Vintage Seeks Home: Bordeaux 2017 In Bottle


Left Bank: Saint-EstèphePauillac | Saint-JulienMargaux | Pessac-Léognan and Graves | Medoc & Haut Medoc | Listrac & Moulis

Right Bank: Pomerol | Saint-Émilion | Satellites


You can be remembered for the wrong thing. You spend a lifetime doing charity work, then an overdue library book brands you a criminal for the rest of your days. It is no different for growing seasons. Having spent many years analyzing vintage minutiae, sifting through data and trawling through anecdotes, I often find that the underlying determining factor is not necessarily the headline. The 2017 Bordeaux “episode” might be called “The One With the Late Spring Frost.” And yes, it was calamitous for estates denied a single bottle to release, particularly the countless lesser-known châteaux for whom a late frost threatens survival.

But a late spring frost – I mean, it’s so dramatic. The anticipation, the nighttime vigil as candles illuminate vineyards through the night – so pretty, so amazing on Instagram. Winemakers look heavenward and pray with one eye on the thermometer. Tears fall at sunrise as despondent vineyard managers survey blackened young buds encased in ice. Disaster is plastered across social media in real time with dire predictions. Such catastrophic events and their concomitant images create conceptions that stick in people’s minds. Negative news makes deeper impressions on our collective memory than positive news. After the hoopla surrounding 2016, the following year’s frost prompted many consumers to “switch channels” and look elsewhere for potential quality, the whole vintage ostensibly written off at conception.

Bordeaux 2017? Nah, mate. Bit the dust in April. Didn’t you hear about the frost?

In reality, what followed was a decent growing season. Alas, it was one without a meteorological event of sufficient magnitude to steer opinion back in a positive direction.

This report seeks to look beyond the frost that blighted hopes early in April, examining the growing season that followed and how it shaped the resulting bottled wines on the cusp of physical release. The pertinent question is, does anyone want them?

If I remember correctly, I took this photo just outside Yquem on March 31, before the spring frost affected parts of the region.

The Growing Season

I have reproduced here the growing season summary composed for my original en primeur report, for those who just require the main points: A late spring frost affected mostly areas of the Right Bank and Graves, more acutely on the Right Bank than the Left Bank, and also Sauternes. Flowering was perfect; June was extremely hot, with downpours at the end of the month; and then July was comparatively cool and dry. The dry spell continued into August, causing some hydric stress, although at least it was sunnier than the previous month. In this period the build-up of polyphenols was low, which ultimately dictated the “classic” style of the 2017s. A rainy first half of September dashed hopes of an Indian summer and diluted some of the earlier-picked plots of Merlot, with the exception of those populating the limestone plateau in Saint-Émilion. The Cabernet Sauvignon began to be picked under sunny, dry conditions from around September 22–23, although inclement drizzly weather toward the end of the month forced many estates to expedite the harvest rather than risk leaving fruit on the vine.

Now for the unabridged summary of the 2017 growing season for those wishing for more in-depth analysis with facts and figures.

The 2016/2017 winter months were relatively warm, as a high-pressure system wedged itself over France, so that the average temperature in December was 2.2°C above normal. Vines are like tortoises insofar as they need to go into standby mode and rest during winter months. A warm December precluded them from doing so, at least until a fortnight of freezing weather arrived in January. This cold snap was crucial for killing off pests and diseases and simply allowing the vines a much-needed nap. Come February and March, winter appeared to have been canceled or, as it transpired, postponed; temperatures were 2.5° and 2.9°C above average, respectively. January, usually a month when water reserves are topped up, had been the driest for 25 years, and this was significant given the low precipitation later that year.

All this meant that vineyard managers had an early start to the growth cycle, almost the opposite of the inchoate 2018, when the vines still looked dormant by early April. Theoretically, bud-burst could have been in early March, but perhaps due to the influence of the previous season’s drought, the vines did not switch on the ignition until mid-March, and then they raced ahead, so that the baby leaves were unfurling by the end of the month. Average bud-break was March 28, and like many others, I recall vineyards exploding into green during en primeur. Growers started speculating about an early harvest, putting them in a positive frame of mind, since they prefer an early start. At that time, some were touting 2014, 2015 and 2016 as a modern-day 1988, 1989 and 1990 as part of last year’s promotional campaign. My retort was that then 2017 was destined to be 1991 and they’d be frosted over (you can get away with these jibes when you’ve known winemakers for a long time). They just grinned. What are the odds?

