“You need to taste without exception what you want to buy in 2018 – it’s an oenologist’s vintage – lots of tricks were used.”
So it’s a vintage of the sun – lots of sun – the second hottest on record after 2003, so of course, everything is ripe.
The Burgundian weather in 2018.
You already know that, stylistically, that I’m not the biggest fan of many wines I’ve tasted this year. It’s a vintage that has a New-World ripeness to the wines. It’s a vintage with more emphasis on the pinot, less emphasis on the ‘Burgundy.’ But whilst there is a flattening, or compression, of the hierarchy – regional, village, 1er cru and grand cru – there is certainly still an important hierarchy to examine.
It’s the alcohol, dummy…(?)
Or is it? It was easy to point to the quality differences in the 2017 reds and say that they were largely down to the volumes at harvest time – some volumes were ridiculously high, others merely high – see, that was easy!
In 2018 it’s harder to point the finger. The knee-jerk reaction is to point to the alcohols and say that some growers waited too long to harvest. Yet you have some unbalanced wines with 13.2° and others that seem poised with 14.5-15°, or more (I’ll come back to that). I’ve not personally tasted any wines with 16° but the anecdotes of their existence are rife, particularly that the courtiers, hawking their samples to maisons had little below 14.8° in 2018.
But what is ‘waiting too long?’ The latest harvesters were often not the worst offenders, though the absolute worst offenders were those that quixotically said to me “We chose to wait for phenolic maturity.” But yet again, not all of those produced something that resembled Barossa shiraz. If not dogma – ‘(with 14.5°) it still didn’t taste ripe‘ – a large part must come down to viticulture; one domaine’s regionals to grand crus being brought in with 12.7-13.2° another’s starting with 14° and heading to the stars from there.
Harvest-time logistics was particularly important. Some plots were adding 1° in a day, so the ‘right time to pick‘ was often a fleeting window. The growers tend to have much poorer availability of pickers than was once the case – common were domaines that set a date to pick, had all their pickers in place – but then found their fruit ready earlier than planned but had no pickers – so simply had to wait for them to arrive at the allotted time – picking 2,3,4… days later than was optimum for them.
So picking is rarely something of surgical precision for all but the tiniest of parcels and the totally ready of domaines – on the latter, some were not fully prepared when they got back from their August holidays. Though in terms of harvesting, they were probably aided, to an extent, by very inconsistent ripening – everything wasn’t ready at the same time as it mainly was in 2019.
Why the inconsistent ripening? Well, we can’t blame the excellent flowering, rather (probably!) the summer dryness which seemed to bring on a much longer and irregular period of veraison (right) than is typical – this played out in the timing of the ripeness of the grapes. Some Australian winemakers that I know are very familiar with what they describe as the transition from very ripe phenolically ripe fruit, to what they describe as phenolically ripe dead fruit – perhaps sur-maturity-plus! This is an explanation for some of the wines I’ve tasted. But this is complex stuff – Pierre Damoy is habitually one of the latest harvesters – yet some of his wines have impeccable balance – enough to match the ripeness.
How far we have come, and in such a short time, since 11-12° at harvesting time was considered ample – or, indeed today, is even unfeasible. But let’s not be wistful, because there are many great wines too – many that I would be proud to make cellar-space for.
I said I would come back to the poised wines at 14-15° and those that were not at 13°. An important issue that many domaines encountered was ‘fragility’ in elevage. By ‘fragile’ the wine-makers mean that the fermentations were far from robust, Frédéric Barnier of Louis Jadot explained that “We didn’t allow any visitors to taste from barrels during the fermentation time, we had to be ultra-precise so as to avoid stuck fermentations.”
The high sugars in this vintage, coupled with low acidities, were often challenging for the local yeast populations – higher levels of alcohol killing-off the yeast before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. At the same time, the low quantity of malic acid in 2018 often resulted in malolactic fermentations happening before the sugar to alcohol fermentations were done. It is common practice to add sulfur once the malolactic fermentation is finished, so as to protect the wine from the growth of volatile acidity and/or brettanomyces – but you can’t add sulfur before the fermentation is complete or the wine will stop fermenting! It’s for this reason that winemakers are taught that the malo should come after the alcoholic fermentation.
There was quite a lot of volatility to be seen on pre-bottled samples. In most vintages this can be the case, however, there is none to be seen after bottling – much is lost (it’s volatile!) when the CO2 is removed from the wine at assembly time. So I have rarely pointed it out in my notes – but there was more than normal for sure. The combination of higher volatiles and more alcohol gave many wines a strong whiff of the Barossa or the Rhône.
