St Emilion 2016: a Vintage for Left Bank Lovers

“I’m finding it hard to see a lot of love in these wines,” one taster said at the tasting of 2016 St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé in New York. Indeed the wines are quite tight at present, but although elegant is not the first word I usually use to describe St. Emilion, it was often the most appropriate description in my notes.

The general impression of the vintage is fine, structured, and still a little tight. In a blind tasting it might be difficult to identify most of these wines as being predominantly Merlot because their texture has a finesse you might not usually associate with the variety. Most need at least 3-4 years, not so much for the tannins to resolve, as they are generally fine and tend towards silky, but to let flavor variety come out from under. They remind me more of the Left Bank than of the usually plusher character of the Right Bank.

The style of 2016 is a great compromise between the extremities of earlier years. At the same tasting of the 2010 vintage six years ago, my problem was in distinguishing wines from one another  (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion) because they all showed much the same character of furry tannins behind soft black fruits. And then four years ago at the tasting of the 2012 vintage, the wines were tight and alcoholic, often verging on tough, with quite sharp tannins (Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?)

By contrast with the earlier years, 2016 has a great sense of balance between fruits and structure. Of course they vary in their stages of development. A few are really still tight, but in most, flavor variety is just beginning to poke out from the palate, with some wines now moving in a savory direction. They should become increasingly fine as they age over the next couple of years, and then show increasing generosity and delicious refinement for at least the next decade.

I hesitate to project beyond that, but there were a few older wines on display to give some indication of aging potential, among which Dassault 2000 was quite mature and really at its peak with signs of tertiary development, Grand Pontet 1995 was flavorful but quite dry at the end, and Grand Corbin Despagne 1989 is à point although not showing tertiary development. (I had the 1988 at the château a year ago, and it was even better, making the point that Grand Corbin-Despagne really makes 30-year wines.) The best wines of 2016 may therefore well last for two decades or more.

The 2016 Vintage

Bellefont Belcier: Very smooth on palate, with structure just holding the fruits back, but very fine impression promising elegant future.

Chauvin: Very fine impression with smooth, silky tannins, flavor variety just coming out, moving in a savory direction with a tang on the finish. Fine result for vintage.

Clos des Jacobin: Fine elegant impression to nose, elegant structure and fruits on palate against silky background, flavor coming out and moving in savory direction.

Corbin: Firm palate with hints of chocolate on finish, nice flavor variety already beginning to show with the finesse of the vintage. Flavorful palate is moving in a savory direction.

Dassault: Firm palate moving in chocolatey direction, underlying texture with savory flavors, a touch of tannins at end on long finish.

de Pressac: Minty impression to nose, nice solid impression with good flavor variety showing on palate, moving in savory direction, with hints of mint coloring the palate.

Faurie de Souchard: Very smooth indeed, very fine texture to palate, with tannins just showing on dryness of finish, with hints of mint and chocolate. Very fine indeed.

Fonplégade: The most approachable wine in the 2016 tasting. Quite a rich nose tends to buttery impressions, with good structure and elegant balance on palate. Fine silky tannins evident only by faint bitterness on finish. Touch of heat at end but otherwise very sophisticated for St. Emilion. Tannins moving in chocolatey direction.

Fonroque: Restrained nose, fine palate shows rather fresh acidity considering vintage and appellation, quite tight and backward. Might be difficult to identify this as 90% Merlot in blind tasting. Needs time to release flavor variety.

Grand Corbin: Tight and backward, almost fresh acidity, tannins tight on finish with touch of bitterness, somewhat of an old school impression with reflections of the left bank.

Grand Corbin-Despagne: Very faint buttery impressions to nose. Fine texture in background on palate, structure shown by a little bitterness at end but is very fine. Long finish promises goof future development.

Grand Pontet: Elegant impressions to nose, fine and tight, follow to palate. Fine texture should turn silky with age. Flavor variety is just beginning to show. Should mature to real elegance.

Jean Fauré: Very restrained nose, really quite dumb. Palate shows a little more texture than most, but not so lively (yet). Quite structured and a bit uncertain how long it might take for fruit to come out.

La Tour Figeac: Some flavor variety beginning to show against background structure evidenced by almost-phenolic bitterness at end. This needs time to come around. A savory impression on the finish is promising.

Ripeau: Fine structure supports savory notes on palate, somewhat backward in being gripped by acidity, and a little uncertain as to future supply of generosity.

