By Christopher Matthews
The 2017 vintage in Bordeaux was…complicated, and rife with pitfalls: an epic spring frost, the worst since 1991; damaging hail storms; a dry but cloudy summer; and rain in mid-September, adding drama to the harvest period. Overall volume fell around 40% compared with 2016, a blockbuster vintage.
Against this backdrop, my expectations for the annual Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) event, held at Cipriani 42nd Street in Manhattan on 20 January, and debuting the 2017 vintage, were somewhat subdued. But as the cliché goes, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the clear takeaway from the UGCB’s 2017 “premier” was that the Bordeaux Grand Crus not only persevered in a trying vintage, but also succeeded in producing some excellent wines that will represent good (earlier drinking) value.
Some areas, particularly those with early-ripening gravel soils along the Garonne river — e.g. St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estèphe — largely escaped the worst of the frost. Pessac-Léognan, benefiting from its suburban location near Bordeaux city, also fared well, mostly avoiding both the frost and hailstorms. Parts of St. Emilion and Pomerol were spared, too. Otherwise, the damage was wide-ranging and quite random, making it a challenging vintage for many chateaux, forcing them in some cases to co-ferment different grape varieties in order to generate volume to fill tanks. Based on the tasting, many did great work.
For the Grand Cru whites of Pessac-Léognan, it was a strong showing, driven by the aromatic and balanced results with Sauvignon Blanc in 2017. The early-ish (white) grape harvest (due to water stress during the summer) was fortunately completed well before the mid-September rains. Chateau Carbonnieux, a reliable stalwart, performed well again — earthy and minerally, with a plum skin nose and a fresh, vibrant palate, with good length. Sporting fresh orchard fruit and a touch of honey on the nose, Chateau Malartic-Lagravière had clean, energetic and focused white grapefruit on the palate. Chateau Olivier showed bright, heady citrus/grapefruit on both the nose and palate. On the richer side, with more oak accents, were two usual suspects (and knockouts!): Chateau Smith Haut Lafite (redolent of tropical fruit, with great structure and length), and Chateau Pape Clément (aromatic, citrusy nose, and big, integrated tropical fruit palate, with a caramel note).
I still consider these whites underrated, and relative values among the Grand Crus.
But make no mistake: the throng at Cipriani was mostly there for the reds.
In general, the wines had deep color — dark and purple ruby — freshness; earthy, minty and floral aromatics; and bright, dark berry fruit. Early ripening soils were a key success factor.
The massive scale of the UGCB tasting precludes sampling every chateau. I have my benchmarks in the various districts, along with chateaux I’ve followed over the years, a few random selections and some of the houses that generate buzz in the room. Based on this impressionistic-yet-consistent annual approach, the following are my highlights of the Grand Cru reds in 2017.
My unofficial Best-in-Show was Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which featured intoxicating aromas of herbs, violets and dark berry fruit, and deep, lush black fruit on the palate, with finely-etched structure and great length. Amazing.
In fact, Pauillac is not a bad way to go re: 2017, as Chateau Pichon Baron, Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Grand Puy-Lacoste were also quite impressive.
Similar to Pauillac, St. Julien and St. Estephe mostly dodged the frost bullet. Here are some of my highlights from those districts:
Chateau Beychevelle (St. Julien)
Chateau Langoa Barton (St. Julien)
Chateau Leoville Barton (St. Julien)
Chateau Phélan Ségur (St. Estephe)
Chateau de Pez (St. Estephe)
Unlike the above Medoc Crus, Margaux did experience some significant (though random) frost damage. For example, Chateau Kirwan’s Sophie Schyler-Thierry said that production was down 30% in 2017, but like many in Margaux — at least according to my palate — they did very well with less. Here are my Margaux favorites from the tasting:
Chateau Prieuré-Lichine (Hedonistic!)
Results were mixed on the Right Bank in 2017, but the luckier Chateaux produced some compelling wines, like:
Chateau Beau-Séjour Bécot (St. Emilion)
Chateau Canon (St. Emilion; an exceptional effort, one of my tops of the tasting)
Chateau Canon-La-Gaffelière (St. Emilion)
Clos Fourtet (St. Emilion)
Chateau Valandraud (St. Emilion)
Chateau Clinet (Pomerol)
Chateau Gazin (Pomerol; one for the cellar)
Last but not least, the reds of Pessac-Leognan also had a good vintage. They seemed a little tighter than some of the other districts, and need some time yet in the cellar, but have all the elements for near-term enjoyment. Herewith, my short-list:
Chateau Pape Clément (another for the cellar; aromatic and elegant)
Chateau Smith Haut Lafite