Ever since our trip to the Bordeaux’s right bank during this year’s harvest (September), I’ve been meaning to post this article. My colleagues, James and Paula O’Connor and I popped over to meet old friends, do some tasting and learn about the 2017 Bordeaux harvest.
I have copious notes and images from the trip (too many to reproduce here) but I’ll just do a quick recap of the Chateaux we visited on our three-day sojourn. I’ll finish with expert opinions on how the 2017 vintage is shaping up so far.
We also had the opportunity to taste many other vintages from some of the 10 appellations that make up the area, (the Bordeaux region has 65 appellations in total).
Bordeaux’s right bank – a quick recap.
For over 25 years we, in Green Acres, have been visiting this famous wine region. To paint a picture for you, everything on the left side of the Garonne river, west and south of the region, is referred to as “left bank” Bordeaux, home to Graves and Medoc.
Everything to the right side of another river, the Dordogne, in the northern side, is considered the “right bank.” The area within both is the centre of the region. When you look at a map of the Bordeaux region, on the right-hand side you’ll see the towns of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, and Fronsac.
Without getting into the French concept of ‘terroir’ in this post, I can say that this region would be high up there when explaining how ‘terroir’ affects the end product. Even if you’re not a big Bordeaux wine fan you will have heard about Ch. Petrus and Ch. Cheval Blanc in Pomerol and Ch. Angelus situated only meters away from the medieval city of St Emilion.
The majority of the vines on the right bank are Merlot, but it’s that terroir, I mentioned above, that really makes the difference in taste. In Saint-Émilion and Fronsac, you’ll find clay and limestone soil, while Pomerol features gravel or sandy soil. An interesting fact about this area is that it only accounts for c.10% of red Bordeaux wines.
The drinkability of these wonderful wines has a lot to do with the fact that the majority of the vines are Merlot (80 percent in Pomerol and Fronsac, 65 to 80 percent in Saint-Émilion). Adding in some cabernet sauvignon, (accounts for about 10 percent of planted vines), can help the wines to age well – and add to its flavour, of course.
The best way to get to know each of the 10 appellations is, of course, by tasting various wines. There was no way that we were going to achieve that in three days but we did get a good feel for the current harvest, and previous vintages, from the ones we did visit.
2017 Bordeaux Harvest – on the Right Bank.
The three days we stayed in St Emilion coincided with the picking of the Merlot grapes. I even donned a harvesting basket and gave them a hand in Chateau Picque Caillou. This was our first port of call in the Pessac Leognan area – not too far from the airport, in fact.
We were delighted to meet Paulin Calvet and his wife Isabelle. We picked some of the grapes to taste as walked through the vines and Paulin seemed pleased that the April frosts hadn’t affected the quality of the harvest. We tasted Picque Caillou 2015 which I found absolutely gorgeous, full of fruit with lots of intensity and is drinking well already.
Our next appointment was to meet Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Chateau Certan, one of the oldest wine properties in Pomerol. Once again the trials and tribulations of the 2017 harvest were discussed and, as they were not picking on that particular day, we walked through the vines tasting the ripened grapes. In the tasting room, Paulin shared his 2014 vintage which he was pleased with – it was outstanding in my opinion.
Our next visit was to the Ducourt vinyards. The Ducourt family possesses one of the largest independent vineyard holdings in the Bordeaux region: 440 hectares of vines, spread out over 13 châteaux in the Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion appellations, which produce 2.5 million bottles per year.
Our good friend Jonathon Ducourt was there to greet us, talk us through the harvest and let us sample the juices that had just been loaded into the steel vats. It was fascinating to taste the different varieties before fermentation. We had lunch with Jonathon in Château des Combes, which was prepared by his wonderful grandmother. We also tasted the traditional drink of south-west France called “Blanc Limé which Jonathon has revived as a labour of love.
Next on our list was Chateau Lafleur. I can honestly say that we spent over two full hours with Omri, the cellar master/winemaker. As he walked us through the various parcels of vines he educated us as to the soil variations and their effect on the Chateau’s range of wines. This was one of the most informative visits that I have ever had to the appellation and we tasted the full range from Lafleur which was an absolute privilege.
Next stop was to the small operation of Chateau L’Eglise-Clinet where Denis Durantou invited us to taste his wonderful range from the 2014 vintage – all professionally poured by his daughter. His wife Marie Reilhac Durantou, is an established painter whose pieces adorn the walls of the tasting room. We tasted the Saintem Saintayme, St Emilion Grand Cru (a quality wine offering really good value), La Chenade (Lalande de Pomerol), Les Cruzelles (Lalande de Pomerol), Montlandrie (Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux), his 2nd wine La Petite Eglise and the wonderful L’Eglise Clinet. This first growth was one of my favourites from our entire trip.
Last but not least was a wonderful experience. We met with Christian Moueix his wife, Cherise, and son Edouard at Chateau La Fleur Petrus. In fact, we met with all the 2017 harvest grape pickers as well, because we joined them for the end of harvest lunch at the Chateau. It was a wonderful way to finish our tasting trip and we headed back to the airport for our journey back to Green Acres.
The 2017 Bordeaux Harvest Update.
Needless to say, when we visited last September, all we could taste were the grapes on the vine and some of the juices. At this stage, obviously, the 2017 process has moved on so I think it will be more relevant for me to quote directly from a recent www.decanter.com post which you can read more of here.
Key Points for Bordeaux 2017 so far
- 2017 was complicated, but there are some excellent wines. Expect plenty of freshness and drinkability from wines that will offer excellent value and others that will rival 2016 in terms of ripeness and ageability. But they are likely to be the exception, not the rule, making careful selection key.
- Frost impact means uneven ripening across appellations and individual plots. And of course, less wine to bottle. Overall volume stands at 345,000hl across all Bordeaux appellations, a drop of just under 50% on last year.
- A corridor of early-ripening gravel soils along the Garonne river protected many of the Médoc classified estates in St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe and pockets of Margaux, and again along the opposite banks of the river in Bourg and south of the city in parts of Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux and Entre Deux Mers again following that corridor of the Garonne river. Some parts of Pomerol and St-Emilion also escaped the worst of the frost.
- Rain in September was not such an issue for dilution as the grey skies. Much of early to mid-September saw days at 18 degrees and nights at 16 degrees, with covered skies, so the grapes didn’t concentrate in the usual way. This is because it’s never about rain only, it’s about rain versus evaporation. It’s why 2003 so punishing because there was huge evaporation, and why rain in the 2015 harvest was not so critical because it was able to evaporate in most cases.
- Co-fermentation of different grape varieties was more common than usual because one of the biggest challenges in frost hit areas was finding enough volume to fill tanks. It meant that some harvest dates were the same for Sauvignon and Sémillon, or Merlot and Cabernet Franc, for the practical reason of filling vats.
- The toughest thing was to handle those plots that were partly affected by frost and to effectively sort out the grapes in terms of harvesting dates and cellar work.
All in all, we found that different Chateaux were affected in different ways. Some were devastated by the April frosts, some grapes didn’t concentrate as much in September due to rain and some weren’t affected at all.
We will keep you posted as to the quality of the 2017 harvest and of course, will be discussing it in more detail next spring, during the en primeur season. Feel free to contact me or drop-in to us here in Green Acres and we can discuss any aspect of your wine preferences and any special wines you would like to discover.
We look forward to engaging with you soon – Cheers, Donal