I stayed with friends in Bordeaux in 2017. I have to admit I didn’t fully understand why Martine had tears in her eyes one evening when she opened a bottle of wine to begin our dinner.
Wine is a fragile thing. That may be what underscores its beauty.
Seven days earlier we had lunch in St. Émilion with old friends. It was a joyous affair — partly because we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but mostly because we toasted “le bourgeonner,” the budding of the vine. Grape buds and a few tiny shoots had popped out in all their beautiful and tender, sweet green only a few days earlier. And after a banner wine year in 2016, they were primed for a legendary 2017.
They just didn’t anticipate what kind of legend.
Frost hit the Bordeaux area on April 27, seven days after our celebratory lunch. And then, it frosted on April 28 and again on April 29. Three days of frost on new growth. The assessments from the vineyards weren’t fully in, but Martine knew. Martine’s father, her grandfather, and many before them in her family were growers. She grew up among the vines and in the vine world. She knew.
This photograph was taken in a major vineyard at St. Émilion on Bordeaux’s Right Bank on May 14 of 2017 — two weeks after the freeze. You can see a dead vine next to a still green but terribly weakened one. The old French line “le vin est plein de vie” (wine is full of life) does not always translate to vines.
The Left Bank vineyards had modest losses from the freeze in 2017. Most estimates said there was about a 20 percent loss, with possibly greatest hits to Margaux and Pessac Leognan.
But the Right Bank was not so lucky. Pomerol saw a 20 percent to 25 percent vine loss. But Lalande de Pomerol and Cotes de Bordeaux easily lost 80 percent of thier vineyards. And in St. Émilion — considered to be the soul of the wine universe by my friends and family — many vineyards sustained between 50 percent and 90 percent vine loss. At least those were the early estimates in 2017. Three years later, we now know some were a complete loss.
1991 was bad. 1956 was even worse. But the 2017 three-day frost absolutely devastated many vineyards, particularly smaller ones that take the moderate-priced slot in the Bordeaux market.
Here you see a traditional Bordeaux vineyard, with it’s manicured pebble path, a resting bench, pots of roses and sculpted hedges of lavender and rosemary along the entry. This particularly Right Bank vineyard had vine loss, but it was minimal. They were lucky.
Below you see that although there were many vines killed throughout the area, some vigorous growth remained after the frosts. At least it did in some locations.
Clémence, the friend who walked with me through several nearby vineyards in mid-May after the late April frosts was saddened by a lot of what we saw, but she also was hopeful at growth like this. If she had shed tears like Martine’s right after the freeze, Clémence’s tears dried when she saw this level of green still in the vineyards, the bourgeons de la reprise, as she put it — literally, “the green shoots of recovery.”
Bad weather often has surprising effects on grapes. The vines that survive tend to be stronger in subsequent seasons. The immediacy is less predictable. Sometimes the quality of wine after a frost is awful. But sometimes, Clémence said in a tone that sounded wishful to me, the wine takes on a lovely, sumptuous quality that belies its earlier pain. “Grape has soul,” Clémence explained, “And we all know sometimes the tortured souls are the most beautiful.”
And for those those who may wonder, yes, they still plant roses at the feet of many of the rows of grapes in Bordeaux, and all across France. Once roses growing next to grapes were the “canaries” of the vines, the first signs of pests or crop damage traditionally was seen in the roses. In years like 2017, the roses were damaged as well as the grapes. If the roses survived, the grapes survived. The roses tended to die first.
Most modern vintners say they use scientific methods of vine health detection today rather than reliance on the roses.
Yet the roses are still there next to the grape rows in many (if not most) vineyards today, if for no reason other than the beauty of tradition. In Bordeaux, the beauty of tradition runs deep.
We stopped that afternoon at two of my favorite wine houses — Chateau Fombrauge and Chateau Cote de Baleau — just to linger in the beautiful sunshine and enjoy a verre de vin or two after exploring the state of the vines. And, of course, a glass or two had to be multipled to a glass or four out of fairness to both houses. And as we enjoyed past fruit of the vines, we mused about how quickly life can change. Just like the vines.
One year is magnifiqué. The next tragiqué. Most years are a bit of both or somewhere between. But the sweetness of wine, even if stored away from the past, sustains us through it all, just like the beauty of enduring friendship.
One of the most alluring things about the Bordeaux region, besides the wonderfully warm people, the unbeatable climate, and the utter perfection of wine, is its internal contradiction — and the total acceptance of the internal contradiction as a natural, normal, and beautiful way of life.
Within the heart of Bordeaux is an inherently quaint mixture of the newest cutting-edge scientific technology married with, in some families literally married with, the old traditional ways of wine.
But the graceful history of some of these old barrel houses and that distinct aroma that one can neither describe nor forget combine for pure magic.
The wafting air inside the barrel house is magic even before you pull the wine. Even before you take the first whiff of the pour or the first breath of the bowl, the fragrance of an old Bordeaux barrel house is sheer wow.
One of my favorite Right Bank chateaux is Chateau Fombrauge. I appreciate Fombrauge for its traditions. Fombrauge is far from the only wine house that stays the old line. But the comfort of tradition is something that seems to permeate the Banks. Old oak and modern stainless steel somehow work side-by-side in Bordeaux. I think that is part of the allure and charm of the region. Well, then of course, there is the wine. And the people. And the air and sunshine. But the blending of the old and the new is on full display in this area.
Depending on the wine house, the barrel rooms can be quite different. But today, some vintners “split the baby” by having a traditional section for some varietals and a modern steel area for others.
