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From Bordeaux and the Loire

I’m at the very beginning of a combined Loire-Bordeaux trip. Well, when it is barely more than a three-hour drive from my house south of Chinon to the vineyards of Bordeaux, it would be silly not to visit both regions, wouldn’t it?

I drove down from Scotland on Saturday (this explains my web-silence for the day – although I expect most people just assumed I had been invited to Harry and Meghan’s wedding), and arrived to find the Loire Valley basking beneath a blue and cloudless sky. It was warm and bright, the temperature 24ºC, certainly very different to what I left behind in Scotland. My neighbour’s fields are planted with wheat, lush and green, but just starting to fade to a golden hue in parts, and the air above swarmed with little puffs of windborne seed. It was simply glorious.

I can’t comment on any vineyards as I spent Sunday carving out a new running route through the woods, undertaking an emergency fence repair (one which looks like it will last until the next vaguely energetic breeze arrives) and making some last-minute adjustments to my plans for the week ahead. Happily, however, with the region having escaped any significant frost this year (phew!) I would expect them to be in good shape.

Bordeaux Timetable

Today (Monday) I am off to Bordeaux, for five days of visits. It has all been a bit last-minute, as I couldn’t get my head around arranging visits until I had come back from my primeurs trip. Nevertheless, I think I have a pretty decent timetable ahead (as my snap above should suggest), one  which runs at a slightly more relaxed pace than the primeurs. The main aim is to taste some 2015s, as for various reasons I forewent my usual in-bottle tasting trip last year, so expect an in-bottle report on the 2015 vintage soon. Secondly, I have a handful of longer visits and more extensive tastings lined up, in Margaux and in Pomerol, Château Lafleur in the case of the latter, so expect some tasting reports and verticals before too long. And thirdly, I have some research for another project I am working on lined up; I’m keeping this one under my hat for the moment.

Then it is back to the Loire Valley, for some more visits in Chinon and nearby environs, and although I haven’t made any appointments yet I expect I will be calling in on Matthieu Baudry and Jérôme Billard, as well as a mix of other domaines, in Chinon, Bourgueil and maybe Savennières too. I also have a trip across to La Promenade, a well-known restaurant in Le Petit-Pressigny, lined up, so I am looking forward to that. And no doubt I will also find some (many?) more jobs to do around the house before this year’s rental season kicks off.

Well, time to go. My first appointment is at Château Haut-Brion. The next three hours in the car will pass quickly, I think. Because of my plans for the next three weeks I won’t be making any behind-paywall updates, but will post on social media and maybe this blog if time permits.

Bordeaux 2017: The Final Lowdown, Part 4

Here is the final instalment of my Primeur Picks report, brought out from behind the paywall. See part one, part two and part three if you have not already read them.

Bordeaux 2017: Primeur Picks

OK, so if 2017 is not as good as 2016 and 2015, it must be a bit like 2014?

Another undeniable human characteristic is the fallibility of our memory. Even if we ignore the devastating frost, and focus solely on the quality and character of the best wines in 2017, there still isn’t a recent vintage that serves as an ideal comparison. The majority of people I spoke to in Bordeaux accept that 2017 isn’t as good as 2015 or 2016, so attention naturally turns to the next good-but-not-great vintage, which is 2014. The problem with 2014 is that it has in my opinion been generally over-rated, being a ‘saved’ vintage light on texture and strong on acidity (except in St Estèphe, where it was much stronger). It belongs with the ‘also ran’ vintages such as 2012, 2008, 2006 and 2004, years that gave us nice wines but which are nothing to write home about. The 2017 vintage is (in parts at least) better than that.

What we have in 2017, even in the best wines, are elegantly medium-bodied wines with ripe tannins and equally ripe flavours. They are not huge, rich or textural wines, which has led several in Bordeaux who could look back beyond 2014 to suggest 2001 as a match, and I can see why. The 2001s are polished wines, elegant but correct, and at release they were unfairly overshadowed by the preceding vintage just as 2017, with its ‘frosted’ reputation, is likely to fade in terms of repute compared to 2016 (this might help to moderate the pricing…..well, fingers crossed). Another vintage that comes to mind is 1985, always elegant, persistent on the palate but with a silky shimmer. I always enjoyed my encounters with wines from the 1985 vintage, so pure and finely drawn, and I could easily see the best wines of 2017 evolving in a similar style. If only they were priced like the 1985s. Speaking of which…..

