I attended the annual Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting at the Drake Hotel in Chicago recently, which featured nearly 150 wines from 134 Châteaux from 13 of the top appellations in Bordeaux. I tasted 52 wines from 48 Châteaux in about 3 hours. And the verdict? Well, it’s complicated. And here’s why:
In late April of 2017, Mother Nature went bonkers and blasted huge swaths of Bordeaux with frost. This is right around the time that bud burst happens in the vineyards – when those first tender green shoots start forming flowers, which ultimately lead to the formation of the berries, or the grapes. Bad timing. Really bad timing for frost. What it’s led to is an uneven vintage.
The frost meant that a lot of grapes just were not able to get ripe enough on the vine. I tasted a number of wines from St. Emilion that were all Merlot and Cabernet Franc – with no Cabernet Sauvignon, because the grapes just weren’t ripe enough, or the bunches were really uneven in ripeness.
But there is good news! While the frost led to nearly 50 percent less volume of wine produced across all of Bordeaux, many of the wines that were made are excellent! And a surprising number of them are actually drinkable now, which is unusual.
Let the Swirling, Sipping and Spitting Commence!
Okay, so you might be wondering how a person navigates a huge tasting event like that. So I’ll spill my secrets:
- Study the tasting book when you arrive and figure out how the room is organized and what your tasting system will be. I try to taste through entire regions, so I can compare the wines.
- Lickety Spit: Spit almost everything. I allow myself up to two swallows per hour of wines – otherwise I’d be on my way to a hangover by 5 p.m. These are wines that have me swooning over aromatics and flavors. Yeah, I know – this is serious wine-dork shit. But the point is, you have to be a champion spitter.
- Take Notes I take notes on every single wine I taste and I scrawl “stars” next to each. One star means “good,” four stars means, “exceptionally, insanely delicious.”
- Have Toothbrush, Will Taste I carry a toothbrush in my purse and use it about once an hour to scrub the red wine off my teeth and my tongue.
- Keep Your Palate Fresh I ran into the amazing Doug Frost (one of only four people in the world to achieve both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine status) and had a conversation about this. We agreed the best way to avoid palate fatigue is to drink water in between wines and alternate between tasting reds and whites.
And did you know? In Bordeaux, if it is red, it is either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and if it is white it is Sauvignon Blanc? Sure there are a few other grapes that get blended, but I’m just saying – this was one of my first “light-bulb moments,” as I was learning about wine. There is no Chardonnay in Bordeaux, or Pinot Noir. It’s just good to know.
Following are what I thought were real stand-outs with a few notes. Prices quoted are from Binny’s, which hosted a consumer tasting after the trade tasting, where people can place orders (for receipt sometime later this year or early 2021). And because I only tasted about 35 percent of what was on offer, my reviews are obviously not completely comprehensive. Hard choices had to be made and I missed all of Saint-Estèphe, Sauternes and Barsac – Zut Alors!
MARGAUX My first take-away after tasting 13 wines from Margaux was how drinkable they are right now – just two years into their young lives! Faves with notes when relevant:
Château Durfort-Vivens – organic and biodynamic and you can taste it – comes across as bold and earthy and I liked it
Château Giscours ($84) – fine tannins make wine silky already
Château Kirwan – In 1787, Thomas Jefferson visited this winery! Twice, actually. According to fourth-generation family member Sophie Schyler, Mr. Jefferson was one of the winery’s best customers, bringing lots of wine back to American with him. ($64)
Château du Tertre I always seem to love the wines from this Chateau – full of garrigue – that flavor of dried herbs like thyme, sage, oregano and taut black and red fruits. ($65)
GRAVES This is one of the appellations that got hammered with frost and then walloped with hail at the end of August 2017. Come on! This explains why there were only three Châteaux pouring.
Château de Chantegrive Holy mother of Sauvignon Blanc, this was my favorite white wine of the entire tasting! Chloe LeBouffe was pouring and I was lucky enough to also get to know her at dinner later that evening. The wine is 45 Sauvignon Blanc, 50 percent Semillon (the “other white grape” of Bordeaux, next to Sauv Blanc) and 5 percent Sauvignon Gris. Fresh, delicate and so sippable. I swallowed a sip of this one! ($25!)
PESSAC LÉOGNAN Just north of Graves, I met two stand-outs here.
Château La Louvière Their 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc is a delight (and was my third swallow). Fresh and balanced, with brisk acidity like a bolt of sunshine shooting out of a storm cloud. ($42.75) The red is 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Merlot and unfurled on my palate with fresh eucalyptus, raspberry, cherry and a little coffee. ($39.75) J’adore!
Château Malartic-Lagravière Their red is a nice mist-mosh of grapes – 65 percent Cab, 30 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cab Franc and 2 percent Petit Verdot. It’s big, brash, bold and elegant all at the same time. Think stewed blackberries and prunes in a forest. Really, really good. ($66.)
SAINT EMILION If France is my spirit country (which it is), Saint Emilion is my karmic center. It’s home to maybe my favorite red grape, Merlot and I just love it. So I loved a lot of these including:
Château Canon This was my first swallow of the day. Really expressive; there is no doubt of the Merlot in here – cherries, mocha, earth.
Château Canon-La-Gaffalière Big grippy tannins and a huge, muscle core of rich stewed fruits – raisins, prunes, blueberries. ($110.)
Château Larcis Ducasse With 92 percent Merlot and 8 percent Cab Franc, this beauty has dried violets wafting out of the glass, followed by red fruits and a fresh, sexy herbaceous quality. My second swallow of the day! ($96)
Château Pavie Macquin This winery shares an oenology team with Chateau Larcis Ducasse, which is kind of cool. It’s 80 percent Merlot, 18 percent Cab Franc and 2 percent Cab Sauv and I wanted to swallow, but I spit. Dried rose petals and violets and that trademark Bordeaux garrigue made this a big fave. ($103)
Château Valandraud Oh, hello, sexy … this 90 percent Merlot, 7 percent Cab Franc and 3 percent Cab Sauv is fresh and bright and delicious on every level. ($223 … yipes!)
POMEROL I have to say, this is my second-favorite appellation in Bordeaux. Maybe it is because I visited and love so many wines from tiny Pomerol, which is another Right Bank appellation. There were only a handful of wineries pouring and one gigantic stand-out:
Château Clinet Oh, my Merlot, this wine is fancy. Fine-grained tannins make it satiny and gracious and the 92 percent Merlot / 8 percent Cab Franc blend is perfectly balanced for structure and elegance. ($90)
HAUT MEDOC This is an appellation that over-delivers for its price points.
Château de Cantemerle This was my 5th swallow! It is 70 percent Cabernet, 25 percent Merlot and 5 percent Petit Verdot. It’s a wine with an assertive personality that also is going to wrap you in a big warm hug of dried currents and plums, followed by a bouquet of dried violets to keep it fresh. ($42). I got to dine with Managing Director Philippe Dambrine later that evening which was terrific, because knowing the warm, passionate and hard-working people behind these beautiful wines really brings them to life.
And that, my friends, is the story of 2017 Bordeaux. The wines will be scarce, because of the frost, and prices will reflect that. But I would encourage you