Bordeaux 2017 can resemble 1985

May 2018 Updates on tasting notes: Margaux as well as Sauternes/Barsac posted!

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

26 April 2018

This page will be updated regularly, with barrel tasting notes per appellation (keep checking back for new ones).


Saint Emilion 

Graves & Pessac-Léognan

The northern Médoc: Pauillac, Saint Estèphe and Saint Julien

Moulis, Listrac and Haut Médoc 

Margaux AOC

Sauternes and Barsac

Right Bank “Satellites”

In assessing the 2017 vintage, some have conjured the dreaded -7 digit, with images of aquatic 1987 reds, or – heaven forbid – insipid 1977 vintage reds. 1967 is not as bad as some would say (as I found out at a -7 vertical at Château Smith Haut Lafitte earlier this month, reaching back to the splendid 1947), but the point is taken. Most recent vintages ending in -7 have been at best “pretty good” as in 2007 or 1997.  But I submit that with 2017, the -7 series (in a bad sense) ends. At least for some wines from the vintage. Now, it is not a blockbuster, as in 1947, either.

And, as I had written previously in these pages, 2017 encapsulates not one, but “several” vintages. Informed observers – from Bill Blatch, who writes superb harvest reports, to rising star winemaking consultant Thomas Duclos – note that the vintage can be divided at least into three categories: totally frosted, partially frosted, or not frosted. Then you have different reactions to the two latter situations, with variations according to producer. And of course stylistic winemaking preferences.

Not to mention how regions and microclimates (and grape varieties) handled a somewhat sunless summer and September rains. Some properties have quicker ripening soils so that their Merlots – for example – were not as affected by the rains (Haut Brion, anyone?).

But, one can find a general characteristic for the reds, and it resembles more a vintage ending in -5. No, not 2005. As Blatch wrote, many 2017s have an “underlying gentle nature” that brings forth charm, moderate alcohol levels and pleasing aromatics.

So, what comes to mind?

After tasting hundreds of red wine barrel samples from 2017 earlier this month, I began to think of a tasting in Oslo a couple of years ago with Norway-based wine friends Christer Byklum and Roger Kolbu. I stayed over at Roger’s place one night, and brought Château Léoville Barton 1986 to enjoy. Some 30 years later, the 1986 came across as (still) foreboding, its tannins prominent, so Roger pulled out a Léoville Barton 1985, which was charming, supple and delicious. And 2017 comes to mind… 

Photo by Miguel Lecuona

Sure, summer drought conditions and September rain led to some hard or stiff (and in some rare cases, green) tannins in some wines, but one never gets the impression of a tannic power vintage such as 2010 (or 1986).

Barrel aging should soften any hard or stiff tannin, but wines sans stiffness of tannin count among the very best of 2017. Barrel aging will fill out mid palates, while maintaining lively aromatic aspects for some darn delicious wines that will last longer than some people may think.

Over dinner at Château Troplong Mondot I met with Thomas Duclos – an increasingly influential consultant these days in Bordeaux, who favors freshness over bigness (Hurrah!). He says that many 2017 barrel samples exhibit fresh fruit and finishes with lift, but not as much power.

“You get aromatics of iris and rose, as well as bramble bush, but rarely any green notes,” he said.

Of course 1985 had different seasonal characteristics (even if both 2017 and 1985 had somewhat cooler or at least average summers), but the overall feel of 1985 resembles that of 2017 at this early stage of prognosis.

Here a few from the Right Bank samples that I count among the most memorable from 2017, all exuding delectable, sap driven juiciness:

Saint Emilion: Angélus, Ausone, Canon, Cheval Blanc, Troplong Mondot, Tertre Roteboeuf

Pomerol: La Conseillante, Evangile, Petrus, Vieux Château Certan, Trotanoy, Lafleur

But also Fronsac… Certainly not in the same league as the above, but these wines prove that you do not need to aim necessarily super high in 2017 to get good quality: Château de la Rivière, especially, but also Château Villars, Château de la Dauphine, Château La Vieille Cure among others.

On the Left Bank, too, you can find some great wines generally from the great terroirs, but – as you will read soon in my tasting notes – 2017 includes some excellent value wines on the Left Bank, too.

