By Michael Schuster | May 24 2022
Over the past two decades, The World of Fine Wine’s annual reports on the Bordeaux en primeur tastings have become definitive statements on the latest goings on in the region.
For the first 17 years of the magazine’s existence, the reports were written by the globally respected author and wine educator, Michael Schuster.
As Schuster hands the reins over to his successor as WFW’s Bordeaux en primeur reporter, Simon Field MW , we are taking the opportunity to publish each of Schuster’s masterly vintage reports going back to 2003 on worldoffinewine.com.
Together they provide a detailed record of the region’s development since the turn of the Millennium, an informal first-draft history of Bordeaux wine in the 21st century, and an invaluable reference tool for wine collectors.
Today’s instalment takes us back to the tricky 2017 vintage, and a revision of Schuster’s original en primeur assessments based on the performance of the bottled wines, tasted in 2021, by Schuster and Andrew Jefford, with Field adding notes on the wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
“A frostbitten but potentially wonderful year.” This was my title for the en primeur review of 2017 Bordeaux, inspired by a comment by Christian Seely, when I was tasting at Pichon Baron: “If you were not hit by frost, this is actually a rather wonderful year.”
As we know, four years is a good moment to reassess the wines, after two years in bottle, to see how they measure up to impressions in barrel.
One piece of sad news, though: Andrew Jefford and I have parted ways. It’s separation, the divorce courts. No—just joking. But we did indeed, for the first time ever, do this tasting apart. Yet one more Covid coercion.
It was simply impractical, with all the travel uncertainties, not to mention expenses for Andrew, to have samples sent only to London, so his were (kindly) sent to him in France, mine to the UK.
We tasted different bottles, therefore, and a few (very few) were available to only one of us, where there will be only one note.
Andrew had the luxury (if it can be called that) of tasting over the best part of a week; I tasted and noted the red wines only, over two days.
Having the opportunity to go to and fro, to revisit and compare, as well as the advantage to both wines and palate of tasting such a “daunting” (as Andrew put it) number of wines over several days rather than in just a couple, is of such a clear benefit that we are going to do this, each at home, for the three grand vintages to come: 2018, 2019, and 2020.
The following were the headlines for my 2017 en primeur report in spring 2018 (WFW60) followed by a summary of my original review, and then a look at how the wines are tasting today, four years on from the vintage.
February and March began a pattern of greater warmth than usual across the first half of the year. This initiated the “early” nature of 2017’s viticultural year, mostly a good two weeks in advance of the norm, and set in place the conditions that allowed April’s great frost to wreak so much damage.
Thus by the second and third week of April, in addition to the new buds, many vines had open leaves and shoots. The first frosts occurred in the early hours of April 21, but the air was very dry, and little damage was done.
But on the early morning of April 27, the air was much more moist and temperatures of 23–26°F (–3°C to –5°C) a great deal more destructive, utterly ruinous in some cases.
The frost was felt particularly onerously on the Right Bank this year. Least affected were the Left Bank northern Médoc vineyards of St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe, but vineyards farther inland did suffer.
Most (though not all) of the top properties, on both banks, escaped largely unscathed, thanks to higher-lying vineyards on the Right Bank or proximity to the Gironde on the Left.
Frost within individual parcels was there in some rows but not others, and even within rows its effect varied. Bordeaux as a whole reckons to have lost about
40 percent of its 2017 production.
Many “marked” the affected vines while the damage was clear, identifying every individual vine (with colored tapes) as frost free, partly affected, or
a total loss.
These markings would then make it possible to distinguish first- generation from second-generation fruit (from the post-frost buds) at harvest time.
May was exceptionally sunny and warm, perfect for an early, even, complete flowering under ideal conditions for the frost-spared vines.
The flowering of second-generation buds though was, not surprisingly, uneven and irregular.
For three and a half weeks, June also continued the remarkably fine spell of weather with prolonged sunshine, but by the end of the month the parched soils would welcome a slaking.
And did it come! Around 4in (10cm) over the last five days of the month.
A welcome wetting, yes, but much too much—delaying the onset of the dry conditions, water stress required at this juncture for ideal grape quality evolution.
And so, frost, heat, June drought conditions, the satisfactory but drawn-out flowering, then the very heavy end-of-June rainfall—all these contributed in different ways to stages of maturity of the vines, frosted or not, that varied a great deal at the start of July.
