Bordeaux 2017 Vintage Report

The vintage with a split personality

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Vintage Summary

For the past couple of years the Bordeaux primeur reports have all but written themselves, bar the odd statistic or weather fact, whereas the 2017 vintage is infinitely more complex on so many different levels. No declaration of vintage of the century on the one hand, but equally no press condemnation on the other; indeed, the only press attention was in April 2017 detailing the destructive frosts which occurred on three consecutive nights towards the end of the month. Yet the producers were all very clear that they did not want this vintage to be written off as a frost year, nor defined solely by this event, so bar our explanations below of the spread and ramifications of the frost we will not dwell on it except where absolutely necessary.

The Growing Season

So where to start? The growing season is, of course, the driver of the vintage and the winter of 2016/2017 was exceptionally dry, with less than half the average rainfall; temperatures were also low, which enabled the vines to rest and recuperate after two successful vintages in a row. Spring came early, warm and wet, although not sufficiently so to replace the winter shortfall, and bud burst was equally early, starting at the end of March, two weeks ahead of the average so, at the time of the 2016 primeur tastings last year, some vineyards had a good few inches of growth on their vines. The infamous frost struck firstly on 27th April, with two more frosts on subsequent nights, but for those hit the worst damage was done on the first night. May and June continued hot and dry, until much needed rain fell in the last few days of June; flowering was early and rapid with a very successful fruit set. July and August followed with fine, dry weather but cooler temperatures than average, and the precocious cycle continued with early véraison (changing of grapes from green to red), bringing the prospect of an early harvest. Rain in mid-September across the region was more or less welcome, depending on the zone and the ripeness of the grapes, and few suffered from dilution as the soils were so parched. Following the rain, the cool dry weather returned and the less nervous growers had the luxury of choosing the harvest date according to the ripeness of their fruit; inevitably, some growers didn’t dare risk any further losses and picked when the rain was forecast, leading them to harvest less than perfectly ripe fruit; we will not be offering any of these. Harvest was indeed early, with many starting their Merlot in early September (normally mid- to late September) and their Cabernets in mid-September (normally late September or early October). Even renowned late pickers were fully harvested by mid-October.

The Frost

The elephant in the room has to be examined in order to understand some of the wines in 2017. Nature is cruel, and never more so than in vineyards, it would appear, where the work of a year can be wiped out in one go. The frosts of 27th-29th April were harsh, with temperatures falling as low as minus 5 degrees Celcius in some places, but the killer was the bright sunshine on the following mornings, burning the affected vines through the magnifying glass of ice. Unlike in Burgundy in 2016, or indeed Bordeaux in 1991, the frost was not uniform, but instead saw pockets of frost next to frost-free areas and some flatter zones, particularly those with lying water or streams, ironically, suffered more. On the Right Bank, the limestone escarpments of St Emilion lost around 1% of the crop whilst the vineyards on the plain lost between 25% and 80%. Pomerol’s plateau was protected principally thanks to prompt action by the growers who clubbed together to light candles and use fans to disperse both the smoke and the cold, whilst those on the sides of the plateau, particularly towards Lalande de Pomerol, were decimated.

Interestingly, the top Left Bank vineyard locations where First Growths and Super Seconds are located were scarcely touched. As ever, the Médoc was protected by the Gironde which keeps the vineyards closest to the banks warmer by a couple of degrees and the classed growths were by and large spared, whilst the lesser vineyards suffered hugely; further inland, regions like Moulis and Listrac and the more internal vineyards of Margaux were decimated. Pessac-Léognan, with the exception of urban vineyards like Haut Brion and La Mission, was hit hard, and Sauternes suffered greatly.

If the vine could accept that once frosted, it would produce nothing that year, all would be well and good, however nature is hardwired to reproduce and to keep trying to do so. The principal buds for a vintage are those which break first; secondary buds will normally burst a couple of weeks later and are usually removed in May / June once the frost risk has passed and they are not allowed to fruit. In 2017, these secondary buds in some instances had yet to burst, so they survived the frost and most were allowed to continue to fruition, some three weeks behind any surviving first buds. In some instances where secondary buds were also frosted, tertiary buds, very immature and not destined to appear for at least another year, were forced into life and to fruit. Few growers were prepared to talk about their third generation fruit, but it is sure that in some lesser wines much of the fruit from these buds was included, particularly with Merlot, an early developing variety.

The patchwork nature of the frost and the second and third generation buds meant that  conscientious vignerons had to go through the vineyards vine by vine, marking each one individually so they knew how it had been affected by the frost as once the vines were in full growth it would be nigh on impossible to tell the difference visually between the different generations of fruit. Many of the top châteaux explained that their harvest took place in several passes or tries, a system usually reserved for Sauternes, to be sure to pick the fruit only when it was completely ripe, hiring smaller tanks to ferment the fruit from each trie separately. Any second generation wines were assessed separately and were not automatically included in the blends; some took the decision early on not to include second generation wines atall, whilst others rejected the grapes immediately on the vine to avoid any potential damage to their wines and reputations. Those who included imperfectly ripe second generation fruit made wines with a clear hole in the middle which is unlikely to fill out in barrel – in the short term it may be filled with toasty oak notes but the lack of stuffing will show within a couple of years. We will not be offering such wines.

The Wines and Left or Right Bank?

Because of the early start to the growing season, harvest started commensurately early for those not hit by frost; what was particularly unusual in 2017 is that early harvests are usually synonymous with hot vintages, but the cooler growing season meant that the 2017s maintained unusually fresh fruit, coupled with good acidity levels, yet with substantial, ripe supple tannins. The most often repeated descriptor for the wines was ‘juicy’ – a term usually reserved for cool, later harvesting years. No cooked fruit here, but pure, youthful, primary fruit, fresh and vibrant.

The perennial Left Bank v Right Bank question raises its head, and this year it is much more of a question of individual vineyards and appellations, with triumphs and less than stellar performances on both sides of the river. St Estèphe and Pauillac were particularly successful in the Médoc, with St Julien putting in a very fine performance; Margaux was more mixed because of the diversity of its soils and vineyards, and the sheer size of the appellation, and St Emilion was mixed for the same reasons, with the Premiers Grands Crus Classés performing better than many Grands Crus or lesser wines. Pomerol was very consistent and one of our appellations of the vintage. Baptiste Guinaudeau of Lafleur and Grand Village called it ‘a strong trilogy’, coming as it does after the brilliant 2015 and 2016, whilst Denis Durantou of Eglise Clinet called it ‘a rare triplet for Bordeaux’.

The Market

No analysis of a primeur campaign is complete without a brief overview of the market as no matter how good the wines are, if the market isn’t interested, there is little the proprietors can do. The third good or better vintage in a row always suffers from the limelight shining on its predecessors but there is a very definitely a place for the 2017 vintage in many cellars as it will in general be a medium term vintage (there will be exceptions to this which will benefit from longer storage) and will drink before both the 2015s and 2016s, and ahead of the many 2010s as well. Proprietors recognise that it is not as great a vintage and are all talking about lowering their prices; indeed early releases of crus bourgeois have been priced between the 2014 and 2015 releases, which fits neatly with the styles of the wines. It remains to be seen if the better known properties continue this pattern or not. Fortunately, at least at the time of writing, sterling has rallied against the euro and we hope that there may be an exchange benefit against the previous few years’ prices.

Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
Director of Buying, April 2018

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