2017 Bordeaux: drinking wine

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Ch. la Mission Haut-Brion. Photograph: Jason Lowe

As the week draws to a close, our team has reached the end of its 60 châteaux-tour and at Ch. Haut-Brion and Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste finds wines which prove that the 2017 vintage is perfect for drinking

At Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion we taste in silence. The oak panelled tasting room, which sits high above a gravel courtyard replete with topiary, cloisters and clipped, manicured lawns, has the feel of an Oxbridge college, perhaps All Souls, which dates back to 1438. The only sound you can hear is the gentle fall of the fountain and the burr of the outskirts of the city, which now encroach and circle its vineyard. There is a feeling of longevity in this corner of Bordeaux. At neighbouring Ch. Pape Clément they make a big deal of their history, playing up the ecclesiastical heritage, it was once owned by Bernard de Groth who later became Pope Clément V, and has gothic chandeliers hanging above the cellar.

Haut-Brion itself dates back to 1525 and is mentioned in King Charles II’s cellar book from 1660 and the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Today the wines of Pessac-Léognan and Graves are some of the most delicate, light and fruit-driven in Bordeaux. In 2017, quality isn’t uniform but that is not to say there are not some spectacular wines. Haut-Brion is a case in point, producing an expressive wine with dark fruit and precise, fine tannins. Some say La Mission Haut-Brion is even better, with its characteristic aromatics of blackcurrant, wood smoke and mocha finishing long and taught. The winemaker at Ch. Haut-Brion, Jean-Philippe Delmas, compares the 2017 to 1988 because of the freshness of the acidity and the ripeness of the fruit.

“These samples are easy to taste,” he says. “Not just at Haut-Brion but everywhere. If I remember the 2001 en primeur vintage it reminds me of these samples but really I think the comparison is 1988, this is a modern version of 1988.”

It was a view expressed a day earlier by Christel Spinner, winemaker at Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste in Pauillac. “I love this kind of vintage, like 2014, because it is easy to drink,” she says. “You have minerality, which is something you don’t have in a hot vintage.” She says the wines have freshness, are well balanced, not full bodied, but have very ripe tannins. The Grand-Puy-Lacoste this year has a delicate perfume of blackcurrant, cassis, raspberry and red fruit.

If we are to assess the quality of the wines from this vintage, a snap shot of 60 of the region’s best châteaux, one would look to descriptors such as medium-bodied, pure, ripe red fruit, high acidity with, in the best examples, silky tannins and a very long after taste. Let’s not pretend it has the quality of 2015 or 2016. But stylistically they are also far removed from a big, ripe year such as 2009. If 2016 was a vintage that reset Bordeaux, 2017 follows in that style: a return to lower alcohol levels, less oak, more delicate winemaking and a softer, fresher style. It is a cooler vintage but with a modern expression, that expression coming through purer fruit and better winemaking.

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Category: Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux 2017: vitality in Margaux

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Ch. D'Issan, Margaux, Bordeaux

Ch. D’Issan, Margaux, Bordeaux

As the team arrive in Margaux, they find a poetic sense of finesse and vitality – wines that are beguiling and captivating, Ch. Margaux: “one of the best I can remember tasting from barrel” and therefore promising onwards memorable drinking. Will Lyons reports

There is one Margaux property, just south of the village, down a small country lane which on first appearances looks like a modest Highland Castle. The medieval features of Ch. d’Issan include a rather imposing stone gateway, a moat which surrounds the property and the obligatory large, gravel courtyard. It’s not surprising it has been described as one of the most romantic châteaux in the Médoc.

The home of Emmanuel Cruse, whose wines have considerably improved in the last two decades and are now some of the most popular and delicate in the commune, is a reminder of just how long Bordeaux has been making wine. I’m often asked what makes a wine a ‘fine wine’ and besides the obvious description of its taste and flavour one of the factors I point to is both its ability to age and improve in the bottle but also its track record. There are of course dozens of fine wines that have only been around for two decades or more but in the case of a Château such as d’Issan, it can trace its history to at least 1152 when its wines were reputedly served at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II. A wedding which precipitated a 300-year period of history where the lands around Bordeaux and the city itself were under the control of the English crown.

