What you need to know about Bordeaux 2016 reds
One or two commentators and one famous Bordeaux consulting oenologist are calling 2016 the best red Bordeaux vintage since 1982. Hyberbole indeed.
Bordeaux lovers and collectors have become somewhat inured to these sorts of statements. A bit like Peter, if you cry ‘wolf’ too often no one believes you when you really mean it.
Calling a vintage as a whole so early might be considered a touch reckless or over-enthusiastic, but after all that's part and parcel of the en primeur sales promotion process. It’s the wine marketing equivalent of the Oscars and it’s entirely understandable that on the back of a fine production the main actors and directors will be inclined to think their most recent performances are the best ever. New-borns are always the most miraculous and beautiful in the eyes of mesmerised parents.
But more importantly, for a vintage to be considered truly great, we think it has to be utterly consistent at a very high level across all major appellations, and ideally, relatively speaking brilliant in a number of the smaller, less grand appellations too.
2016 is not a consistently brilliant vintage across the board.
Yet Bordeaux 2016 is in many ways the perfect foil to 2015.
At Chateau Latour. Picture: Wine Owners Ltd.
Whereas 2015 was particularly strong in Margaux and Pessac-Leognan, not to mention some of the satellite right bank communes, 2016 was especially strong in St. Estephe and Pauillac.
I’d go so far to say that 2016 was the best vintage since 1982 – but only in St. Estephe. That appellation really nailed it.
Pauillac was also fabulous, possibly unsurpassed, but we also found the wines to be very consistent at an extraordinarily high level in 2010, whilst it’s hard to imagine more complete wines than the heights achieved by many in 1989. With so many great vintages already present in the Pauillac trophy cabinet, we’re going to avoid phrases such as ‘best ever’. But 2016 Pauillacs are very, very good indeed and we are truly smitten.
St Julien is a commune of great consistency once again. It’s the perennial ‘safe pair of hands’ of Bordeaux, with all the major protagonists delivering very satisfying results with great regularity. 2016 was no different: a fine result all round. Overall we think 2016 is going to be better than 2015 with greater complexity and character, and is certainly the finest since 2010 or 2005.
The bits of the Haut Medoc appellation just north of St. Estephe and south of St. Julien produced a few terrific wines in 2016 as well. But this sprawling catch-all produces 33,000,000 bottles of wines a year from 4,600 hectares and spans 29 communes across the Medoc peninsula from top to bottom, taking in the windswept mouth of the Gironde estuary to the grim warehouse agglomeration north of the city, so don't be surprised that quality is extremely variable.
Moulis and Listrac produced a few strong contenders this year too, showing none of the astringency associated with average vintages.
Margaux is a commune with a range of geographies that commonly delivers a corresponding patchwork of results. This year the wines presented as relatively bland and middle-weight, a bit of a disappointment after the stunning result achieved across the board in 2015.
Those who didn't buy Margaux in 2015 will want to revisit at some point. Nonetheless the small number of highlights were exciting to taste for their aromatic complexity and lightness of feel –consequently they are elegant, refined wines.
Chateau Margaux, framed. Picture: Wine Owners Ltd.
South of the city in Pessac-Léognan, the wines were a bit of a mixed bunch too. Some presented as truly beautiful examples of classic claret, threaded with fine acidity, moreish thanks to sherbetty fruit, but I thought 2015 was a stronger overall vintage for this large appellation, whose production has increased 3-fold in the last 40 years.
On the right bank, in St. Emilion and Pomerol the homogeneity of the vintage is less clear. I tasted less wine here, though many that I did were gorgeous: beautiful wines with up to a full percentage point less alcohol than in 2015. But others with loaded tannins left a faintly bitter fingerprint on the mid-palate, whilst a few seemed just a touch too powerful and black-hued. The impression I got is that the difficulty of the summer drought was much more evident here and there when compared with the left bank.
The summer drought was a period during when the plants shut down and compensated their lack of water by producing more tannins. The best results on the right bank will have been achieved by gentle handling of the fruit during fermentation preceded by a rigorous triage of those berries showing any signs of surmaturité.
Frédéric Faye at Chateau Figeac describes their fermentation process as an ‘infusion’ with the gentlest of extractions achieved from the submerged cap, and no pigeage. This seems to have been an ideal approach in a vintage of climatic extremes such as 2016.
Is it a coincidence that my two favourite right bank wines, Cheval Blanc and Figeac, both include cabernet sauvignon, in the case of the former, for the first time ever? On the other hand I didn’t taste the top Mouiex wines or Le Pin, which I gather all showed brilliantly, so clearly many factors, including resisting picking too early to avoid a harsh edge to the tannins, were at play in this vintage.
Generalising, 2016s show greater freshness than 2015, and so come across as more delineated and complex.
"Saint Estephe made its best wine EVER in #Bdx16". Picture: Wine Owners Ltd.
Finish is one of the most desirable attributes in a wine that is expensive and sought-after in equal measure. Acidity helps in this regard, freshening sweet, ripe fruit, lending energy to the wine, and accentuating a lingering finish. Persistence and focus are the hallmarks of 2016. Whereas 2015 right bank wines tended to a somewhat alcoholic finish, overall there’s more control to the finishes in 2016.
The balance of the best 2016s is exquisite, with a mass of ripe fruit coating the very substantial tannins of the year. The vintage’s trademark freshness makes each wine’s character more discernable, and at this stage of the wines’ evolution it’s natural to want to pick those out as personal favourites.
My favourites were also the wines that combined the vintage’s ripe briar, cassis and black cherry fruit characters with a sense of minerality and a fine line of acidity threaded through the ensemble.
Much has been said of the volume of wine produced in 2016. Production is up on 2015, but much of that comes from a very ‘hard’ and uniform fruit set that led to larger than normal bunches, i.e. with a greater number of berries per bunch than normal, but with berries of only a moderate or smaller than average size. Production volume, assumed by some to be a potentially negative factor, is a red herring in 2016.
Consequently the juice to skin ratio is no higher than normal, and 2016 has the highest ‘IPT’ numbers of any modern vintage. IPT is a measure of the combined phenolic compounds in the juice - principally tannins and anthocyanidans (colorants responsible for the red, purple and blue hues in grapes).
When all is said and done, there are plenty of exciting wines to pick from this year. I suspect many will close down with a bit of time in bottle with all that underlying structure, no matter how well resolved and integrated the tannins tasted at this early stage in a great many of the wines. Nevertheless, the tannins are generally not quite as silky as in 2015, though they are richer. 2015 may therefore turn out to be more immediately gratifying, if ultimately less exciting.
Now it’s going to be down to release prices. After all, without an obvious and sizeable price advantage for buying early, there’s little or no logic in tying up large amounts of cash on unfinished wine. It’s improbable that prices won’t increase, but those increases may be rather more patchy than normal this year appellation by appellation. And if Chateau owners can resist taking too much of the upside off the table, they may well have a winning campaign.
The Bordeaux whispers suggest an early campaign, over by the end of June, which may lead many to hope for moderation of any price increases. We shall have to wait and see.
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