Over the past two decades, The World of Fine Wine’s annual reports on the Bordeaux en primeur tastings have become definitive statements on the latest goings on in the region.
For the first 17 years of the magazine’s existence, the reports were written by the globally respected author and wine educator, Michael Schuster.
As Schuster hands the reins over to his successor as WFW’s Bordeaux en primeur reporter, Simon Field MW , we are taking the opportunity to publish each of Schuster’s masterly vintage reports going back to 2003 on worldoffinewine.com.
Together they provide a detailed record of the region’s development since the turn of the Millennium, an informal first-draft history of Bordeaux wine in the 21st century, and an invaluable reference tool for wine collectors.
Today’s instalment takes us back to the magnificent, classical 2016 vintage, and a revision of Schuster’s original en primeur assessments first published in WFW Issue 70, based on the performance of the bottled wines, tasted in 2020, by Schuster and Andrew Jefford.
2016 Bordeaux: Class from another era
The Great Balancing Act: A year of weather extremes and records, and yet magnificent red wines, surprisingly fresh, restrained, elegant, complete.
This was how I summed up the 2016 vintage in the spring of 2017.
The following were the “Headlines” for my 2016 en primeur report in April 2017 (WFW 56, p.174), followed by a summary of my original review, and then a look at how the wines are tasting today, four years on from the vintage.
- Outstanding, magnificently complete, classically proportioned red wines.
- Many will rank with the best ever.
- Red wines successful across the region, up and down the hierarchies.
- There will be great value cru bourgeois, second wines, lesser appellations.
- Good to very good softer-styled dry whites.
- Good to very good Sauternes, supple, succulent, juicy, flattering
- Successful for all grape varieties; exceptional Left Bank Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Very wet, very hot, very dry: six months of deluge, followed by four months of drought.
- As in 2015, prolonged and ideal conditions for harvesting fruit in perfect health.
- Harvest size (Gironde)*: 6.088 million hl, the largest since 2005, to which it is almost identical (6.078m hl); approximately 12% more than 2015 (5.452 m hl), 2014 (5.434m hl), and 2012 (5.442m hl); 4.5% more than 2009 and 2010 (5.828m hl); 9% less than the abundant 2004 (6.669m hl).
*CIVB – Economie & Etudes / Source: Douane
The growing season
Winter and Spring: deluge
A season of extremes. Extremes of rainfall, then sunshine and heat.
But which, in due course, balanced themselves out naturally, if completely unexpectedly, to produce a red wine vintage of outstanding quality.
Rainfall was at a record high across the first six months of the year and, on top of the all encompassing humidity, the temperatures from November to March had been unusually mild, producing ideal conditions for mildew, oidium, and black rot in late spring and early summer.
June: a perfect flowering window
Here occurred the first natural counterbalance to the hitherto depressing growing season. On June 2, the skies cleared, and the rain stopped.
There was a ten day window of blue- skied, warm, dry, sunny weather. And a homogeneous, even, relatively rapid flowering for all the grape varieties, with a generous and uniform fruit set, and very little coulure or millerendage.
It couldn’t have been better, or better timed. But the third week of June was yet another one of rain, particularly taxing for those running their vineyards on strict organic or biodynamic lines, and many lost part of their crop as a result.
Fieuzal, Smith Haut Lafitte, Palmer, and Durfort Vivens were among those noticeably affected in what was mostly a year of generous yields.
In the fourth week of June, summer proper arrived, and the first natural “rebalancing” of the viticultural year.
The next 80 days, of July, August, and early September, were practically rain-free, most properties seeing barely 1 inch (25mm) over three months.
The six months of almost unremitting rain were followed by drought, the second weather extreme, accompanied by an abundance of sunshine and well above-average temperatures, too.
Comparisons are manifold: “rainfall from July to October was a third of the 30-year norm”; “it was the driest summer since 1900”; “July to October temperatures were 2.5°C [4.5°F] higher than the 30-year average.”
Summer: saturated soil to the rescue
Here also came the second great natural rebalancing of the vintage.
