The greater body of merchants and critics from around the world descended on Bordeaux in early April to taste what was already being hailed as a stellar vintage.
The famous Place de la Bourse, in the centre of Bordeaux
As early as January this year, Pichon Comtesse’s CEO and winemaker, Nicolas Glumineau, told the drinks business that it was “definitely a Cabernet year” and was evidently extremely pleased with the young wine then in the cellars.
Bordeaux was one of France’s luckier regions in 2016, escaping the hail and frost that blighted the north and east of the country and wreaked terrible havoc in Burgundy and elsewhere.
It was a cold, damp start to the year but the weather perked up in late spring and never looked back – although the long, hot and dry spell caused drought in places and some younger vines struggled.
Volumes were also good, it is the biggest year in Bordeaux for a decade according to the official figures but, as Glumineau said, localised weather conditions and the needs and requirements of the château will have dictated final volumes. ‘There is no rule,” he told db, some producers have made a little more than they did in 2015, some a little less. Even if it is a large vintage it would be unwise it seems to expect increased allocations, certainly from the crus classés.
Tempering the enthusiasm of the Bordelais with loud protestations of ‘not making any judgments about the quality of the vintage until it’s been tasted’ was once again the order of the day before the great deluge of visits but ‘vintage fever’ has clearly got under the skin of those who went.
“2016 is very unique and exciting,” declared Berry Bros & Rudd’s Bordeaux buyer Max Lalondrelle. “Across the 56 châteaux we visited the elegance, purity and energy in the wines shines through. This a return for Bordeaux to a very fine style of winemaking.”
The view was echoed, in effect, by merchants at Justerini & Brooks, Corney & Barrow, BI and Goedhuis as well.
“At the peak we think 2016 includes some of the finest young wines we have ever tasted from the region,” said BI’s Giles Cooper. “In some cases the wines appear to be a modern-day combination of 1982, 1985 and 1989, albeit with winemaking know-how light years ahead of these great historic examples.”
Justerini & Brooks’ Bordeaux buyer, Tom Jenkins, mentioned the wines’ “taut, tense, racy and fresh” character, adding: “After a string of ‘modern’ vintages, which can be approached without trepidation at an early age, we have a year of real vins de garde.”
It is clear, as Corney & Barrow’s Will Hargrove told db that “the reds in general steal the show,” and there are some good sweet wines but there is one small hiccup, in that he thought that the dry whites were a minor blot, saying: “I can’t pretend [they] were all exciting,” though David Roberts MW at Goedhuis thought the white Pessac Léognans were “lovely”.
‘Comparison’ to 2015s
Trying to compare the latest vintage against the previous one purely on the grounds of, ‘is one better than the other’ is (usually) unwise and inaccurate but on a purely stylistic level can be instructive.
Where the 2015s at their best were big, plush, rich wines, the 2016s appear more linear, certainly “less high octane, less rich,” said Hargrove.
Continuing from his statement above, Jenkins continued: “Following such a wonderful July and August one might expect high alcohols and rich, decadent wines. But alcohol levels rarely exceed 13.5 degrees, and in many cases are closer to 13%.”
Cooper likewise mentioned alcohol levels and compared the 2016 to be more in the vein of the “classical” 2010s though with an important difference: “2016 is a good degree on average lower than 2015 and up to two (or even more) degrees below 2010. As a result the best wines of 2016 display the classicism and digestibility that typifies the Bordeaux region more than any other.”
A low alcohol year not dominated by rich fruit usually brings out talk about terroir and so it has proved to be the case this time too.
There are good reasons for this of course and to say one ought to choose carefully to get the best out of a vintage does not compromise any earlier statements about the quality of the vintage as a whole.
The 2016s are generally excellent, more or less across the board, but what a vintage like 2016 offers buyers is the chance to buy wines from estates with particularly excellent terroirs and see those wines at their very best.
As Roberts noted: “It is a year where terroir really stood out and the very best terroir have absolutely excelled.”
If one picks intelligently therefore, the possibility is apparently there to wring a little extra pleasure out of one’s purchase.
Finally, despite it being clear these are wines for laying down – Jenkins thought the wines of the Left Bank and Graves in particular would “require considerable patience” – it would be wrong to think them merciless, tannic monsters that will require decades before coming round.
Hargrove even thought the wines, “will show well before the 2015s but due to their high and acidity tannins (neither of which you notice too much) will drink for a long time. Broad drinking windows.”
Is it a Left Bank year?