After five months of well above-average seasonal warmth, July and August turned this 2017 trend somewhat on its head.
Though both months remained comparatively dry, July in particular was much less sunny than usual and overall fairly mild in temperature, day and night.
August had two unseasonably cool weeks in its middle, with daytime temperatures mostly only in the mid- to high 70s F (mid-20s C) and often decidedly cool nights at 59°F (15°C) or below.
Not, then, summer weather that would make for a “great” vintage.
But the cooler summer days and nights did preserve both the acidity and the aromas in the ripening grapes, making for the distinctive profile, fresh and fragrant, of the best wines of the vintage.
Late August then saw the mercury in the high 80s to low 90s F (30s C) for the last ten days.
The first three weeks of September, however, curtailed any optimism induced by the end of August heat. For the first 17 days, it was overcast, intermittently wet for the first week, then almost constantly so for the subsequent ten days, until the heavens finally cleared and the temperatures rose on September 18.
The dry white harvest took place in the perfect conditions of the last two weeks of August. The red grape harvest was trickier.
Many waited until the start of the third week of September to begin picking their Merlots (by no means ideal as it was still wet) and were then mightily relieved by warm, dry, sunny conditions from the 18th onward, to the advantage of Cabernets and Petit Verdot.
Sauternes’s grapes were broadly harvested in two large tries, the first over the final eight to ten days of September, the second over the first two weeks of October, in mostly ideal conditions.
The 2017 dry whites are magnificent, from grapes picked fully ripe, in perfect health, mostly before the major September rains.
If there is a fly in the ointment, it is that yields were low due to frost-affected vines.
Both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Semillon were excellent. What stands out is the exceptional finesse of the Sauvignon Blancs, radiantly aromatic, utterly without Sauvignon coarseness or caricature.
The classiest, I think, for a very long time.
Conditions for fine noble rot did eventually develop toward the end of September and in early October, but you had to wait, and all the while the grapes were becoming richer in sugar and lower in acidity.
And it would seem that, in many instances, there simply wasn’t time enough for a sufficient concentration of high quality noble rot to develop, over a number of tries, before the acidity dropped uncomfortably and pressed one to pick.
So, the results are uneven. There are plenty of good wines but few that are exceptional.
As a group, they are a long way from the quality and class of 2015 and 2014, for example.
Complicated, or what?
The 2017 red harvests were long at individual châteaux, particularly those on the Right Bank. And if your vineyards had post-frost, second-generation fruit, that of course made it especially challenging.
Michael Georges, the cellar master at Château Nenin, described the Merlot vintage as being sportif —you had to be constantly on your toes, since rot was never far away.
Whether you used the wine from second-generation fruit was of course very much a question of selection, but it was by no means always rejected.
Cheval Blanc’s Pierre-Olivier Clouet said, “The grapes were small, but sweet, ripe, aromatic.”
Most Merlots, Right Bank and Left, were picked over the middle ten days of September, so partly within the rainy period and before ideal ripeness, pressured by the constant threat of botrytis on swelling grapes and softening skins.
But on later-ripening clay and limestone soils (that of many of the top properties), Merlot could be magnificent.
Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon and Petit Verdot were largely picked over the last week of September and first ten days of October.
They had the huge advantage of time. Time to ripen more fully under sunny skies and warmer than normal temperatures, and time to be harvested at leisure, without pressure.
Cabernet Franc was less consistent than Cabernet Sauvignon, but all the grape varieties could and did produce exceptional red wines.
Nevertheless, the ripeness was, of course, not that of a really fine year.
Production in 2017 was hugely but very variably affected by the frost.
The whites, dry and sweet, all had a noticeably low output.
As for the red wines, a few properties produced nothing, or next to nothing, as a consequence of frost damage, but many, in the northern Médoc especially, had more than satisfactory yields, the drought notwithstanding, and with no apparent detriment to quality.
Christian Seely’s comment—“If you were not hit by frost, this is actually a rather wonderful year”—neatly points out that the year’s most arresting circumstance in the vineyards was not inimical to good quality in the year’s wines, the frost’s most significant effect was on quantity, especially lower down the hierarchy.