Pomerol 2017

Buying En Primeur

It seems almost inevitable that, for the majority of wines, prices are going to come down for the 2017 vintage. I wish I could say I was clairvoyant, but at the time of writing a good number of châteaux have already released, in some cases with prices 20% lower than the corresponding release price for the 2016 vintage. So it is not as if I am sticking my neck out in making this statement. Of course, this still means that the wines may be more expensive than previous releases, as in many cases the releases in 2015 and 2016 were significantly more pricy than preceding years. Even with reductions between 10% and 20% in 2017, the release prices may not compare favourably with prices of other vintages on the market such as 2012, 2011 or 2008, all of which are physically available and which are well on their way to being ready for drinking.

While lower release prices are always welcome, the relatively modest reductions we have seen so far will be insufficient to create the necessary interest in the vintage, either from drinkers or investors. While the relative success seen in the 2016 and 2015 en primeur campaigns showed that the interest is still there when there are great wines up for sale (even if it falls far short of the fervour that surrounded 2009 and 2010), the reputation of the 2017 vintage is simply not at the same level. Having said that, there are clearly some very good wines in this vintage, and if some desirable wines were to be released at the ‘right’ price I would expect a flurry of interest from merchants and consumers alike. If we don’t see such a response then it tells us one thing; it is not that consumers are not interested, nor is it evidence that en primeur is dead and defunct. It is simply that the price was not right. In that case, the Bordelais will rely on the négociants and their expansive warehouses to soak up the stock.

Read my full vintage review, including 15 regional tasting note reports as well as a weather and harvest report, in my Bordeaux 2017 report.

Bordeaux 2017: The Final Lowdown, Part 3

Here comes the next part of my Primeur Picks report from behind the paywall. See part one and part two if you have not already read them.

Bordeaux 2017: Primeur Picks

Alright, so is it a left-bank or right-bank vintage?

It is understandable to want to categorise the vintage in this manner, but the successes and indeed the failures on both side of the Gironde simply don’t permit it. While there is undoubtedly a quality hotspot in St Emilion and Pomerol, where the top wines from higher ground in both appellations (especially the latter) are simply excellent, there are also moments of brilliance in St Estèphe, Pauillac and St Julien. And while there are some lean and leafy wines from the western Médoc, there are also some equally disappointing wines from the St Emilion and Pomerol lowlands. There is no clear distinction between the two banks, not like there was in 1996 or 1998, left- and right-bank vintages respectively.

Bordeaux 2017

It is only natural for regular drinkers of Bordeaux to want to squeeze a new vintage into a pre-existing system such as the old left-bank-right-bank dichotomy. But if I throw confirmation bias out of the window, and take account of all the data points, the only way I can think of 2017 Bordeaux is as a topography-altitude vintage. What mattered in this vintage was the proximity of your vineyards to the Gironde, or their altitude, both factors that protected the vines from the frost. Some very successful wines without either of these protective factors do exist, for example Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac and Domaine de Chevalier, three examples of such wines that piqued my interest, but they are few in number, and they are the product of an extreme level of effort. So after local topography and altitude what mattered was how prepared you were for frost (many who weren’t learnt a lesson in 2017, and new anti-frost devices are appearing all over the region, such as at Château Le Gay, above), and how much effort (which means money) you were able to put into managing a mix of first- and second-generation crops during the growing season and harvest.

Concluded in part 4……

Bordeaux 2017: The Final Lowdown, Part 2

Continuning my summing up, here comes the next part of my Primeur Picks report from behind the paywall. See part one here if you have not already read it.

Bordeaux 2017: Primeur Picks

Even focusing on the most successful domaines and appellations, while the wines are very good, the quality in 2017 does not match that seen in 2016 and 2015. This much is reflected in my scores, which hit a peak with the 96-98 range for a small handful of top-flight wines from both the left and right banks, with one exceptional wine at 97-99 points, but with the majority of top-scoring wines coming in at 95-97 or less. This is not a vintage in which we are going to find spine-tingling 100-point wines (and I deliberated long and hard about that 97-99-pointer too, it has to be said). If we are to score wines at that level in this vintage, where on earth would we all go in truly excellent years such as 2016, 2010 or 2005?

