Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Vintage Report; Bordeaux 2016 by Matthew Hemming MW

The sun shone on Bordeaux during the en primeur tastings of the 2016 vintage, both literally as temperatures flirted with the upper 20s, and figuratively as we tasted some exquisite young wines. Believe me, even if you’ve not yet heard them, the Bordeaux jungle drums are picking up the beat for another big vintage; hopefully I have bought myself a little credibility by waiting until after the tastings before making any comment about the potential quality the wines.  I almost feel compelled to whisper it but much of what I tasted from 2016 is looking absolutely stunning, with many wines to rival or even out-perform their 2015 brethren.
Image result for matthew hemmingIn brief, 2016 was born of a wet winter followed by a warm, dry summer – crucially, with cooler nights – a sprinkling of rain just before the harvest period and, finally, a prolonged period of clement weather during picking.  If I had to pick one factor that shaped the vintage it would be that warm, very dry spell in the summer.  At Cheval Blanc we were told that you have to go back to the late 19th century to find a vintage with so little rainfall during the same months.  The late season rains helped refresh the grapes, and the cooler nights to preserve their acidity, but the drought certainly raised the spectre of hydric stress in the vineyards.  In particular, the earlier-ripening, thinner-skinned Merlot struggled with the lack of water whilst the later ripening Cabernets were better able to take benefit from the rains and the beautiful late-season weather.  That said, the wet winter had replenished water reserves in the soil and clay-based terroirs in Pomerol and Saint Emilion, for example, retained sufficient moisture for even Merlot to survive the drought without negative impact and there are some magical wines from both villages. 

The vineyards of Graves and Pessac Leognan are early-ripening and contain a large proportion of Merlot; outside of specific wines, these regions faced a challenging growing season.  For similar reasons, the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for dry whites, which are the first grapes to be picked in Bordeaux, suffered from the weather.  Conversely, the same grapes grown in Sauternes and Barsac enjoyed a heavy and late-season onset of Noble Rot followed a long picking window during the fine weather, allowing the leisurely selection of botrytis-affected berries – meaning there are some magical sweet wines in 2016.

In following a great vintage such as 2015 there are obvious, and attractive, parallels to be drawn with other pairs of vintages, especially 2009/10.  This comparison is reinforced as both 2009 and 2015 are ripe, opulent, flamboyant years whilst 2010 and 2016 are much more classical, savoury and structured.  The comparison, whilst attractively neat, is somewhat lazy, however, and should probably be killed off at this point.  2010 is more classical than 2009 in its tannin, structure and fruit profile but ’10s are wines in which the volume has been turned up.  They are significantly more tannic, more alcoholic and more imposingly structured than wines from the previous year.  Where the embryonic 2016s depart from this model is that these are wines in which the volume has been turned down from their predecessors in 2015.  Whilst ’15 was a ripe and relatively high alcohol vintage, the 2016s are fresher and much less heady with many wines in the 13-13.5% range.  The tannins are significant in ’16 but advances in winemaking have led to much greater precision in their extraction.  The resulting wines have very fine-spun tannin, they will support ageing but are so delicately woven into the overall texture as to be concealed behind the fruit.  Pure, fragrant and succulent fruit is a consistent feature of 2016 reds.  The freshness of the wines seems to be rooted in relatively low pH values this year, which also gives strikingly bright and vibrant colours.  The affect of lower pH is not to give wines that taste markedly acidic, as many 2008s do, but to give tension and lift to wines that – at their best – seem to ripple with energy.  Classic Bordeaux characters of blackcurrant, plums and cassis are frequently to be found in 2016s, but these are rarely wines dominated solely by black fruit.  Many of the best have perfumed red berry characters and floral tones.  This is not to suggest light or insubstantial claret – and certainly some of the usual suspects deliver as much extraction as you could wish for, and then some more! – but wines that are composed, graceful and in no way forced. 

It is probably obvious that I have plenty of enthusiasm for the 2016s in Bordeaux.  This is very much my style of claret with plenty of wines that are fluid, harmonious and scented.  I will stop short of declaring it a great vintage at this early juncture – besides, plenty of others will / have already done that for me – as the wines still have to prove their mettle once elevage is complete and they are safely in bottle.  However, one of my principal criteria for any vintage being ‘great’ is that there is exceptional quality to be found at all levels of the qualitative hierarchy.  Whilst in Bordeaux we concentrated very hard on tasting junior wines that form the basis of many of our clients’ cellars and which form the foundation of our en primeur offers each year.  From Beaumont to Brane Cantenac, from Puy Blanquet to Petrus there are certainly wines from the lower orders, as well as from the top drawer, that will give masses of pleasure in 2016.

Selected highlights

I am reluctant to close with a long list of notes and scores, although please ask me if you are keen on a specific wine, but thought I ought to highlight a few of my favourite wines and top picks.  Obviously it would be easy, if of limited utility, to populate the selection solely with 1st growths, Petrus and the like.  To avoid this I have organised the selection into price bands to accommodate value wines alongside classified growths and, of course, the blue chip chateaux.  So as not to go on forever, I have limited myself to five wines per category and attempted to include representatives from both left and right banks.  As with all such lists, this is a personal selection that is incomplete and probably flawed.  I have asterisked my very favourites in each group, adding a further level of confusion.  Still, I hope it provides at least a point of view and at best a starting point from which you might begin to navigate your way through the 2016 vintage. 

Value wines

-          Chateau Gigault Cuvee Viva – Cotes de Bordeaux Blaye*

-          Chateau Dalem – Fronsac

-          Chateau Puy Blanquet – Saint Emilion

-          Chateau Beaumont – Haut Medoc*

-          Chateau Capbern – Saint Estephe

Cru Classe & equivalent – entry level

-          Chateau Gloria – Saint Julien

-          Chateau Lynch Moussas – Saint Estephe*

-          Chateau Meyney – Saint Estephe

-          Chateau Lalande Borie – Saint Julien

-          Chateau Villemaurine – Saint Emilion

Cru Classe & equivalent – mid-tier

-          Clos du Clocher – Pomerol

-          Alter Ego de Palmer – Margaux

-          Chateau Larcis Ducasse – Saint Emilion

-          Chateau Brane Cantenac – Margaux*

-          Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste – Pauillac

Cru Classe & equivalent – top tier

-          Chateau Canon – Saint Emilion

-          Chateau Figeac – Saint Emilion*

-          Chateau Lynch Bages – Pauillac

-          Chateau Pichon Lalande – Pauillac*

-          Cos d’Estournel – Saint Estephe

1st Growths & friends

-          Chateau Margaux – Margaux*

-          Vieux Chateau Certan – Pomerol

-          Chateau Cheval Blanc – Saint Emilion

-          Chateau Angelus – Saint Emilion

-          Chateau Mouton-Rothschild - Pauillac
Matthew Hemming MW

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