Bordeaux doesn’t suffer from quite the same agonies most years as its ‘French-icon’ counterpart Burgundy. While Burgundy wrestles with the threat of frosts almost every spring, regularly producingscenes of growers burning thousands of candles, lighting glowing oil lamps in the vineyards or sending whirling helicopter blades overhead to keep the air moving, the last big frost in Bordeaux was in 1991, just over 25 years ago.
The Bordelais can thank the power of water for their good luck. They are located close to the Atlantic Ocean and have two major rivers as well as dozens of minor rivers, streams and lakes dotted all over the region that give an oceanic climate. This has a softening effect on the weather conditions with temperatures that rarely drop too low, even if it also means rain (about 900mm per year to Burgundy’s 700mm) and plenty of vintage variation from year to year.
Until 2017 that is, when temperatures dropped to way below freezing for two nights at the end of April, and took out vast swathes of the region’s vineyards causing an estimated US$1 billion (A$1.326 billion) worth of damage. As a result, overall production ended up around 50% lower than usual and at the recent new vintage tastings there were plenty of big names who made no wine at all, or such tiny quantities, that they were sitting out the annual en primeur marketplace. Don’t go looking for bottles of Châteaux Corbin, Dassault, La Pointe, Climens, Grand Corbin Despagne, Fieuzel, Chantegrive or Siaurac in 2017, for example, because their vines were pretty much wiped out.
The Garonne and Dordogne rivers only helped a few people in 2017, particularly the string of châteaux along the Gironde estuary in the Médoc, where the two rivers meet before emptying out into the ocean. As luck would have it, this is where you find all four of the big name appellations of the Médoc and most of its iconic châteaux. Margaux sits pretty much at the confluence of the two rivers with Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe following on as you head further into the estuary.
These guys escaped the worst of the frosts with both Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe managing to turn out higher quantities of wine than 2016 in stark contrast to most areas. Who said winemaking was fair? Both were up 4% in terms of overall yields, compared to Moulis and Listrac, just 10 or so kilometres to the west on the same peninsula, but further away from the estuary, where yields were 48% lower than 2016. Over on the right bank, Saint-Émilion was 54% down overall with Lalande de Pomerol taking the biggest hit with an average production that came in at 64% lower than the year before.
But frost was only part of the story in 2017, which is why we shouldn’t get too excited about comparisons to the great frost years like 1945 and 1961. If we rewind to the beginning of the season we get a clearer picture, Bordeaux had seen an extremely dry autumn in 2016 that lasted through the first few months of 2017, giving 46% less rainfall at the start of the growing season. Combine this with average temperatures that were two degrees higher than normal from February and vineyards across the region saw an extremely early bud-break, around two weeks before the 10-year average. This is why the April 26 and 27 frost was so devastating, because there were already plenty of shoots, leaves and future grapes on show at a particularly vulnerable moment in their evolution.
Once the frost had passed, and damage assessments had been carried out, the rest of the year saw an exceptionally hot June, meaning fairly early and even flowering with heavy rainstorms at the end of the month that fell over three days and helped replenish water levels in the soils. This was followed by an extremely dry, but not especially sunny summer with cool nights (the night-time temperature was cooler on average in August than in 2016, 2015 and 2010, which is why you’ll find fresh and juicy fruit character), and, generally, colour change in the grapes was around 10 to 15 days ahead of 2016.
This meant an early harvest was inevitable, usually a sign of quality in Bordeaux, although it was complicated by September rains. The rainfall was not particularly high, rarely heading over 100mm. It was a little higher on the left bank than the right bank, but the Médoc has well-draining gravel soils, and had an advance on ripening because the early budding was less impacted by frost. In all it lasted for around 10 days, which complicated the picture for harvest. It meant that, unlike in 1961 when the frost was followed by a relatively easy and hot growing season, in 2017 winemakers in most parts of Bordeaux had to stay on their toes.