Quite high, in fact. While doubtless at the back of their minds winemakers were wary of frost, in reality many cannot remember 1991, when frost extirpated vast swaths of Bordeaux. I feel old writing this, but middle-aged winemakers now in their early 40s were at school in 1991. The succession of frost-free springs perhaps led some to believe that global warming had rendered Bordeaux immune to a widespread late frost. That was a thing of the past, something that now only happened in another world... like Volnay or Pommard. Sure, there were skirmishes in 1997, 2009 and 2011, but not enough for properties to invest in wind turbines or candles, as those in more frost-prone northerly latitudes do (in Chablis or Alsace, for instance) – or at least those with the financial means. That said, I always spied the turbines in Domaine de Chevalier or just outside L’Église-Clinet toward the church, always dormant, and speculated whether they would ever be used. It looked unlikely in 2017. By mid-April, warm weather meant that the shoots were some 30cm in length, with six to eight leaves. As one winemaker quipped back then, they could be picking before they decamped to Cap Feret that summer.

Then everything changed. From April 20, the first wave of frost devastated several regions, including Chablis and Champagne. Bordeaux appeared to have escaped with just some vineyards in Saint-Émilion reporting a 10% loss, extremely dry conditions having limited the damage. That changed after a spell of rain drifted up from Spain on April 24 and 25 and then wind and temperatures dropped in tandem on the night of April 26. In a majority of areas, the temperature plunged to –2°C, but in some places the mercury fell to –5° or –6°C, low enough to vanquish all hope. To pile on the agony, the frost attacked on not just one but three consecutive nights, the second and third nights inflicting the most damage. Factor in the sun’s rays burning the buds as the light passed through prisms of ice, à la Burgundy, and the festering sense of dread was palpable. As I have written before with respect to the Côte d’Or in 2016, the extent and severity of frost damage is not immediately visible. It is during the following day that the verdant canopy discolors into ugly browns or blacks. In fact, Baptiste Guinaudeau at Lafleur remarked on what he termed a “gray” frost, whose aftereffects can be longer-lasting and less obvious, a corruption in the physiology of the vine revealed by a defect in flowering or distorted growth that becomes apparent with time.

One upside is that unlike in 1991, the frost damage did not cover the entire region. It spared the Grand Cru Classés whose vines lie within the ambit of the temperature-regulating, turbid waters of the Gironde. Give or take the odd anomaly, the rule is that the closer you were to the estuary, the safer you were. During my first week visiting the Grand Cru Classés on the Left Bank, it was clear that few vines were touched by frost, though damage became more evident as I ventured to more inland vineyards in Saint-Julien and then down to Margaux. Likewise, on the Right Bank, the Pomerol gravel plateau and Saint-Émilion limestone plateau and the côtes got away unharmed, whereas lower-lying areas on the plane were often severely impacted. This is why, unlike in 1956 or 1991, hardly any major names are missing; the highest-profile casualties were d’Angludet, de Fieuzal, La Pointe and Climens. In his annual report, Bill Blatch described a swath of damage that extended from Blaye down to Barsac. Entre-Deux-Mers was acutely affected, with 50–100% damage, Lalande de Pomerol 50–80%, low-lying Saint-Émilion around 50%, low-lying Graves 50–80% and Barsac 60–100%.

Candles doing their best to protect young buds from a late spring frost. 

From that list, it is clear that this “snobby” frost aimed its icy wrath at vulnerable properties that could ill afford to skip a harvest. The BIVB reported a potential loss of 40% of production, equivalent to 30 million bottles, predominantly unfamiliar names selling their wines either for a handful of euros or in bulk. Many could not afford the arsenal of countermeasures available to top estates, though of course much depended on how proactive they were.

