Bordeaux 2017: An Early View

Given the somewhat unprecedented nature of the 2017 vintage, I decided to break my En Primeur/Futures tastings and visits to Bordeaux into two parts: a 10-day visit in March and a 10-day visit in April. From the outset, this was clearly a vintage that would require a lot of work in order to be able to truly understand the potential for quality not just of each individual commune, but of each vineyard.

Bordeaux has not seen frost on the scale of 2017 since 1991. Its effect was both immediate and, in some cases, more insidious, manifesting itself even in ways that were not so obvious as the dramatic burning of nascent shoots and leaves in the days that followed the frost. Let’s just say that the surviving shoots in badly frosted areas and secondary crops can be both a blessing and a curse. The final harvest figures brought the extent of the devastation into focus: overall yields down by around 40% on 2016 (which was, admittedly, a bumper crop) and 33% on the 10-year average*, with the biggest losses on the Right Bank (Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and the satellites), Entre Deux Mers, Barsac and the Graves/Pessac-Léognan, plus Margaux also took quite a hit, depending on elevation of site and proximity to the Gironde estuary. Meanwhile, parts of the northern Médoc—including the communes of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac and Saint-Julien—got off very lightly during the frosts, especially those vineyards hugging the Gironde. 

For a region as prolific and globally distributed as Bordeaux, a 33% to 40% loss would be a huge hole for the fine wine world to fill. However, it is extremely important for consumers to grasp the now obvious trend that is tied to this alarming figure: most (but not all) of the vineyards affected by frost were those that generally supply the lower-priced end of the market. There are a number of famous exceptions to this generalization, but context is extremely important to understanding this vintage.

I arrived in Bordeaux for the first set of visits on Monday, March 12, and penned this piece on Sunday, March 18, six days into the visits. I’ve proportioned my visits thus far pretty evenly across Sauternes, Pessac-Léognan, Saint-Émilion/Pomerol and the Médoc, to get a solid overview. For all but one of the properties I have visited, I am the first journalist to taste the 2017s. (Chateau Haut-Brion had been visited the day before I arrived by a journalist from La Revue du Vin de France.) I hasten to add that my presence here so early has absolutely nothing to do with being “first” to rush my scores out. It has to do with taking time. Now is the calm before the storm. Now, winemakers and growers have plenty of time to reflect on the vintage and candidly discuss with me the unique characters I’m finding as I taste. The properties that I have chosen to visit in March tend to be those that make their final blends early—in January or February—and the blends have already been in barrel a few weeks. 

In a couple of weeks, the scrum will begin. Journalists, trade and big collectors, jostling together with arms outstretched to winemakers, rapidly scribbling notes before swiftly moving on to the next Château or collective tasting. I’ll be there too. I arrive for my second set of visits on April 2. I’ve done enough futures tastings to know what to expect. Rugby field manners aside, this is an equally valuable time to taste. Even two to three more weeks in barrel allows the wines to marry, open and gather weight. Or not. Such young wines are like toddlers—totally unpredictable and apt to misbehave, especially when guests come ‘round. I will aim to taste most of the major wines at least 3-4 times over what will be a five-week period, in order to give them a fair opportunity to show not just their potential for quality, but their burgeoning personalities.

It would be remiss of me to hazard a view on the overall quality of 2017 at this stage of the game. For now, I will just say I’ve tasted some extraordinary surprises...and some very average ones.

For those interested in seeing just a few of the properties I visited so far this visit, and wish to follow my future visits, check out my Instagram or Twitter feeds. My full report including an in-depth analysis of the quality of the 2017 vintage and factors contributing to this, not to mention hundreds of tasting notes, will feature in our End of April Issue of Robert Parker Wine Advocate, posting on April 27.

*For specifics on 2017 Bordeaux production figures, Gavin Quinney’s report on Liv-Ex gives a well written, detailed account by appellation. 

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