The 2016 Bordeaux Vintage
At the risk of sounding clichéd, 2016 was a game of two halves for Bordeaux. The season started wet, with disease pressure in the vines. For those working organically and biodynamically, things were even tougher.
Indeed, before the end of June there was just one short period that remained dry - the period leading up to the 11th of that month. And it just so happened that this dry spell was just long enough for the vines to flower perfectly. Provided the wet weather, which had returned just after flowering, broke soon, Bordeaux was on for a bumper crop.
Fortunately, it did. As Britain awoke to rain and open polling stations on the 23rd June, Bordeaux awoke to warm weather and blue skies. And they remained all through July. And through August. And even September and October.
This was one of the driest periods on record for the region - many younger vines suffered. But despite this drought, what marks the wines out is their freshness: cool nights and a lack of real heat spikes locked acidity into the grapes. This is a vintage all about balance.
Just as parched vines were crying out for water, good fortune struck again on the 13th September, as a storm rolled in from the Pyrenees. It was just in time to refresh the scorched earth.
The overwhelmingly dry weather continued into October, meaning vignerons could harvest at will, with long hang times preserving even more acidity.
And with selection, the results are overwhelmingly impressive. Given everything that was thrown at Bordeaux in 2016, it does seem that this really was the miracle vintage.
The Left Bank & Graves
The 2016 vintage will be particularly celebrated on the Left Bank, with Cabernet Sauvignon benefitting hugely from the long ripening time afforded by glorious weather in September and October.
It is in the Médoc’s sweet spot, Pauillac, home to three of the five First Growths, that the vintage reaches its zenith, while the water retaining clay soils of St-Estèphe to the north also performed admirably. Here, balance is the buzz word: the best wines have ripe fruit, but beautiful chiselled acidity and considerable, yet super-fine tannins. These are wines for the long haul.
And despite the fact that focus will sit squarely on 1,200 hectares of Pauillac, there are impressive wines to be found from Margaux to the top of the Médoc, with lesser wines, whether second wines or Crus Bourgeois, some of the best we’ve tasted in years, if not ever.
Graves, meanwhile, is again impressive, mirroring some of the best wines of the Médoc. And here there are plenty of wines that will offer outstanding value for money. It remains astounding that this corner of Bordeaux is so often overlooked.
The Right Bank
While the Left Bank will take the plaudits, on the Right Bank too there are gems to seek out. During our harvest trip in September we watched as Alexandre & Guillaume Thienpont at Le Pin marked vines that had suffered from heat stress with brightly coloured paint - these vines wouldn’t be picked. And where selection was careful, as seems universal at the top estates today, the results were impressive.
Here, mirroring ripening conditions on the Left Bank, wines with a high proportion of Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon have soared.
On the Right Bank terroir seems particularly important, with spots that could deal with the proliferation of water early in the season, followed by a severe lack of it later on, proving most successful. So the celebrated limestone and clay sites of St-Emilion and Pomerol have provided wines that often match, or even surpass, the quality of the celebrated 2015s.
Picked far earlier than the reds, but retaining some of the same characteristics, the best whites in 2016 balance ripe fruit flavours and generous textures with nicely balanced freshness and acidity. They are not the chiselled balls of energy of 2014, for example, but in many cases are incredibly charming. It’s another vintage that demonstrates that dry white Bordeaux really does have a place in your cellar.
Sauternes and Barsac, meanwhile, benefited from widespread Botrytis outbreaks at the end of September. While perhaps lacking the raciness of 2013 and 2011, they are generous in style, with ripe fruit and delicate, finely balanced acidities.
It just seems a pity how overlooked Bordeaux’s whites, both dry and sweet, can be: they are so often the best antidote for anyone who complains about ‘lack of value’ in Bordeaux.
Many of the wines in 2016 have lived up to their side of the bargain, with quality that often matches or surpasses 2015. In many cases, these are the best wines produced in years.
It is impossible to comment on prices until they are released from the châteaux. In common with recent vintages, there will, of course, be estates which are ‘aggressive’ with pricing. Fortunately, many of the key offenders are quite open about their objective to move their estates up in the world of wine, with price being their lever.
What’s more important to remember is the hundreds of estates that will get it right. And it should be emphasised that Bordeaux continues to offer outstanding value for money at the bottom end, with many Crus Bourgeois and equivalent wines released at prices that won’t be seen again: these are wines to definitively buy en primeur.
From top to bottom, we will only recommend wines that we wholeheartedly think are worth buying. 2016 is a vintage where the highs are very high, but where careful selection is key. We’ve done the hard yards for you, and are here to help you with Bordeaux 2016, through every step of the campaign.
Robbie Toothill, Wine Buyer