Bordeaux 2016 & 2014 – Retrospective tastings and a comparison of vintages

I remember tasting the 2016s during En Primeur and finding them incredibly easy to taste, largely due to the tannins being so integrated into the wines at such a youthful stage. This is due to the very long ripening season, quite unique to the vintage. But the other element that was raised in the masterclass was the noticeably lower level of alcohol in the ‘16s particularly compared to the other “ripe” vintages of recent years (namely 2015, 2010 and 2009). In these other vintages alcohol starts at 13.5% and regularly hits over 14.5%. With the 2016s you have big wines averaging closer to 13 – 13.5% abv, a good 1 – 1.5% abv lower than other ripe vintages. This was due to the dry, but not excessively hot weather, unlike the 2009, 2015 and to a lesser extent 2010. All these vintages, alcohols average noticeably higher than the 2016s.

Asked whether this will benefit or hinder the vintage, Brown suggested this actually would help the wine age longer, as well as protecting the aromatic compounds from being overpowered. Similarly to what Benoit Tarlant said about Champagne vintages, aroma and flavour compounds don’t need heat, but a combination of warm weather and enough time on the vine to develop. If anything, intense heat can burn off aromas and flavour compounds. So this combination of lower alcohol and good phenolic ripeness and additional perfumed flavour and aroma characteristics is quite unique to 2016. This, Lisa Perrotti-Brown states, results in a vintage with a strong terroir stamp rather than a vintage stamp. When tasting these wines you forget about the “heat” of the vintage and are “transferred to the place” and the terroir profiles specific to Pauillac, Margaux, Pomerol etc.

This has been the first time many of the trade and critics alike have re-tasted the wines fully finished and bottled and the results live up to expectation. Brown describes them as “spectacular and the most consistent vintage since 2009 and 2010”. It is worth stating that it is not just the tannins and alcohol that define 2016, but also the investment into precision viticulture and vinification that has come on so much in the last few years particularly since the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Most top wineries now ferment in smaller tanks picking certain parcels at different times so each parcel is picked at optimum ripeness and vinified separately. Extractions have become gentler, adopting infusion techniques, as opposed to less precise extraction methods. Such investments in the wineries Brown describes as a “real gamechanger in Bordeaux”.

Other important factors to consider of the 2016s more generally (and it is important to note these are generalisations) is that due to Merlot being more susceptible to drought than Cabernet Sauvignon and with such a dry ripening season in 2016, Merlot dominant blends coped less well than the Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blends. Vine age also is important to identify since old vines are less negatively affected by drought. Finally clay, limestone soils are better at monitoring adequate water levels than sand and gravel; but saying that there was some rain in September which Brown believes saved the vintage. Vines were getting a “little sluggish” towards the end of the drought and a bit of rain helped invigorate the vines in a run up to the harvest.

Over the number of tastings the highlights of the 2016s were:

  • Chateau Pichon Baron (even outshines the brilliant 2015) – Incredible density of fruit, scintillates the palate with intensity
  • Chateau Calon Segur (high purity of fruit and very perfumed due to high percentage of Cabernet Franc – remains excellent value)
  • Chateau Cos d’Estournel – So much perfume from start to finish, excellent purity of fruit, great refreshing lift and verve and only 13% abv! – good example of old vines producing excellent fruit under drought conditions
  • Chateau Carmes Haut Brion – Wild flower and exotic aromas, very layered fruit, great detail and a touch of electricity on the palate.
  • Chateau Belair Monange – Freshness, lift, elegance, incredible purity – Eduard Moueix still believes the 2015 is better but maybe not as elegant as the ’16 – both are amazing!
  • Chateau Lafleur Petrus – So much juiciness and concentration yet incredibly refreshing acidity. So layered and detailed. It’s phenomenal.
  • Chateau Conseillante –Great purity and cohesion on the palate. As LPB states it has a “quiet intensity” – delicate, silky, layered, tons of refreshing acidity and incredibly well balanced.

Retrospective Tasting of the 2014s –

Tasting the 2014s alongside the 2016s and it is clear 2014 is a lot less consistent. Whilst in general the wines are fruity, medium bodied and pretty, rather than powerful, there is quite a lot variance in quality levels in practically every appellation. There are some beautifully crafted wines but some are perhaps slightly prone to “winemaking” rather than a natural generosity of ripe fruit. Where winemaking / elevage has been skilfully handled the wines are full of fresh fruit, good taut structure with a touch of astringency to the tannins which will integrate in the next few years. Others lack definition, tautness and the winemaking overpowers the lightness to the fruit. Either that or the grapes were over-cropped, picked too late or both and the freshness akin to the vintage is lost.

Pomerol and the right bank in general (and it is always difficult to generalise) definitely suffered in 2014, with a lot of the wines lacking depth and concentration. Even some of the top Chateau lacked that flair that you can find even in an off-vintage. However there are some great highlights; for example the Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere has great fruit definition and purity. The tannins build on the palate, the fruit is ripe but without the expense of a bristling acidity. The palate has good depth to the fruit and a long finish. Chateau Clos Fourtet also has everything in balance with red fruit and bright aromatics all beautifully integrated with both intensity and an aromatic lift. Cheval Blanc also is very much of the vintage, aromatically expressive having both intensity and red fruited freshness and brightness. A lovely layered firm tannin structure yet full of elegance.

The left bank is more consistent but quality is still very variable throughout the appellations with consistency peaking in St Julien without really hitting the wow factor from what was on offer in the tasting. In Margaux the Brane Cantenac is excellent and outshines Rauzan Segla in this vintage although both reach new heights in the 2015 and 2016 that precede them. Chateau Margaux outshines the rest of the appellation and is the wines that best captures the essence of the 2014. It has a wonderful aromatic appeal, medium bodied but with great tension and layered tannin profile. The mid palate is full of pure and plush red fruits and incredibly harmonious on the palate.

There are some real textbook Pauillacs, full of graphite minerality. Chateau Pichon Baron is a very well made wine and of the vintage (slightly lacking the plushness of fruit) but with all the winemaking thrown in – lots of tannin and oak giving structure to the fruit. Whilst it is typical of the vintage and the region, the 2014 does not come close compared to the plushness and generosity of 2015 and 2016 and for many that is the story of the vintage. If there is one exception to this on the Left bank (from the recent tasting) it is the Chateau Montrose which really over delivers on the vintage, it is full of ripe fruit, generous and plush, a great layered tannin profile, and wonderful interaction of oak and scented fruits. It is really outstanding.

2014 currently sits in the market as a largely forgotten vintage superseded by the 2015 and 2016 vintages that followed. But there are definitely some brilliant wines in 2014. Whether these Chateaux produced a better wine in 2014 than 2015 and 2016 is unlikely (with a handful of exceptions outlined). If anything the pricing for 2014 is likely to remain static, unlike the 15s and 16s which will no doubt continue to rise. In time the 2014s if picked with care will offer a nice affordable surprise when they reach their optimal drinking windows and will look remarkable value against the bigger vintages it stands next to.