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Posted: Tuesday, 29 May 2018 17:57

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TechTalk: Bordaeux Vintage 2017-Weather (Part 2)

May 29: ‘Good to very good red wines, fine dry white wines and some great sweet white wines’, is the verdict of John Salvi MW, our Bordeaux-based wine expert , writer and international taster who specialises in the Study of its weather, and terroir, based on his in-depth analysis of all aspects of the Cost, Structure, Yields, Fruit, Alcohol, Tannins, Colour, Acidities, Maturity, Rot, Body and Noble Rots in the world’s most revered wine region, in the concluding Part-2 of the much awaited annual 2-part series, in which he focuses on the weather and especially the frost that caused severe damage

PERCEPTIVE COMMENTS ON THE 2017 VINTAGE

“Decidedly a Cabernet Year” (Château Grand Puy Lacoste)
“Not as dense as great vintages, but savoury and seductive” (University of Oenology)
“When easy to cultivate the resultant wines are often rather boring to taste” (Denis Dubourdieu)

INTRODUCTION

The structure of wine and every vintage is shaped by the climate- the weather, influenced of course by the soil and the hand of man.  However, given good and appropriate soil and an intelligent hand, weather is the decisive factor and never more so than with the 2017 vintage.  Devastating frosts affected almost 50,000 hectares of Bordeaux’s 117,000 in late April to a greater or lesser extent.  Some vineyards were unable to produce any wine at all and others found that what they were able to produce was not worthy of their name and will not declare a vintage-examples are Châteaux Fieuzal, Angludet, Climens.  The results of these frosts will be seen throughout this report.

I state clearly at this point that this report reflects my own opinions and conclusions.  Some people, inevitably, will disagree about them and say how wrong they are.  None the less I stand by them.

CRITERIA AND THEIR NECESSITY FOR GREAT WINE

Making wine is farming, making good wine is good farming, but making GREAT wine is ART.  Like all art forms – painting, sculpting, music, great artists are rare and therefore for wine GREAT wine is rare.  Depending upon how you view it, the possible sadness of the two principle senses involved in wine, taste and smell, is that they are transitory.  When you have drunk the wine, it is gone and so are the senses. 

The late Denis Dubourdieu, one of the most brilliant and influential oenologists and winemakers that Bordeaux has ever enjoyed, was a consummate artist.  He was also for many years the leading expert in the world on Sauvignon.  He was the owner of Clos Floridène, Château Doisy Däene and Château Reynon and Professor at the University of Bordeaux. 

He formulated 5 criteria that he said were necessary to make GREAT wine.  These have become law in Bordeaux and I state them here as the yardstick for measuring the intrinsic quality of the 2017 vintage.  He stated that 3 of his 5 criteria must be fulfilled to make good wine, 4 to make very good wine and all five to make GREAT wine.  I state the criteria below and while analysing the weather we will see how the 2017 vintage measured up.

DENIS DUBOURDIEU’S 5 CRITERIA

1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.

2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.

3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.

4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).

5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.

WEATHER IN 2017

If one wanted to sum up the vintage in 17 words and avoid having to read this report one might say:

DISASTER BY FROST
TWO WEEKS EARLY THROUGHOUT
WARM SPRING
DRY SUMMER
FINE INDIAN SUMMER (OCTOBER)
MINUTE YIELDS

The professional, technical report produced each year by the Bordeaux University of Oenology – Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin – was produced this year by Professor Laurence Geny, Dr. Axel Marchal and Dr. Valérie Lavigne.  They have kindly allowed me to use it as a basis for this article and to quote at will.

GRAPHIC OF WEATHER CONDITIONS 2016-2017

Month

Max. °C  

Min. °C

Month Average

Mm. Rain

Hours Sunshine

November 2016

13.8

7.1

10.5

85.5

89.8

December 2016

12.1

4.2

8.15

13.2

129.9

January 2017

8.6

0.7

4.65

27.5

132.3

February 2017

14.1

5.4

9.75

75.0

101.6

March 2017

16.6

7.8

12.2

65.3

143.7

April 2017

19.5

6.6

13.05

21.5

279.3

May 2017

23.7

12.7

18.2

46.4

263.8

June 2017

27.2

16.2

21.7

136.9

262.6

July 2017

26.4

17.1

21.75

27.8

189.1

August 2017

28.0

16.1

22.05

30.2

263.7

September 2017

22.2

12.5

17.35

72.1

174.6

October 2017

21.2

11.5

16.35

13.4

184.8

November 2017

13.8

4.5

9.15

51.7

162.1

December 2017

10.4

3.4

6.9

162.7

62.6

WINTER 2016–17 (December, January, February). Rain: 115.7mm. Sun: 363.8 hours

It started off as a warm winter.  Both November and December became warm under the influence of a high-pressure system.  The average November temperature was already over that of the long-term average, but that of December was a full 2.2°C above it.  We ate outdoors for Christmas.  This was not good as we need cold weather to clean up the vineyards and kill off the bugs and beasties.  This December could almost be described as Spring-like. It was also very dry in December with only 13.2mm of rain.

