Bordeaux 2017 - A year of contrast
Life isn’t fair and neither is nature. As the earth gets warmer, flowering gets earlier, and the risk of frost damage becomes greater. Not many winemakers can recall the frosts of 1991 first hand, but their legacy is still haunting. When the meteorologists predicted a cold blast on the nights of the 27th and 28th of April, there was a genuine sense of panic. Most with the means deployed bougies, wind turbines, helicopters, lit hay, took whatever measures they could - the rest left it to chance.
The best protection was provided by nature; proximity to the Gironde and altitude. These by no coincidence at all are the best terroirs. The grand estates of the Medoc such as Leoville Las Cases, Pichon Comtesse and Montrose reported virtually no frost damage at all. Likewise in Pomerol, Chateau Lafleur, Petrus, Vieux Chateau Certan and all the other big names on the plateau of Pomerol were unscathed. There were a few notable casualties such as Cheval Blanc and Figeac, but the damage was far from catastrophic and the resulting wines are both spectacular.
Those situated on low lying vineyards in St Emilion or further away from the Gironde estuary in the Medoc had no natural protection. Here the mercury dipped below the critical level and frost damage was devastating. In places the whole crop was lost. Vignerons had to wait patiently and hope for a second generation bud. In most cases the second generation was futile.
Those partially affected by the frost predominantly lost their least auspicious terroirs and plots planted with young vines, normally designated into second wines and generics. A natural selection if you like… Statistically, 2017 does not make good reading for Bordeaux as a whole; appellations that produce bulk wine were hit hard. Total output was 3.5m hectolitres, some 40% lower than 2016. However, yields at the top Chateaux are relatively normal and if they are down, it is generally attributed to the small berries caused by the drought conditions in July and August.
2017 is best summarised as an early vintage with significant hydric stress. Bud break, flowering, veraison and harvest were all two weeks ahead of the norm. Thankfully there was sufficient rain in June to carry the vines through the drought that was July and August. Average temperatures in July and August were not remarkable, although some Chateaux pointed out that alternating temperatures from warm days to cold days aided ripening. September brought much needed rain and cooler conditions. The nights were particularly cool which helped prevent botrytis and helped retain low pH levels. The latter part of the month saw a return to dry conditions which allowed the Cabernets to attain full maturity.
And what of the wines? Statistics can provide rationalisations, but they can’t tell you what the wines taste like. As Baptiste Guinaudeau says, the 2017s clearly fit into the trilogy of vintages affected by hydric stress, 2015, 2016 and 2017. There is wonderful, refreshing acidity and vitality to the fruit. Alcohol levels very moderate, much like in 2016. The wines are vibrant and aromatic. Due to the small berries, there is good colour and the quality of the press wines is very interesting. As 2017 didn’t have the warmth of 2015 and 2016, they are generally not as broad as their predecessors, however, the key was to extract gently and then use the high quality press wines to fill out the mid-palate. There are scores of successes. Vignerons who have been sympathetic and allowed their terroirs to speak have triumphed. Olivier Berrouet’s Petrus is absolutely outstanding, Chateau Lafleur and Pensees de Lafleur speak of purity and breed, Canon, Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Figeac and Tertre Roteboeuf have all produced worthy successors to their 2015s and 2016s. On the Left Bank, Chateau Margaux is perhaps a class apart, but Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Montrose, Pichon Comtesse and Leoville Las Cases are all out of the top drawer, and there are numerous others worthy of mention: Grand Puy Lacoste, Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Bailly, Leoville Barton, Lynch Bages, Ducru Beaucaillou, Calon Segur, Palmer, Pichon Longueville, Brane Cantenac and Rauzan Segla.
One hesitates to use the term ‘classical’ as this expression has been hijacked as a euphemistic idiom for a wash out. 2017 certainly isn’t weak, which will no doubt disappoint those superstitious about vintages ending in seven! There is nothing excessive, they are perfectly mannered, understated yet handsome, rather like a perfectly tailored Saville Row suit. They ooze charm, grace, sophistication and elegance. Some would say they are somewhere between 2014 and 2015, but we didn’t really detect the flamboyance of 2015 in many wines. Perhaps they are more in the image of 2014 with a little bit of the class of 2016. As with the 2016s, there aren’t any real reference points. 2017 is uniquely 2017. Nature has done its own selection, and the results are rather special.