Bordeaux 2017: The Outlines of an Atypical Vintage

Having already acquired a certain reputation for reasons to be explained, the 2017 vintage is already considered by many as a vintage of good but average quality.  The defining moment in this view was the early morning frost that on two occasions – 20thand 21stApril 2017 and then 27thand 28thApril – blighted swaths of vines across the region, breaking the hearts and spirits of winegrowers. The icy guillotine wreaked its havoc not just in Bordeaux, but across France, Italy, and Spain, leaving European wine producers haggard with cold and despair. Teams of vine workers were quickly dispatched to combat the invisible enemy as it spread stealthily on its random path. Some with the financial means to do so tried to counter the icy scythe with helicopter blades whipping up and hopefully blowing away the cold air. Others only had recourse to the traditional “chaufferettes », small vineyard heaters found more often in Chablis that can raise the temperature a couple of degrees, or even burning bales of hay to warm the ambient air. Unfortunately, none of these means was effective enough to completely ward off this calamitous caravan of icy wind. By the following mornings, the media airwaves relayed the news of the cataclysm, stamping the vintage with the indelible mark of frost damage. A hasty but unstoppable logic took hold: if frost there be, thou shall not have quality.

And yet, if you look closely, unlike the hasty verdict imposed by the jury of the self-righteous, the reality is more nuanced. In certain areas, notably those of the Graves region, including sectors of Pessac-Leognan, Entre-Deux-Mers, the lower slopes of Saint-Émilion, and certain zones in the Haut-Médoc and Listrac, the frost damage was undeniably severe. However, even if a large but random zone of Bordeaux was victim of the ravages of the frost, reducing quantities by an average of 40%, a large part was untouched. Unsurprisingly, to a large degree, it was the historically great terroir sites that were spared the icy wrath. As Nicolas Thienpont, the talented winemaker of Larcis-Ducasse, Pavie Macquin, and Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse put it so well, “frost is not democratic.” Indeed, democracy did not reign in the vineyards of Bordeaux in April 2017.

While not ignoring the quality of the work accomplished by some winegrowers who regularly make outstanding wines here, we must point out that vineyards located on the lower slopes or the plains of the Right Bank, or far from the Gironde estuary on the Left Bank, are second-tier terroirs that suffered terribly in 2017. If one were to superimpose a vineyard map from the early 19th century with a contemporary one, it would show that the frost zones of April 2017 are spread over places that were not planted to vine 200 hundred years ago. The Moulis-en-Médoc appellation, in particular, was affected in the commune of Avensan, in areas once covered by forestland on damp, black sandy soils.

In order to avoid generalities leading to facile statements of dubious accuracy, let us consider the situation from two perspectives. On the one hand, the frost-prone terroirs, where there was a significant impact on the quantity, but also in some cases, the quality as well. On the other, the historical, frost-free terroirs of Bordeaux, representative of the very essence of Bordeaux in past centuries. In the first case, any diminution of quality in the wake of the frost is due to the lack of ripeness for second-generation grapes, those whose new buds developed on the damaged vines in the aftermath of the icy guillotine, necessitating more time to ripen. This is not to say that such wines are not worthy of interest or purchase, but that the overall quality profile of the vintage is quite heterogeneous, so it will pay to take heed when choosing which wines to buy from this year.However, there are wines having bright fruit and freshness that will delight consumers over the next 4 to 5 years.

On the terroirs with a favorable, documented track-record of not being frost-prone, the qualitative benchmark might be, while taking into account other variables, the harvest date. Frost or no frost, 2017 was an early harvest vintage. One reason why the icy tsunami was so “effective” in its April rampage was thatthe budding process among the vines was already well advanced due to an exceptionally warm spring. Then came summer heat in June, some slight water stress later in the summer but with limited sunshine, all of which influenced a slow ripening cycle. A key contrast with the two previous vintages is this relative lack of sunlight during the last stretch, as well as the early to mid-September rains that precipitated the start of grape-picking for Merlot. The latter in particular constituted a defining moment in the quality of the wines, separating those that were picked before the rains, and those that were picked after. As for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, they had time to ripen correctly after the rains, whereas a visit to the vineyards mid-September revealed that pockets of the dreaded gray rot had developed here and there, especially among the Merlot grapes.

Those winegrowers who were not on holiday at the end of August were able to visually observe that ripeness levels seemed to be quite good, especially for the Merlot. A standout example is Château Calon Ségur in Saint-Estèphe which began its Merlot harvest on a record-setting September 4th.

Thanks to the slow ripening process during the summer, the berries had important amounts of malic acid and rather high pH levels, so the organoleptic characteristics were in theory practically ideal. A lot hinges on the modifier, as the early September rains, while bringing welcome refreshment to water-deprived vines, also lessened the quality of the grapes. What’s more, the lack of autumnal sunlight prevented them from reaching the perfect ripeness levels of 2016, for example.

