Thibault Pontallier’s words, “An open vintage, not a shy one”, beautifully sum up the style of the wonderful wines from the hugely exciting 2016 vintage. This is a year where the wines are full of life and vibrancy. The fruit content is as pristinely pure as I can ever remember tasting at such an early stage. The tannins, in the words of the oenologists, are the equal to the great 2010 under analysis, but are totally wrapped up in the richness of their fruit.
But the most exciting thing of all is the wines’ freshness. I learnt many things from Thibault’s late father, Paul Pontallier, the brilliant wine director at Ch Margaux. But one that always stays in my mind is that great Bordeaux wines should possess a degree of freshness and vibrancy, which the 2016s most certainly have. This is what provides an added dimension to the very best wines this year and has helped create a style of huge class and distinction.
My full report, to be released following our second visit after Easter, will have a more comprehensive breakdown of the weather conditions which so crucially influenced these wines. In brief, the winter of 2015/2016 right up to June was a wet one, with much higher rainfall than normal. However, as summer arrived, a period of drought ensued, lasting right up to the middle of September. The replenished water reserves following the wet winter proved critical. This could be seen on the very best terroirs, where the water-retentive soils protected the vines from drought-stress and allowed healthy fruit development throughout this dry period. Revived by a healthy rainfall on 13th September, the vines were then treated to six glorious weeks of sunshine during the day and crisp cold nights through to the third week in October when last of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were gathered.
The temptation is to ask: “Is it a right bank or left bank year?” In 2016 this is the wrong question, for it is in fact a “terroir vintage”. The best vineyards and locations have absolutely excelled, from where there are some sensational wines in the making. In some instances, I firmly believe certain châteaux have made their greatest wines of the modern era. Others, whilst different in style, will comfortably stand alongside their great counterparts from the brilliant 2010 and 2005 vintages. But most exciting of all is that the 2016s stand alone in their style as a unique vintage.
Starting on the left bank, the most northerly of appellations, St Estèphe, has produced a superb selection of wines and arguably its most consistent range for many years covering such famous names as Cos d’Estournel through to Phélan Ségur. In Pauillac, although there was slightly less uniformity, the great names of Lafite and Mouton are totally worthy of their first growth classification and the wines are equal to the very best of the vintage. Properties such as Lynch-Bages and Grand Puy Lacoste rise well above their classification level. It is fair to say St Julien was a complete and utter hot spot; there is a sensational array of wines this year throughout the appellation, and it would be remiss of me to ignore the extraordinary quality of Léoville Las Cases, equal to its illustrious first growth neighbours in Pauillac. But similarly, Ducru Beaucaillou and Léoville Barton were absolute beauties, as were so many others. Ch Margaux itself was utterly amazing, and so it went on…
On the right bank, the highlight was most definitely the plateau of estates in Pomerol: Petrus, Vieux Château Certan, L’Evangile, La Conseillante, Gazin etc… I think I could go back and re-taste these every day for the next month and never get bored. In St Emilion, Canon’s star continues to shine, Ausone is exceptional and the new kids on the block L’If and Quintus have made their finest wines under their new ownerships; both were true delights. It is so easy to forget the wines of Pessac Léognan: here the white wines, such as Latour Martillac and Domaine de Chevalier, really caught my eye, whilst the reds from La Mission Haut Brion and Haut Bailly were also exemplary. We finished our week in Sauternes, where the extraordinarily refined Yquem reminds me of 1988’s characteristics: a beautiful year in its own right. And we adored Sigalas Rabaud and Climens amongst others.
We are hopeful for a relatively quick primeur campaign this year, with the bulk of the wines to be released in May. With the quality most definitely here this year, 2016 is a classic vintage for en primeur purchasing. The key component will certainly be pricing. Châteaux owners are aware that the exchange rate is not in the UK’s favour and as a market we are buyers of approximately 45% of a normal primeur release. The talk last week was that the proprietors will be sensitive to this, and their natural enthusiasm to increase prices will hopefully be curtailed. Suffice to say there are some irresistible wines this year, which will most definitely be finding a place in my own cellar.