After two trips across to taste barrel samples of the 2017 Bordeaux vintage, I have ploughed through various lengthy commentaries on which examine the specific weather patterns that shaped the year. Indeed, during our visits, technical directors detailed the circumstances that have largely resulted in a range of ‘attractive, supple-fruited wines’ that will be enjoyable to drink over the mid-term. However, to term this as an ‘attractive, supple-fruited vintage’ would be a gross generalisation. Belabouring a point that we have made time and time again, Bordeaux is a sizeable region and weather conditions affect different appellations. Furthermore, viticultural decisions result in markedly different results in all but the most homogenous vintages. This is why we head over to Bordeaux each year; it allows us to piece together our own impression of a vintage and understand where the real successes lie. Such visits are particularly fascinating in more mixed vintages, 2017 is a case in point. One thing became clear fairly quickly: the spotlight shines brightest on Bordeaux’s greatest terroir in this vintage.
Mixed vintage, yes, but there are certainly some impressive wines. For a number of Château, the 2017 vintage will be viewed as the third in a trio of successful vintages. For others, success is defined as a forward, elegant vintage with good appeal. The question is as, as ever: will the assessments prove themselves academic once the main raft of prices are released?
One of the main discussion topics at this year was frost. Not since 1991 has Bordeaux felt the impact of such a significant frost, but as one Château owner commented, ‘if [it] comes around once every twenty-five years, we can hardly bemoan our luck.’ The dry winter led to an early budburst which meant that, when the frost hit on the 28th of April, buds were susceptible. Young vines are always the first to develop and, in many instances, their early growth was devastated. The extent of this devastation was dependant on the location of the vineyard and, to some degree, the techniques employed by the Château. In the Médoc, those vineyards closest to the Gironde estuary were almost entirely spared as the water current creates significant air movement. Those further inland, such as Château Lagrange (St.Julien) and Château Beaumont (Haut-Médoc), suffered considerable losses. Beaumont, in fact, lost 60% of their fruit. The old adage that the greatest terroirs of the Médoc overlook the water never rang more true than in 2017.
Across on the Right Bank, geography also plays an important role. Take the two properties under the ownership of the Guinadeaus, namely Châteaux Lafleur in Pomerol and Grand-Village in the Fronsac. At Lafleur, they set out smudge-pots as a preventative measure before the frost and came through unscathed. Grand-Village, however, was badly hit and lost over half the crop. Low production was exacerbated by the decision to only make wines with the best fruit. Young vine Cabernet Franc suffered and therefore the two wines from Grand-Village represent 10% of normal production and are entirely Merlot-based.
Bear in mind that the Fronsac was one of the worst hit areas in Bordeaux. St.Emilion’s limestone slopes were always likely to be safe given their altitude, although vineyards on lower ground did not fare so well. Likewise, many Château situated on Pomerol’s plateau were largely untroubled, although it was suggested that, overall, only 25% of Pomerol’s vineyard expanse was untouched by frost. A few well-heeled Châteaux flicked a switch and turned on turbines to circulate air to protect the vineyards, while others employed more traditional methods to attempt to keep the temperature at ground level from falling too low.
A conversation with Denis Durantou of Château L’Eglise-Clinet proved to be particularly fascinating. He suggested that in Pomerol, the greatest losses were suffered at Château who had appended vineyard to the original blocks with latter-day acquisitions. He argued that history has taught us where we should plant and that, back in the day, if a vineyard proved vulnerable to frost, it would not be considered a suitable site to maintain. Modern-day demand has led to an expansion of the appellation of Pomerol and lesser vineyards have been acquired and utilised by more established Châteaux.
Given the low yields, some vineyard managers chose to work with what is known as ‘second generation fruit’ (the fruit that forms on secondary shoots when the shoots on the primary shoot are destroyed by frost). This presents its own problems, as second generation fruit ripens three-to-four weeks later than the original fruit. Harvest, therefore, will inevitably be later than normal. Pauline Vauthier of Château Ausone, commented that, at sister property Château La Clotte, the team worked relentlessly to try and salvage second-generation fruit – only to discard it on quality grounds. Pierre-Yves Clouet of Château Cheval-Blanc, on the other hand, was sufficiently pleased with a proportion of his second-generation fruit and incorporated 3% in to the Grand Vin blend.
