The wines of Bordeaux are widely accepted as being among the world’s finest, most popular and, in some cases, also the most expensive.
Two weeks ago, I attended the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) tasting in San Francisco again where about 100 of Bordeaux’s finest châteaux, representing all of the appellation’s most prestigious growing areas, graciously poured their wines from the somewhat under-estimated 2017 vintage to the trade and press.
Bordeaux is among France’s largest wine-producing areas, and the city of Bordeaux is second only to Paris as the country’s most visited. Separating its two faces are the Gironde River and Estuary where soil type, elevation and exposure have over the centuries dictated the preferred varietals to ensure optimal quality.
The Right bank is home to the celebrated Saint-Émilion and Pomerol appellations with Merlot and Cabernet Franc as their principle varietals. On the Left Bank, to the north of the city of Bordeaux, you’ll find the Médoc with its world-renowned sub-appellations of Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julian and Saint-Estèphe (along with a few lesser-known ones) relying on Cabernet Sauvignon as the principle varietal with primarily Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec rounding out the blends.
Just south of the city Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon live in harmony in Pessac-Léognan. And for the production of world-class dry whites, the vintners of Pessac join with those in their neighboring Graves region with Sauvignon Blanc and Semilion reigning supreme. Sauternes and Barsac are located farther south and also rely on the same pair of white varietals, where they are fashioned into their famous sweet and luscious dessert wines.
Each year, the UGCB tasting offers an open perspective on the just-released vintage. The event is always organized by appellation within Bordeaux with a broad range of producers representing each one. This gives all tasters the rare opportunity to appreciate not only the subtle differences from one château to another but also experience the character of each appellation.
There is no doubt that 2017 was a troubled vintage from the start with violent late-spring frosts that ultimately resulted in reduced yields and some severe damage to the vines. Conditions improved somewhat as the season progressed but cautious prognostication of overall quality persisted through the En Primeur season and tastings (held in the spring following the vintage) that resulted in a significant price reduction from prior vintages.
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Given the news I had been following for the past two years, I approached my invitation to this year’s UGCB tasting featuring the 2017s with curiosity about what the finished wines would show. My expectations were far lower than what I experienced with the preceding “trifecta” of excellence with 2014, 2015 and 2016, and was eager to draw my own conclusions.
To my pleasant surprise, I found the wines overall far better than I expected with several weighing in favorably. They may not be up to the quality of the prior three vintage, but there is certainly enjoyment to be found at lower prices with wines from all appellations and geared more toward early consumption.
Elegance is understated when comparing to 2014, breadth of palate is more restrained than 2015 and layered complexity is a bit lacking when compared to 2016, but these wines should not be overlooked for the relatively near term (8 to 12 years was the general consensus). Most showed well-balanced forward fruit with many exhibiting a degree of brightness that I found enjoyable.
Others demonstrated a characteristic savory note and exhibited more of the character I’ve grown to expect from Bordeaux. The subtle differences from appellation to appellation were evident. My standout appellations were Pauillac and Saint-Julien with Saint-Émilion and Pomerol trailing closely behind.
I was somewhat disappointed with 2016s from Pessac-Léognan last year and happy to see the region regain its consistency and breed in 2017. And, as in 2015, this was especially true for the elegant and engaging whites. I held the Margaux region in the top spot in 2015 and 2016, however for 2017 I was not impressed as I found consistency across the appellation sorely lacking with some château presenting truly fine examples but others falling far below the norm.
Unfortunately this year, Saint-Estèphe was not well represented, so an overall view of the appellation was impossible. The lesser-known appellations of Listrac-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc and Haut-Médoc showed well but far from the levels achieved in 2015 and 2016 when they represented extremely good buys with high quality at affordable pricing.
On the “sweet” side of the spectrum, both Sauternes and Barsac were outstanding for the third year in a row. Wines from both areas demonstrated the best characteristics of their renowned heritage: engaging sweetness with the honied notes of botrytis and complementary acidity to lend structure and balance. A great showing here!
The UGCB tasting once again showcased the quality that Bordeaux is capable of achieving even in a challenging vintage. While 2017 will never match the overall heights of structure, ageability, and complexity achieved in 2015 and 2016, it will afford many pleasurable moments for those willing to take a chance despite some of the vintage’s overly critical opinions.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an email to me at email@example.com. Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.