Bordeaux 2016 – updates!

The mysterious vintage – updated

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com 

14 June 2017

Originally published in April, I am adding links to this page on specific 2016 barrel tasting notes by appellation/region. Live links coming soon for the red and whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan, Margaux and Sauternes.  

Pauillac & Saint Julien / Saint Estèphe / Médoc and Haut Médoc / Margaux / Saint Emilion / Pomerol / Pessac-Léognan and Graves

Sauternes

While tasting barrel samples in late March and early April this year, vintners called the wines “unusual” or “unique”.

2016 was not an easy vintage, given the roller coaster suspense in what I had called a yin-yang vintage in Harpers Wine & Spirit.

But 2016 turned out to be darn good from barrel.

Not as predictable as 2005 or 2010 or 2015, but in some ways better than all three, at least when it comes to some wines.

Vintners were at pains to compare 2016 to any single previous vintage, and this riddle can be explained in how 2016 Bordeaux combines positive aspects from other fine to great years.

Assessing some very well priced 2016s at the negociant Joanne. Sociando Mallet, for example, was excellent from barrel.

The power, depth and tannin of 2010? Some, but often not as much.

The structure of 2005? Sure, but with more aromatic lift on the finish.

The classic elegance of the underrated 2001? Indeed, but with greater dimension.

The Indian summer of 1996, with similarly clean, fresh blue fruit aspects? That, too.

Based on the barrel samples, following a successful 2015 vintage, 2016 is better for some appellations, especially those in the northern Médoc. It has similar high quality in Pomerol and Saint Emilion – but exudes a different style. It seems less consistent and impressive compared to last year in Margaux, and to a lesser extent in Graves. But we’re at early days, and both Graves and Margaux have some superb wines in the making: Haut Bailly and Haut Brion come to mind spontaneously for Graves and Rauzan-Segla and Palmer for Margaux.

A great private tasting at the negociant Joanne in Bordeaux with Jane Anson and Miguel Lecuona

Paradoxical pleasure, at many price points

The vintage may well accomplish what the French adage says you cannot: “Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint”: One who tries to do too much, accomplishes little. Lo and behold, 2016 should please almost all palates. At least palates who like Bordeaux … You like “large-scale” Bordeaux – with opulence and depth and tannin? You find some of that in 2016. Prefer aromatic freshness and long, clean pristine finishes? Welcome to 2016.

The fine finishes from the best barrel samples had neither too much thickness, nor came across as overly oaky, or with glossy, modern aspects. Even the strictest Anti-Flavor Elite types will like some of these.

And this characteristic applied as much to successful modest and affordable wines as to top tier brands. This does not happen often.

Tasting at Château Léoville Las Cases, for example, I assessed not only the famous brand, but also the more humble Médoc AOC Château Potensac. In spite of its nearly 14% alcohol, the sample exuded cool blueberry fruit, with a full-bodied yet fresh aspect. “It is probably the best vintage (Potensac) we have ever made,” managing director Pierre Graffeuille said.

Best ever Potensac (photo by Miguel Lecuona)

Deep and full bodied, yet elegant, fresh and long on the finish, with a scoring range between 90-92+. Francis Anson hit the nail on the head with the remark to buy magnums. The wine should be delicious from the get-go, but could last easily for 10 years. As in a fancy barbecue party, say, in 2027, with the magnums a flowing! And Potensac’s price? It should be inexpensive.

As for Château Léoville Las Cases? A top ten, wine-of-the-vintage choice, 96-98, with splendidly expressed depth, suave and finely grained tannin, and a remarkably precise and extremely long finish.

Graffeuille explained how tannins (with an IPT, or total polyphenol index, of 82) were the “highest ever” for Léoville Las Cases, but very ripe as well. Cabernet Franc was considered a star grape, when planted in cooler soils. So at Léoville Las Cases, for example, the estate’s 80-year-old Cabernet Franc vines had roots deep enough to profit from the retained moisture of the earlier growing season, when it had rained so much, contributing to the expression of minty freshness. The dry heat of the summer was not a problem here.

The 75% Cabernet Sauvignon lent much structure and density to the wine, while 11% Merlot exuded subtle yet noticeable charm that is not always the case when tasting Léoville Las Cases so early. The alcohol level of 13.6% was in perfect harmony with the acidity, and no oak was felt aromatically or on the palate, in spite of the 90% new oak.

My reaction to the excellence of LLC from barrel (photo by Miguel Lecuona)

And to the Right Bank 

2016 is not a Left or Right Bank vintage as you find treasures on both sides. A sterling case in point is Petrus in Pomerol, which came across more structured than in 2015, and with a near 15% alcohol that no one guessed as we tasted it. I was tasting with Decanter Magazine’s Bordeaux wine writer Jane Anson. Jane is writing this year for the first time as the sole Bordeaux en primeur taster.

Jane Anson sharing a laugh with the legendary winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet at Petrus.

This assignment could not have been given to a better person or more talented taster: so Bravo Jane!

While we were tasting Petrus, director Olivier Berrouet remarked how very ripe the tannins were, but with freshness and good acidity. “It is very rare for us to have a Petrus that is so precise aromatically at such a young stage,” he added.