Yon Figeac: Generosity is hiding behind the structure. Smooth palate shows flavor variety just coming out, structure in nice balance with fruits, which will emerge more clearly in next year or so.

Older Wines

Dassault (2000): Mature impression with nose showing some tertiary notes and some high-toned aromatics with oxidative notes. Shows some development on palate with touch of sous bois contrasting with the high-toned aromatics. Around its peak, with the risk of oxidation taking over with further aging.

Grand Pontet (1995): Faintly minty, faintly herbal impressions to nose, following to lovely palate on edge of showing mature development. Quite dry on the finish but good flavor variety. Some people might find this a little dry.

Grand Corbin-Despagne (1989): Surprisingly youthful with no signs of tertiary development. Nose is a little dumb but palate is à point. Smooth palate with tannins almost resolved, moving a little towards minty herbal impressions. May be on verge of fruits beginning to dry out.

 

Port 2016: a Glorious Vintage

The vintage marks a sea change from the tradition that Vintage Port is undrinkable when young. Tasted just before release, virtually all Ports of this Vintage are amazingly approachable and can be drunk even now, except for Quinta do Noval Nacional, which shows its structure more obviously, and perhaps Taylor, which is very firm. “Young Port can take a bit of getting into,” says David Guimaraens, chief winemaker at Taylor Fladgate, “what’s so remarkable about 2016 is how attractive they are now.” There’s a remarkable uniformity of purity in the fruit expression. “The character of the vintage is the purity of fruits and the linear backbone and precision,” says Charles Symington. Whether the new approachability is due to better viticulture, better control of tannins, or improvement in the quality of brandy added to stop fermentation, the result is unmistakable, a case of having your Port and drinking it, as the wines have both immediacy and longevity.

Making Port is not for the fainthearted given the mountainous nature of the vineyards

  • Cockburn comes from one of the warmest spots in the Douro and made back-to-back declarations in 2015 and 2016. Perfumed aromatics on the nose lead into a fresh palate with some almost malic impressions, and just a faint touch of raisins on the finish. It is almost ready! 93
  • Croft shows taut mountain fruit, emphasized by a strong concentration of secondary varieties. Made traditionally in granite lagares, it is silky, sweet, and refined, with a good sense of precision. 93
  • Dow’s is typically fermented a little drier than the average Port, and it’s obviously not quite as sweet as the other Ports of the 2016 vintage, giving a slightly restrained first impression. Light and elegant rather than powerful, with faint acid lift at the end, very pure on the palate with chocolaty impressions on the nose. 92
  • Fonseca has a sense of minerality and precision offsetting the richness of the fruits in this vintage. Elegant yet showing the usual weight of Fonseca, this is a great success for the vintage. 95
  • Graham’s shows a sense of precision and lightness of being, you might almost say airy, but there is a sense of iron in the backbone. “Tannins are so integrated at first impression, you ask, ‘where are the tannins?’, says Charles Symington. This is a classic demonstration of Graham’s elegant style. 95
  • Quinta do Noval opens with a fresh, complex nose, with herbal impressions. Very refined, almost tight, on the palate, with a great sense of precision and an impression that it’s a fraction less sweet than average. 95
  • Quinta do Noval Nacional made only 170 cases in 2016. The nose is sweet and tight, The palate is deeper than Noval, with more sense of tannic structure on the finish, giving very much an impression of old vines. Richness coats the palate and hides the structure, but the tannins show as dryness at the very end. This needs time but will last for ever. 96
  • Quinta da Romaneira has a very lively expression on the nose. Very sweet and rich on the palate, it is more obvious than Noval. The sweetness shows in front of the structure, and it’s weightier, but not as precise as Noval, reflecting its warmer microclimate. 92
  • Quinta do Vesuvio shows a sweet style, in fact its sweetness is perhaps the most evident among all the Vintage Ports. The palate is faintly raisined and faintly malic, with lifted aromatics. 92
  • Taylor’s has a discrete nose verging on austerity. The palate gives a firm impression of iron in the backbone, although the tannic structure is pushed into the background by the fruits. You can see the Vargellas vineyard in that austerity and structure, balanced by the voluptuous fruits from the rest of the blend. This must be one of the wines of the vintage. 95
  • Warre shows its more feminine side, without the weight of the heavy-hitters, but is typically elegant and fresh, and almost ready. 92

The wines were tasted at an event when the major Port Houses in the Taylor Fladgate and Symington groups, together with Quinta do Noval, presented their entire range of 2016 Vintage Ports in New York this week.