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Sauternes 2016 first impression: ‘Names count’ in a mixed vintage

Bordeaux 2016 proved even more of a waiting game in Sauternes than usual and an initial taste of barrel samples suggests that it will be a mixed vintage, arguably favouring those with the capacity to invest extra resources in grape selection.

Sauternes 2016 summary

This is a very good year for many estates, with good purity of fruit thanks to a lack of grey rot, and long ageing potential. But, buyers will need to pick carefully in a mixed year and some wines struggle to stand out from the crowd.

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Barsac saw an earlier arrival of noble rot than its neighbour, and Sauternes had to wait until October for the real onset of the botrytis.

This meant there was a natural richness in the berries before the onset of noble rot.

‘You can feel the gap in Sauternes really showing itself between those who can invest and be extremely selective and those that can’t’

The first 13 days of September were the hottest since 1950, reaching a record 37 degrees Celsius in Sauternes on the 12th of the month – although there was more rain in Sauternes during September than in the rest of Bordeaux. Sauternes saw around 70mm.

It’s a vintage partly distinguished by a lack of undesirable grey rot during harvest. ‘Where usually we have two buckets, one for good rot and one for bad, we only needed one,’ said Xavier Planty, co-owner of Guiraud.

My first impression is that you can feel the gap in Sauternes really showing itself between those who can invest and be extremely selective and those that can’t.

Sauternes sales in general have had difficulties for several years, so investments must inevitably be difficult for some estates. And in this vintage, it looks as though names will count.

There are some exceptional wines but also some fairly unexciting ones, where the body of the wine is just a little heavier than ideal. This is true for the dry whites also, whereas with the reds there are successes on both banks and at all price levels.

Rain fell in showers on 13 September and 30 September, allowing noble rot to develop on already-ripe grapes. Picking lasted in many places until early November. D’Yquem picked over two months from early September for Y d’Yquem, and the heart of its picking for Yquem came in mid-October.

‘Any two-month harvest window has potential for problems,’ said d’Yquem director Pierre Lurton. ‘But we were extremely lucky with the weather conditions.’

Quantity of the wines made at several estates reached a record high. Most were in the 20-something hectolitres per hectare, which is very unusual. Yquem’s average is 9hl/h and it hit 2Ohl/h in 2016. Guiraud has produced 20% more first wine than last year, with a 23hl/h yield.

It’s clear that this is not a homogenous vintage. Some have beautiful salinity and freshness, while some are heavy in character, with a tannic side to the mid-palate that comes from the drought.

The best wines are extremely pure, thanks to the lack of grey rot.

Some wines ‘have very rich showing candied fruit overtones, a style that emphasises power rather than bright aromatics or freshness,’ said Axel Marchal at ISVV, the Insitute of Wine & Vin which the late professor Denis Dubourdieu helped to set up.

If people waited too long for noble rot to develop, ‘then the aromatics are not as complex and the acidity is not high enough’, said Xavier Planty. ‘The best time for [noble rot] to set in is just after maturation of the berries, when you get an explosion of aromatics,’ he said.

Edited by Chris Mercer

Stay tuned on Decanter.com for more of Jane Anson’s first impressions during en primeur week. And see Anson’s full Bordeaux 2016 scores on Decanter.com later this month. 

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