Bordeaux 2017

On the other hand, I have also discovered many less convincing wines in this vintage. They come principally from the frost-affected regions, including the St Emilion and Pomerol lowlands, as well as those vineyards on the left bank which were too far from the protective influence of the Gironde. While the warm and dry weather ripened the first-generation fruit admirably, ridding the top wines of any hint of green pyrazine aromas, the same cannot be said of many of the wines which have been built – presumably with no alternative – around second-generation fruit. This fruit was usually picked at the very end of harvest, and it is clear that even picking at this late stage the fruit was still not phenolically ripe. I think if you were to visit Bordeaux on a luxury wine tour, calling in on only the top domaines, you could come away with the impression there is no ‘greenness’ in this vintage. But having spent eight days tasting in the region, looking at wines from all appellations and all levels, I have found any number of wines at the entry-level in St Emilion, as well as basic Pomerol and some well-known names in Graves and Margaux, not to mention in the Médoc and Haut-Médoc appellations, which are herbaceous, leafy and overtly green. Some wines tasted more like off-vintage efforts from an under-performing Loire Valley co-operative than from leading Bordeaux winemakers.

So while this is a very good vintage (in parts), it is not a great vintage, and it is not a ‘buy blind’ vintage. It is a vintage in which purchasing decisions must be fully informed.

Continued in part 3…….

Bordeaux 2017: The Final Lowdown

I finished publishing my Bordeaux 2017 report last week, ending up with my Primeur Picks, summing up some thoughts on the vintage, as well as picking out my top wines, those we like to dream about as well as more resonably priced ‘reality’ and ‘sense’ options.

I thought it would be interesting to bring some of this report out here, onto the free-to-read Winedr blog. So over the next four days I will publish my concluding thoughts about the vintage here, in four short, bite-sized pieces. Here goes…..

Bordeaux 2017: Primeur Picks

After fifteen regional reports on the 2017 Bordeaux vintage, featuring well over 300 tasting notes (the honest truth is I lost count somewhere between Pomerol and Pessac-Léognan) it is time to sum up the vintage.

While my regional reports provide detail, with notes and scores on every wine I tasted during my time in Bordeaux (without exception, whether the wine be great or grim), in this conclusion I aim to provide a more facilitative overview of the vintage, one which perhaps answers some of the more frequently asked questions about any new Bordeaux vintage.

So, is it a bad, good or great vintage?

There is perhaps an argument for saying it is all three rolled into one, but eager to simplify things I would say that 2017 is a very good vintage, at least it is for some parts of Bordeaux, for some domaines and for some appellations. But not for others. OK, maybe that doesn’t simplify it very much, but don’t blame me, blame Jack Frost. The result of the frost that struck in late April has been marked heterogeneity in quality, as it overlooked some domaines, leaving the vines with a healthy crop, the end result a potentially excellent wine, while on other domaines it wiped out any hopes for good quality in this vintage.

Bordeaux 2017

If you home in on those parts of Bordeaux that escaped the frost, or those domaines which were able to reject the fruit from frosted vines and instead produce a reduced volume of wine solely from non-frosted first-generation fruit (in some cases including tiny quantities of carefully selected second-generation fruit), then quality is excellent. The very successful appellations (or part-appellations) in this vintage are St Estèphe, Pauillac, much of St Julien, select parts of St Emilion and also select parts of Pomerol. That the vintage deserves high regard in the latter of these appellations is perhaps best illustrated by the words of Denis Durantou (pictured above), of Château L’Église-Clinet, who described 2017, along with the excellent 2015 and 2016 vintages, as one of “a rare triplet for Bordeaux”. That’s true for his domaine and his neighbours, but not for many others, sadly. Other appellations such as Margaux and Pessac-Léognan suffered more in the frost; this did not stop the preeminent domaines in these regions also producing excellent wine, but it often required an incredible amount of work in the vineyard, and a strict selection at harvest.

Continued in part 2…….