The frost set three different vintages in motion: one for those who faced zero production, those partially affected, and the lucky ones who emerged unscathed. Those with 100% loss found that the cold had killed the counter-buds. Frost had ripped not only their main parachute but their emergency parachute as well; game over, and onward to 2018. Those partially affected had surviving first-generation growth intermixed with counter-buds that would produce second-generation fruit. The problem is that the rest of the growing season needs to be warm and dry so that the second wave of fruit, lagging behind in terms of the vegetative cycle, can make up lost time and get within touching distance of phenolic ripeness come harvest. That necessitates a lot of effort by the vines – and by the vineyard hands, who marked the vines carrying secondary fruit so that pickers could separate them. Damaged vines were scattered hither and thither, so it was vital to flag them as soon as possible because eventually the bunches looked identical but had varied ripeness levels. Again, this takes time and money, though as you will read from my individual château write-ups, nearly all the major estates had the manpower and willingness to do it. Those estates that got away scot-free could just send sympathy cards. As it transpired, some enjoyed bountiful crops, which was galling for those with silent harvest receptions and empty vats.

So, what did happen weather-wise? May was hot and warm, with heat spikes over 30°C. Mi-fleuraison was on May 30, around two weeks earlier than normal, and flowering was spread over 10 days in almost perfect conditions; Eric Kohler at Lafite-Rothschild described it as the best he had ever seen. This was rubbing salt in the wounds of those who faced the prospect of a tiny or nonexistent harvest. Then June was baking hot, with temperatures 5.5°C above average, the third hottest since 1959 and not far from 2003. At this point, if conditions had held steady, the second-generation fruit might have caught up, just like it did in 1961. Alas, around 100mm of rain fell at the end of June, and July was relatively cool, despite a couple of heat spikes. Average temperatures (26.4°C) are deceptive, since warm nights raised that figure. It was also dry, with around 28mm of rain on average, which caused some vines, especially younger ones with shallower roots or those on more free-draining gravel soils, to suffer heat stress. Importantly, sunshine hours totaled 189 instead of the average 249. Véraison took place around July 20 and the unfrosted vines looked forward to an early harvest, while those affected by frost suffered irregular ripening, hampering prospects of supplementing shortfalls of first-generation fruit.

There is one important point to make, one that influences the style of the 2017s. One of Denis Dubourdieu’s five governing conditions for a great vintage is that water stress must be observed “no later than the beginning of véraison,” referring to that liminal point when water stress retards vegetative growth and the vine redirects its energy into bunch formation. However, in 2017 it was mostly observed after véraison (apart from those parcels on the fastest-draining soils, i.e., gravel croupes), which partly explains why the eventual wines do not possess the same flesh, sweetness and complexity of the previous two vintages. This was not true in all cases; winemaker Dominique Arangoïts at Cos d’Estournel was one of several who observed hydric stress from mid-June. August continued the pattern of July. It was dry, yielding just 30mm of rain, but at least there were more sunshine hours, at 263 compared to the average of 241. However, temperatures languished in the low 20s until August 21. It was only at the end of the month that the days got warm enough to bump the average temperature up to 28°C (21.7°C is the long-term average).

To me, this cool period in August influenced the style of the 2017s and may have been overshadowed by more dramatic events such as the April frost or the early September downpours. It capped ripeness levels, preventing even the healthiest vines from developing high sugar levels. While the build-up of anthocyanin was not that different from 2016, there was less polyphenol content than previous years – in fact, the lowest since 2013 with respect to Cabernet Sauvignon. It set up conditions that could produce very good wines, albeit in a more linear, slightly drier and somewhat tannic style, which some might call “classic.” One benefit is that the cooler temperatures locked in the low pH levels and freshness evident in many of the 2017 samples, and then heat at the end of August eradicated any pyrazines, so there is very little greenness in this vintage.

