Bordeaux 2017

The “multiple” vintage

8 April 2017

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

“The only candle I lit was the one at church,” quipped Guillaume Thienpont of Vieux Château Certan, where the terrible frost of late April that struck many other estates in Bordeaux did not reach his estate. Some estates used large candles (or bougies) to raise temperatures. Special windmills were used to bring down hotter air onto the surface (useful for Spring frost, but absurd for Winter frost, because there is only cold air). Anyway, we get it: frost was an issue in 2017. But not everywhere. Thienpoint thus had one massive worry off his mind, and 2017 basically completed a fine trio of vintages starting with 2015. I would make it a quattro because the Vieux Château Certan 2014 is excellent, and may better the 2015 for lovers of freshness and elegance.

Indeed, as some writers have already stressed, some with excellent humor, like Yves Beck, 2017 “does not exist,” as it is several vintages in one. For those who had to deal with frost – and deal with it efficiently – that not only reduced their yields, but also increased their work load.

Not too far away at Château Evangile, director Jean Pascal Vazart calls 2017 “the best vintage ending in 7 since the 1947.” But it was not free and easy for him and his team: in May and to mid June – 45 days of meticulous work – they marked vines with paint to differentiate even parts of single vines damaged from the frost and parts which were not, so as to avoid harvesting under-ripe, second generation grapes.

At Château Palmer across in the Médoc, Thomas Duroux and his team also had to deal with some frost damaged vines (not as many as at Evangile), but they opted for green harvesting those that were not as quickly ripening so as to avoid putting them into the wine.

According to Vazart, labeling with paint was essential because harvesters could not taste every single grape to detect the difference: this was meticulous work – and it paid off. How is Evangile in 2017? Very silky, with opulent ripe red and dark fruit, and touches of fine dark cocoa powder. The alcohol? 14.6%.

Now some may say: “Hold on a second; is 2017 not a ‘classical vintage’ of lower alcohols?” Well, hold on a second. Or a minute or an hour.

Part of the reason one can find concentration with thick skinned grapes in some parts of Bordeaux was the fact that “it was a drought,” remarked Olivier Berrouet of Pétrus. The size of the berries were “very tiny,” he added: only 1.1 gram for one berry of Merlot, while the size is normally around 1.4 or 1.5 or even 1.7, so the ratio of juice and solid parts was striking. In 2011, it was two… and hardly in the same league of quality, Berrouet says, of 2017.

Most vintners welcomed the some 100mm of rain that fell just after Vinexpo week in late June. But then it was just one third of the regular rainfall in July and August, Berrouet stressed. In short, colder soils that retained water handled this very well. The wines at both Petrus (no frost damage) and Evangile have lovely aromatics because the summer – while dry – was not particularly sunny. Some 50mm of rain at the end of August and start of September “really helped the vineyard to start its activity and to finish its maturity,” Berrouet added.

How is Petrus? First off, 14.7% alcohol… for those who think that 2017 is necessarily a low alcohol vintage.

For Berrouet, 2015 has more obvious solar characteristics, and 2016 is more classical – a bit more austere at first but fine and concentrated. And with 2017, you get density with an aromatic side “more complex than either 2016 or 2015.” Indeed, the barrel sample showed at once fresh floral and dark fruit characteristics: complexity and aromatics bringing to the wine what Berrouet calls “another dimension” along with impressive finesse and length. In short: a great Pétrus.

The 50mm of rain at the end of August and beginning of September in Pomerol was not serious enough to create a worry for botrytis, at least for Berrouet at Petrus. At nearby Vieux Château Certan – where frost was not an issue – Guillaume Thienpont of that fine estate, explained that picking had to end at some point so as to avoid any possible botrytis. But in the end, 2017 also brought forth a gorgeous VCC, and in this case lower in alcohol, in part because of the Cabernet Franc in the blend. Such was the case at La Conseillante, too – another superb wine in 2017.

