Bordeaux 2018: The mildew vintage

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | sept. 2019

I have been following wines made in the Bordeaux region of France since college in the early '70s when I and my college roommate Roger had a bottle of 1966 Léoville-Barton. In this case, chance or luck, if you please, allowed me to taste a wine from one of the best vintages of the last century. The taste of this St. Julien, predominately Cabernet Sauvignon (80-90 percent) was an epiphany and I've been drinking Bordeaux ever since. The first lesson I learned about Bordeaux was that the year the wine was produced (vintage) matters. I am currently drinking Bordeaux from the 2009 and 2010 vintages and aging the 2014 and 2015 vintages. I have a bottle from the 1975 vintage that is so hard and tannic that it may never be ready to drink. The 2003 vintage was produced in a year when record high temperatures enveloped Europe – over 70,000 people died in that heatwave – the results were highly alcoholic wines that wouldn't last in the cellar. Sometimes a great vintage like 2000 is followed by a slightly less prestigious one such as the 2001, offering the opportunity to buy near great wines at discount prices. The best vintages often times are produced when weather conditions are less than optimal. In some cases, a late frost might hit during the flowering period reducing the number of grapes and/or the size of the berries. Hail may also reduce the crop size as well. Reduced size and smaller crops mean that flavors are concentrated producing great wines. The 1992, 93 and 94 vintages were all rained on late in the year, diluting the vintage and seriously affecting cash flow for Bordeaux vintners. The 2014, 15 and 16 vintages had warm dry weather during the fall producing nice to great wines respectively. Well, you get my point, vintages matter. Because of the value of the crops in Bordeaux, it is indubitably the most watched, written about and discussed weather in the world.

The 2018 vintage was so unusual that I think it is worth an in-depth look. Furthermore, there has been an inflection point that someday may be viewed as a seminal moment in Bordeaux history. The sons and daughters of the baby boomers are becoming the new owners, vintners and vineyard managers.For starters, the number of châteaux that have undergone a change in ownership and or technical direction over the last five or so years is just staggering. These include: Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Bellefont-Belcier, Berliquet, Beychevelle, Calon-Ségur, Canon, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, La Clotte La Conseillante, Figeac, Fonbadet, Laroque, Léoville-Poyferré, Montrose, Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Petit-Village, Le Prieuré, Prieuré-Lichine, Rauzan-Ségla, Tour Saint Christophe, Troplong Mondot and Vray Croix de Gay among others.

The intense ripeness of 2018 notwithstanding, there is a very clear and conscious move by the young vintners to harvest earlier than in the past, which is resulting in wines of greater freshness. Extractions are generally gentler, while the impact of new oak has come down markedly in many wines. Terra cotta amphoras, casks and other fermentation/aging vessels that are not traditional in Bordeaux are present in an ever-growing number of cellars. There is an increase in trials with whole clusters in fermentation, another technique that is not at all common in Bordeaux. Quite a few winemakers are experimenting with no S02 (Sulfur Dioxide) during crush and the early stages of aging, which they believe increases aromatic openness in the wines. The challenges of 2018 aside, the move towards sustainable farming and biodynamics, which is relatively new to Bordeaux, is increasing. Ironically being biodynamic during the 2018 vintage would prove disastrous as we'll see later.

Getting back to the specifics of the 2018 season, most Bordeaux weather watchers start with the winter season after the harvest. The winter was warmer and wetter than normal. In fact, the first six months of 2018 saw the equivalent of a years' worth of rain. The excessive rain lasted through the first part of July. July saw another French tradition interfere with the attempt to save the vintage. In France, where long summer vacations are a religion, there are two sects. The traditionalists known as the aoùtiens, who take off August, and the julliettistes, who leave town in July before the country grinds to a halt for ete (summer). This July, the summer of 2018, Plasmopara viticola the Downey mildew fungus struck the vineyards. The fungus if not treated immediately could wipe out a vineyard over a weekend. Furthermore, the vintners that decided to practice biodynamic agriculture like Chateau's Latour, Palmer, Pontet Canet and Giscours, and had eschewed the traditional treatment for Downey mildew saw their yields drop by 50 percent. At Palmer, when two inches of rain fell on the Fourth of July, they estimated only one bunch of grapes per vine survived. Some vintners stripped the leaves off of the east side of the vines to aerate the clusters and allow the water to evaporate while leaving the leaves intact on the west side to shade the grapes during the hot afternoons.

So, in the middle of July, according to Nick Audebert at Chateau Rauzan-Segla in Margaux “everyone thought it was the worst year ever. Some people thought they wouldn't even have a crop. And it didn't matter if you worked biodynamic, organic or conventional, everyone had problems."

After such a difficult start to the growing season how was it possible that people are now talking about 2018 as a great vintage? The answer lies in the second extreme turn the weather took. On July 15 the weather did an about-face and the season staged an epic comeback. Warm temperatures returned and not a drop of rain fell until September. Idyllic harvest conditions persisted into October allowing the vintners to pick the early maturing merlot at optimal ripeness, while the weather permitted the Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen slowly and evenly. Fiona Morrison MW who was present when the first grapes were laid in the vats recalled the gorgeous fruit-forward aromas that always portend a successful vintage as overpowering. Optical sorting enabled the wineries to effectively sort out mildew affected grapes, but I've read other accounts of the vintage that describe the tannins from such a vintage as dry. The effect of the mildew on the taste of the wine has been noted in early barrel tastings and I am anxious to try wines affected by that mildew.

Jane Anson, Bordeaux correspondent for “Decanter," is someone whose tastes in Bordeaux run similar to mine, took a more nuanced look at the vintage and started by describing the five conditions for a successful vintage. The first is rapid and even flowering which was met in 2018. The second (good fruit set) was partially met because of the mildew issues. The onset of water stress (drought) happened late but when the rain stopped in the middle of July it was abrupt and complete. The final two conditions were slow and complete ripening and harvesting under optimal conditions which occurred. So, according to Ms. Anson, four of the five conditions were met which makes this vintage similar to 2010 and 2016, both of which are top-notch in my mind. Before the en primeurtastings, Anson thought that the horizontals (all from the 2018 vintage as opposed to verticals which represent different years) would be difficult because she expected heavy tannins. She was pleasantly surprised and Bruno Borie of Ducru Beaucaillou explained that this vintage 'has extended drinkability". In other words, the wines can be enjoyed earlier and will last longer. I am happy to hear that I'll be able to drink them sooner but frankly doubt the age ability. But that might be a moot point as my own sell by date is rapidly approaching.

The wines that I am anxious to try are from the Margaux and Graves regions which were hit the hardest by mildew. In Margaux I like Chateau Angludet and du Terte. In Graves Chateau Larrivet Haut Brion would be the 2018 I would hunt down. Then maybe the second or third wines from First Growths Haut Brion and Margaux, de Clarence Haut Brion and Pavilion Rouge respectively.Since these wines are resting in oak casks right now and won't be released until 2022, I am hoping for some longevity so that I can taste this intriguing vintage.

-- Banner image by Anne B. is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Find more of his work at Flickr.com and this license at creativecommons.org.

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