Frosts. Terrible frosts. Worst since 1991. This will be the most that many with a passing interest in wine have heard about Bordeaux’s 2017 vintage so far, and are thus approaching with muted enthusiasm. There has also been an uncharacteristic lack of bombast from the Bordelais preceding last week’s en primeur tastings, surely a further sign that the vintage is not one to get excited about? In reality, tasting the wines supports a different and much more positive conclusion.
Weather & Harvest
A warm winter and early-bud burst beginning at the end of March was followed by a largely dry April (including a forest fire in the Médoc on the 21st) but then rains on the 24th and 25th were followed by temperature drops below freezing over the next four days. The compound effect of this severe period of frost reduced potential production across the region by 40 per cent (CIVB estimate), with Entre-Deux-Mers and Barsac, the southern Graves and satellite appellations of Pomerol, and vineyards on the plain of Saint-Emilion being the worst affected. However, Cru Classé vineyards in the Médoc, especially those close to the Gironde river, and sites on the plateau of Pomerol and Saint Emilion, were largely unaffected.
After a very dry summer with heat spikes in July and August, an unwanted burst of hail in Graves and light rains at the end of August, harvest began – and then continued throughout September, allowing even fruit from the secondary budding on frosted vines to achieve varying degrees of ripeness. Pauillac actually ended up with its highest yields since 2009 and Philippe Blanc, managing director of St Julien’s Beychevelle, said it was the château’s largest harvest in nearly 20 years.
Two important points to note here are: a) for the many fortunate producers, after picking there were plenty of grapes from which to make the severest selection of only the best fruit, and b) as observed by Charles Fournier, Pichon Lalande’s commercial marketing director, communication about the vintage prior to tasting has been muted not because of a lack of enthusiasm over quality, but in recognition of the severe difficulties faced by others in the region. Diplomacy rather than disillusion has tempered communication for a number of châteaux that have made some excellent wines. The reports of Bill Blatch and Gavin Quinney are highly recommended for those interested in a comprehensive analysis of vintage conditions.
Style and comparisons…
While it is difficult to offer generalisations, stylistically certain characteristics kept cropping up in tastings of the best wine.
Firstly, freshness: after two powerful, strapping years in 2015 and 2016, the wines from 2017 are lower in alcohol and show very fine, lithe tannins. The wines are leaner but not necessarily greener, except for the occasional trace of under-ripeness in some earlier-harvested Merlots, and the early budding followed by a warm, very dry summer has given the wines good concentration, if generally less weight. For example La Mondotte, from Stephan von Neipperg, has all of its characteristic sweet, compact dark berry fruit, supported by mocha and liquorice, but is pleasantly refreshing, crunchily poised and focused. “The wines this year are long rather than large,” said Fabien Teitgen, director general of Smith Haut Lafitte, who made an excellent set of wines in Pessac-Léognan, while Jonathan Maltus, whose range of boutique vineyards in Saint-Emilion were vibrant and nimble, suggested with characteristic bluntness that “2017 is not a vintage to cut with a spritzer”.
Secondly, aromatic intensity and palate definition: many wines showed vibrant, lifted fruit, some black but a lot of red berry too, and a spice-cupboard whiff of herbal and herbaceous notes with freshly milled pepper recurring more than occasionally. The ever-expressive Rémi Edange at Domaine de Chevalier, whose 25 hectares of old vines directly in front of the château were fortunately spared the worst of the frosts, was as enthusiastic as ever, pointing to his wine’s full bouquet and suggesting 2017 was “a real Chevalier, with finesse and elegance”. Tasting with Romain Ducolomb, winemaker at Beychevelle, we observed the wine’s expressive, violet-perfumed fragrance and filigree tannins, an interesting contrast to the bigger-boned, richer 2016 served alongside. Apart from a heavy waft of cassis and graphite, Pauillac stalwart Pichon-Baron was more closed on the nose at this early stage but behind the oak on the palate, were well-delineated primary flavours, great sweetness and focus, and an extended, reverberating finish. Even more humble estates like Haut Beausejour and Le Pez, both from Saint-Estèphe, showed clarity and precision, framing their coffee and earth-accented fruit.