For the fruit that survived, a dry summer and long (if not straightforward) growing season often coaxed something special from the vines in terms of quality.
The nature of the viticultural year, the weather, September rain—all mean that the lower echelons are tricky for both banks, but at the top end there are some outstanding wines from both sides of the Gironde.
In terms of quality, it is worth stressing that a notable feature of both 2015 and, especially, 2016 was the success of wines right across the hierarchy, with many absolutely delicious wines also from the more modest appellations.
Finding really good claret lower down the pecking order in 2017 will be much more challenging.
Quite a number of the northern Médoc wines are clearly finer than their respective (rain-troubled) 2015s, but other vintages that 2017 brings to mind, broadly, are 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2001, wines of similarly elegant, classical, medium-weight proportions.
In terms of style, the 2017 red wines are very distinctive.
They are fresh, elegant, middleweight clarets, making up in aromatic complexity and length what they might lack in flesh and fruit concentration.
Where successful, their fruit flavor is sweetly ripe, their acidity is a well-integrated, juicy, appetizing tension, their tannin (where the winemaking is not exaggerated) is superfine.
There is, in many, a purity, perfume, and transparency that is almost Burgundian.
In my 2014 report, I mentioned “a mood change for reds in Bordeaux?” As I did in the 2015 report.
And with a bit more perspective, it is clear that there is a settling, a resettling, of the red-wine style pendulum.
A “fineness” of tannin texture has been a noteworthy feature of an increasing majority of clarets over the past few years.
It is not just due to the nature of the grapes; it seems at least as much due to a deliberate effort not to overextract, and to vinify with increasingly gentle hands.
Is it in keeping with a stylistic mood, a change in taste, partly related to a change in generations?
It seems to be a move away from what many (now) regard as the winemaking excesses that set in around the mid-’90s, what was called new-wave Bordeaux, associated in particular with the palates of Robert Parker Jr and Michel Rolland, with the emphasis on very clean winemaking, very ripe fruit, and abundant new wood but often interpreted to the point of caricature: If some is good, then more is better!
What is happening now is a more moderate, less forced winemaking approach, allowing both vintage and vineyard to express themselves with greater clarity.
A mood shift, a taste change, a more comfortable settling of the style, the interpretation, the performance pendulum.
Here is the annual reminder that our notes matter more than our scores.
The scores give you a rough indication of personal preference, but they perhaps reflect even more our sense of this or that bottle’s place in the overall hierarchy of the vintage, and because of the simple fact of a clear and marked taste/quality “hierarchy” in Bordeaux, scores may sometimes seem mean.
The relative and the absolute of the “numbers” system are impossible to disentangle.
Plus the observation, clear enough from our comments, that Andrew and I, while viewing hierarchical quality broadly similarly (as you can see), have disagreements, too.
If we have broadly similar palates where quality is concerned, we have different personal tastes and preferences.
As a huge generalization, I like (my palate likes) my wines gentler, more mellow than Andrew does, which clearly colors my view of younger wines and, therefore, probably accounts in part for our different view of some of the individual communes.
Earlier this fall, my wife Monika and I drank a 1995 Léoville Barton (yes, for our taste it has taken 25 years to mellow sufficiently!), but I also noted that it still had “Jefford-pleasing tannins.”
Andrew had recently noted a wine that he enjoyed as one he could “cuddle up to,” and relaying my Léoville Barton pleasure to him, I said I thought that
he would also enjoy it because, cuddles notwithstanding, I knew he liked to feel a bit of “sinew,” too. Which was still there.
His response: “Yes, sinew in the cuddle is the ideal!”
We differ, too, in the way that we make notes.
I get as much pleasure— as I am sure many do—from the sheer sonority of Andrew’s language as from what the words signify.
He is an irrepressible, instinctive poet. I see him at work when we taste together and am amazed at the speed of his creative process, at the immediate rush of words provoked by tasting.
When I started to read his 2017 notes, a couple of images came to mind: that the effect of his nose in the glass or a wine on his palate is like throwing
a switch, like an aircraft wheel going from zero to 150mph in a split second upon touchdown. Instantly triggering his creative juices, off at a gallop, tap- tap-tapping on his keys to magical effect.
I recognize how prosaic I am in comparison. Palates, preferences, poetry, prose… We like to think that our range of readers will find our pairings complementary. But I digress.
