I must start with a confession: I did not taste all of the 150 wines on offer at the UGCB tasting of the newly released 2016 Bordeaux. One afternoon was not long enough. But from tasting all except a few of the lesser château (lesser being a relative term when the tasting is restricted to “grand crus”), this is a great vintage. Virtually all châteaux show ripe tannins fading into the background behind the fruits. The wines are beautifully balanced, with the underlying structure overt only in a few cases of lighter fruit density. Yet the wines are well structured, with the density of tannins evidenced by greater palate fatigue compared, for example, with last year’s tasting of the 2015 vintage.
The word that appears most often in my tasting notes is “elegant.” This is not an exuberant vintage; even the modernists are quite restrained, and should show classic elegance as they mature. It’s a less obvious vintage than, say, 2009 or 2010, with a certain sense of restraint. Alcohol is not at all evident.
Margaux shows the usual variability expected from the large size of the appellation. Some wines display that classic feature of Bordeaux: fresh acidity, which in conjunction with good fruit density should ensure longevity. For châteaux where acidity is less evident, the beautifully rounded smoothness of the fruits is more evident. Rauzan-Ségla is the height of silky elegance, Rauzan-Gassies shows a step-up in refinement, Giscours is not as robust as usual, Durfort Vivens has moved towards modernism, Lascombes has backed off a bit, Prieuré Lichine is the most overt modernist, while Brane Cantenac, Ferrière, Kirwan, Marquis de Terme are on the lighter side.
St. Julien gives a lovely impression of precision on this vintage. Palates don’t seem quite as round as those of Margaux, but acidity is always balanced, and tannins are nicely supple in the background. The overall impression is perhaps a touch lighter than in Margaux, but more refined. The vintage is more even here, not surprising given the small size of the appellation. Beychevelle shows its traditional dryness, Gruaud Larose is elegant but perhaps lighter than usual, while Talbot is smoother than its old dry style. Lagrange seems to have lightened up from its usual modernism, Langoa Barton is elegant and a touch less weighty than Léoville Barton, which as always shows the quintessential elegance of the AOC, Léoville Poyferré shows its adherence to modernism in a faintly nutty palate, and Gloria this vintage outshines St. Pierre with greater sense of precision.
When I tasted the first Pauillacs, they seemed to have more weight than St. Julien, but to follow the same general style of precision, without the usual plushness. Batailley is quite assertive and faintly medicinal, Grand Puy Ducasse has classic reserve, Grand Puy Lacoste is classy but in a lighter style, Cleric Milon shows restrained power. Then I came to the great trio of Lynch Bages, Pichon Baron, and Pichon Lalande, all showing smooth, round, plushness , and great finesse. They will surely become classics, with d’Armailhac only a touch behind.
St. Estèphe really shows the strength of the vintage. Even the lesser wines (a relative term in this context) show well rounded fruits and convey an impression of elegance. There is no sign of the hardness that the AOC sometimes develops. Phélan Ségur is on the lighter side, Ormes de Pez and de Pez are rounder and riper than usual, Lafon Rochet is a little tight but elegant, and Cos Labory shows a movement in the direction of Pauillac.
Pessac-Léognan did not seem so plush, but there is a great sense of elegance, with most châteaux showing an attractive balance between black fruits and barely perceptible tannins and acidity. Domaine de Chevalier is a standout for its precision; Smith Haut Lafitte has overtaken Pape Clément in the modernism stakes; Haut Bailly is quite tight and elegant rather than plush; Haut Bergey is dry and fine; Carbonnieux is slightly spicy and more supple than usual; Carmes Haut Brion is quite reserved; the structure shows through at de Fieuzal; Latour Martillac is on the lighter side; Larrivet Haut Brion impresses with the elegance to come; and La Louvière, Olivier, Malartic Lagravière are attractive already.
St. Emilion shows a richer character with the warmth of Merlot coming through, but the wines show restraint rather than the almost overwhelming sense of richness of some earlier vintages. Canon and Canon La Gaffelière are the trumps, with a great sense of finesse and elegance. Larcis Ducasse, La Gaffelière, and Pavie Macquin have more structure than most, making them less approachable now, but promising longevity. Beauséjour Bécot is warm and attractive, La Dominique shows a step-up in refinement, Dassault is attractively nutty, Figeac is very restrained and more backward than most, Troplong Mondot promises elegance, Trottevielle is finer than usual, and Valandraud continues its move towards classicism.
Pomerol does not seem as opulent as usual, but shows a finer, more elegant style in this vintage. The warmth of Merlot is still evident, but the best wines show a real grip and potential for longevity. The gap between Pomerol and St. Emilion seems less than usual. Beauregard makes a modern impression, Bon Pasteur is fine and silky (with a nod of obeisance to the Médoc in its structure, this quite refutes the notion that Michel Rolland is all about opulence and power), Clinet is less generous than usual, La Conseillante shows the iron in its soul, Gazin is less obvious than usual and more elegant, Petit Village is fine, restrained, and elegant, while la Pointe and Rouget show more the traditional opulence.
The whites from Pessac Léognan tend to a silky elegance. Carbonnieux has more concentration than usual, Domaine de Chevalier is very fine and more obviously Sauvignon Blanc than usual, de Fieuzal, La Louvière, Malartic Lagravière, Olivier all show sweet citrus fruits with a grassy overlay. As with the reds, Pape Clément is tight but promises elegance, while Smith Haut Lafitte goes full force modern with lots of new oak showing.
Lots of botrytis shows on the Sauternes and Barsac, but I was generally a bit disappointed by wines that seemed a little heavy on the palate, without the delicious piquancy that lifts up the great vintages. Bastor Lamontagne is quite elegant, Doisy Daëne, Doisy Vedrines, Lafaurie Peyraguey, and Clos Haut Peyraguey are more unctuous than elegant, Coutet is rich, Guiraud is a step-up in elegance from usual, de Fargues seems less subtle than usual.
The vintage is less variable than usual for reds and dry whites, and gives a sense that this year you can have your wine and drink it. Many wines seem attractive even on release, yet have a fine underlying structure promising an elegant longevity. It’s classic in the sense of balance, yet modern in its approachability.