To some extent, alcohol levels varied according to variety. So for example one encounters 12.8% at Lafite Rothschild, which is nearly all Cabernet Sauvignon, and utterly gorgeous in its expression of refinement and subtle concentration and gorgeous aromatics. A candidate for wine of the vintage, for those of you who may be thinking: “Hmmm, is this a ‘Right Bank vintage'”? So is Duhart Milon, which is even lower in alcohol.

Tis true that at other estates, the lack of enough sun in July and August may have ended up bringing forth less ideally concentrated/ripe Cabernets, which Laurent Duffau said for Calon Ségur in Saint Estephe, which also did not have to worry about frost damage. Calon Segur 2017 is classic and red fruit bright, almost cranberry jam in expression (not raw cranberry, as that would be tart). It is a very good Calon but the 2016 is clearly better. I will get into more of the individual estates in subsequent postings but you find some excellent wines from the Médoc, depending on various factors.

Merlots tended to be higher in alcohol and the fact that the summer months were more than solid for ripening, it was not surprising that grapes reached somewhat high levels in some terroirs even though people like Denis Durantou of Château Eglise Clinet said that they wanted to keep levels as low as possible: “We want to never see again a level of 14.5% or higher here,” he said. And yet, Eglise Clinet was that high in 2017. But that figure should not make you prejudge the wine. Just as we saw with Evangile and Petrus – also in that high-alcohol register – the freshness of July and August, and the relieving September rains, bring forth even cool aromatics as well as richness and robustness.

Numbers alone a wine do not make. As cellar master Omri Ram of Château Lafleur said: “A certain journalist described 2017 as ‘aquatic,’ but he got it wrong: This is a precocious and dry vintage,” he stressed. Well, for some! Not all …

This is again where that “hold on a second” about 2017 requires longer discussion, because the lack of enough light in July and August (as we saw with Calon Segur, for example, at least for a more optimal expression of Cabernet) and September rains affected some parts of Bordeaux more than others.

Fronsac in a (very) sweet spot

For example, in Fronsac – a region that veritably excelled in 2017 – some estates only saw 40mm of rain in September. In other parts of the Médoc, the number was as high as 100mm. That rain adversely affected the Merlots in the Médoc, so you tend to see more Cabernets in the blends on the Left Bank. Whereas the Merlots on the Right Bank, particularly on colder soils and with less rainfall – Fronsac, and inexpensive – hint, hint – did very well.

With May Cheung Shuk Yin at Château de la Rivière in Fronsac, with a double magnum of 1988. Is 2017 a modern styled 80s vintage, where freshness and elegance takes prominence over bigness? In Fronsac, yes. 2017 is a great vintage for many estates in Fronsac – and the good news is that it does not cost you too much. I am a buyer of wines like La Dauphine and de la Rivière in 2017.

Indeed, at the Grand Cercle barrel tasting I attended all day on Saturday 7 April – Fronsac was rather the star appellation. Other wines from other regions showed hard, stiff and even green tannins. And that could be due to a number of factors: For example, were second generation grapes from those estates affected by frost totally eliminated from the wine? If not, one risked having green aspects. How about ripeness of Cabernets on the Left Bank, on colder soils, not “seeing the river”? That could well have been a problem, too.

I will get more details on this vintage with more specific analysis of each appellation and each château when possible, but this is no easy vintage to assess.

Indeed, we can speak of multiple vintages in one, including those estates that were hit by frost and dealt with its repercussions adequately (meaning, they had the means to be careful to not include under-ripe second generation grapes in the harvest); those hit by frost and did not deal with it adequately; those who were “frost free,” and had a much easier time with the vintage, but then had to take into account specific parameters, such as how the somewhat sunless (if dry) months of July an August affected grape ripeness and what decisions were made as a result for blending and extraction – and how much rain did fall in September.

One could say that it was both a vintners and winemaker’s vintage for many estates… More coming soon so please stay tuned!

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