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14th April 2018

Bordeaux 2017 - First thoughts

April is always En Primeurs time in Bordeaux (first or second week, Easter dependent).

I have just got back.
It is not quite as much fun as it sounds. A huge amount of juvenile - and mainly Cabernet Sauvignon - wine is harsh on the teeth with its tsunami of tannin and acid. But it does give a good perspective on the vintage. The wines, before they receive their year or two in oak barrels, show the quality of the raw fruit. That oak maturation will soften the fruit tannins, but add woodier oaken ones, and soften the flavour whilst adding aromas of smoke, and spice. Then they will be bottled, and the best will not be approachable for up to a decade and beyond. But, just as with vintage port, they can be delicious in this embryonic stage, when the fruit is pure and expressive.
Well, mostly.

Vintages ending in a -7 have not got a good track record - the last great one was 1947. Has 2017 broken this pattern?
Yes, it has. But in fact 2007 was a superb year for Sauternes (and so is this), so the pattern had already been broken.

The real issue is that there is no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' vintages any more. In any given year, the talented people make great wine, and the less so, well, they reflect that.
But 2017 was not auguring well. A devastating frost on the nights of April 27-28 managed to kill off a significant percentage of the vines' new buds. Some estates were spared, some lost literally everything. But while frost is bad for the viticulturist's blood pressure and the excel spreadsheets, it is not - necessarily - bad for wine quality. By reducing the quantity - something winemakers have been engineering for centuries with close-planting, pruning, water stress, green harvesting and everything else - frost can in a way increase the quality of what is left. 1961 - a great vintage by anyone's standards (although I have only tried wine from 61 twice!) was plagued by frost.

The problem is that the vine will then re-shoot, or try to, and this 'deuxième pousse' will produce very different fruit to the earlier one, all the more so when the frost is late in Spring, as it was in 2017.
There then followed a period of hot dry weather. Not quite the canicule that Provence experienced throughout the summer, but a heat-wave all the same. It lasted until June causing heat-stress (often useful, sometimes disastrous).
Then it rained. A lot. There was a threat of rot.
Then it didn't rain. At all.
It was not especially hot in August. Nothing was normal, but things looked very promising (except for those badly affected by the frost). The grapes for dry whites were harvested, and people were very happy (Bordeaux's 2017 Dry Whites are exceptional). Then the beginning of September bought more rain, sometimes very heavy. This was in the middle of the Merlot harvest and people were faced with choices of picking wet fruit a little early or delaying, risking rot and over-ripening by waiting and hoping (those that did the latter were well rewarded). At La Conseillante in Pomerol, for example, the harvest lasted over a month, but only took nine days of it. Cabernet was less hit, ripening later, and by September the good weather returned allowing for a really very wonderful Sauternes harvest.

So, how good the wines are depends rather on when and how the Merlot was picked, and whether any second bud fruit was included (and if it was when it had been harvested).

But the real thing is that there is no such thing as a 'good' or 'bad' vintage. That's not how nature works, and it's not how great winemakers work, either. François Mitjavile of Tertre Roteboeuf firmly believes that the vintage is as much a part of the terroir as the soil. He does not make a selection or second wine in consequence. We get to drink what the vineyard gave him to make it with. Like many other wines, (and many other vintages for François) his 2017 is superb.

Consumers, however - that's a different matter. In a bizarre (read 'wrong') kind of a way, Bordeaux vintages have become brands of sorts. Either good or bad. Nothing in between (which is of course nonsense). Historically, this black and white characterisation may have held some grain of truth, but it hasn't for years - decades even. Bordeaux is in itself culpable to some degree. Great vintages like 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are so trumpeted as such that it is inevitable they then over-shadow the vintages around them, irrespective of the cause of any issues, or how they are dealt with. Personally I don't think really hot years make great Bordeaux. It's Bordeaux's success in a rubbish climate (for growing grapes), that is - at least part of - the charm for me. 2016 is significantly superior to 2015 for me, just as 1989 is now regarded as far better than the ripe 1990 vintage that seduced so many in its youth (same with 1986 v 1985, 1996 v 1995 and so on).

These days, too, so much can happen in the vineyard, winery and laboratory, and at the meteorological station, that there is far less of a risk than in the past. Even the very apparently-crappiest of vintages will have some great wines. Reference the sublime Pontet-Canet 2012.

And so I can confidently state that 2017 is a great vintage! But not for everyone! And that, of course, makes it a bad vintage. Ho hum.

Naturally it depends on the still-to-come release prices, but if you buy wine to drink it in the future (which should really be your only motive - it's wine for god's sake) then 2017 is likely to offer some real gems if you pick carefully, and in fact even if you pick indiscriminately you'll probably be alright, because there are far fewer 'downs' than 'ups'' in this 'up and down' vintage. If you buy wine only to make money in the future, then it may not prove quite such a shrewd investment. But that would serve you right.

My full report on all the wines I tasted (230+) will be published soon. Watch this space!


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