Bordeaux 2017 Preview Report: The Gemini Wines

If you’re a Gemini like me, perhaps you know the story behind the twins that symbolize this astrological sign. In versions of Greek and Roman mythology, Leda, the Queen of Sparta, gave birth to two sets of twins; one set had a mortal father, and the other set was sired by none other than Zeus (disguised as a swan). As they grew up, a brother from each set of twins became the best of friends: Pollux, who was immortal, and Castor, who was mortal. But when Castor was killed, Pollux was inconsolable and begged Zeus to let him die so that he could join Castor. Zeus was so touched by Pollux’s love for his brother, he conceded to let them to live together as one.

The image of the Gemini twins was conjured repeatedly in my mind throughout the 24 days I spent in Bordeaux the last two months tasting the 2017 vintage. In some cases, it was exactly like tasting two very different vintages in one wine, possessing at once what appeared to be two different fruit ripening profiles and tannin textures. At first, I couldn’t figure out why. It turns out, as unlikely as it sounds, that is exactly what can be found when tasting the wines produced both from vines that were totally unaffected by the April frosts and those that lost their first set of shoots and yielded fruit from later developing, “second-generation” shoots.

In 2017, an estimated 60% to 70% of all vineyards across Bordeaux were affected by the worst frost to hit the region since 1991. However, Mother Nature has a knack for providing a backup survival plan for mishaps like frost, and in the case of Vitis vinifera, it is to subsequently rely on the secondary counter buds within their compound buds. Thus, the secondary shoots from those vines that had their primary buds/shoots destroyed by frost can provide a crop of “second-generation” bunches, albeit with smaller yields than the primary buds would have provided. For a Bordeaux winemaker, it can be a real challenge to fully ripen this second-generation crop, mainly because it is disadvantaged by a significantly later start in the growing season; therefore, in the examples of relatively late-ripening Bordeaux grape varieties, the second crop is not likely to reach full maturity by the time the growing season turns too cold and rainy in the autumn to be viable. 

It is important to understand from the outset that a number of frost affected vineyards in 2017 produced wines solely from their first-generation shoots. That is to say, these winemakers completely dismissed the possibility of using second-generation fruit and their wines are made exclusively from vines that were undamaged by the frosts. These wines tend to have a very definable, singular personality. To offer a sweeping generalization, the best of the first-generation only wines offer elegant, perfumed, medium-bodied styles with super-ripe, silken tannins, great freshness and intense but not overly concentrated mid-palates. The relative success of these wines is due to factors such as balanced yield load, optimum harvest time and soil drainage to manage the September rains. The worst examples, however, can be hollow, dilute and short, as a result of the timing and amount of precipitation from the September rains, as well as how the soil profile managed the water availability and, of course, the winemaker’s ability to call the most optimum picking dates that this vintage could provide.
Château Montrose.

The 2017 Gemini wines are the results of having fruit from two totally different growing seasons in one wine—the first-generation yields from vines that were undamaged by the frosts and the second-generation bunches that emerged from the frost-affected vines, which were developing in a ripening cycle that lagged some three weeks behind the first generation. Because the second-generation was experiencing the weather patterns of 2017 at completely different ripening stages than the first generation, the styles of the wines from that harvest (putting quality aside for a second) are completely different. It is unlikely that anyone could make a decent red Bordeaux varieties wine from the second-generation fruit alone. In my view, the tannins of Bordeaux varieties, particularly the Cabernets, could not have achieved sufficient phenolic ripeness—and, so far, I have tasted zero examples of wines made 100% from second-generation fruit. But, if a good core of first-generation fruit was available and some of the second-generation fruit managed to get ripe enough, then the overall effect could be two very different personalities coexisting in one wine. 

