What really excites is that whilst their quality stands alongside some of the very best vintages, the two are wonderfully different in their style and personality which offers additional appeal. I like variety and for my vintages to have differences and individuality. It is what makes the great wines from France's most famous viticultural region so delicious, so rewarding, and such a pleasure to collect.
Having visited Bordeaux the first week in April for the famed Union des Grands Crus tastings and then returning immediately after Easter, we have had the opportunity to taste all our favourite wines on a number of occasions. Even in such a short time young wines do evolve, and the excitement in my initial report has most definitely been confirmed on retasting: 2016 is a very high class vintage indeed. Thibault Pontallier of Château Margaux’s words, “an open vintage not a shy one” still ring true. He followed up by saying, “this vintage has it all, it smiled from day one…”
The word “terroir” can be a little overused in the world of wine. This great French term encompasses location of a vineyard, its soil, microclimate, and topography. In short, it is a property’s DNA. 2016 for me is one of the most terroir-driven vintages I have ever tasted en primeur.
This wonderful vintage is a total justification of the Bordeaux classification system. The greatest vineyards and locations stand out, showing the benefits of their extraordinary terroir; in particular, the banks of the Gironde in the Médoc, the unique clay plateau in Pomerol, and the mysterious mists of the Ciron in Sauternes.
This is a vintage with real personality. The very best reds have drive, a pristine purity, a delicious degree of freshness, a subtle bulk of tannins, and, with a sigh of relief, are not excessive in their alcohol content. The whites are quite simply gorgeous, and as fine an example of the combined qualities of the Sémillon and Sauvignon grapes that one can find. The delicious Sauternes and Barsacs have a balance and harmony reminiscent of the very fine 1988 vintage; the sugar content is there, but not to an extreme.
The winter of 2015/16 was a relatively mild and uneventful one. In fact the older vignerons would be tempted to claim that they would have preferred it to have been slightly harsher, but better that way than the cruelty of extreme frosts. The key early influence of the vintage was an unusually wet first 6 months of the year, with almost double the 20 year average rainfall for this period. Whilst a concern for disease, particularly mildew, in fact the volume of rain in the early summer months was one of the saving graces of the vintage, and the most defining influence on the success of the best located vineyards.
For, what followed from the 15th June once flowering was completed, right up to 13th September, was a period of drought. This is when terroir and vineyard location really count. Those vineyards with a strong core of clay in their soil (and therefore extra water holding capacity), and the well-positioned gravels near the river (which benefit from the higher water table) were able to sustain the vines and their vegetative cycle during these drier months. This helped the vines avoid hydric stress, which can impact on the efficiency of photosynthesis and a vine’s phenolic development. In simple terms the best located vineyards throughout the region came into their own and have made the most successful wines of the vintage.
It is fair to say though, that by September grey hairs were beginning to appear for many. Even the exceptional vineyards were beginning to look a little parched. Fortunately, a welcome downpour of rain came on the 13th September, replenishing the soils with much needed moisture and rejuvenating the vines. There then followed six glorious weeks of steady sunshine, with bright warm days and crisp cool nights allowing the harvest to take place in perfect conditions.
The other key factor for a great vintage is hours of sunshine and heat. In 2016 all of July, August, September and October enjoyed greater hours of monthly sunshine and warmer temperatures than the 20 year average. These are such critical ingredients for the development of the very best quality grapes and allowed fruit to be picked in perfect conditions.
The final part of the jigsaw for this vintage was the night time temperature in these crucial months. They were unusually cool: an undoubted advantage, as without this the sugar levels may well have risen to excessively high levels and conversely the acid levels would have been considerably lower than ideal. The net result is wines, particularly in the Médoc, of moderate alcohol levels at between 13 and 13.5%, and a fresh acidity, giving the 2016s a beautiful clarity of fruit.
