2016 Bordeaux: It’s Now or Never, Baby
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | APRIL 25, 2017
The 2016 growing season presented château owners with plenty of
challenges, but ideal weather at the most critical time of the year made up for
the early struggles of the vintage. The best 2016s are deep and intense, yet
also pulse with a real sense of energy. For the 2016s to be successful in the
market, however, owners will have to be sensible with prices. That’s why for
Bordeaux It’s Now or Never, Baby.
The 2016 Growing
The 2016 growing season did not get off to an auspicious
start. Rain during the first three months of the year was three times the
historical average. Warmer than normal temperatures led to an early budbreak,
which is always a concern, as it exposes the vines to severe damage in the
event of frost. Temperatures dropped into the spring and vegetative growth
slowed. A window of serene conditions opened just in time for flowering, which
took place under benign conditions that allowed for a fast and even set.
Potential yields, which are always determined by the pre-formation of clusters
in the previous year, looked to be abundant.
Temperatures soared above historical averages during the
summer months, especially during July and August, both of which saw the vines
receive more sunlight than either of the two preceding vintages. Rain, such a constant during the early part
of the season, was essentially non-existent in July and August. Curiously,
while daytime temperatures were above historical averages, nighttime
temperatures were cooler than average, which is an unusual combination. Heat
and lack of rain took the vineyards into hydric stress and caused sugar
accumulation to stop.
Rains in mid-September could not have been more opportune. Parched
vines responded positively and ripening resumed. By this time, daytime highs
began to moderate while the nights remained cool. Average temperatures had
moved to below historical averages. One of the key elements of 2016 is that the
final phase of ripening took place in September and October, a time of year
when the days are shorter and the nights are longer than they are in July and
August. In 2016, this phenomenon was accentuated by wide diurnal shifts between
daytime highs and nighttime lows. Strong diurnal shifts are essential for the
development of color and aromatics.
Tour Saint Christophe
as seen from Barde-Haut, Saint Émilion
In most years, rain and disease pressure start to become an
issue in the fall, but in 2016, conditions remained stable throughout the end
of the season, which gave winemakers and vineyard managers the luxury of harvesting
at their choosing. The late harvest allowed for the full maturation of tannins,
one of the many hallmarks of the 2016 vintage. Most properties brought in their
fruit from late September to mid October.
As predicted, yields were generous across the board. One
exception is Cabernet Sauvignon. A number of winemakers commented that by the
time much of the fruit came in, the berries were small and the juice yields were
lower than expected. Quality in many cases is exceptional, but one result of
the lower yields in Cabernet is that a number of wines in the Médoc
have less Cabernet in their blends than normal.
Tasting the 2016
Mouton Rothschild in barrels from the main coopers used in the blend of Grand Vin
2016 Bordeaux: A Game
The 2016s are absolutely remarkable wines. The word that
comes to mind, unfortunately so often overused, is balance. In technical terms,
the 2016s boast off the charts tannins that in many cases exceed those of wines
from massive vintages such as 2010. And yet, the best 2016s are absolutely
harmonious, with the tannins barely perceptible at all. The 2016s also have
tremendous energy and bright, acid-driven profiles, with many wines playing
more in the red-fruit area of the flavor spectrum. One of the results of the
unusual growing season is that alcohols range from 0.5% to 1% lower than what
has been the norm in recent years.
From a stylistic standpoint, the recent vintage that comes
to mind is 2014, also a late-ripening year, but the 2016s have more mid palate
depth and greater density. Some observers
have suggested that 2016 is a hypothetical blend of 2009 and 2010, but I fear
that is mostly an attempt to recreate the hype of those two highly
speculative vintages. The 2016s don’t have the opulence or volume of the 2009s,
and although they are very tannic, they feel nothing like the overtly powerful,
Intuitively, it makes sense that a late-ripening vintage
might favor Cabernet Sauvignon, especially given the intense heat of the summer
that cause sunburn and overripeness in some of the Merlots. But a more in-depth
analysis reveals that 2016 has much to offer on both banks. Excellence is
highly correlated with quality of site, regardless of whether those vineyards
are on the Left or Right Banks. Specifically, moisture-retentive sites and
older vineyards with deeper root systems fared best.
Not all Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines are overachievers,
while many Right Bank wines are.