If the Bordelais could have written the script, September would have brought an Indian summer to save the day. But the first half of the month was drizzly and overcast. Rainfall varied between communes. Certainly, until September 12, up to 100–120mm of rain fell, a few millimeters each day rather than a burst of intense downpours, and less on the Right Bank, where figures were more in the region of 30–40mm. Of course, by this time picking had already started for the whites, as early as August 21 at Haut-Brion. Having dodged much of the early September rain, some of the dry white Bordeaux are exceptionally fine. In terms of the red grape varieties, the Merlot began to be picked from around September 11, since the spell of rain was coming to an end and the risk of rot lingered. Some growing season reports suggest that the Merlot did not deteriorate after the early September rain; however, this was not borne out in conversation with growers. If you peruse the one-on-one discussions with Left Bank winemakers, quite a few found that this rain diluted the quality of the Merlot and subsequently compromised the final blend. Consequently, many estates – like Montrose and Calon-Ségur, to name but two – deselected vats of Merlot to create more Cabernet-leaning wines. The exception to this rule is the limestone and clay-limestone soils on the Saint-Émilion plateau, where Merlot seems to have performed much better.

Much of the Cabernet Sauvignon was picked from September 22 or 23 under fine and warm conditions. Again, if winemakers had written the script, that clement weather would have continued into October and led to more opulent, richer and more complex wines. However, the return of drizzle at the end of the month forced their hand and many growers expedited the harvest, so that the secateurs were packed away by September 29. There were a few that continued until the first days of October, and so long as their fruit was carefully sorted, it could contribute density and depth to the blend. Returning back to sugar levels, data shows that the average sugar level on September 18 was 217g/L, compared to 223g/L in 2016. However, there is a large difference in total acidity, 3.7g/L in 2017 compared to 3.2g/L in 2016. Therefore, although sugar levels are not particularly low, the perception of sweetness is masked by that sharp acidity, creating one of the leitmotifs of the vintage.

Although by harvest time the vines hit by frost were only around 12 days behind those that were not, in most cases they could not make up the aromatic and phenolic ripeness levels. Châteaux that had clung to hope, patiently sitting it out and praying for berries to ripen, finally threw in the towel. All that effort in marking individual vines (in the case of Lagrange, some 250,000 of them) and subsequently tending them throughout the season was to no avail; the only beneficiary was the distillery. Some châteaux did resort to using second-generation fruit (with careful sorting, of course); this was mandatory for properties that could ill afford a shortfall in production. At the top of the Bordeaux hierarchy, nearly all properties simply eschewed all second-generation fruit, if there was any. Yields were average and in some places high; for example, Beychevelle enjoyed their biggest crop since 1999. Of course, as you go down the hierarchy, you will find second-generation fruit used more often. Some estates did not have the means to mark affected vines, conduct rigorous sorting or sit out a seriously depleted vintage. The frost essentially concentrated quality on the best terroirs and the most famous names, leaving the rest to fend for themselves.


Most properties that were either unaffected by frost or elected not to use frost-affected vines reported a healthy crop entering the reception area. Vibrating tables, Tribaies, optical sorting machines and good old human eyes and hands did their job, but it was not a year when a high percentage had to be discarded, since there was little rot. Those electing to weed out second-generation fruit did so in the vineyard, rather than risk sorting at the last moment before the grapes entered the vat. Alcoholic fermentation was normal. Quite a number of properties eschew SO2 to protect the fruit at this stage, partly because nowadays the fruit is so healthy after fastidious sorting. Nearly all properties were adamant that it was necessary to conduct a soft, gentle and longer-than-normal extraction, now rebranded as “infusion.” This is partly down to a revised view of desirable wine that focuses on elegance and less power/alcohol compared to a decade ago, making the wines less tannic and more approachable in their youth. In addition, some winemakers were smitten by the aromas during fermentation and wanted to capture them in the finished wine. At the properties I visited, none reported difficulty filling vats with depleted volumes of must, since many are now equipped with bespoke smaller vats, or else they took a cue from Burgundy and fermented the wine in barrel. I imagine that filling vats might be more problematic in frost-affected vineyards equipped with large wooden or concrete vats, though I did not witness that myself. The malolactics and blending were done in some cases before Christmas and in others in early January, many winemakers preferring to get this done sooner rather than later so that the wine is more settled by the time of en primeur, which is where we are now.

