It's more or less assumed that most Asian wine lovers were nurtured on Bordeaux since the market here was dominated by French labels up until the last decade or so. As such, whenever I write about the region I always feel I should note that my background, and therefore my palate, is atypical. As an Italian wine specialist from the start, I once took a fairly bourgeois view of Bordeaux, dismissing it as homogenous, stiflingly commercial, big, bold, inky and overall just a bit passé. This makes me fairly typical of millennials, among whom the term “Bored Oh” first arose.
However, at a relatively late stage in my wine career, I have developed an initially grudging, but increasingly profound, appreciation for Bordeaux, something I’m hoping will help provoke other non-believers. In my view, where Bordeaux truly sets itself apart is its reliability, an unsexy and undervalued virtue in the era of “minimal intervention”.
While producers elsewhere may be willing to let their cuvées reek of green bell pepper and nail varnish in the name of authenticity, the proprietors of classed-growth châteaux can always be trusted to deliver quality with a generous helping of pleasure.
But Bordeaux as a region is also unexpectedly diverse, both stylistically (its reds, whites and sweets are all world class) and historically, showing variety from one vintage to another. In fact, the wine world’s obsession with vintages is largely attributable to the inconsistent weather patterns of Bordeaux and Burgundy. In this drizzly maritime climate you find marked stylistic and quality differences from year to year, which is part of the fun. Yet even in a bad year, Bordeaux consistently finds a way to impress.
A case in point is 2017, a year that will forever be branded in wine infamy as “the year of the April frost”, when the smallest crop in a quarter century coincided with dismally patchy quality. Some producers escaped entirely unscathed; others lost all of their crop. Those who tried for a second generation after the frost, using buds kept for just such an emergency, found their fruit never quite ripened because of harvest rains. Hence, the vintage was left with a spotty reputation, yet inconveniently high prices necessitated by painfully low volumes.
Although this introduction to the spoils of a challenging year doesn’t sound at all promising, I am here to insist that among the bony and occasionally borderline sullen reds that resulted lie some classically constructed, fragrant beauties. As someone who essentially gave the Bordeaux wines of the maximalist 2000s a pass, I deeply appreciate the pendulum’s swing towards delicacy and brilliance in them, without the muscleman tannins and indigo colour of star vintages like 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, among the dry whites, which were harvested before the rains came, you’ll find a dazzling selection of winners. The sweet whites have the balancing kick of acidity that I have sorely missed in Sauternes for many years.
Tasted toward the end of 2020, all these 2017 wines demonstrated Bordeaux’s recent ability to offer drinking pleasure even after only a short period in bottle, something the Bordeaux of the past usually declined to deliver. Maybe this is a year that those collectors who swooned over the 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016 vintages will want to sit out. But anyone who misses the days when the term “claret” actually reflected something about the wines may want to join me for a bottle.