2016 was a year of contrasts. November and December 2015 were unusually warm with low rainfall. According to weather forecasters this was due to El Nino which they predicted would have an unusually strong influence. The 2016 vintage was indeed extreme and it was divided into two periods; six months of rain from the New Year followed by an equally long period of drought.
The first part of the year experienced a number of downpours with above average temperatures which resulted in an early bud break at the end of March, one week ahead of the norm. Mildew and odium caused stress in some vineyards (particularly in some biodynamic vineyards). Such problems were controlled in most cases but growers were expecting the worst at this stage. “How could anyone have guessed what was to come” exclaimed Omri Ram of Château Lafleur.
April and May were chaotic months with alternating hot and cold weather and frequent showers. There was some frost in a low lying areas but the damage was limited, nothing like the Loire and Burgundy experienced at the end of April. In May there was some hail in isolated areas but again nothing in comparison to Chablis which was devastated three times during the month. Despite the troubled conditions, Bordeaux remained relatively unscathed. Furthermore, the reserves of water which accumulated in the soils were to prove a saviour later in the year.
The very first flowers appeared at the end of May on the Right Bank. Again, bad weather threatened but settled conditions between 2nd and 11th June proved crucial for a rapid and homogeneous flowering across most vineyards in Bordeaux. Apart from some millerandage in a few sites, the flowering went well and producers began to dream about an abundant harvest.
The rain stopped suddenly on 20th June and day time temperatures rose quickly above 30 °C.
Nobody knew it but this was the beginning of a long and severe drought which lasted until the the “miracle” rains on 13th September. Importantly July, whilst being dry was not too hot, with the exception of a few short bursts of heat, and most vines coped with the lack of water. The vineyard team at Château Lafleur allowed themselves to feel a little optimistic at this point. August however, was more extreme with two heat waves, one in the middle and the other at the end of the month which caused some vines, especially the younger ones, to close down due to stress. Most though were unharmed and the “positive blockage”, or interruption in the photosynthesis caused by the heat, was beneficial in the end as it slowed down the vines’ development.
The next threat was to the veraison. Growers were afraid it would go badly due to the drought but two showers on 30th July and 4th August proved crucial and most vines then had a successful veraison, only a few vines being too stressed. Sunshine throughout the rest of the month allowed the grapes to carry on maturing and cool nights contributed to aromatic potential and freshness.
Picking for the dry whites started at the beginning of September in the hot drought - not ideal. On the 13th of September however, the weather changed dramatically starting with a “miraculous” rainfall followed by a sudden reduction in temperatures to the seasonal norm. This step change was a pivotal factor in retaining acidity in the grapes which were refreshed rather than diluted. The rest of September was cool and clear with “great Autumn days” according to Omri Ram which allowed the red grapes to mature gradually and homogenously. The Merlot harvest was completed in the first two weeks of October, following by the Cabernets which were picked before the end of the month. Damper conditions in the last few days increased the risk of rot but most grapes were very healthy. A harvest which most thought would start early, was both late and prolonged in the end. Château Margaux experienced the longest red grape harvest in their history.
A vintage which seemed so challenging at the beginning totally exceeded expectations. Once the harvest was in it was obvious that there was great potential. Colours and aromas were impressive and appeared quickly without extraction. Many châteaux reported record polyphenolic levels. Most therefore adopted a gentle approach, restricting pump overs and punch downs to preserve the purity of the fruit and avoid any bitterness.
The resulting reds generally have smooth tannins and full flavours. On the whole, with the exception of some Right Bank wines, alcohol levels are also moderate due to the “positive blockage” in the summer. Acidities which were low before the harvest seemed higher at the end of fermentation, giving some freshness to the whites and a balancing energy to the reds, a consequence possibly of the accumulation of nitrogen in the vines during the wet weather.
Over-all however, the reds seem more balanced than the whites, the combination of heat and less well drained soils in some areas of the Graves encouraging over production.
Conditions in Sauternes and Barsac were similar to the rest of Bordeaux until September. Drought was a great concern but the rains on 13th September changed this when the first botrytis appeared. Most of the harvest however was in mid to late October following rains at the end of September and a downpour in the middle of October which promoted noble rot. During the rest of the harvest the weather was bright with some lovely breezes from the north which dried the grapes. Overall Sauternes can be considered a very good vintage, the wines showing remarkable pure flavours with wonderful balancing freshness.
Despite the trials and tribulations of the 2016 vintage, the wet weather in the first six months and the drought until the harvest, the vintage turned out to be a remarkably successful one. As explained at Château Palmer, “the vintage was completely different to most people’s expectations that the wines would have high alcohol and tough tannins, but this was far from the case”. Some younger vines suffered in the heat but most were unharmed and good weather at crucial moments in the vine cycle allowed the vines to express their full potential to produce impressive reds with ripe tannins and refreshing flavours. Lesser wines also performed well. Furthermore, Bordeaux produced a decent crop as it was unscathed by the disasters which befell other regions of France. There was a palpable atmosphere of excitement and anticipation when we tasted the vintage a few weeks ago in Bordeaux – we weren’t disappointed!
James Snoxell, Head of Buying