All of this makes 2017 a vintage that is full of contradictions and in many cases the wines will be brilliant to drink. Dr Axel Marchal at the region’s Institute of Wine and Vine Science summed it up by saying that it would be “an illusion” to think that a one-size-fits-all approach can be used when weighing up the vintage.
One thing is clear, by the time the 2017 wines make it into bottle and onto shelf, in a year to 18 months from now, there will be some brilliant bottles to buy. There should be some good value, too. Based on evidence from the first month of en primeur releases, prices seem to be on average between 10% and 20% lower than the last few years.
2017 is a superb white wine year, for example, in a region that is most usually celebrated for its reds. I found some outstanding whites from AOC Pessac Léognan and AOC Bordeaux Blanc that have intensity, focus and beautiful citrus aromatics. I hope consumers get to discover what Bordeaux whites can deliver when they are at the top of their game.
It’s also an excellent red wine year for some estates – not just for the ones who escaped the frost, but for those who were able to select the best of what was left. This was definitely a year in which it paid to be ruthless, discarding any secondary fruit that budded after the frost had passed. It would almost invariably never make it to full ripeness (due to being a good two or three weeks behind the rest of the fruit, and then having the September rains to deal with). The cool nights over the summer meant lilting freshness and juiciness in the best wines, along with concentration and thick skins that encouraged lovely deep colours, but the flip side is unripe fruit and rustic tannins in others.
It’s worth remembering that dealing with episodes of rain during harvest is nothing new for Bordeaux. The winemakers here are masters of making lemonade from lemons, and are unfazed by most weather conditions. Philippe Bascaules, director of Château Margaux, spent many years working in Napa and he told me his calm advice was always sought out when it rained over there, because what his Californian counterparts viewed as a disaster he saw as an essential part of developing balance and complexity in the wines. After all, the Bordelais have perfected the art of the blend, regularly proving the old idea that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. As Eric Kohler, technical director of Lafite Rothschild says, “very few regions can deliver complexity and intensity combined with elegance and balance” in the way that Bordeaux can.
So where do we look to for the best wines? Well, my suggestion would be to get your detective hat on and start assessing just who was best prepared to succeed in 2017. Saint-Estèphe has now had, in my opinion, four good vintages in a row and without a doubt some of the best value wines of 2017 are to be found here. In Pauillac, if you are tasting the big names, you’ll be hard pressed to conclude that 2017 was a difficult year, even though the wines are less concentrated and will be less long-living than in the 2016 vintage. It’s one of the most consistent appellations in 2017 for me, and Jean-Michel Comme, director at Château Pontet Canet, was typical of many in the appellation when he said, “There were very few challenges… the quality of the skins remained strong and fermentations were among the most rapid and easy in memory”.
Over on the right bank there are some real successes in both Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. The cool summer nights again translated into deep colours and good phenolic maturity in the grapes, and Pomerol merlots on clay got to excellent ripeness before the rains arrived, particularly those not affected by frost. For Château Lafleur this was a highly successful year, and over in Saint-Émilion estates like Château Ausone seemed to be having pretty much an entirely different conversation than everyone else, reaching wonderful levels of enjoyment. And you don’t have to go to these heights to find the best of the vintage, but for sure on the right bank it paid to have the means to select, select and select again. The ones that did so made wines that were often equal in quality to the last few years, if sometimes with unusual blends. Many of these blends may never be created again, and are testament to the skills that we spoke about earlier. They will be fascinating to watch develop.
These producers deserve special credit this year for battling the frost and crafting superb wine.
