Mother Nature can be both extraordinarily cruel and unexpectedly kind, generous and thoughtful.
The night of 26th April is etched in the memories of vignerons throughout the Côte d’Or, Chablis, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâcon. Growers with over 50 years’ experience, such as Paul Pillot in Chassagne and Alain Tollot in Chorey, explained the worst type of frost imaginable had struck, the like of which has not been seen in living memory. The severity of the cold (just -4 °C) was not the root cause of the devastation but one of three factors that combined to create this catastrophe. The second was rainfall the previous evening and increased humidity in specific vineyards leaving moisture lying on the newly formed buds which froze overnight as the temperatures dropped. The third and final nail in the coffin was brilliant sunshine and the clearest of blue skies the following morning. The sun penetrated through the film of ice coating the buds, acting as a magnifying glass and scorching the newly formed buds.
There was destruction on a calamitous scale. The holy of holies, Grand Cru Le Montrachet, untouched by frost for 100 years, lost 50% of its crop in comparison to the previous vintage in a few short minutes. Savigny lès Beaune and Pernand Vergelesses lost up to 90%, as did certain vineyards in Chassagne Montrachet. In the Côte de Nuits, Nuits St Georges and Chambolle Musigny took the full force whereas their neighbour Morey St Denis was left largely intact.
Growers hit by the frost were left in a state of shock. Their neighbours, while hugely relieved, were almost embarrassed that they had escaped the ravages of this harsh act of nature. Thierry Pillot explained that it was almost beyond comprehension; the clarity of the sky when the sun rose in Chassagne was so beautiful and so devastating. Whereas the subtlest of cloud cover over Puligny acted as a sunscreen and protected many of its vineyards from the worst impact.
The result is that 2016 is one of the smallest harvests I have encountered in 25 years of buying en primeur Burgundy, both for white and red wines. However what nature took away on the one hand, it conspired to give back on the other. Thanks to the very small crop and a wonderful ripening season, the quality is quite simply gorgeous. The wines are bright and alive. It isn’t a vintage that can be easily likened to another, but it balances the best of the ripe fruit characteristics of 2015 with the racy freshness of 2014. The reds have a beautiful pinosity; they are vibrant, alive and full of energy.
The white wines are a little more inconsistent, but the best are bright and zesty, with beautiful floral, white fruit characteristics. They will give both youthful pleasure, and have the potential to age gracefully. The finest encapsulate the best of the Côte de Beaune.
The press may well focus on the vintage being a disaster due to the size of the crop. One domaine we visited in the Côte de Beaune who produce 250 – 300 casks in a good year, made just 27 barrels this year. Consequently, the financial pressures are huge. However, I would like to focus on the positives. There are some outstanding wines of which the growers are rightly proud. There will be pressure on stock and although prices will move, we hope they remain reasonable.
To conclude, after the horror of 26th April, none of us foresaw what a joy the 2016s would be to taste. We will be writing a full review with complete tasting notes for the en primeur release in the second week of January.