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2018 Bordeaux are exceptional: here’s what to invest in now
AT the region's annual en primeur tastings last week, I sipped my way through about 500 barrel samples of Bordeaux's extraordinary 2018 reds. The best wines are exceptional: concentrated, layered, velvet- and silk-textured, pure and succulent.
Tasting barrel sample after barrel sample is usually tough, with puckering palate fatigue, but not this year. The wines combine the mouth-filling plushness of the 2009s with the ripe structure of the 2015s and 2016s, plus a cool, bright energy that made me crave another taste. Some chateaux, like Lafite Rothschild and Vieux Chateau Certan, made fantastic examples that will surely last for decades, and I found many wines that will be serious bargains, especially when compared to Napa cabernets.
The downside of 2018 is that superb quality isn't universal. In a year of big, bold wines, some have bitter tannins, high alcohol, or a soupy heaviness. Reds are the clear stars, while only a few whites or sweet wines wowed me.
The style of the wines
"This year is about freshness and juiciness along with density," said Nicolas Audebert, winemaker at Chateau Rauzan-Segla. "We were able to get that rare combination because of the long growing season."
Weather always shapes the wines' character, and 2018 was a stressful rollercoaster vintage, going from one extreme to another. The first half of the year looked like a disaster, with persistent rain, violent hailstorms, and outbreaks of mildew that reduced the crop but happily didn't affect quality of the grapes that remained. The second half of the season was hot and exceptionally dry, followed by a very long harvest. Ripe grapes were tiny, with plenty of tannin in the skins. To keep freshness, finesse, and balance required very gentle winemaking.
"2018 is a particularly American-style vintage," said Jeffrey Davies, an American wine merchant based in Bordeaux. "It has plumpness and accessibility."
Should you buy 2018 futures?
Chateaux will release their prices over the next two months and the big question will be which to invest in. The Bordeaux futures game goes like this: chateaux set the price for their wines and offer them to the region's 400 or so negociants (or brokers), who add a profit margin and then offer them to retailers, who add on theirs. To get in on the action, you put down money with a reputable retailer for wine still ageing in barrels, and receive the bottled version two years later.
The rationale for tying up capital, as Liv-Ex points out in their recent 2018 Bordeaux report, is to secure wine at its lowest price. But in recent years, some chateaux set their release prices so high that their futures sold poorly, and when they arrived in bottles, the wines were actually cheaper. That made buying futures a poor short-term investment.
To win at this game, you have to pick the right wines, meaning ones whose prices are low enough, are made in tiny quantities, or for which there's hot demand.
In the last very good vintage, 2016, the wines providing the best returns, for example, include Les Carmes Haut Brion and Lafleur (both up 109 per cent from their release prices) and Petrus (up 64 per cent), according to Wine Lister's 2018 Bordeaux Study. All are in my top 10 from 2018.
Many merchants I talked to, such as Clyde Beffa of the Bay Area's K & L Wine Merchants, expressed caution about prices. The uncertainty of Brexit and its effect on currency, the depressed Chinese market, and US President Donald Trump's latest tariff threats on European wine will all affect how chateaux price their wines and what merchants will buy.
The top 10
There are plenty of stunning wines at all price levels in 2018. Besides those in my list below, I'd highlight many more, starting with the wonderfully dense and rich Mouton Rothschild and classic Cheval Blanc. Add to that Ausone, Le Pin, Latour, Pichon Baron, Leoville Barton, Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Troplong Mondot, Trotanoy, and Angelus, which just released its price at 10 per cent less than 2017; it's available at US$359 a bottle at New York's Millesima USA.
Lafite Rothschild: This wine is just about perfect, with super suave tannins, layers of very subtle flavours, and a long savory finish. A great wine, it will rival the 1959, full stop.
Lafleur: This estate is at the top of its game in 2018. The wine has everything: power and fine tannins, complexity and energy, and sumptuous violet-toned fruit.
Petrus: Perfect balance, a glossy, satiny texture, scented aromas, dark, deep, ripe fruit, and a long finish make this vintage even better than the sensual 2015 and classic 2016.
Vieux Chateau Certan: The perfumed aromas of cabernet franc stand out in this impressive, super fresh Pomerol, which has vivid, spicy, red fruit and a smooth lusciousness.
Figeac: This wine combines an enveloping, exotic, sensual texture with layer after layer of flavour, from fresh juicy plums to rich warm earth, and finishes with fine, long tannins.
Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande: Better than the 2015 and 2016, this wine is the definition of stylish elegance. The layers of flavour include sweet tobacco, earth and damson plums that linger on your palate.
Rauzan-Segla: From the Margaux appellation, this wine is more concentrated than usual and brims with aromas and vivid flavours of pure cassis. What stand out are its creamy texture and balance.
Leoville Las Cases: A deep mineral element and licorice notes shine through in this thick, dense, yet balanced wine with enough tannin to last for decades.
Palmer: The most powerful Palmer ever, it's super rich and seamless, with intense violet aromas and flavour notes of blackberry and dark plums. Only half the normal amount was made.
Les Carmes Haut Brion: This Pessac-Leognan estate has skyrocketed in quality. Foral-and-herb scented, this wine is filled with pure bright raspberry fruit with a distinct mineral edge.
Four good buys (under US$40)
Blason d'Issan: The second wine of Chateau d'Issan is all pure fruit, seductive and charming.
Chateau Labegorce: Vibrant, with savoury cranberry-ish flavours, this very polished wine is from a property on the way up.
Chateau Tour St Christophe: The release price is US$356 a case, or just under US$30 a bottle at London's Farr Vintners. This deep, mouth-filling wine with dark-toned ripe boysenberry fruit and chalky tannins tastes like it should cost double.
Chateau Pibran: This solid value is better than ever this year. It has savoury berry-and-currant flavours with an iron tang and hint of cocoa, and refined tannins that mean it will age well. BLOOMBERG