Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2017 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
Having worked my way down the Left Bank, a view of the 2017 vintage begins to come into focus: ripe, fresh, clean and direct wines that are more modest in terms of concentration, with lighter-bodied but ripe tannins and good acidity. A solid vintage that will provide tasty drinking while you wait for 2015 and '16 to mature.
But there's still another bank to go. So, I change hotels and cross the Dordogne into Pomerol to start my tastings on the Right Bank, where Merlot rather than Cabernet Sauvignon takes the lead.
Winemaker Olivier Berrouet describes 2017 simply as "A crazy year."
"We faced a lot of issues, starting with the frost on April 27 and 28. Luckily we had bought candles (smudge pots) and an anti-frost tower (large mobile fans) a couple of years ago. Everyone thought I was a little crazy when I did it," Berrouet says. "But after the frost they were asking me where I got the machine."
With Berrouet's prescient foresight, there was no frost damage at Pétrus in 2017. And on this visit, not only did Pétrus' vineyard have mobile frost-protection windmills in them, but a few of the neighbors' did as well.
"It's quite a different year for us. '16 was red fruit, very classic structure, very typical Pétrus. '17 is more fruity, with black fruit and a touch of tar. We had to be careful if we pushed a little too far, as we could have gotten something a little more aggressive or raw tannin," he says. "So, we used a paradox, longer vinification but less working of the wine during the maceration. We had 23 days of vinification versus 17 in vintages like '09 and '10. And then we did less pump-over and we made sure not to go over 27° C during the maceration—in other years it can reach 30°."
"I was talking with my dad and he said you have to be careful with this kind of vintage," Berrouet recalls. "It's like eating a ripe melon. You keep eating and eating, but suddenly you get that one bit close to the rind and you've gone too far, and the bad taste is in your mouth."
"Harvest started Sept. 8, finished on the 26th. Three weeks is quite long for us because we are a small estate. But the blocks were behaving differently. It was hard to find the development of maturity. The young vines reacted quite differently from the old vines. The old vines handled the change from wet and cold spring to the warm and dry season better."
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. Official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux will be published at the end of my trip.
The 2017 Pétrus is all raspberry and boysenberry puree, which glides through effortlessly, picking up flecks of anise, black tea and mineral. This young wine has a sublime mouthfeel with a long, beguiling perfume through the finish. At first sip it seems a touch lighter in frame than usual, but it steadily puts on weight in the glass. It's easily better than the '11 or '13 version and should settle in somewhere around the '14 in terms of quality.
While Pétrus is essentially a varietal (all-Merlot) that sits solely on the blue clay in the center of the plateau of Pomerol, its neighbors spiral outward from there, with the terroir shifting to clay and gravel and then eventually sand, while Cabernet Franc plays a role as well
At Vieux Château Certan, Guillaume Thienpont works alongside his father Alexandre, sourcing their grapes from a mix of clay and gravel soils. This has become a reference-point estate over the past decade and is also a regular stop for me.
"We have a feeling of relief now," says Guillaume. "We escaped the frost, as did all the estates on the plateau in Pomerol. And then from there the year was early from flowering through the harvest—one of the earliest in 20 years. But even though it is early, we were able to take our time a bit with harvesting. Young-vine Merlot, then we stopped. Then the old-vine Merlot and we stopped, and so on."
Harvest went from Sept. 9 through Oct. 2 and yields here were a respectable 2.7 tons per acre, just a touch less than in 2016. The 81 percent Merlot, 14 Cabernet Framc, 5 Cabernet Sauvignon blend has a bit more Cabernet Sauvignon than usual, as the late-ripening grapes did well in 2017. Aged in its typical two-thirds new oak, the wine checks in at an evenhanded 14.2 percent alcohol.
The 2017 Vieux Château Certan is brimming was dark plum, raspberry and blackberry puree flavors. It's silky, but powerfully rendered, with a terrific bolt of licorice snap through the finish and a long mineral note underneath. All that and it still maintains a sense of freshness. This is another stunner in the making, even in this slightly more modest vintage.
The Thienponts also manage a little vineyard for Alexandre's cousin, Jacques Thienpont.
The inverse of Pétrus, the 2017 Le Pin is also 100 percent Merlot, but from vines situated only on gravel, as opposed to clay.
"There was a little bit of hydric [stress] on the gravel soils as opposed to clay," says Guillaume. "But not as much as '16."
Aged in 100 percent new oak, it delivers a torrent of blackberry and fig sauce flavors with a light brambly edge weaving throughout. It sports lots of melted licorice and black tea as well, with the fruit kicking into another gear through the finish.