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On Tuesday 26th April 2016, the winemakers of the Côte d’Or awoke to a beautiful yet terrifying sight. The vineyards were coated in a glistening white sheen. And as the sun came out, its power was amplified by the frost that coated the buds, burning many to a shrivel. This was the worst frost that the Côte d’Or had seen since 1981. Winemaker Amélie Berthaut described rushing to one vineyard that typically frosts, and finding it untouched; yet other plots that normally survive were decimated. This was the nature of this frost: cruel and unusual in its punishment.
This will be the narrative that accompanies 2016. A year of frost. It could be far too easy to tar the vintage with this brush.
However, to do so would be a huge mistake. I’ve spent more than a month in Burgundy this year, visiting every one of our producers (many of them multiple times). I’ve watched the 2016s develop in barrel, and to say I’m impressed would be an understatement.
The phrase ‘miracle vintage’ can seem overused. But in 2016 it is apt. I visited the Côte d’Or at the start of July 2016: the sun was shining, the vineyards looked healthy. But looking deeper among the vines, something was missing: nascent grapes. In many vineyards, vines were restricted to one or two bunches per plant - far less than usual.
Not only had vignerons suffered the frost, wet weather in May and June led to mildew pressure unlike anything they’d seen before, further reducing quantities. Indeed, for many it was this mildew pressure in May and June that led to tiny yields, more so than the more heavily publicised frost. Fortunately, this was the point that the region’s fortunes changed. From around the equinox onwards the weather cleared up, with prolonged periods of warm temperatures and dry weather.
There were a few showers at the end of August, relieving any concern of heat stress and refreshing the vines.
When the growers came to pick, in mid-September, they found those grapes that remained to be in rude health. Vinification and winemaking passed without event, presenting a vintage where the balance of freshness and intensity is the most striking factor.
Given the challenging start, such a superb result can only be seen as a miracle.
2015 was a vintage where the red wines of the Côte d’Or received almost unprecedented critical acclaim. But in some areas, and from some producers, 2016 may be even better. The highs are higher, but you’ll need to pick carefully.
Amongst the reds, the worst hit communes by frost were Volnay and Pommard, Savigny-Les-Beaune, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Flagey-Echézeaux, Chambolle and Marsannay, with some sectors of Gevrey also affected. Vosne and Morey seem to have survived relatively unscathed. But there seems very little lag in quality between frost-hit vineyards and healthy vineyards. It’s more important to pick the right producers, rather than to avoid certain villages.
At this stage, one might ask about other vintages which might compare to 2016.
A few producers offered their thoughts. 2010 came up alongside other ideas, but what was striking was the lackof any consensus. 2016 is a vintage that wows with its balance, to an extent that’s rarely been seen before.
Nicolas Potel mentioned 1991, commenting that this too was frost affected, followed a hugely successful campaign in 1990, and that was slightly overlooked at the time. He added that, of the two vintages, he’d much rather be drinking ‘91s now.
For me, the 2016 vintage shares the very best qualities of 2014 and 2015, with the verve and energy of the former, and the volume and ripeness of the latter. For reds on the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, it is a vintage for Pinot Noir lovers.
The Côte de Beaune fared no better than the
Côte de Nuits when it came to frost. Indeed, it was
only Puligny-Montrachet that escaped the worst of
the weather (with the exception of the grands crus,
which, unfortunately, suffered badly). In certain parts of
Chassagne, St-Aubin, and Meursault villages, destruction
was near total; plenty of cuvées were not made this year.
However, as with the reds, it’s not all bad news. It is again a
vintage where selecting growers carefully is key: and that’s
exactly what we’ve done.
And here, the wines are charming and balanced, showing
the perfect mix of weight and texture that can only be
found in Chardonnays from Burgundy. Being critical, they
perhaps lack the verve and energy of 2014, but have an
extra layer of tension and precision compared to 2015.
Producers like Olivier Lamy and Laurent Martelet have
produced truly outstanding 2016s: wines that you simply
won’t want to miss.
In a vintage characterised by happy surprises throughout
Burgundy, Chablis still stands out. Here they suffered
not only frost and mildew like their southern cousins, but
also hail storms in May. Indeed, photographs from the
aftermath look apocalyptic, with piles of golf-ball-sized
hailstones, and vines stripped of their leaves.
But despite this, 2016 is a stunning vintage in Chablis.
Samuel Billaud and Jean-Claude Bessin consider it superior
to the much-vaunted 2014 vintage, with the same energy but another level of complexity and power. While such
a view is not uniform, what is certain is that this is an
outstanding vintage for Chablis and that these wines
remain remarkable value compared to the rest of
With another short crop in 2017, they won’t stay this
price for long, so stock up while you have the chance.
The Mâcon remains an oasis in Burgundy for those
looking for good value wines! In 2016 they have better
acidity than the rounder 2015s, and hold a very pure
Chardonnay character. For everyday drinking, here’s
where to look. But don’t underestimate these wines:
examples from Lafon or Château de Fuissé have huge
potential to age, and to develop further complexity.
Despite tiny quantities produced by many growers,
there’s good news on the horizon. On the Côte d’Or,
2017 has proved plentiful. For the first time since
2009, estates up and down the Côte have full cellars
of excellent wine. And as a result, many prices for the
2016s will remain stable: it will just be fluctuations with
the exchange rate that will result in small rises.
However, for 2016 the issue remains: for many
communes and many top growers, quantities are
considerably reduced. This will only increase pressure
on certain wines, and certain producers.
I’m optimistic: there are plenty of outstanding wines to
be found, from both likely and less likely sources. Two
things are certain: 2016 is a vintage that you’ll want to
have in your cellar. And to get it there, you’ll have to be
quick. I encourage you to stock up.
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