Bordeaux 2016: vintage report
Utterly unique, our team has found the 2016 to be one of the most exciting vintages of recent years. Read their full report here.
The 2016 Bordeaux vintage is one of the most unique and exciting vintages in recent memory. From the barrel samples we tasted, the takeaway is that the wines possess elegance, glorious ripe red fruit, silky tannins, lower alcohol than in previous years and vitality. The energy of these wines is their selling point, with many displaying a pleasing freshness which will delight lovers of traditional Claret.
After big blockbuster vintages such as 2005, 2009 and 2010, this is a return to what the Bordelais do best: producing wine with power, concentration and freshness. Although the wines possess the characteristics of a hot vintage – dark, deep colours, ripe fruit and structure – there is a drinkability to these wines which makes them glorious to taste.
Quality is uniform across both Left and Right Banks, but if we had to be pushed on the wines we enjoyed the most, we would say the further up the Médoc we travelled, the better the wines tasted. We were notably impressed by those that had vines on clay soil, which retained the water during the vintage’s long, dry summer. In that regard, Pomerol excelled.
Berry Bros. & Rudd’s Buying Director Max Lalondrelle wrote ahead of the en primeur tastings that 2016 would be marked by having lots of body and dark juicy fruit, flavours such as blackcurrants and cassis, and finishing with a huge amount of freshness. He was right.
Stylistically it is very difficult to compare it with previous vintages. Some say it is like 2010 with more freshness, others that it has the freshness of 1986. Some producers even go as far as to say that their wines are better than in 2010. What we do know is that in 2016 Bordeaux produced a different style of vintage. As Max Lalondrelle says, 2016 is “unique” and offers a return to a lighter, fresher style and a move away from the larger extracted styles and heavy use of oak found in the early 2000s.
The Bordelais know they have a very good vintage on their hands, but they are also aware of the market conditions and the external pressures in terms of economics. Let us hope that the châteaux get the pricing right, as there are some glorious wines which will give a great deal of pleasure over the next 20 years.
Stéphane Derenoncourt, the international wine consultant, described the 2016 growing season as a “small miracle”. Certainly by the beginning of spring, vignerons up and down the Medoc were worried. This is because the winter was mild, but extremely wet. But they needn’t have been concerned, as the weather significantly improved in the second half of the growing season.
Rainfall during the months of January and February was above average for the last 30 years and the average temperature was also higher than usual. This meant the soil’s water reserves were restored for the start of the growth cycle.
March brought cool temperatures. This, coupled with the water-logged soil, meant that bud break was delayed until the last week of the month. The low temperatures continued until May which slowed phenological development; but, despite the coolness, there was still a very high risk of disease. The poor weather continued into the early part of May but fine weather follows rain and, by chance, there was a window of dry weather between the 3rd and 11th June. At Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste flowering took place in sunny and warm conditions with the temperature climbing to 30°C. Bunches were homogenous and the number of seeds greater than average. After three days of rain in mid-June, the fine weather continued throughout July and August which ensured a uniform setting of the fruit.
From then on it was a pretty clear run. The summer was hot with a great deal of sunshine, 30percent more compared with an average year, and August saw temperatures 5°C higher than usual. It was also very dry. Two factors helped the grapes significantly: night time temperatures were much cooler than the norm and the high water table meant the grapes could cope with the dry weather. The grapes changed colour (véraison) in early August during good weather. This exceptional weather helped the accumulation of anthocyanins in the skins and sugars in the pulp, while limiting the degradation of aromas and acids in the grapes.
Rain returned only fleetingly in September, on the 13th and towards the end of the month, which gave a new impetus to ripening, helping the Cabernet Sauvignon and late ripening Merlot. From then on the glorious weather continued until harvest. The good weather meant that vignerons were in no hurry to pick the grapes and had the luxury of picking in the sunshine at perfect ripeness without the threat of disease. In the Graves and Pessac-Léognan, harvest began at the beginning of September. The red wine harvest began in the third week of September with most of the picking taking place in the first week of October. Overall yields were much higher than in 2016 and vignerons – despite being pessimistic after a very wet winter – were uniformly delighted with the crop.
Stylistically the red wines in 2016 are very attractive with luscious red fruit, ripe tannins, lower alcohol levels than in previous years and a vitality. In short, they are a joy to taste. The growing season meant that acidity levels are high, which gives a glorious ribbon of freshness throughout the best wines. The Bordelais talk a lot about freshness, but in 2016 they really did achieve it. These are wines that leave a cool sensation on the tongue, leave your palate feeling refreshed and, dare I say it, wanting a second sip. We kept noting down descriptors such as elegance, purity, finesse and vitality.
The colour and concentration are both good and the wines have tremendous intensity, but there is a pleasing energy about the 2016s. As Jean-Michel Cazes of Ch. Lynch-Bages says, this is possibly the most unique vintage in his career: “In terms of colour, concentration and tannin I have never seen anything like it,” he said.
It’s difficult to say whether it is a Left or Right Bank year. There is quality everywhere in 2016, but those communes which have a higher proportion of clay, which is best for water retention, have performed well. We found wines of the greatest consistency in St Estèphe, Pomerol, St Julien and Pauillac – but there were also good wines in Pessac-Léognan and St Emilion.
In contrast to previous vintages such as 2015, 2010, 2009 and 2005, there is greater definition and freshness, but the quality is right up there with those years. These wines have purity, elegance, supple tannins, crisp ripe fruit and a long, persistent aftertaste. In the best properties, this aftertaste lasts several seconds.
It’s not really possible to find a completely comparable vintage. Buying Director Max Lalondrelle describes it as unique, with freshness rather than power. Some of the wines will be drinking quite early but they all have the potential to age for many years. These are dynamic wines that will give a great deal of pleasure.
The dry white wines of Bordeaux traditionally perform well when the weather is slightly cooler during the growing season. We found the 2016s to have less acidity than the previous three vintages, but were well balanced with good concentration of colour. Sémillon performed better than the Sauvignons, whose aromas were somewhat neutralised by the hot summer. The Sémillon added weight and texture to the final blends, with deep vinous notes of stone fruit.
There is, however, a trend towards a greater proportion of Sauvignon Blanc. Those that have excelled, like Domaine de Chevalier, have produced elegant wines, concentrated and very precise in intensity. At Ch. Haut-Brion the wine is bursting with energy and shows a lovely mineral persistence. The finest manage to combine good power, an herbaceous element and a suave texture with fantastic weight and balance, displaying an appealing citrus character, vivaciousness and a pleasing saline freshness.
The sweet wines of Sauternes performed well in 2016 with good quality, an attractive purity of fruit and the highest yields since 2009. The rain in mid and late September enabled noble rot to develop on the ripe grapes. Picking took place in late October in good weather and continued until early November. Quality is high but not homogenous, with the most impressive wines sharing the characteristics of the reds – having an attractive elegance, although perhaps not being as lively as the 2014s or as structured as the 2009s. The very best wines here exhibit great purity, with candied fruit and power rather than bright aromatics.