Bordeaux 2017: A Vintage to Pick by Appellation

2017 is a great year for defining differences between appellations on both left and right banks, even if those differences do not always conform to the common historical definitions. The general character of the year is surprisingly classical, although without the herbaceous or bitter background that young Bordeaux used to have: you might call it a modern take on the classical character. Many wines will be ready relatively soon (think about starting mostly about four years from now and drinking for about eight years). This will be a fine year for restaurant wines, with the best retaining their typicity in a more approachable style; there’s  just enough stuffing to support mid-term development without any dilution. Wines that have moved towards an international character are less obvious this year; the effect of vintage has been to damp down the style into a smoothness from which black fruit aromatics just poke out.

The UGCB presents the vintage in London in October, and in the USA in January.

The UGCB tasting held in New York this week showed most of the great chateaux (excepting the first growths). I started with Pessac-Léognan, where most reds are relatively subdued, but show good sense of texture on the palate, although that classic impression is reinforced by bitterness often running ahead of the fruits. They should mature to a smooth elegance for drinking in the mid term. In top châteaux, Pape-Clément just shows its international character with black fruit aromatics poking out through the tannins, while Smith Haut Lafitte shows as one of the most obviously international wines in Bordeaux this year, with a soft, almost opulent impression just cut by the tannins of youth. Haut Bailly shows classicism with structure presently outrunning the fruits but suggesting good aging potential, Domaine de Chevalier is perhaps not quite as smooth as usual but has good aging potential, and Les Carmes Haut-Brion really shows its 55% Cabernet Franc. Whites tend to show a  grassy herbaceous character, sometimes verging on sweaty, but with sweet citrus fruits, as typified by the attractive Carbonnieux. In top wines, Domaine de Chevalier gives a classy impression of subtle citrus, if not quite at its usual level of crystalline brilliance, and Pape-Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte reverse the relationship of their reds, with Pape-Clément full, rich, and almost opulent, while Smith Haut Lafitte is not quite as overt.

Moving from Graves to Margaux, the first impression is the increased finesse of the structure, with tannins still evident, but showing a finer-grained character. In terms of historical comparisons, this is a lighter vintage for Margaux. Going in deeper, Margaux seems to split into two parts: the top wines have the structure and balance to age at least through the mid-term, and may require longer than the wines from Pessac-Léognan; but most wines are somewhat lighter, and fall into the category of what you might call restaurant wines, lovely for the mid-term but without potential for real longevity. The general character should be to age towards delicacy, with the best wines showing a savory character. In the first group, I would place Chateaux du Tertre, Rauzan-Ségla, perhaps Rauzan-Gassies; in the second group come Kirwan, Durfort-Vivens, Desmirail, Cantenac-Brown, Brane-Cantenac, Prieuré-Lichine, Malescot-St.-Exupéry. Dauzac, Ferrière, and Marquis de Terme are rather tight, while Giscours as always is a little on the full side for Margaux, but the vintage makes it a little short. Lascombes is more classical and less international than preceding vintages. I’m less convinced about the potential of Margaux, compared with other appellations, to stay on the right side of the line between delicacy and dilution.

The Crus of the Haut-Médoc more or less follow Margaux, although texture is generally not quite so fine. La Lagune stands out for elegant aromatics; and the smooth aromatics with hints of blackcurrants mark out La Tour Carnet as part of the international movement. In Moulis, Clarke has just a touch more elegance than Fourcas-Hosten, while in Listrac, Poujeaux approaches Margaux in style this vintage.

Graves and Margaux are all black fruits, and red fruits first appear in my notes when I arrived in St. Julien. But the main difference is the contrast between the clarity of the palate in Margaux and a tendency towards a fine chocolaty texture in St. Julien, strong in Beychevelle, just evident in Gruaud Larose, and almost imperceptibly in the background in Branaire-Ducru. Chocolate is the unmistakable mark of St. Julien in this vintage. Its soft, almost furry, tannins may make the wines seem more approachable sooner. As always, Langoa and Léoville Barton are the wines that stay closest to the historical roots of St. Julien, with Langoa very fine and Léoville showing more presence through a translucent palate. Léoville Poyferré and Lagrange show the smoothness of the international style, making them among the softer wines of the appellation. Gloria is elegant but not as fine as St. Pierre, which is moving in a savory direction. Talbot’s round, ripe character is a far cry from the old dry style of the Cordier house, and an indication of the change in Bordeaux.

Pauillac stands out in this vintage for that characteristic combination of finesse and firmness in the tannins, which are more obviously tamed than in St. Julien, Margaux, or Graves. The wines show lovely firm structure, sometimes with the plushness of Pauillac just poking through. Three chateaux in the two Rothschild groups illustrate the range. Armailhac shows the restrained power of Pauillac, but there is something of a reversal of the usual hierarchy with Clerc Milon showing more elegant black fruit aromatics; Duhart Milon is rounder and finer, and moves in the direction of Lafite. Grand Puy Ducasse has increased in refinement and moved closer to Grand Puy Lacoste, both showing a certain roundness and plushness to indicate they are in Pauillac and not St. Julien. Lynch Moussas offers the Pauillac version of a restaurant wine. Lynch Bages is lovely and firm, Pichon Baron is a little brighter than most Pauillacs and seems less dense then usual, while Pichon Lalande is quite typical of itself and the appellation, although again just short of the density of a great year. St. Estèphe is always difficult to assess at the UGCB because few chateaux are represented, but there seems to be a tendency to show the hardness that can characterize the appellation. Phélan Ségur seems more successful than Chateau de Pez or Ormes de Pez.

There is something of a reversal between St. Emilion and Pomerol, with the top wines of St. Emilion showing an opulence and richness driven by Merlot, while Pomerol tends to show something of the relatively greater restraint of St. Emilion. But the range here extends from overtly lush wines to those where the dryness of the finish attests to an underlying structure needing time to resolve, to those that verge on herbaceous, giving the impression that the grapes may not have been uniformly ripe. At the lush end of St. Emilion come Beau-Séjour Bécot, where soft, opulent fruits bury the tannins and give an impression half way to Pomerol, Canon-La-Gaffelière with a chocolaty impression, and the even finer Canon with its hints of blueberries, raisins, and chocolate. There’s more impression of Cabernet Franc in La Couspade and La Dominique, while Clos Fourtet, La Gaffelière, Larcis Ducasse, and Pavie Macquin are relatively restrained. Perhaps the surprise is Valandraud, which in a turn-up for the book shows this year as the most classical representation of St. Emilion, slightly nutty, nicely ripe, but not too overtly Merlot-driven.

In Pomerol, the finesse of Bon Pasteur gives the lie to Michel Rolland’s reputation as the architect of excess, Beauregard is clearly driven by Merlot but stops a touch short of opulence, and Clinet gives an impression almost of belonging to St. Emilion rather than Pomerol. The general impression is more restrained than usual.

Conditions late in October favored botrytis, but in a limited tasting—some of the Sauternes ran out before I got to them at the end—the wines seemed more inclined towards elegance than towards the luscious power some reports have suggested. Again showing the capacity of the vintage to reverse historical trends, Chateau de Fargues is elegant and subtle as always, but not as evidently botrytized as usual, Rieussec has good density with impressions of botrytis, and Suduiraut has the greatest botrytic influence.

Pricing so far often seems too close to the great 2016 vintage for comfort, but wines that could be found at, say, under two-thirds of the price of the 2016, would offer a good opportunity to appreciate the styles of many chateaux in the relatively short term.