Seven reasons why Bordeaux 2016 is considered to be a great vintage
1. Great wines from a highly unusual season
The unlikelihood of “silk purses from sows’ ears” usually comes to mind when one hears how a challenging growing season has nevertheless delivered exceptional wines. In 2016 scepticism can largely be put aside, as a challenging season has indeed delivered a number, make that many, great wines. How so? Three months without rain during the summer is usually a recipe for drought stress – failure of fruit to ripen fully, berries like bullets with under-ripe tannins, burnt-tasting grapes and astringent acidity. But after a year’s worth of rain fell in the five months to 1st June, water-retaining soils were in fine shape to nourish vines right through until mid-September when further showers refreshed the crop. Vines on light sandy and/or gravelly soils did however suffer, and crop selection was essential to segregate the best fruit from the rest. A decent clay component in the soil was the key to a fabulous outcome.
2. A large harvest
A good flowering is essential for a decent crop. Miraculously, after the prolonged wet period, the sun emerged at the beginning of June exactly as the buds blossomed. And despite the drought in the summer, a corollary of the abundance of underground water in many vineyards was an abundance of crop. 2016 produced the largest harvest overall since 2006. Good news for producers and potentially good news for buyers as this should ease upward pressure on prices.
3. Quality at all levels and from all appellations
One of the truly exciting dimensions of 2016 is the quality of wines produced up and down the spectrum. Second wines are almost universally delicious, though they do not always replicate their Grand Vin siblings in their varietal mix; many lower-ranking classed growths, Crus Bourgeois and a good number of ‘petits chateaux’ have conjured brilliant wines which will be available at what will be seen down the line as bargain prices. These are wines which will age almost as majestically as the senior divisions, surprises in the cellar in ten, twenty and even thirty years’ time. And there are very fine wines to be found in all of the Médoc appellations, in Pessac-Léognan and across the river on the Right Bank.
4. Fresh and pure fruit notes
Undoubtedly the absence of rain during the summer moderated the rate of ripening, and the fine autumn that followed allowed the gathering of beautifully ripe grapes, whose flavours simply sing in the glass. To cap off this good fortune, cool nights in late September and October preserved acidity which might have been ‘burned off’ had temperatures been higher.
5. Moderate alcohol levels – mostly
A corollary of the above is that, despite the admirable ripeness, alcohols are generally back to the low 13s in percent terms. 2016 is not another 2010 where the quest for mature tannins led to unusually long ‘hang-time’ and consequent high strengths. There are inevitably exceptions, some honourable, others not. Calon-Ségur, in Saint-Estèphe, enjoyed perhaps the best summer conditions owing to its heavier than usual clay soils and grapes were harvested at 14% naturally. The result is a bolder, richer wine than usual, and in some eyes one of the most impressive of the vintage. On the down side, there are some burnished wines that are currently cumbersome and dense, in both weight and taste.
6. Supremely elegant tannins – mostly
The trump card of 2016 is its brilliant tannins. The mere mention of tannins can cause uncertainty, even fear, amongst buyers. Why 2016 can be so wonderful is that, despite rich tannins when analysed in the laboratory, in the real-world test of the tasting room, taste-buds are excited and the palate is enlivened by their invisible presence. This seems almost a miracle and is a signifier of a great vintage on this single factor alone. After a day of tasting at the highest levels, no professional was exercised by palate fatigue, no sign of tannin-attack. It was hard to take the conundrum of high tannins but low impact on board at first, and many samples could have been drunk with enthusiastic pleasure on the spot. I am told that the 1961s shared this quality – deceptive approachability that, at the time, confounded tasters – and we know how great those wines were subsequently judged to be. [There is a note of caution to be sounded: on the right bank, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, where it has become customary to extract more and more material from the grapes, some wines seemed angular and with overt drying finishes, a consequence of perhaps the lighter, drier soils and a less than delicate approach to winemaking.]
7. What are the comparative vintages?
2016 bears comparison to 1961 on account of its apparent immediacy, but not in all respects: 1961 was a tiny vintage with perhaps riper grapes as a consequence. The sheer classicism of 2016 makes the job of comparing a hard one. More discreet than either 2010 or 2009; more refined than 2005 or 2000; less exuberant and ‘cooler’ than 1990; more harmonious than 1995; much more elegantly tailored than 1982; and above every vintage in between in different dimensions. 2016 is clearly a great vintage with a good number of great wines, a reason for pride and satisfaction for the growers who rode out the sometimes-difficult conditions, the days of uncertainty and worry, to bring in a fine crop in many vineyards and in just about all appellations.
2016 has been described as the best vintage since 1982 by one critic (Jean-Marc Quarin) and, with only a little less hyperbole, the best of the 21st Century (Thierry Dessauve). These assessments need to be qualified given the unfinished nature of the wines, and given different tastes and preferences amongst drinkers. Nevertheless provisional scores from critics from the UK, Europe, USA and Asia all speak of high quality across a broad swath of wines. There is much to look forward to in the 2016 vintage.