How the Tastings Were Done

Due to personal circumstances that I won’t bore you with, my 2019 itinerary was governed by caring for my own physical well-being, though in the end I achieved nearly everything I set out to do, including examining the 2017s in bottle. One advantage of delaying my barrel tastings to late September is that during my fortnight tour of Grand Cru Classés and major Right Bank estates, I asked if properties could show their 2017s alongside. It made an interesting juxtaposition. Some were concerned about bottle shock, since the rattle of bottling lines is heard in June or July; however, I found only two or three examples of wine that was clearly not ready. In fact, the recently bottled wines showed well, displaying brightness before the ensuing winter threatened to close them down. Re-tasting many again on multiple occasions upon my return in December, I found that nearly all correlated to my tasting notes written just before or during harvest. Due to major changes in the Cru Bourgeois classification, there was no organized tasting of the 2017 selection in September. This is a tasting that I have attended without fail since the category’s reintroduction, and it was sorely missed. Fortunately, the Alliance des Crus Bourgeois kindly sent samples to my address, and they are included in this report. Also, readers will note that I did not review the Sauternes, which I plan to assess blind in 12 months’ time (see below).

Another day, another tranche of Bordeaux 2017s ready for inspection. There were a few gems in this particular lineup.

One final point is that I consider this report to be just the first part of what is a “double seal” examination of the wines in bottle. Although many wines are assessed two or three times in different locations, often at the château and later at a négociant and/or consultant, I will re-taste nearly all these wines next January under blind peer group conditions, which I have done since the 2003 vintage. This additional year in bottle gives the infant wines time to settle, and at the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with another snapshot, especially one under blind conditions that can either confirm or question previous assessments.

Bordeaux 2017: How the Wines Showed

Two thousand and seventeen was never a headline-grabbing vintage. Apart from the frost-induced upheaval, the growing season always lacked a bit of pizzazz, a bit of melodrama; it seemed to trundle along. After the excitement of 2016, the 2017 vintage was an inevitable return to business as usual and its adjacency to 2016 cast it in a dimmer light than otherwise might have been. Within months, even the Bordelais themselves had moved on and cranked up the marketing machine for the imminent birth of the 2018s.

Generally, the reds maintain the classicism and linearity that they displayed from barrel, and I was pleased to find that many have retained – or in some cases enhanced – their freshness now that they are in bottle. In some instances I found that they had put on a bit of weight and filled out during the remainder of their élevage, and such wines receive more positive appraisals. What the 2017 vintage lacks are what I frequently refer to as “snow-capped peaks”– that is to say, the wines that stop you in your tracks and make your heart skip a beat, leaving you floundering for words to communicate your appreciation and wonderment. Such peaks bejewel 2016 but not 2017, for reasons stated in my growing season summary. That cool July seemed to ration accumulation of polyphenols and this, plus the curtailed harvest period, capped the achievable heights. If you insist on interpreting that numerically, then 95 points seems to be the upper limit set by Mother Nature.

I quite liked Eric Kohler’s sober assessment of the growing season when I visited Lafite-Rothschild. While he told me that the weather was perfect from May onward, he described 2017 as “a very good vintage with a bit of dilution” after the damp early September. “In some ways they are a bit like 2011, a little austere in their youth. But unlike that vintage, the rain arrived when the ripening cycle had finished. You just have to wait for these wines.” Or heed the words of Philippe Dhalluin down the road at Mouton-Rothschild. “The 2017s were a bit tannic at the beginning. You could feel the graininess. But they are becoming more civilized with aging.” The word “civilized” aptly describes how the 2017s are beginning to show. Anthropomorphizing the 2017s, they are smart, respectable and self-effacing, not ambitious, but they do have class. They know their place within the hierarchy and have no desire to snatch glory away from 2016. They do what is expected with minimum fuss: that is to say, they express their respective terroirs, reflect the DNA of the château and give drinking pleasure within a limited time frame (though here I am a little more optimistic than Kohler, who suggested that they will be delicious for just 15 years). I can foresee them aging well, but my hunch is that we will not see a miraculous belated upswing in quality after cellaring; instead, they will reach a plateau and remain there for a satisfying period.

