Bordeaux 2017: The frost report

Bordeaux 2017 will perhaps always be remembered as the frost vintage. This is, of course, not inaccurate. Roughly 40% of the potential crop fell victim to the plummeting temperatures in the early morning of the 27 April 2017, the equivalent of 240 million litres of wine.

This might suggest comparisons with the 1991 or even 1956 crops. But we are categorically not in the territory of either vintage, quantitatively or (more importantly) qualitatively. For while frost is a key part of the story of the vintage it is nothing like the whole story. And significantly thinking of this as a frost vintage threatens to give a misleading impression of what, for many, is a very strong – if not perhaps ultimately great – vintage.

Having just returned from the week of the Bordeaux en primeur tastings I feel, like many others I suspect, a duty to try to set the record straight.

In this, the first of three articles, I concentrate on the highly uneven impact of frost and frost damage on the vintage; followed in the second and third with a short profile of the Left and Right banks respectively.

There are perhaps two crucial things to say about frost damage. The first, as Matthieu Cuvelier put it to us at Clos Fourtet (itself unaffected by the frost), is that the principal impact of frost damage is on quantity not quality.

And the second, especially true of 2017, is that frost damage is uneven – with some key appellations (like Pauillac and St Estèphe) escaping almost entirely unscathed, while others (like Pessac-Léognan, Pomerol and St Emilion) saw many producers lose upwards of 80% of their potential yield.

Indeed, here a third factor kicks in (another constant refrain of wine-makers during en primeur week). It is that the most hallowed of properties, and the most hallowed of terroirs within the most hallowed of properties, were the best protected – in effect, by the quality of their terroir.

What this means, in brief, is that while production levels across the region are greatly reduced, there are plenty of top châteaux (especially in the Médoc) with more wine to sell than for any vintage from 2010 to 2014. It also means that, with a number of significant and notable exceptions, the best properties suffered least.

But even that is a crude simplification. To give a more detailed and accurate sense of the highly uneven impact of frost damage in Bordeaux 2017 it is necessary to descend to the level of individual properties.

First, and tragically, we have the properties that produced essentially no wine. There are, sadly, far too many to list. Many top names will be absent from this year’s roll call of en primeur releases – wines such as de Fieuzal and Haut Bergey in Pessac-Léognan (neither of whom were able to produce either red or white), Angludet in Margaux, Climens in Barsac, and a host of wines in St Emilion, such as Corbin, Grand Corbin and Grand Corbin Despagne, Côte de Baleau, Destieux and de Fonbel. One’s heart goes out to these producers and, indeed, to all their rather less illustrious neighbours in Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers many of who also lost 100% of their crop.

Consider next Château Poujeaux in Moulis-en-Médoc. Moulis was one of the relatively few Médoc appellations to be ravaged by the frost – due to its inland location and, more specifically, its distance from the benign warming influence of the Gironde and as a result Poujeaux lost 55% of its potential crop. But this is where it gets interesting. For it has produced an exceptional wine – and part of the reason for this is that Poujeaux 2017 is, in effect, a micro-cuvée of the best parcels of the vineyard which also happened to be those best protected from the frost. There might be less of it, but it’s very, very good.

Crossing to the Right Bank, we come to Château L’Evangile in, not just Pomerol, but the celebrated (relative) heights of the Pomerol ‘plateau’ (all ‘heights’ in Pomerol are relative!). Here, you might think, the frost would not have proved so difficult – for it tends to concentrate in the lowest parts of the vineyard and to seek out the lower contours. But herein lies the problem at Evangile, for its old vine Cabernet Franc is planted along the boundary with Château Gazin, just off the plateau itself – and these vines were decimated by the frost.

The result is that, despite attempts to incorporate some of the second generation growth from the old vine Cabernet and some of the young wine Cabernet in the potential blend for the first wine, Evangile has had to settle for a wine that is 100% Merlot. It is a truly fabulous mono-cépage Pomerol – and if that is what one is looking for I highly recommend it. But the point is that it is not the wine they wanted to produce – and that is entirely because of the frost.

Across the street, a little down the road and back into St-Emilion we come to Château Figeac. Here the frost damage was considerable – considerably more than at Evangile, for instance. But the effect on the final wine is, arguably less pronounced. As explained to us by Frédéric Faye, Figeac’s wine-maker and general manager, the frost was localised and conveyed by a rolling, freezing curtain of wind.

Here it was the Cabernet Franc that suffered the most – and this despite the use of a helicopter to lift the cold air off the vines sufficiently to bring the temperature on the ground above freezing. As at Evangile, the frost damage is reflected in the final composition of the wine – with the proportion of Cabernet Franc down from 26% in the (wonderful) 2016 to just 10% in the (scarcely less impressive) 2017. Once again, though, it is quantity that has suffered the most, with final yields of 22hl/ha less than half of those in 2016.

Finally, we come to Château Canon on the ‘côte sud-ouest’ of the plateau of Saint Emilion. This, too, is hallowed terroir – albeit very different from that at Figeac. But, as Andréane Gornand described to us with an almost palpable sense of embarrassment, it was not their terroir that protected them from the frost, but the direction of the wind.

On the night and early morning of the 26 and 27 of April, when the frost was at its biting worst, the wind which conveyed it came from the north east. Lying on the south-west of the plateau – the gentle slope behind the town of St Emilion itself – Canon was almost perfectly protected (like its near neighbours Clos Fourtet, Bélair Monange, Beau-Séjour Bécot and Angélus). They suffered no frost damage at all and have produced the third in a trio of utterly fantastic wines, with a rather impressive overall yield of 42 hl/ha (just a whisker under that achieved in 2016).

As this hopefully starts to show, 2017 is a complex vintage. It is vintage to taste, to scrutinise and to try to understand. Many fantastic wines have been produced. Above all it is vintage that deserves not to be written off as the ‘frost vintage’.

 

Colin Hay is Professor of Political Economy at Sciences Po in Paris where he works on the political economy of La Place de Bordeaux and wine markets more generally.

4 Responses to “Bordeaux 2017: The frost report”

  1. Rod Smith says:

    Lovely summary and I agree wholly.

    I did think that Figeac made an astonishingly good wine (not just ‘in the circumstances’, but in general).

    Some of the best 17s rival the best of the previous two years, and may even eclipse the occasionally heavy-handed 2015 monsters, certainly in terms of elegance.
    I found some second-bud greenness in some surprising places, and some excellent wines from Château with less than hallowed reputations.

    A very good vintage, but its ever-so slightly ‘curate’s egg’ nature means that history will probably not be as kind to it as it should be.

  2. Colin Hay says:

    Many thanks for your kind remarks. You are spot on about Figeac – and, indeed, about the quality of fhe vintage in general (as I hope to argue in two further pieces that will appear shortly).

  3. Arnaud says:

    Are you sure about Destieux? I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure it was available to taste at various negociants tastings.
    Many thanks for your interesting summary.

  4. Colin HAY says:

    Gosh, I think you’re right – I thought Dassault and typed Destieux … there is quite a lot of misinformation circulating about wines that will not be produced or released en primeur. I certainly didn’t want to be adding to it! But thanks for both the opportunity to correct this and for your kind comment.

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