As chateaux began to release en primeur prices for their 2018 output, it’s good time to look back at the vintage of 2018 in terms of its weather conditions, and noteworthy winemaking responses. Should you be interested in securing en primeur stock, please note that WWXplorer currently does not deal directly with en primeur sales; whilst our retail arm WineWorld has begun accepting En Primeur 2018 orders. Please contact WineWorld directly to enquire about specific chateaux offerings or subscribe to our en primeur offers to get timely updates.

How is Bordeaux vintage 2018?

Institute of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux commented vintage 2018 as one that evolved from “initial fears” to “guarded optimism”, which eventually blossomed into one of “real enthusiasm”. The key factor behind such evolution is rainfall level, among all things else. Vintage 2018 began with an extremely wet March (wettest March among past 10 years); and the stretch of rain continued until June. A very wet Spring sparked “initial fears”. Very sunny and dry summer turned fear into enthusiasm. Exceptional sunny and dry, virtually rain-free September was the cherry on top. Read below for WineWorld team’s interpretation of the university’s verdict, complemented with detailed weather conditions in Bordeaux in 2018.

Bordeaux experienced the wettest March in 2018 over the past 10 years (Credit: Gavin Quinney)

“Initial fears” of mildew and hail-reduced yield

The year 2018 began with very wet conditions which expedite flowering and bring fruit set early; growth was robust whilst compromised, to different extent (depending on canopy management and anti-mildew strategy of each grower), by risk of mildew from the rain. Isolated areas in the area of Cote de Bourg and Blaye suffered from hailstorm damage in May. Overall, havoc was less severe than 2017 when frost wrought immense damage particularly on Right Bank. Vintage 2018 escaped frost, which had attacked 40% of Bordeaux’s potential crop in late April, 2017.

Hailstorm damage in 2018 marked in red. Map also shows extensive frost damage suffered by Bordeaux (especially on Right Bank) in 2017. (Credit: Gavin Quinney)

“Guarded optimism” kicked in around July as weather turned fine

The rain stopped and Bordeaux saw three continuous months of sunny, dry weather. Water stress was not an imminent issue as vines were well hydrated from the earlier half of a wet 2018. If mildew and mold was the main hazard in the first half of the year, over-abundance of sun exposure and warmth could go from friend to foe in the second half of the year; especially for younger vines and well-draining soils (on Left Bank in particular).

“Real enthusiasm” erupted amidst a rot-free, sunny and dry harvest

Sunny, dry conditions continued all the way into early October. Growers needed not worry about rot from Bordeaux’s usual September showers. Focus was entirely on the achievement of balance. Vintage 2018 saw the output of very ripe Cabernet from Left Bank; and Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Right Bank. Opulence and power are the two leitmotifs of this vintage. There is no denying that Bordeaux en primeur 2018 buyers will receive high-alcohol, broad-shouldered reds with robust tannins. The notion of elegance will be found among growers who meticulously worked out the optimal balance point among pH, alcohol, tannin level and concentration whilst dodging potential trapfalls of brettanomyces and volatile acidity. (Both could be encouraged in a high pH and alcohol environment, especially when exposed to oxygen.)

What is worth noting from Vintage 2018, other than its rather unique set of weather conditions?

Trend: From micro-oxygenation to controlled exposure to oxygen

“From 2018, 10% of the entire Angélus crop will be aged in large oak foudres. “These produce tighter, more perfumed, brighter wines from less oxygen exposure,” Stephanie de Bouard of Chateau Angelus commented. When we read this from Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW reviews for Chateau Angelus 2018, we cannot help but wonder whether this is going to become a trend, or remain an isolated single-winery practice in Bordeaux.

Large oak foudres: a reference

What is the rationale behind going from 100% new oak barrique ageing to 90% new oak barrique, 10% large oak foudres? Such a change in practice is essentially an adaptation to climbing pH in wine. Higher pH is chiefly contributed by the trend of warmer weather conditions. 2018 Angelus hits pH 3.6; whilst past few years it has reached pH 3.9. Decanter magazine reports that larger diurnal temperature range in 2018 helps lower final pH. High pH, together with high alcohol (14.5  – 15%), enhances the risk of brettanomyces proliferation and elevated volatile acidity. Better control of oxygen exposure can effectively combat both issues. Use of large oak foudres reduced the surface area-to-volume ratio thus oxygen exchange rate between porous oak wood and the wine within. Large oak foudre provides a smaller surface area and a larger holding capacity compared against that of small 225L Bordeaux oak barriques. As a result, as Stephanie de Bouard pointed out, the wine shows “tighter [tannins], brighter wines from less oxygen exposure”.

The once fashionable practice of micro-oxygenation, especially in Saint-Emilion, has become more a case-by-case, judiciously exercised winemaking decision. Micro-oxygenation is an innovative, contemporary winemaking practice where winemakers flush the freshly fermented wine with fine bubbles of oxygen at the early stage of maturation. The effect is to soften tannins, minimise needs of racking and “expedite” the effect of ageing (minimize time cost as less time is needed to achieve same “oxygenated” / “aged” effect) That produces a wine that is more approachable at youth, where presence of polymerized tannins produces a smooth mouthfeel. For Angelus, micro-oxygenation was a technique once employed by Stephanie de Bouard’s father, Hubert de Bouard, especially in less ripe vintages such as 1999.

Warmer weather conditions has rendered micro-oxygenation a less relevant technique, especially for Grand Vin production which is destined to stand the test of time. As much as we are to see either technique a trend, ultimately it depends on individual vintage’s weather conditions, which directly impact on how winemakers respond with contemporary winemaking techniques and considerations. To that end, whichever technique is a good technique so long as it brings about balance and harmony in a wine.