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Bordeaux 2016: the yin-yang vintage

Published:  27 October, 2016

Fortuitous rain and an Indian summer deliver promising vintage for Bordeaux

The 850mm of rain in Bordeaux from January to June this year typically falls in an entire year. So flowering took place in cool and wet weather, which raised the spectre of coulure - or the failure of grapes to properly develop. Rain at the beginning of flowering in late May and at the end of flowering in mid-June led to heterogeneous maturity overall - and millerandage (grape bunches with berries that differed in size and maturity).

But then the opposite happened: almost 80 days - between 24 June and 12 September - of dry heat, with nary a drop of rain. Initially welcomed, the dry and hot weather cut a latent development of rot, and curbed an early spread of mildew, explained Basile Tesseron of Château Lafon Rochet in Saint Estephe.

Extremes are not often all good, however.

Parts of August reminded vintners of the stress that vines felt in 2003: "It was the hottest since that year," recalled Jean-Claude Berrouet at Vieux Château Saint Andre in Montagne Saint Emilion. He and son Jeff Berrouet said that it was important not to de-leaf vines because too much sun would have grilled the grapes. Indeed, the veraison - when the grapes change colour from green to purple - was not easy with the very hot and dry weather.

"We had very hot nights from 13-18 and 23-28 August, with temperatures at 20°C, whereas average night time temperatures are closer to 14," explained Bordeaux based harvest reporter Bill Blatch, who consults for Christie's Auction House. One saw some shrivelled grapes and stressed vines.

Miraculous rain

"But then a miracle occurred," said Bordeaux University oenologist and professor Nicolas Vivas.

Rainfall on 13 September prevented the vines from totally shutting down. The amount of September rain varied for each region, according to the Live-ex: Margaux (50mm on 13/9, 8mm on 30/9), Northern Médoc (32 and 15 at Bégadan), Léognan (47 and 28), Saint Emilion (32 and 10), Blaye (43 and 9) and Entre-Deux-Mers (50 and 35 at Haux), but vintners throughout Bordeaux welcomed it.

The rain was a "blessing", said Tesseron. It not only brought needed water, but also autumnal cool evening temperatures for acidity and freshness - and for a long time, permitting a spread out harvest, under sanitary and sunny weather.

Over on the Right Bank, by the time the Berrouets tasted their grapes in late September, they appeared healthy and with adequate acidities.

Because skins thickened during the hot and dry period, the sudden rains did not burst most Merlot grapes, said Adrien Bernard, co-owner of Domaine de Chevalier, a classified growth of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. And yet: "There is no doubt that some Merlots suffered from the hot and dry August," Bernard added.

Superlative Cabernets

Naturally quick to mature, the Merlots ripened and proved concentrated, with a potential for quite high alcohol, Vivas said. Vintners reported very good Merlots.

But the long Indian summer weather from mid-September to mid-October particularly favoured the Cabernet harvest - with many vintners on the Left Bank singing praises for "outstanding" or "fabulous" Cabernets.

Jean-Jacques Bonnie of Château Malartic Lagraviere, a neighbour to Domaine de Chevalier, remarked: "We picked what we wanted and when we wanted it."

For St. Estephe - plagued by rain at the wrong time in 2015 - this vintage looks better. Tesseron stressed that the Cabernets in particular reached "optimal maturities," including the pips, allowing for "fine extractions."

Further south, Damien Sartorius of Château Langoa and Léoville Barton in Saint Julien said that the Cabernet Francs were especially fine: "We do not have a lot of it, and the grapes can be a bit green, but we got great maturity from all of our vineyards this year, with great colour and great flavour - and very good sanitary conditions throughout the harvest," he said.

Not quite 2010 or 2005

Most winemakers hype up every harvest as they can, but objective oenologists say that the key to making potentially great wines will be in the winemaking. And 2016 is no exception.

"Just as the harvest was spread out [starting as early as 20 September, ending the week of 24 October], the vinification needs to be careful and long-term," Vivas said.

"It has been easy to extract colours, but one has to be careful about the pips because - unlike in 2005 and 2010 - August was not favourable for optimal pip maturity," Vivas explained.

Indeed, many vintners who could afford them used optical sorting machines, such as the one that was being used at Langoa Barton on 29 September, when the Merlot harvest began.

Vivas agrees that the Cabernets were particularly successful, but advised gentle extraction in many cases. He advised against hot maceration and favoured long and cold temperature maceration, after alcoholic fermentation, to gently extract tannin and make the wines more "complete and deep."

More fragile whites

As for the whites, the search for high quality depends on terroir.

Adrien Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier said that 2016 is not as marked by acidity as 2014, for example, and the initial harvest of white grapes showed a lack of enough acidity, but older vines with deeper roots were fine, he said. He explained that the heavy rainfall from January to June actually filled the water table so that deeper roots found moisture.

Bonnie at Château Malartic Lagraviere - another classified growth - reported pH levels as "normal," between 3.15 and 3.25 for the whites and about 3.6 for the reds - and alcoholic degrees are not too high, he said.

Although terroirs and older vines - and density of vine plantation - matter, Vivas said that on a general level, including for basic Bordeaux AOC wines - early harvesting was recommended for whites to retain acidity.

"Semillon Blanc, when harvested early, maintained more tension and acidity," he said. "So we find some nice whites of Semillons," he added. But Sauvignon Blanc was different, he said, as the "heavy August heat compromised a bit the energy so characteristic to the Sauvignon Blanc grape."

Fine Sauternes and Barsac

The late harvest Sauternes and Barsac appellations seem to be enjoying a rather fine harvest, given a gradual development of botrytis over several picking periods between mid-September and mid-October.

Rain on 24 October was followed by a fourth and final tri or selection in the vineyards of Château Raymond Lafon. Co-owner Jean-Pierre Meslier said that pickings began after the mid-September rains and then continued following bursts of rain afterwards, as is typical, creating "sudden flips in the weather from total dry to a bit damp" so conducive to the development of noble rot.