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2022 Southwold Tasting – Matthew Hemming MW

2018 was a warm and (mostly) generous vintage that has produced rich, powerful and sometimes opulent red Bordeaux. Very, very good wines can be found throughout the region, a smaller number of excellent 2018s exists and there is just a handful of genuinely great wines. Whilst the overall profile of 2018 is ‘big’, diverse styles exist – some wines are more muscular and hedonistic, others more terroir-driven and elegant. 2018 misses the consistency of a truly outstanding vintage but definitely counts amongst the top years of the last two decades, sitting somewhere around the level of 2015.

Having been interrupted by ‘you know what’ last year, in 2022 the Southwold Tasting returned to its usual January slot.  There was a satisfying symmetry in this return to normal coinciding with our examination of 2018, the last vintage most of us tasted from barrel in Bordeaux rather than remotely over Zoom.

In the midst of the tasting, I was mildly disappointed that I wasn’t finding more high-scoring wines.  On reflection, I think I spent so much time hunting for greatness that I neglected the fact that I was finding so many very, very good wines along the way.

There is a phrase, ‘sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good’: just because 2018 does not deliver flawless 3-digit scores should not detract from the sheer pleasure and high-class performances of many wines.  Southwold is a tough crowd and it was quite unusual that there were no truly disappointing flights over the three days.

Wines of the vintage

Southwold being a British tasting – founded some 40 years ago by Clive CoatesMW  – the wines are rated on the 20-point scale.  Having blind tasted around 250 examples of 2018 I found I had two stand out wines with 19.5/20, both from the right bank: Chateaux Lafleur and Belair Monange.

From the left bank, I rated four wines 19/20 – in no particular order:

Latour
La Mission Haut Brion
Montrose
The big surprise…Chateau Haut Batailley

There was one other wine I rated 19/10: Pomerol’s L’Eglise Clinet.

With one exception, my scores are not wildly different from the wider group.
Looking at the average scores across all tasters Lafleur was judged the top Pomerol, although Ausone was rated a whisker higher as #1 right bank wine for the group.  For what it’s worth I rated Ausone 18.5/20, putting it on a par with Petrus.

Latour was tied for the group’s wine of the vintage and the average scores put La Mission – which showed great poise and finesse – slightly ahead of sibling Haut Brion – which I found a touch alcoholic – as the most highly rated wine in Pessac.  Montrose was universally praised and came above a number of 1st growths in terms of average score.  More of Haut Batailley later, but it is clearly one of the great value picks of 2018.

I was way out on a limb with Belair Monange, the only taster to rate it so highly, but I’m sticking to my guns and here’s why…

Lafleur 2018 is a massive and uncompromising wine born of Bouchet (Cabernet Franc) grown on gravel soils.  Muscular, bass-driven and concentrated, it is a wine of huge drama.   The challenge I found in rating Lafleur was deciding whether it was truly outstanding or if I was being hoodwinked into confusing mere scale with quality.  Clearly, I came down on the side of quality, convinced by the sheer complexity and driving mineral length.

By contrast, Belair Monange is much more linear and focused.  It has a distinct Cabernet Franc spice to it – although I see in the analysis this is only 10% of the blend – and cuts through the palate like a bolt from a crossbow, riding on enormous length.  There is no doubt that this is a more slender and softly-spoken wine than Lafleur and, I believe, it was easy to miss the insistent length of this beauty amongst the many richer and more flamboyant wines produced in 2018.

For my palate, Belair Monange sits at the top of 2018 and is the best wine the Moueix family have yet made from this vineyard.

Hunting for value

This was my 10th year as part of the Southwold Group and for most of that decade we have criticised and moaned through flights of top-heavy, over-worked Saint Emilion showing over extraction and high alcohol.  There have been signs that the era of body builder wines is behind us and 2018 provided the acid test as the vintage gave nigh-on perfect conditions for super-charging the wines.

