“A once in a lifetime vintage”
Published April 2017 - Andrew Caillard MW
“a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.”
Every now and again one stumbles across a paradox that confounds the accepted natural order of things. The 2016 Bordeaux vintage was born out of a growing season that was near-catastrophe and near-perfection.
After the Hesperian Dragon’s relentless torment, the Titan god Atlas had seemingly kept the sky aloft with the help of a Phoenix. Following five months of diabolical weather patterns, a warm to hot dry summer arrived in the nick of time, not only saving a vintage, but creating one of the most spectacular vintages in a lifetime.
The sense of relief in Bordeaux must have been as thrilling as avoiding the bullet of Russian Roulette, or the adrenalin of surviving a base-jump. The razor’s edge has never been so exquisitely fine. While the end result is not always perfect, with the odd abrasions here and there,
|'the overall quality of the 2016 Bordeaux vintage is remarkably consistent with many Chateaux making some of their best wines in 50 years.'|
Typically, the wines have deep colours, pure fruit aromatics, generous saturated flavours, dense rich tannin structures and bell clear acidities. Precision, freshness, elegance, smoothness and “delicate opulence” are words that are being used by various Chateaux to describe their wines.
The Bordelais are, of course, the world’s greatest spin doctors. They leave snake charmers for dead when it comes to the art of mesmerising. The newly opened and impressive Cité du Vin, which sits on the banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux, sparkles like a polished turd; a monument to the exaggerations and optimism of this particular type of fine wine game. Momentum is achieved through belief. There is no room for wavering or self-doubt.
This year, the absence of the much loved Paul Pontallier at Chateau Margaux, is keenly felt. What would he have said about this perplexing and brilliant 2016 vintage? There is simply no reference in the span of a lifetime.
|'Yet the body language, the rapid gestures and excitable eyes of wine makers and proprietors across the region fully express a confidence and enthusiasm not seen since the filming of “Red Obsession” six years ago, during the 2010 vintage primeurs.'|
2016 In The Vines
The growing season was marked by three lucky events; even-flowering, a hot dry summer and miraculous rainfall on the 13th September. The 2016 vintage outcome was a product of a violent swing between El Nino and La Nina weather patterns. After an unseasonably warm November and December, the new year brought with it a six-month deluge of relentless rains and storms. The saturated nitrogen-primed soils allowed for even budburst and “uniformity of shoots”, apparently an exceptional phenomenon according to Bill Blatch a seasoned observer of the Bordeaux growing season and a source for this report.
Unlike the misfortunate Burgundians, frost damage was extremely limited. Only the lower lying vineyards in Graves, Sauternes and the right bank suffered any damage on the nights of 7th, 17th and 28th April and most of it was minimal. It was nothing compared to the devastating and historic frosts across France including Burgundy, Chablis and the Loire Valley in late April.
A dry spell in early June allowed flowering to take place quickly and evenly. Nonetheless by the end of June over 80% of Bordeaux’s annual rainfall had bedraggled the surrounding vineyards. The humid weather and threat of mildew and grape worm was further compounded by soggy impassable soils which prevented the use of tractors to open up the leaf canopy and treat the vines.
Although growers were on tenterhooks throughout May and early June, the weather switched from the great wet to the great dry on the 20th June. Bordeaux then experienced the driest summer since 1893. With more sunshine than usual, warm-to-hot zephyr like weather and cool nights allowed the vines to catch up with seasonal expectations. Veraison occurred after two light showers in late July and early August.
At first the soil moistures and warm dry conditions accelerated growth but by mid Summer and two heatwaves (12th-16th, 22nd- 27th August) the available water was greatly reduced leaving the vines to struggle. By late August drought conditions were beginning to threaten the outcome of the vintage. Vines with established deep root systems, particularly into water-retaining clay sub-soils, continued to perform well, but younger vines on more free draining sandy and gravelly soils began to suffer.
Some vineyards closed down into survival mode but most experienced moderate water stress, which has the effect of redirecting the vine’s energy into ripening the grapes and building colour, flavour and tannin. The cool nights – crucial to the success of the vintage - protected aromatics and acidities.
Early September was hot and dry but “miraculous rains” fell on the 13th which allowed the vines to refresh and rebalance. Cool autumn conditions prevailed through to vintage promoting freshness and perfectly balanced and healthy fruit. Perfect weather conditions during vintage allowed winemakers to take an unhurried “à la carte” approach to harvesting.
Vintage began around the 22nd September in Pauillac. Ch Haut Bailly began picking merlot on the 26th September. The petit verdot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon were harvested from the 11th October onwards, finishing around the 20th October. At Chateau Ausone the vintage started later on the 10th October with the final cabernet franc being picked on the 19th October.
Veronique Sanders of Haut Bailly describes the merlot grapes as having “a good size” and the cabernets being “very small.” Cabernet sauvignon is clearly the star performer in this vintage with its extraordinary skin to juice ratio and freshness. As a consequence the Left Bank, being more cabernet sauvignon dominant, has produced some of the most impressive wines of the 2016 vintage.
|'A unique, dramatic and elongated 2016 growing season is typified by wines of remarkable beauty, richness and tension.'|
The pure dark fruited pastille-like fragrance, juicy flavours, dense silky tannin structures and persistent acidities are a feature of the vintage. The balance between elegance and power are often exquisitely poised. It doesn’t take too much imagination to predict the aging trajectory of these impressive and beautiful wines.
The Cabernet sauvignon dominant left bank appears to have an edge. St Estephe, Pauillac and St Julien produced wines of expressive dimension and “dynamic freshness.” Nonetheless all of the sub-regions have made impressive and singularly beautiful wines. This includes the merlot dominant sub regions St Emilion and Pomerol.
Although I have tasted through many of the great chateaux wines already, I am only half way through the 2016 Primeurs tastings.
|'Highlights already include Ch Mouton Rothschild, Ch d’Armailhac, Ch Pontet Canet, Ch Leoville Lascases, Ch Ducru Beaucaillou, Ch Haut Bailly, Ch Figeac, Ch Cheval Blanc, Ch Canon, Ch Petrus and Ch Lafleur.'|
The highly competitive nature of wine criticism and cultural differences will no doubt result in disagreements and debate. The 2016s are still incredibly youthful and unevolved wines. Generational change will also lead to new perspectives. Ten years ago, some commentators would have made comment about the linear freshness of the vintage. But the goal posts have changed and Bordeaux is making more modern and approachable wines than ever before.
Having tasted through many of the most well known Chateaux of Bordeaux I am impressed by the presence, impact and energy of the wines. Although elemental in nature they have the aromatic complexity, density and fine structure for aging. At such a young age they are utterly delicious wines to drink – a sure sign of potential.
Exit polls, or good old gossip in the trenches, already show that the quality of the 2016 vintage matches up with the local enthusiasm and excitement.
|'Whatever the universal verdict – atypical, classic, great or even overstated – the wines are unique and utterly compelling.'|
I am perfectly sure that these wines, the product of an extreme paradox of weather conditions, will bring great pleasure and excitement to any one who loves Bordeaux or great wine. Our Langton’s 2016 Bordeaux Primeurs Campaign is not to be missed!
Andrew Caillard MW,