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Bordeaux 2017 - A year of contrast
Life is not fair and neither is nature. As the earth warms, flowering becomes earlier and the risk of frost damage increases. Few winemakers remember the frosts of 1991, but their legacy is still haunting. When meteorologists predicted a cold blast on the nights of April 27 and 28, there was a real sense of panic. Most with the means deployed, candles, wind turbines, helicopters, lit hay, took all the measures they could - the others left it to chance.
The best protection was provided by nature; proximity to the Gironde and the altitude. These are not at all the best terroirs. Large Médoc estates such as Léoville Las Cases, Pichon Comtesse and Montrose reported virtually no frost damage. Likewise in Pomerol, Château Lafleur, Petrus, Vieux Château Certan and all the other big names on the Pomerol plateau were unscathed. There were some notable casualties such as Cheval Blanc and Figeac, but the damage was far from catastrophic and the resulting wines are both spectacular.
Those located on low altitude vineyards in St Emilion or further away from the Gironde estuary in the Médoc had no natural protection. Here the mercury fell below the critical level and the damage from the frost was devastating. In places, the entire harvest was lost. Winegrowers 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 mainly lost their less favorable terroirs and their plots planted with young vines, normally designated as secondary and generic wines. A natural selection if you will... Statistically, 2017 is not a good reading for Bordeaux as a whole; Appellations that produce wine in bulk have been hit hard. Total production amounted to 3.5 million hectoliters, around 40% less than in 2016. However, yields from higher châteaux are relatively normal and if they are declining, this is usually attributed to small berries caused by drought conditions in July and August.
2017 is best summarized as an early vintage with significant water stress. Bud break, flowering, veraison and harvest were all two weeks ahead of the norm. Fortunately, there was enough rain in June to carry the vines through the drought of July and August. Average temperatures in July and August were not remarkable, although some châteaux pointed out that alternating temperatures from hot to cold days favored ripening. September brought much needed rain and cooler conditions. The nights were particularly cool, which helped prevent botrytis and maintain low pH levels. The latter part of the month saw a return to dry conditions which allowed the Cabernets to reach full maturity.
And what about wines? Statistics can provide rationalizations, but they can't tell you what wines taste like. As Baptiste Guinaudeau says, the 2017s clearly fit into the trilogy of vintages affected by water constraints, 2015, 2016 and 2017. There is a wonderful and refreshing acidity and vitality to the fruit. Very moderate alcohol level, a bit like in 2016. The wines are vibrant and aromatic. Due to the small berries there is good color and the quality of the press wines is very interesting. As 2017 did not have the heat of 2015 and 2016, they are generally not as broad as their predecessors, however, the key was to extract gently then use the high quality press wines to fill out the middle of mouth. There are dozens of successes. The winegrowers who were friendly and let their terroirs speak have triumphed. Olivier Berrouet's Petrus is absolutely exceptional, Château Lafleur and Percesses de Lafleur speak of purity and breed, Canon, Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Figeac and Tertre Roteboeuf have all produced worthy successors to their 2015 and 2016. On the left bank , Château Margaux may be in a class of its own, but Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Montrose, Pichon Comtesse and Léoville Las Cases all came from the top drawer, and there are many more worthy ones of mention: Grand Puy Lacoste, Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Bailly, Léoville Barton, Lynch Bages, Ducru Beaucaillou, Calon Segur, Palmer, Pichon Longueville, Brane Cantenac and Rauzan Segla.