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2016 Bordeaux: An unusual and unexpected return to classicism

Published 21st April 2017

The Value of En Primeur - Context for the 2016 Vintage

Bordeaux en primeur is something of a puzzle and it has been this way for some time. 2016 is an exciting vintage and one that is likely to be beset by the same pricing issues as many recent vintages. As the report explains, there is a great deal to like in the 2016 vintage. I personally cannot recall being as impressed by so many wines in a Bordeaux vintage that I have tasted en primeur since 2005. That is not to belittle the undeniably great vintages of 2009 or 2010 or 2015 for that matter, but there were fewer wines that hit such highs in those vintages. Putting matters of quality and personal taste to one side, we are left to ponder the question of price. On this topic I do, unsurprisingly, have a feeling that I am re-iterating comments made almost every year since 2010 en primeur. 
 
This time last year, when we were anticipating the release of the 2015s, there was an expectation that the price increases would be modest. As the campaign wore on, however, the increases became considerable and our interest diminished rapidly. UK buyers are faced with an increase in price circa 10% on account of exchange rate shifts between this year and last, as well as a likely increase of 10 to 15% or more, in cost at source. This estimate may turn out to be on the low side for all we currently know. Quizzing various Château owners and representatives about their approach to pricing yields very little by way of comment. One unusually forthcoming individual did suggest that there would be no repeat of the 2010 approach, where prices were pushed to dramatic levels, in many cases over and above the lofty release levels of the 2009s. I was pleased to hear the comment but it is not particularly instructive, nor is it binding!
 
One major concern is that, while 2016 may be a very fine vintage, so was 2015. There were many notable high points – albeit not the same homogenous sense of quality across the region –  Left Bank and Right. The point is that stylistically the two vintages are poles apart, but qualitatively they are on a par when it comes to the best of each vintage. The motivation to purchase is key. There will be a handful of wines where I would expect favourable pricing relative to quality and these may turn out to be ‘no-brainers’ when deciding whether or not to purchase. If specific wines are well-priced relative their quality, then it makes sense to acquire early and we would advocate purchasing. This is very much in line with the approach we applied in 2015. Certain wines may make sense purely from an investment perspective if they benefit from strong endorsements when Neal Martin releases his review at the end of the month. That said, if 2009 and 2010 taught us anything, it is that scores are not everything. If prices for well-rated wines are 25%+ up to the UK buyer over and above wines of comparable quality in the 2015 vintage, I fail to see the sense in purchasing. Many of those who bought 2009s and 2010s early doors have seen values fall away only to bounce back, but there are many that are still well underwater.
 
This serves to highlight one of the problems faced by UK merchants and Bordeaux négoçiants alike: fewer buyers are focused on fewer wines as the incentive to habitually purchase and to accept a certain element of ballast has long since dwindled. Given the volumes of 2015 that are still available from Bordeaux négoçiants and in the market at large, there is comparatively little fear of missing out beyond a handful of avidly followed wines. Allowing for exchange rate differences, the 2015s are largely the same price as they were a year ago.
 
A recent Liv-ex study, looked to assess ‘fair market value’ in today’s market with a view to draw comparisons to release price.  This shows that the last vintage to really repay early purchase was the 2008 vintage, when prices were released in a period of economic uncertainty and before Robert Parker had released his scores. When released, Parker’s scores were far higher than many anticipated and this led to a very active market that year, bolstered by interest from relatively new Asian buyers.  This Liv-ex study suggested that the 2008 en primeur pricing represented a 30% saving against today’s fair value market price, compared to an 8% saving for the 2012s and 2014s, the other two beneficial en primeur vintages. This is not a very compelling hit rate and highlights the problem; there is likely to be comparatively little compulsion for us or for our clients to buy en primeur if significant increases in release price become commonplace.
 
As has always been our approach, we will assess each release on its merits; taking into account both value and quality, we then decide whether or not a wine warrants a recommendation. There is some expectation that 2016 could prove to be an early campaign in order to capitalise on positive sentiment surrounding the vintage. Neal Martin’s much awaited review for The Wine Advocate is due to be published at the end of April and therefore May will likely be a busy month of releases. Whether or not many of these warrant much in the way of attention remains to be seen as the pricing question is in the balance.
 
As ever, we will do our best to draw your attention to the most interesting opportunities and I sincerely hope that the general approach adopted by Château owners does not reduce the opportunity for all in this highly interesting vintage. Should you wish to discuss the vintage in greater detail, please do not hesitate to contact us.


Introduction

The marketing departments of many merchants are just bursting into action, building the hype for the 2016 Bordeaux en primeur campaign. You are sure to hear a vast range of superlatives and lines lifted from critics to lend weight to the undoubtedly ‘great’ vintage – dubbed as such even before any wine has finished its period of élèvage in barrel. Yet, assessing the quality of a Bordeaux vintage is far from straightforward; projecting how unfinished samples will turn out when in bottle is no exact science. Definitive scores must be met with a healthy dose of scepticism for this very reason. After all, on many occasions, professionals have been surprised by just how specific vintages have turned out with bottle age.

