From bud break to flowering, veraison to harvest, the success of each season’s crop of grapes hinges on vital moments in the lifecycle of the vine. The tale, therefore, of most Bordeaux vintages unfolds over many months, with each chapter written in glorious golden sunshine or lost to clouds and rain. The story of the 2017 vintage, however, can be told in a single night.
In the wee hours of the morning of April 27th, a devastating frost struck Bordeaux vineyards as temperatures dipped below freezing and continued to fall, degree by fateful degree. The weather in February and March had been warmer than average, leading to an early bud break. An early start to the vintage can lead to great success later on, as in 1990 and 2009 for example, but it leaves the vines uniquely vulnerable to spring frosts.
In early April of last year, when we arrived for the annual en primeur tastings the weather was unusually fine. Cool nights and warm, sunny days marked our visit, leading Clyde to observe that he hadn’t experienced such lovely spring weather in Bordeaux since April of 1991, another vintage famously marred by frost. Unfortunately, his words proved prophetic, only the damage done in 2017 was even worse than in 1991. It was estimated that across the region some 60% to 70% of vineyards were affected, with 40% or more of potential production lost.
From the Côtes de Blaye to Barsac, throughout Lalande de Pomerol and the St-Emilion satellites, across Entre-Deux-Mers and the southern Graves, crop loss was at 50% to 100%. Yet while some unlucky producers were wiped out completely, others suffered little to no damage. In the northern Médoc appellations of St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe, those favored chateaus lying close to the Gironde River were largely unaffected. On the plateau of St-Emilion and Pomerol most top producers were able to limit their losses. Similarly, in Sauternes many of the famous names were spared the damage suffered by their peers just to the north in Barsac. Overall, among the 150 or so leading properties, perhaps only one-fifth experienced some impact from the April frost.
2017 is a vintage très hétérogène, with highly variable results across regions and among producers. Our task in the next ten days is to separate the successful wines from those that fared less well, and everything in between. Some producers will no doubt make brilliant wines in the face of these challenges. If there ever was a vintage that will pay off to be "in the know," this might be it. Stay tuned to On The Trail and we'll hel you find the gems of the upcoming campaign.
- Jeff Garneau