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02/04/2019

The Proverbial "Game of Two Halves"

by Giles Cooper (Head of Marketing & PR)

Another Bordeaux En Primeur season comes around with the wine community in a slightly unusual position. There is still plenty of desire around the world for those of a vinous disposition to own and drink the world’s greatest wines; there is still plenty of clamour for exciting new releases when they come; and there is more great wine than ever finding its way to our palates and your inbox. And yet with the Brexit obfuscation and continued global economic challenges on almost every door, from the weekly battles of the Gilets Jaunes to the China-US trade wars, there is plenty to occupy most minds besides wine. So arguably we have looked forward to the En Primeur circus just a little more this year as once again the eyes of the grape-devoted world are on this one little corner of France.

We do not come into this week ‘blind’. With around 60% of our total turnover coming from the sale of Bordeaux wines, and around 25% of the total being exclusively from various vintages of the 5 First Growths, it is very much in our interest to follow the progress of each vintage as it moves along. It also helps that we have our very own human bellwether in the form of our Bordeaux buyer (and St Emilion native) Margaux Musset: if Margaux comes back from her monthly visits to the motherland with a topped-up tan, the news is generally good.

There was certainly tan a-plenty during 2018 – well, eventually. The year was very definitely split into two notable section, the first very wet and quite cold, and the second very warm and dry. This is of course the better way around as broadly speaking the first half of the year dictates quantity and the second makes the quality.

Having started our week on the Left Bank, it’s worth a quick look at how this year panned out West of the Gironde. In the words of the wine trade’s favourite bow-tie wearer Christian Seely the early part of the year was “Frankly terrifying.” The rain simply didn’t let up through December and January and the key months for early vine development, February and March – indeed the rainfall was double the 14-year average across this 4-month period. When temperatures began to rise in tandem with this relentless precipitation throughout April and May the spectres of mildew and its nasty cousin powdery mildew more than hovered – they struck with considerable force. Those who were able to spray saved a good proportion of the crop. Those who have chosen the organic and/or biodynamic route were unable to do so and volumes are massively reduced for the likes of Pontet Canet (lost over 60%) and Palmer (lost over 70%).

After such a disastrous start most feared the worst. But nature is a giver as well as a taker and the summer that followed was majestic with minimal, well-timed rainfall and constant, exceptional temperatures. The water reserves delivered by the long wet winter and spring provided ample refreshment for baking vines and even stretches of over 20 days with no showers proved no serious problem for those on clay or gravel soils. The summer weather ran deep into September and October, delivering small grapes of intense flavor, with a high skin to juice ratio, extremely ripe pips (Bruno Borie of Ducru Beaucaillou explained that in some of their plots the pips were ripe before the skins) and fairly serious potential alcohol.

The results of this complex growing season are a collection of wines that feel extremely young at this stage. Of course the wines are ALWAYS young at a mere 6 months of age; but the past 4 vintages have been very easy to taste, very approachable, very open and easy even in their extreme youth. This has somewhat spoiled us and there is no doubt that the 2018 tasting is harder work. This does not mean that the wines are not very fine indeed. They are simply so concentrated, and sport significant tannins (Philippe Blanc at Beychevelle explained that their 2018 had their highest tannins ever), and intensely powerful fruit. Some have only just touched their barrels and as such have had no opportunity to put on even the merest hint of flesh. However the most interesting factor is the freshness, the prized element which so characterized the 2016 and 2017 vintages. In a season beset by drought, with some intense heat periods, preserving acidity is key and the great news is that many of the wines have an intense freshness which counteracts the focused power of the fruit. It is by no means uniform however and we have had to be more discerning and demanding of our palates than ever when working our way through the first day’s wines.

Tasting at Gruaud Larose

Our first day’s tasting covered some fantastic properties who have battled to make some very fine wines indeed. We started the day with a superb Gruaud Larose, which sported a sweetness of fruit and balance of freshness that struck us as being possibly the best young iteration of the estate we have tasted. This was followed by another excellent Beychevelle which shared similar strengths – it seems their dramatic new winery is paying off quickly. Other classy efforts from St Julien included a bombastic Leoville Poyferre and a fine, elegant Leoville Las Cases. A beautifully focused Ducru Beaucaillou would have been the wine of the morning had we not stopped off at a little-known place called Lafite for a quick tasting and a spot of lunch… the 2018 Lafite is a wine of great power, concentration, finesse and precision which has the capacity to go considerable distance.

The Bordeaux buying team at Beychevelle

Leoville Poyferre 2018

Ducru-Beaucaillou 2018

Lunch in Baron Eric’s home was a great way to get our spirits up for another big afternoon, with a timely reminder of how good the estate’s wines are: Duhart Milon 2009 was showing all the hedonistic delights of this stellar vintage at 10 years old; L’Evangile 2004 surprised us all with its intensity and purity and capacity for further development; and a glass or two of Lafite 2000 is always a tonic. What an effortlessly beautiful and generous wine this is, replete with Lafite minerality and succulent fruit.

Tasting at Lafite

An afternoon in Pauillac followed, with a hugely complex, potentially fascinating Pontet Canet (not that many folks will get their hands on it given the dramatic fall in yields) and a typically divisive taste-off between the Pichon siblings. Both had great intensity and symmetry driven by their astonishing freshness but the small differences which create such debate were certainly in evidence. A very pretty GPL was the precursor to our final pair of tastings and there are certainly worse ways to bookend your day than with visits to Latour and Mouton Rothschild. Needless to say these most blessed, capable and well-supported estates did not disappoint with a collection of wines which may come to typify the specific qualities and characteristics of this vintage.

Pichon Baron 2018

Pichon Lalande 2018

Tasting at Latour

On Tuesday we head north to St Estephe before working our way back down to Margaux and then across to the Right Bank for two days in Merlot country.