As for the ‘brett,’ I am too tolerant of it in young wines, I really don’t note its presence. For me it is a problem of older wines – here I really dislike it. But we should not forget that this could be a future issue with wines from 2018.
So – the nitty gritty – the wines to buy or not
So what should you be looking for?
- Value. Very little wine today can be described as cheap – so it has to reflect where it has come from, or the value is lost.
- Potential Maturity. Wine of hotter vintages – the good ones – last and last and last. This year I’ve drunk 1933s, 1947s and 1959s that were sweet and seemed still young. That is incredibly impressive, I hope that their original buyers enjoyed the wines, but they never got to see any maturity. If you are hoping to smell and taste some maturity in your purchases – before you die – maybe you should look elsewhere, certainly if you want to buy a lot.
- Stems. Yields were not particularly low, but there is good texture and concentration. There could, of course, be more acidity but there is adequate freshness. Using whole clusters is a way to inject a little more energy into the wines. Some growers said that they don’t use stems in early-picked vintages such as 2018 as the stems don’t have the same maturity as they would in later-picked vintages. That may, or may not, be the case – but 2018 is a vintage where you will generally find more use of the stems, as producers looked to deliver more energy in their wines.
There is volume and the wines are sweetly delicious. Like 2017 this will be a good commercial vintage for restaurants – though the extra sweetness may make food-matching more complicated. Good 2018s will outlive you and I – you need only look at 1947 and 1959. Although delicious young, has the potential to be a collectors/investors vintage given the potential longevity of the wines – particularly the ‘blue-chip’ wines. For those of you, who like me, buy something every year, and, who like me probably bought too much 1999 and 2005, then it’s worth buying a few cases, but it’s not a vintage likely to bring nuanced joy in the next 20 years. If you are new to collecting and don’t have any depth of cellared wines, it is definitely worth buying some mixed cases but you will likely have more fun for the next 15 years drinking earlier vintages if you have the opportunity to ‘back-fill.’
So, assuming that you are going to buy, it’s important to know that it’s not a vintage for blind buying – see Louis-Michel Liger-Belair’s opening statement – so: have a journalist taste for you, or have the opportunity to taste yourself. I normally also suggest keeping to a trusted cadre of growers – but that is also hit and miss in 2018 – for the 2015 vintage d’Angerville, Arlaud and Patrice Rion excelled with their wines of freshness – none of those growers, despite some great wines, could pull off quite the same trick in 2018.
But anyway here are some pointers to the hotspots for really great 2018 reds:
- As in 2017, Santenay and Maranges have great red wines – again as good as anything from Gevrey in their own context – they are brilliant value.
- The wines of the Hautes Côtes are also very flattering with their combination of ripeness but a little extra freshness versus the rest of the Côte d’Or.
- The regionals (outside of the Hautes Côtes) are more difficult. With the warmer years, the quality of regionals has grown in leaps and bounds – many are better than 1990s villages wines – but 2018 is problematic – with degrees rising fast, many domaines chose to favour their more important wines and harvest their regionals last. Because of this, the regionals are bipolar – some are great, others are well over 14° and have no delicacy. In this vintage, blind, I would always favour a Bourgogne Hautes Côtes over the (new label) Bourgogne Côte d’Or – see the individual domaine reports to find the better Bourgognes…
- Savigny has produced great wines – except that it’s trademark herbal note is gone – if that’s not important to you, then buy all you can – it’s a real hotspot for quality from the hills in Peuillets to the flats of Lavières.
- For the second vintage in a row there is much great Corton – though surprisingly more from the grand Maisons such as Bichot Marechaudes, Bouchard Le Corton, Faiveley Clos des Cortons and Jadot’s Pougets.
- Despite those Côte de Beaune highlights, it’s more of a Côte de Nuits vintage again – with one obvious exception – many domaines failed to make great Chambolle!
- Vosne was stunning, DRC, Liger-Belair and others producing some great, great wines – aromatically I’ve never been so knocked off my feet as I was chez DRC!
- Year-in, year-out Charmes-Chambertin is good but lacks personality versus the other Gevrey grand crus – not in 2018 – there are many great Charmes in 2018 – Mazoyères too!
**My first barrel-tastings were the 1996 and 1997s tasted at the end of 1997. I missed 1998 and 1999, tasted en-primeur samples (London) 2000-2002 and then tasting from barrel every year in Burgundy since the 2003 vintage. Not forgetting triaging the grapes of multiple villages and vineyards every year since the 2004 vintage!