Many producers opted for longer macerations (time on the
skins) than normal, but at lower temperatures and with gentler extractions than
in the past. It will be interesting to see if one of the outcomes of 2016 is a
move towards greater finesse and less overt power than in the past. Almost all
of the winemakers I spoke with told me they think the 2016s are more a
reflection of the vintage than in any large scale changes in philosophy and
that the next time a riper vintage presents itself the wines will once again be
built on opulence. I am not so sure. Two thousand sixteen is a vintage that
will be thought provoking on many levels for years, and probably decades, to
The entrance to
Saint-Julien, where many of the finest 2016s of the Left Bank are found
The Left Bank:
If there is one commune on the Left Bank where quality is
exceptional across the board, it is without question Saint-Julien. Most
vintages have a sweet spot or two. In 2014, it was the northern Médoc,
in particular, that benefitted most from the Indian summer. Last year, quality
in Margaux was superb, as it was in a number of pockets on the Right Bank.
Saint-Julien is the unquestioned star of 2016.
An uncharacteristically refined Léoville-las-Cases and a gorgeous
Ducru Beaucaillou lead the pack, but
readers will also find a sublime Branaire-Ducru
an unusually exotic Beychevelle, a
fabulous Léoville-Poyferré, a regal Léoville-Barton, along with a
number of other stunningly beautiful, compelling wines. Even better, many of
the second wines from Saint-Julien are absolutely delicious and will give
readers a good look at the quality of the year before the big guns are ready to
deliver maximum pleasure.
Neighboring Pauillac is bigger than Saint-Julien, so quality
is naturally more variable, but the best Pauillacs are magnificent. Pichon-Lalande is a must-have, Mouton-Rothschild is tremendous, while Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Pontet-Canet
are all sublime. The 2016 Pauillacs are marked by extraordinary purity of
fruit, even among the lesser châteaux. Of course, it is very early, and
some of the rusticity that is found in the more modest properties may well
emerge over time, but today, the Pauillacs are quite impressive.
In Saint-Estèphe, the wines are very good, but
quality is mixed. Calon-Ségur and Phélan Ségur are both overachievers, but most other wines, while
excellent to outstanding, don’t necessarily punch above their weight. Montrose is still very raw to the point
of being monolithic, while Cos
d’Estournel is unusually delicate and medium in body. A number of less
touted properties did well in 2016, which is a positive, and also great news for consumers
looking for value, but overall, the Saint-Estèphes aren’t as consistently brilliant
as the wines of other appellations.
In the southern Médoc, readers will find plenty of terrific
wines from the better properties in Margaux, although 2016 is not the
across-the-board success that 2015 was. Macau, which is just south, is a
fertile hunting ground for value-priced reds that deliver high quality.
Nicolas Glumineau and his team made one of the wines of the vintage at
The Right Bank
I tasted a large number of absolutely stunning wines on the
Right Bank. The brutally dry summer was especially penalizing to younger
vineyards. Moisture retentive soils and vineyards with deep root systems where
the vines could access water during the summer did best. In some places, hydric
stress was highly problematic. I tasted some wines with a distinctly roasted,
overripe character, especially in Merlot, while the intense heat also afflicted
some of the Cabernet Franc. But where conditions were less extreme and where
producers were able to cull out lower quality fruit, the wines are simply
dazzling. The 2016 Right Bank reds are remarkably polished and sensual. Even
wines like Trotanoy that are often
broad and powerful show a level of finesse that is quite rare at this early
stage. In Pomerol, Vieux Château Certan, Le Pin, Pétrus, Lafleur and L’Eglise Clinet are all knockouts. Cheval Blanc, La
Conseillante, L’Evangile, Figeac, Pavie, Pavie-Macquin, Larcis Ducasse and Beauséjour Héritiers Duffau-Lagarrosse are among the most
exceptional wines of Saint-Émilion.
L’Evangile as seen
from La Conseillante, Pomerol
Pessac & Léognan
The theme of brightness, elegance and finesse carries over
the communes of Pessac and Léognan, where the wines are often powerful, virile,
and in some cases, also quite rustic. Smith
Haut Lafitte, Domaine de Chevalier
and Haut Bailly are both absolutely
brilliant, both in quality and personality, while La Mission Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion
express all the pedigree of their respective sites. Partially because of its
high percentage of Cabernet Franc and fermentation with whole clusters, Les Carmes Haut-Brion remains the most
distinctive wine of the sector.
