While quantity can be estimated in the run-up to harvest, quality is more difficult to gauge until the wines are lying safely in barrel. Much has been written about the severity of the spring frost that swept through the Côte d’Or in April last year, coinciding with a tender stage in the vine’s cycle when buds break. Fruit losses were of a magnitude unprecedented in living memory. Starting our three weeks of tastings not knowing what to expect, it was a relief to see smiles on many growers’ faces. Whilst certain appellations did lose much of their crop, others largely escaped the frost. The quality is high, with wines of typicity and energy.
The late and much missed Charles Rousseau had been the oracle on the style and characteristics of a vintage. He has passed this ability on to his granddaughter, Cyrielle, who describes the 2016s “like good friends, they are very comfortable”. This is an apt description for the red wines: they are beautifully perfumed, with supple tannins, moderate alcohol and subtly fresh acidity. In general, the red wines are not powerhouses, but well-balanced Pinot Noirs that will not only give pleasure in their youth, but will also make old bones.
While certain white wine appellations bore the full brunt of the frost, there is yet much to be happy about. The white wines have an intensity and richness from their low yields, but with a line of fresh acidity. Many growers describe them as a cross between 2014’s freshness and 2015’s richness. Whilst this might be a slight oversimplification, the comparison does have its merits. Marion Javillier’s comments rang true: “whilst not necessarily a vintage for keeping long-term, the wines are a fine reflection of their origin and terroir”.
The winter of 2015/16 was nothing exceptional. It was slightly wetter than average, which is no bad thing. Soils with better water holding capacity built up reserves of moisture, which helped them sit out the drier summer months.
The greatest influence and talking point for this vintage was the late spring frost. 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, described it as the worst type of frost imaginable, the like of which had not been seen in living memory. The severity of the cold (just -4 °C) was not the root cause of the devastation but the first of three factors that combined to have an enormous impact. The second was the rainfall the previous evening 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 film of ice acted as a magnifying glass and the sun’s penetrating rays scorched the newly formed buds. The result was drastically reduced yields in some of the region’s greatest sites.
The vagaries of nature are an extraordinary thing. We heard stories of certain vineyards losing almost 100% of their potential crop whilst neighbours escaped with minimal damage. Unusually in 2016 some of the finest grands crus, such as Le Musigny and Le Montrachet, were among the worst affected. In the Côte de Beaune, Chassagne Montrachet, St Aubin and Savigny were devastated, whilst misty fog and cloud cover acted as a sunscreen protecting the majority of Puligny Montrachet’s vineyards. In the Côte de Nuits, Chambolle Musigny and Marsannay were decimated whilst some estates in Morey St Denis enjoyed higher yields than in 2015.
The Burgundians pride themselves on their vineyard management and, whilst the 2016 crop could not be fully clawed back after such a frost, the natural health of their vines allowed them to recover in the best way possible for the remainder of the growing season.
Although a little later than usual in certain sectors, flowering took place in ideal conditions, followed by some welcome rain in June. In contrast July and August were dry, which did nothing to help the already low yields. Some much-needed rainfall in early September helped the final development of the vines and the harvest took place in a remarkable late burst of heat.
The best winemakers coaxed out the nuanced differences between terroirs so that a complex and intriguing picture of the region and its beautifully pure fruit has emerged. “Lightness of touch” and “respect” were the watchwords of the vintage. Whole bunch fermentation is increasingly in vogue for red wines and it was certainly a talking point this year. As ever it is hard to generalise in Burgundy and we saw its use vary across the region, with individual growers deciding cuvée by cuvée. The driving factor throughout the Côtes, from Thomas Bouley in Volnay to Cyril Audoin in Marsannay, was gentle fruit handling in the winery.
White wine domaines, mindful of the premature oxidation in the 1990s and early 2000s, are today extraordinarily attentive in the cellar. They seek above all to preserve the inimitable freshness and tension of the Côte d’Or. Some have reverted to a more traditional vertical press system; others eschew the once fashionable daily bâtonnage in a favour of more cautious lees management; and only the best closures are used. The net result is wines that will follow a natural evolution in the cellar unsullied by the faults that once troubled collectors.
I have enjoyed tasting this vintage enormously. It strikes me as quite unique in both character and quantity. Stylistically the reds defy an easy comparison to any recent vintage, whilst the whites fall somewhere between 2014 and 2015. It is the smallest vintage I have tasted for both red and white in my 25 years’ buying experience, much to my frustration as there are so many glorious wines.
The red wines are bright and charming with a noticeable red Pinot fruit component for the most part, although some do hint at darker fruits and richer substance. Certain wines from the lowest yielding vineyards have excellent concentration with a ripe tannic core affording them long-term ageing potential. In general, though, it is a very accessible vintage. Palates do seem to be changing (mine included!) and many of us are enjoying wines in their relative youth delighting in their striking primary fruit characters. The 2016s will appeal to all palates: there is serious ageing potential for the patient, and approachable crystalline fruit for the hasty.
The only criticism of the whites is that there isn’t enough in 2016. They may be a naturally early-maturing style, but the fine acidity will support development of complex tertiary Chardonnay characteristics. The majority have an appealing richness and layered viscosity, but their light, bright freshness energises the palate. They embody the quintessential pleasure of White Burgundy; their appeal was almost instantaneous when we tasted in the cellar.
To sum up, although we are sad that volumes are so small this year, we are delighted to be offering these wonderful wines that possess such great charm and balance.
David Roberts MW