In my original assessment from barrel, I opined that there seemed to be no bias toward either Left or Right Bank. I might tweak that opinion because I notice how many Right Bank wines, in particular within Saint-Émilion, have meliorated during their élevage. They testify to a new breed of winemaker with revised techniques and tenets that I have discussed in previous reports. Few properties epitomize that as much as Troplong-Mondot. Under Aymeric de Gironde, they made a handbrake turn in modus operandi, and while the 2017 is for me a work in progress, it is a step in the right direction. Doubtless it will be surpassed in future years by wines cut from a different cloth than those under the late Christine Vallette and Xavier Pariente. Essentially, this appellation is now more diverse, more interesting and simply more drinkable now that it is less hidebound by a recipe engineered to obtain high scores.

That improvement is tangible throughout the hierarchy, though the impact of the frost jumbles things up. I draw readers’ attention to Cheval Blanc, not because I consider it the best, but because of the philosophy behind it. Pierre Lurton made the crucial decision to reflect the growing season without compromise instead of manipulating the blend to create a hypothetically superior wine, and the result is a more Cabernet-driven Cheval Blanc that frankly does miss the contribution of Merlot and its interplay with the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. As a critic I am obliged to objectively communicate the quality of wine in simplistic terms using a numeric scale, yet numbers cannot translate my admiration for a wine underpinned by an intangible sense of honesty. If wine is morally obliged to be a fermented record of a year within a vineyard, then Cheval Blanc follows that order to the letter, if at the cost of a soupçon of intrinsic quality. Such an approach is uncommon in Bordeaux, where the dogma is to strive for quality and adulation at all costs, even if it means sorting or blending away the shortcomings of the growing season. The 2017 is not the greatest Cheval Blanc ever, yet it stands as one of the vintage’s most fascinating wines and probably the one I look forward to re-tasting more than any other.

On the Left Bank, such is the meticulous approach and dedication at the top estates that hardly anyone produced what I might call a disappointing or underperforming wine. Within the limitations set by the circumstances of the growing season, they generally achieve their full potential. All the First Growths are impressive, the 2017 Latour just putting its nose out in front, though that is a moot point given that it will not be released for several years. Perhaps the best in terms of value are the top-performing Deuxième Vins: a wonderfully aromatically expressive Les Forts de Latour and a Le Petit Mouton that is unrecognizable from the bottles I used to pick up on supermarket shelves in the Nineties (I actually remember once buying a bottle of Le Petit Mouton and some cat food from Asda).

My tastings did unearth one cuvée that I was previously unaware of. This alternate take on La Croix Beaucaillou Cuvée Colbert undergoes a different élevage than the regular bottling. You will find details in the tasting note.

Initially I felt that northern Left Bank appellations, Pauillac and Saint Estèphe, fared better than those in the south. That is a view I would not change. The Margaux 2017s are more reliant on Merlot, which was affected by the early September rains, whereas the more Cabernet Sauvignon–dominated châteaux could exploit that clement window around the third week of September. Of course, there are exceptions, and I would cite both Palmer and Rauzan-Ségla as two Margaux that put a distance between themselves and their peers. One pleasant surprise was Pouget, probably the least known of the classified growths. I need to investigate this property first-hand, but recent vintages, tasted both blind and sighted, attest to a revitalized Margaux. In terms of value, this would be one of my picks. Down in Pessac-Léognan, the dry whites generally show extremely well, as many châteaux picked in the latter half of August before the showers arrived in early September. This resulted in a raft of vibrant, lively, life-affirming dry whites with impressive nervosité and complexity, especially from Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Malartic-Lagravière, Latour-Martillac, and Smith-Haut Lafitte, and hidden gems from Château Ferran.

One more remark that I would like to make is that although I could not taste as many Cru Bourgeois as I wanted, I did sample some really superb and great-value wines from around the Médoc and Haut-Médoc. However, I also came across bottles that do not deserve the Cru Bourgeois status. The over-generosity of this classification is something I have criticized in the past, particularly in less favorable growing seasons when the numbers of Cru Bourgeois appear unchanged. Surely, in order to uphold standards and, crucially, to maintain customer confidence, that number should fall. I did find several examples of wines that were either substandard or technically faulty and not only do not merit Cru Bourgeois status but diminish the achievements of those wines that do make the grade.

