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Tasting the future by way of the past

Sebastian Payne MW has tasted a few Bordeaux en primeur wines in his time. He reflects on how different the 2017 vintage is.

Tasting a new Bordeaux vintage is always exciting. Tim Sykes, our Bordeaux buyer, had done the hard work, going out at vintage, then twice early this year to blend, taste and assess. I was fortunate to join him for the fully charged week when Bordeaux invites the world to taste the vintage and all the châteaux put their new wine on show. We have the logistics down to a fine art, visiting all the key châteaux in person and tasting many wines several times with merchants to check again our first impressions.

Off to taste at Château d'Issan Off to taste at Château d'Issan

Each vintage is different; 2017 is very different. Usually after over 30 years of tasting young claret at much the same time after the vintage (late March/early April), I find points of comparison with previous years. I keep notes from previous years to check my memory. Not so this year. The best 2017s have lovely fragrance. This is a good sign – it means that they were made from healthy grapes, neither under nor over-ripe. Tannins are clearly and measurably present, but in no sense harsh or rough, which can be a problem when vines have been stressed by too much heat or winemakers have over-extracted the flavour. Several 2017s lack the intense, full middle palate of a great year like 2005 or 2010, but then they tend to be a degree or a degree and a half lower in alcohol and we will not have to wait so long before we can enjoy them.

Batailley reserve wines – It is only by making comparisons with past vintages that you can make a judgement, but 2017 is very different! Batailley reserve wines – It is only by making comparisons with past vintages that you can make a judgement, but 2017 is very different!

The salient feature of the vintage was the severe frost in late April which killed the buds of vines in many vineyards. It almost totally spared the top vineyards of the Médoc overlooking the Gironde, the heart of the Pomerol plateau and most of the great Saint-Emilion châteaux on the limestone ridge outside the town. It was damaging partly because the vines were well advanced after a warm start to the year. This meant vineyards unaffected were well set for an early harvest. There were some scorching days in mid summer when some vines shut down and leaf-cover was important. Then rain in September refreshed the plants again. In the Médoc this worked well for cabernet sauvignon but less well for the merlot and cabernet franc.

2017 is quite unlike the other vintages hit hard by late April frost, 1991 which never ripened properly and 1961 which was more concentrated but from another world of winemaking. Another year with a scorching summer like 2003, when nights were hot too is completely different.

Rauzan Ségla – consistently good, year after year Rauzan Ségla – consistently good, year after year

It was a week with many high spots. Rauzan Ségla and Brane Cantenac stood out in Margaux. The three Léovilles, each quite different, and Ducru-Beaucaillou excelled in Saint-Julien. The Mouton Rothschild stable in Pauillac is hugely successful. On the right bank Vieux Certan was magical and the J P Moueix wines showed wonderful charm and fruit. Bélair Monange, Canon and Clos Fourtet are stars of Saint-Emilion as was Troplong Mondot under new management. Haut-Brion is outstanding, but so in a completely different way is the cabernet-franc-dominated Carmes Haut-Brion. But there are lovely surprises from much less grand châteaux like Puygueraud in Côtes de Francs (a much reduced crop but very good) and Tour de By, Médoc (whose vineyard overlooking the Gironde was unscathed).

Discussing the vintage as well as tasting the wines is just as important for we buyers. Tim Sykes with Luc Peyronnet at Phélan Ségur Discussing the vintage as well as tasting the wines is just as important for we buyers. Tim Sykes with Luc Peyronnet at Phélan Ségur

My overall impression at the end of a long week of tasting comparing and discussing with people whose opinions I have also learned to trust is a happy one. This is a vintage of proper claret, fine, balanced and digestible. They will give great pleasure and leave the head clear.

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