After two vintages 2015 and 2016 respectively formidable and exceptional, Bordeaux is back on earth with a beautiful 2017 vintage, at the level of the previous ones 2014, 2012, 2011 or 2008, but with a particular personality.
On 21, 27 and 28 April 2017, the Gironde vineyard experienced its strongest spring frost since 1991. But as much as the 1991 one was general (with temperatures below -5°C over the whole department, only a few parcels of a few vintages on the edge of the estuary could escape it), as much the one of 2017 was more selective.
With minimum temperatures of +2°C to -4°C in places and a vine 3 weeks earlier, the effects of the 2017 freeze are real (for Gironde: 3.55 Mhl produced in 2017 compared to 5.80 Mhl in 2016, or -39%) but have been very variable according to the appellations and from one château to another:
- tempered by the proximity of the estuary, the north of the Médoc (from Pauillac to the tip of the Médoc) has not been impacted. The same applies to the eastern part of Saint-Julien and Margaux, along the river.
- South of Pauillac and further inland, damage ranges from 20% to 80%, particularly in Moulis and Listrac, which were more severely affected.
- the Bordeaux urban area has protected the Pessac-Léognan, except those on the edge of the forest south of Léognan (Chevalier, Fieuzal...).
- Graves and Sauternes were affected, with damage ranging from 30% to 80%, up to 100% in Climens.
- on Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, the consequences are very variable, 20% to 100% depending on the exposure (hillside and early plateau relatively spared) and the means used (candles, wind turbines, helicopter...).
- Moreover, in Entre-Deux-Mers, Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon, Satellites de Saint-Émilion, etc., all have been severely frozen, with potentially dramatic economic consequences because most of these wines flirt with the breakeven point in normal harvest years.
As the great terroirs are considered less gelling than the others, it is remarkable to see to what extent the consequences of frost are inversely proportional to the reputation and prestige of the vintage. At the end of the 2017 vintage, the rich are still as rich as ever and the poor even poorer.
July and August left an impression of autumn freshness: July less sunny than a September month, August barely in the norm of sunshine, no heat period installed, only one day per month just above 35°C (36°C on July 18 and August 28).
On the other hand, two dry summer months, with half as much rainfall as usual: 28mm in July (average 1991-2010 to 50mm), 30mm in August (average 56mm).
Despite a mid-figue, mid-grape summer, the vine's vegetative cycle in 2017 was permanently ahead of schedule, from budburst at harvest time. For example, mid-flowering was observed on May 30, 15 days earlier than in 2016.
The harvest of the dry whites, which began in the second half of August in fine weather, was the earliest in the last 10 years.
For the reds, the first Merlot was announced before mid-September but 10 days of rainfall consecutive, from September 8 to 17, accelerated picking for fear of outbreaks of rot. From September 18, the weather became ideal again, dry, hot and sunny, until the end of October to obtain perfect ripeness and organise calm harvests, both of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, as well as of small verdot and late Merlot (on clay and limestone).
For sweet wines, the drought at the end of August led to a first concentration by passerillage (desiccation) once the grapes had reached maturity, followed by a rapid arrival of botrytis with the rains in mid-September.
Seeing the sugar richness increase rapidly, the Sauternes native hurried to harvest at the end of September so as not to have too concentrated musts and risk heavy wines.
This dry and mild summer, without heat waves, was a blessing for dry white wine producers. The sauvignons and semillons were able to ripen slowly, develop their aromatic precursors, preserve the acidity synonymous with freshness, while running no risk of rot.
The harvest having taken place in optimum conditions well before the rains of September, 2017 is indeed in fine a very great vintage for the dry whites of Bordeaux (when the puncture of the frosts was not too harsh), with tonic, complex, intense and brilliant wines.
This is confirmed by the Faculty of Oenology of Bordeaux: "The 2017 vintage is a major success for Bordeaux's dry white wines, which are significantly superior to 2015 and 2016. The sauvignons are ripe and lively, very aromatic, with a lot of race and brilliance. On the great terroirs, the semillons shine with their characteristic softness while maintaining a northern balance. ».
The richness being a natural characteristic of the 2017 vintage for sweet whites, the challenge was to preserve the acidity that guarantees balanced wines. Those who have managed to preserve it have produced pure, aromatic wines (honeysuckle, citrus peels, honey, candied fruit), ample and voluminous while remaining elegant.
These wines of great liquor and power will be refined in the bottle and will eventually recall the smoothness and roundness of vintages such as 2003, 1989 or 1976. Their ageing will defy time (count at least 40 to 50 years for the classified growths).
After the summer drought, we expected to discover relatively austere 2017 reds, set on firm or even dry tannins. Our surprise was real from the very first tastings to taste, on the contrary, charming wines, nuanced, structured by soft tannins.
This surprising sweetness of the reds is explained by the length and slowness of the maturity cycle. Instead of roasting quickly under the influence of the blazing sun, in 2017 the vine patiently ripened its grapes and developed polymerized tannins, making them more velvety and less catchy.
That being said, two conditions had to be absolutely met to produce great reds 2017:
- eliminate early Merlot picked in haste before or during the mid-September rains.
- eliminate second generation grapes, resulting from regrowth after frost. With a mixed summer, they were not able to catch up on their growth retardation (almost a month) and reach sufficient maturity before the end of October.
Several journalists/tasters have spoken of a heterogeneous vintage. The heterogeneity of 2017 is not the result of the vintage but only of men, and the respect (or not) of the above conditions.
