Throughout my global wine travels, the winegrowers I meet offer a unified message: Climate, as expressed through weather, is changing, and chaotic weather patterns are making vintages more difficult and unpredictable.

The 2016 Bordeaux vintage is a case in point. But even after wringing their hands all season, Bordeaux’s vignerons have been blessed with one of the best vintages in recent years. Here’s what happened.

Here Comes the Rain Again

In the fall of 2015, Bordeaux experienced unseasonably warm temperatures. Meteorologists suggested this late heat wave was the result of an ending El Niño and warned that the coming La Niña would generate extremes. They were right. The seemingly ceaseless rain started in January 2016, and by the end of that month rainfall totals were the highest since 1926. As it the rains continued, many worried over bud break, but at least the saturated soils helped Bordeaux evade frost, and bud break was spared.Rain continued in April and May, which were also a roller coaster of temperature swings and violent storms. The chaotic extremes slowed vine growth, but some believe the waterlogged soils were saturated with nitrogen so the vines did not suffer. Flowering began on the Right Bank in late May and was complete on the Left by mid-June, and unsurprisingly the rain led to increased coulure, mildew pressure, and other irregularities. Everyone was wondering where this vintage was headed.

Here Comes the Sun

On June 20, summer arrived seemingly overnight. The sun woke up and the rain stopped — for the next four months. Initially everyone was grateful, and it became evident that although there were irregularities, flowering had proceeded well and vignerons were hopeful for a quality harvest. Then came 85 days of drought, and the vines shut down. Water reserves in the ground and light showers throughout July offered some protection, though, and as veraison approached in late July and early August, new showers arrived with just enough moisture to awaken the vines for ripening.

Only Happy When It Rains

The vintage was touch and go until mid-September. Just has summer had arrived in the blink of an eye, so did fall. On September 13 the temperature dropped precipitously and the rain returned. The autumn season began just in time to aid in freshness retention during the final stages of ripening. This proved beneficial everywhere but particularly for Merlot, which was all picked by mid-October and showed signs of one of the best Merlot harvests in years. Cabernet Sauvignon was picked in the following weeks, likewise at good ripeness. What happened next no one could have predicted.

The 2016 Vintage

After a tumultuous year of weather highs and lows, it would have been understandable for the 2016 vintage to be a disappointment. This is not the case. As the grapes were harvested it became apparent the vintage was nearly perfect. Unlike in the rest of France, where yields were down 10% from 2015, Bordeaux yields actually rose 7%. And the grapes were ideal. Little work was needed in sorting, crush, and extraction, and vignerons labored not to overwork the velvety tannins. In keeping with Old World winemaking styles, less was more in 2016.

Eloi Jacob, Director and Technical Manager of Château Fonplégade, shared his 2016 vintage experience with me: “2016 saw a rainy difficult spring, nice for the vines and aided in growth in the spring. This was followed by a dry period that was perfect for flowering. July was marked by drought, but rain came at the perfect moment and three days later we had veraison. The rain was non-stop till it stopped, then we had sun non-stop. At the eleventh hour rain returned; it was a miracle. The heat of August aided in high concentration in winemaking, the wines more elegant. Our biodynamic terroir added minerality — no explanation for this. We have more minerality in ’16 than in ’15, but overall they are two great vintages.”

My Tasting Notes

I returned to Bordeaux recently to taste at Degustation Panorama Millesime 2016. After having tasted the fantastic 2015 vintage twice, I was unsure what 2016 had in store. I’d read about the weather predicament, but while I knew general opinions were high after last year’s En Primeur, tasting for myself after time in barrel is key.

I found in this vintage a softness and silkiness that wasn’t present in the 2015. The wines have approachability and depth with a balanced pronounced acid-tannin structure so important for age-ability. I found their fruitiness, with a focus on red fruit, a pleasant surprise, as well as their pronounced aromatics.

Breaking it Down

Right Bank

I was thrilled by how well the Right Bank performed. In 2015 I favored the Left Bank, but in 2016 the Merlot in these Right Bank wines really shines.

Denis Pomarede, winemaker at Château Couvent des Jacobins, shared with me his thoughts on the wines: “This 2016 vintage is a great parallel to 1966, 50 years ago, because of both weather patterns and the identity of the Merlot on the Right Bank. What makes it an exceptional vintage is a rarely-seen balance between power, freshness, and identity. It would have been easy to make powerful, tannic and jammy wines in the Right Bank given the high berry concentration and temptation of late harvest. But the 2016 vintage on the Right Bank feels more like a ‘back to basic’ vintage: not-too-late harvests to maintain freshness; moderate extractions to keep the balance; and moderate new oak to keep the identity and personality of the fruit. Our ancestors were good at keeping personality and identity in wines in 1966: it’s amazing how elegant and racy wines can get when the new winemaking techniques are gently combined with that ancestral know-how!”

