Bordeaux En Primeur 2018: Right Bank Report
Monday, May 20, 2019 in News
2018 has been something of a mixed bag of primeurs offering when it comes to the Right Bank’s Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. Some Château, however, have risen to the challenge of a difficult vintage, and created some memorable wines. View the full vintage report for the Left Bank.
Right Bank châteaux are generally much smaller than their counterparts on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. The complicated classification system in Saint-Émilion—where almost every property is a Grand Cru—is understood by few. This is because the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru appellation is not part of the formal Saint-Émilion Classification, which was first introduced in 1955.
Ultimately, the whole method of creating a hierarchy of properties in Saint-Émilion has become something of a dog’s breakfast. While the classification is updated every 10 years, vested interests and politics seem to have intervened. Prestige has everything to do with the fine wine agenda in Bordeaux, as wine prices have everything to with land values. But the inherent quality of the wines are not always aligned with the classification or the appellation. While the Left Bank has a predictable order, Saint-Émilion And Pomerol offer a kaleidoscope of experiences.
Some estates have opted out of the classification—like Château Le Tertre Rôteboeuf—and others are fighting for their positions in the rankings. Meanwhile the major protagonists Château Angélus and Château Pavie—elevated to Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) in 2012—have invested hugely in their vineyards and cellars to reflect their newly acquired status. The Carillon at Château Angélus is highly symbolic of the bells and whistles that have become a feature of Saint-Émilion.
There is quite a lot of new building work happening in the area. Château Figeac, Château Troplong Mondot, Château Valandraud, Château Balestard la Tonnelle and Château Bélair-Monange—now having integrated Château Magdelaine—are all expanding their cellars. For those who believe the world is ending soon, the outlook here is remarkably positive and long-term.
Bordeaux has gone through so many ups and downs. Economic uncertainty never seems to stop. The Gilets Jaunes have been protesting for 20 weeks now, causing shops in Bordeaux centre to barricade their shop fronts. Although there was a heavy body-armoured police presence on Saturday, the predicted massive protests did not eventuate. Despite all of the disruptions around France right now, the cranes punctuated around Saint-Émilion give a sense that there are things to look forward to. In some respects, the primeurs season is all about looking forward to the future rather than fearing it.
In 2018 the growing season saw Merlot ripen to an extreme sometimes bordering on over ripeness. Cabernet Franc has been the region’s major secret weapon, bringing aromatic freshness, vitality and vigour to the wines. There are so many instances where Cabernet Franc has impacted hugely on the outcome of the vintage. I think that it would be very different if it wasn’t for the impact of the variety in the final blends.
While the region has produced variable wines, Saint-Émilion is a strong performer this year. There are many examples of exemplary wines. Château Barde-Haut, situated in a rather beautiful amphitheatre of vines, is one of the most stunning properties in the region. Guarded by two enormous boofhead canines, this estate in many respects epitomises the ambitions of contemporary winemakers in Saint-Émilion.
All the work is done nowadays in the vineyard first. For the rather charismatic and energetic Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, the installation of technology in the cellars has gone too far. The sorting machines have been abandoned in preference for more vigilance in the vineyard. Her description of workers falling asleep while picking out ‘MOG’ (matter other than grape) on the conveyor belts illustrates the challenges of managing an unskilled workforce during the vintage, and a preference for going the extra mile by working with nature and experienced vineyard workers.
Attention to detail in the organically-farmed 17-hectare vineyard has paid dividends this year. The cellars are quite small compared to Left Bank estates, but the investment in sustainable practices—including natural air conditioning using technology developed by the Romans, and insulation using grass covered rooftops— show an intent to make a difference. The quirky, rusted metal windmill lying atop one of the outbuildings is reminiscent of country Australia, and a bit odd in the spring landscape.
The Château Barde-Haut is something of a discovery for me, although it has been described by others as a rising star for some years. I have been driving past the vineyard for several years now and never visited, but the people are exceptional. 2018 Château Barde-Haut is classic in shape with excellent vigour and expression. The fruit density and overall balance are impressive. The work by Hélène’s husband Patrice Lévêque and his team in the vineyard has paid dividends.
At Château Cheval Blanc, the growing season went better than most. When one considers the extremes of no crop at the severely hail-damaged properties of Château La Lagune (Médoc) and Château Guiraud (Sauternes), this property was virtually untouched. The mildew problem was restricted to the leaves, perhaps reflecting the ‘no expense spared’ approach to vineyard management and production. It is surprising, considering French laws and the tendency for land to be carved up, that the 39-hectare vineyard has not changed in 200 years. Although many organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards fared poorly during the 2018 growing season, Cheval Blanc—with its own way of sustainable viticulture—enjoyed average yields and a crop of exceptional quality.
