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A Vintage of Haves and Have Nots

After a historic spring frost, Bordeaux's 2017 harvest looks promising for many; for others, the entire vintage has been lost
Photo by: Florence Cathiard / Smith-Haut-Lafitte
Smith-Haut-Lafitte's 2017 harvest looks promising.

Posted: Nov 1, 2017 2:00pm ET

When temperatures dipped below freezing in late April across France, wine regions took it on the chin. The spring frost was the worst in 25 years and the resulting crop was the smallest since 1945 (see our 2017 France Harvest Report).

Bordeaux's large Entre-Deux-Mers region, lower-lying areas around St.-Emilion as well as the Graves and Sauternes areas were affected by the frost, with crop losses of 50 percent or more common. Some vintners lost the entire vintage. Other areas, including Pomerol and most of the Médoc, saw little to no damage. Overall, Bordeaux's 2017 crop is about half the normal size. But despite the considerable drop in quantity in some areas of Bordeaux, quality looks to be more than promising.

Following a dry and mild winter, the vineyards got off to an early start. Flowering was early, about 10 days ahead of 2016, said Nicolas Audebert, who manages both Châteaus Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Canon in St.-Emilion (and is taking over at Berliquet as well).

"From there, we had ideal weather conditions that allowed a very homogeneous development of the vineyard," says Audebert. "The rest of summer was as hot as in 2016 but not as dry. The vineyard didn't suffer, and without any maturity blockage the photosynthesis continued the end of the cycle."

Managing the vineyards after the frost was relatively easy, according to most growers, as there was a clear delineation between the first and second generation of growth through the vineyard parcels.

"Parcels affected by the frost totally froze while the rest didn't freeze at all," says Eric Monneret of Château La Pointe in Pomerol. "That means that we didn't have to manage two generations of buds on the same parcel,".

Harvest of the Merlot began in early September under ideal conditions, then had to dodge some light rains in the middle of the month.

"I think that this rainfall maybe diluted the acidities but fortunately it also stopped the Merlot's alcoholic degree increase," says Diana Berrouet, winemaker at Château Petit-Village in Pomerol. "Then the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon had the time to finish the maturation and were stunning at the harvest."

"The first impressions from tasting are nicely balanced wines that have very smooth tannins and a reasonable natural alcohol level of around 13 degrees," says Laurent Fortin of Château Dauzac in Margaux. "The Merlots are pleasantly complex and extremely elegant. The Cabernet Sauvignons are mineral-driven, long and well-balanced."

White varieties, picked in late August, also performed well.

"The whites are fresh and taut, but with body and richness. There is also an impression of greater acidity," says Fabien Teitgen, winemaker at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan.

Some producers were severely hit by the frost, though, struggling to produce any wine come harvesttime.

"The spring frost severely cut the crop, and the vegetation grew afterward in a very erratic way, making picking very complicated," said Bérénice Lurton, owner of Château Climens in Barsac. "With a small team of pickers, we had to search inside [the canopy of] each vine to try and find very little bunches.
 We are thus establishing the sad record of [0.15 tons per acre], and won't be able to produce any Climens [in 2017]."

Follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Pierre Courdurie
Saint-Emilion —  November 2, 2017 5:53pm ET
Hello James,
Indeed frost was not easy in Bordeaux. At Chateau Croix de Labrie we had 2 parcels 90% frost. Axelle decided not to look on 2nd generation and only focused on 1st generation.
But we have to say that during the frost, Axelle and I were awake at 4am to turn on fires to protect our vines. And we start on the night from 19th April to the 20th and then the week after.
For the parcels which not faced the frost, and thanks to the rain early september (because July was hot as 2016, not August) our Merlot are just amazing. Alc as usual, and acidity levels are as 2016 vintage and almost as 2015.
Very fresh vintage and dense.
For the parcels which faced frost, we decided to focus for 2018 and protect the vines and vineyards.
But knowing that, we cannot say that "homogeneous" is the word. Indeed Nature and frost make it more difficult, and terroir will say the truth thanks to the help of winegrowers and not winemakers.
The key of 2017 was the selection of the grapes during harvest.
Of course 90% is in the vineyard, but with frost (worst than 1991), the harvest and the selection is the key.
We are lucky, because we will do 2017, so we do not have to complain.
We have friends that did not harvest at all.
We, we lost 60% of the production.

For those who have the chance to harvest, and bring the best into the cellar thanks to a strict harvest, + the selection by density, and maybe optic + people at the sorting table (we did a very strict harvest + density and our people at Chateau Croix de Labrie), then YES 2017 will be a beautiful vintage.
Some micro parcels were at 3-4hl/ha only but really beautiful.
So 2017 will be small in volume but not as some are already saying : a 7 .

James Molesworth
New York —  November 3, 2017 2:58pm ET

Thanks for the additional update. I know some producers had a very difficult time in '17....kudos to you for your efforts to focus on quality, even with so little return.


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