A few standouts for me from Saint-Emilion include Château Couvent des Jacobins, Château Chauvin, Château Fleur Cardinale, Château Grand Corbin, Château Larmande, Château Magrez Fombrauge, Château Quintus, and Château Sansonnet.

Pomerol standouts include Château La Crois du Casse, Château la Fleur de Gay, Château la Rose Figeac, Château Saint-Pierre, and Château de Sales. These wines were polished, rich, and floral with balanced spice and earth; elegant and full-bodied.

Left Bank

Many of the left bank wines I tasted were lighter and fresher than their 2015 counterparts. Don’t get me wrong — I will still be buying 2015, and you should too. Those wines were outstanding and have a long cellarability. However, adding 2016 allows wine consumers to balance them with another great vintage that is lighter and more approachable.

Sandrine Bégaud, Public Relations for Château Rauzan-Ségla, shares with me a comparison of the 2015 and 2016 vintages, “2015 and 2016 are comparable to 2009 and 2010. 2015 is powerful with a more massive tannic structure even if it is very silky and elegant for Rauzan-Segla. 2016 has a bigger proportion of cabernet sauvignon. 2016 is composed of 68% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot and 2% petit Verdot. 2015 is composed of 63% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, 3% petit Verdot and 1% cabernet franc. Proportion of cabernet sauvignon, in the vintage 2016, is the highest we have used for years, and merlot the lowest. Cabernet is extremely delicious in 2016. Both vintages, 2016 and 2015, will age perfectly but with 2 different profile, 2 different identities. They are like 2 handsome men, a blond hair man and a brown hair one. 2 amazing wines…”

Sandrine elaborates on Château Rauzan-Ségla left bank experience with 2016 vintage, “We always have to face difficulties that is why a vintage is very unique. In June 2016 sun has been very hot for 2 weeks and some Merlot grapes, exposed to sun, had sunburnt. The skins were more fragile and ripened quicker. In September, when the vineyard manager walked in the different plots of Merlot he tasted had different ripeness. Exposed clusters, facing south, had over-riped flavors and the other clusters had fresher flavors. The technical team conducted by Nicolas Audebert, our general manager, decided to pick just the exposed clusters, plot by plot, and adapt the vinification process to the ripeness of the fruit (low temperatures, short vinifications….) to protect the fruitiness and freshness instead of emphasizing the concentration. The “regular” clusters of merlot were picked in ideal conditions, few days later, and been vinified differently with the appropriate temperatures, maceration…. At the end it appears that “both” merlot were used in the grand vin : both were complementary ….fruitiness, freshness and elegant tannins.”

Haut-Médoc wines were focused. My picks include Château Citran, Château Larrivaux, Château Peyrabon, and Château La Tour Carnet.

Pessac-Léognan wines were elegant, with prominent notes of black currant and eucalyptus. Highlights include Domain de Chevalier, Château Malartic-Lagraviere, Château la Mission Haut-Brion, Château Olivier, Château Pape Clement, and Château Picque Caillou.

Margaux wines always deliver. I found the 2016s to have a femininity to them: big yet silky and floral. Standouts include Château d’Arsac, Château Lascombes, Château Palmer, Château Rauzan-Ségla, and Château de Tertre.

I tend to enjoy the minerality of Saint-Julien wines and 2016 was no exception. Top tastings include Château Beychevelle, Château Leoville Barton, and Château Leoville Poyferre.

Paulliac wines were linear in focus, driven, and with more earth and minerality than fruit. Standouts include Château d’Armailhac, Château Batailley, Château Clerc Milon, Château Lynch-Bages, Château Pichon Baron, and and Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

Saint-Estèphe was showing more fruit and floral notes, focused but less minerality. Highlights include Château Cos d’Estournel, Château Laffitte Carcasset, Château Lafon-Rochet, Château Montrose, and Château Tour de Pez.

Conclusion

Although weather caused stress for many châteaux in 2016, in the end the right weather at the right time created a vintage that rivals some of Bordeaux’s best. I found the wines to be full-bodied, bold, elegant, and harmonious, with alcohol levels slightly lower than in years past. Overall, this is a vintage to buy and lay down.

Fabrice Bernard, General Manager of Millésima summed it best: “We have 2010 and 2016; two of Bordeaux’s greatest vintages.”