Neal, What Would You Buy?

For reasons that I will outline in the “Market” section of this report, at the moment I must be brutally honest. There is little incentive to buy 2017 Bordeaux. But if I had to make up a case that offers interesting wines at fair prices at different price points from various appellations, then I would fill it with the following dozen:

2017 Calon Ségur (Saint Estèphe) – Saint Estèphe performed extremely well in this vintage, much as it did in 2014. While the Cos d’Estournel and Montrose are exceptionally fine, the lower market cost of Calon-Ségur makes it a more attractive proposition.

2017 Pichon-Lalande (Pauillac) – I include this Second Growth because I adore the style of this vintage. It comes across fleshier than recent vintages and reminded me of the 1982 at its zenith during the 1990s. Sometimes Pauillac tries to impress the taster rather than dish out pleasure; here, Nicolas Glumineau and his team conjured a wine that does both.

Although it could not match the 100 points awarded to Mrs. M’s homemade lasagne, this Cru Bourgeois was delicious and improved with aeration.

2017 Lamothe-Bergeron (Haut-Médoc) – Critics should always be prepared to dent their reputation for consistency and alter their appraisal from barrel. This is an instance where either I underestimated the unfinished wine or it improved during its élevage. Located in the commune of Cussac, just south of Saint Julien, this Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois was so delicious that the bottle was ordered home to accompany Mrs. M’s homemade lasagne, whereupon it got even better with aeration in order to punish me further for my tepid barrel score. (The wine, not the lasagne.)

2017 Branas Grand Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc) – This 12-hectare property, owned by Justin Onclin, has been a consistent performer in recent vintages. Perhaps its title, a bit of a mouthful, puts people off. Don’t let it discourage you. This is a lovely Moulis.

2017 Roc de Cambes (Bourg – Côtes de Bordeaux) – François Mitjavile is most famous for Tertre-Rôteboeuf, but his beloved estate in Bourg – Côtes de Bordeaux offers incredible value for a wine equal to many Cru Classés, as has been proven many times in peer group blind tastings. I would love to have included Domaine des Cambes on this list too. Maybe I’ve just sneaked it in!

2017 La Mauriane (Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion) – I found much to like in this Puisseguin Saint-Émilion, owned by university lecturer Pierre Taïx and one of several properties in his portfolio. It is in fact a special micro-cuvée from clay and chalk soils in Château Rigaud. Seek it out.

2017 Dalem (Fronsac) – Fronsac performed well in this vintage, and this constitutes one of the best young vintages I have encountered. The 14-hectare vineyard is located in the clay-limestone plateau, rich in Fronsac’s molasses soil. Winemaker Brigitte Rullier-Loussert uses no SO2 during vinification of the predominantly Merlot blend and matured the 2017 in around 40% new oak. Delicious.

2017 Sansonnet (Saint Émilion) – This is a 2017 that surpassed my expectations and represents one of a clutch of Saint-Émilions that are turning the appellation into a dynamic and fascinating region. This estate is one of four owned by the Lefévère family, and the wine comes from a seven-hectare plot on clay-limestone soils up on the plateau. De-bloody-licious.

2017 Pierre de Lune (Saint Émilion) – Proprietor Tony Ballu is a former régisseur at Clos Fourtet, and this small Grand Cru from the commune of Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens is a superb Saint-Émilion, the contribution from Cabernet Sauvignon vines giving it another, almost Left Bank–inspired dimension.

2017 Trotanoy (Pomerol) – One might assume that the triumvirate of Petrus, Le Pin and Lafleur represents the apotheosis of Pomerol by dint of price. While I suspect that Lafleur will ultimately end up as not just one of the best within the appellation but one of the wines of the vintage, Trotanoy is quintessential Pomerol and perhaps represents more bang for the buck. I would go as far to say that assuming Lafleur runs away with the gold medal, it will be Trotanoy running a close second and taking the silver.

2017 Ferran Blanc (Pessac-Léognan) – My case is obliged to carry a dry white Bordeaux, and why not this one? I have been following this Graves property for a number of years, and this is one of the best I have tasted, a blend of 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Sémillon from 3.5 hectares of white plantings. I can see it offering at least a decade’s worth of drinking pleasure.