In January we got the hoped-for cold.  It was the coldest January for 30 years.  The average of the 31 minimum temperatures was only +0.7°C and of the 31 maxima just 8.6°C.  15 nights had frost getting down to -8.0°C night of 19th.  This was excellent.  But, again it was very dry with only 27.5mm of rain.

February, however was back to being warm again.  The overall average temperature at 9.75°C was 2.5°C above the long-term average thanks to some very warm days.  Only one single frost at -1.2°C!  However, we had useful rain with 75.0mm.

MARCH rain: 63.3mm. sun: 143.7 hours

March, leading into Spring was again very warm and as much as 2.9°C above the long-term average.  At the end of the moth the temperature got up to 26.4°C.  These two warm months led to a very early bud-break helped by 65.3mm of rain and 143.7 hours of sunshine.  It was almost two weeks earlier than normal and growth after it was both rapid and vigorous.  The first buds were seen around 20th March and mid-budding around 30th.  It could have been even earlier, but the cold January slowed it down a little.  The warning bells were sounding for frost!

APRIL rain: 21.5mm. sun: 279.3 hours

A month that will go down in the history books, but it started delightfully until mid-month, temperatures getting up to 28.0°C on 9th.  Sunshine was amazing with 279.3 hours and therefore growth was again, but sadly now, both rapid and vigorous despite it being dry.  Then it cooled down and grew cold and on nights of 20th and 21st the frost struck.  The vines had not only budded but many were at the stage of 2-3 unfolded leaves.  It struck again on nights of 27th and 28th and this time even more disastrously and the vines had progressed to 7-8 unfolded leaves and on many the second- generation buds had appeared and were also destroyed.  It remained cold until the end of the month.

FROST STRIKES

The frost struck everywhere, seemingly without logic, but above all in the valleys and low lying and damp vineyards.  The North Medoc was mainly spared and above all vineyards facing the rivers that acted as temperature regulators.  The South Medoc was devastated and Château Angludet did not make any Angludet at all.  It was, of course, worst in the most developed vines where the second-generation buds contre -bourgeons were also destroyed leaving no possibility of a crop.

Frost can destroy buds and leaves at 0°C under damp conditions and that was the case early in the morning of 27th April.  Early morning sun then burned the young foliage through the ice crystals.  The morning frost of 28th – 29th followed suit.  We now have 3 separate developments:  Unfrosted vines, partially frosted vines and write-offs.  The last can now be left out of the equation.  Unfrosted vine took a few days to shake off the effects of the frost and then grew rapidly.  Partially frosted vines took a long time to start up again and needed severe, immediate and highly sophisticated treatment.  100% frosted vines were now spectators and set about doing all that was necessary to save the wood for the 2018 vintage.  The month was super-sunny with 263.8 hours and we had 46.4mm of rain.  This was fine growing weather.    24th – 29th was fiercely hot, 26th reaching 33.9°C.

MAY rain: 46.4mm. sun: 263.8 hours

Almost unkindly, for those seriously frosted, May was a beautiful month.  It was super-sunny with 263.8 hours and we had 46.4mm of rain.  This was fine growing weather.    24th – 29th was fiercely hot, 26th reaching 33.9°C.  Unfrosted vine took a few days to shake off the effects of the frost and then grew rapidly.  Partially frosted vines took a long time to start up again and needed severe, immediate and highly sophisticated treatment.  100% frosted vines were now spectators and set about doing all that was necessary to save the wood for the 2018 vintage. 

Flowering started and was seen from around 23rd May, but Château Margaux say they saw flowers on precocious Merlot vines from 10th May.  It took place rapidly and under almost perfect conditions.  Mid-flowering was estimated to be 30th may and it all took place in 10-12 days.  We were now still 2 weeks early.  There was almost no coulure (shatter) and   It ended up being the hottest may since 1950.  This helped the recovery and development of partially frosted vines.

CRITERIA 1 and 2.

1. An early and rapid flowering and a good fecundation assuring a sufficient yield and the hope of a homogenous ripening.
2. Sufficient hydric stress at fruit-set to limit the growth of the young berries and determine their future tannic content.