Nitty gritty frosty details

Still, this 1985 comparison is just a generalization.

2017 is not that simple to characterize, as mentioned in the first paragraph. Let us consider the various factors, starting with the late April frost that struck Bordeaux and was – as Blatch also wrote – of “epic proportions”.

Apart from totally different freezes of February 1956 and January 1985, which were winter rather than spring frosts, the frost of 2017 was more damaging than other recent spring frosts, including 1977 and 1991. At the time, it was estimated that 60 to 70% of Bordeaux’s vineyards had been affected and 40% potential production lost (the CIVB reported 30 million equivalent bottles), according to Blatch.

Many cooler vineyard sites were hit, from grand cru areas to Entre-Deux-Mers . Matthieu Cuvelier of Château Clos Fourtet, which enjoys excellent terroir on the Saint Emilion limestone plateau, said his vineyards facing north and west were struck more than his neighbor’s – Château Canon – which face more south and east.

But Entre-Deux-Mers lost at least 50% of the potential harvest to frost, Lalande de Pomerol up to 80% and the lowland and lower slopes plus the northern slopes of St Emilion mostly50%, according to Blatch. The lower Graves lost 50 to 80% and Barsac 60-100%.

For the most part indeed, the best reds of 2017 come from high elevation terroirs not affected (or not as badly affected) by the terrible late April frosts.

Vintners can say all they want about having made “great wine in spite of the frost” (some indeed did, like Château Evangile in Pomerol), but those who did not have to deal with frost had one giant worry removed from the 2017 equation, such as Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol. Sure, many top terroirs were little affected by frost, from great growths in the Médoc with soils near the river, to expensive estates on the Pomerol plateau. As Blatch wrote: “Well-to-do red properties were the least affected and went on to make a normal vintage (there is no justice in this world!).”

Interestingly however, 2017 did not mean only very expensive wines did well. Take for example the high elevation terroir of Château de la Rivière in Fronsac, whose bottles sell for less than €20 ex-château.

No frost reported there, either. And guess what? The wine is of excellent quality.

Indeed, higher elevation terroirs “facing the river” in the Médoc did well, too, and are not limited to the expensive brands, either. In addition to Montrose for example, Château Meyney and Château Beychevelle come to mind as successful 2017s, too.

Sunless summer and September rains

Cooler terroirs were more susceptible as well to the relatively sunless summer. Both Gabriel Vialard of Château Haut Bailly and Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier explained that their Merlots could have lived without that aspect of the summer – as well as the September rain.

Estates untouched by the frost – such as Château Calon Ségur and Château Latour – could have easily done without the September rainfall. It could have been worse, of course.

The vintage was at first two weeks in advance, so that the grapes were already quite ripe when the rains began to fall. It was not like 2011 or 2006, when rain came and the grapes needed more days to fully ripen, explained Eric Kohler of Château Lafite Rothschild.

Another noteworthy fact: Some terroirs excelled particularly in 2017 making wines nearly as good as 2016, and better than 2015 in some cases, especially for lovers of freshness and purity of fruit, as opposed to the big broad and super ripe. Examples that come to mind include a wine like Château Tertre Roteboeuf, whose balance at 14% in 2017 is more appealing to me than the balance at 15.5% in 2015. The Pomerols on the plateau come to mind as well, from the gorgeous Evangile to a refined and pure La Conseillante, by way of Pétrus, Lafleur and Vieux Château Certan. If prices are lower for Evangile or La Conseillante in particular, I may be a buyer…

On the Left Bank, Château Haut Bailly – with its pure expression of ripe Cabernet Sauvignon – was likely the best red Pessac Léognan outside both Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion. These latter estates picked almost all their Merlots before the September rains and achieved wines of great charm, freshness and richness.

One pitfall for some wines I tasted may have been harvesting some second generation grapes. “It is not clear that any properties used second generation grapes,” Duclos said. But it is clear that it was not always black and white when it came to frost damage. There are cases of vines half affected by frost for example, and in the rush of harvesting, maybe some second-generation grapes got into the mix for some properties, which may explain the occasional green tannins encountered.

