Updated April 11, 2018. New blogs and notes will be posted regularly throughout the tastings.
WineSpectator.com members: Read James Molesworth's 2017 Bordeaux scores and tasting notes.
It's that time: “Here I go again. Again.”
Spring is sort of, kind of, almost sprung. And so I'm heading off to Bordeaux for the en primeur tastings, the first time châteaus en masse show their most recent wines to the press and trade. This time I'll taste the 2017 vintage as it sits in barrel. As with every new vintage, there's reason for excitement and optimism, balanced by a good "hype filter" of course. Producers are known to think the newest vintage is the best, wink, wink.
Still, the buzz out of Bordeaux is good these days. Following the downward trend of the 2011 through 2013 vintages, the region rebounded in 2014, '15 and '16. Now comes 2017, which for the most part was a good growing season, save for one little thing: The worst frost in 25 years decimated parts of Bordeaux along with other wine regions of France.
The frost, which hit April 26 and 27, resulted in a dramatically reduced crop—about 40 percent of the previous year, overall. But that number is skewed, as some areas of Bordeaux actually produced as much or more in 2017 than they did in '16. The frost was most severe on the Right Bank, particularly the lower-lying areas around St.-Emilion and into Entre-Deux-Mers, where the crop was clipped by more than half, on average, while some producers lost everything. On the Left Bank though, particularly farther up in the Médoc, areas where the Gironde plays a key moderating influence such as Pauillac and St.-Julien were unscathed.
Following the frost, May was particularly warm and dry, a trend that continued into June with a heat wave occurring June 18 to 22. July followed with cooler temperatures and needed rains, slowing down the ripening process and ameliorating any maturity blockages somewhat. The harvest was still on the early side, and growers needed to wait for phenolic ripeness to match the fast-rising sugar ripeness caused by the warm summer.
With the second-generation buds that grew following the frost mixed with the first-generation buds that were spared, 2017 looks to be one thing: heterogenous. So this is where the real work begins for me.
As usual, I'll be starting my trip off with a week's worth of visits to top estates, some of which I visit regularly, while mixing in new faces along the way. During these visits, I taste the wines with the producers, while gleaning information on the vintage's quality and style—I do not review the wines tasted at châteaus, however, as they're tasted non-blind. You can follow along via my blog for informal impressions on these wines.
During my second week here, I'll sit down to taste over 300 barrel samples. The samples are supplied directly from the châteaus and are reviewed in blind tastings organized by Wine Spectator staff. These tastings will generate the official reviews that we'll post here and in the magazine.
But remember that these wines are still unfinished, sitting in barrel. The samples shown are approximations of the final blend of the wine, but there may be tweaks yet to come. They also still have another six months or more to go before they will be bottled. So why taste them now?
These wines are about to be offered for sale, first to the trade and then to you, the consumer, as futures, for delivery once they're bottled.
But why buy now? Because as a consumer, the initial price offered by the château (with subsequent markups) will likely represent the best price you'll see if the vintage proves to be outstanding. Additional releases, or tranches, typically increase in price. By the time bottled wines reach retail shelves, the cost could be much higher, and the top wines could be harder to find. Should the vintage turn out to be stellar, those purchasing wine for investment might win in the long run by securing quantities of wine at the earlier pricing.
On the other hand, if it doesn't turn out to be an excellent vintage, then prices likely won't appreciate, and there may be no need to rush.
For some history on en primeur and how it all got started, check out "The Origins of En Primeur," penned by then Château Cos-d'Estournel general director Jean-Guillaume Prats.
Keep in mind that my en primeur tastings are an introduction to the vintage, focusing on wines both widely available and popular in the U.S. market and highlighting sleepers and values, but this report is not a comprehensive overview of the vintage. For that you'll have to wait for my annual report in the magazine in March 2020. You can check out my 2015 Bordeaux tasting report in the March 31 issue, which includes a travel feature on places to stay if you decide to visit.
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With the vintage running early and second-generation fruit running late, James Molesworth says the 2017 at Cheval-Blanc is not what you'd expect.
Stephan von Neipperg has two Right Bank successes at Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte.
Ets. Jean-Pierre Moueix's esteemed Right Bank stable includes Châteaus Bélair Monange, Hosanna, La Fleur-Pétrus and Trotanoy, among many more.
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Heading next to the Graves, James Molesworth says Châteaus Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are early contenders for wine of the 2017 vintage.
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The Domaines Henri Martin family of estates has a new state-of-the-art winemaking facility, and Châteaus St.-Pierre, Gloria and Bel Air are quietly gaining on the competition.
Jean-Charles Cazes is building a new winery for Château Lynch Bages, and has big plans for the recently acquired Haut-Batailley.
How did late-season rains impact the 2017 vintage in Pauillac? James Molesworth is the first to taste Latour's grand vin from this potentially enigmatic vintage.