Successive great years in Bordeaux are nothing new – reference 1988-90 and 2009-10 – and it appears the much-lauded 2015 vintage has been followed by another exceptional one in 2016. At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux annual tastings in London this week, two Bordelais grandees, Olivier Bernard and Christian Seely, were lavishing praise on the latest millessime, with the former hailing it as ‘incredible, historic.’ The more under-stated Seely called it ‘seriously good.’
Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier in Graves and president of the UGC, is renowned as an enthusiastic salesman but was drooling with excitement, ecstatic that, unlike last year, quality had been matched by quantity. His yields are up 40% on last year – 50 hl/ha compared to 36 in 2015 (40 in 2014 and 26 in 2013). “It is an enormous vintage for the reds. The whites are at a high level but the reds are going to be great. Everyone has an incredible smile,” he told Vin-X.
The reasons for this can be traced to a very wet spring in Bordeaux, followed by the region’s driest summer for a century. “We had an incredibly wet period from 1 January to 30 June when we had one year of rain in six months,” Bernard explained. “The level of the Garonne was very high and everything was very humid. Then we had a miracle – the driest summer in the last hundred years, with no rain from 1 July to 13 September. If you give sun and rain to the nature, it is very generous.”
Not all of Bordeaux enjoyed bumper yields – Fieuzal in Graves lost half the crop to three nights of frost in late April – but Bernard estimated that 95% of Bordeaux estates produced ‘normal’ quantity. “When we see that quantity is good, the chateaux have to find the right price to sell the wine. With small quantity, we are able to make mistakes.”
The late end to the harvest – not all the Cabernet Sauvignon has been picked yet – is another reason why Bernard raves about it. “It Is not an early vintage,” he continued. “We are just finishing picking but we love this late vintage as it makes wine elegant. Tannins are fine and elegant when they have a long time to mature.” He added that cool nights in September and October have helped retain acidity.
Stylistically, Bernard feels that 2016 will be “between 2009 and ’10, with the structure of ’10 but charm of ’09. The colour, the pH of 3.5/6, the level of tannins, the alcohol – everything is quite incredible.”
Seely, managing director of Pichon Baron, the Pauillac second growth, was no less positive. “I think this year is seriously good, both in Pauillac and Pomerol. We’re extremely happy with what we harvested. It’s all the more exciting as it wasn’t really predictable at the beginning of September. Then everything was very late, and the grapes quite a few weeks away from being ripe. What we needed at that stage, having had a very hot dry summer, was some rain and then 4-5 weeks of good weather after, which was quite a tall order to demand from nature. That’s exactly what we got.
“Around 30mm fell around Sept 13-14, which kick-started everything and got the vines working again; then we had a little more rain two days later 5mm; then five magnificent weeks of sunny weather. Nor was it too hot – cool nights and cool mornings, and lovely sunny warm afternoons. It was a wonderful thing to live through, and with every day that passed we started to think ‘it’s actually going to be OK, then no, rather good, and by the end, exceptional. It was really a case of getting exactly the weather we needed in September and October, so I’m extremely optimistic.”
Seely called it a year of contrasts. “We had much more rain than average up till June,” he continued. “It was hot and dry in July, but by the end of August, it was a worry as it was so dry that photosynthesis was slowing down – the reason why grapes were not as ripe as we’d have liked them to be. That was when we needed that magical day of rain. As ever you need a combination of circumstances to make a great vintage, and it’s always a different combination, but what we had I think has made something exceptional.”
“Our yield is not up by much – we have a lot of old vines. It’s a good yield without being exceptional – around 39 hl/ha. I know chateaux some have much higher volume than usual, and I’m delighted for them. For us, this vintage is more about exceptional quality and personality than yield. It’s still a little early to say, but I’d compare 2016 more to 2010 than ’15. ’10 also had very dry conditions during the summer and quite a lot of freshness.”
In St-Emilion, too, there was much joy over the vintage. “It’s magnifique,” Myriam Ruer, marketing director for Vin-x favourite, Troplong Mondot, exclaimed. The estate’s yield was up from 36 hl/ha to 40/41. And further south in Sauternes and Barsac, producers also expressed their delight with the harvest, although it has still to be completed.
The message, then, is clear. 2016 is set to be a top-bracket vintage, in which investors should be taking a keen interest. Primeur prices, not to mention the fate of Sterling, may hold the key.