Pessac-Léognan 2018 reds

Hits amidst gravel and heat

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

24 January 2021

2018 was not the ideal vintage for warmer soils, so I would tip my hat more to 2016 as the recent vintage to purchase from Pessac-Léognan. Still, some very good to excellent wines. A few stars and several superb price/quality ratio wines make 2018 most interesting. Many tasted non blind with Jane Anson in Bordeaux. The bottle of Château Pape Clement was corked, so the estate delivered one to me in Strasbourg. The wines of Domaine Clarence Dillon tasted at the CIVB offices of Bordeaux. Fun fact: Many wines had 14.5% on the label, so as to avoid having to add the Trump tax of 25% to still wines. No doubt many of these were above 14% but not close to 14.5.

As usual, if in bold, I liked in particular. If red and bold, even more. When underlined, too, a wine nirvana.

Château Bouscaut – Bravo to Château Bouscaut, which not too long ago, showed a tendency towards ultra ripeness. One would think that in a solar vintage like 2018, with record alcohol levels – 14.5% on the label – that we would get big wine. But no, this blend of 58% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Malbec, cropped at a healthy 42 hectoliters per hectare, benefitted from clay on limestone terroir that buffered the intense dry heat stress of 2018. I liked it from barrel and that promise is fulfilled from bottle, with a sap-filled mid palate, poise and juicy refinement. Smooth, succulent and savory, the wine displays bright ripe fruit, albeit a touch of headiness, but really that is quibbling. Lovely wine to some extent “reigned in” with the dark spice and serious feel coming from the Malbec. Solidly fair pricing at about €36 retail including taxes. 94

Château Carbonnieux – The nose comes across more crackling red cranberry, as compared to the Bouscaut tasted just before, just as I had experienced from barrel. I like the dominant leafy Cabernet in the blend – about 65% – lending grip, but the tannins lack some refinement, leading to a somewhat pinched finish. Cheers to the iodine aspect that could be due to earlier picking, but this wine illustrates the limits of the 2018 vintage. Aged in 40% new oak. Label indicated alcohol: 14.5% 91+

Château Les Carmes Haut Brion* – A top wine from the rather hot and gravely soils of the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation, as director Guillaume Pouthier pulled out all stops to maintain freshness, fermenting grapes at over 50% whole cluster and not de-leafing, so as to ensure that his grapes were not grilled by the sun. Blending 37% Cabernet Franc, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot, the wine is both delectable and serious, conveying wet stone like “minerality” while being driven by juicy, ripe fruit flavors. The alcohol is somewhat low for the vintage, at 13.75, with excellent acidity to balance that. While on the higher end of the price spectrum for this category, this wine from barrel is more engaging to me than first growth Château Haut Brion, tasted the same day. What I wrote from barrel applies from bottle, after tasting both wines about the same time in Bordeaux, non-blind. Bottled in September last year, it has aged 21 months in 79% new oak and the rest divided between 10% big Alsatian oak and 10% amphorae. “If we want to make wines that are rich and powerful, we can” said Pouthier, but that is not the goal here. The rather high 85 IPT tannic index in 2018 was extracted softly. In fermention vats, the cap was held down with entire grapes underneath so the extraction came more from the skins and “it is more gentle”, he says. It is the crasse de fer that you get from the terroir to get wet stone minerality on the palate. The pH is 3.6 (in 2009 and 2010, it was 3.9). “We worked the soils to reduce the potassium and that has helped reduce the pH”, he explains. A wine with real power remaining subtle, with tobacco aspects from the Cabernet Franc, also like silex. The peony aromatics kick in on the long with perfumed elegance. A great wine, and I bought six bottles. 97

Château Couhins – Back to 14.5% alcohol on the label… this was getting to be a running joke. Anyway, a pleasing nose of brambly and rich, dark fruit. A touch of wet stone aspects appeal from this blend of some 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that aged in 40% new oak. I like its tanginess, too, but a rather abrupt finish attenuates the positive impression. 91

Château Couhins-Lurton – This wine gets an award for indicating… 13.5% on the label. Jokes aside, a fine success in 2018! With a healthy yield of 43 hectoliters per hectare, the bed of limestone no doubt contributed to freshening this vintage : suave, juicy, rather velvety tannins, and a nice texture. The overall impression is one of sap and freshness. Majority Merlot to boot, although I could not find the exact blend in time for publishing. And the price – about €30 tax included in Europe – is excellent. Bravo! 94

Domaine de Chevalier – Just as experienced from barrel, the cooler micro-climate from this estate made a difference. The label indicates 14.5% alcohol for this blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and the rest Petit Verdot. The nose reflects red and dark fruit, leading to a bright attack and a broad mid-palate, with smooth tannin, showing depth and just a hint of heat, which you do not notice for example in 2016 or 2019, which clocked in at 13.2% alcohol.  However, I like the finesse as well as the cooler-than-expected crushed mint finish, and how the barrel aging has softened what seemed slightly harder tannin on the finish from barrel. 95+