Stephan von Neipperg’s properties were significantly affected by frost, suffering more than 60% losses in most of the Vignobles Comtes von Neipperg vineyards, the exception being La Mondotte, which had no frost. “We took the decision to get really organized and bring the second-generation crop in,” he told me. Like others who received damage from frost, the first thing they did was go through the vineyard to separately flag the unaffected, partially affected and totally affected vines, which were largely scattered randomly throughout the blocks. The frost-affected vines had to be managed much more carefully in the vineyard to allow every opportunity to achieve ripeness. This meant measures such as leaf pulling to expose the fruit and obtain maximum sun exposure. The unaffected vines were harvested roughly three weeks before the frosted vines bearing second-generation fruit. In the cellar, the second-generation grapes were fermented separately, repeatedly tasted and eventually added to the trial blends. Neipperg explained, “The first generation had very fresh fruit and nice tannins but was not so full in the mid-palate. There was a bit of dilution in these grapes from the rains. The second-generation bunches were very small and the juice was much more concentrated.” In the end, it was decided that the blends were better with the inclusion of the second-generation fruit; therefore, Clos Marsalette, D’Aiguilhe, Clos de L’Oratoire and Canon-la-Gaffelière all contain a “significant proportion” of second-generation fruit. In my view, this was a successful move on Neipperg’s part, although this is certainly not so in all cases where second-generation fruit was used. Perhaps one of the most interesting tastings during my 2017 en primeur visits was tasting the Canon-la-Gaffelière and La Mondotte side by side. Both are excellent, but they taste like they come from completely different vintages, with the Canon-la-Gaffelière seeming to have two totally different ripening personalities in one wine. Even more interesting is to consider the character and fruit profile of La Gaffelière—the property next door to Canon-la-Gaffelière—where consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt made the decision to not use second-generation fruit at all.

Chateau Figeac was also badly affected by frost with overall yields in 2017 coming in at 22 hectoliters per hectare, less than half of the average. From the outset, managing director Frédéric Faye also made rigorous efforts isolate the frost-affected vines and monitor/tend to them individually. Incredibly, this equated to around 20,000 vines that needed to be managed separately. “At the beginning, the lag time for the second-generation fruit was 3.5 weeks and by harvest it was only 18 days,” he commented. And, of course, these were harvested separately—in many passes, as it turned out. “One plot was harvested four times!” Faye mentioned. Figeac bought five new vatting tanks to coordinate the vinification of all the separate pickings. To manage the tannins of the second-generation fruit, less extraction was used along with lower fermentation temperatures, and the vatting time was three weeks as opposed to one month for the first-generation. In the end, Faye considered the final blend with a proportion of around 10% second-generation fruit for the Merlot component to be superior to the blend with first-generation fruit alone. The effect here is barely detectable, adding just enough spice, tannin interest and intensity to give the discernable first-generation fruit a little boost.

There is similar story to that of Figeac over at their A-list neighbor, Château Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc was one of the most illustrious estates to be badly hit by the frosts, having lost around 30% of the vineyard. “Yes, we used a part of the second generation,” winemaker Pierre Olivier Clouet informed me, “but that represented just 3% in volume of the blend in Cheval Blanc.” Like Canon-la-Gaffelière and Figeac, they marked each plant that was frosted. At harvest, they picked each vine only when they felt it was ripe. They then sorted those grapes with a Tribaie sorting table, which uses sugar density to sort grapes as opposed to sorting by appearance. “We vinified each frosted plot in very small vats that we rented specifically for that purpose—20 vats of 10 hectoliters to vinify plot per plot!!!” Clouet explained. “It was huge work for just 3% in volume, but we did all we could to save our crop this year to have all our vineyard to try to participate in the blend...even if at the end: the first generation represents 97% of the final blend and just 3% for the second.”
The 2017 harvest, in barrel, at Château Montrose.

There aren’t many winemakers who will confess to using second-generation fruit in their 2017s but, as I always say, the truth is in the glass, and my tastings tell me there are a lot more Gemini wines out there than winemakers are willing to let on. There seems to be a stigma in Bordeaux about the use of second-generation fruit in wines, with many believing the quality to be inferior simply because of the difference in ripening. For sure, if not managed meticulously, second-generation fruit could not have made much more than the basis for a refreshing rosé, which is what a lot of winemakers wound up doing. And I do suspect that, in some cases, winemakers became so married to nurturing their second-born crops that, even if their quality wasn’t entirely up to scratch, like Zeus, they simply could not bear to force Pollux to live without Castor. Sentimentalities aside, the financial impact of far lower yields this year is also a huge factor to consider here too. The worst Gemini wine examples, generally to be found among the lower-end wines with less resources at their disposal, can be downright astringent, bitter and hard on the finish: lean, green and mean. The best Gemini wines, such as the three aforementioned estates in Saint-Émilion, tend to offer a subtly firmer/chewier component to the tannins—a little like tasting wines with stem inclusion—with some bright sparks of red fruits and floral, spicy and/or earthy notes plus a well-sustained mid-palate. As a judiciously used component of the blends of some of the 2017 Bordeaux wines, I do think the inclusion of a proportion of well-managed second-generation fruit was an inspired decision and has made for some truly interesting Gemini wines to taste and enjoy this year. 

My full 2017 Bordeaux En Primeur report with an in-depth vintage report and more than 500 tasting notes will be published on our site on April 27th at 12:00 p.m. USA EDT. (Not a subscriber yet? Join today.)

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