Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux: 2017 vintage

Is the Bordeaux edifice starting to crumble, asks Simon Field MW, as he tastes the latest vintage at London's Lindley Hall

Words by Simon Field MW

Bordeaux wine tasting

Two years after the 2017 vintage was first put into barrel, and over a year from the somewhat anodyne En Primeur Campaign, anyone who is interested in Bordeaux is taking stock. On a fine October day, London’s Lindley Hall is swarming with wine merchants, sommeliers, journalists and critics.

There is plenty of goodwill towards the Bordelais, but there’s also tension hanging in the air. 2017 has a rather uninspiring reputation, not helped by the surfeit of superlatives garnered by its two predecessors, 2016 and 2015, and the on-going discussion of cost. Prices came down for sure, but did they come down enough? Is the Bordeaux edifice starting to crumble? Is it, indeed, a house of cards?

If 2015 was classicism personified, then 2016 was a more flamboyant cousin, immediately demonstrative and unfailingly seductive. 2017, by comparison, is more reticent, harder to understand.

Does this lack of generosity translate into skeletal parsimony, or is it indicative of purity and linearity, recalling the good old days of fresh, light clarets? There’s a lot to be said for this point of view, one of several in the firmament in the post-Parker vacuum of critical appraisal.

Two key factors cannot be denied, however; that the region suffered from the worst late-April frost since 1991, and that the resulting impact on flowering and ripening bequeathed an altogether heterogenous crop and a very small crop at that, its 3.5 million hectolitres down 40% on 2016.

The frost was capricious, with some enclaves spared altogether. The Right Bank had a more difficult time than the Left Bank, and the plots nearer to the rivers and on the plateaus were the least troubled and therefore enjoyed higher yields and riper fruit.

Merlot suffered most and was far less influential on the Left Bank than usual, signalling hollow mid-palate inertia to some and a welcome return to leaner more challenging styles to others. It’s a question of taste above all, rather than inherent vice; poor wines should not be made here anymore. Indeed, given the production template, all efforts have been put into the ‘first’ wines’, often at the expense of a second or even third wine, with anything unsatisfactory sold off in bulk. The qualitative imperative is thus preserved, with only quantity forsaken – that’s the theory at least.

The wines are marked by an accessibility, with finely etched tannins and lively soft fruit personalities

The wines, mostly bottled but still youthful, are accessible, with finely-etched tannins, lively soft fruit, and medium concentration.

The communes which fared best were Pauillac and St Julien, with honourable mentions to Margaux and Pessac Léognan. On the Right Bank, brilliance was the exception rather than the rule, but exceptions, as ever, there were.

Each commune had a litany of challenges to overcome, however. In Pauillac, the Cabernet Franc was almost overwhelmed by the mid-summer heat and resulting hydric stress, whereas in St Julien the September rain put great pressure on the Merlot, once again underlining the importance of picking date and of course, somewhat unusually these days, of ripeness.

In Margaux, the location of the vineyards really made a difference. The ‘thermal buffer’ of the river was an essential factor in the development of the vines. In terms of the whites, the almost Pavlovian equation of a cooler vintage with success was not always the case; the threat to the Sauvignon Blanc to frost early on is mirrored by the dangers to the late ripening Semillon. A few gemstones, nonetheless.

In terms of the sweet wines: no surprises to learn that we are faced with something of a mixed bag, the very specific conditions required for botrytis far from uniformly achieved. Caveat emptor may be something of an understatement in the circumstances, which someone nicely described as a strictly Darwinian year of Natural Selection.

Maybe the superstition surrounding years ending in a ‘7’ is not without merit (except for 1947, of course). Yet for all the gloom, there is plenty to enjoy here. The wines look set to outperform many others – 2008, 2006, 2011, 2007, 2004, 2002 to name but a few, 2013 for sure, and 2003 for most.

Indeed, most comparisons have been made with 2014, 2012 and, my own selection, 2001, which I consider underrated and admire for the very finely tailored cut of its cloth, well suited to traditional British taste. Alcohol levels are modest, acidity and tannin poised, and it may well be – given the unfeasibly hot summers of the two following years – that the balanced discretion of the best 2017s captures a certain mood in the medium term.