For those of us who love Bordeaux wines, and I count myself as such, one of the highlights of the year is the annual Union Des Grands Crus De Bordeaux .This traveling event takes place in 15 countries and over 60 different cities. The goal is to introduce the current vintage of Bordeaux wines to the world and to the wine professionals that order them. In this case the 2020 Union was introducing the 2017 vintage. As usual I attended the Chicago occurrence in mid-January; one of the things I try not to do before this event, as much as possible, is to read about the new vintage. I prefer to draw my own conclusions and then do the research. In this business it would be impossible not to have heard that 2017 was a bit of a disappointment especially following the fantastic 2016 vintage.
Here are my thoughts overall: fairly disappointing vintage everywhere but Sauternes, the price for quality ratio is low and as always there are some standouts. I don’t see the prices for these wines going down and that plays poorly into my rating system where the price quality ratio plays a huge part. On the whole I would rate this vintage in the mid-eighties on a one hundred point scale. Higher in the right bank than the left and higher in Pauillac Pessac-Léognan and much lower in Margaux.
Bear in mind that that of the thousands of Bordeaux wines produced every year they bring roughly 100 to the Union. On an average year I would say that I consistently taste about 80-85 percent of those wines. Also, of note is that, very few, if any, of the truly heavy hitters i.e. First Growths, Super Seconds, etc. are represented.
Let’s start with the good news, the Sauternes and Barsac were beautiful. For those of you who don’t know, these are two regions in southern Bordeaux region of Graves that make world renowned intensely sweet wines. The 2017s reminded me in style of the 2014s with vibrant acidity and mildly honeyed tropical fruit notes with a judicious amount of ginger across the board. The standout in a strong field for me was the Château Doisy-Védrines: absolutely stunning acidity makes for a perfectly balanced wine with a delightful ginger presence, grilled pineapple and tropical fruits. Even with the sweetness level the wine finishes clean with flavors that goes on for minutes. This was one of the wines that I actually swallowed. Full disclosure I also revisited it at the end of the day. Several others of note: Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Château Suduiraut and Clos Haut-Peyraguey. For the Sauternes beginner these wines are made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. The grapes are attacked by a mold known as Botrytis Cinerea, or “Noble Rot”. When this happens the grapes wither and become raisinated. For this to occur there must be a period of rain or very high humidity followed by a dry spell. In some years no Sauternes are produced because these events don’t occur. Due to the uneven development of the mold, multiple harvest passes are made through the vineyards. Ideally only picking the bunches most effected. As you can imagine this labor-intensive process as well as the drying of the grapes adds to the labor costs and reduces the volume making this wine more expensive than most. When the mold attacks the grapes, they certainly don’t look delicious. I have always maintained that the first person to make wines out of Botrytized grapes, much like the first person to eat and oyster, had to be desperate.
With the whites, I spoke to a colleague who will probably be a Master Sommelier in the next couple of years and he said the whites were the stand out of the show. When I visited them they didn’t appear to be so. I think I might have had a glass that had some sanitizer residue, so I did get a new glass, but I don’t feel comfortable rating or describing these wines. The reds from Pessac-Léognan were another bright point. As a group I felt these wines had a dramatically higher quality level than most of their peers. My personal favorite was the Domaine de Chevalier: Definitely an old-world wine with scents of black tea, tobacco, and cedar underlain with black currants, and raspberry doughnut filing. There was balance between fruit and acidity in this wine that was, sadly, substantially lacking in most of the others. Also, worth noting was the Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion.
My personal favorite Bordeaux commune has always been Margaux. While Margaux has only one First Growth according to the 1855 Bordeaux Classification it has more classified growths than any other commune. This was the biggest disappointment of the vintage for me. I stopped tasting after five wines, because all of them were so disappointing. Very little on the nose, mildly pleasing on the palate but just turning to vinegar on the finish.
The wines of the Right Bank were as a group very good with Saint Emilion out shining those of Pomerol. While these wine as a class were a cut above the rest none of them truly impressed me enough to write detailed notes.
Pauillac as a whole was a mixed bag of wines that were of a higher quality than most but at the same time carrying a substantially higher price tag. Coming as no surprise to anyone who knows me well my pick of the region was the Château Lynch-Bages. This was a wine of depth and complexity and one of the few from this region that I felt justified the price tag. Very typical for this house a balanced nose of earth and fruit with a tension on the palate that hints of great things to come. Like the nose there is black currant and coffee blended with a flavor reminiscent of the forest after it rains. Incredibly well balance for this vintage with a persistent finish.
If you are going to be buying wines for your cellar, I would be very careful with this vintage. My advice for collectors would be to lean into the 2016 vintage and pick up what you still can and perhaps just buy a few personal favorites of the 2017 to maintain a vertical selection. If you are buying wines to drink now and are dead set on the 2017 vintage, I would recommend wines from Listrac and Moulis they were the most approachable and those with the highest price for quality quotient. I don’t know that I would buy anything without tasting it first or knowing someone whose palate you trust having recommended it. And by knowing someone I don’t mean me or any other critic.
Joseph Davey is a tenured restaurant manager and certified Sommelier. Most recently he was the Franchise Beverage Director for Hoosier Hospitality Group, a Ruth’s Chris franchise. Previous to that he was the General Manager and Corporate Beverage Manager for Eddie Merlot’s in Indianapolis, IN. He also has his own restaurant and beverage consulting business, FWineI.