Burgundy 2016: ‘Classic’, pure and pitifully small

A vintage that largely defies generalisations but which nonetheless has produced some excellent, even outstanding reds, albeit in miserable quantities, is the widely held view among UK merchants.

Following the annual slew of Burgundy tastings last week (8-12 January), the drinks business had a chance to talk to some of the UK’s leading Burgundy merchants and taste the new 2016 vintage.

Despite many insisting it was not an easy vintage to portray in broad strokes (though is that ever the case with Burgundy?) the picture that emerges is of more consistency across the red wines and pockets of excellence among the whites.

In terms of style the 2016s are clearly their own beast – as every vintage tends to be – but there were many comparisons to the concentration of the 2015s and purity and freshness of the 2014s.

The very best reds have an exquisite, juicy red fruit character, a good streak of acidity and supple, ripe tannins – all in all very succulent, moreish wines for the most part.

The whites (of the Côte d’Or) are also very marked by their terroir, the best having a nice richness – not to the extent of the 2015s however – and a clean, bracing freshness that also marked the 2014s though largely lacking the edge that made that vintage’s whites so highly rated.

Although undeniably lighter in character than ‘heftier’ vintages (by Burgundian standards) such as the 2015s or 2005s and with many wines sure to be approachable young, merchants are sure that the very best examples will prove capable of ageing beyond peoples’ expectations.

Justerini & Brooks’ buying director, Giles Burke-Gaffney, noted for example that the “lighter” 2000s continued to hold up very well and, “these have more structure”.

With vineyards hit to greater or lesser extents by the bad weather the importance and impact of site and producer is perhaps greater than ever and maybe the shortage of wines in many areas will push buyers towards areas they normally overlook.

 

Weather and winemaking

The main theme of 2016 in Burgundy is of catastrophic losses caused by frost, hail and mildew early in the year. Losses of 70% or more were reported in certain areas and Bouchard Père et Fils, for example, reported losses of 50% on average.

The effects of these various afflictions were infamously felt right across the region (and France in general, save Bordeaux) and most devastatingly in Chablis where the lack of wines produced was evidenced by their notable absence at many tastings.

Willam Fevre’s cellar master, Didier Séguier, explained that they had harvested 18 hectolitres per hectare in plots where 60hl/ha was the norm.

Furthermore, what has been produced is, “not typical Chablis,” noted Burke-Gaffney, although Séguier posited it was an, “approachable vintage.”

If the frost had any effect on the quality of other wines then it was few and far between in the opinion of most merchants.

‘The fact only a couple of percent [of the wines] didn’t come off is remarkable,” said Burke-Gaffney.

Jason Haynes, director and Burgundy buyer at Flint Wines, opined that the frost might have contributed to some of the wines being a touch more “reserved” at present but they would come round.

There was a also a little discussion regarding the effect of the weather on the viticulture and winemaking in the region.

Several merchants pointed out that a few growers had to abandon their organic accreditation in 2016 to ensure they salvaged something.

There was some discussion as to what extent the increased level of organic and biodynamic farming may have helped the vines although clear, let alone scientific, proof of what that might have been could not be immediately produced.

The fact that the vintage has produced some excellent wines was also attributed to a change in winemaking styles in Burgundy, with growers increasingly opting for gentler pressing or even simply ‘infusions’ and being savvy with what they destemmed and what they kept whole bunch/the number of stems they added back in.

Burke-Gaffney mused that in the past a vintage with the concentration of the 2016s might have led to some pretty extracted, ‘hard’ wines in the past but he also pointed out that the warmer end to the year and fairly long ripening period had led to ripe tannins and it wasn’t just a case of “gentle winemaking”.

It was interesting to note that, no doubt owing to the reduced volumes, Berry Bros & Rudd was including its Cru Beaujolais offering alongside the Burgundies for the first time.

Reds

Despite it not being a vintage given to sweeping statements it’s clear the reds were largely the apple of merchant eyes.

“I like the reds a lot,” said David Roberts MW of Goedhuis. “They have the Pinot purity but not the bulk of the 15s,” and he praised their, “supple freshness”.

“I really, really like the reds,” said Haynes more emphatically. “They’re more typically Burgundy/Pinot than 2015. To get freshness and intensity like that is rare. They should age really well.”

The one bright spot in particular seems to be Morey-St-Denis which, almost alone in Burgundy, was actually spared a good deal of the other disasters befalling others all around it.

