Every year in early April the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) organises a series of tastings in all the major appellations of the Bordeaux region. The British wine trade descends on the city in droves to sniff, sip, and pass judgement on the freshly drawn barrel samples of the six-month-old vintage that will hit the market in the ensuing en primeur campaign in May and June. The Goedhuis team has tasted its way across the 2017s of the Médoc, Right Bank, Pessac Léognan, and Sauternes.
Following the 2015-2016 double – vintages that were both widely praised as outstanding – 2017 had its work cut out. Frost will dominate much talk of the vintage, and indeed its importance in certain areas should not be underplayed. But the frost, widespread as it was (indeed across the whole of Europe), was patchy across Bordeaux, and many estates were left entirely untouched. The growing season that followed was a fairly straightforward one and had the potential to produce some very good wines in capable hands.
Five consecutive nights at the end of April brought frost to Bordeaux. The nights of 26th , 27th and 28th April were the worst, with temperatures dropping well below zero accompanied by a slicing wind from Siberia that funnelled through the vineyards. Despite their best efforts (helicopters, fires, smoke screens and so on) some Bordelais lost hectare upon hectare of newly burst buds to the frost. St Emilion, Pomerol, parts of Pessac Léognan, and Sauternes paid particularly dearly, with Ch Climens in Barsac losing 100% of its crop. Those in the Médoc did not escape either, although those properties nearer the river benefitted from its protection and many of the top terroirs were left unscathed. The reported damage across the whole region stands at 40%.
The precocity of the growing season meant that, unlike the case of the even later frost in 1961 (29th May), the vines had the chance to grow new buds, and many produced a crop of ‘second generation’ fruit that ripened in time for harvest in late September/early October. Those affected by the frost therefore had a decision to make: whether to use second generation fruit or not. It is vine growing lore that, unlike many other forms of disaster that can strike a vineyard, frost does not damage quality, only quantity. That is, if the bud is frosted, it does not grow. Therefore there is no quality to judge, it is simply absent from the blend. But vines are determined and resourceful plants, and given half a chance, they will attempt to grow again after disaster strikes. And so the plot thickens in an early vintage like 2017 that had (just) the adequate time to ripen this second generation of growth. Decisions around whether to include this fruit in the final blend do in fact have a bearing on the character of the wine, and thus the quality. We heard arguments on both sides of this conundrum, and it was down to the decision of individual estates to interpret the vineyard’s production in the most favourable style of their own.
So, where and why did the frost strike? Cool air is heavier than warm air, and so lower lying vines are at much greater risk of frost damage. This is why most premier and grand cru vineyards in Burgundy, for example, are situated on the mid-slope, with village level vineyards on the flatter land below. They benefit from the protective ‘thermal zone’ of the hillside. Gabriel Vialard at Ch Haut Bailly explained that the vines planted in a very slight depression at either end of the property were the ones affected by frost, whilst those on the slight rise in the middle of the estate escaped. This pattern follows exactly the historical planting of the estate, showing how previous generations of growers had realised the greater risk to lower lying land.
For these reasons, there is no pattern to the frost affecting one variety more than others, or vines of a certain age over others. Its damage was meted out purely on topographical lines. As a result, some properties have unusually weighted blends compared to previous years. Ch l’Evangile is 100% Merlot this year because all of their Cabernet Franc, which usually accounts for 6-10% of the blend, was frosted.
There is much else to consider in 2017 than the frost, unlikely as it is to be remembered for anything else. Some parts of the growing season were the best in recent years, like flowering, for example. This occurred around 19th – 30th May (around 10 days ahead of the average) and took place in beautifully warm, dry weather. This lead to excellent fruit-set with next to no millerandage (small grapes) or coulure (aborted grapes). Veraison (berries changing colour) coincided with a gentle level of water stress meaning this stage was completed with rapidity and uniformity. This clement growing season meant that, for un-frosted vineyards, yields were high and healthy. Had the April frost not happened, this vintage could have gone down as a big and beautiful one.
June was warm and dry, and the threat of drought began to concern some in the region. Having had a dry winter and warm spring, water reserves were running low. A torrential downpour at the end of June calmed nerves (120mm fell in Pessac Léognan in 3 days).
