By Sarah Heller MW
March 12, 2021
Tatler’s resident wine expert discovers that even a bad year, like 2017 in Bordeaux, can have a silver lining if you’re patient
Because it’s more or less assumed that most Asian wine lovers were nurtured on Bordeaux, since the market here was dominated by French labels up until the last decade or so, whenever I write about the region I always feel I should note that my background, and therefore my palate, is atypical. As an Italian wine specialist from the start, I once took a fairly bourgeois view of Bordeaux, dismissing it as homogenous, stiflingly commercial, big, bold, inky and overall just a bit passé. This makes me fairly typical of millennials, among whom the term “Bored Oh” first arose.
However, at a relatively late stage in my wine career, I have developed an initially grudging, but increasingly profound, appreciation for Bordeaux, something I’m hoping will help provoke other non-believers. In my view, where Bordeaux truly sets itself apart is its reliability, an unsexy and undervalued virtue in the era of “minimal intervention”.
While producers elsewhere may be willing to let their cuvées reek of green bell pepper and nail varnish in the name of authenticity, the proprietors of classed-growth châteaux can always be trusted to deliver quality with a generous helping of pleasure.
But Bordeaux as a region is also unexpectedly diverse, both stylistically (its reds, whites and sweets are all world class) and historically, showing variety from one vintage to another. In fact, the wine world’s obsession with vintages is largely attributable to the inconsistent weather patterns of Bordeaux and Burgundy. In this drizzly maritime climate you find marked stylistic and
quality differences from year to year, which is part of the fun. Yet even in a bad year, Bordeaux consistently finds a way to impress.
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A case in point is 2017, a year that will forever be branded in wine infamy as “the year of the April frost”, when the smallest crop in a quarter century coincided with dismally patchy quality. Some producers escaped entirely unscathed; others lost all of their crop. Those who tried for a second generation after the frost, using buds kept for just such an emergency, found their fruit never quite ripened because of harvest rains. Hence, the vintage was left with a spotty reputation, yet inconveniently high prices necessitated by painfully low volumes.
Although this introduction to the spoils of a challenging year doesn’t sound at all promising, I am here to insist that among the bony and occasionally borderline sullen reds that resulted lie some classically constructed, fragrant beauties. As someone who essentially gave the Bordeaux wines of the maximalist 2000s a pass, I deeply appreciate the pendulum’s swing towards delicacy and brilliance in them, without the muscleman tannins and indigo colour of star vintages like 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, among the dry whites, which were harvested before the rains came, you’ll find a dazzling selection of winners. The sweet whites have the balancing kick of acidity that I have sorely missed in Sauternes for many years.
Tasted toward the end of 2020, all these 2017 wines demonstrated Bordeaux’s recent ability to offer drinking pleasure even after only a short period in bottle, something the Bordeaux of the past usually declined to deliver. Maybe this is a year that those collectors who swooned over the 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016 vintages will want to sit out. But anyone who misses the days when the term “claret” actually reflected something about the wines may want to join me for a bottle.
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Reflecting my contrarian streak, I tend to disagree with the consensus view that the northern Médoc (Pauillac and St Estèphe) outshines the southern Médoc (St Julien and Margaux), although maybe this is just a reflection of the properties I was able to taste this year. As someone who can respect a solid build and succulent dark fruit, but melts in the hands of a lyrical nose and willowy frame, I tend to favour the southern style anyway.
I did largely agree that the frost’s impact was more profoundly felt in Graves and Pessac-Léognan, as well as the Right Bank. Those wines that initially wafted aromatic charm felt strangely hollow on the palate. Those that had clearly gone through a bout of heavy extraction in the hopes of teasing out an extra something strayed uncomfortably close to clunky. Fortunately, even there a few promising exceptions were to be found.
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Château Grand Puy Ducasse 2017 (Pauillac)
Having had input from both late Bordeaux icon Denis Dubourdieu and Chateau Angelus’ Hubert de Boüard, GPD is always a sure bet for ageing and a bargain to boot. The 2017 is an exercise in classicism with a lapsang souchong, graphite and blackcurrant nose, and seamless, polished structure with ample acidity and supple tannins.
Château Duhart-Milon 2017 (Pauillac)
Forever in the shadow of its neighbour and stablemate Lafite Rothschild, Duhart- Milon was once thought of as that illustrious property’s “second wine”. In fact there is a shared courtliness and translucency between the two. In this already lighter year, the fruit shaded into strawberry with a hint of cabernet franc-like paprika, despite there being nary a trace of franc in the blend.
Château Léoville Barton 2017 (St Julien)
Still owned by the Barton family whose name graces the label, Léoville is typically thought of as the burly, tannic big boy of St Julien. However in this vintage it seems to have put on some love handles, with soft, spicy nutmeg over rich, plummy fruit that verges on black fig. The texture, too, is opulent and velvety, with just enough acidity to hold everything in place.