Elevated temperatures and drought through Summer 2018 meant that some vines ‘shut down’.  When that happens grapes raisin, skins thicken, water evaporates and acidity drops.  There are certainly examples of Saint Emilions that suffered this phenomenon in 2018, leading to tough wines with leathery tannins and stewed, pruney fruit.  However, there are also plenty of wines that show freshness, nuance and a sense of light and shade alongside the breadth and volume that characterise 2018.

This is a hugely encouraging step forward for Saint Emilion and the whole group agreed that there seemed to be a renewed sense of pleasure and drinkability in many of these wines.  It also means that value picks start to emerge from this wide and diverse region.

2018 was Berliquet’s first full vintage under Chanel ownership and it showed really well.  I particularly enjoyed its sense of pure and fluid fruit, despite the richness at its core, and rated it 15.5/20.  The group had it ahead of some significantly more expensive wines such as Petit Cheval.  Chateau Grande Mayne (16/20) was another Saint Emilion offering good value, with lush succulent fruit and sufficient freshness to hold its balance. Perennial over-achiever Roc de Cambes (16/20) would also be a solid buy in 2018.

In the Medoc I would look to the north for value,  where deeper soils and pockets of clay aided water retention to combat the extremes of the vintage.

Haut Batailley (19/20) was one of my highest scoring wines of the tasting and a total surprise.  Blind, I thought I was probably tasting Pichon Baron or Forts de Latour and it turns out I rated it ahead of both of those.  Beginning with red fruit on the nose, this is initially quite reserved but really starts to motor with air; cassis takes over on the palate and the fruit just soars alongside the huge tannic structure.

If I was alone in rating Haut Batailley so highly it could be written off as me fumbling the ball, but the average scores of the group had it just a nose behind Cazes family stable mate Lynch Bages and ahead of both Pichons, Pontet Canet and others.  For a few years we have seen Chateau Meyney disrupt the status quo and triumph in Saint Estephe.  In 2018 it is Haut Batailley’s turn to hit the home run and this is a screaming bargain of the vintage.

Further north still, in Saint Estephe, I rated both Lafon Rochet and Ormes de Pez – another Cazes wine! – 17.5/20.  Both have a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon character and both are relatively modest in their pricing.  I found Ormes de Pez tightly closed on the nose but with pure cassis on the palate, lifted by a bright seam of acidity.  Lafon Rochet was richer and spicier, with more prominent oak, but it was naturally expressive and in no way felt like it was trying to over-compensate.

Mid-tier winners

As Bordeaux prices continue to escalate the definition of mid-tier becomes strained.  If we assume that 1stgrowths and equivalent inhabit the top tier, and the value wines have been discussed above, then the mid-tier probably holds the most interest for most Bordeaux buyers – classed growths we most regularly buy and drink: Leoville Barton, Lynch Bages, Canon, Domaine de Chevalier, etc.

I’ve limited myself to two recommendations per commune.

The warm gravels of Pessac Leognan can lead to brutally tannic wines in big vintages but those who countered structure with ripe and succulent fruit made some very successful 2018s.  I would depart from the group’s consensus, favouring De Fieuzal and Domaine de Chevalier, and highlight Carmes Haut Brion and Malartic Lagraviere (both 17.5/20).

Carmes benefitted from its late-ripening Cabernet Franc (37% in 2018) and the use of whole bunch fermentation brings further freshness to the wine.  The blend and winemaking are very distinctive, and are not for everyone, but I thought it was a triumph.  Malartic I admired for its black, fleshy cassis and peppery edge.

Margaux – with its thin, freely-draining gravels – struggled in the 2018 conditions.  In addition, early season mildew was an issue and wiped out the majority of Chateau Palmer’s crop including all of the Alter Ego.  What was salvaged has resulted in a stunning, incredibly scented and intense, vintage of Palmer that I rated 18/20 and put ahead of Chateau Margaux.  Beyond Palmer, I’d look to the beautifully classic, mineral and fine Rauzan Segla (17.5/20).