July and August were unusual: warm (roughly average for the time of year, but with a few very hot days), but consistently cloudy. In very general terms, temperature governs phenolic ripeness: tannins, anthocyanins, and other phenolic compounds. Sunlight governs physiological ripeness: acidity and sugar, and therefore potential alcohol. It is difficult to precisely distinguish these two forms of ripening in a given climate or vintage, mainly because warm temperatures usually go hand in hand with high sunlight strength and vice versa. But in the unusual case of 2017, the warm temperatures with little sunlight meant the vines did not photosynthesise lots of sugar and behaved more like they would in a ‘cool’ vintage, whilst tannins and other phenolic compounds developed as they would in an average year. The result in is a vintage with lower alcohol than the previous two years (many on the Left Bank are between 12.5-13.5%), with perfectly ripe tannins. Nothing seems cooked or stewed, nor does it seem green or under-ripe. Consequently, many producers are coining it a ‘classic’ vintage, with elegant balance. For the most part, I would have to agree. The flaw some wines suffer from is an absence of fleshy mid-palate. The fruit is pretty, aromatic, and poised; the tannins are ripe and fine-grained; the acidity is fresh and well balanced. But somehow some wines lack that luxurious and profound drive the best red Bordeaux possess.
July and August, importantly, lacked rain. Only 44mm fell in Margaux over the two months. Along with 2000, 2005, and 2012, it is amongst the driest summers in the past 20 years. Much of Europe suffered an acute drought during this period with extreme conditions in Italy and Spain, and catastrophic wildfires raging across Portugal. A little water stress is beneficial for fruit quality as the vine strives to spread its seed, struggling against the slight discomfort of thirst. Too much, however, and the plant shuts down resulting in a cessation in fruit maturation. We asked producers whether water stress over this summer period had been a concern. Many replied that it hadn’t. Some explained that they were approaching the limit, but given the downpour in June, and the rain that fell in September, the vines in Bordeaux did not reach that critical point where they begin to shut down. Water stress is often as much to do with soil as it is to do with rainfall. Lilian Barton-Sartorius explained a combination of ploughing the soils (helping the drainage of the heavy June rainfall), proximity to the river (and thus a high water table) and old vines (with deep roots) meant they suffered no water stress at all at Chx Léoville and Langoa Barton. The vines had just enough stress to strive for quality.
So, although the frost was distinctly heterogeneous in is impact, the rest of the growing season can be noted for its homogeneous nature, with vines developing through the growing season at a steady and uniform rate, clearing all the hurdles of flowering, fruit-set, and veraison with ease, and sitting out the potential drought without significant loss or delay in ripening.
The months of September and October presented some critical decision points over picking dates. The season was early, and most properties making whites had started picking in late August. The harvest for Merlot took place from the second week of September. Rain was forecast towards the end of September, and some estates decided to keep moving and pull in all the later-ripening Cabernets before the threat of botrytis rot had a bearing on quality and yield. Indeed, this rain brought on a rapid botrytis infection in Sauternes, much to the growers’ delight. But the majority of those making dry red wines took a gamble and briefly paused from picking during the rain, holding out for some dry weather to follow. They were well rewarded by a gloriously dry, warm spell at the end of September running into early October. This last stretch gave the Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc an extra lift for those who had waited, and these wines have a creamier density compared to the grippier character of those picked before.
Whilst some parts of the fine wine trade might have a deservedly conservative image, this is not something one could level at the viticulturalists and oenologists in Bordeaux. The region might have a traditional image, but they are ever ready to embrace innovation in the vineyard and cellar. The Bordelais have wrestled with a complicated season and have shown a great deal of initiative. The general trend for a lighter touch in the winery with less extraction was a perfect match for 2017. The result is a vintage with much greater consistency than we had anticipated: a classical balance of fresh fruited aromas, medium weight, moderate alcohol, and in many cases fine, silky tannins. Amongst the many good wines are a few seriously high quality ones.
Our full brochure will be published at the beginning of May, with detailed analyses of each appellation, as well as tasting notes and scores for individual wines. A lot, as ever, will depend on price. It might not have the cachet of the two preceding vintages, but 2017 should not be snubbed on quality. If you choose carefully there are some wonderful wines to be enjoyed here.