Be that as it may, the 2017 vintage required an important amount of “haute couture” work in the vineyard and in the cellar. As usual, the period of “élevage” or barrel-aging in the cellar will be decisive, during which the consultants and oenologists will bring into play their vision and participate in the success or lack of it for a wine. It will be interesting to see how many resist bringing a personal signature to the result and just let the terroir character shine in the transparent wines coming from the most privileged sites in 2017. Some have understood this, others have not.

The most shocking aspect of many presentations of the 2017 vintage is the injustice regarding the more vulnerable areas of Bordeaux, economically speaking. As already noted, the most affected soils are not necessarily the most qualitative and the economic models of these properties are very fragile. The aftermath of the frost required a lot of work in the vineyard that increased production costs, and this proved to be prohibitive to many estates. Beyond quality, it is the very survival for some of them that is in question.

Their efforts to offer consumers wines worthy of interest could be wiped out by the excessive media coverage of the frost damage and the negative communication concerning the quality of the vintage. We should keep foremost in our thoughts the perilous precarity for such hard-working men and women struggling today as winegrowers who are intent on achieving the best quality possible for their wines.

For the others, particularly the top tier wines that did not suffer frost damage, the tone is one of sober satisfaction with the resulting wines, because the dire economic plight of their less fortunate confreres calls for discretion and even, in some cases, a helping hand.

In short, without going into the complex details of the vintage conditions and notably its now notorious climatic calamity, the overall quality remains quite mixed in areas ravaged by the frost, although for those properties that were affected on a smaller, more pinpoint, scale, the wines are quite good indeed.  As for those coming from the historical terroirs of Bordeaux, the wines are racy and high in quality, one reason being the strict parcellary selection in most cases when it came to choosing the raw material for the main wine. The most successful wines have quintessential terroir character and often recall the style of wines from the period 1950/1990, thanks to their freshness and magnificently bright fruit, as well as their relatively high acidities despite some high pH levels. These are indeed age-worthy wines that deserve a place of pride in the showcase of vintages that express the exemplary Bordeaux style.

To be frank, though, we confirm that the quality of the 2017 vintage for the aforementioned reasons is a notch below 2016, although in the view of some tasters, it may even be a tad above 2015 for its drinkability. Fun as it may be, comparing 2017 with another vintage remains inappropriate, as this one is so singular, but due to its climatological construction, some tasters will in all likelihood take the easy but facile step of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Singular and divisive

Putting aside the climatic upheaval of the vintage, 2017 can be regarded as a clarion call for a new era of Bordeaux wine. The dense, heavily extracted, oak-infused wines that dominated for a time have been falling out of fashion. With the latest vintage showing density without opulence, the strategic stylistic choice to continue in this increasingly contested – dare we say archaic? – direction toward plush wines at all costs will become more and more in dispute. A growing number of wines today have the refreshing acidity and brightness of fruit that made Bordeaux wine so famous long before the fashion of oaky wines and ultra-ripe grapes came to the fore. A real divide is emerging in Bordeaux between the oenologists and consultants who apply ready-made recipes and those who prefer wines that fresher and, if you will, more virtuous in style in that they are more representative of the superlative terroirs of Bordeaux.

This change in style occurs at a time where the Parker era has for all intents and purposes come to an end, leaving wine critics to jockey for position to take the coveted role of the great guru of yesteryear. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your view – Parker will never be replaced, and the influence of American critics preferring an oaky, plush style will diminish. There is a good chance that the traders will reclaim what they see as their rightful place, playing the role for the wine producers of selector, distributors and communication relays.

At the same time, a new generation of quadragenarians, the forty-somethings, often employed by the estates, are becoming pivotal players, taking control from the omnipotent oligarchy in place.

In more ways than one, it may very well be that Bordeaux is making a salutary return to its true heritage, and in that, 2017 is a bellwether vintage when it comes to both styles and wine criticism.

As for wine styles, in 2017 the best wines have a brightness of fruit and a drinkability thanks to good levels of acidity, although the pH is quite high. The true marker of the vintage style, though, is wine density. Although not always apparent at first taste, it has an underlying force, although the sensation of it is sneakily veiled by a predominant impression of rectitude and digestibility. Some tasters have even described wines as “light” compared to the previous two vintages, whereas in fact, the tannic structure is quite significant but balanced. The latter is the guarantee of the aging capacity for the top tier wines of 2017 as well as of the precocious pleasure they can give while still young.

A vintage to buy?

At the risk of being repetitious, the best wines have brightness of fruit and aging potential as well as a high level of quality. The current economic context – along with the reputation of the vintage being so affected by the frost incident – will in all likelihood lead to a drop in prices, which for some wines at least will augur excellent value. Those producers who do not go along with price drops risk being out of touch with the market, while those who reduce prices by 15% to 25% will undoubtedly know success. It remains to be seen, though if consumers will pay attention to the wine critics, or only retain the indelible mark left on the reputation of the vintage by the heavily mediatized frost incident. It that turns out to be the case, the smart buyer will snap up the good deals and replenish his cellar with some outstanding wines.


Wishing you an enjoyable consultation of my wine scores and comments, and an astute buying strategy for the 2017 vintage.





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