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The 2017 Vintage
Weather, Challenges and Character of the Vintage
By now you will no doubt have heard the key word for 2017 a lot – frost. It reduced the total production by around 45%, and hit hard because it followed an early budbreak after a warm start to the season – as always, not evenly. The Right Bank, Graves and Southern Médoc were harder hit than the northern Médoc. When you drill down to specifics, the frost cut through some vineyards wrecking this row, entirely sparing the next row. Some producers lost everything, and some producers lost nothing. As always, terroir is not egalitarian. The best terroirs often spare the vigneron the worst of any given condition, and it is true in 2017 that most of the best terroirs were spared the frost. C’est la vie.
Summer was good, and in particular August was hot. As Christian Seely at Château Pichon Baron said, “in 2014 there was a cool summer and the grapes ripened at the end. In 2017 the grapes ripened during July and August, and the style is therefore totally different, especially in the acidity. There is a mid-palate in 2017 that can only come from what July and August gave.”
There was a bit of rain in September, but generally conditions were fine at harvest and those who wished to could wait for optimum ripeness.
The risk posed to those frosted was that second generation fruit may have ripened by the time of the harvest, but would not have been at optimal ripeness like first generation fruit. Selection here was key. This difference in ripness probably accounts for the sometimes substantial drop in quality between first labels and second wines at some estates, compared to other years where the crop is more homogenous.
Impressions of the vintage, as sampled
Overall, I like this vintage. The 2015 vintage is rather grand (though, in some cases, perhaps too so – Bordeaux trading away its renowned balance and digestibility in favour of fat showy wines other regions can do as well or better), and 2016 is quite hard to beat. After re-tasting a few 2016s here and there, overall I think it is a superior year to 2017. Few would argue.
But the best of the 2017 reds showed real classicism and harmony, perfect healthy ripeness and buoyancy, and no excess. The wines in the northern Médoc in particular showed very well.
I hope you will forgive me the repetition of so many words in tasting notes. It’s tempting when tasting a similar vintage-derived characteristic to use different phrases to avoid boredom, but I try to be as true and clear as I can – even if that means describing one wine much like the next because it is! But the words ‘juicy’, and ‘vibrant’ came up a lot. Every now and then I refer to ‘summer pudding’ – an English dessert comprised of summer berries like raspberries, redcurrants, strawberries, blackcurrants and blackberries encased in white bread slices, the whole thing macerated in the extracted juice (plus some icing sugar) of some of the berries. It has a very intense, tangy fresh summer berry taste, but it is a very different sort of opulence to something like a fruit tart (caramelized fruits), or a Xmas pudding (dried fruits and very rich). I would say this ‘summer pudding’ analogy is a good motif for the character of the best of 2017 – ripe, vibrant, balanced.
In the less good wines there is some astringency and bitterness, or simply a flatness, a dullness to the wines. At this stage – whether or not to buy en primeur – I’d simply rule all these wines out, even if there is a chance they will be fine later on. Wait for some tasting notes of the wines in bottle to see.
The few whites I tasted were also superb – neither too lean, nor too fat, they are juicy and vibrant. Generally, I think 2017 is a year to buy some whites, and given that these can be drunk young (as well as cellared) there is a good case to be made for en primeur buying for these.
Overall, the good news is that there are quite a number of real successes in 2017. Is 2016 overall a better vintage than 2017? Yes. Does that matter? No. Because as enthusiasts, we are not buying a vintage; we are buying individual wine selections. To underscore this point, here is a small list of châteaux where I liked the 2017 more than the 2016 or 2015… Château La Mission Haut-Brion, La Conseillante, La Violette, PontetCanet, Malartic-Lagraviére Blanc, Carbonnieux Blanc, Domaine de Chevalier (both), and despite rating 2015 Château Latour 97-98, 2016 Château Latour ’96-98+, I rated 2017 Château Latour 97-99. All three are fabulous (though none are available!). Château Lafon-Rochet made the best wine I have ever tasted from them in 2017 (and it tops my list for quality/value in 2017).
Special thanks to Emmanuel Coiffe from Magenta Selections for several days in his car zooming around the Bordeaux countryside from château to château, to Alexi Dasté and Valérie Clerc Rebiere from Clarence Dillon for a tasting at their offices, to Frédéric Lospied and the team at Jean-Pierre Moueix, to James Suckling for allowing me to catch up on a few chateaux missed, at his 2017 En Primeur Tasting in Hong Kong, and to all the chateau owners and staff who allowed me to visit and taste.