2017 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc (Pessac-Léognan) – In fact, I am going to include two bottles of dry white Bordeaux in my assortment case. This blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Sémillon is one that I am going to lay down. Having tasted the Bernard family’s white wines back to the 1940s, I can vouch for Domaine de Chevalier Blanc’s ability to reward those with patience.

The Market

Face facts: there is a lot of Bordeaux gathering on shelves looking for buyers. To proprietors’ growing consternation, recent vintages from 2014 onward might have received praise but, unlike before, with the notable exception of the feted 2016s, this does not automatically translate into end-consumer sales. The 2017s are generally very good in quality; however, it is not a benchmark vintage like 2016, and consequently the market is deprived of custom driven by consumers who demand the very best. Instead, it depends on a traditional customer base that is more prudent, price-sensitive and, yes, sensible. With merchants who increasingly cherry-pick a handful of châteaux to build their campaign around, newly released wines risk getting stuck in a clogged-up distribution chain already straining under the volume. Lest we forget, compared to many wine regions, Bordeaux produces a hell of a lot of wine. Much of the production takes up residence in the vast warehouses of Bordeaux négociants, who cross their fingers that they can move it on at a profit at some point in the future. In reality, it is tying up liquidity and making the banks nervous.

Then we have to mention the dreaded Trump tax. Unfortunately, the 2017s could not be shipped to the United States before the 25% import tax (with all its complex and at times seemingly illogical exceptions) was levied on French wines. Speaking to one importer off the record, I was informed that many are keeping their allocations in France and waiting to see how everything works out. However, this was decided before the threat of the punitive 100% tariff that threatens to decimate vast swaths of the wine industry, and not just stateside. If that does come to pass, surely it will result in canceled orders, yet more young claret looking for a home, and American wine lovers looking elsewhere and maybe wondering what happened to that great wine shop that stood around the corner for so many years.

The chairman of a leading Bordeaux UK importer was pessimistic as these wines came onto the market. “The fundamental problem is that the release prices were too high and we expect that prices will have to come down for many wines before they find a realistic market price at which they will be able to be sold. This is a vintage that won’t appeal to customers who want to collect the great vintages, so it ought to be priced to appeal to the ’drinker’s market.’ Consequently, prices should be in line with vintages like 2014 and 2012, but they aren’t and so people are not buying them.” He continued by listing current selling prices for 2014 and 2017 that starkly show the latter to be more expensive, despite their reputations being equal. En primeur cannot function when the newest vintages are more expensive than their qualitative peers, and so they will just sit there until market forces find a price where they do sell. But when that will be? And how many more vintages will have been released by that time?

A morning’s work, this time on the Right Bank in December.

Final Thoughts

Flicking through my mental Rolodex of Bordeaux vintages, there are several that might be categorized as “neither here nor there.” They do not rank among the best, nor are they the worst. Think 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2012 and maybe 2014. They occupy a kind of middle ground, albeit a middle ground vastly superior to when I began professionally tasting Bordeaux in 1997. Among the aforementioned vintages, there are some that seemed to “kick on” once in bottle, generally more recent vintages such as 2012 and 2014 (some are arguing 2011, too, although I am yet to be fully convinced). I would place the 2017s within this “close but no cigar” category, and as such, they should be fertile ground for those who could not afford the 2016s. They were handicapped by overambitious release prices that did not offer sufficient financial incentive to persuade hype-weary consumers to open their wallets for (yet another) good vintage. Instead, following a trend, the 2017s were well received but left on the shelf alongside 2014, 2015, 2016 and now 2018. They might be taken to the checkout at a later time, but why rush? And that’s a shame. The 2017s are a testament to the consistency that Bordeaux now achieves, such that even unexceptional growing seasons or those affected by a late spring frost can bestow great wines at healthy volumes. And therein lies Bordeaux’s greatest asset and greatest weakness. Where will consumers come from? More than adulation or scores, wines need homes.

Candles protecting young buds photograph copyright Johan Berglund. Used with permission.

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