Elitistreview is doubly blessed today. Firstly, I am wonderfully happy to present an article written by Linden Wilkie – one who is an even higher rank of the wine Illuminati than me! Thank you Linden, for providing Elitistreview with the benefit of wisdom. Secondly, this is a rare topic for Elitistreview, because I rarely drink the stuff, an article on Bordeaux – specifically an en primeur report on the 2016 vintage. This is an enlightening article, Chapeau, Linden!
Thanks, David, for inviting me to offer a few words on the 2016 Bordeaux en primeurs for Elitistreview. I visit Bordeaux each year around Easter in order to offer some view to my customers in Hong Kong. Most customers will follow what the critics – who spend weeks dedicated to the task – have to say, but I feel it is any wine merchant’s duty to offer their own opinion. Plus, though pretty exhausting, it is fun to go. Typically you visit a different chateau every half hour, all day, for a week, then collapse into a flight home. For the really high brow estates you have to visit directly, but for many chateaux it is also possible to taste at syndicate tastings where 20 or 30 wines are available in one place.
You always need a healthy dose of skepticism visiting Bordeaux to taste the fresh still-in-barrel samples of the latest vintage. The spin people are hard at work building whatever buzz can be built. These days chateaux all have lovely little books to give you with the weather info and ‘vintage story’ laid out for you, together with bucolic pictures of the smiling vineyard team, etc. And so when we hear, and when Bordeaux drinkers hear that this is another ‘truly great’ vintage there can be a little reflexive shudder. Especially when we were all so deeply encouraged to part with a lot of money just last year on another ‘truly great’ vintage.
But after tasting a fair range of these 2016 wines, tender and raw as they still are, I think I have to agree with the bold claim, albeit with some caveats, and I might as well start with those.
First, these are not finished wines. They are going to change more in the next year in barrel than they will during any subsequent year in bottle. They can come across rather awkwardly, like some smart, precocious but nonetheless spotty teen. When critics taste these barrel samples they are trying not only to grade and describe what they’re experiencing, but also to project that out into some imagined future wine, years later, ready to drink. It is a bit of soothsaying, and the /100 point scores assigned give an air of precision that belies the element of licked finger held up to the flowing breeze. Add to that the experience that a sample tasted in the chateau one day can give quite a different impression to a sample of the same wine tasted the next day somewhere else. I am not saying the whole process is balls – great wines will shine, and wines with big deficiencies, like green tannins, or over-extraction, or excess alcohol at one end and searing acidity at the other, will not be mended by time. In between those two poles a lot can happen in barrel and then bottle. So that is my biggest caveat for that whole process.
Secondly there were some issues with the vintage that affected some estates more than others. From early June to mid September there was pretty severe drought. I did not taste nearly enough of the dry whites to offer a really credible view, but it seems that many of these suffered – especially as the welcome rains that re-kickstarted the reds did not arrive until 13th September – too late for these whites that were mostly picked already. The drought also meant that there were some berries that got thick skins and hardened – like little bullets – before phenolic ripeness was possible, and never recovered. All they can offer in a vat is some hard green astringency and stringy acidity. (I tasted very little of that). Of course, old vines, and the best terroirs fared better, the poor old vine being able to eek out remaining moisture in the sub-soils.
But the bit of rain that came on 13th September, and a few subsequent showers became key. The end of the season was pretty good, temperatures dropped (which helped to preserve acidity and freshness in the fruit aromas and flavours), and the water helped the vine finish off the job.
The best reds have what I really love about Bordeaux – lots of aromatic and flavour complexity, a nice tension between fruit and acidity, making them refreshingly juicy, and only moderate alcohol. In recent years Bordeaux has seen more than its share of fruit bomb style wines. You like them or you do not, but I feel that style puts Bordeaux on the same playing field as so many other regions capable of delivering bold ripeness. What I have always liked about Bordeaux is its more moderate weight, its stylishness, its refreshingness. At its best it’s a Saville Row suit, not a party clown outfit. You should be able to drink Bordeaux and not feel fatigued by it. So, yes, 2016 has delivered a lot of these fine suits, and that above all is what makes me excited about the vintage.
One final caveat on the reds. I think the most successful wines this year were made by those producers with a light touch when it comes to extraction. In fairness I tend to think that anyway! But while in 2015 the wines are so plump and rich that they can take a bit of a beating, the svelte more elegant 2016s cannot. I would be cautious with estates known for making blockbusters.
My favourite wines – presuming the fantasy of unlimited funds! –
Château Latour – (will not be available en primeur)
Château Haut Bailly
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Pichon Longueville Baron
My favourite wines, presuming some degree of restraint –
Château Haut Bailly
Château Pichon Longueville Baron
Château Grand Puy Lacoste
Clos du Marquis
Château Cos d’Estournel
Château Léoville Barton
Château Ducru Beaucaillou
There were of course some really very nice wines made in the Right Bank, but there is something about the Medoc Cabernet this year. I note that a lot of my favourites have a very high proportion of it.
If you are thinking about buying some 2016 Bordeaux en primeur I hope these comments are of some use. My advice is to read a few tasting notes for the wines that interest you – especially where you know something about the reviewers taste and preferences (even if they don’t wholly overlap with your own). Pay close attention to the language in the notes – more than the score. A few notes on a given wine that describe what you like to drink will help you pick the right targets.
Finally, because you are paying hard cash for promises of some wine to be delivered in a couple of years’ time, choose your merchant with care. Good luck!
Thank you Linden, for gracing my organ with your analysis of the 2016 Bordeaux en primeur tastings! I should point out that Linden has written on this topic elsewhere. If you like to see numbers attached to wines then you can read his other article here.