The birth of the 2017 vintage
Not for a long time in Bordeaux has their been a trio of great vintages and even if we think this has happened on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, it might be several years before some people believe us.
For those who still had grapes to pick after the horrible April frosts, the 2017 harvest has broken the curse of those years with a “7” in them. Not since 1947, or perhaps 1967, has there been a good vintage – that’s at least 50 years. What is strange however is that the year does not look that good on paper: Spring frosts, summer drought, cloudy, dull August weather, September rainfall – not exactly the best ingredients for a great year. But look behind these facts and the reality, as is often the case, is much more complex.
The winter was dry and cool for the first half of the season. The cold soils helped to mitigate the milder weather in February, slowing down growth and retaining some humidity, which resulted in a very even bud break. After the very cold weather at the end of April, with the dramatic frosts, the spring was extremely warm and sunny which led to a very successful and even flowering and excellent growing season. By the end of June with temperatures reaching up to the high 30s, we had small thick-skinned berries with lots of potential tannin and everything looked set for an early but successful vintage although we were getting increasingly worried about the lack of rain.
Looking at the statistics, 2017 resembles 2001 in terms of the climate and especially rainfall. Apart from some temperature peaks in August, the summer was relatively mild, which enabled the acidities in the grapes to remain quite high. Drought looked like it would be a problem for the third year running but rain in the beginning of September not only brought welcome water to the vines but also helped keep the grapes fresh and lower the alcohol just in time for the harvest. In the Médoc where more rain fell than on the Right Bank, the rainfall at the beginning of September helped to accelerate the harvest as producers hurried to gather their Merlots before rot spread.
As a result, there is definitely more optimism on the Right Bank where the Merlot ripened more evenly and were very successful, several top chateaux are comparing their wines to the great 2010s or 2001s. Harvesting began at Le Pin in Pomerol around the 12th of September for the young vines and continued the following week until we finished on the 21st of September. Castillon and Saint Emilion began harvesting during the week of the 25th September and by the end of the first week of October all of our grapes were gathered in under beautiful Indian summer conditions. Curiously, as a result of the rains, the Left and Right Banks were harvesting their grapes around the same time. Usually the Right Bank is well ahead of the Médoc but this year Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the Left Bank were ripe around the same time as the Cabernet Franc grapes in St. Emilion.
The grapes were ripe without any trace of herbaceousness and in perfect health. The colour, aromas and fruit were pronounced and very attractive, although the harvest took almost two weeks to complete as estates harvested parcel by parcel to attain perfect ripeness for their Merlots and their Cabernets. Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Chateau Certan is very proud of his GPS mapping programme which uses sensors on the back of the tractors to register the humidity and vegetative growth of each row of vines. Using this information we can further divide the parcels of vines to map out the peak maturity. This resulted in a cellar full of small vats, some no more than ten hectoliters; however the precision we get these days in really maximizing the best plots was well worth the effort.
It is true that just as in 2001, the Right Bank seems to have succeeded better than the Médoc. The size and volume of wine produced in the Médoc far exceeds our output on the Right Bank and means that however great the quality of the 2017 vintage, it will be a bit of a “sleeper” as the Left Bank always dominates the reputation of the vintage. Those in the know and those who have already witnessed for themselves the balance, the richness, the freshness, the expressive aromas and the delicious fruit of 2017, realise that we have another great Bordeaux vintage in the making; a magnificent triple crown with the 2015 and 2016 harvests. As we celebrate that, our hearts go out to those producers who were not able to witness this since they lost their entire crop to the April frosts or for our Californian colleagues who lost so much in the October fires. Wine growers are always at the mercy of climate. Let’s hope that in 2018, Mother Nature will be kinder and gentler to all.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.