White Bordeaux / Sauternes
Château Carbonnieux Blanc (93-95)
Domaine de Chevalier Blanc (93-94)
Château Cos d’Estournel Blanc (90-92)
La Clarté de Haut-Brion Blanc (87-88)
Château Haut-Brion Blanc (93-95)
Château Latour Martillac Blanc (86-88?)
Blanc de Château Lynch-Bages (91-92)
Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc (93-95)
Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (92-94)
Château Olivier Blanc (91-92)
Le Clementin Blanc de Château Pape Clement (88-89)
Château Pape Clément Blanc (92-93+)
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc (95-97)
Château La Tour Carnet Blanc (89-90)
Symphonie de Haut-Peyraguey (91-93)
Clos Haut-Peyraguey (93-95)
Graves / Pessac-Leognan
Château Carbonnieux (91-93)
Domaine de Chevalier (93-94)
La Parde de Château Haut Bailly (92-93)
Château Haut Bailly (94-96+)
Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (89-90)
Château Haut-Brion (94-95)
Château Latour Martillac (91-92)
Château Malartic-Lagravière (92-94)
La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion (92-93)
Château La Mission Haut-Brion (95-96+)
Château Olivier (89-91)
Château Le Pape (91-92)
Château Pape Clément (92-94?)
Château Smith Haut Lafitte (95-96)
Francs – Côtes de Bordeaux
Château Alcée (89-90)
Château La Prade (86-88)
Château Puygueraud (87-89)
Médoc / Haut-Médoc
Goulee by Cos d’Estournel (90-92)
Chapelle de Potensac (87-88)
Château Potensac (90-91)
Château La Tour Carnet (89-91)
Château Bourgneuf (87-89)
Château Certan de May (91-93)
Château La Conseillante (94-96)
Château Enclos Tourmaline (94-96)
Château L’Evangile (95-97)
Château La Fleur-Pétrus (91-93)
Château Le Gay (93-95)
Château La Grave (91-93)
Château Hosanna (92-94+)
Château Lafleur-Gazin (92-93)
Château Lagrange (90-91)
Château Latour à Pomerol (92-94)
Château Plince (91-92+)
Château Trotanoy (94-95)
Château La Violette (94-96)
Château Beauséjour (Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse) (92-93)
Château Bélair-Monange (91-93)
Château Bellefont-Belcier (93-95)
Clos des Jacobins (91-92)
Château Figeac (93-95)
Clos Fourtet (92-94)
Château Ferrand (91-92)
Château Fombrauge (92-93)
Château Larcis Ducasse (89-91)
Clos de la Madeleine (89-91)
Château Magrez-Fombrauge (92-93+?)
Château Pavie Macquin (94-95)
Château Puy-Blanquet (90-91)
Château La Serre (88-89)
Château Tour Saint Christophe (90-92)
Baron de Brane (90-91)
Château Brane-Cantenac (92-94)
Château Durfort-Vivens (92-94)
Château Ferrière (92-94)
Château Giscours (86-87)
Château La Gurgue (87-88)
Blason d’Issan (89-91)
Château d’Issan (92-94)
Château Labégorce (92-93)
Château Lascombes (90-91)
Château Marquis d’Alseme (88-89)
Château Prieuré Lichine (92-93)
Château du Tertre (88-89)
Château d’Armailhac (92-94)
Château Bellegrave (90-91)
Château Clerc Milon (90-91)
Château Clerc Milon (92-94)
Château La Fleur Peyrabon (88-90)
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (90-91)
Château Haut Bages Libéral (88-89)
2nd Wine of Château Haut-Batailley (86-87)
Château Haut-Batailley (91-92)
Pauillac, 3rd wine of Château Latour (90-91)
Les Forts de Latour (92-93)
Château Latour (97-99)
Echo de Lynch-Bages (87-88)
Château Lynch-Bages (94-95)
Le Petit Mouton de Mouton-Rothschild (89-91)
Château Mouton-Rothschild (94-96)
Fleur de Pedesclaux (90-91)
Château Pedesclaux (92-93)
Château Pibran (87-89)
Les Tourelles de Longueville (90-92)
Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (91-93)
Château Pichon Longueville Baron (94-96)
Réserve de la Comtesse (88-89)
Château Pichon Comtesse de Lalande (92-93+)
Château Pontet Canet (94-95+)
Château Beaumont (N/R)
Château Beychevelle (92-94)
La Croix de Beaucaillou (91-92)
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou (95-96)
Château Gloria (90-91)
Château Lagrange (92-94)
Château Lalande-Borie (89-90)
Château Langoa-Barton (92-94)
Château Léoville-Barton (92-94)
Le Petit Lion du Marquis de Las Cases (88-89)
Château Léoville Las Cases (91-93)
Château Léoville-Poyferré (92-94)
La Petite Marquise du Clos du Marquis (87-88)
Clos du Marquis (89-91)
Château Saint-Pierre (90-92)
Château Talbot (90-92)
Les Pagodes de Cos d’Estournel (91-92)
