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Anson: Bordeaux 2016 harvest report – how the vintage looks

Jane Anson talks through the growing season and looks at how the freshly picked Bordeaux 2016 vintage is shaping up.

Bordeaux 2016 vintage: The post harvest outlook

It’s never a good idea to talk about a vintage when the grapes are still on the vines. But last week, on November 3rd, Yquem brought in its final crates, nearly one month after the pickers began on October 7th. Bearing a few stragglers, the Bordeaux 2016 harvest is done and dusted.

‘It’s still too early to relax,’ says Didier Cuvelier at Château Léoville Poyferré in Saint Julien. ‘The fermentations are not finished for the cabernet sauvignon, although our last merlot tanks are now being run off into the barrels for (the second, softening) malolactic fermentation’.

But he’s looking at me with a broad smile as we taste through the vats, and it’s hard to disagree that the young wine is rich in aromatics, with beautiful texture and depth of fruit. Truthfully, it doesn’t taste this good every year.

Oenologist Pascal Hénot echoes many when he says, ‘Bordeaux, by some miracle compared to many French wine regions, is preparing for an exceptional vintage’.

I’ve been doing the usual pre and post harvest rounds, from grape picking (okay, for one morning only) at Cheval Blanc to harvest lunches in Saint Estèphe and St-Emilion to tasting vats at dozens of estates across the region to getting a feel for how things are progressing by chatting with owners, pickers and consultants.

So let’s recap.

Bordeaux 2016 growing season 

Q1, 2016: Wet and warm

The winter of 2015-2016 was the warmest on record in France since 1900. January and February were 2°C warmer than average, but also rainier – over twice as much as normal in January alone. But the warmth meant early budbreak at the end of March, around one week earlier than average.

Q2: Cool and wet

As spring continued, temperatures dropped to around 1°C lower than average and rain continued, although Bordeaux escaped the destructive hail and frost of so much of eastern France and the Loire except in a few limited cases. Growth was slowed by all the rain, with some roots suffering from asphyxia in cool and wet soils that were becoming seriously waterlogged (I remember taking pictures of drowned vineyards in both the Médoc and St-Emilion).

A warmer patch of weather towards the end of May finally sped up growth, and flowering got under way around May 25th, going through until mid to late June. Continuing showers meant uneven fruit set but no shattering or coulure (as there was extensively in 2013, for example).

‘Flowering is influenced more by temperature than rain,’ says Hubert de Boüard, Angélus owner and consultant across the region.

‘Even when it rained, the temperature stayed fairly even, so the fruit set well, which is why yields are a little higher than in 2015.’

Overall the end of this six month period saw rainfall at 722.4mm, or 62% higher than usual, and 830 hours of sunshine, or 18% less than usual.

Q3: Hot and dry

And then… well, you know what happened then. Starting on June 23rd, the rest of the summer was hot and particularly dry – with only 13mm of rain over 80 days, and in total 53% less rainfall than usual right up until the end of September.

‘There were moments towards mid June when we really started to worry. But I have never known a dry summer that lasted so long without rain,’ says de Boüard.

Three periods were particularly hot (July 17-19, August 13-16 and August 23-27) but in July at least, numerous winemakers have told me that the vines didn’t suffer at all, despite the drought, because of the water reserves that the soil had built up to that point.

In August certain plots saw some blockages in ripening, meaning that harvest dates were pushed back further than expected back at flowering time. Most of the grapes didn’t even get underway with their colour change until after the brief shower of rain (and I mean shower) in early August. There were also some examples of grapes getting sunburnt, and leaves yellowing or even falling. But these were the exceptions (although less of an exception than some vineyards might want to claim).

‘It wasn’t until mid August that we saw blockages in young vines and on particularly gravelly soils,’ said Vincent Decup at Château Montrose in Saint Estèphe this week.

‘But the slow ripening meant we have reasonable alcohol levels for such a hot year at around 13%, coupled with acidity that is fairly low but still vibrant. It has shown in the cellar, where fermentation has been quick and easy’.

Nicolas Audebert at Château Canon in St-Emilion is reporting similarly restrained alcohols of around 13.5-13.7%abv, with a natural richness ‘that will encourage us to be restrained during fermentation, in terms of temperatures and pumping over’.

As harvest approached, September saw temperatures around 1.5°C warmer than average, and acidities began to drop at an alarming rate until a rain shower of around 40mm on September 13 and 14 saw temperatures drop a little giving the berries time to regain some balance as they headed towards close of play. Nights were on average between 10 and 15°C and days 15 to 30°C. And aside from a few showers, the sun just kept on shining, meaning that harvesters could take their time.

