PERCEPTIVE COMMENTS BY GREAT WINEMAKERS
“A vintage of Haute Couture”. Château La Conseillante
« Millésime des vignerons et un millésime délicat ». University of Oenology
“A year of contrasts and excesses”. Syndicat Viticole de Margaux
“There is no modernity without tradition”. André Putman
“It is clear that the Merlot suffered”. Château Margaux
I repeat this every year at the risk of becoming boring, but I feel it essential to stress it. Today, it is impossible to make great wine, as opposed to just making wine, without considerable funds. Every vine must be personally attended to throughout the year. This, costs a lot of money – green pruning, leaf thinning, canopy management, shoot suppression etc.
Many of these operations are beyond the means of growers selling their wine for unrewarding prices. Competition today is fierce, and growing fiercer, from many countries that are making increasingly fine and attractive wines and have excellent marketing techniques. 2017 may not be a “GREAT” year, but there are many excellent wines that need to be marketed, which is something at which Bordeaux has not excelled in the past.
And if you have these funds and they allow you to use only your very finest grapes in your first wine and put all the rest into your second or even third wine if you make them, then of course you can make better wine than those who cannot afford such luxury. Most of the First Growths put no more than around 30% of their yield into that First Wine. The results are magnificent – but so is the cost!
Structure is one of the most important features of the 2017 vintage. Many of the reports on the vintage, published by the Châteaux in their brochures given during the En Primeur tastings, either do not sufficiently stress, or choose to ignore, the effect on the structure of the rains during the first half of September. This caused a lot of Merlot to be picked before optimum ripeness for fear of rot. This was particularly so on sandy or sensitive soils.
This was one of the reasons why 2017 was good to very good but not great. Château Margaux states unequivocally, “We had just finished picking our white grapes (28/8 – 5/9) when heavy rains (8-17/9) spoiled our chances of a great year”. Bordeaux University of Oenology states, “so it is clear that the Merlot suffered, that the wines were not as dense and that the Merlot grape was not always completely ripe or mature”.
One cannot ignore the effect of this upon the final structure of the wine. It also explains why there is so little Merlot in the blends of many of the great Châteaux, which in its turn modifies the structure (Château Margaux 8%, Château Mouton Rothschild 9%). This is the weak point of the vintage. Fortunately, from the 17th September the weather turned marvellous, the danger of rot receded and late ripening Merlot, Cabernet and Petit Verdot were able to ripen under ideal conditions and achieve full maturity, both phenological and technological. Structurally these were perfectly sound, but blending with Merlot of less than optimum ripeness could only weaken the structure.
We cannot avoid the awful frost that destroyed 40% of the entire production of this vintage. A late April frost and a spring frost are among the most dangerous. In some places the frost attained -6°C. The vines had budded, and many were already with leaves. The frost struck all over the Bordeaux regions and was devastating. The final production in Bordeaux was reduced to 3.5 million hL, the smallest since 1991.
Some vineyards were written off entirely, others damaged to varying degrees and many others spared completely. Those damaged more than 60% saw their most important job as protecting and healing the wood for the 2018 vintage, rather than trying to produce a little damaged wine, and treated their vines prophylactically.
Sadly, on the more advanced vines the second-generation buds had already emerged and where these were frosted no hope of producing any crop remained. Where second generation buds had not yet budded, growers were more fortunate, and subsequent weather conditions throughout the growing season allowed the grapes to ripen fully and healthily. In some properties this was their total crop and, although extremely small, was certainly better than nothing.
The fact that budding had occurred almost 2 weeks earlier than normal only added to the extent of the disaster as the vines were so much more advanced. Suffice it to say that even the finest properties, with unfrosted vines, also had very low yields this year.
Here we can be much more positive. Even if the wines were not as dense, full-bodied or rich as in great years such as 2015 and 2016, none the less they have plenty of fruit where there was no frost. Even if Merlot was not at optimum ripeness, the Cabernet and Petit Verdot ripened fully under excellent conditions and during one of the finest Octobers on record and were full of ripe fruit. The ripe grapes were deeply aromatic and fragrant.
The relatively cool July and August with some very fresh nights alternating with sufficiently warm days had been excellent for flavour development. Grapes were picked under ideal conditions and very little rot developed so health was excellent.
White grapes which had been picked very early with no trace of any rot had aromatic, mineral-fresh fruit- both Sauvignon and Semillon. Many Châteaux described their wines as, “fruity, savoury and charming”. 2017 will probably not be a vintage for long-ageing or laying down, but wines to drink relatively young to enjoy vibrant and full of fruit. For once it was a very homogenous vintage for unfrosted grapes.