Thus at first glance, 2016 may not seem to have the evident massive structure of 2010. Yet rather high tannins are somewhat hidden by a veritably juicy freshness. The long Indian summer with cool nights added to a sensation of freshness, said many vintners. And that is how many samples were. I would give the barrel sample a range of 96-98: it was that exceptional.

Tasting Petrus with Olivier Berrouet

I found pleasing wines at lower range prices, too, at trade tastings and the annual press tasting organized by the UGCB. And I will get into those details in the coming weeks, with specific scores and evaluations.

Needless to say, I and many other tasters found pleasure in economically-priced Right Bank appellations, from Fronsac to Lalande de Pomerol.

The Right Bank in general had some expensive, great wines to offer, too, with the best Château Figeac I have ever tried from barrel. And a superb Cheval Blanc, where the freshness of the Cabernet Franc shined bright. I wonder if I preferred Figeac however!

I missed my appointment at Ausone because a lunch at Figeac included a 1966. I think I can be forgiven.

Some Merlot-driven wines in Pomerol exuded more power, and less immediate creaminess as compared to last year. While one could find 2015 sumptuousness in wines like La Conseillante and Beauregard, many other wines including La Fleur Petrus, Trotanoy, Evangile, Petrus, Lafleur and Vieux Château Certan all showed greater structure and power upon tasting, compared to last year.

Take Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol, which seemed powerful and almost strict in expression, owner Alexandre Thienpont said. While tasting, the owner of the famous boutique wine Le Pin, Jacques Thienpont, dropped in to try the barrel sample, and he remarked that it reminded him of a 1945, with much density and power. But the fresher aspect of the vintage did not make the barrel samples… too foreboding. VCC is once again a superb wine.

Mysterious balance

2016 has high tannin. Not often as high as, say, 2010, but not far behind, and sometimes even higher. Several samples reached record levels. Take Château Le Crock in Saint Estèphe, for example, with an unprecedented level of 94 IPT, or total polyphenol index.

Yet, even with the high tannin, many samples, like Le Crock, displayed remarkable freshness and juiciness, because the tannins were more often than not finely grained, ripe and smooth. Le Crock, by the way, is also the best that I have ever tried en primeur – and thus another highly recommended purchase in the more economical cru bourgeois category, as it will not be too pricey. Magnums, too.

The vintage seems generally moderate in alcohol. Sure, some exceptions were encountered, where alcohol was even higher than last year. At Petrus, for example. In other cases, alcohol was noticeably lower, by a full degree at La Conseillante, for example.

Acidity was somewhat higher, so tasters got the impression of more lift on the finish as compared to 2015. Although high tannin and high acidity can be difficult to taste, the finely ripe tannins yielded smooth samples over multiple price points.

Strong whites, but inconsistent

As for the dry whites, I found many to be of high quality, and in various prices points. Many lacked the verve of a top vintage like 2014. “It was a challenging,” remarked Jean-Philippe Delmas, director at Domaine Clarence Dillon, for example, where the pricey Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion and La Clarté de Haut Brion whites are made. “We picked in several passes, as they do in Sauternes and we started early to maintain freshness,” he explained. The dry summer conditions challenged the more delicate Semillon, more of which was blended into the Clarté rather than the two first white wines. But they were all delicious, as were some less expensive brands, and you can read about that once I start to post the tasting notes.

Justifiably happy with both reds and whites of Domaine Clarence Dillon.

At Sauternes and Barsac, superb wines with excellent expressions of botrytis were sampled at top terroirs like Climens, Coutet, Yquem, Suduiraut, Fargues, Guiraud and Raymond-Lafon, while others lacked enough verve and lift on the finishes to be great.

Summing up

Although we are at a very early stage, 2016 can be described as “great” in many cases, because high quality traverses price points: from humble Bordeaux AOC samples that I had tried in late March at Planet Bordeaux, to famously pricey brands. Bordeaux aficionados who cannot afford ultra expensive futures can find thus much pleasure in both mid- and lower-price ranges.

On the Left Bank, the sweetest spot is in the north, and I love Saint Julien this year. Another standout appellation is Saint Estephe. At a trade tasting organized by the negociant Ulysses Cazabonne, people picked out almost any Saint Estephe, from cru bourgeois to cru classé, and found high quality. All classified growths were excellent to superb. Ulysses Cazabonne representative Robin Corvet aptly called 2016 “the revenge of Saint Estephe” as the appellation was notably weaker in 2015.

How to describe the best of the wines in 2016?

Intellectual, smooth and sumptuous. For you cigar fans, it is like enjoying a very fine Romeo y Julieta with an exquisite XO Cognac.

Lots of visitors

The interest in 2016 was proven by record numbers of visitors in early April, during the official en primeur week. Like other estates, for example, Château Haut Brion had not seen as many professionals come to taste the latest vintage from barrel, said public relations manager Turid Alcaras, who has been with the château for nearly 20 years.

“We had 1,700 registered visitors this year, which broke last year’s record of 1,500,” she said. By the same token, the Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which organized tastings for both trade and media, saw a nearly 45% increase over last year in the number of registered visitors, from 4,500 last year to nearly 6,500 this year, said UGCB president Olivier Bernard, of Domaine de Chevalier.

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