Deciding on a vintage’s quality before all of the grapes have been plucked from the vines can be a gamble. Years ago, when I first heard reports about Bordeaux’s 2012 grapes, I was ready to write the vintage off entirely; cold, wet spring weather resulted in uneven flowering, and by July, a massive heat wave caused a halt in grape development. Winemakers desperately needed rain to save this vintage, and by September, they got it. Within a matter of weeks, the 2012 vintage switched from one of questionable quality to one that produced more than a handful of classic bottles.
So far, 2016 Bordeaux is walking a similar path as 2012 Bordeaux. They’ve had nearly identical problems in their youth, and like the 2012, the 2016 will rely on this fall’s weather for quality– this is shaping up to be a truly make or break vintage.
A Rain Dance in Bordeaux
In the spring of 2016, cold, damp weather delayed grape flowering by as long as two weeks, and winemakers were worried that the damp weather would continue through the summer. Yet by the time summer hit, temperatures increased, which winemakers were thankful to see. However, the warmth soon proved to be too much of a good thing. Gavin Quinney of Chateau Bauduc told one journalist that Bordeaux has been “bone dry since Brexit.” A brutally hot July and August resulted in firm grapes that appear fully ripe, but that lack the acidity necessary to create a balanced wine. In short, 2016 Bordeaux winemakers need rain, and they need it now.
Part of the problem Bordeaux winemakers face is that they’re not allowed to use irrigation on production vines past the cut-off date on August 15. In Bordeaux, dry farming is viewed as the purest expression of terroir, and it is believed that irrigation not only puts the vines at risk of overwatering, but can alter the flavor of the grapes. To irrigate the vines, winemakers have to submit a special request to the organizations in charge of wine quality control. Producers like Haut-Brion have submitted these requests in the past, but in 2016, they say they didn’t think they would need it, counting on the fall to bring cooler weather and rain.
Vine Age Could Make or Break the Vintage
All is not lost for 2016 Bordeaux. On September 13th and 14th, the region had its first hints of rain in weeks, leaving many winemakers optimistic about an increase in acidity for late harvest grapes. The region will need plenty more rain for the vines to fully recover in time, yet cooler temperatures are bringing hope.
Still, the grapes that will likely fare best in 2016 are those grown on the oldest vines with deep root systems. Old vines can reach deep below the surface, soaking up any lingering moisture in the soil. The ripest grapes and the healthiest vines in Bordeaux right now are those grown on clay-based soil (which retains water better than stone-heavy soil). Regions like Saint Estephe will likely produce some exceptional wines this year, since their clay-rich soil is well-suited to drought. Young vines in Pomerol might suffer the most, since they’re often grown in fast-draining soil. Quality First Growth producers like Latour might see lower yields overall this year in Pomerol, and will likely rely heavily on their oldest vines.
What to Look for in 2016 White Bordeaux
Some Sauternes producers started harvesting their white grapes in the early fall, especially dry white grapes. Most winemakers have had to wait longer than usual for the grapes to reach phenolic maturity; it’s a game of roulette for many of these winemakers. If they wait too long to harvest dry white varietals, the acidity will continue to decrease in the dry, warm weather, diluting the wine’s flavor. However, if they harvest too early, they risk making a green, unripe wine. I recommend sticking with dry varietals from top producers like Haut-Brion, who harvested these grapes on the young side. Haut-Brion in particular have noticed excellent coloration and ripeness so far in their early harvests, and these are more likely to last in a cellar compared to grapes that were held on the vine a bit too long.
As for sweet white wines, you don’t have to be quite as cautious. Sweet 2016 Bordeaux from areas like Sauternes tend to thrive in warm weather, and do well with a bit of raisining on the vine. More rain in Bordeaux toward the end of the fall will help bring out the acidity and complexity of these wines, yet you’ll likely find good quality 2016 Sauternes regardless of October’s forecast.
What to Look for in 2016 Red Bordeaux
The red wines in Bordeaux will rely a bit more heavily on fall rainclouds. The acidity in varietals like Merlot is especially low compared to average harvest seasons, meaning that these grapes will need to spend more time on the vine than usual to reach perfect ripeness and balance. If cooler temperatures and rain ramp up and continue through October, the producers who chose to harvest late will receive great reward. However, if rainclouds evade the area over the coming weeks, Merlot might be in trouble. Go with early harvests in the event of little rain, and late harvests in the event of plenty. Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are also on the green side this year, so be on the lookout for underripe red blends in 2016. Overall, if this vintage can fully ripen and retain its acidity, it has the potential for long cellaring and opulence.
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Harley is an Executive Wine Specialist for Vinfolio, helping collectors find the best wines for their collection. He’s a lover of everything outdoors and the proper bottles to go along with it. You can find him at any of the newest cocktail bars and restaurants in SF or on an adventure somewhere in between Lake Tahoe and the California coastline.