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Bordeaux' Random Harvest

“After all, it’s all about farming.”

This commonly heard phrase of winegrowers about how their businesses rise and fall with the weather was never more poignant than it was during the 2017 vintage in Bordeaux. Extreme cold can kill vines in the winter, especially young ones. Hail can decimate a crop-in-progress. Drought can make vines wither and perhaps not even see another season.

Spring frost is perhaps the cruelest of all. There is excitement in the vineyards after weeks of pruning to see the new buds emerge and, given time, spread green across a gray landscape.  Yet one evening in April or May a grape grower can go to bed, but perhaps not go to sleep.  Cold weather is predicted. Will she or he awake with a sigh of relief, or to the sight of withered leaves?

This happened across Bordeaux in late April of 2017, and when many growers rose they soon found out that they had lost almost at random a significant portion of their crop – in some cases all of it. It was the most devastating frost since 1991.  Among those who lost a vintage was Sylvie Cazes of the prominent Medoc family, who had recently purchased her own winery, Château Chauvin, on the Right Bank in St-Émilion. “There were a few grapes,” she told me, “but I had to put them in the second wine. There is no 2017 estate wine.”

A member of another prominent Bordeaux family, Bérénice Lurton of Château Climens in Sauternes, experienced the same fate. She wrote to those of us normally visit Bordeaux for the annual en primeur tastings: “We have...decided not to make any first wine in 2017. This will be the first time since 1993,” she said. “The traditional barrel tasting will therefore not take place this year, but of course you are very welcome to the château to discover the Climens 2016 final blend.”

I thought briefly, when I read this, about some other writers, especially my English cousins, who strike a constant drumbeat about high prices, as though wine were a necessity and not something where we have the choice of which wine to buy and what price we are willing to pay.  How would they like to absorb a year’s loss of income in one cold moment?

That said, I just came back from Bordeaux, and, although it was not to attend the barrel tastings, the 2017’s I sampled were uniformly quite good. However, it is probably the most-varied vintage I have tasted – one almost impossible to summarize. 

“The damage was more than about frost,” Véronique Sanders of Château Haut-Bailly told me over lunch. Some people who read about the frost wrote off the vintage, she says, “even though what wine that was made was not affected by the frost. They need to come and taste the wines!” The vintage’s diversity was heightened, however, by whether or not an estate got a good second crop from vines hit by the frost, that crop’s quality and how much was used in the final wine.

Sanders also said people who visited her during tasting week often had contradictory reports: The Left Bank suffered more than the Right, while others maintained the opposite. Her own 2017 is very elegant and aromatic – lovely actually – although it might not last for ages. It also stands to reason that any chateau that has a following of loyal drinkers would never release a vintage that was not up to their standards, so this is the time for their fans to support them, as many of them still lost up to a third of their production to frost, as did Haut-Bailly.

Finally, following the magnificent 2016’s, there is the matter of what each château will ask for its wines when they set prices for the negociants, a process called the “campaign” that normally lasts for several weeks, as winegrowers announce their prices one by one. Some buyers assume that prices will go up because of the shortage. Others assume prices will be reduced because of the greatness of the prior vintage.

Xavier Planty, the director and one of the owners of Château Guiraud in Sauternes, is always somewhat of a contrarian. He announced his prices before all the buyers came to Bordeaux two weeks ago.  “I know my price, and I know my market,” Planty said over a taste of his 2017 barrel sample. “If buyers come and like my wine, I want to be able to tell them how much I am charging.”

But more than a few châteaux, especially this year, will wait to announce their prices until after the threat of another devastating frost has passed. That way they have a better idea about how large – and how promising – the 2018 vintage will be. 

“My grandfather told me never to announce the price until after we were past the frosts,” Sanders says. After 2017, once burned, twice shy.

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