Tasting modern-day Bordeaux vintages en primeur has, if anything, become trickier. This is because we have encountered hotter summers and consequently have seen general levels of alcohol rise, accompanied by greater concentration of fruit and extraction of tannin. The higher levels of alcohol are not a problem per se, provided that balance is achieved across the structural components of a wine. However, achieving balance has become trickier and even in some ‘great’ Bordeaux vintages such as 2009 or 2010, there may be a warming sensation at the back of the palate. ‘Headiness’ has become a more common adjective to many modern tasting notes and understandably so, though it will not be employed to describe the 2016s.

Despite some remarkable comments from wine critics – all keen to steal a headline and rush out a set of imposing scores  –  the fact remains that whether the 2016 vintage is a truly great vintage will only become clear in time. That said, it is clear is that 2016 is a ripe vintage in a more classical style on account of a series of very specific weather events. Consequently, this vintage shows exceptional poise across the piece, largely aided by a lower alcohol content (around 13-13.5% compared to a level of 14-15% for recent vintages). The task of achieving balance is therefore all the more likely in 2016. The best of the vintage show a rare clarity to their flavour profiles, enlivened by bright acidities. Texturally, they offer silken, finely ripe, yet substantial tannins and abundant, juicy ripe fruit. Those in the trade who look for comparisons to other vintages – in part as means of understanding a vintage and in part out of the need of a marketing hook – should steer clear of such a game this year. Simply put, it is as if 2016 does not belong in its winemaking decade. It has the purity and pristine fruit of a modern-day vintage, but the aromatics and freshness of an earlier era. 2016 is a surprise and it would be fair to assume that the conditions that have led to this vintage will not be often replicated in subsequent years. Enough volume and concentration to appeal to the modernist and a brightness, freshness and lightness of touch to lure those with more classical leanings. Unusual indeed.

Of course, representatives from different Châteaux have their own take on the vintage. Philippe Bascaules, who has been newly promoted to Managing Director at Château Margaux, refers to 2010, 2015 and 2016 being the greatest vintages of the last decade. In terms of longevity, the ripeness and clarity of fruit, appealing aromatics and silken tannins suggest a vintage with the right attributes to age well over the longer term. Harmony between components is the greatest gauge of quality and 2016 is striking in this respect. However, having become accustomed to more headstrong young vintages, it could be easy to misread the ease with which one could taste 50-60 of the 2016 barrel samples in a day. When components strike such a balance, it is possible to perceive a broader window of drinkability without reducing the expectation of the vintage’s ability to age over the long-term.

Representatives do seem to agree that no-one expected the results that they achieved. As Fréderic Faye at Château Figeac quipped, the year was ‘like a journey from hell to paradise’. Too much water in spring and then too little moisture in summer saw expectations fluctuate. One minute, there was fear of a repeat of 2013, which lacked ripeness due to cool, wet conditions, the next the properties were adopting strategies to cope in extreme heat that was similar to 2003 conditions. Perfectly-timed rains on or around the 13th September are said to have been to key to avoiding stress and spurring on the final ripening period.  Perhaps more important was the diurnal shift in temperatures and the fresh evenings that accompanied the run-in to harvest under fine autumnal sunshine, with no undue pressure.

‘Unique’ is a term that we at Atlas hesitate to use as it is bandied around with abandon these days. Each and every Bordeaux vintage is ‘unique’ after all, as a culmination of the impact of different weather events, so it is meaningless to attribute it to one or another vintage. However, in the run of vintages and given the attributes of most modern-day vintages, there is something unexpected and highly individual about 2016. In short, it is a most welcome return to a more classical style of Bordeaux, albeit with a generosity of fruit that we have come to expect from warmer modern-day vintages. Simply put, 2016 is a fascinating vintage with great potential.

A Word on the Left Bank

In the northern Médoc, perhaps one could see a little of 1996, or even 1986, in the raciness of the Cabernet Sauvignon that has clearly excelled in 2016 on some of the most notable terroir of Pauillac, St. Estephe and St. Julien. Yet there is a more striking textural impression, perhaps more in line with 2000. ‘Athletic’ or even ‘lithe’ were descriptors that were in danger of being overused in our tasting notes, as the best examples of 2016 show such a fine lightness of touch despite their not-inconsiderable concentration. The aromatic lift and coupled with concentration do however render the task of drawing meaningful comparisons impossible.

It is easy to get carried away discussing the merits of the Northern Médoc above all else, but more than a simple addendum should be reserved for the Graves and Pessac-Léognan. The leading Châteaux of the Graves have had a great run in recent years, and the very best of 2016 rival 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2009. At our visit, Veronique Saunders of Château Haut-Bailly mentioned the differential between day and night temperatures, which unusually broadened in the key ripening period.

 

Chateau Haut Bailly Temperatures

This fascinating variable has led to sublime aromatics and freshness to offset the ripeness of the fruit and it is showcased across the best of the Graves where both the Merlot and Cabernet components excelled.

