In most recent years, I have had the privilege of attending a tasting of the new Bordeaux vintage release sponsored by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – an organization that includes many top wines from the most famous Bordeaux appellations. It is an opportunity to get a sense of the overall quality of a given harvest and to discern which communes within the Bordeaux AOP were most successful. This year’s tasting was of the 2017 vintage. Most of these wines will arrive in the US by autumn if they are not in the market already.
2017 is not a great vintage. Even the Bordelais vintners, who rarely shy away from effusive praise, admit that 2016 and 2015 were better years. There are, however, some superb wines from 2017 and many very good wines as well. As always, careful shopping is required to find the best values, but a quick comparison shows that prices for the 2017’s are often 10-20% less than for the previous two harvests.
The weather of 2017 provided great challenges in the vineyard. Following an abundant harvest in 2016, the vines experienced a warm and quite dry December. January of 2017 was cold, and rainfall returned to normal levels in February and March. March was warm, however, and it soon became clear that the growing season would begin early. Budding began by mid-March and there was widespread leaf burst by the end of the month.
By mid-April, there was substantial shoot growth and leaf formation, setting the stage for the disastrous frost that was to follow. On April 20, cold air settled in over northern France and into Bordeaux resulting in some minor damage on the Right Bank. This was followed by a much more damaging frost on the night of April 26 when temperatures throughout most of the Bordeaux appellation dropped as low as -6º C, wreaking havoc on the young shoots and leaves. The following two nights dipped below freezing as well.
The damage across the lower-lying St. Émilion and Entre-deux-Mers vineyards was devastating. Some vineyards were wiped out entirely, while others struggled to nurture a crop from uneven secondary bunches. The more susceptible areas lost 50-80% of their crop. One important exception to the catastrophe was the Médoc. The top estates of the Left Bank were protected from the cold by proximity to the Gironde. Plus, these well-heeled estates were able to muster defenses against the cold by employing helicopters, wind machines, water sprays to protect their vines. Many of the Médoc’s most famous names suffered little damage.
Following the frost, the season was an ebb and flow of weather conditions. May and June were warm, July and August variable but cool overall. The crucial month of September began warm and dry but then turned wet, with more than three inches of rain falling by mid-month. Dry conditions returned for late September and it was almost October before the rains returned.
The dry whites of Pessac-Léognan were very successful, with most of the grapes harvested at optimal maturity before the September rains. The Sauternes were successful too, thanks to good mid-October conditions that added richness to the blends. Production levels, however, are quite low.
Overall, it was a difficult harvest. Those who picked their Merlot before the September rains to avoid rot ended up with less ripe grapes and lacked mid-palate richness in the finished wines. Dilution due to excess rainfall was a problem for some growers as well. Those who had only secondary bunches to harvest often have green, unripe characteristics to their wines. Production levels across all of Bordeaux are about 40% less than 2016.
The 2017 vintage is a wise shopper’s harvest. Prices are key and remain to be seen for many wines. Tariffs and exchange rates add uncertainty as well. There are very good wines from many appellations next to disappointing wines from the same communes. It is wise to taste before you buy. Prices listed below are average US retail prices. Astute shoppers can find many 2017 wines for less than the averages listed here.
Of the 97 wines I tasted, 9 were dry whites, 10 were Sauternes and the remaining 78 reds. As has been the case in recent vintages, the 2017 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc ($113) was the top dry white of the vintage. The purity of fruit, layered complexity and overall finesse sets the Chevalier apart from other wines. Other superb whites were the Pape Clément ($178), Bouscaut ($50), Olivier ($45) and Smith Haut Lafitte ($161).
The Right Bank wines of 2017 are more uneven than the reds, but there are many quality wines. Of the Pomerols, Châteaux Beauregard ($58) and Rouget ($58) were my favorites. Saint Émilions that topped my list were Beau-Séjour Bécot ($81), Clos Fourtet ($136), Larcis-Ducasse ($74) and Valandraud ($163).
The best wines of the harvest were from the Left Bank. In St. Estèphe, Phélan Ségur ($53) was my favorite of the tasting, followed by Château de Pez ($60) and Château Ormes de Pez ($43). St. Estèphe offers some fine values in this difficult vintage.
Although no first-growth wines were in the tasting, the top Pauillac wines were among the best of all the 2017 offerings. The Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ($156) topped my list, followed closely by Pichon Baron ($162), Duhart-Milon ($87), Grand-Puy-Lacoste ($101) and d’Armailhac ($59). The classic power and finesse of Pauillac was evident in all these wines.
In St. Julien, Léoville-Barton ($96) and Léoville-Poyferré ($94) were my favorites, with rich fruit and layers of complex flavors already evident. Châteaux Beychevelle ($98), Lagrange ($63) and Saint-Pierre ($72) were also very good. Château Gloria ($52) is a very good value for St. Julien in 2017.
The Haut-Médoc appellation had some great value stars in Château Cantemerle ($42), Château La Tour Carnet ($47) and Château Coufran ($20). Moving on to the Margaux appellation, Château Lascombes ($93) with its rich fruit and smoky/herbal complexity was the top wine I tasted. Châteaux Giscours ($76), Dauzac ($61), Brane-Cantenac ($79) and Cantenac-Brown ($74) also showed well.
In addition to stellar white wines, Pessac-Léognan offered some excellent reds – showing the deep fruit and earthy complexity of the appellation. My favorite of those tasted was the Domaine de Chevalier ($76), followed by Châteaux Pape Clément ($112), Haut-Bailly ($123), Smith Haut Lafitte ($112) and Les Carmes Haut-Brion ($103). Château Bouscaut ($30) was an exceptional red wine value in Pessac-Léognan.
As mentioned, 2017 is a promising year for Sauternes, with luscious botrytis-affected fruit nicely balanced by acidity. Châteaux de Fargues ($175) and Guiraud ($65) were my favorites of the tasting. Wines from Châteaux Rieussec ($72), Suduiraut ($82) and Sigalas Rabaud ($40) were also quite pleasing.
The wines tasted were from the top 5% of all Bordeaux wines. The prices listed reflect that position. As always, there is much more to discover among the thousands of other Bordeaux produced every year. A careful shopper can find excellent wines in a $15-$20 price range, perhaps even less in the challenging 2017 vintage.