Vialard and Véronique Sanders
Dry & Sweet Whites
As compelling as 2016 is for reds, it is a far less
interesting vintage for dry whites. The summer conditions were not favorable
for the production of high quality whites on a par with the best vintages. Sémillon
was especially challenged. For that reason, and in order to give the wines as
much freshness as was available, producers made a decision to favor Sauvignon
Blanc over Sémillon in the blends. Overall, the 2016 whites are blowsy and
lacking in both focus and energy. With a few exceptions, the 2016s come across
as wines that are best enjoyed on the young side.
The sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac fared better than
Bordeaux’s dry whites. Late season rains created good conditions for the onset
of noble rot. In general, the 2016s sweet wines are open-knit and gracious,
qualities that will make them easy to enjoy relatively early. I don’t see the
precision or energy of truly great years such as 2013, but 2016 is certainly a
pleasant, above average vintage with a number of overachievers.
Looking for Value
As always, most of the attention this time of year focuses
on Bordeaux’s top estates and most famous wines. But Bordeaux is so much more
than just 20-30 elite properties. Readers will find a bevy of affordable wines
in this article and my accompanying piece 2016 Bordeaux: 30 Top Values. The
Haut-Médoc and various satellite appellations on the Right Bank, most notably
Fronsac, are all worth discovering. These regions excel with delicious,
flavorful wines of real pedigree that the average consumer can still afford to
buy. Wines listed in Sleepers & Under the Radar Gems, while not all
inexpensive, do offer serious quality and tons of relative value.
The cramped cellar at
And Then There is the
The big question now for the 2016s is price. Every spring,
the same debates ensue around the market for Bordeaux wines. Some people
believe the en primeur system is broken,
obsolete, or both. I am more inclined to think issues with wines selling
through are more related to pricing than just structural factors. As of this
writing the few estates that have released pricing have done so at 2015 levels,
which is a highly encouraging sign.
This year there are a number of factors at play. One of
these is volume. In 2016, total production is estimated at around 6 million
hectoliters, which is equivalent to 800 million bottles of wine. Some of that
is, of course, very inexpensive, low quality wine. Even so, the numbers are staggering
when compared with other regions like Champagne (itself considered a very large
region) with its annual production of 330 million bottles, or Burgundy, which
produces around 200 million bottles (both red and white) in good year.
The UK, one of Bordeaux’s oldest and strongest markets, has
seen the GBP lose approximately 15% relative to the EUR over the last year. It
doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that even if prices remain
unchanged, the UK consumer is looking at 15% increase over the 2015s, which is
not an easy proposition. And of course, any meaningful increase over the 2015s
could be utterly crushing to the UK consumer’s interest in the 2016s. From what
I have been told by those in the know, interest in futures does not appear to
be especially strong across Asian markets. As if that were not enough, the
macro geopolitical and economic outlook in many parts of the world is best
described as highly uncertain.
Terracotta amphoras at
Les Carmes Haut-Brion, Bordeaux
In this climate, most businesses would take the sure cash,
even if it means sacrificing some upside. Who knows what the world will look
like when the 2015s and 2016s are sold in bottle, or what the 2017 harvest will
bring? No one. Châteaux that raise their prices by more than 5-10% in this kind
of environment are telling the world they don’t really need the money from the
futures campaign and have the financial wherewithal to handle sitting on unsold
wine. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but that is the message.
No one needs a $50
or $100 wine, much less a bottle that costs many times that. But we as
consumers are often willing to spend sums of money most normal people consider
insane for a bottle of wine. Why? Because of the intangibles that make the
world’s best wines the objects of desire. When it comes to Bordeaux, what I
hear most often from consumers is this: “Buying futures is not fun anymore.
Even if investment is not the main objective, consumers who
put down cash today for a wine that will be delivered in two years time and
then may need a decade or more to be at its best want to see some return on
that money. When owners raise prices to the level that virtually all of the
economic rents accrue to them, they leave very little potential upside for
members of the trade at various levels. For the consumer, wine is a passion, a
hobby. And some element of buying wine has to remain fun.