These were perfectly achieved on unfrosted vines.  No coulure and homogenous development of bunches

JUNE rain: 136.9mm. sun: 262.6 hours

Flowering on unfrosted vines was finished by around 6th June with excellent fruit set.  Frosted vines slowly resumed vegetative growth, which remained slow and variable.  June was overall summery and fine with 262.6 hours of sunshine (almost the same as April and May) and lots of rain (136.9mm).  Some very high temperatures made it the 3rd hottest since 1959.  From 17th – 22nd it was canicular and on 21st reached 37.1°C, and as always here in Bordeaux after heat, there were some violent storms.  Because of the rain there was no hydric stress.  By the end of the month bunch closure was complete and grapes were pea sized.  We were still 2 weeks early.  Growth continued rapid and frosted vine made a good effort at recovery.   Almost 100mm of rain the last 6 days continued to avoid hydric stress well into July

JULY rain: 27.8mm. sun: 189.1 hours

This is often the hottest and driest month of the year, but this year it lacked sunshine with only 189.1 hours and the average temperature was the same as June at 21.75.  Also, it was very dry (27.8mm).  Nights were particularly cool, which was good for flavour development.  Due to the end-June rains hydric stress was delayed and the vine went on growing.  Skins were thickened.   Thus, the stoppage of vegetative growth before véraison (colour change) was not achieved.  Colour change was seen during the last 10 days and mid colour change was put at 30th July.  However, Château Margaux say they saw the first signs on 10th July with mid-flowering between 20th – 25th.  We were still a good 10 - 12 days in advance.  The gentle weather was good for frosted vines with no hydric stress to hurt them.  On 27th July a violent hailstorm hit Southern Graves and did a great deal of damage, finishing off those who had already been frosted. 

CTITERIA 3

3. Cessation of vegetative growth of the vine before colour change, imposed by limited hydric stress and therefore allowing all the goodness from the root to flow into the grapes and not unproductive growth.

NOT ACHIEVED (DUE TO RAIN)

AUGUST rain: 30.2mm. sun: 263.7 hours

August also was not so hot.  But it was sunnier than July and as sunny as May with 263.7 hours of sunshine.  There was a very hot 6-day period towards the end of the month when temperatures reached 35.9°C and nights were also warm, which helped the synthesis of anthocyanins and of aroma precursors.    It was very dry with just 30.2mm of rain.  The dryness finally brought on limited hydric stress some 10 days later than average and it was not severe.    That period of great heat made any bell pepper flavours disappear (isobutylméthoxypyrazine, unripeness) totally this year. The overall lack of intense heat during the middle part of the month with some cool nights allowed steady maturity whilst preserving vital acidity and welcome freshness and developing flavour compounds.  A relatively miserable 15mm of rain ended the month, but the rain was useful.    Sugar content rose steeply during the second half of the month.  For undamaged vines we were back to two weeks ahead and for damaged vines the second-generation grapes were looking hopeful.  Château d’Yquem started picking for “Y” on 16th, which was the earliest that grapes had ever been picked here.  They said that acidities were magnificent; flavour compounds good and grapes perfectly healthy.  Other regions started picking Sauvignon during the last week of August.

SEPTEMBER rain: 72.1mm. sun: 174.6 hours.

As we had remained almost 2 weeks early throughout the season it was logical that the vintage should be early and indeed it was.  The earliest that I have found was Château Mouton Rothschild who picked some precocious young Merlot on 6th September.  This was Philippe Dhalluin living up to his maxim, “when the grapes are ripe pick -don’t wait!”  The Sauvignon vintage continued and finished around 8th, whilst the Semillon vintage took place from 1st – 15th.  All was over by mid-month.  We had some storms, a violent one on 8th and it was cool.  Fortunately, white grapes remained healthy, were picked before any rot could infect them and the cool weather kept acidities at optimum.  Colour content increased in Red Wine.  However, these disturbed conditions hastened the picking of the Merlot in fear of upcoming rot.  Maximum temperatures were the lowest since 2001.  Cloud cover, fresh temperatures and the storms during the first 18 days did little to haste the ripening of the Red grapes.  Finally, Merlot needed to be picked as rapidly as possible while still in perfect health and consequently did not profit fully from the ensuing fine weather as did the Cabernet.  Some Merlot was picked before optimum ripeness, but late ripening Merlot fared better.  Yields overall were very small.  The last 10 days were hot and sunny.

OCTOBER rain: 13.4mm. Sun: 184.8 hours.

Cabernet had enjoyed the last 10 days of September and now also enjoyed a superb October.  Very dry with only 13.4mm of rain, there was also plenty of sunshine, the most since 1974, and warm temperatures reaching a peak of 28.5°C on 16th.  Cabernet ripened fully and healthily.  All was picked by the middle of the month and some earlier and in excellent health as the fine weather had dried out any incipient rot.  Above all this was excellent for frosted vines that had second generation grapes.  The Indian Summer ripened them fully and Château Cheval Blanc had some 9 hectolitres of second generation grapes that went into the first wine.  A saviour at least to a small degree!  Acidities remained high to optimum, but some tannins did not reach full ripeness.  This year it was October and not September that saved what could be saved! 