As is usual, we found Saint Julien the most consistent commune in 2018 and it is genuinely hard to choose badly here.  Leoville Poyferre stole the group’s heart, and I rated it 18.5/20, but here I am giving the nod to St Pierre (18.5/20) and Leoville Barton (18/20).  St Pierre is the value play of this trio and showed impressive purity of Cabernet fruit alongside tension and energy.  Blind, I thought it might have been Las Cases and it was much less oaky and dense than in the past.  The Barton was distinctively Leoville Barton, with pure blackcurrant fruit and ‘tightly corsetted’, mineral tannins.

Pauillac is hot bed of quality, with its concentration of famous names.  The success of the Cazes family in 2018 has already been established via Haut Batailley and Ormes de Pez but it was really sealed by a tremendous Lynch Bages.  Whilst I had Haut Batailley a nose ahead, I loved the heady Cabernet profile of Lynch (18.5/20) and the floral tones of violets and blossom on both nose and palate.  I think Duhart Milon has started making superb wines, very much of the Lafite school, in recent years and I scored the 2018 18/20.  There was a beautifully vivid, high-definition, character to the fruit expression, with a touch of mint and a great sense of composure and proportion.

I have already heaped praise on Saint Estephe, from Montrose to Lafon Rochet, but will add in one more name: Calon Segur (18.5/20).  This showcases the power and richness of 2018, with masses of oak balanced by masses of fruit.  It displays a raw power that somehow does not translate to a raw texture.  It is the best Calon Segur I’ve tasted in years.

Given its price, I think my top-rated Chateau Belair Monange might count as mid-tier Saint Emilion but that could be cheating.  I found Canon difficult to taste at Southwold and may have under-rated it at 17/20 but there was an undeniable sense of class and a length that gives me confidence in the wine.  To pick a controversial outlier, I was a fan of the Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf that split our group.  A bit like Carmes Haut Brion, this is utterly distinctive and singular – you can spot it from the nose alone with its mocha, toasty oak and spicy reduction.  Unapologetically ripe and voluptuous, with a bright seam of acidity, I found it totally seductive (17.5/20).

To conclude with Pomerol, if Vieux Chateau Certan counts as mid-tier because it costs less than Petrus and Le Pin, then with 18.5/20 (on a par with Petrus) it has to get my nod.  If VCC is stretching it I would look to La Fleur Petrus and Le Gay, both with 18/20.  Pomerol, along with the northern Medoc, has been a sweet spot of quality in recent year but in 2018 I found it less consistent.  La Fleur Petrus was a wine of floral aromatics and high-tensile minerality.  By contrast, Le Gay is a more Burgundian expression of Pomerol with truffle aromas and a texture of fine-spun silk.

Conclusions

I have approached this report a little differently from usual, focusing on the wines I felt stood out and why, rather than simply spinning through the runner and riders of the regions.  I hope this has proved useful and would welcome any feedback – discussing wine is always more interesting than simply writing about it, after all!  Such an overview of a tasting is always going to miss out commenting on certain wines, so if I have excluded a favourite or you want to ask how a certain chateau performed, please get in touch.

It seems to me that, having been well reviewed on release, 2018 is in danger of being damned with faint praise because it is not as consistently brilliant as 2016 (and probably 2019) and it lacks some of the astonishing peaks of 2010 and 2009.  Hopefully, I have indicated areas and wines of genuine excitement, and also highlighted a few different styles.  Finally, I have tried to be transparent and honest about wines I rated highly but which might seem unusual choices.  It may seem odd to rate Belair Monange ahead of Le Pin and Petrus, or to give Haut Batailley the same score as Latour, but that is what happened in a blind tasting and I have tried to stand by it and offer some explanation.

Time will tell how I performed as a taster during the Southwold review of 2018 but, if I point a few people towards wines they really enjoy drinking over the years, then I think I’ll have done my job regardless of whether Haut Batailley is the equal of a 1st growth.  I’ll also accept invitations to compare the two again