From the alcoholic point of view this was a delightfully modest vintage, and everybody was happy about it. Alcohol levels have been creeping up steadily for years now, for many reasons that we do not have the space to pursue, have become decidedly too high, causing worry.
Bordeaux wines are not made for power like the New World, but for elegance, finesse, purity, grace and beauty and high alcohol masks these qualities. This year very few wines reached even 14°. The relatively cool July and August, and the fact that it was not a particularly hot year, helped keep alcohol levels down, together with the, most important fact that the vintage was almost two weeks early. Moderate alcohol levels, allied to the FRUIT described above, added to the charm and drinkability of the 2017 vintage to be drunk relatively young.
Vital elements in any red wine are the tannins which along with acidity give the wine its ageing potential. Few people continue to cold soak (pre-fermentation maceration). This year this was particularly useful for the Merlot grapes that had not reached optimum ripeness. Tannins are not water-soluble, but cold soaking softens the skins so that the tannins can be extracted more easily when fermentation is allowed to start.
Today everybody knows how important it is to extract the tannins gently in order not to have hard and austere wines. An important factor is not to allow temperatures to rise too high during fermentation, 28°C being quite sufficient. Another is to limit the time of skin contact and not to allow the new wine to macerate too long in contact with the skins and pips. The best tannins are in the skins and these will come out earlier than the pip tannins.
This year there were fewer pips in the grapes than usual, meaning less potential tannins, and the pip tannins were some 80% ripe, apart from the insufficiently ripe Merlot. IPT’s (indicede polyphénols totaux or total polyphenol content) were less high than in 2001 and moderate overall. Thus, the tannic potential was a touch on the weak side. Unripe pips may eventually have an influence on colour stability. Tannins, also, were less dense this year than in 2015 and 2016, which means a wine that will take less long to soften and mature and be less ideal for long term ageing and laying down.
Technically the colour in the red wines is usually referred to as the anthocyanins. The colours this year are excellent. The way the colour develops in a wine is extremely complex and happens during “véraison”. This took place this year perfectly correctly although vegetative growth had not stopped as one always hopes it will as a prerequisite for making great wine. I have said above that tannins are not water-soluble, but colour is. Therefore cold-soaking allows a lot of the colour to come out before the fermentation starts and allows maximum colour extraction.
The earlier part of the season had created thick skins and the second half of August with some hot days and cool nights accumulated the anthocyanins. Then, the rains during the first half of September softened those skins, so that this year, with cold soaking, one was able to extract every last atom of colour. They are deep, vivid, black and brilliant. This year, Petit Verdot, often known as the “medicine wine” because of its strength and concentration when fully ripe, played its full role in adding both alcohol and colour.
I use the word in the plural because there are so many different acids in a glass of wine. The most important ones are malic, lactic and tartaric, but researchers have found several others. Acidity, used in the singular, is one of the strong points of 2017. Acidity was relatively high, which is excellent for freshness and vibrancy; weak or low acidity is often one of the failings of red Bordeaux wines stemming from picking a touch too late.
There were two main reasons for this optimum acidity. Firstly, the relatively cool July and August, which slowed down the speed of development somewhat. Secondly, the very early vintage, which meant that the acidity had no chance to descend below optimum level before the grapes were picked. In fact, those slightly unripe Merlot grapes had a touch too much acidity, but were balanced by beautifully ripe Cabernet and, where used, Petit Verdot.
One point that is very important is that the content of Malic acid was particularly important this year due to the cool summer weather. This meant that the malo-lactic fermentation was also particularly important this year to soften and round out wines that might otherwise have tasted somewhat tart.
For those with a technical bent the precursors of the acids are produced in the leaves where-after they are synthesised into acids in the berries. The formation of malic acid in the wine is an extremely complex process, but its concentration benefits from a reduction of summer heat. 3-isobutyl-2-méthoxypyrazine or IBPM (pyrazine for short) is the bell pepper taste coming from unripe grapes and was present this year to a very small degree in some Merlot, but was totally absent in the Cabernet and the Petit Verdot. Such unripe grapes have green tannins which give this taste, but also unripe acidities.
White grapes that were picked very early (Sauvignon from mid-August to 8th September and Semillon from 1st – 15th September) had wonderful, crisp, mineral-fresh, vibrant acidities that will make the wines delicious for early drinking.
For those who may not know it all already, when we talk about anthocyanins we are talking about the colour in the wine. Both colour and tannin belong to the family of flavonoids, which in turn belongs to the much larger family of polyphenols. That is why, when we talk about phenolic ripeness, we are referring to the ripeness of the tannins. Physiological ripeness is an alternative name for the same.
