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2016 Bordeaux in Review “A Paradox”

by Andrew Caillard MW

The 2016 Bordeaux vintage will be remembered as one of the great years of the 21st Century. I have not been so excited about the prospects of such young wines since the remarkable back-to-back 2009 and 2010 vintages. At that time China was at the zenith of its extraordinary fine wine ascendency where the very top estates, particularly Chateau Lafite, had become a baksheesh currency. Every man and his dog, with a connection with government, curried favour or accepted gifts with Grand Cru Bordeaux, particularly First Growths. During this extraordinary time, the prices of Bordeaux started to move up at a more rapid speed than Sydney Real Estate. When we were filming Red Obsession in 2011 the Bordeaux wine market had become a classic bubble, even though the main actors still believed otherwise. Self-entitlement and denial always go hand in hand. Nonetheless, it has taken five years for the market to reset itself. Bordeaux is more confident again. Even interest from China has grown again. The market is now around 280 million Euros annually, which illustrates the resilience, power and track record of Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux wines.

The 2016 Primeurs is also very different from previous years. There is a changing of the guard with new generations beginning to make their mark at all levels of wine business and production. Philippe Bascaules has returned to Ch Margaux from California. Eduard Moueix of JP Moueix is clearly on the ascendancy, and the owners of Ch Angelus have handed over duties to the next generation. This energy, renewal and enthusiasm is great for Bordeaux. Chateau owners, winemakers and business leaders seem to be more enlightened and interested in the world about them, even Australia.

This very contemporary all-gleaming 2016 vintage seems to reflect the freshness and vibrancy of a new age of wine. Even Chateau Pavie, once the poster-child of the Robert Parker era, has raised the white flag. It’s long dalliance with soupy overly plush wine is over, it seems. The 2016 against the 2015 is like comparing a racehorse with a sloth, even though vintage conditions would normally stump up something similar in style. The affable consultant oenologist Michel Rolland, the grand master of taste aesthetics, has clearly moved on with the times. There is no longer a clear individual to impress.

Nonetheless with Robert Parker now pretty well off the scene there seems to be a jockeying of position among ambitious American wine critics particularly. The hard working James Suckling and Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth, like the horses of the apocalypse, have already crashed through the starting gates and made their prophesies known to the world. All indications suggest an early campaign, but it will probably go on for ever, such is the tactical outlook and the hierarchical nature of this beast. 

It is worth pulling everything into context. The primeur tasting takes place generally after the wines have finished their malolactic fermentations.  Tasting any earlier could in theory compromise or skew opinion. This is arguably a growing issue with key wine writers trying to out smart each other. Nonetheless it doesn’t take a genius to understand the quality of a very good vintage. Colour, aromatic complexity, concentration, tannin quality, oak and acidities are key elements and we are all looking for a patterned balance, an individual voice or something to believe in. With so many wines the nuances can be infinitesimal, certainly from a language point of view, and therefore difficult to truly differentiate. An understanding of track record, winemaking house style and sub-regional characteristics also helps bring an overall impression. Cultural references, experience, language, personal loyalties etc. will also throw up varying opinions. Fear of not getting it right, might be a factor as well. And of course there is the 1855 Classification, which can have a moderating effect. For instance would a wine critic dare to give a fifth growth a greater score than a First Growth?

Bear in mind all of the tastings are of unfinished wines, with still a good 8 months to 20 months or longer of barrel aging. Ch Roteboeuf for instance sees around two-year oak maturation and many top chateaux elect to have their wines in barrel for 18 months. Some wine are tasted at negociants on a Monday – which may mean that samples can be slightly stale when reviewed. Many old world wine critics don’t pick this up. Atmospheric conditions also play a remarkable part in how a wine looks on the day. The weather conditions during the 2016 primeurs tastings was classic with perfect warm Spring weather and beautiful conditions to taste.

Increasingly there is less opportunity to taste blind. It is incredibly challenging to make the appointments necessary to do the full coverage. More and more chateaux are insisting that their wines are tasted in their cellars, and finding time slots is not easy. It should be pointed out, therefore, that most or all of the tasting notes given by Bordeaux opinion leaders are open-tasted. Not even the Union des Grands Crus offers the option of blind tasting these days. On balance this is not a bad thing. What is the point of looking at wines without emotion or connection? How many wine reviews are written with completely the wrong conclusion? And how often is wine quality over-exaggerated?

As the premier wine auction, and broking house in Australia, it has always made sense to provide our collectors and buyers with a primeurs offer. Over the last 15 years or so, we have been working with several of the top Bordeaux negociants. This has enabled us to bring in several exclusivities or joint exclusivities including Ch Petrus, Ch Lafleur, Ch Lafleur Petrus and Chateau Latour à Pomerol and Ch Batailley. Our buying patterns are geared to our own tasting reviews and a few international opinion leaders, particularly Neal Martin (Robertparker.com), James Suckling and Jancis Robinson. All in all, it is worth reading around a bit, because wines can look a bit different depending on the day.

