2018 Vintage Overview

2018 Vintage Overview


“Vintage of the century!” cried the growers in Chablis when I visited the following spring, but on closer questioning they were referring more to the generosity of the crop, than to the wines themselves, though there are many good ones. It is a big crop throughout in white, though only occasionally showing signs of dilution.

The reds are controversial, with some potential superstars capable of a very long life, and others which may be tainted by difficulties in vinification leading to volatility or bacterial spoilage. I come down more on the positive side, except where these issues have taken over.

The Weather The first item chronologically and in importance in understanding how the 2018 crop turned out as it did, was the sustained rainfall throughout the winter and early spring of 2018. This filled the water tables more than adequately, thus enabling the vines to drink their fill even throughout the very dry high summer.

A cool start to the year kept the vines a little bit behind the precocious dates of several recent years, and there was less risk of frost than in any other vintage in the period 2016 to 2019 inclusive. A burst of heat from the third week of April enabled the vines to catch right up, and they never fell behind again.

There was a rapid flowering with ideal conditions for the white wines, slightly less so in red, being a reversal of the balance of 2017, hence also a much larger crop in white than in red. More modest weather later in June meant that there was some mildew risk but contained by most producers.

And thus we get to the fine hot summer weather, uninterrupted from July to September apart from some storms in July which were only genuinely damaging, with hail, in the southern part of Nuits-St-Georges and in the appellation of Côte-de-Nuits Villages around Comblanchien and Corgoloin. This apart, the weather was hot, sometimes very hot, and indeed the overall growing season temperature charts suggest that 2018 is one of the three hottest years since the Second World War, alongside 1947 and behind 2003. I must admit though that, despite the heat, living through 2018 never felt the same as the bizarre, other-worldly summer of 2003.

The 100 day rule (the time between flowering and ripeness) suggested harvest dates in early September, though white wine producers have learned to be ready to start earlier and proceed rapidly. What was new in 2018 was that the pinot grapes began to follow the same programme, ripening earlier and indeed more rapidly than expected. Delay by just a day or two could significantly change sugar levels and upset the inherent balance of the wine.

Even where producers were on top of the rapidity of ripening, the usual decision had to be made on which parameters were the most important in choosing when to harvest: sugar and acid levels on the one hand, phenolic and physiological maturity on the other. Sometimes compromises need to be made.

The first pickers were out from 20th August but that was really a case of reacting to individual plots which absolutely had to be rescued. The early birds did not start in earnest until the week beginning 26th August. Some Côte de Nuits producers began before the end of August, others towards the end of the first week in September, while as ever a few held out until at least the middle of the month.

The main issue for white wines producers was to have enough recipients for the grapes and their juice. In that regard early pickers benefitted because there was still the opportunity to source more tanks and barrels before everybody else caught on. Fermentations needed to be supervised carefully to avoid stuck fermentations. More often they were just long and slow.

For the reds, the first main choice for those not set on an unchanging regime, was to decide what to do about whole bunch fermentation. Many are in favour of retaining the stems in warmer vintages. The reasons some producers cited for doing less whole bunch fermentation than expected was that the stems may add potassium, thus reducing acidity despite giving the appearance of greater freshness – and that with the big crop there was not enough room in the tanks!

Most producers opted for less extraction in the vats, given that the colour came out of the skins at the very first opportunity. Stuck fermentations and early malolactics could be an issue, to the extent that in many instances the latter finished before the former. This can be a problem leading to volatile acidity and bacterial issues. Several of the larger producers especially were being exceptionally vigilant in the fight against the risk of Brettanomyces developing.

First Impressions

In advance of tasting, we rather expected the white 2018s either to show an unwelcome flabbiness from the heat or else dilution from the significantly high yields. Neither is the case and indeed the size of the crop was probably a prime factor in stopping the heat of the summer from having an adverse effect on the wines. Typically chardonnay is fairly forgiving of crop size, but first impressions of the 2018 White Burgundy crop show attractive wines made from healthy fruit but without the additional intensity of a great vintage: delicious wines which will start to be ready to drink early on, but few legends.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the generous harvest seems to have impacted the red wines less, despite pinot noir’s notorious sensitivity to high yields. There is excellent colour to the wines which are full of fruit, sometimes flamboyantly so. There is the potential for greatness in 2018 Red Burgundy but it is by no means a uniform vintage.

The issues to be surmounted were: The effect of the sun and heat on the skins of the grapes – sunburn or wrinkled skins leading to unattractive cooked aromatics; hydric stress blocking the physiological ripening of the grapes leading to unripe tannins, which could quite often happen in combination with the sunburn effect; rapidly developing sugar levels leading to unusually high alcoholic degrees which were also problematic as they could lead to stuck fermentations, with risks of volatile acidity and bacterial spoilage.

That all sounds quite frightening and there certainly were problems with a number of wines we tasted. But the other side of the coin is that those wines which avoided these pitfalls were often absolutely glorious. The most successful 2018 reds hit heights only found in the greatest vintages. The best wines are superlative, ripe in flavour and tannins, adequate in acidity, with a feeling of freshness superior to the analysis of the acids, and balanced in alcohol.

For the reds, I was consistently thrilled by wines from traditionally cooler areas where the tannins can be tough if not fully ripe. So a big thumbs up for Pommard this year and most of Gevrey-Chambertin, also the ‘back’ villages of the Côte de Beaune. Clay soils that retain the water well have typically prospered better than more arid limestone sites where hydric stress was more of an issue.


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