The winter’s water-gorged soils, clay and limestone especially, now became the perfect cushion for the summer drought, nourishing the vines through three months of unbroken sunshine, warmth and water-shortage, but with sufficient stress to slow, and then stop, the vines’ vegetative growth, that most important quality requisite, with the vineyards continuing to look fresh, healthy, glossy green-leaved.
Late summer: rebalancing rainfall
Healthy looking vines or not, as the middle of September approached the uninterrupted perfect weather, plus a mini heatwave, began to look punishing.
Then, on September 13, perfectly timed, as with June’s flowering window, came nature’s third counterpoise in this season of extremes: brief, but substantial rainfall across the region. Absolutely and entirely beneficial.
The weather conditions for the red wine harvest were perfect through September and October.
It was prolonged and almost rain free (there was another mostly welcome, brief rain interval on September 30) where you could wait to pick as suited your fruit and preferred wine style, with grapes which were very largely robust, healthy and disease-free.
Sauternes / Barsac
There were basically three tries for Sauternes in 2016, the first in the final week of September but before the rain on the 30th, making for wines that were pure and rich but lacking botrytis complexity.
The second trie took place in mid-October and accounted for the largest proportion of most properties’ harvest, with plenty of botrytis initiated by the mid- and then the late-September rains.
The third and final trie, and for some châteaux the best, went well into November. Their combined yield was unusually high, and sugar levels are very much in line with recent years, with 120–140g/l being typical.
The wines have a succulent, juicy, flattering attack, but many then go a bit limp on the mid-palate and lack aromatic scope and complexity, often finishing rather slack.
Sauternes, especially at today’s elevated sugar levels, fine botrytis apart, desperately needs a sufficiently vital acidity to carry, define, and project its flavors, and most 2016s simply don’t have this.
They are some way from the racy class, projection, complexity, and definition of the very fine 2015s.
Wet year, hot year, drought year: extremes but that yielded an exquisite balance.
How come? The classically proportioned, perfectly poised, sweet-cored, fresh, fragrant, complex, and exquisitely textured red wines would seem to be a completely counterintuitive result.
But it was the unprecedented, and wholly positive, interaction of these extremes that painted the year’s great balancing-act backcloth. So, just what was their combined influence on the outcome?
First, the summer’s prolonged heat, sunshine, and the very dry conditions could be as beneficial to ripening as they were, precisely because of the continued availability of water from the great reserve cushion created by the year’s early deluges.
Second, there was the relief given to both vine and fruit by the more than usually cool nights through summer and autumn, a counterpoise to the great diurnal heat, and thus a key factor in maintaining acidity and limiting the accumulation of sugars.
Third, there was (in most cases) the great weight of fruit, a consequence in part of the year’s sodden soils which, in 2016, was entirely positive, supplementing the moderating effect of the cool nights on sugar and acid levels.
Finally, that very abundance of fruit meant you could be particularly selective at harvest time, if necessary, without too much sacrifice, given the likely generous yield.
A remarkable set of circumstances, given the “extremes” which would normally result in a clear imbalance of one kind or another.
Very few growers were hurried into picking after the mid-September rains and many, for the second year running, had one of their longest harvests ever.
It was not unusual for properties to pick over the same parcel more than once, in Sauternes-like tries, rejecting grapes / bunches that appeared sunburned, waiting for others to attain an even more ideal ripeness.
After a brief appearance of rain on September 30, with no deleterious effects, the weather remained flawless throughout the harvest period, to the end of October and beyond.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, especially, were small and thick-skinned, and the prolonged dry, sunny conditions throughout October allowed for exceptionally ripe, fresh, and aromatically complex fruit to be harvested.
This was a generous vintage, with an overall yield of 52hl/ha. Sauternes and Barsac made a good crop for the second year running.
The Cabernet Sauvignon yield in 2016 was not quite as generous as that for Merlot, and there were, as usual, considerable variations among the individual châteaux.
The habitual very low yielders apart, many properties had their best yield for years, in the high 40s and low 50s, some up to the maximum permitted—but with no discernible adverse affect on quality!
A few, mentioned above (Growing Season), mainly suffered from the effects of mildew.