2017 Château Angélus, Saint-Émilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé Famed for its cabernet franc, this year the blend contains only 30% instead of the usual even split. The frost didn’t impact huge areas of their vineyards, but all grapes were sorted extremely carefully. The extra merlot (70%) gives a plush, voluptuous, but elegant character that suits the style of the wine, and the bilberry and charcoal flavours make this utterly delicious. 96 points
2017 Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé These guys took dealing with frost impact to a whole new level, lining up a row of micro-vinification vats to assess all the secondary-budding fruit from any frost-affected plots. In the end less than 1% of it made it into the wine, which tells you something about their standards. Approximately 60% of the wine this year came from the gravelly plots that were less frost-affected, which accounts for a slightly higher level of cabernet sauvignon than usual (44%), and the number of bottles will be around 30% less than usual. All of this makes the results even more impressive. The tannins push their way right through the palate, cradling the cassis and bilberry fruit rather than smothering it. There’s gorgeous floral and smoky aromatics. 96 points
2017 Château Figeac, Saint-Émilion, Premier Grand Cru Classé Figeac lost 55% of the crop to frost, which hit the cabernet franc particularly hard. Consequently this vintage of the wine has the lowest cabernet franc on record (10%). They have done an excellent job of not over-extracting, and the result has a gentle depth of bramble fruit, menthol and eucalyptus that unrolls with minerality. The last plots came in on 3 October and only around 10% of second generation fruit made it into the final wine. 93 points
2017 Château Fleur Cardinale, Saint-Émilion, Grand Cru Classé There’s very little of this wine in 2017 and what there is will be bottled in 1,000 magnums. The Decoster family at Fleur Cardinale are deserving of praise this year, producing just eight barrels from an unusual blend with far higher cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc than usual (26%) in a wine that is normally 90%-plus merlot. Full of energy and extremely dark-fruited in expression, showing damson and black cherries alongside softly smoked and grilled almond notes. It has great tension, poise and minerality. 93 points.
2017 Château Chantegrive Cuvée Caroline, Graves This estate was badly affected by frost, so much so that it made no white nor red for its main label. But it did produce a small quantity of this excellent white wine, a blend of sauvignon blanc, semillon and sauvignon gris, that is normally its top cuvée. Rich, round and succulent, it has a fleshy texture with white pear and white peach flavours and is going to give a lot of pleasure over the next five to 10 years. Fermented and aged in 50% new oak with lees stirring for nine months. 92 points
2017 Château Pape Clement, Pessac Léognan So severe was the frost that this estate was affected even though it is close to the warming influence of the city of Bordeaux, losing around half of production. The result is a wine with a touch less opulence than you will find in 2015 and 2016, but it’s hard not to be charmed by the flexible tannins and rich black fruit construction. 92 points
2017 Château Grand Village Acte IX, AOC Bordeaux This is a serious wine from Pomerol’s Château Lafleur. Persistent and mouth-filling greengage and damson notes with touches of rosemary. Well-finessed lines, gentle acidity and succulent tannins, and unusually 100% merlot because their massal-selection cabernet franc didn’t survive the frost. The final bottling is just 10% of normal production. 91 points
2017 Château Fourcas Hosten, Listrac Médoc Another one of the notable successes in Listrac; a more sculpted style than in the past two years because it has over 60% cabernet sauvignon in the blend compared to 45% last year, again as a result of frost impact in the vineyard. Full of blackberry fruits with good poise and subtle juicing that makes this an enjoyable glass. 88 points
2017 Château Ferran, Pessac Léognan This is well-extracted, firm and rich with lots of oak and heavily-spiced black fruits that reflect the unusually high level of petit verdot (38% in a wine that normally had a fraction of that) because of the frost impact. The rest of the blend is made up by merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and this will be both good value and a showcase of good winemaking against the odds. 87 points
2017 Château Saransot Dupré, Listrac Medoc It was almost tougher for the estates who suffered from bad frosts over on the western side of the Médoc, because they knew so many of their neighbours got off scot-free. At Saransot-Dupré they lost 50% of harvest overall, and were unable to use any cabernet sauvignon in the blend, because it was the hardest hit. That’s difficult for a Médoc winery, so their excellent handling of the 80% merlot, 10% cabernet franc and 10% petit verdot should be applauded. With lively delivery of black fruit and spice through the palate, this holds together well and is carefully extracted, although it is a little austere right now. It will definitely benefit from the softening of tannins over the next year or so. 87 points
Let’s group the super-premium wines together, meaning bottles that go for hundreds of dollars. The wines listed below all knocked it out of the park in 2017, and many should release at lower prices than last year.