Where red-wine quality is concerned, some magnificently, many with difficulty, is the short answer.
And it is this that makes it difficult to situate 2017 easily within the past dozen or so years.
It is clearly a long way from the stellar years of 2019, 2016, 2010 (not sure if 2009 belongs here), and it is easy to say that it is better, in broad terms, than 2013 and probably, in my view, than 2011.
Its disposition is less “sunny” than 2018 and 2015, and it likely sits, qualitatively, next to 2014 (which longtime readers will know I have a soft spot for) and 2012, but with its leitmotif style drawback of acidity a definite inconvenience for a majority of today’s palates.
It’s complicated, and simply situating it thus in a vintage hierarchy is far from giving a fair measure of the year.
For our notes will reveal that, at the top end, there are some outstanding wines by any standards, where Christian Seely’s “rather wonderful ” description makes perfect sense, but they do also show that lower down the hierarchy there is much that is challenging for current tastes.
Going back, perhaps the best of 1988, also often with taut to edgy acidities, might be a useful stylistic comparison for the best of 2017, though the latter have a greater depth of fruit, more succulence, and much more refined textures.
What makes the 2017 reds tricky to define was the nature of the year in the vineyard and, in consequence, for many but by no means all, a lack of fully, evenly ripe grapes—by today’s taste standards anyway.
With the corollary, of course, of greater acidity. The “appetizing acidity defining a juicy fruit” that there was en primeur remains just that in the top properties, and these will be freshly, toothsomely delicious in due course,
in a cooler-toned complexion.
But in the lesser wines, or from the less sun-favored sites, and/or from a noticeable proportion of second-generation fruit in the blend, the acidity then girdles a less juicy, less fleshy fruit, so it is more exposed, a structural feature that has become more pronounced in bottle.
A pleasing vitality around a fundamentally red fruit first becomes “crisp” to “brisk,” then the appeal of cool and tonic moves toward edgy, and finally the “least” wines become gaunt.
I stress that this is not a universal character. But the less well-placed vineyards, in the context of frost and then a far from ideal weather pattern, do reveal their disadvantage.
Compare these comments with what I wrote about 2016 at four years of age last year: “One really noteworthy feature of the 2016s is just how good so many of the less illustrious wines and appellations are […]. There will be plenty of wonderfully satisfying drinking value for modest outlays”; “It has gems and value to be found in each appellation, at all levels.”
There couldn’t be more contrast with 2017.
The wines are for the most part not “green,” but there is a clear touch of some “difficult to fully ripen” herbaceousness in many.
Not, in most cases, unpleasant, but rare these days and certainly not fashionable.
Tannins have generally been sensibly extracted, so there is mostly no excess there—habitual heavy-handers excepted.
Down the road, the vintage style will be relatively easy to spot blind (would-be MWs take note), but the year has in many cases compressed/limited the vineyard site distinction, so the palette of colors is more muted.
Andrew has commented, broadly, “With the exception of Pomerol and Sauternes [this] is not a vintage I would seek out. And this is not, in general, a vintage to buy second wines.”
Indeed. And I would add that, if quality relates to location, location, location, in this case purchase relates to context, context, context.
Given your budget and taste, you may well be able to find 2017s you reckon worth buying; there are fair value 2017s to be found, if mainly among the fancier wines (see the commune summaries), and there may well be a place in your cellar for red Bordeaux that are not rich, ripe, fulsome; we don’t always want that.
But, but, but—in every case, just consider what a similar sum would buy you currently from, above all, 2019 and 2016.
In some cases, there is barely any difference in price (Pichon Comtesse Réserve, one of the few second wines well worth buying; Beychevelle, St-Pierre, Phélan Ségur, La Gaffelière).
And in many other cases I would argue that the eventual pleasure advantage of 2019 or 2016 may well outweigh the modest cost differential today.
Worth making the comparisons anyway (easy on wine-searcher.com).
Sauternes continues to be exceptional value, with barely any price differentiation to reflect vintage quality variation.
Unlike last year, when Andrew and I couldn’t resist making “a personal value-for-money selection,” this year we found resistance all too easy. Next year again? Maybe.
There are pleasing wines here, but it is the trickiest area to navigate. No real standouts, for what they are.