CRITERIA 4 and 5

4. Complete maturity of the grapes (sugar content among other factors) assured by the optimum functioning of the canopy (leaves) up to harvest time without further vegetative growth (point 3).
5. Good weather during vintage without dilution or rot, allowing full maturity of all grapes including late ripening varieties.

ONLY PARTIALLY FULFILLED FOR MERLOT
FULFILLED FOR CABERNET SAUVIGNON, CABERNET FRANC AND PETIT VERDOT
3.5 conditions fulfilled for Merlot and 4 for other red grape varieties

CONCLUSIONS

RED

With the frost, the hail and the consequent hugely differing cycles and times of maturation it is a vintage for which it is totally IMPOSSIBLE to generalise.  There is absolutely everything from none at all to abundant vintage.  We can only sympathise with those who made no wine under their name.  Frosted vines left their mark, frequently lacked fruit, will be short lived and are dull.  The vines were traumatised and often had vegetal notes.  In unfrosted vines colours were deep, in some case intensely so, acidities were high, and anthocyanins were mainly ripe, but tannin content was often a touch lower than usual.  This is good news, because they are this way in spite of the fact that the weight of the berries, the sugar content and the anthocyanins had stagnated in many Merlots in the last stages before picking.  Some grapes tasted “terne” “dull” and diluted.  Finally, technologically, maturity was correct with marked aromatic freshness and moderate phenological potential.  IT IS NOT A GREAT VINTAGE FOR RED WINES, BUT THERE ARE VERY GOOD WINES TO BE HAD.  SAVOURY AND SEDUCTIVE!! 

DRY WHITE

A frank success!  Picked early they have wonderful freshness and minerality above all.  Because of cool night temperatures and the early picking, the acidities are high and crisp and mouth-watering.  Early tasting shows them to be aromatic and fragrant from healthy and ripe grapes.  Anybody who delayed picking did not fare so well as the grapes started to suffer from the early September rain.  Fortunately, there were not many such cases.  Domaine de Chevalier describes its white wine as “ripe, lively, pure, crisp, fresh, with “race” and “éclat”.

SWEET WHITE

These wines are the pearls – the joy and gladness of the 2017 vintage, above all the botrytized ones.  Some of them are outstanding, but sadly some of them also were the worst hit by the frost.  The great Château Climens will make no wine in 2017, not under its first or even its second label.  The dry and hot summer weather led to a degree of shrivelling while waiting for the noble rot. 

Then,  after the rain botrytis developed.  There was a little acid rot mid-September, but the subsequent fine weather limited the damage.  A cleansing “tri” was none the less necessary to avoid spoiling the purity of the noble rot.  At Château d’Yquem Semillon had 12.6 by early August and sauvignon up to 14°.  As said above picking for “Y” began 16th August, but for d’Yquem it began much later as, having the money to do so, they allowed some lesser quality plots continue to amass too much sugar while they waited for the best ones. 

Once the botrytis took hold it was a race to pick before the sugar content rose too high.  This wonderful, pure botrytis was spurred on by the first half of September rains.  Finally, they picked from 26th September to 9th October for the great wine and again from 11th – 13th October for those lesser plots that had reached over 25°.  Some properties waited too long and had no unbotrytised grapes to tone down the over-rich must.  D’Yquem’s final result speaks for itself:  13.9°, 148 grams sugar, 6.0grams/litre acidity and a pH of 3.80. 

The conclusion of this highly complicated vintage is relatively simple. Where vines were sufficiently damaged by the frost it was impossible to make fine wine and the result was either vegetal notes or traces of green pepper notes.   Where the rains of the first half of September pushed growers into picking their Merlot before optimum ripeness the quality  was diminished.  At the other end of the scale, grapes untouched by hail and allowed to be picked at optimum ripeness and perfect health made some very fine wines indeed, missing the adjective "great" by a small margin.  These are what should be looked for and they exist throughout the range from the top growths to the simplest of petits châteaux.  While not a great vintage it is far from a vintage to be ignored.  

For some of the previous related Articles, please visit

TechTalk: Bordaeux Vintage 2017-Analysis and Structure (Part 1)

Bordeaux 2013: PART 2-STRUCTURE AND COMPOSITION

Bordeaux En Primeur 2013: News, Views and Frenzy

TechTalk : Bordeaux '10 Harvest yields Fab Grapes

Preview of Bordeaux Blanc 2010 Vintage

Bordeaux's 2005 Vintage Looks Set to Break 2000 Price Records

John Salvi, Master of Wine

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