Every new vintage in Bordeaux is a little like an old movie in which a damsel in distress is miraculously saved from disaster just in the nick of time. Except in Bordeaux, the villain and the hero are both played by the same character – the region’s variable weather.
Vintage 2016 was a little more dramatic than most, as an over-abundance of early rain followed by a mid-summer drought courted disaster before a long, perfect autumn resulted in one of the finest vintages in years. “Through August, we were all worried,” says Nicolas Seillan of Château Lassègue. “Then we got some rain and gradually began to relax.”
Last week, hundreds of châteaux in Bordeaux put their 2016 barrel samples on display, especially its reds, at its annual En Primeur event held for commercial wine buyers and for the wine media. Based on the feedback from both audiences, as well as their reading of market conditions, each château will decide in the next weeks and months what opening wholesale price they will offer Bordeaux’ negociants who market their wines worldwide, keeping an eye on neighbors and competitors to see how much they will raise or lower their prices. These prices are called “futures,” because they are prices collected now for future delivery once the wines are available months from now.
“The 2016s have freshness, balance and length,” says Philippe Dhalluin, winemaker at Château Mouton Rothschild. “They are perhaps closest in comparison to the 1986 vintage, but with better maturity and riper tannins.” Pierre-Olivier Clouet, who makes the wines at Château Cheval Blanc, adds that, whereas the highly touted 2015s were “round and full, the 2016’s are classic, one of the greatest vintages in 30 years.” Dhallum ranks it with the 2005, 2009 and 2010 as the best vintages of this new century.
Fortunately, volumes were also up at most estates. Châteaux Margaux, for example, reported a 26% increase for its iconic wine. And most reds on the Left Bank were also lower in alcohol, currently a crowd-pleasing dimension, with Margaux’s Thibault Pontallier reporting a one a one per cent drop over the previous year to the mid-13% range. The merlot-rich Right Bank wines were somewhat more alcoholic. For example, Château Pavie produced a stunning wine, but it comes with a stunning alcohol of 14.6%. Summing up the vintage, Château d’Issan proprietor Emmanuel Cruse says, “What makes a vintage great is that it produces great wines in all the appellations, which the 2016 did.”
Still, not all was serendipity. The spring deluges caused severe mildew problems for biodynamic and organic producers who do not use modern sprays. Château Smith Haut-Lafitte calculates it lost the grape equivalent of 30,000 bottles, and Château Palmer also reported a somewhat diminished crop. Additionally, white and sweet wines, while quite good, were not generally up to the performance of the reds.
Next comes the campaign to announce the 2016 prices. Traditionally, British merchants use the tastings to berate producers on the folly of price hikes, but this year they were unusually docile. Partly, that’s because the 2016s sold quickly, so stocks are somewhat low – a dilemma when the pound is also low. “The exchange rate is not good for them,” Château Lagrange’s Matthieu Bordes says,” but who knows what the rate will be like in two years when Brexit occurs? Or what the 2017 or 2018 vintages will be like?”
The guessing last week that were would be an increase over 2016 prices – but less than 10%. “Everyone pretty much knows what their prices will be,” says Sylvie Cazes, owner
of Château Chauvin, although they may hold their cards, waiting for others to declare first. Or, as Mouton’s marketing director Hervé Gouin wryly puts it, “Bordeaux is really a small village, and when it comes to pricing, we generally collectively make a good choice – or a big mistake.”
In the meantime, the previewed wines have to spend mores months in the barrel. “We’re almost at a final blend,” says Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin. “What we’re showing will certainly be the backbone in the final blend.
And returning to the film analogy, Jean Garandeau, marketing director of Château Latour, which shows its wine but doesn’t play the futures game, says, “Things looked grim for a while, but we had a happy ending – just like in the movies.”