Château Ausone (Saint-Émilion)
Château La Fleur Petrus (Pomerol)
Château Lafleur (Pomerol)
Château Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac)
Château Latour (Pauillac)
Château Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac)
Château Palmer (Margaux)
Château Montrose (Saint-Estèphe)
Château Haut-Brion (Pessac Léognan)
Many of these estates escaped the frosts, but they still had to contend with rains at the end of June and again in September with extremely dry periods in between.
Château Prieuré Lichine (Margaux)
Château Ormes de Pez (Saint-Estèphe
Château Liliane Ladouys (Saint-Estèphe)
Château Calon Segur (Saint-Estèphe)
Château Pichon Baron (Pauillac)
Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac Léognan)
Château Lynch Bages (Pauillac)
Château Saint-Pierre (Saint-Julien)
Château Ducru Beaucaillou (Saint-Julien)
Château Haut-Bailly (Pessac Léognan)
This was a year when the right bank really had to roll with the punches, but when the wines worked they were exceptional. Don’t buy blind from these appellations. The good ones have delivered exceptionally juicy, rich and well-balanced wines.
Château Belair Monange (Saint-Émilion)
Château Troplong Mondot (Saint-Émilion)
Château Canon (Saint-Émilion)
Château Beausejour Duffau Lagrarosse (Saint-Émilion)
Clos Fourtet (Saint-Émilion)
Château L’Eglise Clinet (Pomerol)
Château Trotanoy (Pomerol)
Château la Conseillante (Pomerol)
Château Lafleur Gazin (Pomerol)
Château Sansonnet (Saint-Émilion)
Exceptional whites across the board, really a buy for 2017.
Château Margaux Blanc (Bordeaux Blanc)
La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (Pessac Léognan)
Château La Garde (Pessac Léognan)
Château La Louvière (Pessac Léognan)
Château Carbonnieux (Pessac Léognan)
Château Oliver (Pessac Léognan)
Clos Floridène (Graves)
Aile d’Argent (Pauillac)
Château Cos d’Estournel Blanc (Bordeaux Blanc)
Les Hauts de Smith Blanc (Pessac Léognan)
Some big luscious Sauternes on offer this year, not the highest acidities ever (you still have to go to 2016, 2014 or 2011 for that) but some gorgeous wines all the same.
Château Doisy-Daëne, L’Extravagance (Barsac)
Château Coutet (Barsac)
Château de Fargues (Sauternes)
Château Doisy-Védrines (Barsac)
Château Sigalas-Rabaud (Sauternes)
You didn’t have to be a big name to succeed in 2017, as long as you were lucky to avoid the pitfalls.
Château Lamarque (Haut Médoc)
Château Citran (Haut Médoc)
Château Potensac (Haut Médoc)
Château Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc)
Château Montlandrie (Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux)
Clos de Boüard (Montagne Saint-Émilion)
Château Moulin Haut Laroque (Fronsac)
Château de la Dauphine (Fronsac)
Château Jean Faux (Bordeaux Supérieur, red and white)
Clos Dubreuil (Saint-Émilion)
Most of the unripe fruit ended up in the second label of the best wines this year, but there were some clear exceptions, particularly in that Médoc sweet spot and also in the white wines.
Château Lacoste Borie (Pauillac)
Le Petit Lion (Saint-Julien)
Reserve de la Comtesse (Pauillac)
Dame de Montrose (Saint-Estèphe)
La Clarté de Haut Brion (Pessac Léognan)