The other comparison to make is whether it was a vintage that favoured either the Left Bank or Right. Glumineau’s statement that it was a “Cabernet year” clearly planted a stamp (albeit perhaps rather biased) on the side of the Left Bank. When US critic James Suckling returned from his habitually early foray to the Gironde the majority of his highest scores did indeed go to Left Bank properties, and he compounded the fact by declaring 2016 to be “a Left Bank year.”
On this side of the pond at least the opinion is not nearly so emphatic.
“There seems to be a bit of consensus towards the Left Bank and I can sort of understand that but there are lots of good wines on both sides,” said Hargrove. “The Right Bank is maybe a tad more mixed but the top Pomerols and more classically orientated St Emilions are superb.”
That both banks have returned some excellent wines is clear, as Roberts mentioned terroir differences are marked and should bear strongly on buying choices from both merchants and consumers, certainly at the upper end.
With kind weather and current winemaking technology being what it is 2016 may not be “homogenous” in the manner of warmer vintages such as 2009 or 2015 but Jenkins notes that “2016 doesn’t favour any particular communes,” and it is also the case that the “usual” estates have made excellent wines as one would expect them to.
“Because of the low levels of alcohol, even the big wines we all know have been tuned down to very fine and elegant specimens,” says Lalondrelle.
With enough prodding however, a few communes and wines are clearly early favourites, namely: Pauillac and Saint Julien on the Left Bank and Pomerol on the Right.
Cooper said: “Pauillac and St Julien are right at the top of their game with the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon almost unparalleled. Margaux is making a good fist of following up a stunning 2015; St Estephe is considerably better than 2015 but perhaps doesn’t reach the heights of 2014 where it won most of the major vintage plaudits. On the Right, both clay and limestone soils have delivered – and while the Merlots are wonderful, it’s the Cabernet (Franc in most cases, bar Clinet and Figeac) which marks this vintage out.”
Classified growths from firsts to fifths and the leading names of the Libourne were all picked out as one might expect: Lafite, Haut-Brion, Vieux Château Certan, Montrose, Pichon Comtesse, Ausone, La Mission Haut-Brion and L’Evangile were all mentioned consistently as top estates that have really delivered.
The best possible situation
The quality of the wines aside however, the perennial question with en primeur, especially since the 2011 vintage, has been pricing.
What prices are collectors going to accept and what’s going to turn them off? On the face of it, with the current fine wine market looking rather robust, confident and healthy, there might be a reasonable assumption that there’ll be quite a few buyers ‘up for it’ if the price is right. Last year’s campaign wasn’t a barnstormer by any means but nor was it a fiasco and collectors accepted a number of solid price rises to get at wines they wanted.
Since last spring/summer however there was ‘Brexit’, which sent the pound plummeting. Although sterling has recovered a little since last June its weakness against the euro already guarantees the 2016 wines will be more expensive than the 2015s even without any price rises the châteaux themselves may add.
As Jenkins says: “I expect prices to be up between 10-20% in Euro terms, which will mean 20-30% increases in sterling.”
On the other hand, France is going to the polls both this month and next in an uncertain presidential election race featuring several candidates that could drastically divide France if they were elected. Could French political jitters cause tremors in the euro market? And now there’s the prospect of a snap election in the UK in early June, normally still the height of any en primeur campaign.
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Lalondrelle lays out the situation thus: It is hard to generalise but to give some pointers. 2015 was very good but on 25% of the properties have sold out and we can still find a lot of stocks on the négociants’ books. Those properties which have sold out would naturally be inclined to increase their prices and I think the UK market could sustain a moderate increase despite the difference in the exchange rate. But with Donald Trump threatening to impose a 20% tax increase on wine imports into the US, a weak sterling and a Chinese market reluctant to buy wine en primeur (not mentioning the French election), I think Bordeaux has to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I think properties should look individually at the current value of their 2015 and what other vintages are available and offer their 2016 at below the current value of 2015.”
“Anything above 10% will cause significant problems for all but the most determined and deep-pocketed – and should be strongly avoided by the châteaux. +5% would be a workable situation but we have learned to ‘expect the unexpected’,” says Cooper.
Hargrove meanwhile states: I think the vintage is of such quality that people should want these wines, are they going to look like bargains against other vintages? Probably not, but do they taste like any other vintages? Not to me. If people want these wines to drink later at the best prices then they should buy them (assuming things are not bonkers). I would hope for a moderate approach to pricing but I fully expect there will be wines that we cant recommend when the prices come out just as there will also be some great buys.”