Although a strong cabernet sauvignon year, the 2016 Bordeaux vintage is generally exceptional for red wine. All red grape varieties, including merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot have achieved good flavour and phenolic ripeness (The same for white varieties semillon, sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris). The left bank has performed brilliantly across all sub-regions including St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien, Margaux and Pessac Leognan. The lesser known Moulis and Listrac appellations, usually representing pretty good value, have also stumped up generous wines. The right bank is just a little patchy, perhaps reflecting the fragmented state of investment and resources. Nonetheless the very top estates have made wines of exquisite quality. St Emilion and Pomerol, both reliant on merlot and cabernet franc have stumped up some real gems. Wines with cabernet franc/ cabernet sauvignon in the right bank blends have an extra zip and freshness. So this is a year where price will largely determine buying patterns. The overall quality is so impressive, it is unlikely you will make a mistake, not with our recommendations anyway.

After nearly six months of wet weather, Bordeaux enjoyed perfect warm to hot dry (some say drought) conditions from early summer onwards. Cool temperatures over night allowed grapes to retain natural acidities and freshness. Flowering was very good resulting in great potential yields. Some mildew pressure and vigorous canopy development during early Spring resulted in some green harvesting and leaf plucking. Few chateaux experienced any significant heat loads during harvest. By all accounts the fruit arrived in most cellars in very good, if not perfect condition. Viticultural practices played an important part in the end result. There is a significant correlation between vineyard investment and wine quality. Hence it is often the wealthiest producers who have been able to achieve that extra 1% difference. The growing season has been compared to 2012, but the results are vastly different, illustrating the mystery of life and the magical quality of wine. And every chateau has a slightly different take on what happened.

The resources available to winemakers is astonishing. Over the last twenty years, particularly, there has been a revolution to winemaking approach. Many of Bordeaux’s most prominent Chateaux have invested millions of Euros into the reconstruction of their wineries. Ch Calon Segur, Ch Beychevelle and Ch Pontet Canet are just a few that have been recently completed or in progress. These have followed more high profile examples including Ch Margaux with its Sir Norman Foster designed winery, Ch Petrus, Ch Cheval Blanc, Ch Latour and Ch Montrose. Vineyard mapping drones, Grape hydro-coolers, sorting machines, gravity fed contraptions and stainless steel vats looking like large nespresso capsules are some of the expensive playthings of contemporary winemaking. Yet this equipment, rather than industrialising the process of vinification, is all about personalizing individual plots of land and taking a gentle approach to handling the fruit.

This attempt for individuality is followed down various pathways. One of the more extreme proponents of modern viticulture and winemaking is Alfred Tesseron at Ch Pontet Canet. His investment in biodynamic viticulture, horse-drawn vineyard work and amphora (made from earth from the vineyard) maturation, shows an ideal that is steeped in protecting and emphasizing the personality of the landscape. The 2016 vintage possesses a natural energy, vibrancy and richness while showing classic Pauillac lines of pure cassis fruit and fine grained tannins. The underlying theme of goodness and sustainable farming has a charming appeal. More and more Chateaux are adopting organic, biodynamic or low input philosophies. This approach can be seen across the whole Bordeaux region and especially with Grand Cru Classé producers.

At Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, also in Pauillac, the vineyard workers have been snapping pheromone-infused plastic capsules on supporting wires in preparation for the arrival of the butterfly season and to combat grape worms. Rather than using sprays these capsules are employed to emit pheromones that attract male butterflies and confuse them from mating with females. One winery director at an estate on the right bank, told me (in all seriousness) that “the problem with sexual confusion is that if your neighbours are not doing it, it doesn’t work.”

The 2017 growing season is on its way with a glorious early Northern European Spring. The butterflies are already flying in peculiar zig-zags, mirroring the driving habits of over 2500 visitors as each person hurriedly moves from one appointment to another. Through the benefit of hindsight of tasting reviews, the 2016 Bordeaux vintage is in every way a paradox. The red wines possess superb freshness, definition and structure and they will simply not disappoint.

Reds

  • St Estephe

At the northern end of the Medoc, this sub region sometimes struggles to achieve the exacting phenolic ripeness expected today. In 2016, it has enjoyed another classic year with many wines possessing bright glossy fruit, fine vigorous, yet ripe tannins, generous volume and fine clear acidities. Top performers are Ch Calon Segur, Ch Phelan Segur, Ch Tronquoy Lalande, Ch Montrose, Dame de Montrose & Ch Cos d’Estournel.