Château Cos d’Estournel (94-95)
Château Lafon Rochet (93-94+)
Château Lilian Ladouys (88-89)
La Dame de Château Montrose (91-93)
Château Montrose (94-95+)
Château Les Ormes-de-Pez (92-92)
Château Tronquoy-Lalande (89-90)
WHY BUY THE 2017s EN PRIMEUR
My blunt answer to this is that you probably don’t need to buy the 2017s en primeur. By buying futures you, the consumer, are funding, providing cashflow to the merchant (us!), the négociants we buy from, and in turn the châteaux by buying the wines as ‘futures’. This makes sense if the price of the wine will be higher (or you might hope, much higher) later than now. The offers we have seen so far in the campaign do look reasonable, but at the time of writing there is not much ‘buzz’ in the market about 2017. So, I feel fairly neutral about the economic argument for buying 2017s now. You’ll have to judge which way the wind is blowing yourself.
Of course, as I wrote earlier, you are not buying a vintage, you are buying certain wine selections cherry-picked from within it. There’s a good cellar-flow to buying en primeur each year. You are busy, you focus this month on what to buy, buy it, job done.
There are also going to be scarcer wines, or ‘hot’ wines that will be harder to source later. Want some Enclos Tourmaline? The 2,000 bottle production will be sold and packed in 3-bottle cases. It’s now or never with wines like these.
You will also have the assurance of provenance right from the start, can specify bottle formats other than 750ml (especially useful if 2017 is the year you got married, had a baby, etc). We would be happy to help with any special requests for large formats here.
Finally, let me repeat, do buy the whites!
CAVEATS TO THIS WHOLE EN PRIMEUR TASTING EXERCISE
There’s an argument to be made that tasting a wine from barrel and trying to pinpoint its quality – especially numerically – is like interviewing a toddler for a future post-graduate scholarship. We buy these wines because we want the pleasure they will give when mature, but we buy them as infants. It’s an exercise in extreme telescoping. Wine goes through more rapid change during its elevage in cask than it ever will during any 18-month period in bottle.
En primeur samples are – in theory – ‘representative’ of the final blend that will be bottled in 2019. A sample is drawn from a variety of casks – some new, some used, different plots, varieties, to approximate what the final bottled blend will be. It’s unfinished wine. It is also more temperamental and fragile than a sample from a bottle of finished wine. Sometimes a sample can lose its lustre – especially those made up in a batch a few days prior.
Where I tasted the same wine in two different occasions I have included both tasting notes in this report.
AN ASIDE - INVESTMENTS AND IMPROVEMENTS OF NOTE
There’s a positive feeling when you visit Bordeaux today. Good prices have meant good cashflow for the châteaux, and many have had the good fortune to hold back stock, or invest in new improvements, or both. Absolute state of the art gravity-flow wineries with a mix of the latest conical stainless steel, ‘amphora’ and ‘eggs’, etc, is becoming a more common sight, and not just at the very top of the ladder. A case in point: Château Pédesclaux a 5th growth Pauillac that was, frankly, nowhere a few short years ago. Pédesclaux was purchased in 2009 by Jacky Lorenzetti. With Emmanuel Cruse – his partner at Margaux 3ème Cru Château d’Issan – Pédesclaux has been expanded from 26ha to 41ha, vineyards and viticultural work improved and a state of the art natural-light, gravity-flow winery built. Pédesclaux is performing well up the Pauillac pack now, and in a field where many other châteaux are also improving.
We may yearn for some of the bargain prices of the past, but frankly today we are getting better wine, and with more choice and competition. Cult wines aside, in today’s market I actually think of Bordeaux as great value for money – and it’s because of the selections, and the actual work done by the people there today as much as it is the favourable Bordeaux terroirs.