BORDEAUX 2017: A Unique if Complicated Vintage

Like much in life, the 2017 Bordeaux vintage is complicated.Which means that it needs some explanation. Which admittedly can be a bit tedious. But there’s a big pay-off at the end.

Bordeaux 2017 provided a good number of wines that really push all the right buttons for me and should push the right buttons for a lot of other Bordeaux lovers as well. To understand why requires understanding the vintage as more than simply good or bad, classic or great. Rather, it requires understanding 2017 in terms of the effects both primary (immediate) and secondary (lingering) of the frost of April 27, 2017. The effects, both positive and negative, of that frost are what make the 2017 Bordeaux vintage unique.

In Bordeaux, 2017 started dry and there was some early warmth leading to an early budding of the vines. Everything was looking good until disaster struck beginning early in the morning on April 27th when temperatures went as low as 25°F in some areas. The frost hit some terroirs hard and mostly spared others. The top left bank vineyards closer to the Gironde were largely spared (due to the temperate effect of the water in the Gironde) and many vineyards all over Bordeaux located on hilltops and plateaus were mostly spared (due to cold air being heavier than warm air and therefore flowing down hill). Vineyards in dips and valleys, on slopes and at the bottom of slopes were the most heavily affected as those were the places the coldest air accumulated and settled. Within a couple of days, the pattern and effect of the frost was pretty well known. Some chateaux lost their whole crop. Others lost amounts ranging down from a high percentage of their grapes to having just a few rows or even just a few vines affected.

The frost “freeze-burned” the tender young buds and leaves. In extreme cases, some vines were killed by the frost. In most cases, frost-affected vines either produced no grapes or a minimal crop of grapes from a second (later) crop set. A week after the frost, many of the most affected vineyards looked as if they had been burned by fire.

Early summer brought some welcome rains that recharged the soils and energized the vines. July and August offered warm days and cool nights that ripened the grapes and burned off the pyrazines (natural compounds in grapes that can lend a green bell-pepper flavor to the finished wines) while maintaining the wine’s freshness and acidity. A wild card came in September rains that delayed the harvest, especially for the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

What does it all mean? Except for the frost, 2017 was a fairly-normal, good-but-not-perfect weather year in Bordeaux. Despite the in-some-places-devastating frost-related reduction in crop, the growers with better terroir were generally happy with the grapes they harvested and felt like they could make fine to excellent to in some cases outstanding wine. And a great many did.

While some vines froze and some chateaux lost some-or-all-of-their-crop (the primary frost effect), all the vines of Bordeaux were in some way affected by the cold. Even the vines that showed no primary frost damage were affected in that the cold stopped the vegetative growth of the vine which then had to restart and slowly regain momentum after a several-days pause (the secondary frost effect). This growth pause very likely explains the extraordinary freshness and pretty red fruit character the best of the 2017 wines exhibit.

For better or worse, 2017 will carry the stigma of being a frost vintage. Those partially informed who stop with that fact will likely avoid the wines. Those who are interested enough to become fully informed will likely find a good number of wines that will make them very happy.

So who made fine or better wine? Who didn’t? Some but certainly not all of the very best terroirs seemed almost exempt from the frost. Many were not so lucky.

The band of vineyards running along the D2 road that runs north from the city of Bordeaux through the Haut Medoc were mostly either lightly affected or undamaged. Vineyards between the road and Gironde estuary fared the best but many vineyards just west of the road also fared pretty well. The further west the vineyard was, the more damage from frost. Moulis and Listrac were pretty much wiped out, as were parts of the Medoc AOC at the north end of the peninsula. In Pessac Leognan, the top properties fared fairly well but some of the lesser known sites took a hit, Carbonnieux lost maybe 30% of production to frost but next-door neighbor Haut Vigneau lost its whole crop. Parts of Graves and Sauternes were hard hit as well.

Some properties in St. Emilion and Pomerol were mostly unaffected while others were wiped out. In Pomerol, Ch. Petrus and Ch. Le Pin were mostly unaffected while Ch. Clinet and Vieux Ch. Certan were lightly effected and Ch. La Pointe lost its whole crop. Ch. Nenin made a grand vin (1stwine) from un-affected vineyards but did not make a 2ndwine as the vineyards that would normally go into its Fugue de Neninwere fully affected by the frost. Some St. Emilion properties were mostly un-affected but two wines we buy every year (Ch. Laplagnotte Bellevue and Ch. Grand Corbin Despagne) lost virtually their whole crop. More common in St. Emilion were chateau with anywhere from 30-to-70 percent of normal production. Typical of this is Ch. Canon La Gaffeliere, Ch. Figeac, and Ch. Cheval Blanc, all of which are great terroirs that took a big hit in sloping areas that usually produce great grapes.