The top wines have performed well; lower down there is quite a bit of the commune’s tradition for “chewiness”; but a very nice, and very fair value pair: Tronquoy-Lalande and a juicily delicious Phélan Ségur.
A standout commune for me, so I would have made Andrew’s point 3 (see p.183) “And then there is Pauillac; and then there is Pomerol,” for I found a juicy blackcurrant Cabernet fruit core in many. Both Pichons are excellent, Comtesse in particular, as are Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Lynch-Bages, and Pontet-Canet.
Pichon Comtesse Réserve is a notable and, as so often, very fair-value second wine.
Not the plump, come-hither charm there often is, but all three Léovilles have performed well, and there is a clutch of very attractive and fair-value mid-rank classed growths: Lagrange, St-Pierre, and Beychevelle.
I was clearly much happier with these than Andrew and, exceptionally, mostly marked them a bit higher.
So, I think they bear investigation. It may be a question of taste, but I found them in many cases (there were a lot of them) easier of texture than farther north, with fruit and finesse, and I thought the best were a perfect expression of the vintage on the Left Bank: pure, sweet, transparent, fine—“the Margaux I tasted in barrel,” I noted.
You’ll have to try them for yourselves.
Palmer right at the top, followed by, among others, a particularly lovely Rauzan-Ségla.
Some very pretty wines here and a couple of very nice seconds, too: Haut-Bailly’s La Parde and l’Esprit de Chevalier.
Then Malartic Lagravière, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut-Bailly itself and Smith Haut Lafitte—most of these actually looking pretty good value, too, as it happens. Not investment-grade wines? Definitely drinking grade.
There is distinctly more matter and concentration here, the combination
of fleshy richness and sinew to win over Andrew. And me.
Our scores for the commune were notably high, and there are some very fine, mostly, I would say, long-term prospects here, Andrew’s “density” and “splendor” wines.
As for names—a bit like St-Julien in most vintages—there are too many good wines to mention. You’ll just have to look at the notes. It is the standout commune in the vintage.
Plenty of good wine here, too; indeed, I am surprised that in many cases I scored them, most unusually, quite a bit higher than Andrew.
More of a “chaotic maze” (I like that) for him, than for me on this occasion.
The top wines performed very well, though tannin remains an issue for me in many, whether extract- or oak-derived.
But my palate was less exhausted by it than usual. The best are lovely.
Worth noting are two excellent grands crus we both enjoyed very much: La Gaffelière (a particular favorite for me, as you can see) and Larcis Ducasse.
Andrew loved them—his other top 2017 category—while Simon and I felt this is overall a very good vintage but not exceptional.
It is not 2015. But there is, as both Andrew’s and Simon’s notes and comments show, much that will give considerable pleasure.
We all agree (I tasted but didn’t formally note) on Lafaurie Peyraguy, Coutet, and Suduiraut as the top trio, with Rayne Vigneau a close contender.
There is, however, a great deal of very fine Sauternes on the market, at very good value for its quality. But I do agree with Andrew: “Buy the best, start soon—you won’t be disappointed.”
Within a broad overall agreement, I have a bit more of a Left Bank bias: I am happier with Margaux, and probably Pauillac, than Andrew is; a bit less so with Sauternes.
Pomerol is the star for us both. The wines have less charm in bottle than from barrel. Acidity is the issue: Many of the wines are austere in the context of today’s warmer Bordeaux climate.
The higher up the hierarchy you go, the better the wines are—no surprise there, of course, but the quality divergence is more pronounced than in recent vintages.
That said, we have both scored plenty of wines as “very good” (89–92) and no small number in the low to mid-90s, so there will be much to enjoy: drunk cool, relatively early, for lovers of the fresh, lighter examples, and for the more patient as part of a varied claret palette in the cellar.
More than a fair number of unlovely ducklings early on, but there will be swans to surprise us on the horizon.
My colleague Michael Schuster will have resumed the intricacies of the weather pattern of the vintage admirably—and in this complicated year, it is well worth mugging up on all the details Michael has provided.
The broad outlines are that April frosts cut the crop cruelly (40 percent down on 2016), and July and August were cooler than usual; the first half of September was either wet or overcast.
