Bordeaux En Primeur 2017 – Day Three
Finally we arrive at the heart of the matter, the zone where the dreaded ‘F’ word really did its worst, wreaking havoc across the vineyards and turning hardened vinegrowers into jabbering messes… or so many of the reports we had read prior to visiting would have us believe.
Yes, there was FROST here in St Emilion and Pomerol – and yes, there was a reduction in available crops, both in the case of lower quality fruits where fruits actually formed, and some vines which didn’t fruit at all. Furthermore, some estates were indeed decimated and many growers were faced with losing a huge proportion, if not all, of their harvest. This is of course a tragedy and one cannot underestimate the personal and financial impact this can have on many people.
However as always there is a story within a story, and in this case, it plays to the classic Bordeaux story of privilege; the haves and have-nots. Less in the sense of wealth, as there is very little that can be done financially about such dramatic weather events (not to say it is impossible – I will expand on this point later) but in the sense of vineyard location. For this is where the great terroirs really come into their own and repay their owners for decades, if not centuries, of dedicated TLC.
Put simply, the vines that suffered the worst of the weather were located on the flattest land and typically poorest soils where the cold air was allowed to settle. This tends to affect the most humble, high volume properties who can least afford the negative impact. However it spared the top estates in the main.
Let’s look first at the limestone plateau of St Emilion. Take La Gaffeliere, located directly south of St Emilion centre ville, whose vineyards are spread from the lower slopes of the plateau beneath Ausone and Belair Monange down to the flatter soils towards the railway station. The upper parts of the vineyard were untouched whilst those further down towards the plain were heavily hit. It was the same story from those with multiple properties across St Emilion: whilst Jonathan Maltus’ Le Dome, up on the hill between Canon and Angelus, was pretty much unscathed, his Chateau Teyssier down on the plain was hit hard.
What does this mean? Two things. The finest vineyards which produce the most sought-after fruits are located in the most naturally frost-protected areas, thus ensuring that the other factors of the growing season were most dominant and the frost was simply not a factor. In addition, those estates which are spread out on both sloped limestone and flatter clay or sandy soils have had little choice but to protect the quality of their Grand Vins, sometimes at the expense of their much-loved (and often much-produced) second wines, by putting all the fruit from their top terroirs into the main event. For those of you who like to buy the best wines from these top terroirs, this translates as ‘a result’.
But wait I hear you cry, isn’t Pomerol terribly flat? Well, yes, this is true. And here we return to the notion of privilege and in this case it does come rather more in the form of cold hard cash. We heard multiple stories of the steps taken in late April last year when it was clear that the temperatures were set to plummet, from sending up helicopters, to investing in giant wind turbines, to the use of old fashioned vineyard candles or ‘smudge pots’ as they are sometimes known. The purpose of these various techniques is to circulate the cold air which has settled rapidly during a very cold, clear night, and replace the coldest air at ground and vine level with air from just a metre or two above, the temperature of which increases at around one degree per metre. Fortunately most of the top estates on the plateau, those which we (and you) tend to favour, were all equipped with one or more of these methods of keeping away the frost – and once this short, nervous, two-day window was closed, the story was history and it was back to dealing with the season at hand.
So is ‘2017: The Big Frost’ something of a red herring? To many, no, it’s extremely real and extremely painful. But to the lucky few, it’s simply a footnote to a much more satisfying story.
Tasting the wines makes this situation absolutely and abundantly clear. What defines the best wines of both St Emilion and Pomerol is not the cold but the drought. 2017 is the third drought year in a row, producing small, fine berries with great concentration of fruit and fine tannins. What separates it from 2015 and 2016 was the relative cool of the summer which yielded finer, less bombastic fruit characters – but which did retain fantastic acidity which lends, in some cases, stunning precision, detail and vineyard expression. Secondly, and just as important, was the comparatively early harvest. The latter factor has therefore failed to replicate the abnormally long, velveteen tannins which characterized 2016, but on the positive side, it has forced producers to pick their grapes at red and black fruit ripeness levels, rather than allowing them to sneak into ‘blueberry’ territory… again, this allows for a cleaner, more pure expression of terroir – which after all, is what great Bordeaux is all about, especially in the ‘Burgundian’ bijou territory of the Right Bank.
The finest wines we encountered included a beautiful Angelus, benefiting from a gentle evolution in style under the gifted and driven Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal; a pretty mind-bending Pavie which continues to find its rhythm in a new, less-extracted style; a supple, voluptuous Canon which can seem to do no wrong at this time; a fine, pure, elegant L’Evangile which had us all looking at each other wide-eyed in admiration; a pure, strong Figeac characterized more by its Cabernet Sauvignon content than ever before; and a pair of utterly, typically brilliant wines in VCC and Lafleur.
Special mention should also go to La Conseillante who not only made a fine, gorgeously-fruited and structured 2017, but who also hosted us for a magnificent lunch in the chateau with a few excellent bottles and some wonderful pork cooked in the Big Green Egg.
We’ll finish the Right Bank today and head down to Pessac for the afternoon.