Today we love the wines of Margaux not for their history but for their heady perfume. The best examples of which, when mature, display hedonistic scents of violets, cedar and blackcurrant all underpinned by an almost magical, ethereal texture.

But even some of the biggest fans of this style of Bordeaux will tell you that the commune can be maddeningly inconsistent at times with huge variations in the quality of the wines. In 2017 from the barrel samples we tasted at Ch. d’Issan, Ch. Rauzan-Segla, Ch. Cantenac Brown, Ch. Brane Cantenac, Ch. Giscours and Ch. Margaux the story is one of delicacy and freshness. There is a consistency in 2017 and while production is down because some areas have been hit by frost there is a finesse and vitality to these wines which make them so appealing. Let’s not pretend they are 2015 and 2016 but evaluate them for what they are: wines with lift, perfume, finesse and elegance. Ch. Margaux itself is one of the best I can remember tasting from barrel with a lightness of touch and a tremendous elegance. As Berry Bros. & Rudd’s Fine Wine Buying Director and Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle says: “These are elegant wines that will reach maturity earlier but will drink consistently throughout their ageing window.”

For the full campaign and to follow all our news, click here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Old World

Bordeaux 2017: the Right Bank – change is afoot

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Ch. Pavie, St. Emilion, Bordeaux

As our team continues to tread the claret-coloured path, Will Lyons reports on their findings of Bordeaux 2017 from the Right Bank, where change is afoot, and freshness, tension and elegance returns again to St. Emilion

The tasting room at Ch. Pavie sits high above the trained vineyards that sprawl southwards, down towards the sandy plains that fan out from the sandstone château. Above and behind, lies the medieval village of St Emilion, perched on a limestone plateau which sits on a bed of calcareous clay. This is north east Bordeaux, the Right Bank of the Gironde where the Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes thrive on the cool, clay soil and the wines have a gorgeous roundness which throw up aromas of raspberry, plum and blackcurrant.

But in recent years St Emilion has been one of the most frustrating appellations to taste. A trend towards a riper, more extracted, succulent style of wine had previously led to a style which favoured alcohol and power above finesse and elegance – wines that were more about winemaking and creating a uniformed taste than letting the expression of the terroir shine through. Too many times en primeur samples in this appellation had failed to generate the excitement of say neighbouring Pomerol or Pauillac across the river. This was frustrating for those of us who know that this corner of Bordeaux possesses some of the best conditions to grow wine in the world. Why not let the terroir speak for itself?

But change is afoot. Leaving the cobbled streets of St Emilion in glorious spring sunshine only to hit a malevolent thunderstorm on the outskirts of Bordeaux it was hard not to contain our excitement. I lost count of the number of winemakers who were at pains to express the change in direction that their winemaking was taking. At Ch. Troplong Mondot, new chief executive Aymeric de Gironde talked about a return to a pre-1998 style. Arriving for his first vintage, after five years at Ch. Cos d’Estournel, he instructed his team to pick early. His aim was to create a wine with lower alcohol and less oak. “We have the terroir to make some of the best wines in St Emilion,” he said. At Ch. Angelus the message was the same. Tasting the wine here, there was a freshness, tension and elegance previously not seen in vintages like 2010. “This trend started with the 2016 vintage,” said director Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal. “We want to preserve the integrity and precision of the fruit so we have worked on the vinification to achieve this.” Ditto Cheval Blanc where technical director Pierre Olivier Clouet has produced a wine in 2017 in a more elegant style with pleasing fruit, fresh acidity and freshness.

But perhaps the most marked example of this change is at Ch. Pavie, a property that previously made the headlines for being at the vanguard of a more extracted, riper style. Director Philippe Develay says his aim is to achieve a better expression of fruit.