Other areas were even less fortunate. Castillon, Francs, and the Saint Emilion satellites were hard hit as was Lalande de Pomerol. Most of the area between the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers (which produces mostly Bordeaux-appellated wines – red, white, and rosé – that sell for seven-to-fifteen-dollars-a-bottle) was hard hit as well. There was very little Bordeaux Rosé or Bordeaux Clairet made in 2017.

The best sites made the best wine even as some of the great sites were heavily affected by the frost. Dropping down the price scale, wineries normally making medium-and-lower-priced wines were more likely to have made lesser-quality wines or no wine at all. Taking only the top 150 chateaux into consideration, 2017 will prove out to be an excellent vintage with more-than-a-handful of outstanding wines.

Every year during en premierweek, the game is to compare the new vintage to some vintage in the past. In 2018 tasting the 2017s, the game was harder than it’s ever been. The last real frost vintage was 1991 but the frost in 1991 was more widespread and the farming and winemaking were nowhere near the state that they’re in now. And in addition to the frost, 1991 was a generally cold-and-wet year. So there were very few wines that even qualified as good.

From a qualitative standpoint, the better wines (classified growths as well as top unclassified properties) produced in 2017 are in or more likely just above the range of 1999, 2008, and 2014 (which is to say pretty darn good) but not at the level of 2009-2010 or 2015-2016. Which is not to say the style is similar to these or any other vintages. In my experience, 2017 is unique. Like 1999, I think the wines are fresh and pretty and will drink well when released but the structure is different and the farming and winemaking now are way ahead of 1999. Further, the temptation to go for a big extraction was lower in 2017 than in any other recent vintage so the best wines offer a pretty red fruit character with purity and balance.

Qualitatively 2017 (both despite and because of the frost) is enough above average to be considered a selectively excellent if not outstanding vintage. Buy with some caution but do buy the best of this pretty, age-worthy, balanced, unique vintage. Even though 2017 has its own unique style, if you enjoyed the initially underrated 1999s (one of my favorite vintages), the best part of 2017 are wines to buy. Due to that frost, there’s a lot less of it.

2017 and Second Wines
In most vintages, many chateaux’s second wines mirror the style and structure of their grand vin, even if the mirror is a bit foggy. Foggy because the second wines have most often come from the estate’s lesser (a relative term) terroir and are generally made in a style that reflects the grand vin but in an earlier drinking, more approachable way.

In 2017, a lot of the second wines are fresh and pretty but stylistically distinct and different. Some of the second wines were in short or very short supply and some weren’t made at all. Why? The terroir effect of 2017. More and more the second wines come from specific plots that make very good wines but less good than the plots chosen for the increasingly selective grand vins. This results in the clos that makes the Grand Vin de Ch. Latour and Les Forts vineyards that make Les Forts de Latour and even separate Pauillac vineyards that (along with culls from the other two make the “third wine” Pauillac de Latour. In this scenario, Les Forts essentially becomes a separate wine rather than a “second wine.” The situation is similar for Carruades from Lafite. In the case of Croix  Ducru Beaucaillou from Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou, Ch. Moulin Riche from Ch. Leoville Poyferre and Clos du Marquis from Ch. Leoville las Cases, all are now (while sharing winemaking teams and facilities with their former siblings) treated as their own separate properties. Each of the two former Leoville properties now has its own second wine: M de Moulin Riche and La Petite Marquise.

As these terroirs are generally lesser (again a relative term) than the greater terroirs from which they have been separated, the wines sell for less (but often not as much less than they did as actual second wines). What is different about these second wine terroirs? Almost invariably, they are somewhat more frost prone and in 2017 more likely to have been frost affected both in terms of primary frost damage and the secondary frost effect discussed above.

About Extraction
Several factors are now in-play that are reducing the two decade lean toward the use of more extractive techniques. Part of it is the decline in the influence of Robert Parker and other like-minded critics. Part is a return to the notion among some Bordelaise that their wines should reflect a particular place rather than aiming for a style. Part is that better farming (a strong lean toward sustainable, organic, or biodynamic) is producing better grapes that producers now realize don’t need to be propped up by aggressive winemaking. And that better farming reinforces the sense of place in the wine. Part is a bit more ripeness from warmer vintages. And part is that some vintages just don’t lend themselves to big extractions. For all of these reasons, we tasted no 2017s that went over the top on extraction. At least for me, that’s a good thing.

What is my personal take on 2017? I really like it. A lot. 2017 provides plenty of the fresh, pretty, red-fruit wines that are my favorite sort of Bordeaux. They have the fruit and elegance to drink well early and the acidity to allow them to develop with age. The 2017s are utterly unique in that they do not really resemble the wines produced by any other Bordeaux vintage in my range of experience. And Bordeaux has changed so much (for the better) in both grape growing and wine making since the 1950s that there no other vintage really compares with 2017. The vintage stands on its own. There are a good number of fine and some excellent wines and even some outstanding wines to be had. Complicated and unique, the best 2017s are wines that I look forward to drinking both sooner and later.