While many Châteaux worked hard against mildew pressure by spraying their vineyards (as much as 20 times or more) with copper-based Bordeaux mixture (including organic producers), Château Cheval Blanc only needed to spray a few times with natural synthetic material (in which the molecules break down quickly, unlike copper, which lasts in the soil for hundreds of years). Although wealth does not necessarily create great wine, the ability to deploy the best resources in the vineyard—including manpower—obviously make a difference.
Château Cheval Blanc’s streamlined, Pringle-shaped winery, designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, is almost like an art installation. It is possible to walk on the landscaped roof and enjoy the juxtaposition of vineyards, gardens and 19th and 21st Century buildings. Here, the concrete tanks are reengineered as post-modern amphorae—each matched to the 49 plots in the vineyard. The charismatic technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet and his team have been significantly challenged this year. The rainfall—described as a deluge by so many—was in actual fact quite close to the long-term average. The problem was that it rained every day, creating the perfect environment for disease pressure. Although mildew struck, it did not materialise in the bunches.
With regular hedging and leaf plucking, it is possible to keep mildew under control, as it starts at the tip of new growth. The ground was also wet and made it hard going for tractors. But once summer arrived, the vines performed extremely well. The harvest took place between 10 September and 11 October without any difficulty. The 2018 Cheval Blanc is probably one of the very top wines of the vintage. Its massive tannin backbone is incredibly supple, and the fresh acidity pulls the flavours across the palate beautifully. The second wine, Le Petit Cheval, with 70% merlot, is also a brilliant wine, albeit of less aging potential. Yet, the fruit glides effortlessly on its sinuous and lithe structure.
Within view of Château Cheval Blanc is Château Figeac, currently going through building works reportedly costing around 15 million euros. A new cellar adjoining the family house will be ready in 2020. Many Langton’s people will know the wonderful Hortense Manoncourt, who visited Australia last year. Her technical director Fredéric Faye, who has been at Château Figeac for 14 years, has probably made the wine of his lifetime this year.
I have a theory that wine often reflects the spirit of its place and its owners—not unlike dogs looking like their owners. Besides having phenomenal density and power, with fruit purity and mineral length, the 2018 Figeac is warm, open, generous and welcoming. Hortense and her sister Blandine describe 2018 Château Figeac as a symphonie—and so it is—with many strings of tannins, wonderful bass notes and plenty of percussion. It will also be one of my coups de coeur wines this primeurs season.
Château Pavie, owned by the Perse family, is probably the most dramatic wine of this vintage. Many observers of Bordeaux will remember the 2003 vintage. Robert Parker scored it 100 points, much to the chagrin of Jancis Robinson who scored the same wine 12 out of 20. A robust debate took place resulting in the increased fame of all those involved—such is the power of the media! But, in recent years, there has been a recalibration of style with extraordinary results. Much of this can be credited to Directeur Général Philippe Devaley, who encouraged Gérard Perse to bring the style back to its origins. Having been the longstanding head of négociant house Mähler-Besse, he would have understood the implications of adhering the style to the ‘goût Americain’.
The story of Pavie really shows that wines can be manipulated to the point that they no longer shows their true voice of place. It also demonstrates how customers can be manipulated by media opinion, and in turn why it is so important not to follow a single wine critic. No one is perfect and, quite frankly, I don’t think most American writers are particularly empathetic to Australian tastes.
Anyway, I am totally impressed by the 2018 Château Pavie turn around. There is nothing lightweight about this style. I would say that this year’s wine has the deepest colour, the most powerful tannins and the most dense and concentrated flavours yet. It is all in balance, with wonderful heft and energy. It will meld and soften over time and the wait will be worth it.
Cyril Thienpont’s Château Pavie Macquin, a darling of the Parker years, is also a worthy mention this year. Many will enjoy the enervating blackberry cedar wood aromas and generous and vigorous palate.
Château Angélus, caught up as well in the politics of Saint-Émilion’s classification with Château Pavie, has also made a lovely wine this year. It is more refined and gentle than the Pavie, yet classical in texture and style. The wines have steadily become important standard bearers of the region. The investment in the vineyards and winery is simply astonishing. The stonework and quality of craftsmanship i is of another era. One of the reasons so much money is being ploughed into buildings and vineyards is because it is a more efficient use of tax, but has the added advantage of keeping many skilled craftsmen and women in employment.