Red-wine style and quality
With fully ripe and absolutely healthy fruit, it was an easy vintage to make. The main aim, much as in 2015, was not to overdo extraction from the often thick skins, rich in particularly fine, easily extractable tannins.
The 2016 reds are characterized in general by very deep colours, a most beautiful ripe fruit core, an absence of any vegetal or herbaceous characteristics, a deliciously fresh acidity, remarkably fine textures, and an exceptionally rich and complex aromatic scope.
They are also marked by comparatively moderate levels of alcohol, half a degree to over a degree lower than the current norm.
Their abundance of tannin will give these wines an exceptional life span, but it is of such a fine, soft, caressing quality that many will be attractively accessible relatively early, too.
An eating your cake, and having it, drinking option! Over-enthusiastic extraction, or excess new oak, in this year will surely have been a mismanaged opportunity.
The well-managed 2016s have a sense of absolute completeness, of abundance without excess, of intensity as distinct from power; they have a remarkable complexity and length of flavor, and great overall harmony.
Are they the “greatest ever,” as some claim?
In individual cases this may well be so, but it is such an exceptional year that I am not sure there are any particularly illuminating comparisons with previous vintages.
2010, 2009, and 2005 apart, which they will certainly match qualitatively, the wines are much richer, and more complete than 1996 (if stylistically similar in many ways), and far, far more refined in texture, let alone scope, than the often still drily tannic 1986s, both years with which they are being compared.
One really noteworthy feature of the 2016s is just how good so many of the less illustrious wines and appellations are: St-Emilion satellites, Lalande de Pomerol, Left Bank Cru Bourgeois, Médoc and Haut-Médoc, numerous second wines.
And while the price of the superstars will be very high, there will be plenty of wonderfully satisfying drinking value for much more modest outlays.
Our palates and preferences
Andrew and I view the overall class of 2016 in very much the same way and, a few marked divergences apart, we perceive the “quality” level of individual wines (reflected in our scores) very similarly, too, though of course with different articulations of quite why— Andrew being much more poetic and elaborate!
But we do have different palates and preferences, so that we value differently that which we perceive, that to which we have our attention drawn.
My palate is more sensitive to, and therefore more critical of, the structural elements of tannin and alcohol simply because they impinge on my senses to a greater extent, while Andrew’s palate cushions and absorbs these sensations better, or he simply relishes them more!
And of course this also accounts for the slight differences in the way we read some of the year’s individual aspects.
You, too, our readers, will have a spectrum of palates and preferences, so we feel that our pairing makes for a usefully complementary appraisal.
How are the 2016 red wines showing at four years of age?
2016 today shows as a top-notch red-wine vintage whose wines are good to great across the region as well as up and down the hierarchy.
It has a wide-ranging quality consistency that marks the year out as exceptional and, in consequence, has gems and value to be found in each appellation, at all levels.
It stands out in the current context because of its classicism (a word we both found hard to avoid); classicism in the sense of its class, grace, elegance, restraint, and freshness.
An expression of red Bordeaux seeming “to come from another era,” as Andrew puts it, wines of more modest dimensions, making the year very different from other recent fine vintages such as 2019, 2018, 2015, 2010, or 2009, whose best wines are characterized more by their richness, power, opulence, and ample structure … more obviously offspring of our warmer world.
The style of 2016 reminded us both very specifically of 1996, whose best wines were also understated, medium- bodied, precisely defined, finely tannic.
But 2016 is both more regular in its success and overall much finer.
Indeed, its graceful, linear character, more modest dimensions, and quiet voice notwithstanding, we were both struck by the concentration, intensity, and beauty of the fruit core in so many of its wines.
Techniques in vineyard and winery have improved apace over 20 years, selection is more severe, there is more class in consequence, and its fruit is deeper, sweeter, purer, reflecting the palpable advantage of today’s extra warmth and sunshine.
If they remain, mostly, wines where one senses no great “mass,” whose emphasis is on freshness, focus, finesse, and fragrance, the best are nonetheless very complete wines.
You might think of the vintage as a riper, more ample, more consummately realized and polished version of 1996.
And the best 1996 northern Médocs are drinking beautifully as they approach their 25th birthday—the first growths magnificently. The 2016s will be as good … and some!