Two thousand sixteen presents a great opportunity for owners
to gain back a considerable amount of consumer confidence that has been lost in
past years largely through the excessive pricing of some previous vintages.
High production and an uncertain economic climate create easy, face-saving
reasons to keep price increases modest without tarnishing the prestige that
many estates have built up over time. If the 2016s do not sell well, it will be
a damning indictment that one or more things is seriously wrong with how the wines
are sold. That’s why 2016 is Now or Never for Bordeaux.
Tasting separate lots
from barrel at Canon-La Gaffelière,
How to Use These
Bordeaux en primeur
is a strange animal. Keeping in mind that most of the fruit was harvested
between the end of September and the middle of October, the 2016s were less
that six months old before they were presented as barrel samples to critics, journalists
and the trade. Tasting wines that are six months old and trying to project what
those wines will be like as bottled, finished products, much less what they
will develop into with time in bottle, is clearly more art than science. For
comparison, consider that in Burgundy, wines generally do not finish their
malos before the summer and are only presented to outside tasters a full year
or more after the harvest. In Napa Valley, I know of no single high quality
wine that is blended before the summer after the harvest, and even those are
preliminary blends that are rarely tasted by anyone outside the estates.
Châteaux have different ways of approaching en primeur tastings. Some properties present a finished blend that
is representative of the entire production while others make no effort to hide
that the en primeur samples are taken
from barrels that are raised specifically with the goal of being ready for the
spring tastings. Atmospheric pressure often plays a significant role in how
wines show. Too much sulfur and a sample may not show well, too little and a
wine can taste oxidized. I have also noticed that samples prepared in 750ml
bottles often show better than those presented in 375ml bottles. For these
reasons, I tasted many wines in this article more than once, some many more
than once, and visited a number of properties two times.
Readers should view these tasting notes and the accompanying
ratings as estimates as to a wine’s quality level and potential. Because the
wines are not finished, scores are presented in brackets rather than as a
single number. Scores are best interpreted for their directional value rather
than as absolutes.
The barrel room at
How to Buy Bordeaux
These are some tips on how to buy Bordeaux futures.
Work with Trusted
Always work with trusted merchants who have been in the game
for a long time. Buying Bordeaux futures, which involves paying today for a
wine you will receive in two years, involves a certain amount of risk. Not all
retailers are the same.
Readers are best served by working with retailers who have
been in the futures business for many years, or preferably, decades.
More Than Prices
Everyone loves a good deal, but shopping on price alone will
inevitably lead to disappointment, sooner or later. Establishing quality
relationships with merchants is the best way to ensure access to the most
coveted wines (from all regions) over the long term. That might occasionally
involve paying a little more for a wine here or there. Think of it as an
investment, and play the long game.
Be Meticulous About
I strongly advise readers keep receipts and use credit card
companies that have strong consumer protection policies.
I started tasting the 2016s in January of this year. Those
early tastings at a number of properties were a helpful means of getting an
early look at the style and personality of the year before the wines are
blended. For this report, I tasted the wines during the last week of March and
the first week of April. In general, my preference is to taste as late as
possible, especially for later-ripening vintages. I noted that many wines
showed at their best towards the end of my trip, which is something I also saw with
the 2014s. When wines are just five months old, a week between tastings can,
and often does, make a big difference.
This article would not have been possible without the hard
work of dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who work behind the scenes answering
emails, taking care of scheduling and making sure that all the details are perfect
when visitors arrive. Those efforts do not go unnoticed. I would like to thank
everyone how played a role in organizing and setting up my tastings.
2016 Bordeaux: Don't Miss
2016 Bordeaux: Sleepers & Under the Radar Gems
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2016 Bordeaux: 30 Top Values,
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2014 Bordeaux: A September Surprise, Antonio Galloni, February 2017
Mouton Rothschild: 2003-2015,
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Bordeaux’s Radiant 2015s,
Antonio Galloni, April 2016
2012 Bordeaux: Messages in a Bottle, Antonio Galloni, January 2016
2014 Bordeaux – Vintage Highlights,
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2014 Bordeaux – Les Découvertes: Under the Radar Gems and Sleepers, Antonio Galloni, May 2015
2014 Bordeaux: It Ain't Over Till It’s Over, Antonio Galloni, April 2015