Château de Fieuzal – Initially the wine seems reduced, and one needs at least 30 minutes of shaking the glass to get the motor running. Dark, even jammy to the core fruit on the nose, as from barrel. The wine is gregarious with plenty of ripe fruit, and a touch of jam – a glycerin aspect. It will seduce you unless you have zero proclivities for seduction. OK, sure, the finish lacks the lift of 2016 for example, and it displays limits of 2018 in the region, but fun it is! Of course, 14.5% alcohol (on the back label)… 93

Château Haut Brion – With just under 50% Merlot, nearly 39% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc, the wine from bottle comes across rather tight, playing things “close to the vest” albeit very powerful making one muse: “Is this a 50-year wine”? Tasted at the CIVB in Bordeaux, along with Fellow Firsts Château Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, it was my least favorite as it seemed to lack the finesse of the Margaux tannins and the velvety power of the Mouton. As I had experienced from barrel, my impression was more of “respect” rather than “love” for the wine. Sure, it is a baby and it likely will evolve into something special, but I feel like La Mission Haut Brion for example conveys just as much power but in a more refined manner, and that is not so typical (I tend to find Haut Brion the more elegant wine!). I will not bother with a score, because the wine leaves me more perplexed than anything else, and it may surprise everyone with greatness in about five years.

Château Latour Martillac – An estate known for earlier picking and fresher styled wines and this paid in 2018. As from barrel, this blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 8% Petit Verdot, which aged in 40% new oak, achieved balance between ripe fruit and airy, iodine freshness. Aromas floral with touches of tobacco elegance.  The tannin not drying albeit just a tad austere, but, overall, juiciness and ripe fruit is realized, leaving one with the impression of elegance and grace. Available in the US, for about $42 a bottle retail, this is a darn good deal. 94

Château Malartic Lagraviere – Better from bottle and a success among Pessac-Léognan reds: Refined, cool cedar and ripe blackberry aromas. While a bit coiled in, like Château Olivier, it has more juiciness, and I like it more, with a finish smooth and long. Even though this “ain’t no 2016”, it nicely integrates the 70% new oak in which the wine – 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot – was aged. The back label indicates 14% alcohol. Furthermore, a fine price/quality ratio at $46 a bottle retail. Readers take note: Starting in 2019, the estate replaced Michel Rolland with Eric Boissenot as consultant. 94+

Château La Mission Haut Brion – When tasted from barrel, I preferred this to the First Growth Haut Brion, and I get the same impression from bottle. Rather velvety aspect and although you sense the alcohol, it has power and verve. Interesting that this has more Merlot in the blend (over 50%, with nearly 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc) than the Château Haut Brion. It has aged in 62% new oak and clocks in at just under 14.5% alcohol. Much dimension and depth. Tasted just after the Château Margaux at the CIVB in Bordeaux, the tannins are not quite as refined, and although this is apples and oranges, it illustrates how top Médoc wines fared better in 2018. Overall, however, I feel like this wine will become great with cellaring, so a potential for an even higher score. Akin to a modern era 1990. 96+

Special mention for the second wine, the Chapelle de la Mission Haut Brion also at 14.5% alcohol, with notes of coco powder, baked cherry, plum cake. There is balance and freshness for the amount of alcohol, with rather bright fruit! Less new oak – only 22%. So you have a more exuberant freshness immediately. 93

Château Olivier – I preferred this from barrel as there seemed more freshening aspects. The blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 46% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot was aged in 30% new oak. It comes across rather tight. I revisited one hour later and it had not budged. So we get ripe fruit to be sure, but tannins a bit strict and closed. On the plus side, there is a “stately” aspect to the wine, so cellaring should open things up. The finish conveys some iodine freshness as well as ripe red and black fruit. Give it time. 92+

Château Pape Clement – Great to see the trend of less new oak extraction continues. The wine shines in 2018, having aged in 60% new oak (compared to 65% in the comparable 2015 vintage). This blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc reveals seductive cherry that may border a bit on homemade jam, but balanced by sophisticated spice coming from the judicious aging in oak. One senses Cabernet Franc freshness with palate depth, density and power befitting the pedigree of this great estate, along with ripe tannin, leaving a smooth polish aspect overall. The tannins however lend structure, perhaps with a hint of drying on the finish, so 2016 may be the one to buy, but overall, quite impressive for the vintage! You can see my video review of the wine, below. 95

Château Rahoul (AOC Graves) – Not a bad wine at all from bottle, not too Napa like even if you get a bit of alcohol. Overall, I like how smooth it is. 14% alcohol. 90

Château Smith Haut Lafitte – Bravo for yet another fine red from this excellent estate. Blending 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and the rest Cabernet Franc, it exudes vivid tobacco leaf with dark ripe fruit. A fine integration of the 60% new oak that was used for aging the wine before bottling. Furthermore there is verve to the palate as well, which makes it stand out in the 2018 vintage. Although, I bet the 2016 (and 2019) will outflank the 2018 in the longer run. 95


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