Despite only being a few kilometres north of Pauillac, St Estephe can find itself on the end of some of the more extreme weather conditions created by the region’s proximity to the Atlantic. In 2018 however, it has rocked it. Whilst they encountered broadly the same weather conditions as further south, their clay and limestone vineyards are well equipped to handle both the additional rain which fell in the early part of the season and the serious heat which followed in the latter half. Huge care and effort was taken across the leading estates in the area and the work paid off as we tasted through a range of wines which absolutely capture the power, freshness, scale, concentration and impact of this most unusual vintage.
Before going into estate specifics, it’s worth mentioning the views of a few folks we have met along the way. Mathieu Chadronnier, head of leading negociant CVBG and owner of several family properties in Bordeaux, has been astonished by the quality of many of the wines. In his view while the homogeneity of 2016 might put it slightly ahead on average, the peaks of 2018 are even higher and some may produce wines which will stand with the very best – ever. Francois Thienpont of Right Bank-focused negociant Wings is equally enthused and certainly our first exploration into the Merlots late this afternoon at Pavie Macquin showed us why.
We started the day at Ormes de Pez, still the temporary home of Lynch Bages while their new property is being built; the domaine wine continue its excellent roll, while new addition Haut Batailley impressed with its polish and elegance. Both the second wine Echo and the main event Lynch Bages are serious, large-scaled wines with structure and concentration to go the distance.
Then came the big three of St Estephe: Cos d’Estournel, Calon Segur and Montrose. And what a set of wines these are. They handle the intense power of the sunshine incredibly gracefully, converting this energy into pure, rich, intense fruit without sacrificing any of the essential freshness which is so required for graceful ageing. They are without doubt very, very big wines which will require significant patience from their owners; unlike 2015 or 2016 these will not be cases you will want to crack until they are much closer to 10 years old and even that might not be long enough. Everyone has their favourites and to put a broad brush on it, Cos has the lead on freshness, Montrose the lead on minerality and Calon the lead on pure opulence. They are all, however, beautiful, brilliant wines.
After an excellent lunch at Belgrave and a scoot through a raft of smaller estate wines we headed south to Margaux. Again, despite its relatively close proximity to the centre of the Medoc, Margaux can suffer disproportionately in extreme conditions. Not so at either of the big guns, Chateaux Margaux and Palmer. Wow.
Again folks will likely have their preferences but both have turned in stellar efforts which really reflect their true nature. Both Margaux and its little brother Pavillon Rouge are stunning wines: despite relatively high alcohol levels – at 14.5% it is the highest ABV Pavillon Rouge ever made – these are wines of sheer elegance which keep their power extremely refined. Margaux itself is a thing of immense beauty which floats like a glacial stream despite the sheer concentration of the fruit (the berries, which normally weigh 1.2g each, were a mere 0.8-0.9g, giving an idea of the level of concentration). The tannin levels are high but they are so stylish – the ageability here is undeniable.
If Margaux thought 31 hl/ha was a small yield they had nothing on Palmer, whose reliance on organic and biodynamic methods saw them shorn of the ability to combat several bouts of mildew. As a result they have made a mere 11 hl/ha of wine. But what wine it is – unbelievably intense, powerful, supple, elegant, driving forward with freshness and supple, rich fruit. If you are lucky enough to be offered some, take it.
With the Left Bank under our belts we headed over the river to our digs at L’Hetre, the Castillon home of Jacques Thienpont. There are worse places to stay. En route we took in the aforementioned Pavie Macquin where we tasted through their range of excellent St Emilions and satellite estate wines. There are some brilliant efforts here from the amazing value Alcee through to the epic – and potentially mind-boggling – Beausejour Duffau Lagarosse. We await tomorrow with great excitement. But for now, a cold beer and a piece of steak on the barbecue is just what the doctor ordered.