In the first of his regular columns, Matt Pym, CALIBRE’s resident wine expert, takes a look at the latest wines to come out of the Bordeaux region – and throws in a little investment and buying advice, too…
What better place to start my regular musings on all things alcoholic than in that most classic of wine regions, Bordeaux. Once part of the extended English kingdom through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II of England, Bordeaux has a long and proud association with the UK. Its red wines have been exported to our Island for centuries, even having their own name in English, Claret. Home to many of the most famous names in the world of wine, often imitated around the world yet rarely equalled, Bordeaux’s wines are synonymous with prestige, pedigree – and no little price.
April saw me leaving the somewhat less-than-prestigious confines of Luton Airport to commence the annual pilgrimage to taste the most recent vintage. For those uninitiated in the complicated process of actually buying Bordeaux’s finest wines, Les Bordelais have a very neat trick where their wines are offered ‘En Primeur’. Put simply, to have the privilege of being able to buy their wines you have to pay up front when the wine is still but a baby, developing in barrel, and which won’t be bottled or shipped to you for a further two years. All of which certainly helps with (their) cash flow.
It’s at this point in the process that wine professionals (that would be me) are offered the chance to taste the wines from barrel, to assess their style, quality and longevity. Not long after this, tranches of wines are ‘released’ by the Châteaux to Negociants (wine traders in Bordeaux), who sell allocations to fine wine merchants around the world, who then finally offer them to the likes of you and me. Given the global investment trade in top-end Bordeaux, securing wines from the first tranches should in theory secure you the best price, though of course it’s rarely that simple…
But enough, what did they taste like?
Well, to understand that most simple of questions, one must pay heed to another arcane French-ism of wine, terroir. A rather nebulous notion, this concept takes into account environmental factors such as soil, aspect, people, farming practises and, vitally when talking about famous estates with impeccable soils, the weather.
Because, in maritime regions such as Bordeaux the weather makes all the difference. Much as with farmers the world over, talk of the weather dominates any discussion about a growing season: too hot, too wet, too dry, too cold, frost, hail, plagues of locusts – all affect the health and ripeness of the vines and the grapes, and dictate the taste and quality of the final wine.
Two-thousand-and-eighteen can best be summarised as the exact opposite to good sex – a very wet start followed by a long, warm, dry finish, and while this might not be the most appealing of analogies, it worked fantastically for the grapes. Harvested under perfect sunny conditions in early Autumn, those Châteaux that were fastidious in taking care of their grapes have produced some truly magnificent wines, especially those that have excelled with one of the regions less famous grapes like Cabernet Franc.
I’ve heard 2018 described as a ‘vintage of the century’, which by my reckoning makes it the 5th such vintage so far but who’s counting? What you need to know is that the best wines are very ripe (from that endless summer), yet they have excellent acidity (from the wet start) which means they have the ability to age gracefully. Indeed, these bold yet elegant wines will need to be aged to be enjoyed at their best, but that’s as it should be.
I’m still waiting for my 2005s to hit their straps (they will be sensational, eventually) and some 2018s will sit alongside them with pride of place in my cellar. To me this deferral of gratification is all part of the allure of fine Bordeaux wines, and there are plenty of other delicious things to drink in the intervening years after all!
I always get asked if one should buy wine for investment. I have a simple answer to that – it’s your money and you’re a grown-up, so you can do what you want; many people have made a lot of money investing in fine wine, and if the bottom falls out of the market, then you can drown your sorrows with your ‘investment’.
But me, I don’t buy for investment, I buy to drink and if you’ve got the patience to sit on these wines – in suitable storage conditions please – then I commend the best of the 2018s to you. Below are my top six wines of the vintage, but there are many, many more that will not disappoint.
Be aware, with the challenging start to the year, not everyone got it right in 2018 so please do your due diligence, either from discussing with your trusted wine merchant, or with a little research online where you can see myriad scores and ratings – but select well, and you won’t be disappointed.
At the time of writing, some Châteaux have started releasing their wines, and the rest will follow throughout the month of May.
Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2018, 2ème Cru Classé, Pauillac
A lush, plush, harmonious effort, dominated by 71% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. Powerful yet supple, this needs wrestling into submission before it releases delicious, brooding dark cherry fruit, spicy fruit cake, cassis and violets. Super pure, super long, this is a full bodied Comtesse built for age.
Château Figeac 2018, St Émilion Grand Cru Classé B
Flashy, sexy dark fruits abound here – crushed blueberries and jammy cherries alongside dry earth, fruitcake and graphite. Plush and full bodied, with punchy yet pure fruit and silky tannins. Figeac has been on an upward curve for some time now, and this may be the best yet.
Château Léoville-Las-Cases 2018, 2ème Cru Classé, St Julien
A higher proportion of Cabernet Franc than is usual went into the Grand Vin at this prestigious estate, around 11%. This shines through in this powerful, exotic, sinuous beast of a wine. My initial note here was simply ‘Boom’. Almost impenetrably black in the glass, the nose exudes blueberries, blackcurrants, savoury notes and violets. The palate is dense, exotically spiced and darkly fruited, and with such length. A first growth in all but name.
Château Margaux 2018, 1ère Cru Classé, Margaux
The wine most synonymous with finesses, 2018 is a masterpiece. Silky beyond belief, cassis and blueberries mingle with floral notes, subtle oak spice, coffee and the classic ‘cigar box’. The tannins are ripe and fine grained, a perfect juxtaposition to the layered, silky fruit. Opulent yet refined as Margaux must be.
Château Lafite Rothschild 2018, 1ère Cru Classé, Pauillac
Supple yet powerful, with the structure and framework for great age. Classic Pauilllac Cabernet dominates here, black fruits, cassis, leather and earth, all with a floral edge. The tannins are ethereal, classic Lafite, and lend the finish true style. And what a finish, the length is remarkable.
Château Ausone 2018, St Émilion Grand Cru Classé A
Words cannot do this justice, this is epic, transcendental. Ausone has some of the best Cabernet Franc vineyards in the world, and in 2018 they sing, contributing 60% of the blend. Exotic, intense, the embodiment of purity, freshness, complexity and length, this is my wine of the vintage. If you have the opportunity, I urge you to buy some. Why not 100 points? Well, we should all strive to do better, should we not?
Matt Pym has over twenty years in the wine trade. Starting on shop floor, mostly as a buyer, he rose to run the buying team at Majestic, the UK’s largest wine specialist chain. His extensive experience across all regions and styles has seen him act as the senior judge at many international wine competitions, including International Wine Challenge, International Wine and Spirits Competition, and Decanter World Wine Awards. He now works as a freelance consultant to wineries around the world.
He can be contacted via his website, Pym My Wine.