We sampled a glass or two and lingered on the lawn of nearby Chateau Cote de Baleau.
This grand house of Baleau is reminiscent of the ancient regime at its height.
Even after the shock of a three-day frost, May in Bordeaux was delightful. And that, of course, is part of the unpredictable Wheel of Life. The soul of the grape is not immune.
The words Right Bank and grace seem to flow together, even in English.
But even with the grace of that sweet afternoon in May 2017, no one could be sure how the Bordeaux vineyards would fare. A similar freeze, but not a three-day one, had happened in Burgundy the year before. Burgundy, of course, survived. It took a huge economic hit. But it survived.
Looking back on that April and May in Bordeaux after the frosts, now from the vantage point of 2020, we know that the frost damage was highly localized. Many vineyards were not as lucky as the two I photographed in May. And we also know that the cold of 2017 affected the wine world across Europe, not just in the Bordeaux. Crop yield was low. Very low.
Many vineyards in Saint Émilion, Cotes de Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, and the St. Émilion satellite regions such as Lalande de Pomerol, Fronsac, and even Pessac Leognan lost their entire crops and had to be totally replanted.
Vineyards in Haut Medoc, Moulis, Listrac and Margaux were also damaged — though to a far lesser degree.
On the Left Bank, most of the top estates, particularly close to the Gironde, were insulated from severe damage in 2017 by heat retention in their gravelly slopes. That was true of many of the wine houses located on the plateau area of Saint Émilion as well. The ability of the soil to retain heat saved some key vineyards. The same thing that can be a curse in hot summers, can be a blessing in cold winters.
And although 2017 will not go down in the record book as an outstanding bottle year, the wine of 2017 turned out far from horrible. At least what there was of it. As the Wine Cellar Insider put it: the 2017 Bordeaux wines are “not the vintage of the century.” When I read that, it made me feel certain the writer was English, with typical English understatement.
And that brings us to the HAPPY and to the SAD of 2017 in Bordeaux wine.
The sad part of 2017 is that many of the hardest hit vineyards were the ones owned by hands-on families, the small producers who make their entire living from their wine. For these people, wine is not something in their investment portfolio or a weekend hobby. For them, wine is their livelihood. But more than that, wine is their life. And for the old-line in Bordeaux like Martine, these family growers are her family, her brothers, and her cousins. For Martine wine is personal. And that was the genesis of her tears that night at dinner.
Houses known for producing Bordeaux value wines were the ones that suffered the most. Some went under. But most persevered, just like they always have.
I share this mainly to encourage readers to take a chance on wines from less celebrated terroirs. Actively seeking out petit chateau wines is a wonderful way to honor and support these smallsters, the families, the true heart of old Bordeaux. I hope American buyers will keep that in mind.
But there was an upside to 2017 that we are seeing in wine stores in 2020.
The 2017 Bordeaux whites were some of the best on record.
Americans particularly don’t realize that as recently as the 1950s a significant portion of Bordeaux’s production was white, not solely red. But for most of my adult life, finding a white Bordeaux was both an expensive endeavor and a difficult one in many stateside cities. They were always plentiful in France, but not in the U.S. Only high-end wine merchants seemed to know the Bordeaux region even produced whites. Many Americans had never tasted one.
But 2017 changed that. The combination of small harvest and the relative health of the varietals native to white production upped the export of whites from Bordeaux. And now, you can find Bordeaux blancs in wine stores, even in relatively small cities. No, it’s certainly not like the availability in France, but at least you can find a bottle of a Bordeaux white for less than $50 today. And for many years, that was really hard to do where I lived in the U.S.
An example from a major online wine trader is this 2017 Chateau Graville that you can pick up for $19 online if it isn’t available in your local market. But it probably is. And your local wine merchant may well have a better price on it.
If you have a good local wine merchant like Total Wine (which I am thrilled to say has recently opened a store in my current hometown), you will find a wide variety of whites from Bordeaux today — at really good prices.
One of my personal favorite finds at the new Total Wine store where I live on the Texas Gulf Coast was a 2015 Chateau L’Oiseau Vielle Vignes Blanc for $12.99 ($11.69 if you buy six or more bottles on the same store visit). It is a full-ish medium-body wine with citrus tones, a whiff of hay, some definite melon. At least one at our table detected a vanilla note to it that mellowed the citrus to a truly lovely place. We had it with shrimp in a cream sauce, roasted cauliflower, a fresh green salad, and Camembert with blueberries. I can’t think of a better pairing for the meal. And this chateau in the Entre-Deux-Mers area of Bordeaux I have never known to disappoint — and at a price point that is right in the sweet spot of my personal wine budget.
On that same trip, I also found a darling white Bordeaux, a Rothschild Blanc Selection Prestige, from the same Entre-Deux-Mers area, for $19.99 ($17.99 at the 6+ price). We had it with a grilled shrimp main course and it was wonderful! It’s also what I would call a “full-ish” medium-bodied wine, but it is brimming with rich lemon and vanilla. The finish is particularly soft and smooth. I think it would be a great wine paired with any kind of fish or seafood. But it worked particularly well with the “naked” taste of grilled Gulf Coast shirmp.
I have to admit, for as long as I can remember wine in my life, a white Bordeaux has been at the top of my list of favorites. I’m the girl who never could find joy in a Chardonnay, never found a Chardonnay I didn’t wish was a white Bordeaux.
So with heartfelt condolences to all the families and Bordeaux growers who lost so much in 2017, I hope the turn of the wheel those frosts brought — the new light from afar — is the opening of a bigger market for your whites.
[No links in this article are connected to financial gain for the author. Links are soley for reader information.]