2016 En Primeur
2016 is a very good vintage for the wines of Bordeaux, with some outstanding wines across the region. It hits the same heights as 2015 and sits with 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005 and 2000 as one of the best since 1990.
The 12 strong Farr Vintners team spent the first week of April 2017 travelling around the region, tasting the wines and talking to the winemakers. We were accompanied, as ever, by Master of Wine Derek Smedley who has tasted every Bordeaux vintage en primeur since 1961. Derek is a human encyclopaedia of Bordeaux wines and was able to give us unique insight into the quality of the vintage in comparison with those that have gone before.
We won’t go into details here of the weather leading up to the 2016 harvest or overwhelm you with technicalities. However, if you would like to read more about the background to the vintage, we have some excellent information available from the Cazes family of Lynch Bages and Bordeaux expert Bill Blatch here.
Apart from visits to individual châteaux across the region we also participated in huge comparative tastings where we were able to try hundreds of samples against their peers. This meant that there were several wines that we tasted two or three times during the week. Apart from a couple of wines that we were unable to try, all the wines that we will be offering for sale have been tasted by the Farr Vintners team. You can read our tasting notes (with a score out of 20) by clicking on the wine in question in the en primeur section of our web site. We will be adding the scores and tasting notes of the leading wine critics as they become available.
If one were to generalise about the vintage, we would say that it is certainly very good in all appellations. The Northern Médoc has achieved greater consistency and heights than in 2015, with superb wines coming from St. Estèphe, Pauillac and Saint Julien. There will hopefully also be one or two bargains from the Médoc and Haut Médoc. Margaux is more of a mixed bag this year - the increased percentage of Merlot in the blend due to heavier plantings in the region has been marginally detrimental to quality. The increased susceptibility to drought is the reason for this, and this is also the reason why some second wines (with younger vines making up the blend) don't quite reach the heights of 2015. The Pessac-Léognan region of the Graves however, where the wines are based on a 50:50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet, seems to be successful, if not homogenous. Saint Emilion has produced some truly excellent wines this year, and there does seem to be the beginning of a movement away from the over-extracted, over-oaked styles that have deterred us from many wines in recent years. Pomerol has once again produced several standout wines at the top level, where there are some wonderfully ripe but balanced Merlot-based wines due to the clay soils allowing slow release of water where others suffered from drought stress. The take away message is that this is a vintage to follow the right châteaux, rather than a specific region, and to buy wines from châteaux using old, drought-resistant vines. Both the dry and sweet whites this year are charming, round and soft, but lacking in the tension and power common in truly great vintages.
Overall the wines differ significantly in style to 2015. Rather than a focus on plush ripeness of fruit, the focus is on precision, balance and freshness. Alcohols are thankfully down, most in the moderate 13% range, and the fruit has a cool, pure, brambly freshness (we found no greenness in the vast majority of wines). The fruit comes in length and intensity rather than fatty richness. The acids are fresh and the tannins are plentiful but incredibly refined, silky and ripe - a real sign of the quality this year. If we have to look for comparisons from the past, then perhaps it resembles 2005 in fruit, but the tannins are far more silky, yielding and ripe. The fruit can be compared to that of 2010, but the weight, alcohol, and tannins are all pared back. Having asked many winemakers during the week, there was a real struggle to pick a vintage of the past that the wines resemble, it is quite unique. Chatting with Derek, we came up with 1986 as a somewhat similar comparison, but tannin refinement, lower yields and greater fruit purity mean that the wines are inevitably better. On reflection, he also considered the wines similar to the 1955 vintage, but as no-one matched Derek's level of experience to have tasted these wines in their youth, we will have to take him at his word! Many, including Jean-Valmy Nicolas at La Conseillante, Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier and Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux Château Certan, believe they may have made their best ever wines this year - or so they say. In short, 2016 is a modern-classic for Bordeaux that is beautifully proportioned. These are not wines that shout with heady alcohols and heavy tannins, but rather entice with unparalleled purity and refinement in structure. They are more elegant than the blockbusters of 2009 and 2010, but are certainly built to last.
The first critic to release his assessment of the vintage was James Suckling once again, and he absolutely raves about the wines. Nearly every wine reviewed has a score in the 90s and he rates 10 wines as high as 99/100 points or even a straight 100. Suckling states that "Bordeaux’s newest vintage shows wonderful promise, producing dynamic, bright and structured wines" which are "ahead of 2000 and 2003, as well as every vintage in the 1990s except 1990 itself. The only vintages better are 2005, 2009, 2010 and perhaps 2015."
Neil Martin's assessment of the vintage in the Wine Advocate is as follows: "2016 is unequivocally a great vintage in Bordeaux. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are some caveats: properties with younger vines or less propitious, sandier soils whose fruit was unable to reach full phenolic ripeness levels, also the occasional hardness of tannins. That aside, we are looking at a vintage that can send tingles down the spine and back up again. Over twenty years of tasting Bordeaux from barrel at en primeur, this was my most pleasurable tasting experience alongside the 2009, albeit in a very different style. The 2005 and 2010 are both bona fide great vintages, however their girder-like tannins, the alcohol levels of the latter and obduracy rendered the exercise far more arduous. It was weeks before my tongue no longer felt furry."
Despite this, we believe that the wise buyer has to look at pricing as well as quality before deciding what to buy en primeur. In our view there is no point in buying these wines if the prices match or exceed the current market values of the already proven 2009 and 2010 vintages. We expect the prices to be higher than 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, as this is definitely a better vintage, and many châteaux will likely put a premium on the 2015 release price, despite a similar quality level and bigger crop. Following a stop-start campaign for the 2015s due to the volatility in currency with the EU referendum, prices need to show great sensitivity this year. A less favourable exchange rate than the start of last year's campaign will likely see price increases for most wines this year. Whilst 2016 may rival 2005 in the fullness of time, the wines must be considerably cheaper than the current prices for that vintage – we think by at least 25%. The 2005’s have been stored for ten years and are now reaching maturity so must demand a premium over an en primeur vintage. As a guide to our customers, we have listed the current 2005 price next to each red wine in 2016. Unless that Château particularly under-performed in 2005, we would steer clear of their 2016 if it is around the same price as you can buy their 2005 today. Each wine also has an estimated price. The bottom estimate is based on the release prices of the 2015 vintage - as we can't see many producers decreasing prices from last year. The top estimate is generally based on prices being around 20% less than you can currently buy the 2009 and 2010 of that particular wine (the exceptions to this rule being the 2009/2010 100 pointers). Our estimates show where we expect prices to be, not necessarily where we think thay they should be and some estimates may change once the all-important Wine Advocate ratings are released. Nevertheless, low to mid-estimate prices should give the buyer a fair deal in 2016.
We hope that all the wines we are listing will be released en primeur between late April and early July 2017 - though Vinexpo in mid-June may drag out the campaign for many. Please note that Yquem will be released in September 2018 and Latour and Les Forts de Latour will not be released until the Château considers them ready to drink. Haut Batailley will not be available en primeur this year following its recent purchase by the Cazes family of Lynch Bages.
Also in the en primeur section is our “What’s New” page which will list all the recent releases, a “Latest News” page that we will update daily with our thoughts on each release, a “Recommendations” page featuring the tips of Farr Vintners and independent critics, and a photo gallery from our trip to Bordeaux. If this is your first time buying en primeur, there is also an explanation as to how the system works and how to order using our “Pre-order” and “Wish-list” system.
There are many wines to get excited about in 2016, and the quality is there across the board. We can only hope that the châteaux will read the market well enough to offer the wines at attractive prices for the consumer to buy, as this is a vintage that should make its way into everyone's cellar.