+ ($50)
Château Léoville Las Cases AOC Saint Julien – Think of Cohiba Esplendido – or another top cigar – and here it is, on the nose. The wine takes the best characteristics of 2018 – veritably opulent and dense – but includes much impressive finesse and elegance and delectable sap. Sure, full body, but never too much, ending with pristine, precise and persistent length. In short, a Top Ten bottle of 2018, with (stiff) competition from the First Growths (all re-tasted except for Latour). Yet more proof that Las Cases qualifies for First Growth status. 2018 easily rivals the superb 2016. While tasting from barrel last year, director Pierre Graffeuille mused that the concentration was such – typically the estate uses about 10% press wine, but only 2.3% was used to make the 2019 – that he considered aging the wine in oak longer than usual, up to 20 months. But fears of too much oak tannin extraction from rather high alcohol wine, clocking in at just under 14.5%, led them to stick with 18 months aging. Indeed, remarkable freshness, too, for this vintage. 99 ($250, not including tax)
Château Lilian Ladouys AOC Saint Estèphe – Similar experience to positive impressions when tasted along with other Cru Bourgeois wines. This is quite tasty, with a rich, opulent nose of strawberry and plum fruit, la baie du mur, with smooth and juicy texture. As experienced from barrel, a tannic edge that reflects the image of Saint Estèphe and that is a good sign, leading to a juicy finish. 93 ($24)
Château Lynch Bages AOC Pauillac – Tasted blind and somehow I guessed … Lynch Bages (while not guessing so well with the others). And, by golly, it comes along strong in bottle. The slight austerity of the tannin is gone, replaced by tannic power and edge, but smoother. And you get floral and dark red fruit aromatics, the cassis to be sure from the Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose is pleasingly expressive, with a palate of density and excellent length. I get the feeling that this blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot that was aged 18 months in 75% new oak is a younger version of the 1990. A great wine. 96+ ($125)