Thirdly, balance and charm: one of the most fascinating wines from 2017 is Cheval Blanc, which due to 30 per cent frosts especially affecting the parcel of old vine Cabernet Franc planted in front of the château, utilised nearly a third less of the grapes than usual in the blend and an unusually large percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon (14 per cent rather than 6 per cent). On top of this there was a 48-day difference between the first and post frost buddings (reduced to two weeks by harvest time). Despite such atypicality, “1961 was a great vintage because of the frost, 2017 despite it,” says winemaker Pierre-Olivier Clouet. The stylistic sum of its parts is unmistakably Cheval, the grapes seemingly acting more as the vehicle to transmit character of the terroir – a concept more commonly associated with Burgundy. Further down the hillside, Canon-la-Gaffelière, although juggling with fruit maturing at different times due to the second budding post frosts, managed to achieve the right tension between structure and ripeness, producing a wine that was precise but supple and with no trace of angularity. Back at Smith Haut Lafitte, Teitgen remarked on the perennial balancing act: “When the vintage is hot, you look for more freshness; when cool – for more structure.” Here the wines were both fine grained and correct but sweet and ripe, too, without any sense of being cajoled into place, despite owner Daniel Cathiard’s rueful admission that 2017 was “not an armchair vintage”. If anything, the whites here are even more convincing, crystalline and complex, as are the other top wines from the appellation including Chevalier and Pape Clement.
Marielle Cazaux, winemaker, estate manager and director at La Conseillante, commented that her 2017 was “closer to 2016 in style and concentration than 2014 or 2015, with the same total acidity but crisper tannins and less alcohol”. Of the quality of the vintage more generally, she observed that if 2017 had followed on directly after 2014 there would be more people saying “wow!”, but that nevertheless it was not a “petit millésime” and definitely not “another 7”. She preferred to classify the vintage as “classic plus plus”.
Guillaume Thienpont, at perennial over-performer Vieux Château Certan, pointed to the “freshness of 2014 and the roundness of 2015”, leading to a 2017 that was “beautiful, soft, ripe and balanced”. In Saint-Emilion comparisons have been made to 2012, a vintage that is increasingly well regarded on the Right Bank especially, and Canon, one of the most successful châteaux in recent vintages, again drawing parallels with the suppleness and unctuousness of 2015, this time allied with the structure of 2016 but with more immediate charm and terroir definition.
Back in Pessac, Edange suggested the vintage had the fine-grained tannins of 2001, a year increasingly stepping out from under the shade of 2000, with more of the structure of 1999, while Teitgen managed to involve (a record) four vintages in his assessment, concluding that 2017 resembled “2014 for acidity and tension but with greater body, and more so than 2008, allied with the roundness and sweetness of 2001 and 2006”! Fournier, another arguing “2017 is an end to the run of weak 7s since 1947”, also invited comparison to 2015, suggesting Pichon showed the same completeness, with a similar succulence of fruit, mineral salinity and phenolic development.
Beychevelle and Grand Puy Lacoste both mentioned 2015 in their assessments of 2017’s structure, but also that the September rains prevented the wines more closely resembling 2016, while First Growth Mouton Rothschild saw the vintage as leading to a wine more complex and concentrated than 2014, but less rich than 2015 and more in-line with 2001. At Calon Ségur in Saint-Estèphe, the perfect ripeness of the Cabernet Sauvignon but earlier than optimum Merlot harvest, led to an appraisal that combined the freshness of 2008, and the fruit profile of 2012 with the elegance if not weight of 2010.
Such varied comparisons make it tricky to navigate this complex vintage, but perhaps a summary could be that the best wines are ripe but intense rather than opulent, and the finest have the structure and concentration of fruit for longer ageing and the balance to evolve with grace and charm. All will offer good mid-term drinking, ahead of most 2015s and surely all 2016s.
While it is too early to point to prices, there have been a number of indications that châteaux understand the need to reset from the eye-watering peaks of 2015 and then 2016. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for many who lost 80 per cent or more of their crop to further reduce profits, although some of the worst hit have also traditionally offered the best value – so perhaps they can maintain stronger positions this year without inviting criticism.
However, if pricing is not over-ambitious (with some châteaux mooting up to a 20 per cent drop) then 2017 deserves to be recognised by consumers, with Cazaux even suggesting it was the duty of critics to be enthusiastic. Such encouragement aside, it is fair to say that this year’s en primeur campaign does not deserve to fail based on quality, and those who taste will soon see that although the vintage had its challenges, the results are often far from challenging. Shrewd Bordeaux lovers, and even investors, should be aiming to pick up four-star wines at three-star prices (and even look out for a five-star or two). 2017 could herald a new era of positivity around the region and en primeur, but will require châteaux to respond accordingly with sufficiently attractive pricing to reward cautious enthusiasm…
*From Smith Haut Lafitte 2017 en primeur tasting booklet
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter.