Bordeaux 2016 Vintage Report
A year of two halves
"The wine world can debate whether the 2016 vintage is better than 2015,
but the bottom line is that both years are excellent."
The declaration of another millésime du siècle has become commonplace in the Bordeaux primeur world; the word starts to circulate before the first grapes are picked and the volume builds until the tastings the following Spring when we, the merchants, have the chance to taste barrel samples and make up our own minds. In that respect, 2016 began much as any other year, but accompanied by an almost shy admission that the Bordelais have made something really very special, with most growers saying they had never seen the like.
The Growing Season - part one... a nail-biting start
So what made 2016 such an unusual vintage? It was very much a year of two halves, marked by opposing extremes of weather. Winter and Spring were wet and cool and remained so for quite some time; the water deficit of the previous few years was well and truly broken when 700mm out of an annual average 800mm fell in the first six months of 2016. The growers became increasingly worried by the threat of mildew – incredibly damaging to young leaves and bunches – and as fast as they treated their vines, the next lot of rain made an appearance. Whilst difficult for everyone, this made things particularly hard for organic and biodynamic producers with Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer, biodynamic since 2014, admitting that they had found it tough as they couldn’t treat all 66 hectares quickly enough, as a result of which they lost around 20% of their yield (interestingly, he blamed himself and their systems rather than either the biodynamic practices or, indeed, the weather).
Flowering took place during a short, drier, interlude, and was surprisingly successful; a brief moment of optimism in what was by this time a sea of gloom. However, unexpectedly, on 23rd June the rain stopped, the sun came out, and gradually temperatures began to rise, thereby closing the first half of this paradoxical season.
The Growing Season - part two... second half triumph
July and August were hot, indeed a degree or so hotter than 2015, but without any punishing heatwaves, always cooling down at night, sometimes by as much as 20oC from the day time temperatures. The plants revelled in this turn in the weather, buoyed up by the cooler night time temperatures and refreshed with their roots reaching into the replenished water table. For the three months from June to September, many areas registered just 10% of the average rainfall for the period and the majority of the vines coped easily with the heat. On the night of 13th September the hot spell was briefly broken by a spectacular storm which brought between 30 and 50mm of rain, depending on where the vineyards were, which served to refresh the vines again, unblock any which were suffering from the dryness and allow them to carry on maturing their fruit. After this, the sun returned, accompanied by a cool breeze, and much lower temperatures overall, and so it remained until the end of October, allowing the vignerons to choose their harvest date entirely according to the ripeness of the fruit, which, because of the cooler weather, was more extended than usual.
Thus ended the second half, the polar opposite of the first part of the growing season.
After such a hot summer, the expectation was for big wines with bags of fruit, huge tannins and raised alcohol from the rich sugar levels. What the growers found instead was that the cooler nights and available water in the soil had kept the grape acidity levels up whilst the sunny days had allowed the tannins and anthocyanins in the skin to ripen to extraordinary levels, resulting in wines with fantastically deep colours, rich flavours, ripe tannins and beautifully fresh fruit. The leitmotif of the vintage is freshly picked berries – redcurrant, blackcurrant, mulberry – in their most basic, freshest form, yet there is substantial structure behind. Tannins are super ripe and more present even than in the 2015s, however in many cases they were scarcely discernible, hidden by the fruit and counterbalanced by fresh acidity. The tastings weren’t easy, not least perhaps because we have become accustomed to a more flamboyant style from Bordeaux, yet at the end of each day’s tasting we weren’t exhausted by alcohol or rasping tannins, rather we were invigorated by the racy freshness and long finishes we had encountered. These are wines which are incredibly classic, a combination of old style Bordeaux allied with modern winemaking, giving elegance, finesse and balance; the best will make fine old bones, probably outliving many of us, whilst the smaller wines will give immense pleasure in the medium plus term and they will outlive the 2015s by some margin, not least because the ’15s are likely to be drunk younger because of their sweet ripe fruit. Several of the 2016s are some of the most balanced, intriguing wines I have seen from many properties in years.
Left or Right Bank?
Each year the pundits seek to define each new vintage as either a Right or Left Bank one. There is no doubt that 2016’s conditions favoured the Cabernets on both sides of the river and Cabernet Sauvignon, principally in the Médoc, was in a league of its own. As a result the vintage has been called by many as a Left Bank one. However the Merlots also fared extremely well, with relatively low alcohol and incredibly supple tannins and Cabernet Franc, principally on the Right Bank, was particularly successful. As with the Cabernet-dominant wines, there are spectacular instances where Merlot is the main contributor and we believe that it is very much a vintage for both sides of the river – a vintage of two halves indeed. A few of our favourite wines are Right Bank flagbearers, such as Bélair Monange, Tertre Roteboeuf, Roc de Cambes, Evangile, and on the Left Bank we were particularly taken by Issan, Calon Ségur, an incredibly modest Cos d’Estournel, Petit Mouton and all the wines from the Cazes stable.
As ever, no primeur campaign can be considered without a look to the market. Over the past year, partially due to Brexit and its effect on the Sterling / Euro exchange rate, the Claret market in the UK has boomed, focusing particularly on the upper echelons of the market, where there is renewed vigour in trading in physical stock of mature and maturing vintages. We have no doubt that prices will rise, no matter how much we may wish them to remain stable, not least because the exchange rate remains volatile and is liable to do so at least until the French elections are decided in early May. On the plus side, unlike in 2009 and 2010, when China was expected to buy big, there is no new player on the horizon which should help to rein in the excesses of the more ambitious proprietors and keep increases commensurate with the quality of the vintage. Given the interest we have seen so far, we expect demand for the classic blue chip properties to be as strong as ever.
Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW
Director of Buying, April 2017
Edouard Moueix pictured here with Nicola after our tasting
at the Ets Jean-Pierre Moueix offices on 4th April 2017.