Acknowledging that the main impact of the frost concerns yield, and leaving it aside, the rest of the year was more typical. May and June kicked the summer off to a warmer than average start. It was also markedly dry so rains at the end of June were welcome as they reduced the risk of water stress. July was cooler and remained dry and these conditions continued into August. The cooler temperatures slowed ripening and ensured that freshness would be a hallmark of the vintage and a key factor in the success of the whites. Rain in September is not uncommon in Bordeaux and, when it arrived in mid-month, some Merlots had been harvested and the Cabernets – both Franc and Sauvignon – were still on the vine. Rainfall varied across the region with St. Estèphe encountering more than the southerly Médoc appellations and the best free-draining terroir delivered the greatest results. The young Merlot vines in the Médoc showed some sense of dilution as evidenced by certain genuine second wines (‘genuine’ meaning a second wine based on the qualitative selection of fruit rather than a separate vineyard altogether). The ability to wait on the Cabernets certainly aided appellations such as Pauillac, where consequently there was more consistency. In St.Emilion, those who cleverly judged the moment to harvest their Merlot and were prepared to wait on their Cabernet Franc delivered the best results. Towards the end of harvest, the threat of inclement weather and high humidity levels would have curtailed the waiting game.
As you might gather from the run-down of vintage conditions, the results of 2017 are certainly a mixed bag. Despite their supple charms, there are a number of problematic wines, those which lack substance and are a touch diffuse on the mid-palate. Others show a hint of astringency, likely due to the incorporation of less than perfectly ripe second-generation fruit. It was not hard to taste the wines en primeur; they were not shy, brooding styles but rather bright and expressive. In the main they are not the most concentrated Bordeaux that you will encounter, but they are appealing wines that you could easily envisage drinking in six to seven years’ time. Overall, this vintage will offer drinking pleasure over the mid-term. Then there are a cluster of over-achievers whose wines will round out a trio of successful vintages, although different in style; not as generously ripe as the 2015s, nor as linear as the 2016s but somehow encapsulating aspects of each. Some showed pride in their 2017s, although qualifying them as not being on the same page as 2015 and 2016, but at others this was considered the third vintage of an impressive triumvirate – L’Eglise-Clinet, Lafleur and Ausone each a stunning is a case in point.
In terms of particular areas of success, do not disregard the dry white Bordeaux as this is certainly one of the more compelling vintages of the last decade. Whites, including Pavillon Blanc of Château Margaux and Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc deserve considerable praise – not to mention the stable at Haut-Brion. There is a terrific raciness and precision to the whites. Whether or not all of these make compelling cases for purchasing en primeur remains to be seen, but the quality is outstanding. As to the reds, our general preference led us to the Pessac-Léognan and the Right Bank, as well as a handful of successful wines in Pauillac, St.Julien and Margaux. In Pauillac, we rated the wines with a good proportion of Merlot allied to their impressive Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines such as two Pichons therefore came through well in our notes.
Perhaps the most striking observation this year concerned the winemaking itself. Each Château seemed to talk more about finesse and elegance rather than volume or power. This could be considered a factor of the vintage, as 2017 certainly did not play to a more extracted style of winemaking. Judging from conversations though, it seems to be more than just that… a cultural shift seems to be taking shape. There is no appellation where this is more clearly displayed than in St.Emilion, previously a heartland for hefty Parker scores where it seemed winemakers made wines to appeal to his palate alone. Now, it is more difficult to find wines where extraction has been taken too far; winemakers seem happy to produce a wine that is refined, even if a touch lighter, than to look to work towards the Parker prescribed model. Hubert de Bouard de Laforest of Château Angelus discussed this very point with us, suggesting that consumers prefer an appealing wine that they can drink, rather than a showpiece that impresses by its density and power. Seldom has this kind of frank feedback been shared with us on our en primeur tasting trips, but this discussion was not one isolated incident. Consequently, it is hard to think that many of the wines we tasted in the 2017s, where the elegance, precision and length impressed us most of all, would have scored favourably in a by-gone Parker era. Reviews from today’s critics may not reach dizzying heights in 2017, but there will be a consistency of quality in the mid-range. This would not have been the case before.
Bordeaux is changing and changing for the better; vintages such as 2017 offer plenty of pleasure to the drinker. The question – as ever at this time of year – surrounds price. It would be difficult to envisage prices coming down enough from their 2016 levels to encourage purchasing in volume. Instead we expect a drawn-out, protracted campaign where only a dozen or so wines qualify as truly compelling purchases. The négociants will once more soak up the weight of stock, holding it for sale further down the line and certain Château may feel comfortable sitting on stock to release at a later date. One thing is clear: 2017 will find its moment in the sun as many wines are well-suited to drinking in 7-10 years’ time, but private clients and merchants alike may not decide to spend the funds and foot the storage bill in the meantime. After two comparatively easy vintages to commercialise, perhaps the Châteaux and the négociants are feeling comfortable and confident, but if Bordeaux strings together several mixed vintages in a row, the real test of the much-vaunted en primeur system is yet to come. Time to wait and see what the next few weeks will bring.