NEW YORK, April 16 — As spring sun blazed in blue skies over Bordeaux on Friday, March 31, I set out to taste nearly 500 barrel samples of red and white wines in the legendary French region. My mission was to discern how the 2016 vintage stacks up against the superb 2015s I tried last year.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: The best wines from this vintage are exceptional, with plenty of superstars as impressive as, or much better than, their 2015 versions. Many chateau owners feel the wines are the best they’ve ever made. (Of course, I’ve heard that before.) The style of 2016 is different and enticing: The wines brim with fresh, floral aromas and cool red fruit flavours, silky textures, complexity, and smooth, tightly packed tannins.
Interest in the vintage was high–6,500 merchants descended on the city, compared with 4,500 last year. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild welcomed 2,000, Pichon-Baron 1,200. The Chinese were out in force. I myself travelled more than 500 miles, north to the Medoc, east to Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, and south to the Graves and Sauternes.
Here’s what I learned: 2016 is more variable than I expected, but I found terrific wines at every price level and in every appellation.
The big names
The first growths all shine brightly. One thing that struck me was how good the second wines from top properties are, as well as those from smaller estates, a sure indicator of the vintage’s high quality. At Chateau Pichon-Lalande, second wine Reserve de la Comtesse was stunning, while Chateau Leoville-Las Cases’s small estate Potensac made its best wine ever. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, the dry and sweet whites aren’t as stunning as the best reds.
With nearly constant rain from January to mid-June, followed by debilitating drought from then until, finally, a surprise Sept. 13 rain saved the day, 2016 wasn’t an easy “armchair” vintage. It took careful work and planning to get the grapes across the finish line.
Olivier Berrouet of Chateau Petrus explained, “You had to pick each block of vines at the right moment, and be gentle in each decision. The road to balance was very narrow.”
The soil and the age of the vines were the keys to success, according to Edouard Moueix, whose family owns many Pomerol and Saint-Emilion estates. Vineyards with clay and limestone, which hold water, suffered no stress during the drought. Those planted on gravel and sand often did.
Interestingly, the long fall harvest season, with cool nights and warm days, resulted in wines that have less alcohol. First-growth Chateau Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, with nearly 15 per cent alcohol in recent years, are back to more normal levels like 14 per cent and more attractive as a result. Many chateaus produced about 20 per cent more wine than they did in 2015.
There were so many superb wines that it was difficult to pick my top 18 and 10 best values listed below. Besides those, I’d single out chateaus Angelus, Beychevelle, Belair-Monange, Calon Segur, Canon, Cheval Blanc, Haut-Bailly, La Conseillante, Leoville-Barton, Pichon-Baron, Haut-Brion, Margaux, and Vieux-Chateau-Certan.
Over the next few months, you will have the option to buy the wines while they’re still in the barrel, in the form of futures. (The prices for my top 18 in the 2015 vintage ranged from US$55 to US$3,000/RM242 to RM13,187.) Whether to invest in a specific 2016 wine or not, as always, will depend on the price, something few owners want to discuss right now. (They’ll release prices of the wines over the next two months; for instant notification, subscribe to Millesima USA’s new wine futures alert system at millesima-usa.com.) But for those who want to just look forward to great wines in the future, know that these famed estates will be offering winners at the table for yet another year in a row.
My top 18 Chateaux for 2016
(Listed in alphabetical order)
Ausone Hugely rich and perfumed, it will be deservedly expensive; the “bargain” from this chateau is the best second wine I tasted, Chapelle d’Ausone.
Clerc Milon Owned by Mouton-Rothschild, this chateau made its best wine yet, with powerful, super polished, and vivacious flavours.
Cos d’Estournel This is the best young wine I’ve tasted from Cos; it’s suave, sophisticated, savoury, and spicy.
d’Issan This stylish, cassis-scented Margaux has amazing delicacy and purity of fruit, given that it sells below US$100.
Ducru-Beaucaillou Long and powerful with dark, intense fruit, this has layer after layer of complexity.
Figeac Almost perfect, this wine is soft, dense, structured, and complex; it’s better than the 2015, which sold out to merchants in 42 minutes.
Lafite Rothschild Dense, serious, and expansive, the wine’s long, complex, subtle flavours unroll in layers.
Lafleur The satiny texture and dense, plushy cassis flavours are filled with bright energy.
Leoville-Las Cases A colleague called this wine “monumental.” It’s brilliant and sumptuous, with super pure fruit.
Le Pin Totally seductive. This expensive Pomerol from a tiny cult estate is another “wow” wine, super intense, with soft sensual fruit flavours.
Montrose Along with a gorgeous purple-y colour and powerful tannins, this wine is also round, rich, and super classy.
Mouton Rothschild Smooth and powerful, with cocoa-and-violets aromas and a dark, deep power.
Palmer Sophisticated and velvety, it’s also wonderfully aromatic with a very long, pure aftertaste.
Petrus I loved the sensuality of the 2015; the 2016 is more elegant and structured.
Pichon-Lalande This gorgeous wine brims with succulent fruit flavours, spicy aromas, and a super polished texture.
Pontet-Canet Aromatic, polished, and smooth, it has an especially silky texture.
Rauzan-Segla This scented Margaux is deep, floral, and fragrant, better than 2015.
Trotanoy A favourite in the Moueix portfolio, this has a core of savoury elegant fruit and powerful tannins for the long haul.
Ten top values
(In the bottle, these wines will range from about US$22 to US$40)
Capbern Owned by Calon Segur, this Saint-Estephe wine shows a lot of plush, seductive fruit for its price.
Corbin Very fresh, savoury blackberry flavours and bright floral aromas mark this always well-made wine.
Lagrange Plump, smooth, and satisfying, this Saint-Julien really delivers, as does its second wine Fiefs de Lagrange.
Lalande-Borie Every wine in the Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou stable is terrific; this one has exceptionally lush fruit and structure.
Phelan Segur This velvety Saint-Estephe red comes from a chateau owned by the family behind Taillevant restaurant.
Pibran Part of Chateau Pichon Baron’s portfolio, this wine is loaded with seductive red fruit flavours.
Potensac This is the best-ever vintage for this intense, berry-flavoured red in Leoville-Las Cases’s portfolio.
Puy Blanquet Plump and sweetly fruited, this Saint-Emilion from the Moueix lineup has charm and mineral overtones.
Reserve de la Comtesse The second wine of Pichon-Lalande is juicy and succulent, with lovely structure.
Siran This year the wine has more elegance, intensity, and delicious juicy red fruit flavours.
Maucaillou There’s an overpowering taste of oak on top of harsh tannins in this red from Moulis-en-Medoc.
Grandes Murailles Thick, syrupy, and odd.
Balestard La Tonnelle Strange aromas and odd synthetic flavour notes mark this Saint-Emilion grand cru classe.
Grand MayneIck Green flavours and bitter notes make this Saint-Emilion unappealing. — Bloomberg