After the famous 1947 vintage, there’s finally a lucky number seven in Bordeaux, but not for everybody, writes Ronald Rens, after tasting the barrel samples of the 2017 vintage.
2017 is better than expected. Let’s start with the good news. The Bordeaux vintage 2017 presented itself better than expected at the futures tastings. It took seven decades after the famous 1947 to get a seven vintage up to par. And as things go with lucky numbers, not everybody can be lucky. I’m afraid that 2017 will be remembered because of the frost in April, in some cases destroying entire harvests. The frost hit Bordeaux twice: first on April 20 and 21 and then again more brutally on April 27 and 28, destroying between 30% and 50% of the crop in Bordeaux.
The result is a very heterogeneous vintage, even within plots. Some chateaux lost everything where others, especially in the northern Medoc were not even touched. In some cases, extreme countermeasures were taken against the frost. Figeac (Saint-Emilion) deployed helicopters to move the cold air away from their vines. Others, like Haut-Bailly (Pessac-Léognan,) sent staff out into their vineyards in the early morning to light fires to protect their vines. Some properties, like Château Corbin (Saint-Emilion) and Château Fieuzal (Pessac-Léognan) lost their entire crop and made no wine at all. But 2017 is also a vintage of terroir.
Terroir Made the Difference
Terroir is more than just the soil. The closer the vineyards are to the Gironde in the Medoc for instance, the better they are protected against the frost. The low-lying plots in the simpler appellations were hit the hardest. As in the frost of 1991, Léoville Las Cases was largely untouched by the frost as a result of its privileged location on the Garonne river.
Winemaker Bruno Roland of this Second Growth from Saint Julien said to me, ” We knew that the wine would be very good when we started the pumping over. The colour was incredibly deep, almost black, but we knew that we were not going to produce any Rosé this year.”
With today’s knowledge and technology, vintage variation is much less than what it used to be and 2017 proves this point. Let’s be frank. The general level is not the same as the previous two vintages. But having said that, there were some brilliant wines made in 2017. If I said that terroir made the difference, it will come as no surprise that the most famous properties made the best wines. The Lafite and Mouton were so lovely that I wanted to drink my barrel sample. At Pontet-Canet we almost grabbed the sample-bottle to finish over lunch.
The style of the vintage is surprisingly accessible and the best wines will benefit from ageing in your cellar for 10 to 15 years, some even longer. Having said that, I would also like to express some criticism. €œWe try harder€, is a wonderful marketing slogan but sometimes one can try too hard. In some of the Margaux, Pauillac and, to some extent, in some Château Margaux wines, I found a fairly modern style with a strong emphasis on (over)extraction. Winemakers are searching for colour and fruit and sometimes, in my opinion, too much of it. (Didn’t they get the memo that Robert Parker retired?) I greatly prefer the more classic style, like the exemplary Château Palmer, for instance. This explains why I have rated some wines lower than usual because I don’t like over-extraction.
Why I use the 20-point scale
A wine rating is an individual opinion of an individual taster at one specific moment, and we should be modest about the outcomes. Rating wine is a very personal experience. Nobody has an absolute judgment about wine, not even Robert Parker. Again, it’s just the opinion of one taster. There are many different systems of ratings. In France, wines are traditionally rated on a 20-point scale, the same scale that is used in all educational systems in France. The American wine critic Robert Parker introduced a 100-point scale which became an instant success. I think this 100-point scale attracts us so much because of the 100-point as meaning perfection.
For me, the downside is that the 100-point scale is too refined. Can one really consistently discern the difference between a 93-point wine and a 94-point wine? Personally, I doubt this very much. The difference becomes even more important at the 90-point mark. 90 points or 89 points makes all the difference for a wine and as a result for the finances of a château. Just one point difference in a rating may mean a price difference of four to eight euro a bottle. And if a château produces between 100,000 and 200,000 bottles, this adds up. I have used the traditional 20-point scale here, sometimes adding half-points or even the occasional decimal for extra nuance. I have been using this 20-point scale over the last 30 years and it has served me well. I hope my ratings will help you make your purchasing decisions in the very interesting Bordeaux vintage 2017