Vintage conditions were as ideal as any winemaker could wish for. Most white winemakers picked their Sauvignons and Sémillons in perfect condition at the end of August and early September before the September 13th rainfall. The red harvest started with the Merlots around the third week in September followed by the Cabernets in early October ahead of a mid-October rainfall, in equally perfect conditions. Sorting tables were superfluous as this year’s bunches arrived in pristine health in their baskets back at the wineries. For the Sauternais this last bout of rain encouraged a final onset of glorious noble rot, that beautiful ingredient in making their fabulous sweet wines. Quite simply, nothing could have been better.
The very best reds have everything I look for in a wine. Firstly, and most importantly, is the fruit content. The 2016s have a wonderful pristine, crystalline purity. Next follows weight, texture and depth. This year the tannins are quite beguiling. All the winemakers commented that the level of tannins is comparable and in some instances above the hugely structured 2010 vintage, but because of their level of maturity (a late harvest vintage) you are almost oblivious to them, so beautifully entwined are they with the bright degree of freshness.
Finally, and most appealingly of all, is the delightful return of Bordeaux to slightly lower alcohol levels reminiscent of the great vintages of the past.
If I were to single out specific areas for their absolute quality, the plateau of Pomerol has produced as great a range as I have ever seen before. St Julien is at its consistent best producing a faultless selection. The same can be said of St Estèphe. In Pauillac, Margaux, and Pessac Léognan, due to their greater size, there is a little more variation. But the best vineyards have excelled.
I love the white wines. If you have a cellar full of white Burgundy and are seeking some variety, this is definitely the year to make a foray into Bordeaux. The combined benefits of the zesty zingy Sauvignon Blanc and breadth and volume of the fruit flavours from the Sémillon combine beautifully to create wines of extraordinary harmony. A hugely exciting vintage for white winemakers and lovers alike. These 2016s will give delicious youthful pleasure, but certainly have the ability to age, redolent of great white Bordeaux of old.
The Sauternes are my style of vintage, bringing back memories of the glorious 1988s. They are both years which produced wines with a delicious degree of sweetness, harmonious and honeyed, but not to excess. They have a refinement and purity and for me will be irresistibly approachable almost immediately after bottling, but as always will age with grace and class.
It is somewhat difficult not to sensationalise this wonderful vintage. It would be wrong to say that the quality is uniform, but the very best wines are of extraordinary quality. Singling out quality alone, 2016 is most definitely an en primeur vintage: these are wines that will age extremely well and reflect the classical characteristics of their vineyard origins.
As I put pen to paper, the first leading classified growth Ch Cos d’Estournel has released its 2016, taking the lead by not increasing its ex-château price on the fine 2015 vintage, despite making an exceptional wine this year. A positive move indeed and we hope that as many châteaux as possible follow their lead. In reality, each estate will consider carefully its position and 2015 price. We are aware that a number of overseas markets are showing genuine interest in increasing their purchases for the 2016s, but the UK still accounts for 45% of the Bordeaux en primeur market. A strong voice indeed and we remain hopeful that we are being listened to.
We hope for a speedy campaign, with the core of the leading properties coming out in the last two weeks of May and early June. This is a high-class vintage and I can hardly curtail my keenness to go back to Bordeaux again to have another quick glance at the very best that 2016 has to offer.
David Roberts MW
As I write we have just heard reports of widespread frost damage across the Bordeaux region. In the week following Easter it was the vineyards of the Loire, Chablis and Champagne that were fighting for survival, but two consecutive nights of freezing temperatures on 26th and 27th April have had a serious impact in Bordeaux. Early reports are that the damage is widespread, with particularly hard hit regions including St Emilion, the southern Médoc, and Graves, where losses of up to 50% are being reported, and some on the Right Bank even facing as much as 100% loss. This is a truly devastating situation for the growers, and it will influence their decision-making around their 2016 volume and pricing for en primeur. And it will make this one of the most unpredictable campaigns of recent years.