Adam Bruntlett, Burgundy buyer at BBR, thought that the “terroirs that are more muscular and rustic – Clos Vougeot, Pommard etc – seem to have fared really well.”

There was also a good deal of clearly defined terroir character in the reds, said Bouchard Père & Fils’ cellar master, Frédéric Weber.

 

Whites

Less consistent than the reds it would appear there was still high praise for white appellations such as Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault and the Maconnais.

“The whites are more classic than 15 but not as good as 14,” said Haynes, adding they were, “more in keeping with ’11 and ’13.”

Lacking the outright concentration of the 2015s, they still show good acidity and fruit

As has been mentioned before, Chablis was hit very hard as were Chassagne-Montrachet and St Aubin.

Those with the money can of course fight it out for what Meursault and Puligny was produced but increasingly it seems attention is falling on the Mâconnais (soon to receive a few 1er cru designations as well).

Bruntlett said it had been “very successful” in the southern region, with wines that were “fresh, focused” and with, “good energy,” while the wines from the Côte Chalonnaise were also “very strong”.

With Chablis slated to be in short supply for the next few years and with the winemaking in both the Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais shifting towards fresher and less heavily-oaked styles, perhaps the white Burgundy needs of the on- and off-trades can be filled by these hitherto rather overlooked parts of the region?

 

Prices

With the huge impact on volumes in 2016 there was great concern that prices this year were going to start to push the limits of what many clients could take.

Corney & Barrow’s associate director, Alison Buchanan remembered that visits soon after the 2016s had been harvested were filled with “very low” shoulders and mutterings of a “catastrophe”.

Throw in the weaker pound at present and the situation was ripe for a fairly subdued campaign.

Luckily, however, coupled with the quality of the final 2016s was the large size of the 2017 crop which, no doubt, has ended up moderating the price rises in most of the 2016s.

“If ’17 had been another ’16 it would have been a bit awkward,” thought Haynes.

The average tally of rises across merchants seemed to be in the region of 10-12% sometimes up to 15% and with a lot of that due to the exchange rate but as Corney & Barrow’s associate director and buyer, Rebecca Palmer, said: “Price is very dependent on individual growers.”

Although there is often much talk of the rising cost of Burgundy (both en primeur and in the secondary market), a situation exacerbated by some small vintages for a number of years now, it hasn’t seemed to have slowed down demand terribly much.

BBR in fact had already sent out its initial offer when it held its tasting last week and Bruntlett said the team had already sold two thirds of the allocation, which amounted to just over half of what was sold last year with the 2015s.

“Customers are absorbing it [price rises] for now,” said Buchanan but how much longer might that last?

Palmer notes she has already seen a tendency, in the on-trade at least, for “trading down” to Burgundy wines that are more affordable as so many are now “unapproachable” – both in price and age (most being too young due to small stocks).

“The price of Puligny two years ago is now St Aubin,” she said. “Prices in Burgundy are going up and up and there’s nothing to hold it back. And as the prices are going up the quantities shrink – prices will go up and they aren’t going down.

One ‘correct’ 2017 is not going to change anything.”

 

Looking ahead

With low stocks and rising prices the perennial questions around Burgundy at present are, ‘what next for the region?’ and ‘where can one still find “good value” wines?’

Value is always a tricky concept and can be as relative as taste. Burke-Gaffney for example made the point that – for the price – Volnay is still a very attractive appellation.

In more straightforward monetary terms it is quite clear that apart from some AOC such as Marsannay and Santenay, most eyes are turning ever southward to the AOCs of the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais.

“The Côte Chalonnaise still represents – for the moment – outstanding value,” said Palmer. “People are going to be looking at the Maconnais [too] but there’s so much difference there in quality and style.”

Nonetheless, she continued, both regions are also home to an increasing number of younger producers (as is most of Burgundy in truth), who are “reinvigorating” the area and which, “promises a lot for the future.”

“They [all] need a ‘correct ’18 vintage,” she concluded.

 

One Response to “Burgundy 2016: ‘Classic’, pure and pitifully small”

  1. Kent Benson says:

    As one who has yet to visit Burgundy, it would be interesting to know the location of the sites depicted in the accompanying photos. Other than the familiar tower of Vosne-Romanee in the first picture, I am unfamiliar with these sites.

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