A Word on the Right Bank

On the Right Bank, it is perhaps easier to find a point of comparison for the style of Pomerol and St.  Emilion. Certainly, there is something of the authoritative backbone of 2010 on show, without any sensation of the headiness or exuberance that can be associated with that year.  A key similarity between the two vintages was those cooler night temperatures which helped to retain aromas and freshness. In terms of balance and finesse, it might even be possible to allude to 2000, but there are still stark differences. In contrast to the 2015 vintage, the 2016s are more restrained just as the general vintage conditions would suggest. In the best of the Right Bank there is a precision and a tension that is not always apparent.

Baptiste Guinadeau of Château Lafleur commented ‘there was never a point in this vintage where we felt comfortable’ until the harvest was concluded. It is clear from tasting across the region  – wines such as Figeac, Cheval-Blanc or Lafleur itself – that the Cabernet Franc asserts itself this vintage and wines with a healthy proportion may well warrant patience. Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director at Château Cheval-Blanc, mentioned the fact that it was the driest summer since 1896, highlighting the importance of clay in preventing the vines undergoing hydric stress. Certainly, the best Merlot show no signs of being adversely affected by the hot, dry summer and the aromatics are captivating particularly across Pomerol with a markedly juicy quality to the fruit. How often are aromatics subdued by a heavy imprint from the heat of a vintage? Not so here.

Some Detail on the Growing Season

The winter of 2015/2016 was very wet and cool, if not cold, and amply replenished ground water reserves. Both the budding of the young vines and the flowering period took place in periods of good weather. This is particularly important for Merlot as it is so susceptible to coulure and millerandage, which lead to uneven ripening and potential crop loss. A successful, quick flowering across five days of fine weather in June saw the prospect of both homogenous ripening and high quality emerge.

Although flowering was quick, it was late due to the cool conditions earlier in the year. Late flowering invariably raises concerns over a late harvest, which can be far from ideal if there is pressure from inclement autumn weather. The summer was, however, dry and warm. Château L’Evangile in Pomerol, for example, reporting no rain for the three whole months following the 15th June, and Château Cos d’Estournel in St. Estèphe saw just 20 millimetres over the very same period. As irrigation is not allowed in Bordeaux, drought presents a considerable risk to the vines development. If vines encounter too much stress, then the ripening process can slow or even stop. When this occurs, it can lead to both unripe and baked fruit characters that were seen in some 2003s. It is worth recalling that sugar accumulation in the grapes continued in 2003 while the ripening of tannin and polyphenols faltered with some resultant wines showing a greenness of tannin despite their generosity of fruit. Thus, the outlook for the 2016 vintage at the start of September was decidedly mixed. A number of Château representatives mentioned that they employed techniques learned in other hot and dry vintages, and much attention was paid to the leaf canopy in order protect the fruit from the sun during the extended dry period.

By early September, hopes began to grow as the month progressed. The 13th September was a key date cited by many proprietors and technical directors, which finally brought some respite to the vines in the form of rain across the Bordeaux region. In fact, Château Palmer reported nearly 70 millimetres in one day. This was swiftly followed by cooler winds and a prolonged Indian summer. As Marielle Cazaux of Château La Conseillante noted, this allowed for an extended harvest period ideal for the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This made a stark contrast to the rush that was evident in 2015, when it was necessary to pick the grapes quickly before they lost crucial freshness. It was also possible in 2016 to harvest ‘plot by plot’ as and when each individual parcel achieved full ripeness. For Bordeaux, it is comparatively rare to have a harvest period which is free from pressure of adverse weather – let alone one where the days remained warm and the nights cool  –  accentuating the floral lift and perfume of the fruit and retaining valuable acidity. There are both key factors to the success of 2016. Some commented that these late season conditions reminded them of 2008.

Last autumn, the 2016 vintage was quickly labelled one of both quality and quantity. In terms of overall yields, 2016 was a more successful year, more bunches per vine, and more tonnage harvested than in the previous two or three vintages. Several Châteaux pointed out that this did not necessarily equate to a greater volume of wine. The team at Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, amongst others, made the point that the dry summer led to smaller berries than usual, with a higher skin to juice ratio, so once the grapes were pressed, yields were actually similar to 2015. Any increases in volume at the top end of the quality scale were modest. For example, at Château Haut-Brion we were told that they had made more wine than any year since 2004, moving from 11,250 cases in 2015 to 11,600 in 2016 – just a 3% increase.  This increase would likely have been less by those Châteaux which practice biodynamic viticulture, as mildew early in the season saw yields drop – such was the case with Château Palmer in Margaux.

The topsy-turvy nature of conditions is highly unusual; seldom do Bordeaux vintages prove so difficult to read during the growing season. One proprietor termed it ‘a rocking chair vintage’ and from the conditions described above it is easy to understand why. The fact that the results are as compelling and homogenous as they are, seemed to take everyone by surprise.

A highly unusual vintage indeed.

Simon Larkin MW
Managing Director

Victoria Stephens-Clarkson MW
Head of Buying





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