The American taster Neal Martin (ex-Wine Advocate) counted 31 remarkable red wines reaching or exceeding the score of 95/100, his friend Antonio Galloni rated 63! This proves that in 2017 there was a lot of material to make great wines and that many (but not all) have succeeded in doing so from north to south of the Gironde.
Some have wrongly had the reflex to use early Merlot spoiled by rain or second grapes to compensate for the thinness of their harvest, and/or to over-extract during vinification to compensate for the lack of flesh in their must. It was easy to spot these because the tasting was unquestionable.
But in properties where only the quality will prevail, the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, the late Merlot and the Petit Verdots have produced excellent vats. The wines have a clean, intense and expressive fruitiness, no greenery, a medium body and a sweet and delicate tannic profile that makes them already seductive.
It will not be density and power that will be the hallmark of the 2017 vintage, but softness and charm. In addition, they will be quickly accessible (from 2022 for the crus bourgeois, from 2025 for the majority of the crus classés).
The left bank, home of Cabernet Sauvignon, is in the spotlight in 2017 for those where frost has had no (or almost no) effect. In the lead Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe and all the northern part of the peninsula, but also Saint-Julien, Margaux (except the Arsac sector), Pessac and Léognan (except the parcels on the immediate edge of the forests). Sometimes with wines that will make a mark, such as Lafite-Rothschild, Pichon-Baron, Cos d'Estournel, Léoville-Barton, Brane-Cantenac or Haut-Bailly, among others.
In Libourne there are convincing successes, depending on the exposure (hillside or beginning of the plateau at Saint-Émilion) and the measures taken to counter frost (as in Pomerol). Here too, very fine wines were born in 2017, most often at the cost of a debauchery of labour, as in Pavie-Macquin, Troplong-Mondot, Cheval Blanc, Vieux-Certan or L'Église-Clinet, among others.
The other side of the coin concerns the quantities put up for sale, overall 50% less than a normal production vintage, such as 2015 or 2016. The reasons for this decline are twofold:
- weather: of course, spring frosts are responsible for most of the losses in 2017 as well as, to a lesser extent, the summer drought, which concentrated the grapes and gave less juice,
- psychological: taking into account the sustained international (Asian) demand for bottled vintages and the lowest stocks in their cellars, more and more châteaux are limiting the volumes sold as futures. Frost was for some the ideal pretext for increased retention. For example, Pape Clément, whose volumes are announced to be down by -60% (!) compared to last year, while its vineyard is totally isolated in the Bordeaux urban area.
The white producers in Pessac-Léognan and Médoc have wisely chosen to renew last year's prices, without taking advantage of the reputation of a 2017 vintage that is very favourable to dry white wines.
The same applies to sweet white wines, whose current worldwide sales difficulties mean that their prices have remained virtually unchanged year after year since 2011.
We are not talking about wines at less than €15.00 per bottle, for which prices vary little from one year to the next, from a few tens of cents to at most one or two euros. We are delighted that they have a fair reward for their efforts and defend this qualitative nursery of affordable vintages that is the Gironde department. Not to mention that the cost price of a wine made under the conditions of a great vintage costs on average between €12.00 and €15.00 per bottle, this when the vintage is normally abundant.
For those above €15.00 per bottle, whose selling price is higher than the cost of production, the price of red wines in 2017 is down compared to 2016, to -20% for some (Malartic-Lagravière, Domaine de Chevalier, Sociando-Mallet, Lynch-Bages, Rouget, Clinet, Valandraud and Virginie de).
With this decrease, most of them display a price close to the one they had proposed for their 2015, sometimes above and sometimes below: -10% in Branaire-Ducru and Lynch-Bages, -6% in Domaine de Chevalier, -5% in Gloria, -4% in Malartic-Lagravière and Saint-Pierre, -3% in Sociando-Mallet, Prieuré-Lichine, Talbot...
The price of 2015 has soared since they were bottled at the end of last year and today we believe that returning to the price at which they were proposed two years ago is a lesser evil, especially in a year of a poor harvest. We are only halfway through the campaign and no one knows at what price level the greatest wines of the future will appear. Will they show moderation? We will come back to this in a month's time when all prices are known.
Second vintage for Xavier Copel, who has adapted his range to the vicissitudes of 2017: no vintages in Sauternes, Pomerol and Rioja due to frost, appearance of an elite dry white Bordeaux, 100% Semillon on a clay-limestone terroir near Langon, a magnificent wine of freshness and length.
After three vintages in 2014, 2015 and 2016, which were hampered by frost and hail, Domaine Chartron is back in the spotlight in 2017 with production returning to normal. And highly qualitative since 2017 promises to be one of the greatest vintages of the last 20 years for chardonnay.
No Corton-Charlemagne this year but the selection of five new vintages: Bâtard-Montrachet grand cru, Meursault "Les Pierres", Savigny-les-Beaune "Les Pimentiers", Saint-Aubin "Perrières", Rully "Montmorin".
The freshness of spring disrupting the flowering (coulure) of syrahs, grenaches, mourvèdre and the dryness of summer explain the low yields (and the quality of the vintage) in both the north and south of the Rhône Valley. The summer without heat waves produced fresh, balanced wines with a more northern aromatic profile and lower than usual alcoholic degrees.
If the quantities are decreasing, the quality is there in 2017, in both colours and on all appellations, from the north to Bandol. A novelty in Côte-Rôtie from this year with a cuvée Vieilles Vignes (aged 60 years and over), vinified in whole bunches.