“We pick have picked ten days earlier than we would have previously for a vintage like 2017,” Develay explains. “We use less new oak, have a softer extraction from 38 days instead of 50 and we now only do one pump over instead of three.” Even though the wine comes in at more than 14 percent alcohol, the overall effect is one of freshness. For anyone who favours a lighter, fresher more traditional style (which broadly speaking has traditionally been the British preference) this is an extremely welcome development. The great 21st century St Emilion renaissance has begun. Long may it continue.

Read all our coverage of Bordeaux 2017, including Max Lalondrelle’s preliminary thoughts here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Miscellaneous

Bordeaux 2017: first impressions – light and bright

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Ch Pontet-Canet, BBR coverage day 1 Bordeaux 2017

Ch. Pontet-Canet, Bordeaux

As the first Bordeaux 2017 wines are unveiled to our team and the wider trade at large, Will Lyons sheds some light on the vintage conditions and their effect on taste. On the first day in the week of being on the rolling “red carpet”, all is looking light and bright

And we’re off! The morning dew lays heavy on the manicured lawns of the northern Médoc as we snake our way up the D2, cutting through the vines from the outskirts of Margaux. Destination: Ch. Beychevelle to taste the first barrel sample of 2017. It’s en primeur week, one of the busiest five days in the wine tasting calendar. A frenetic dash around the vineyards of Bordeaux, crossing both sides of the Gironde travelling between châteaux, villages and communes. From now until Friday we will visit more than 60 properties sipping, spitting and slurping our way through more than 300 barrel samples of the 2017 vintage in what is known as ‘en primeur’ the practice whereby the cask samples of the previous vintage are previewed to wine merchants, brokers, negociants and the press. Throughout the week I will be travelling with the Berry Bros. & Rudd Bordeaux buying team, led by Max Lalondrelle and will be updating you on the quality of the wines, interviewing winemakers, analysing and tasting the wines and providing a first impression of the quality of the vintage. It is a week one Château owner once described to me as: ‘the Oscars, Cannes film festival and Formula One rolled into one.’

Only this year the buzz is a little more muted. After the success of 2015 and 2016, growing seasons which produced wines that were not only easy to taste but also possessed pure, attractive fruit with glorious fresh acidity 2017 comes amidst a background of uncertainty. Talk has been of the late April frosts which hit the region last year, the worst since 1991 and in some cases like Château Angludet in Margaux or Climens in Sauternes wiping out the entire crop. According to British winemaker Gavin Quinney’s harvest report, the overall Bordeaux yield was down by as much as 40 percent on 2016 and 33 percent lower than the ten-year average. As he points out, that is the equivalent of more than 300 million bottles.

But there is good news. Firstly, the frost was very localised, as Berry Bros. & Rudd’s Fine Wine Buying Director and Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle explains the frost primarily hit the Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Blaye, St. Emilion and Pomerol on the Right Bank and on the Left Bank only those estates that are situated more than one kilometre from the Gironde. Very few of the big estates have been affected. To underline this point in Pauillac, Saint Estèphe and St Julien 2017 was in fact a larger crop than the previous five years.

Day one on an en primeur tasting trip is far too early to be making judgment calls on the quality of the vintage, especially in a complicated growing season like 2017 where quality is uneven. But from the barrel samples we tasted in St Julien and Pauillac 2017 is a much lighter style than say 2009, 2010 or 2015. They possess charming red fruit, fresh acidity but perhaps lack the body and weight of the so called five star vintages. As a first snapshot they reminded me of vintages like 2001 and 2014, years that when you pull the cork now in some cases are sensational to drink.

As Didier Cuvelier, proprietor of Ch. Léoville Poyferré said, it isn’t 2015 or 2016 but it is still very good. “It has the charm of 2012, the elegance and finesse of 2015 and the power of 2014.” The day finished at Ch. Pontet-Canet where they have made a charming wine with pure red fruit, an attractive silkiness on the mid palate and a persistent, long finish. I jotted down in my notebook, ‘a wine that will give pleasure but in a lighter style.’

Follow the blog for all of this week’s Bordeaux 2017 en primeur coverage. Find all the Bordeaux 2017 wines and further information here

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Old World