Château Lagrange 2017 (St Julien)
Having undergone a major revitalisation under the stewardship of Suntory (of Hibiki and Yamazaki fame) from the mid 1980s, this Lagrange is to the rest of the Médoc as Japanese whisky is to scotch: more fragrant and prettier, with an enticing lightness of being and pure, expressive, violet-tinged cassis fruit.
Château Rauzan-Ségla 2017 (Margaux)
Considered a “super second” since the days of Thomas Jefferson, this is normally a wine that needs many years in the bottle before it delivers much gustatory joy. Yet the 2017 is already offering a cedary, red cherry nose and a palate that, though still tightly buttoned, already shows suppleness and poise. The overall effect is seamless with a pleasant bite.
Château Giscours 2017 (Margaux)
After a devastating late-Nineties scandal, Giscours has been on a sharp upswing with rapid replanting and an embrace of both cabernet and biodynamic. This wine sings of Margaux, with tunefully muddled currants and strawberries. Tart acidity and slightly grainy tannins will turn off lovers of “big blue” Bordeaux, but Burgundy and Barolo lovers will smile.
Château Brane-Cantenac 2017 (Margaux)
As a testament to this property’s renown in the 1800s, it’s worth noting that the Baron de Brane sold what would later become Mouton-Rothschild to buy it in 1833. It’s usually one of the region’s lighter, fresher wines, and I was initially confused by its dark, almost mushroomy nose but this gradually gave way to a cleansing graphite and stony liquorice quality with great finesse, leaving a cerebral impression.
Château Cantemerle (Haut-Médoc)
The last of the 18 Fifth Growths to receive that classification, Cantemerle was clearly deserving of its seat. The 2017 delivers, as always, prettily lyrical red cherry and currant fruit with a herbal grace note. This is a quintessentially classic claret that would stir up nostalgia for Bordeaux’s “good old days” in a pimply teenager.
Château Clinet 2017 (Pomerol)
Clinet has been on the up and up since the mid Noughties, when it let go of the belief that if low yields are good, lower yields are better. The wine retains its sense of sinful indulgence but with an added grace. The 2017 provided an opportunity to exercise restraint and it has delivered, with blackcurrant coulis, milk chocolate and fluttering violets on the nose, beautifully fresh acidity and fruit in diaphanous layers of red and purple.
Château Valandraud 2017 (St Émilion)
Valandraud is not a wine I would typically cop to liking, given its reputation for maximum concentration and moderate acidity, but the 2017 is cut from slightly different cloth. Heady and fragrant but with a dusty pepper and cinnamon edge, it shows more perfume than fruit per se. On the palate it is uncharacteristically fine and narrow, with angular tannins and bracing acidity.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2017 (Pessac-Léognan)
Though many of the Pessacs served up their characteristic savour without much fruit to back it up, the SHL’s smoky rosewood and teak came with a glaze of dried berry fruit. On the palate, its massive concentration and tannins threatened blockiness, but a fine spine of acidity gave me hope that with time in bottle it will shed its overwrought carapace.
Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2017 (Pessac-Léognan)
Following a late 20th-century slump, SHL was nurtured back to its proper place in the Pessac pantheon by champion skiers Daniel and Florence Cathiard. The wine jolts the palate awake with notes of oyster shell and yuzu. The tartness that first floods the palate is mollified by pleasantly waxy flesh.
Château Pape Clement Blanc (Pessac-Léognan)
As you might expect from this ancient name (its first harvest took place in 1252), there is a seriousness and almost clerical intensity to the wine. Its nose is resinous with amber and incense notes, as if curling up from a censer. The palate is then surprisingly crisp and crunchy, with less weight than expected and a powdery finish.
Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2017 (Pessac-Léognan)
This is my perennial favourite for its slow evolving, ineffable nose and luxuriant silkiness. A yeasty, sweet biscuit note is supplanted by salinity, with a hint of custard apple sweetness emerging only gradually. Its considerable weight and depth are sliced through with a fine cut of acidity.
Château Latour Martillac Blanc 2017 (Pessac-Léognan)
Highly recognisable for its brazen black and gold label originally developed for the coronation of King George VI), the wine is equally audacious with fruit that borders on tropical and a lush jungle bouquet of jasmine and frangipani. Though offering an abundance of lime and kiwifruit, the palate feels physically clenched: angular, acidic and tannic.
Château Carbonnieux Blanc 2017 (Pessac-Léognan)
I consistently find Carbonnieux outperforms whites many times its price, particularly after a few years in the bottle. There is a powerful contrast between its exotic guava and cream nose and its razor-sharp acidity. Its medium-weight frame and attractively yeasty finish make me thirst for another sip.
Château Rieussec 2017 (Sauternes)
Part of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild stable and one of Sauternes’ largest properties, Rieussec will be familiar to anyone “forced” to take some to gain access to their Lafite allocation. However, they should have few complaints with this vintage, which is fine-boned and almost lemony, with a burst of mushroom, honey and sweet cream botrytis on the palate.