Château Ausone, perched above the escarpment and traditionally considered one of the three great estates on the Right Bank (along with Cheval Blanc and Pétrus), is very low-key compared to Saint-Émilion’s empire-building families. The 2018 is demure, yet gorgeously balanced with incredible fruit complexity, volume and drive.
Perhaps the quirkiest of all the Saint-Émilion estates is Château Le Tertre Rôteboeuf, which lies on the slopes rising to the limestone plateau. The wine represents the best of winemaking philosophy and family tradition. It is so different that it may polarise some people, but the care, love and generosity of spirit can easily be seen. It has beautiful stone fruit, blackberry and mocha aromas, with rich flavour, ripe tannins, and a fine tannin plume at the finish. Despite its 16,2% alcohol (the highest I have come across so far, with most between 14 and 14.5%) it carries its weight with freshness and life. I think it is a stunning wine, definitely off-piste, but a wonderful example of a singular obsession and a family connection with its land. This is also manifested in the decadently supple and aromatic 2018 L’Aurage, which is quite something to behold. The vineyard is located in the fashionable Côtes de Castillon, which is in some respect a continuum of Saint-Émilion.
The scarcity and high prices of land have seen a few producers start dabbling in wines from the Castillon sub region. This is set to continue. The recent purchase of Château Robin by Jan and Florian Thienpont and family backers is a more grassroots approach that could one day become something much greater. The vineyards stretch out over a portion of the ancient battlefield (close to Castillon-la-Bataille) where the English were decisively beaten by French forces, thus ending the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. In 1846, this estate was written up as being one of the better vineyards in Bordeaux by Cocks & Féret. Unfortunately, it has fallen into a poor state, requiring significant vineyard renovation, which is already underway.
Many people will remember Christian Moueix from the film Red Obsession for his wonderful way of talking about the joy and wonder of wine. He is the head of his family’s négociant firm JP Moueix, and has been an extraordinary force for good in Bordeaux. Self-described as a simple farmer, he is really anything but. His underlying point is that, regardless of the château owner’s wealth, the vineyard comes first.
The 2018 growing season showed that nature is an all-powerful force. Although independent properties fared differently because of rainfall patterns, the pathway of hail and variable effects of mildew pressure, Châteaux were challenged beyond all imagination, yet those who worked the hardest and the longest were able to keep ahead of the crisis. Many made exceptional wines. There is absolutely no question that the vintage is outstanding—possibly as great as 1947 or 1961 for many. But not for everyone.
The two huge agricultural paintings by the formidable 19th Century painter René Princeteau at JP Moueix in Libourne echo the special connection between man and nature, and the uncertainty of every season. This year, these paintings especially resonate given the physical challenges of the 2018 growing season. JP Moueix’s portfolio of estates are principally from Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. For a long time, the business was involved with Château Petrus, but generational succession and competing family interests all saw that change some time ago.
In the meantime, there has been significant investment in the development of the flagship estates Château La Fleur Petrus and Château Bélair-Monange (located adjacent to Château Ausone in Saint-Émilion). Château La Fleur Petrus is especially good this year, and will no doubt be wrestling for a place in the top 10 wines of the vintage. This gorgeously seductive wine possesses plenty of substance, velvety tannins and fruit complexity with mulberry fruits, loose-knit tannins and integrated new oak. This definitely has the balance and structural integrity to last for the long haul.
Château Petrus is undeniably a great wine this year, too. It profoundly argues the case for terroir. Although it will be in the top five wines of the vintage, there are others that compete for pure magic and exhilaration. Nonetheless, Château Petrus is an immensely concentrated, densely packed wine with superb richness and volume. Powerful but elegantly proportioned, it possesses all elements in perfect balance— much like the legendary 1947.
Château La Conseillante, which has really accelerated its position in Pomerol, has also made a very impressive wine this year. Its neighbour Château L’Évangile has mirrored this effort with a wonderfully concentrated and vigorously structured wine. Considering the overall performance of its top estates, Pomerol has enjoyed a stellar year. Vieux Château Certan, Certan de May, Trotanoy, Latour à Pomerol, La Fleur and their comrades are above average performers this year. Considering the standard, there may be some very good buying opportunities with second wines or lesser known château.