If you’re anyway interested in fine wine Bordeaux will be a heading bandied around many mails coming into your inbox this month. The 2017 en primeur campaign has started and the first Châteaux are gently releasing their prices. This will be an interesting campaign, not least because support for this vintage is (quite rightly) cautious thanks to late frosts decimating vineyards around the region. Members of the trade are looking for a reduction in prices of at least 20% to encourage take up of these wines, still sleeping in their oak barrels. One of the first to the post; Château Palmer released early with a decrease of 20% from the 16 vintage. Thanks to this early leap of faith there has been good early trade for this property.
Harriet, Nigel and William headed out to Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings in early April. Decidedly Irish weather didn’t dampen spirits as they tasted their way through the various Cru Classés in each commune. Vintages like 2017 are interesting to taste, the variety of quality levels even within communes clearly highlighted those Châteaux that had trouble managing the fruit post frosts. At the end of this report we have those Châteaux that produced great wines despite the pressures of the weather.
It is important to note that the frosts in late April affected inland areas far worse than those closer to the river or slopes. Pauillac, St.Julien and St-Estephe were not affected at all. The 2017 frosts can only be compared to the devastating late frosts in 1991. Today’s technological advances in the vineyard and winery can help repair and/or mitigate the ill effects of frost but 2017 will be seen as a tough year for Châteaux owners.
2017 started promisingly with early and successful flowering. For those areas affected by frost however, the precocity of these buds made it harder for the Châteaux to manage the damage. Intense work in the vineyard marking damaged vines and cutting back effected canes was compulsory for most. The summer months were cooler than average with June seeing a damp, rainy start. Autumn in 2017, despite some rainfall early in September was generous in length, allowing those hoping for some second crop fruit a chance to let it ripen. The average daily maximum temperature in 2017 does however outstrip the same measurement for 2016; giving weight to the high scores seen on some of the 2017 wines.
Unlike the relatively ‘easy’ vintages of 2015 and 2016; 2017 demanded much effort in the vineyard in order to produce a grand vin of the expected quality. The right bank was hit most severely by the frosts. At Cheval Blanc they lost 1/3 of their crop. The old Cabernet Franc vines (an important component of the grand vin) on clay were the worst hit. The Château fought the effects by cutting these vines right back and marking affected vines with a ribbon so that come autumn the second generation fruit would not be picked at the same time as those berries unaffected by frost. One row of vines saw a 48 day difference in harvest dates between first and second generation, this luxury was only afforded by the extended settled weather after a rainy start to September. Despite these efforts yields of second generation crops were just 5% of those produced by first generation buds.Château Figeac used helicopters to drive out the frost. Their canopy management was pushed to ‘new levels of precision’ to enable minimum effects from any damage felt in the vineyards.
Testament to Cheval Blanc and fellow St.Emilion property Figeac (who lost 55% of their crop), their wines this year are superb. Tense cabernet fruit in both has yielded a darker expression thanks to greater proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon. A bonus for those who like to see more angular depth in their wines.
On the left bank, the picture was generally rosier; Mouton Rothschild, relatively unscathed by frost had an early, but exceptionally drawn out harvest extending over four weeks across their three estates. Across the left bank tastings there was a level of extraction and diminished ripeness seen in some wines. The rain in early September does seem to have had an effect on some examples. There certainly isn’t the vivacity of fruit that was commonplace in the two preceding vintages.
Advice from all areas is don’t buy blind. Throughout our week in Bordeaux we tasted widely, scoring the wines and selecting the best at all levels. We are producing tasting notes and recommendations across the main communes. These posts will be linked to from here and listed separately on our blog.
2017 is, in my opinion a vintage that will surprise. There is a crunchy freshness to the wines that shows great vivacity and life. Though not as fragrant and open as the 16’s or as succulent and powerful as the 15’s, this vintage has some real stars, ones that are certain to give great pleasure for decades to come.
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