Q4: Still warm, still dry…

Good weather during harvest in a late-ripening year like 2016 is of course essential. But it is also a risk. Kees Van Leeuwen at Cheval Blanc points out something that Professor Denis Dubourdieu also used to warn about – that just because you can wait to harvest, doesn’t always mean you should.

You’ll find huge variations of picking dates across Bordeaux this year, sometimes driven by soils, sometimes by style choices. The chateaux in the earliest-ripening sectors of Pessac were among the earliest pickers of course – with Haut Brion bringing in its first sauvignon blanc grapes on September 1st while in the slightly more outlying parts of Léognan, Château Carbonnieux began a week later, around 10 days behind the harvest of 2015.

Over in St-Emilion Cheval Blanc picked the last plots of merlot on October 1, with the cabernet francs finishing up around 10 days later, and Château Canon reported similar dates with harvesting lasting three weeks from September 22nd up to October 13th.

Château Angélus brought in its last cabernet franc grapes by October 21st (just slightly earlier than 2010, when they finished on October 22nd) while Chateau La Fleur Cardinale finished up on October 26th (‘we are in a cooler part of the region,’ says owner Caroline Decoster, ‘and tend to be a week later than around the village of Saint Emilion, but what we are bringing in has incredible density of fruit’).

Châteaux still bringing in grapes at the end of October included Pavie, Lassegue and Guillemin-la-Gaffeliere – all traditional late pickers.

In the Médoc, the red harvest began around September 22nd in the earliest sectors with almost everyone underway to September 26th. The last merlots were brought in at Chateau Belgrave in Pauillac on October 14th, with cabernets being left to ripen at their leisure. ‘There’s absolutely no point rushing to harvest and then being penalised by a slightly hard edge to what is a pronounced tannic structure this year,’ said technical director Frederic Bonnaffous at Dourthe Vineyards.

Over at Chateau Sigalas Rabaud in Sauternes, Laure de Lambert Campeyrot reports that it took a while for the noble rot to kick in; but when it did it was swift and even, with Sauternes and Barsac looking at an ‘exceptional vintage’. Xavier Planty at Guiraud agrees, saying that he had to wait until October 17th for the best of the noble rot to get going, and then it was of ‘a sublime quality’.

What to expect?

The dry whites are reporting slightly lower acidity than years like 2013 and 2014, as white vines tend not to enjoy water stress quite as much as their red counterparts, but I have been tasting some beautiful aromatic vats in Entre deux Mers and Graves.

For the reds, everywhere I go, I am told that colour has been easily extracted this year – I remember rolling grapes between my fingers at Lafon Rochet and other estates and seeing just how easily the juice stained purple – so expect deeply coloured wines in the glass. But on tastings from vats so far, I’m hoping to avoid too many overly ripe, fig and dried fruit flavours.

‘There was never the sustained day and night heat of 2003,’ says de Boüard, ‘and the wines are more restrained in character than in 2009. For me it’s closer to 2010 although a little lower in acidity. In some cases it is better than 2015, certainly more even across the region, with many excellent smaller wines in the southern part of Bordeaux, and in the Côtes’.

It’s hard to say which vintage we should be comparing 2016 to. Look back to 1990 and you had a cool early season followed by an extremely hot and dry summer. 2012 had a similarly slow long harvest with a beautiful Indian summer, while some of the technical readings recall 2010. Up at Leoville Poyferré, the merlot tanks are showing a high tannin-index of 100 IPT, and oenologist Antoine Médeville who works extensively across the Médoc also reported these high levels of both tannins and anthocyanes (the key to colour) among his clients’ merlots that are rarely seen in the Médoc.

‘The fact is dry vintages are always quality vintages,’ points out van Leeuwen.

And what not to expect – market stability

Oh, and just one last point. Good vintages almost always raise early questions over pricing. But this year there is one even more pressing question hanging over en primeur.

Never mind the exchange rate, as the pound will rise and fall, as will the euro and the dollar, many times between now and next year’s campaign. The really pertinent question this year is whether 2016 will be the last en primeur season when UK merchants can guarantee that the price consumers pay when ordering their wines is the one that they will pay on delivery? Because if Theresa May triggers Article 50 in March 2017, then the UK will be leaving the EU in 2019.

Which means that for the 2017 en primeur campaign, British merchants will not yet know what additional taxes and duties may be payable for wine coming in from the European Union. So maybe, for the first time in forever, there really is a pressing reason for British wine drinkers to buy 2016 Bordeaux.

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