Bordeaux 2018: Neal Martin finds one ‘legend in the making’

Neal Martin has released his in-bottle scores for the Bordeaux 2018 vintage and went back on his original assessment to give one wine, “a legend in the making”, 100-points.

The report spans over 1,000 wines in total – his largest such tasting to date. Giving his usual recap of the vintage growing conditions he remarked that it was a vintage that, “exaggerates the differences between the haves and have-nots”, at every level in Bordeaux; from terroirs and vineyard management, to harvesting decisions and winery capabilities.

Some estates clearly took the vintage “in their stride, to the point they had to resist intervention”, others “felt compelled to buff up a good wine into a great wine with winemaking techniques”, he said.

In the end, the winemaker’s skill and experience from estate to estate was key and while this led some chateaux to, “conjure splendid wines of outstanding values… others made a pig’s ear of it”.

Many critics gave high scores to the 2018 wines when they tasted them in the spring of 2019. James Suckling (who released his in-bottle scores last week) even declared that: “My impression after tasting the wines in Spring 2019 from barrel was that 2018 could turn out to be an all-time great similar to 2010, 2009 and 1989 or even such classics as 1982 or 1959.”

Neal Martin was not present at the initial en primeur tasting due to illness but he was able to taste the wines later in the year.

His first assessment in November 2019 was much more sober than that of several of his peers. His report then noted that while the vintage was “very good to excellent in quality”, it was not as consistent as 2005 or 2016 and “lacks the pinnacles that mark 2010 and, again, 2016”.

He also thought it a “flattering vintage” and with a “well-oiled” en primeur machine behind it, it was easy to see “how it prompted occasionally eulogistic reviews”.

Reading his latest update he has not shifted greatly on this position. The very best wines are as good as one might expect but as he said: “Top estates blessed with the deepest pockets have become almost insulated from the ups and downs of growing seasons. A truer litmus test is the performances of châteaux exposed to the caprice of Mother Nature and whose wines are moulded by its challenges.”

This larger tasting allowed for what he deemed a much more “representative” picture of the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux.

And one key observation he had was: “In 2018, you do not have to step too far away from the best terroirs to find that quality dropped off faster than you might have hoped. This is not something I relish writing at a time when many estates worry about their future; however, it is the truth.”

 

‘A legend in the making’

With regards wines with the potential for 100-points, however, there has been one change. He had commented in 2019 that: “There was not a single occasion when I encountered a barrel sample that intimated potential perfection. Not once. That is not being mean; it is just a sober evaluation.”

Having revisited the wines again, however, Martin has modified that view somewhat and given 100-points to just one standout wine – Chateau Palmer.

In his barrel tasting Martin gave the wine a bracket of 94-96, which belies the rather positive note he made, though he admitted in his new report that he had been perhaps too cautious given his first tasting had given him “an inkling” of the wine it might turn out to be.

This both is and isn’t surprising. Palmer, along with Pontet-Canet, was hit hard by the mildew outbreak caused by the incredibly wet start to the season resulting in miniscule yields.

The Margaux third growth ended up picking just 11 hectolitres per hectare for a total production of a mere 600hl – it made none of its second wine, Alter Ego, either.

Nonetheless, it was a wine that caused a stir among the critics who unanimously gave it high scores and praise.

Furthermore, although in general Martin commented on the deft winemaking required as a result of the hot second half of the year, estate director, Thomas Duroux, said that he didn’t use a ‘softly, softly’ approach as many others had done but in fact did more extraction than usual.

“I just thought, we have to let it go. It was like a wild horse. It couldn’t be tamed. It was a risk because it could have become completely unbalanced,” Duroux explained.

Martin noted that while it could easily be argued that Bordeaux estates are more risk averse these days as they become more corporate, the 2018 Palmer is in his view as “boundary pushing” as the 1947 Cheval Blanc was in its time.

“Long after I’m gone, the cognoscenti will be talking about the 2018 Palmer in exactly those terms,” he predicted.

“There will never be another Palmer like it,” he said in his tasting note. “It was a massive risk. But by throwing caution to the wind, something extraordinary was born”.

 

A well-spring of wines

Although he had said originally that it was the Right Bank that had made his “spine tingle”, he found “little to distinguish between the Left Bank and Right Bank”, in this latest report.

That said, there is a slight lean to Right Bank estates. Petrus and Trotanoy were the next two highest-rated at 98-points and of the nine wines rated 97-points, six were from the Right Bank.

Overall, St Estephe was “solid”; the best wines of Pauillac such as Mouton Rothschild or Pichon Comtesse “made it look easy” and St Julien was “ever reliable”.

Listrac, Moulis-en-Medoc, the Medoc and Haut-Medoc were, perhaps predictably, the most varied in his view though the good ones were also a reminder that, “when it puts its mind to it, Bordeaux is a well-spring of wines of exceptional quality and decent prices”.

Pessac and Graves were also “less consistent” and while the dry whites were “generally good”, he found few to be “riveting”. La Mission Haut-Brion’s white wine was the highest rated here, 96-points.

Continuing, he said that Pomerol producers who prioritise Cabernet Franc “had an advantage”, although some “less familiar names away from the plateau” did well too.

St Emilion, meanwhile, served again to highlight the, “bifurcation in quality between those vineyards blessed with great terroir… and those that make do,” as he said in his introduction.

He added a note to not ignore the varied Right Bank satellites, “especially Fronsac”, and as ever had kind words for Sauternes which overall, “performed better than I estimated from barrel, many exhibiting fine purity”, though there were “few candidates for long-term cellaring”.

Conclusion

In summary, as he said in 2019, he still considers the 2018s very good to outstanding, though with the caveat that the growing season, “precluded wines that genuinely approach perfection”.

It is a vintage “that will appeal less” to those fans of ‘cooler’, low alcohol wines. This is definitely a “brassy” vintage due to its “markedly high alcohol levels” and tannic structure.

The example he gave for Chateau Margaux is perhaps a good illustration of what he means for many of the best 2018 wines: “A little more precision and complexity compared to the 2017, though without the panache of the 2016.”

And while he also warned to “choose carefully”, as there are some steep drops in quality outside of the best terroirs, the best will “mature well in bottle”.

Bordeaux continues to sail against strong headwinds in the market, he continued, and while there are still challenges ahead, “the bottom line is that Bordeaux is producing more excellent wines than ever, and there has never been a better time to be a Bordeaux-lover.”

You can read the full report and tasting notes on Vinous, here.

 

Read more:

Bordeaux 2018 in bottle: price performance and critical opinion

Bordeaux 2018: risers and fallers