Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2017 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
In 2016, winemaker Eric Kohler was the new guy at Château Lafite, having just taken over as technical director from Charles Chevalier. Now, just a year later, Jean-Guillaume Prats is the new guy, having just taken over as general director of the wine estates that comprise Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) from Christophe Salin.
"Back to civilization," says Prats with a light laugh. No stranger to Bordeaux, Prats' father Bruno owned Cos-d'Estournel and the younger Prats ran it for several years after Jean Reybier bought it. After a brief hiatus to run LVMH's wine estates took him to Paris, he's back on terra firma.
Saskia Rothschild, Baron Eric's daughter, is also now on board. She's worked alongside her father since 2008, taking part in the blending, and is finishing up a viticultural degree to get even more up to speed. It's a notable changeover at this first-growth, marrying youth and experience. The future is bright.
"Winter was colder than '16, dry in the beginning, but some good rains in February and March," says Kohler, running down the weather pattern in the upper Médoc for 2017. "The vintage began under such good conditions; when the frost hit it was an issue for many areas. Here almost no issue, with just Duhart-Milon maybe 5 percent and even less at Lafite. L'Évangile (in Pomerol) saw 50 percent loss, Rieussec (in Sauternes) 15 percent."
"After that it was a hot and early season, with the flowering 10 days ahead of schedule. Then a warm, dry and balanced summer. Harmony is the key in '17," Kohler says. "It's not as powerful as '16, but there's length. The tannins are not aggressive—they're ripe and fresh and in balance with the fruit."
"It reminds me a bit of '01. When '01 arrived, it came after '00 and we didn't appreciate it. But by 2006 or 2007 we began to see how good 2001 was," he says. "I feel a harmony like that here—that the '17 could open quickly but still be very present for a long time."
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. Official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux will be published at the end of my trip.
The 2017 Duhart-Milon (76 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; 24 Merlot) is grippy and tarry in feel, liberally studded with bay leaf and tobacco notes, along with a swath of warm paving stone on the finish. The core is solid, with black currant and licorice root. Still youthfully rugged, this will need some élevage for sure.
The 2017 Lafite Carruades (second wine), is a 60/35/5 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend. It shows nice refinement, with red and black currant fruit allied to a racy graphite note, with flickers of tar, bay leaf and savory throughout. Fresh acidity drives the finish, with ample underlying grip as well. It's very fresh and showing some charm already.
The 2017 Lafite Rothschild grand vin is a 96/3.5/0.5 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend that is winey and intense, with a very focused beam of red and black currant fruit inlaid with a long graphite note. Racy and lively acidity is well embedded and the finish has serious drive, allowing extra bay leaf, savory and iron notes to kick in. It's very straight and very long.
While the September rains nicked the early-ripening Merlot in the Médoc and prevented 2017 from being on a level with 2016, those same rains were a boon in Sauternes.
"On Sept. 10, the maturity was perfect at Rieussec, but there was zero botrytis," says Kohler. "Those mid-September rains were absolutely perfect for Sauternes. By Sept. 20, botrytis was spreading and it moved quickly because the maturity was so good and homogenous. Then it was dry and windy after a week of rain, and that brought the concentration. We finished picking by Oct. 10, which is very, very early for Sauternes."
The 2017 Rieussec (83/17 Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc) is plump, enticing and lush, with tangerine, orange cream, almond and honeysuckle notes. It shows refinement to match its weight, with a long, nicely gilded finish.
Seems the new team is off to an excellent start.