How are the Sauternes showing at four years of age?
For Sauternes, 2016 remains a good to very good vintage, appealing if, in many cases, just lacking a bit of excitement and vitality, but with a small handful of standout wines nonetheless.
For lovers of Sauternes there remains an abundance of very good young wine on offer from surrounding vintages, the excellent 2015 being the most immediate comparison.
And even the best (Yquem being the only exception) sell for only £40–£60 a bottle retail, with little price differentiation to reflect vintage quality variation.
For the makers of Sauternes, the viability challenge continues, each bottle of very low-yield wine fetching way below what a bottle of the equivalent quality in red sells for!
The communes in brief
So good, and so consistent, is the red- wine quality across the regions—very much part of what makes this such a great vintage—that I don’t think one can say with any confidence (well, I for one can’t) that any individual communes really stand out for excellence.
Andrew and I are in broad agreement about the performance of the individual communes, with the exception, to some extent, of Margaux and Pessac-Léognan.
But we both feel that the point to emphasize is that there are outstanding wines, alongside very fair value, in every appellation—just one of the attributes that make this such a fine vintage.
The lesser wines are no great shakes, of course, and without a great deal of matter; none are big wines, but many are easy, already very accessible, almost gulpable in some cases. Sociando stands out.
It was a year that seemed to suit St-Estèphe particularly well. Sappy, sapid, satisfying expressions of the commune, their fruit and sinew nicely combined.
A great deal of good wine here, outstanding at the top, and probably the most fruitful value-for- money hunting ground, with wines such as Le Crock and Le Boscq.
The commune also shows just how good many second wines are this year, with the likes of Marquis de Calon-Ségur and La Dame de Montrose.
Pauillac A very successful commune across the board. Numerous remarkable wines at the top end, plenty to relish in the middle, and here, too, a clutch of exceptional second wines: Réserve de la Comtesse, Les Griffons de Pichon Baron, Carruades de Lafite.
For all their “fine” 2016 tannins, most have a classic, firm structure and will need time, for most palates I suspect, to unclench. But they will be wonderful when they do.
Compelling in the vintage, with practically every wine a star of one radiance or another, and the most consistently scored commune between us. You can’t go wrong!
Andrew and I reacted differently to the Margaux wines, though we both marked many quite highly, and you can see he was mildly disappointed, rather than damning.
It will be interesting, in due course, to compare individual property’s 2016s with their 2015s, remembering that last year we both felt Margaux was, by some way, the standout commune of the year in this “at four years” tasting.
I think it is largely a question of taste, as for me this was a beautiful year for the commune: delicate, filigree, fine—very Margaux, that is.
Perhaps, then, it is a question of expectations as well? Margaux’s gentle take on texture in the vintage means that they have barely “hardened” at all in bottle (in contrast to Pauillac, for example), and many will drink most attractively from relatively early on.
But their overall harmony will allow them to keep and develop, too. Once again, a standout Palmer and a very good Alter Ego performance.
Here, too, our take on the vintage differs slightly, for similar reasons to Margaux, though the lesser wines are certainly more uneven, and I think you feel 2016’s “restrained” proportions here more than anywhere else.
We are not used to seeing 13% on so many labels these days.
Last year I noted that under 14% was the exception for the 2015 Pessacs!
Wines then of fruit-fragrance, rather than fruit-core, possibly needing a bit of “scoring” recalibration in the context of today’s more voluminous norm.
But if you like this style they will reward you and, like Margaux, relatively early. Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut-Bailly, and Pape Clément are exceptional wines, with more matter, at the top.
A little array of stars here, as in Bordeaux’s other “smaller” commune, St-Julien and, for Andrew, “the vintage at its most exquisite.” Very good across its hierarchy, rich in fruit, fragrance, and gratifying tannic textures, with glorious upper reaches.
Comparable reactions from both of us here, where the wines become a bit more unruly in the stylistic context of the vintage.
In a year whose natural disposition is toward understatement, restraint, and moderation, St-Emilion’s current inclination toward generosity, power, and structured abundance often sits less comfortably.