Duclos sees the 2017 vintage as combining some of 2014 and some of 2016: “We have very many fine aromatics, but sometimes the mid palate is a bit thin, he said, but “barrel aging will fill that out.” Meanwhile, Chateau Latour technical director Hélène Génin described 2017 as a mix of the plump charm of 2012 with the length and lift of 2014.

I do not see much 2016 in the 2017 vintage. Generally speaking 2016 is a superior vintage, but that does not remove the genuine charm of 2017 (modern day 1985!) and – for some estates – some greatness, too.

Very good dry whites, if picked at the right time

While September rain seemed to lessen the éclat of Cabernets at Latour and Calon Ségur, “it was not a problem at all to be cooler in the summer for the whites,” Eric Kohler stressed, in speaking of the dry white Rieussec he crafted. “When you have a strong summer, it can make a great red, but then it may make the whites a bit tired,” he said. “This year it was great because the fruits and the clusters, you wanted to eat like a salad.” But it was important to pick the grapes before a hot period at the end of August, adds Thomas Duclos: “Those who harvested before some particularly hot days towards the end of August ended up with very nice wines, but those who did after – starting on 5 September – it was a bit more complicated,” he said. Having tasted through many dry whites, from Bordeaux AOC to Graves and Péssac-Léognan, I get the general impression that 2017 was a successful vintage for dry white Bordeaux.

Stay tuned for detailed wine tasting notes ?

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4 Comments on “Bordeaux 2017 can resemble 1985

  1. Oh, c’mon Panos, you were still running around in your Greek knickers when the 1985s were harvested! But I’ll grant you that your vintage comparison with 2017 is, at the very least, an autoschediastic one.

    And, by the way, can you clarify for me the difference between “hard” and “stiff” – or should I just refer the question to your friend, Stormy Daniels?

    Finally, while I agree with most of your selections above, I think you may be overlooking a lot of great “value”, not to mention just plain great wines: Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Figeac, Feytit-Clinet, Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Marquis d’Alesme, Fonbadet, Pontet-Canet and the two Pichons from Pauillac, are but a sampling of names that spring nimbly to mind. But I’m confident that they’ll find a welcome echo in your detailed tasting notes.

    • Hi Jeffrey. Sure the 1985 comparison is a bit off the cuff – and you display your wisdom with such words that need to be looked up.

      Stiff and hard. Maybe it would have been preferable to have used steely and hard but if I can track down Stormy, I’ll let you know.

      I agree with you too on most of the other wines you list; alas I missed out on both Pontet Canet and the Baron, due to time constraints but certainly the Comtesse was gorgeous.

      Anyway, thanks for reading.

  2. I hate to admit it, but 1985 was the first vintage I tasted in barrel. I remember being struck by how much less opulent they were than the 1982s I tasted in bottle, but also how beautifully balanced they were. At the time, they were being compared to the 1953s, and that seems to have been borne out with time, a vintage which seems to have evolved beautifully, and I have yet to find one that has proved to be over the hill.
    The same with 1985. I have done two tastings, and both times been very impressed, and the balance has been a feature of both tastings. That sets a pretty high bar for a vintage as heterogenous as 2017. I hope you are right, but it’s early days, and frankly, at the relatively small discount to 2016, I would certainly not be interested in futures.

    • Greetings Mark. Your experience is so impressive! Times are different these days and the experience of tasting Bordeaux from barrel in April 1986 reflects another era. What I’m certainly not saying is that all wines of 2017 have that 1985 charm, as it comes forth in bottles today some 30 years later. I do think that the relatively moderate alcohol and rather moderate acidity along with (sometimes) “understated” ripeness (this is not a huge, big vintage) ends up in the better wines creating an image a charm and succulence – maybe wines that could turn off lovers of the large scaled. Also, while no estate broke any records for high tannin levels in 2017, it is not a vintage without structure, and barrel aging will lend more structure and result in fine wine that in notable cases may last longer than some people might think. Of course it is heterogenous: Factor in the frost and our thoughts go out to those estates that couldn’t produce any wine, let alone those who dealt with it and were able to make some wine for better or worse. Being a writer, I suppose demands catchy headlines … but I’m just saying that the very best wines certainly do have that “85 charm” that we encounter today. Thanks for reading and for sharing your observations.

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