BORDEAUX 2018 is a GREAT VINTAGE
That’s pretty straight forward – but allow me to clarify. Over my forty-plus year career in the wine business, my tasting experience with Bordeaux with a broad number of top properties goes back as far as 1959 (which was both a great vintage and my birth year so I have had ample opportunities to taste and drink those wines). While I have tasted numerous Bordeaux wines from before 1959, I am most comfortable with 1959 and forward. So I’ll state that 2018 is the “best vintage” of my lifetime – which is a pretty bold statement given 1959, 1961, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1989, 1990,1995, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, and 2016, all of which are great vintages. So how can I single out 2018 as the best of that span, especially given the lack of hype for 2018? Glad you asked.
Since 1959, Bordeaux has gone through a number of changes. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw the worst of the terroir-killing chemical-industrial farming that was typical of most winemaking areas during that time. This began to roll back in the 1980s and 1990s to the point that by the 2000s most of the best properties in Bordeaux were at least sustainable and many were incorporating organic and even biodynamic practices and a few were fully certified as biodynamic. So farming practices have been vastly improved. Beyond that, Bordeaux prices began a sustained rise in the 1980s that accelerated in the 1990s which meant that the chateaux had more financial resources to use to make better wines. So they reduced yields and hired consultants and made less grand vin and more second wines and even in some cases introduced third wines or sold off more in bulk. And the wines got better. And they invested in better equipment, often eliminating larger tanks and going with smaller tanks sized appropriately for each plot. And the wines got better. Temperature-controlled tanks became standard. And the wines got better. They paid more attention to process. They paid more attention to barrels. They paid more attention to making sure that they had the right grapes planted in the right places (on the right terrors) within their vineyards. And the wines got better. Owners, instead of just relying on a farming team and a cellar master who were sometimes at cross purposes, hired professional estate managers to manage the whole process which led to later, more precise harvesting with healthier riper grapes and cleaner fermentations. And the wines got better. Through a combination of better farming and lower yields and warmer vintages, the grapes got riper and produced more richness and concentration. And the wines got better.
This improvement didn’t happen all at once. There were leaders and lolly-gaggers. All of these changes were gradual and incremental and even, to an extent, organic and evolutionary. But the changes came. The bar was raised. The wines gradually, incrementally improved from vintage-to-vintage and certainly from great-vintage-to-great-vintage. But even though the total improvement has been dramatic, the gradual, incremental nature of the improvements has made them less obvious than perhaps they should be. Nevertheless, Bordeaux, top to bottom, is now making better wines than it has ever made before.
So we come to 2018. The farming is the best and cleanest it has ever been. The winemaking is in-sync with the farming and more advanced (and understood) by orders-of-magnitude. The vintages are warmer and the winemakers know how to handle a bit of rain in September and even early October. The chateau-owners, estate-managers, and technical directors (Bordeaux-speak for winemakers) are more committed than ever to quality. And that is a pragmatic commitment because quality equals reputation and price and profitability. So everything is in place to make the most of whatever vintage comes along. And that is what has been happening from about 2005 onward. Even 2013 – which had the potential to be awful (and would have been had it come 25 years earlier) – produced pleasant, tasty, albeit early drinking wines. 2015 and 2016 produced greatness and then along comes 2018 which topped them both. Many of the top chateaux made the best wines they have ever made in 2018 and I didn’t taste anything across the 150 or so Bordeaux wines I follow across all price ranges that wasn’t at least very good.
So why aren’t you hearing more buzz about the vintage?
Four factors: The Wine Advocate, Liv-ex, the lack of a bandwagon, and fatigue.
Robert Parker has sold the Wine Advocate and has effectively retired. While the publication soldiers on and still has an out-sized influence in Asia, Parker’s voice and dominant influence both with American wine consumers and Bordelaise winemakers is going, going, gone. Fine wine consumers don’t have that long-trusted voice telling them what to buy in each vintage. And the winemakers don’t feel the pressure (whether or not Mr. Parker ever intended to apply it) to make a style of wine designed to get “Parker points.”
Liv-ex (London International Vintners Exchange) is a fairly recent UK-based organization that advises on buying-and-selling top wines solely (and soullessly) as investments and not for personal consumption and enjoyment. And Liv-ex says that after 2015 and 2016, it is too soon to have a great vintage because “the market won’t be able to absorb it.” So the British wine trade has pushed back a bit on calling 2018 what it really is – A Great Vintage.
As yet there is no bandwagon for 2018. At least not an English-speaking bandwagon. Robert Parker is no longer there to lead but he had long ago supplanted the British press in terms of his influence on Bordeaux consumers all over the world. No other American critics have emerged from the pack. The British wine trade is muted (Liv-ex, etc.). And most of the American wine trade has been so long dependent on quoting Mr. Parker that they have a hard time finding a voice to speak for themselves. So no bandwagon.
Fatigue comes into play for a variety of reasons. There has never been a time when more different wines made in more different places have been anywhere close to as broadly available to as many consumers. We are inundated. And due to the internet and social media and the rise of “certified experts” (some of whom are real experts but many of who are test-taking, certification-collecting, I’m-certified-so-pay-attention-to-me wannabes) all with their own agendas and biases and often lack of broad experience making sometimes seemingly random noise about wine. So there is no cohesion in the message the wine drinker is hearing from the experts – and even if there were, we the consumers of fine wine are often too overwhelmed, too jaded, too fatigued to hear it.
If you talk to the negoçiants (wine merchants) in Bordeaux, you hear them cautiously saying 2018 is a great vintage. Why cautiously? Because they are by nature cautious. They don’t want to risk causing a crescendo of rising prices based on their say so. And they don’t want to risk losing their credibility by creating and then jumping on their own self-interested band wagon.
If you talk to individual chateau owners and estate managers about their 2018s, you hear many of them say of their wine “This is the best wine I have ever made.” or “This is the best wine the property has ever made.” I have heard a very few of these sorts of statements only a few times over the years and then only in great vintages. I have heard these statements a good number of times while tasting 2018s. Some of these admittedly interested parties seem genuinely amazed at the wines they made in 2018.
If you look at the technical data on the wines, two things stand out: higher pH and higher total acidity. Higher pH means the strength of the acid is lower (which in itself could be considered a negative). But higher total acidity means that amount of total acid in the wines compensates for the higher pH.
If you ask me, I will shout from the rooftops “2018 is a great vintage. 2018 is the best vintage of my lifetime. 2018 is a vintage to buy.” And then I’ll tell you why. The proof of any vintage is in the taste of the wine – and 2018 is, as a whole, quite delicious. The flavor and the feel of the wine transcends the technical specifications. And then there is the style of the vintage. Nature gave the raw materials which were largely excellent and that steady improvement in the vineyards and in the wineries has made-the-most-of that potential. And due to the now greatly diminished influence of Robert Parker (real or perceived), the winemakers made the wines they wanted to make rather than the wines they felt they needed to make. The result is that rare great vintage where the mark of the terroir is as evident as the mark of the vintage and where there was little-to-no over-extraction or manipulation. In short, these 2018s are great, delicious, natural-tasting, pretty, balanced wines offering both fruit and terroir that will drink-well early and improve in the cellar. Which is all to say that 2018 is a great vintage.
– Bear Dalton
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