2016 is an excellent year in Bordeaux and without question the best vintage since 2010. Last year’s 2015s were very good wines, especially on the Right Bank, but we’re happy to report that overall the quality is even higher this year. In very broad terms, in 2016 the Left Bank wines in general are showing better than the Right Bank. The Cabernet Sauvignon was particularly successful in 2016. There are some good white and sweet wines, but there is no doubt that this is a red wine vintage. We spent a week in Bordeaux tasting at all the top chateaux and with our negociant partners, and were delighted by what we found.
THE WEATHER - The 2016 growing season really was a story of two halves. Up until the end of June, record amounts of rain fell and disease in the vineyard flourished. But there was a weeklong break in early June – perfectly timed to coincide with the flowering. This dry spell ensured fruit set was excellent and subsequent yields relatively high. The ‘miracle’ of the season occurred at the end of June, when the rain ceased and two and a half months of absolutely dry weather followed. The only punctuation was a brief rainfall on September 13, which gave the vines just enough water to avoid water stress for the remainder of the growing season. The harvest then followed at a leisurely pace over the course of six weeks.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE WINE - 2016 is the year of balance. Alcohol levels are moderate, virtually never exceeding 14%. The fruit concentration in the reds is excellent, with tannins which are ripe and soft. The acidities are consistently bright and the finishes on the wines are long and pure.Winemaking in Bordeaux is forever in flux, but this vintage confirms that we are enjoying a happy period right now. A decade or so ago we saw numerous over-ripe, heavily extracted, high alcohol, low acid wines which were neither pleasant to taste young nor had the potential to age. But the pendulum appears to have swung back the other way: above all, the wines of 2016 are eminently drinkable, with nothing out of place to cause the taster to pause.
TASTING THE WINES - So what are the 2016s really like to taste? Here are some words that appear over and over in my tasting notes: juicy, succulent, fresh, pure, balanced, aromatic, ripe. But beyond all these good things, the best wines share three important qualities:
1. These are wines of terroir. They taste very true to their origin. Why is this good? Because it means that the personality of the wines comes through in abundance. Lafite tastes gloriously like the great, cedary Lafites of old. So too Mouton, rich and spicy. Pichon Lalande is soft and exotic, as it should be. For those of us who have ideals in our head of what these great wines should taste like, 2016 lives up to them all.
2. Texture and precision of flavor. These are two of the most important but underrated of virtues in fine wine. Texture is mouthfeel. And in this vintage, the mouthfeels are remarkably supple, velvety, silky, cashmere-like – they just caress the palate. And precision of flavor: good wines have plenty of character but the flavours can be a bit ‘smudged’. Excellent wines have really precise flavours, with every little flavor clearly delineated on nose and palate. And that’s just how it is in 2016.
3. These are extremely confident, assured wines. That’s a strange way of expressing it. What I mean is that the wines are up front, open, honest: they have no weaknesses to hide. The wines seem to say: ‘here I am, come and enjoy me!’ There were no flaws of ripeness or winemaking which hindered the pure pleasure which characterized our tastings.
AGEABILITY - The 2016s are set for a long life, with ripe tannins, concentrated fruit and excellent, fresh acidities. They perhaps lack the pure density of vintages like 2005 or 2010, so they may be 30 year wines at the top end rather than 50 year wines. But the flipside is that the pure ripeness and suppleness of the tannins means that the wines should drink well from a relatively young age: non-classed growth wines from 3-5 years old, second to fifth growths from 7-10 years old, and first growths from 10-15 years.
PRICING - Given the superior quality of the 2016s to the 2015s, it’s hard to see prices doing anything other than going up. The question is, by how much? Wines priced at or below a 10% increase on last year deserve to find buyers. But some owners inevitably will want to make the most of the excellent vintage, and come out with increases far beyond that. An unfortunate truth of every vintage in Bordeaux, good or ill, is that some wines will simply not find their way to drinkers’ cellars thanks to inflated pricing.
On the Left Bank, the 2016s are simply glorious wines which are already compelling. Every cellar would be the better for their presence. On the Right Bank, the top properties continue to perform at an outstanding level. Lower down the ladder, more care should be taken in buying. But our selections are here to help: we have chosen wines that are excellent, at whatever level, meaning you can buy with confidence.