Bordeaux En Primeur 2017 – Day 1
The circus seems to come around more quickly every year and given the excitement over both the 2016 vintage (still extremely fresh in our memories, given the truly exceptional quality) and the 2015s, which have just received rave in-bottle scores from the leading critics, it’s rather as if 2017 has crept up on us. Make no mistake, this is a vintage which has the unenviable task of following one of the great duos of the past few decades. For there are many who believe that 2015 and 2016 will rival 2009 and 2010, and even 1989 and 1990, such is their immense presence, style and outright class.
So how do we feel about 2017 having spent our first day tasting the wines? Well, this is arguably the hardest vintage I’ve ever had to describe. There are no modern vintages that really compare in terms of the growing season; a cold, dry winter, a wet and warm early spring, late spring frosts, drought, cooler summer temperatures than usual, rain at harvest, would all appear to spell certain doom. Falsely, as it turns out.
Then the spectre of the sensational 2016s looms large, with the bombastic 2015s not far behind, and so descriptions feel laden with (ultimately unfair) negative comparison.
And yet – and yet – the best wines of 2017 are extremely precise, fresh, and fully ripe in the vast majority of cases (at least at the quality level where we tend to operate). Outside of their context in following this fabulous pair the vintage would be well received, I have no doubt. The difficulty comes in the relative lack of homogeneity and a real understanding of what has formed this vintage. It is, for both positive and occasionally negative reasons, unpredictable.
As is traditional we have started our exploration of 2017 on the Left Bank, tasting through St Julien and Pauillac – two of the best performing regions according to most accounts. They each benefited from their proximity to the river, which provided the all-important movement of air and temperature regulation which helped prevent the frost from taking hold; furthermore, fine weather in May led to early flowering, giving the grapes a healthy growing period, even despite the relatively early harvest in late September.
But one thing we have learned is that even region-by-region summaries are too vague. One must take individual properties on their own merits. At their best the wines have fantastic fruit purity, mineral expression, balance and focus. Of course they do not share the exotic plushness of 2015 or the centre-palate drive of 2016, but the finest express their terroir in a beautiful and ultimately utterly drinkable fashion. Amongst the best we tasted, outside the First Growths, were the two Pichons (as per usual the group was split but seeing as I’m writing this, my casting vote goes to Lalande, which has wonderful purity, ripeness, texture and balance), Ducru Beaucaillou and Leoville Las Cases. Of the Firsts, the margins are ultimately very fine but Latour perhaps just pipped Lafite (again, by no means unanimously) with Mouton a close third. Petit Mouton, as it happens, was a stunningly good example of this expression of the estate, which just seems to get better and better every year.
The quality level as assessed so far sits around 2014 or 2012, excellent examples of each of which we have tasted on this trip and in recent months, and yet it is also quite different to both. I will expand more as we gain a greater sense of the vintage as a whole.
With our first day put to bed, we had the great pleasure of an evening with Jean-Hubert Delon and Pierre Graffeuille at Leoville Las Cases, where a truly splendid dinner was washed down with a dozen wines all served blind, as is the tradition of the estate… we didn’t perform too badly given our palate fatigue and several of the wines really surprised us with their quality.
Of course, this is the very best thing about blind tasting: it’s meant to make monkeys of us all. We expect to be served the great vintages (by which I mean ‘impressive’) and the quality of the wines certainly leads you down this path – and yet when you discover that the predicted ’05 is actually ’03, and the predicted ’86 is actually ’88, and the predicted ’90 is actually ’91, you are forced to reimagine a cellar which includes the less obviously grand vintages – and you know what, you’re damned grateful for it.
Tomorrow we venture North, taking on the St Estephes, and then South to Margaux before crossing the river to St Emilion for two days on the Right Bank. Updates to follow…