2017 – The Pleasant Surprise
Of course when we look back on the 2016 vintage it was a state of grace – the wait, the calculation, the hope and finally the realisation that it was an exceptional vintage. 2017, season after season, was a stressful year. Some vineyards were very harshly damaged by the bad weather whilst others were spared. While we can be at the whim of climatic variations, there is also today the intelligence which comes with experience and savoir-faire which plays a role in the creation of wine. The result was a small production for certain unlucky producers but good quality for many.
There was a generally dry and mild winter. In January, there was an extra 37 hours of sunshine compared with the average and in February a normal level of rainfall.
Spring was something of a surprise. March which is usually very mild showed an average temperature of 12.2°C which was 2°C above the monthly mean. Rainfall was at a normal level. Despite some very nice days towards the end of the month, the amount of sunlight was down by 15%. During the first days of April, vegetative growth accelerated – a shortfall in the amount of rain together with temperatures 2°C higher than usual meant that the vines were 2 weeks ahead of normal. With a level of sunlight rarely seen over the 50 previous years (nearly 100 extra hours), the shoots appeared very early. By the end of the month however the vegetative development had been rudely stopped by two waves of cold weather (the mercury dropping as low as -5°C) giving two periods of frost April 19th-21st and April 27th- 28th. In the most exposed areas, the frost burnt the buds which had already developed.
We hadn’t seen such a spring-frost since 1991. The right bank was particularly hardhit with the exception of Pomerol plateau and limestone plateau in Saint Emilion. Those fabled vineyards in the Medoc from which the estuary can be seen were spared. However, the appellations of Listrac, Moulis, Médoc and Haut-Médoc suffered considerable loses of 20-90%. Where some vineyards escaped the grips of the cold, others tried to protect themselves with straw fires, heaters, wind generators and even helicopters to stir up the air. The vines which suffered took more than a month to start budding again.
May was warm and sunny with higher than average temperatures giving a very quick flowering from May 24th-28th ensuring a better consistency when it comes to maturing. Smiles began returning as attention to the vines increased to ensure that any type of disease was eradicated. The vignerons had to react differently depending on each zone – certain parcels were trained back just like in winter to stimulate new buds and to start to prepare for the following vintage. Elsewhere saw lots of pruning to control the anarchic vine growth. As a preventative measure many bunches were thinned to avoid any grey rot and eliminate unevenness already visible before the veraison.
For those “first generation” bunches there was an early and consistent veraison at the end of July. The fruit-set took place without any water stress from July 25th – August 5th depending on the area. Where the parcels had suffered from frost, the phenolic phases had progressed well and appeared to have caught up with the areas spared from the frost. By August, the above average levels of sunshine had accelerated the maturing of the grapes. The only cloud on the horizon was the heavy hailstorms which hit on August 27th especially in the Graves which damaged many bunches.
Another setback – storms on September 16th and 17th changed all the plans and brought the harvest forward. Dilution of the juice was as much a concern as the damaging effects of botrytis. In order to preserve the sanitary condition of the grapes, grapes had to be harvested parcel by parcel, often vine by vine. At certain properties, the harvesting of the same grape variety had to be timed differently depending upon the type of soil. Finally, the excellent sunshine combined propitiously with cool nights to ensure that the maturation process was complete. The size of the berries seemed a touch smaller than in the previous vintage but in terms of structure and colour there were high levels of concentration.
Harvesting started for the whites from the 3rd week of August. The merlots were collected between September 15th-26th, the Cabernet Francs from September 26th-29th and the Cabernet Sauvignons around September 29th. The second generation grapes were brought in 2-3 weeks later due to a delayed veraison. A number of winemakers undertook several sortings of the grapes to try to ensure the highest possible quality. In general, the merlots shows good balance – the cabernets gives a good acidity with a slightly lower level of sugar without being vegetal. The Cabernet Franc is a surprise with its aromatic intensity. And finally, the Petit Verdot is very interesting in 2017 with a deep colour and excellent tannins.
Strategic decisions had to be made when it came to the vinification. In these modern days, techniques are very adaptable to the quality of the grapes harvested. The small size of the berries and high ratio of cap to juice meant less punching down and pumping over was required in order to control the extraction and keep it soft.
The tough frosts and other inclement climatic elements obviously effected the amount of wine produced but not the quality. This is a vintage with an excellent aromatic profile, supported by a good acidity maintaining freshness. There should be good ageing potential thanks to a good overall balance. It is looking to be a good vintage for the dry white wines, fresh and aromatic but combined with hints of exotic fruits and minerality.