This April, the Sotheby’s Wine tasting team – Serena Sutcliffe MW, Jamie Ritchie, Adam Bilbey and Nicholas Jackson – spent eight days in Bordeaux in April trying the 2017 vintages, many of them multiple times. Now returned from the trip, Nicholas Jackson provides a vintage summary.
Not since 1947 has there been a good Bordeaux vintage ending in a seven. Does 2017 break the curse? With some qualifications, yes. 2017 is a good to very good vintage in Bordeaux, producing fruit-drive, mid-weight red wines with pure varietal and terroir expression. There are a few wines that comes close to being great – all on the Right Bank. On the Left Bank, there are some lovely wines destined for mid-term drinking, but there is also considerable variability in quality. The white wines are generally excellent in 2017.
In Bordeaux, the vintage will be remembered for decades for one thing: frost. At the end of April, after the vines had budded, two brutal nights of well-below freezing temperatures decimated huge swathes of vineyard. All areas were affected, but especially Pessac-Leognan and the Right Bank. On the Left Bank, there was some damage to lower lying vineyards, but as always, those closest to the river fared best.
The result was that some properties on the Right Bank produced significantly reduced quantities; some sacrificed making a second wine; some sold off a larger proportion of their wine in bulk than usual. But most importantly, the frost reduced volume but not quality – where the buds were destroyed by frost, there simply was no wine – good or not. The vines that survived produced a perfectly good crop.
After a coolish summer, the final wrinkle in the season was rain in mid-September. This seems to have had more of an impact on the Left Bank than the Right. This was particularly unfortunate timing – diluting the Merlot during harvest. Ultimately, the September rain probably had more of an impact on quality than the frost.
On the Right Bank, there are some excellent wines, particularly from Pomerol. Everything you could want is here: lovely aromatics, a velvety texture and a long finish. They lack the sheer density of the two preceding vintages but they are still sumptuous and delicious.
On the Left Bank, the story is more mixed. Here, the effect of the September rain is marked in some wines by slightly hollow mid-palates and a rather dull fruit expression. These wines are correct but hardly exciting. However, as usual, the best sites really shone through and all the big names made good to very good wines with ripe, supple tannins, gorgeous fruit and a long, elegant finish. This is also the kind of vintage in which the new style of Bordeaux winemaking – less extraction, less oak, more purity of fruit – really benefits the wines.
It should be noted, however, that no wines on the Left Bank approach in quality their equiavlents of the two previous years. They lack the flair and beauty of the 2016s and the vibrant fruit of the 2015s. Due to a more modest fruit concentration, they will also drink sooner: at 10 to 15 years of age for most classed growths, with only the best First Growths really needing 15 to 20 years.
In spite of the buoyant worldwide economy, the campaign for the 2017s does face some headwinds. First, many collectors purchased broadly in the two previous (and superior) vintages. What incentive is there to do the same this year, if not reduced prices? Prices should be down from last year’s if quality were the only factor. However, especially on the Right Bank, producers have far less volume to sell. This may discourage them from reducing prices substantially. And as always in Bordeaux, the golden rule is to copy your neighbor: such a situation may escalate quickly into a cycle of limited price reductions. Combined with a stronger euro than this time a year ago, that would lead to prices that represent limited attractiveness given the good but not stellar quality of the vintage. On the other hand, price reductions of 10% or more deserve strong consideration for a vintage that will give a lot of pleasure over the next 20 to 30 years.
The Sotheby’s Wine tasting team is committed to offering wines that we have tasted and confirmed their quality, and this was more important than ever this year. Given the heterogeneity of the vintage, we have reduced our range of wines offered from over 100 last year to only 63 this year. While we can’t predict the price, we are extremely happy with the quality of these wines: buy with confidence!
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LEAD IMAGE: THE ESTATE OF CHATEAU MARGAUX, PHOTOGRAPH BY SAISON D'OR / MATHIEU ANGLADA.