This means small crops (so few wines lack concentration or taste dilute) but something of a heat deficit when it came to building a ripe, glowing core in the wines in high summer.
Most wines lack that core and taste cool and edgy.
I will also forego my usual lecture about the unfairness of the 100-point system in large, intricately hierarchized regions like Bordeaux on those who find themselves further down the hierarchy—though I would stress, in this vintage among all vintages, that there is no dishonor in a score of 87 or 88.
Complicated vintages requiring a lot of vineyard work and discipline tend to favor the best-resourced vineyards, and this is certainly true of 2017.
That’s point one.
Vintages where ripeness is not a given and has to be solicited and fought for tend to favor the best-situated vineyards, the “greatest terroirs.”
That’s point two.
Initial conclusion: There are few bargains in 2017.
The best wines almost uniformly come from the best-sited, most prestigious properties, whose favored vineyards were lavished with attentions when they needed it.
If you want some 2017 in your cellar, buy the great names. This is not, in general, a vintage to buy second wines.
But do you, in fact, want 2017 in your cellar?
With the exception of the wines of two particular communal appellations (of which more below), this is not a vintage I would seek out.
It is true that many wines taste concentrated, classical (in a 20th- century sense), and authoritative or striking, but few of them are comfortable, affable, companionable, gourmand, or delicious.
Most are leaner than I like; some are green.
Almost all are acid-structured; some are shrill.
These characteristics will not lessen with age. Quite the contrary.
In particular, Cabernet in the Médoc (especially in Margaux and St-Estèphe, though for different reasons) needs ample warmth to ripen satisfactorily, and it didn’t quite find it in this vintage; Cabernet often limped home.
St-Emilion is the highest-sited part of classical Bordeaux, so it, too, needs
a summer generosity that wasn’t always on offer.
Merlot, moreover, is a variety with an earlier cycle than Cabernet, so it often began to reach ripeness in the complicated weather of early September.
So, in summary form:
1. St-Estèphe, Margaux, and St Emilion are difficult zones of wildly varying achievements.
Ripeness is far from a given, and acidity can be overweening in the two Médoc subregions, meaning potentially thin, bony wines within a decade.
There’s a bit of everything in St-Emilion, and stylistic ideals are sometimes confused; the cooler sites certainly struggled, but those whose vineyards lie in such sites were sometimes struggling in turn to make deep, dense wines, and the results are chaotic.
The skilled in St-Emilion, though, have found their way through the maze.
2. St-Julien, Pauillac, and particularly Pessac-Léognan (with its Merlot/Cabernet parity) had a slightly easier time of it, and a small number of excellent wines has been made in the fresh, vivacious and “classical” style.
3. And then there is Pomerol; and then there is Sauternes.
Ah! Here, 2017 has an altogether merrier ring to it.
Not everywhere in either subregion; you still needed a great site. But for me, very good (collectible, cellar-worthy) wines have been made in both of these favored regions in 2017. This is the best of 2017.
Pomerol, which lies at a lower altitude than much of St-Emilion, seems to have received the warmth it needed to get its Merlots and Cabernet Francs satisfyingly ripe—and then the concentration and the overall freshness that was the birthright of the year paid dividends.
It has made wines of density and sometimes even of concentrated splendor.
(I regret that my sample of Figeac was corked and that I’ve tasted nothing else from the Taillas subzone: no Cheval Blanc, no La Dominique, no La Tour du Pin Figeac or the other small properties thereabouts. I suspect that good or very good 2017 wine could have been made in this particular part of St-Emilion, since it is so close to Pomerol and lies at comparable altitudes.)
Sauternes had to play a waiting game and ended up with extravagant sweetness set against relatively muted acidity—but acidity is not the only factor of balance in a wine, and I believe that the fruit qualities and the aromatic layering of the best wines, as well as the presence of botrytis and their sheer concentration, has lent them all the complexity they need to carry their sugars to a point of epiphany.
(In any case, acidity is still there—it is 2017, after all…)
I grant that it may not be a long-lived vintage in Sauternes, but on the hedonistic index there is so much that is so wonderful in these wines to enjoy so soon for—relatively speaking—so little that I feel happy with my generous scores.
(They are certainly affable, companionable, gourmand, and delicious.)
If you love Sauternes, buy the best and start soon—you won’t be disappointed, I promise.
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