Bordeaux winemakers hoping for a big harvest in 2018, after France's cataclysmic frosts of 2017, were disappointed. Heavy rains early in the season led to mildew, while hail in some areas also thinned the crop. Then, the weather dramatically changed course. "Sun, sun, sun," is how Christian Moueix, who oversees several estates on the Right Bank, described the summer, citing data showing record levels of solar exposure.
While the growing season was challenging, ideal weather late in the season ripened the crop well. Quantity may be low, but vintners have high hopes for quality.
Welcome to Wine Spectator's 2018 Wine Harvest Report, our coverage of Northern Hemisphere wine regions. (You can find our Southern Hemisphere 2018 reports here.) While we won't know how good a vintage is until we taste the finished wines, these reports offer firsthand accounts from top winemakers in leading regions.
Too much rain, too much sun
The first half of 2018 was about protecting vines from disease triggered by heavy rains. To combat aggressive mildew, growers across the region were forced to take added precautions. Some were luckier than others. Although not unscathed, Moueix was fortunate. "Mildew affected only a few blocks, but since it was before crop thinning, it did not affect the final yield," he said. Vigilant crop management was essential, so that his teams could prune off infected clusters in time, he added.
And those wineries who employ either organic or biodynamic farming faced even bigger challenges, since they have fewer options for fighting mildew. Justine Tesseron, whose family owns Château Pontet-Canet, reports that yields were down at the Pauillac estate, which has practiced biodynamic farming for more than a decade now. "Our viticulture is not the easiest because it is based on the natural balance of the vines."
During the dry, summer months, reserves from the spring rains were critical. Soil type and vine age were both factors. Damien Barton Sartorius, co-owner of châteaus Langoa Barton, Léoville Barton and Mauvesin Barton in the Médoc, notes that when it came time to harvest, "We started with the younger plants that struggled from drought, as their roots are not long enough to reach underground water."
Philippe Dhalluin, who oversees Château Mouton-Rothschild and two other properties in Pauillac, added, "Estates located on deep gravelly soils like Mouton or d'Armailhac got very small berries and consequently very low yields." Conversely, "an estate like Clerc Milon with subsoil slightly richer in clay had better yields."
With the exception of sweet-wine producers, most vintners were grateful when summer conditions continued into autumn. Mild temperatures and little rain gave growers flexibility in timing their picks based on each grape variety's ripeness levels.
At Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac, harvest progressed quickly. The team began picking white grapes on Sept. 5. "After a relatively late bud burst, the vintage never stopped gaining [speed], resulting in a rather early picking," said proprietor Jean-Charles Cazes.
Château Angélus in St.-Emilion was in no rush to pick—harvest lasted from Sept. 24 to Oct. 11. "September was a very mellow month, allowing us to pick the grapes slowly at perfect maturity," said public relations manager Victoire Touton.
There were worries that the drastic weather reversal would hurt thin-skinned Merlot grapes, but all varieties excelled this year, vintners say. Thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon proved fairly resistant to spring mildew, and slow-ripening Petit Verdot benefited greatly from the extra weeks of warmth.
The outlook for white wines is equally positive. Pascal Chatonnet, who owns four Right Bank properties, admits that he was skeptical about this year's Sauvignon Blanc crop when harvest began, but within only a few hours, "Fermentation had revealed the potential of the vintage."
The challenging weather made life more difficult in dessert-wine regions, however. Hailstorms pummeled Sauternes during the summer. François Amirault, technical director at Château de Fargues, reports that they lost 80 percent of the crop. Additionally, drought extended into fall, hindering botrytis development until much needed rain and humidity arrived in late October. "We were approximately three weeks behind our average harvest start date," said Aline Baly of Château Coutet in Barsac.
Overall, the Bordelais are optimistic, despite the setbacks. Although the year's weather conditions are reminiscent of the less-than-remarkable 1962 vintage, many believe the potential quality of the wines could be on par with classic vintages such as 1990, 2005 and 2010. Bordeaux's farming techniques have come a long way since 1962, after all.
Jean-Michel Laporte, director of Château Talbot in St.-Julien, is hesitant about making judgments just yet. "It's too soon to compare it with another great recent vintage, but it tastes really good, and looks incredibly promising."
Château Margaux's managing director, Philippe Bascaules, was more unabashedly confident. Like many others, Château Margaux suffered low yields in 2018. But, said Bascaules, "In terms of quality, no doubt, this vintage will be among the greatest vintages produced at Margaux."
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