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Bordeaux 2017: the conundrum vintage

Returning from the Bordeaux en primeur tastings, many UK merchants seem confident of the quality of the best wines in 2017 and the potential to sell them – but will wariness over the frost-struck vintage, uncertainty over pricing, the spectre of a long campaign and an apathetic market put paid to its chances before the wines are even released?

It’s hard to escape the one narrative that is dominating discussion of the vintage which is of course the April frosts of 2017.

Devastating as these were, as Colin Hay argued in a recent piece for the drinks business, their impact on the overall quality of the wines that were produced was much less severe than in the bad frost years of 1956 and 1991.

Furthermore, as has became increasingly clear in the lead-up to the recent barrel tastings, the effect of the frost on the great terroirs of the Left Bank was in places so minimal that some AOC have actually produced more wine than they did in the historically large 2016 vintage.

“Everyone keeps saying better than expected but it all depends what you expected,” remarked Liv-ex director, Anthony Maxwell, who, while not in any way a merchant, will be closely monitoring the campaign once it gets into its stride in the coming weeks.

He continued: “After the frosts that’s all anyone thought about but if you delve down there are some good volumes and the good terroirs and estates have made excellent wines.”

Will Hargrove, fine wine director at Corney & Barrow, told db he had gone to Bordeaux, “expecting a very mixed bag and a three star vintage,” but had instead returned seeing it as, “very resolutely a four star vintage,” albeit one, “difficult to pigeon hole.”

Part of the problem, he continued, is that people are always very keen to rush to describe a vintage as either producing wines for cellaring or early drinking but a vintage such as 2017 which is “not a Cabernet or a Merlot vintage” (another common definition along with Right Bank/Left Bank dominant) defies all such categorisation.

There was both freshness and structure in many of the wines but it really is “estate by estate,” he said.

Giles Cooper at BI agreed that the wines were very easy to taste en primeur and the team was very positive about the quality of the best wines and it was clearly a “terroir vintage” – a point not to be overlooked at all considering it was the position of the vineyards that saved them from the worst of the frosts in the first place.

“They’re not bombastic like the 2015s and they don’t have the textural uniqueness of the ‘16s,” he remarked, “but they’re the sort of wines you’ll be served blind in five to 10 years time that will make you go, ‘wow’.”

Both Cooper and Hargrove said that there was definitely the potential for a positive campaign on the back of these wines, the one clincher, as always, will be the price.

The market for en primeur has shrunk since 2011 but the UK in particular has shown itself to be not only pretty loyal but also willing to absorb some of the price increases many of the top estates keep applying.

With the pound in a relatively sound position as well should prices at least hold on what they were last year (and preferably fall back a little) then things could work.

Yet one problem, thinks Lea & Sandeman director, Charles Lea, may be current buyer apathy.

The reaction to the recent ex-cellar release of Latour was fairly lukewarm and the year began with an expensive Burgundy campaign.

Lea said: “I think that the market… is just apathetic. Why buy another vintage? I don’t think there’s any sort of desperate need unless the economics are right.”

The problem is heightened by the fact that, clearly, while this may be a better than average vintage – certainly better than expectations – after shelling out for the 2015s and 2016s and with 2008s and some 2009s getting into their drinking windows and 2011, 2012 and 2014 offering early drinking opportunities now and in the immediate future, will collectors feel the need to fill up on another vintage of that type? Certainly in any quantity?

Maxwell too notes that: “The market is having a bit of a pause which often happens before a vintage which people think will be complicated.”

Tempo is another important aspect of campaigns, especially where the amount of wine on offer is going to be somewhat reduced. Part of what hampered last year’s campaign was its glacial stop-start nature.

However, France is soon to experience a wave of strikes and holidays and then there is a Vinexpo show in Hong Kong right at the end of May.

It therefore seems likely that while a few wines may dribble out in the coming month, it might not be until June that things get properly underway.

As for prices – well, Hargrove said the sentiment seemed to be to hold steady and maybe reduce a little but, as Cooper observed, “You can never second guess what the châteaux are going to do. When people bought the ‘15s they were too expensive, the ‘16s too but people bought them.

“There are some wines which will make sense and some will make less sense but value is in the eye of the beholder.

“A lot of people [Bordelais] will feel they’ve really made wines that really bear up compared to last year.”

Which sounds ominously like price rises should be expected rather than discounted.

Maxwell said: “I’m not sure there’s a huge appetite from the growers to bring prices down. There will be some who raise, some who stick and then some will go down 10% even 20%.

“Some are determined to push their prices up and play with volumes to do it to get themselves on a level to who they perceive as their peers.”

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