2018 Vintage Assessment: A Capricious Year
Thoughts following the en primeur tastings in London. Photo shows the Justerini & Brooks tasting.
To understand a vintage one has to start with the weather. 2018 was characterised by a fairly cold and very wet winter which continued into the spring. But a warm and sunny May resulted in early flowering which presaged an early harvest. From June onwards little rain fell and temperatures were consistently high. Consequently, the harvest began as early as August 25 and continued for over a month. Certainly a hot, sunny and arid year.
Next the vines and grapes. Due to the wet winter the aquifers were full which meant the vines didn’t suffer too much from the heat. Also, apart from Nuits Saint Georges, the vines were spared an attack of hailstones. This resulted in a bountiful crop. Especially of chardonnay. More grapes per vine keeps acidity levels higher. So this was good news for the whites. Unless the domaine undertook vendanges vertes which reduced the crop.
The harvest. For the chardonnay grapes, harvesting early was essential to preserve freshness. The smart wine-makers now pick based on acidity levels not sugar levels. En primeur tastings indicate that the whites needed to be picked by September 4th. There was much more variance in the start and end dates for the pinot noir harvest. Some producers started in late August and others waited until the second week of September. This has played into the characteristics of the wines.
The white wines. From Chablis to Pouilly-Fuissé, 2018 is an appealing, enjoyable and successful vintage for chardonnay. The primary aroma and flavour is ripe lemon reminiscent of tarte citron. There is good expression of terroir. 2018 has none of the tropical aromas of 2015. Nor is it fresh and racy like 2017. There is ripe citrus and yellow apple. Typical of the vintage are a green almond note and a mild olive oil texture. When picked early, the wines from higher altitude sites like Puligny La Garenne, Hameau de Blagny and Saint Romain shine through. Of the wines I tasted, around 20% were unbalanced and too plump. Finding out when the grapes were picked is essential. Ironically, the bumper harvest resulted in higher quality wines. So 2018 whites are not a classic like 2014, nor are they overly ripe like 2015. There is consistently good quality on a par with 2017 with a bias to richness and limited minerality. A hedonistic vintage to be quaffed sooner than later.
The red wines. Complicated! Wine merchants who peddled the idea that 2018 is comparable to the “mythical” 1947 vintage (only people in their 80s would have tasted this before it was 10 years old) or the more recent amazing 2015 are utterly wrong. It is not a great vintage. Let’s be honest. Thankfully 2018 is no 2003 despite some similarities in the weather. There are no raisin, toffee or suede notes. Qu’est que c’est comme millésime? Fruit = cherry. Tannin = soft to medium. Acidity = low. Alcohol = high. Ripeness = high. Terroir variation = minimal. This latter point being the most troublesome. The closest comparable is the disappointing 2006 vintage. The biggest influence on quality is yield. To preserve freshness a small crop was required (in direct contrast to the whites). So information about yield for each wine is invaluable. It also means that low yielding old vines did well. Finally, the harvest date had an impact. One of the best wines I tasted was a Volnay picked from August 26. For consumers, buying 2018 red burgundies will be like entering a minefield. Sometimes you cross successfully with a splendid bottle. But too often you tread on a mine and fall into a cherry marshmallow.
My advice. If you enjoy rich and ripe chardonnay go forth and load up on 2018s. If you enjoy red Burgundy which expresses the complexity of pinot noir grapes and the variety of terroirs don’t buy 2018s. Only a fifth of wines I have tasted from top domaines express their terroir. It’s as if the entire Côte d’Or was coated with cherry coulis. Even the same producers have made wines that range from fresh and typical to over-ripe and too plump. The only solution is to try a wide range of wines by the bottle before taking the plunge on a case. Don’t assume your favourite producers have conquered this capricious vintage!