  • Pauillac

A fabulous vintage for all the three First Growths and most of the Grand Cu producers. Deep colours, intense inky black currant aromas, fine grained tannins, attractive mid-palate richness and indelible long acidities are marks of great quality. Ch Mouton Rothschild is a stand out, but Ch d’Armailhac punches well above its weight. Ch Batailley, Ch Grand Puy Lacoste, Ch Lynch Bages, Ch Pontet Canet, Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Ch Pichon Longueville Baron are standouts. The lesser known Ch Pibran, next door to Pontet Canet is an outlier worth looking at as well as Lynch Moussas

  • St Julien

Very generous wines with deep colours, fresh pure dark fruit aromas, supple textures, ripe, firm chalky tannins, beautiful fruit density and persistent mineral length are hallmarks of the 2016 vintage. The Second Growth Ch Leoville Lascases is a remarkable wine and completely illustrates it’s natural right for a greater Classification. But of course this will never happen because of politics and social order. It’s second label Clos de Marquis has always been a favourite and this year it performs at a very high level. Ch Ducru Beaucaillou is very contemporary and alive. Ch Beychevelle, Ch Leoville Barton and Ch Gruaud Larose are lovely wines.

  • Margaux

A great vintage but varying from elegant to understated power. Perfectly ripe fruit, generous concentration, fine grained, sometimes chocolatey or sinewy, tannins and impressive mineral length are a frequent theme. My personal favourite is Ch Palmer which is in no doubt a classic with superb tension, density and freshness. Alto Ego, another expression of the same terroir is a very good looking wine too. Ch Margaux, in the midst of a transition, has made a lovely wine. The volume is quite small this year. Only 28% being the first wine. Ch Angludet, Ch Giscours, Ch Rausan Gassies and Ch Rauzan Ségla are great. Outliers which could represent really good value are Ch Labegorce and Ch Prieuré Lichine.

  • Listrac, Moulis and Haut Medoc

Ch La Lagune and Ch La Tour Carnet are the champions this year but there is a lot of value to be found in this region including Ch Poujeaux, Ch Chasse Spleen, Ch Belgrave, Ch Cantemerle, Ch Ch Cartillon, Ch Citran and Ch Lamarque etc.

  • Pessac Leognan

Undeniably a great year for Pessac Leognan. The wines have beautiful concentration, chocolaty textures and fresh linear acidities. Ch Haut Brion has made a really good wine, but I prefer Ch La Mission Haut Brion because of its superb density and bouyant fruit quality. Not far behind is Ch Smith Haut Lafitte. The Cathiards really should be given a big shout out for their commitment to this estate. At first they followed the Parker circus, but over the last six or seven years, it has emerged as one of the sub region’s most beautiful and consistent wines. Ch Haut Bailly is also spectacularly good and lives up to its early 20th Century reputation. La Parde de Haut Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, Les Carmes Haut Brion and the very dependable and relatively inexpensive Ch Latour Martillac have done really well too.

  • Pomerol

Olivier Berouet of Ch Petrus describes 2016 as “a vintage that is only comparable to itself.” The clay substrata played an important role in maintaining sufficient soil moistures. Typically the wines are round, supple and richly flavoured with beautiful aromatic complexity, fine plentiful tannins, superb fruit definition and mineral length. The wines have incredible dimension and balance. Vieux Chateau Certan is in a league of its own with its very clear inimitable house style and luxurious quality. Ch Petrus, Ch Lafleur, Ch Lafleur Petrus, Ch Latour a Pomerol, Ch L’Evangile and Ch La Conseillante are lovely.

  • St Emilion

The wines of St Emilion are quite varied but many have a dark inky quality with superb pastille-like fruit and fine chalky textures. Ch Cheval Blanc is very impressive this year and is clearly one of the wines of the vintage. Ch Figeac is slightly more vigorous than its neighbour, but it has made one of the best wines in twenty years, presumably because of the high proportions of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Ch Pavie is also impressive and it is just great to see this legendary marque actually produce a wine in keeping with it’s status. Ch Pavie Macquin, Ch Pavie Decesse, Ch Canon, Ch Tertre Rotebeouf and Ch Troplong Mondot are all worth seeking out

  • Sauternes Barsac

The dry growing season ensured that both semillon and sauvignon blanc reached full maturity but the lack of rain was not encouraging. When it finally fell on the 13th September the humidity in the vineyards began to promote botrytis cinerea (noble rot). Further rain on the 30th September and a very helpful soaking on the 10th October ensured a normal vintage. The results are mixed but the top estates all produced pretty good wines. Ch d’Yquem is quite classic but will not be released during this en-primeur campaign. Ch Caillou, Ch Climens, Ch Coutet, de Myrat, Ch Doisy Daene, Ch Guiraud and Ch Lafaurie Peyreguey, Ch Rieussec and Ch Sigalas Rabaud all made very good wine.

  • Dry White Bordeaux

The dry white wines across the region are also generally very good. The fruit has developed very good ripeness and so many have very clear lemon curd, sometimes tropical fruit aromas, flinty/ yeasty complexity and very good natural acidities. Many come across being quite racy and taught. Ch Haut Brion Blanc and Ch La Mission Haut Brion Blanc are marvellous but what a price for the experience. Ch Pape Clement and Ch Smith Haut Lafitte made very lovely wines too. Ch Margaux’s Pavillon Blanc is also worth seeking out.

 

 

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