Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux is a group of 134 top wine-producing Châteaux from a number of Bordeaux’s most prized appellations. The group sponsors a number of wine tastings that provide an opportunity to sample wines from the region’s newly released vintages.
The January 2020 San Francisco Event focused on 2017 and 2018 wines from close to 100 producers. The event was organized by appellation and included a few Graves whites and Sauterne dessert wines. But the primary focus was on red blends from Bordeaux’s Right and Left Banks.
Before getting into the specific appellations and wines, we should note that 2017 was not the best of Bordeaux vintages. The reason, as usual, was the weather. The vintage got off to a good start with a mild and rainy March and a warm early April (which allowed the grapes to get an early start). Then in late April, the area experienced freezing weather and frost. Particularly hard hit was the Right Bank and Graves where some growers lost up to half their crops. The hot, dry early summer gave way to a couple of cooler months with less sun than normal. Some Right Bank regions further suffered from hail in August. Early September rains retarded ripening, which was especially harmful for earlier ripening Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Late September and October heat, meanwhile, did benefit slower, later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.
2017 Bordeaux Right Bank vs Left Bank Wines
Right Bank wines were more affected by the 2017 April frost and other adverse weather conditions than their Left Bank counterparts. Even here, however, the largest, best financed wineries were able to mitigate much of the damage by using helicopters, windmills and heaters to protect their crops. Smaller, less well-endowed sites that could not afford such luxuries, suffered the most. The overall results from those Right Bank chateau that did produce wines was a mixed bag. Some, especially larger producers whose vines are located on higher elevation atop limestone plateaus or gravelly hillsides produced some lovely, relatively medium bodied wines. The wines often had with sweeter red fruit, less alcohol and lower tannins than recent vintages. Wines from some of those less fortunate growers fared less well. Many were forced to rely on so-called “second generation fruit” that did not bud until after the frost. Grapes did not have sufficient time to ripen and sometimes yielded green, acidic, particularly dry wines.
Left Bank vintners, especially those at the northern sections of the peninsula and near the warmer water of the Gironde River, largely escaped the frost and produced some exceptional wines. Even these, however, tend to show redder fruit, and have lower alcohol and tannins than recent vintages. This often translated into wines that are more elegant than powerful and will probably be less age-worthy.
In addition to the weather negatively impacting wine quality, it devastated yields. Total production was reduced by about 40 percent. Larger, better financed wineries that did achieve sufficient yields and good quality are likely to benefit from higher prices. Still, most of the wines will still be less compelling than their 2015 and 2016 counterparts. In fact, some wineries at the tasting chose to taste from these vintages rather than whatever they managed to produce from their 2017 crops.
Right Bank Appellations and Wines
France’s Right Bank Bordeaux wines are generally Merlot wines blended with a bit of Cabernet. The soil has limestone towards the top of the soil. The vines don’t have to struggle as much as those on the left bank. The wines tend to be smoother and can be drunk sooner than left bank wine.
Grave primarily produces reds and dessert wines. Yet it is best known for its dry white wines, typically blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Many of those vineyards that escaped the worst of the April frosts and September rains, ended up with some very credible, nicely balanced wines with good body, moderate sugar levels, high acidity, citrus-like flavors, nice aromatics and long finishes. While only a few Grave chateaux were represented in the tasting, those from Chateau de Chantegrive and Chateau Ferrande had nice body and balanced fruit flavors and acid.
Pessac-Leognan is adjacent to Graves. The region produces a similar range of red and white wines (although its coastal location produces more cabernet sauvignon, which is more heavily represented in many of its red blends). It was also hit hard by the April frosts, great variations in June weather (from heavy rains to very high heat) and August hail. A number of wineries ended up producing no 2017 wine at all.
Overall, the region’s whites did better than its reds. Many, according to Wine Cellar Insider, are ”ripe with juicy citrus and racy acidity.” While many of the reds were nondescript, some were quite pleasant. However, we found that most (but certainly not all) lack the structure required for typical aging. Among our favorite reds were those from Chateaus Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier, Chateau Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Malartic-Lagraviere and Château Smith Haut Lafitte. We also enjoyed the white wines from Chateaus Carbonnieux, Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.
Growers here also suffered, to very different degrees, from the weather (especially the September frosts). A number lost most, if not all of their fruit. Some of lesser affected vineyards did produce some lovely wines. Our tastes tended to favor 2017s from chateau including Le Carillon de l’Angélus, Canon, Canon-La Gaffeliere, Cheval Blanc, Larcis Ducasse, Le Couspaude, Valandraud and Villemaurine.
Pomerol mainly produces wines using Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The region produces some lovely wines, especially from vines grown at higher elevations. Some of thosee from lower elevations tended to be a bit flabby. Our tastes gravitated towards Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Chateau La Cabanne (92% Merlot 8% Cabernet Franc), Chateau Clinet and Chateau Gazin.
Left Bank Appellations and Wines
France’s Left Bank Bordeaux region has rockier soil than the Right Bank. It has deep deposits of limestone and the roots have to struggle for nutrients through alot of gravel. The wine is generally Cabernet Sauvignon based with some Merlot and tend to have more tannin. The wines are considered to be more ageable.
The weather damaged a number of vineyards near the base of the Medoc, including some in Haut-Medoc, Listrac, Moulis, and Margaux. While the resultant wines were inconsistent, some of the vintners did produce lovely wines. We especially enjoyed:
- Listrac Chateau Fourcas Dupre;
- Haut-Medoc wines from Chateau Citran’s and Chateau La Tour Carnet; and
- Margaux wines from producers including Chateau Brane-Cantenac, Cantenac Brown, Chateau Dauzac and especially Chateau Giscours, Chateau Kirwan, Chateau Lascombes, Château Marquis de Terme, and Chateau Prieure-Lichine; and some from the Central Medoc.
The northern sections of the peninsula, especially the areas to the east, near the warming influence of the Gironde, saw less grape damage. Slower growing cabernet grapes, in particular, benefited from salubrious late autumn weather and yielded some full-bodied, more structured and consistent wines. This could be seen in Saint-Julien and especially in Pauillac and St. Estephe.
Pauillac is generally regarded as yielding much of the best of Bordeaux’s 2017 fruit. It produces some of the best, most age-worthy and consistent wines. We tended to favor those from Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Criozet-Bages, Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal, Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse and Chateau Pichon Baron.
Then, all the way back down to the most southern sections of Bordeaux for dessert—at least for dessert wines.
Sauternes Ou Barsac
This area is renowned for its Botrytis “infected” blends of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle that yields honey-like sweet wines with between 8% and 12% residual sugar. 2017 has been acclaimed as one of the best Sauternes vintages ever produced for those wineries whose grapes survived the frosts. The rains at the end of the growing season were perfectly timed to induce the growth of the “noble rot” that punctures the berry, drains its water and concentrates its sugars.
Although our tasting did not include the iconic Chateau d’Yquen, whose 2017s are acclaimed as excellent vintage (and hence is super expensive), we did taste a couple of other lovely wines.
Sauternes is particularly noteworthy with the top names making superlative wines that have plenty of richness and structure for aging, but also deliver wonderful intensity and freshness making for superb drinkability now. No surprise that Chateau d’Yquem’s 99-point sauterne was not being tasted.. But we did taste a number of luscious, full-bodied wines with enough acidity to balance the intense sweetness. Some of these beauties, such as Chateau Coutet and Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey—our favorite of the tasting—have U.S. retail prices of less than 20 percent those of d’Yquem’s $400 bottle price. Among our other favorites were Sauternes from Chateau Doisy Daene, Chateau Guiraud and Haut-Peyraguey.