After erratic 2018 weather, bold confidence in new bordeaux wine

For some growers who made it through a soggy spring and surprise hail, the early word is that the 2018 vintage will be one for the record books

By ELIN MCCOY

Next week, global wine attention turns to Bordeaux, as thousands of merchants and journalists descend on the region for the annual spring ritual, en primeur.

During the hectic Monday to Friday taste-fest, the pace is frenetic. We all rush from château to château to swirl, sip and spit wines from the 2018 vintage that are quietly ageing in oak barrels in dark, cold cellars. After evaluating quality and scribbling notes, we’ll move on to the next appointment, picking up local gossip and trading impressions of the vintage where we can.

The big question, always, is how good are the wines? Specifically, how do they compare to the superb 2016s now beginning to arrive on retail shelves? Will they be worth investing in? After all, as London International Vintners Exchange (Liv-Ex) points out in its latest report, fine wine outperformed global equities in 2018. But even if the wines are fantastic, Liv-Ex predicts investors won’t chase them unless the price is right.

Over the past month, I’ve been taking a preview pulse of the vintage by checking with Bordeaux winemakers, château owners, and negociants.

At the Commanderie du Bontemps dinner in New York in early March, Olivier Bernard, whose family owns Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Leognan, south of Bordeaux, was effusive. “In 2018, I made the best wine of my life,” he insisted. (My inner cynic says I’ve heard that sentiment before.)

Mildew was a major problem for many châteaux in 2018

“I love the 2018s; it’s unquestionably a great vintage,” proclaimed Christian Seely, MD of AXA Millésimes insurance company’s wine division, when we spoke at Château Pichon Baron in Pauillac last weekend. “The wines are structured for the long haul. They’re at least as good as the 2016s and sometimes better.”

I’ve had a sneak preview of several wines, including Pichon Baron. It’s silky textured and rich, with the rare combination of gorgeous fruit and lots of fresh acidity, and I definitely put it ahead of the very good 2016. Ditto the succulent and dense Château Potensac; the grand and powerful Château Leoville Las Cases; and the lush and elegant Château
Rauzan-Segla from Margaux, whose second line is going to be a bargain.

For some others, 2018 was a nightmare.

Winemaker Caroline Frey, whose family owns Château La Lagune just south of Margaux, emailed that because of hail “the size of pigeon eggs”, she made no wine at all. None.

Emmanuel Cruse, the head of the Commanderie and co-owner of Château d’Issan in Margaux, summed it up, “2018 was a completely surprising, out-of-the-ordinary vintage. First we despaired, then we celebrated”.

So which other châteaux are the winners in 2018, which the losers, and which will offer value? After tasting some 500 or so wines next week, I’ll report in detail.

Meanwhile, as always, the determining factor will have been the weather.

Weathering the Problems

“The year was like two separate seasons,” explained Jean Garandou of Château Latour over dinner, as we sipped the estate’s elegant 1999.

The first half of 2018, up to July, was wet, beset with hailstorms, downpours and a fungal disease that attacks vines and is triggered by damp, humid conditions. According to the annual harvest report from Gavin Quinney, owner of Château Bauduc, after a wet winter, spring brought constant rain, making the soil so soggy in some vineyards that it was difficult to prevent mildew from spreading. Some estates lost 30% of their crop; those practicing organic viticulture, such as Château Palmer, lost much, much more.

A tasting at Château Leoville Las Cases (Pic: Bloomberg)

Hailstorms wreaked havoc on Sauternes the same day France won the World Cup. At Château Guiraud, they destroyed more than 90% of the vines.

But the second part of the growing season — the rest of July and August and September — was a glorious (and rare) dry, sunny summer that continued into October with, says Quinney’s report, “optimal harvest conditions”. The quality of the remaining grapes was extremely high for some 75% of top châteaux.

“The wines have the rare combination of opulence, with high acidity and freshness,” said Alexandre Van Beek, the MD of Château du Tertre and Château Giscours, both in Margaux. “With global warming, merlot has been struggling, but this year-partly because of the rain — the wines have a lot of glossy merlot character.”

There will be a lot more wine than there was in the 2017 vintage, when spring frosts decimated many vineyards, especially in Saint-Émi-lion and Pomerol. In 2018, all Bordeaux produced the equivalent of 666 million bottles.

In short, producers whose vineyards were hit by hail or who couldn’t control mildew suffered with low or no yields. But the quality of the grapes was high for most châteaux, which translates into very, very good wines. And that will play a major role in pricing.

The Futures Market

“There’s no question about quality,” explained negociant Philippe Tapie of Haut Medoc Selection. “The big question for selling futures will be the world economic situation, the exchange rate, and the prices.”

Bordeaux is unusual in that most of the wine is sold as futures while it’s still ageing in barrels. Châteaux set a release price and sell to negociants, or brokers, who add a margin of profit before selling them on to retail merchants, who then sell them to customers. After 12 months to 24 months of barrel ageing, they’re bottled and then released about six months later. Customers will pick up their 2018 wines in 2021.

Tasting the 2018 vintage (from left) of Château Leoville Las Cases, Château Pichon Baron and Château Rauzan- Ségla from Margaux

Hanging over this year’s en primeur tastings is the continuing spectre of Brexit, China’s slowing economy, and economic and political tensions in the rest of the world.

“But price is vital, second only to quality, for deciding what we’ll buy,” says Giles Cooper of London’s BI Wines & Spirits Ltd, which takes a team of 10 buyers to Bordeaux and focuses on 40 to 50 top estates.

Clyde Beffa, of the Bay Area’s K&L Wine Merchants, and his four buyers will be looking “for anything reasonably priced”. But he’s doubtful anything will be. “The Bordelais,” he says, “never get it right”.

Many merchants complained that sales of 2017 futures were sluggish because wines from the tiny crop were overpriced, leading to zero interest from consumers. A Liv-Ex Bordeaux report points out that volumes of 2017s sold were 60% below the 2016s. After all, Cooper adds, “Customers already have 2005s, 2009s, 2020s, 2015s in their cellars.”

Still, after tasting 100 wines, Jeff Leve, publisher of The Wine Cellar Insider, emailed that “It’s not homogeneous, but 2018 will be regarded as one of the great Bordeaux vintages.” Is it? And will it be one wine lovers have to have?

We’ll see. — Bloomberg