Once upon a time, 15% of all Bordeaux wine was sold as “futures” or “en primeur”. Today that figure is down to just 2% and, with each year that passes, the success of the annual Bordeaux En Primeur campaign hangs further in the balance.
The idea was once that savvy collectors could get their hands on the world’s most sought-after wines before they had been bottled or even matured for longer than 6 months. The wines were unseen by the consumer, bought purely upon recommendation from seasoned critics or on the reputation of the producing estates.
Nowadays, due to prices skyrocketing, buying “en primeur” is not seen as the bargain it once was, but there is still something special about buying something so unseen, so raw and so much anticipated. And sure enough, the prospect of a “legendary 2016 yield” has both collectors and investors salivating at the prospect.
Fine wine, not so fine weather
Last year got off to a pretty poor start in Bordeaux. Rain during the first three months of the year was three times the historical average. Warmer than normal temperatures threatened to expose the vines to severe damage in the event of frost, and then temperatures dropped in the spring and vegetative growth slowed.
During the summer months, temperatures soared above historical averages, which saw the vines receiving more sunlight than either of the two preceding vintages. Thankfully, rains in mid-September were opportune, to say the least – parched vines responded positively and ripening resumed.
This has resulted in “deep and intense” wines, described by Antonio Galloni as having “a real sense of energy”. Galloni’s long-awaited tasting notes were published on 25th April on his blog vinous.com, and can be viewed with a subscription – here is an excerpt from his introduction which summarises his musings and illustrates his passion for the vintage:
2016 Bordeaux: A Game Changer?
The 2016s are absolutely remarkable wines. The word that comes to mind, unfortunately so often overused, is balance. In technical terms, the 2016s boast off the charts tannins that in many cases exceed those of wines from massive vintages such as 2010. And yet, the best 2016s are absolutely harmonious, with the tannins barely perceptible at all. The 2016s also have tremendous energy and bright, acid-driven profiles, with many wines playing more in the red-fruit area of the flavor spectrum. One of the results of the unusual growing season is that alcohols range from 0.5% to 1% lower than what has been the norm in recent years.
From a stylistic standpoint, the recent vintage that comes to mind is 2014, also a late-ripening year, but the 2016s have more mid palate depth and greater density. Some observers have suggested that 2016 is a hypothetical blend of 2009 and 2010, but I fear that is mostly an attempt to recreate the hype of those two highly speculative vintages. The 2016s don’t have the opulence or volume of the 2009s, and although they are very tannic, they feel nothing like the overtly powerful, structured 2010s.
Intuitively, it makes sense that a late-ripening vintage might favor Cabernet Sauvignon, especially given the intense heat of the summer that cause sunburn and overripeness in some of the Merlots. But a more in-depth analysis reveals that 2016 has much to offer on both banks. Excellence is highly correlated with quality of site, regardless of whether those vineyards are on the Left or Right Banks. Specifically, moisture-retentive sites and older vineyards with deeper root systems fared best.
Not all Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines are overachievers, while many Right Bank wines are.
Many producers opted for longer macerations (time on the skins) than normal, but at lower temperatures and with gentler extractions than in the past. It will be interesting to see if one of the outcomes of 2016 is a move towards greater finesse and less overt power than in the past. Almost all of the winemakers I spoke with told me they think the 2016s are more a reflection of the vintage than in any large scale changes in philosophy and that the next time a riper vintage presents itself the wines will once again be built on opulence. I am not so sure. Two thousand sixteen is a vintage that will be thought provoking on many levels for years, and probably decades, to come.
Fine wine prices in the balance
The 2016 futures market is clearly an opportunity for Bordeaux to reel consumers and investors back in, putting some of the ‘fun’ back in buying en primeur. The only way to do this will be to release wines at lower-than-expected prices. According to Galloni, a few wines have already been released at 2015 prices, which is encouraging. As UK collectors will be taking a backseat in this year’s campaign due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, this will be a huge moment for US wine buyers. For one, the dollar is stronger than it has been in years, and secondly, the rumors are that the 2016 vintage really is legendary.
Watch this space for further updates!