Burgundy 2016 En Primeur: Vintage Report
Burgundy has had a series of difficult vintages which has removed the equivalent of the production of an entire vintage over the last five years. Devastating frosts destroyed large swathes of the 2016 crop but the damage was uneven. Some vineyards had normal harvests while other parcels, including several grands crus, were almost wiped out. Conditions were definitely challenging in 2016 but the mood amongst growers was upbeat when we visited this autumn and we were intrigued to find out more.
The year started with a warm winter and a mild spring and growers worried about the early onset of budding and the risk of frost. Devastating frosts struck on the morning of 27th April with temperatures dropping to -2.5 ⁰C, colder still in Marsannay. Unlike previous frosts on lower ground, the most serious damage occurred on the middle part of the slope in some of the best vineyards. The frost magnified the rays of the rising sun which ruptured the frozen buds. The damage was mitigated by initiatives such as burning straw bales and random cloud in other areas but a number of grands crus were badly affected including Musigny, Echézeaux and Montrachet.
The damaged vines took several weeks to recover while the unaffected vines continued as normal. As a result growers had to manage vines at different stages of development. Humid conditions in May and June made it difficult to work the soils and increased the risk of mildew especially on vines which had been weakened by frost. The outbreak of mildew which followed struck erratically and much depended on the timing of treatments. Sabine Mollard of Domaine Marc Morey described having “to go constantly back and forth to the vineyards” either to trim or treat the vines. Unwilling to accept any further risks, and having already lost a significant part of their production, a few growers were forced to abandon their organic principles.
The sun broke through at the end of June, putting an end to the mildew pressure, and the rise in temperatures encouraged flowering which started on 20th June, later than normal. Bouchard Père reported a fairly quick and homogenous flowering but others, such Domaine Fourrier, indicated a high incidence of milerandage. Blain-Gagnard noted a later flowering on frost damaged vines.
The weather remained dry and hot throughout July and August which caused localised sunburn and signs of stress on younger vines. Ripening was also slowed but by the beginning of September things looked promising. All that was needed was a little rain to plump up the grapes which is precisely what happened on 17th and 18th of the month. The weather was ideal in the week before the harvest which allowed the grapes to accumulate sugar and flavour compounds quickly while cool overnight temperatures maintained freshness in the grapes.
Most growers started picking from 21st September in bright weather, at least three weeks later than 2015. The harvest continued until the beginning of October when the weather changed but most were finished by then. As ever it was important to select the optimum moment to pick and some sorting was needed to eliminate the second generation bunches but the grapes which entered the winery were generally healthy with small berries and thick skins. They had good levels of ripeness and balancing acidity with moderate potential alcohol which was very promising.
The climatic conditions of the 2016 vintage severely affected yields in Burgundy. Overall, according to the BIVB, the body which represents growers, production was 20% below average but the results were patchy. In vineyards damaged by frost on the Côte d’Or over 60% of the crop was lost putting some family domaines under severe financial pressure. Céline Fontaine of Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard remarked that her parents had never seen such a small crop.
In the Côte de Nuits, Marsannay was destroyed and Chambolle-Musigny was badly affected. Roumier’s parcel of Les Amoureuses was reduced by 50%. Neighbouring Clos de Vougeot, Echézeaux and Grands-Echézeaux were also damaged. Gevrey-Chambertin suffered frost and hail in places and several grands crus were damaged though vineyards towards Brochon were spared. By contrast, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-Saint-Georges did relatively well and Morey-Saint-Denis escaped with a generous crop.
In the Côte de Beaune, Savigny suffered severe losses but the situation in Pommard and Volnay was more mixed. Further to the south, Meursault was badly affected but Chassagne-Montrachet was harder hit. Puligny-Montrachet escaped severe damage but its grands crus were devastated. Domaines Leflaive, de la Romanée-Conti, Comtes Lafon, Lamy-Pillot, Guy Amiot and Fleurot-Larose agreed to combine their tiny crop to produce just two barrels of Montrachet in 2016. To the south, Santenay was largely unscathed.
In Chablis, the worst frosts since 1981 and hailstorms in May were followed by mildew which caused havoc in the vineyards. Some parcels were completely destroyed and Domaine Sébastien Dampt lost 50% of their production. In the Mâconnais, hail storms on 13th April caused widespread damage.
Assessment of the Wines
Overall, the quality of the wines was much better than expected with many growers remarking how relieved they were to produce such good quality wines given the difficult year.
The reds in particular showed well. Erwan Faiveley described them as “classic” in style, similar to the 2014s, but with greater definition. Romain Taupenot remarked that the 2016s had the ripeness of the 2015s combined with the energy of the 2014s. Christophe Roumier noted that there were two styles of red wine, those from frost damaged vineyards with low yields, which are concentrated with pronounced mineral characters, and those from undamaged vines which are rounder and more seductive. In general, the 2016s seem less concentrated than the 2015s but they are more delicate and nuanced. They will probably mature earlier than the 2015s but are more precise and pure which many Burgundy lovers will prefer.
Generalisations about the whites are harder as quality is less consistent. Conditions were more challenging for whites it seems, “a vintage for growers” according to Gérard Boudot of Domaine Etienne Sauzet. Some wines display exotic characters and others lack focus but a number of growers, including Sauzet, produced outstanding whites which have a vibrant mineral character reminiscent of the energetic 2014s. These are wines which will benefit from long ageing.
In conclusion, despite the difficult conditions, 2016 has produced some exceptional wines and many will prefer them to the 2015s. The 2015s will take longer to reach their peak but the 2016s will be beautiful for drinking in the meantime. The problem is going to be tracking down enough bottles to satisfy demand and after a series of short harvests there will be even more pressure on supply. Some merchants have already predicted a rise in prices but the hope will be that increases will be modest. 2017 is a much more generous crop after-all.
Head of Buying