Tannins and their ripeness can be measured by the already mentioned IPT - “Indice des polyphénols totaux” or “total polyphenol content”. Many Châteaux have said that their IPT’s this year were not very high and close to those of 2001. Technological maturity refers to the sugar content in the grapes (which determines the potential alcohol in the future wine), and the titratable acidity and pH (the amount of free hydrogen ions in the grape must), which in turn contribute to the colour and quality of the wine.
Sugar content is usually determined by a refractometer to measure the refractive index or by total soluble solids (Degrees Brix) using density studies. Total titratable acidity and pH are respectively measured by volumetric titration and a pH meter. Phenolic ripeness rarely coincides perfectly with technological ripeness, which is why obtaining the perfect balance is one of the arts of making great wine. There is also aromatic ripeness, which speaks for itself, but is the result of highly complex processes during ripening.
A great feature of the 2017 vintage was the absence of rot. There is always some, but there was very little this year. I have explained how the rains during the first half of September hastened the picking of the Merlot for fear of rot, but fortunately the weather then turned fine, warm and dry and the rot hardly developed.
Château Margaux says, “the humidity of 1st – 17th September made us fearful of a massive development of grey rot”.The second half of September was fine and October; an Indian Summer was exceptionally fine, warm and dry. For the sweet, botrytized wine there was a little acid rot early on, but this did not develop to any extent and the noble rot was both very pure and almost total. The dry white wines were picked before any rot had a chance to develop.
I said right at the beginning that many growers chose to ignore the September rains. To show why this was difficult to do, here are the official figures from Météo France, at Merignac, the Meteorological station that is used for all Bordeaux official statistics: 1st 3.8mm, 3rd 2.8mm, 4th 1.2mm, 8th 15.6mm, 9th 2.8mm, 10th 3.6mm, 11th 3.2mm, 12th 2.8mm, 13th 5.6mm, 14th 2.0mm, 15th 4.0mm, 16th 11.6mm and 17th 3.0mm. 10 consecutive days from8th – 17th and 62.8mm. Hardly surprising that growers rushed to pick for fear of massive botrytis!
I have probably not talked enough about the frosted vines, but partially due to these, partially due to a cool even though fine summer and partially due to the very early vintage, the must weights were lighter than usual and the resultant wines less dense. They are more on the side of charming, fruity, early drinking wines than full-bodied, deep, powerfully structured, long-ageing wines. They are not what the French term “charnu”.
Domaine de Chevalier says, “one can amuse oneself with these wines”. Whilst this comment is witty and amusing it hardly describes a great wine. Where the grapes had been frosted there are vegetal notes, a lack of body and a certain dullness in the taste. The University of Oenology says, “the hoped for final gentle concentration was precluded by the September rains”.
Where grapes had been frosted no press wine at all was used and often not made. Either it was not of sufficient quality or it was too thin and stalky to be useful in serious wine.
I am sad to say that one of the leaders in Bio winemaking, Château Climens, made no wine at all due to the frost. All the renowned strength and resistance of well-managed bio vines could do nothing against the frost that wiped them out. It seems to me, and I stand prepared to be corrected, that immediate and sophisticated prophylactic treatment saved the vines for the coming year and was more effective than any treatment with bio products. On the other hand, where vines were not frosted, for example at Château Pontet-Canet, another leader in the Bio field, vines were wonderfully healthy and the resultant wine of very high quality.
Of course, this is the same botrytis cinerea that is grey rot on red grapes. It is interesting to follow Château d’Yquem. Having picked uniformly ripe grapes for the “Y” the earliest in their history, 16th August, their botrytis developed during the humid period 1st-17th September, but any further rain would have ruined the crop. All was well, as the rain was followed by a long, dry, fine period. Moisture dried out and there was a rapid, almost brutal, explosive concentration of botrytis. They had to pick before must weights became too high. They took a conscious decision to let lesser quality parcels develop excessive must weights while concentrating on picking the finest plots at the optimum concentration of 21-22° brix. Picking was an 11-day sprint from 26th September to 9th October with totally botrytized grapes and perfect must weights. From 11th – 13th they picked the voluntarily overlooked parcels that had reached over 25° Brix. The results speak for themselves. 13.9° alcohol, 148 grams/litre sugar, 3.9 grams/litre H2SO4 total Acidity, 3.80 pH.
Good to very good red wines, fine dry white wines and some great sweet white wines.
John Salvi Master of Wine