As you can see, we rate many of the wines very highly, but I doubt this is where we will turn for benchmark expressions of this very singular vintage. I
t would be a bit like expecting to find a Savile Row suit in an Alexander McQueen boutique!
Bordeaux 2016 in summary
If what you prefer is weight, mass, density, structure, then perhaps better to go for some of the surrounding fine years (2015, 2018, 2019), but it would be a pity to miss out on at least some of these exciting and beautiful expressions of Bordeaux’s vinous landscape.
At the more modest end they are likely to be a good “go-to” pick on a restaurant list and, given the fineness of their tannins, many are already surprisingly accessible and delicious, but their fine structure will enable classic claret aging curves, too.
There will be no hurry—rather, even greater reward for deferred gratification.
Bordeaux 2016: Andrew Jefford’s verdict
2016 is an excellent and unusual Bordeaux vintage. The excellence lies in its striking intensity of fruit. It’s unusual, by contrast, because the vintage almost seems to come from another era, from the time before climate change, when freshness rather than generosity was the order of the day.
I lost count of the number of times I used the word “classical” or “classicism” about the wines (and I apologize to readers for any repetitiousness).
That sense of the wines’ re-enacting a lost golden age of orderliness, precision, and restraint is hard to avoid.
The nearest vintage analogy is 1996—but I think the wines are better than that, and both viticultural and winemaking standards are now higher.
It is, thus, a good and sometimes great vintage of a certain sort.
If you are “a classicist” and like wines of purity and drama, wines in which acidity plays a more prominent role than tannins in creating structure, wines of sustained fruit intensity, then 2016 is for you.
If you like opulence, textured wealth, succulent tannins, and low acidity, maybe it isn’t—though no Bordeaux lover who wishes to understand the region’s full aesthetic potential should ignore 2016 altogether, and it will remain a reference for several decades to come.
What of appellation differences? Sweet whites, first: It is, for me, a good Sauternes vintage rather than a great one; fresh and graceful but not particularly tight-sewn (the most successful properties aside).
On the Left Bank, Pessac-Léognan and Margaux seem mildly disappointing; neither quite has the gathered ripeness, the drama, and the grandeur of the other appellations at their best, though there are certainly very good wines from 2016 in both appellations.
Less successful wines look a little slender at this stage.
In the Médoc, the St-Juliens are a notable success; the purity and precision of the vintage sings out of these consummate midweights— and, on the Right Bank, much the same can be said about Pomerol.
This is where the vintage seems most exquisite, most memorably expressed, and potentially the most long-lasting.
St-Estèphe is (at best) very impressive, too, and if anything a little less severe than usual, since clumsy tannins were not hard to avoid this year.
Pauillac is an appellation that proves that a variety of stylistic approaches can work well this year, provided that such wines respect the fundamental nature of the vintage; the very best Pauillacs are magnficent, though every successful château seems to set about defining that magnificence in its own way.
They will make very pleasing long-term comparisons for those able to afford a spread.
St-Emilion, like Pauillac, also showed a variety of stylistic approaches, but in this case with less uniform success, since some of the wines seemed to be trying to override that fundamental nature and corral the vintage into a roaring ripeness; such approaches seem at odds with a vintage whose charm lies in svelte freshness.
No wine that is at war with its vintage will ever drink well.
It is not, though, a vintage which could be said to be clearly better on either bank; there are outstanding wines in every appellation.
One might venture the generality that Cabernet (with its upright bearing) sits more happily with the vintage style than does Merlot (with its softness and roundness of contour), but I wouldn’t press the point too far.
Bordeaux 2016: Andrew Jefford’s top wines
- Château Lafite 97
- Château Léoville-Las-Cases 97
- Château Cheval Blanc 96
- Château L’Evangile 96
- Château Montrose 96
- Château Bélair-Monange 95
- Château La Fleur-Pétrus 95
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 95
- Château Pichon Baron 95
- Château Pichon Lalande 95
- Château Trotanoy 95
- Château Calon-Ségur 94
- Château Figeac 94
- Clos Fourtet 94
- Château Haut-Bailly 94
- Château Palmer 94
- Château Suduiraut 94