Burgundy 2016: Overview January 2nd, 2017

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Review of the 2016 Vintage in the Côte d’Or

What to Expect from this Report

My aim is to give a relatively comprehensive guide to the 2016 vintage in Burgundy. I have visited around 100 producers and completed notes on around 1350 wines. In future years I hope to add in further producers, a mix of classic names who I was not able to visit this year, along with some new discoveries.

The report covers only producers based in the Cote d’Or. Their wines from the Chablis, Mâconnais or Beaujolais where relevant will be reported on separately, along with growers from those regions.

I want to avoid a straightforward alphabetical approach, or one purely driven by score. Two things seem fundamental to me: to be able to see a producer’s whole range of wines together, both red and white; and to get a feel for what has been happening in each village. Accordingly, the report is divided up into sections by village, from north to south. Each village has a brief report on what happened in 2016 (usually the detail of frost damage!) followed by a list of the top scoring wines and then a report on each producer based in that village.

A word on scoring. This is not the place for an essay (though I am planning one) on the rights and wrongs of scoring wines. It is, at least for now, something between a useful guide and a necessary evil. It is however really complicated in Burgundy, where I might be tasting 10 or 15, or sometimes 50 or 60 different wines from one producer, and quality does in general follow the classical Burgundian hierarchy. I also have to take into account differences between how wines were tasting (in general) in late September compared to early December, whether they had just been racked, or perhaps needed to be, the type of glassware provided and the temperature of the sample and of the tasting environment.

I have done two things to try to break up the likely dominance of the most famous vineyards. Firstly, the leader board offered per appellation breaks wines down according to their classification: grand cru, premier cru, village, to enable wines which have scored well inside their peer group to have their chance to shine, even if they are not called Chambertin. Secondly, as you look at the report on an individual producer, one or two wines may have a * against their score – this indicates that the wine in question stood out for me as being of particular interest in this vintage – a ‘buy’ signal, if you like.

Drinking Dates: I have not included these after each wine as I do not think it is particularly helpful to see something along the lines of Drink 2022-2035. Such windows tend to be tediously repetitive and indeed inaccurate. They do not reflect the way that Burgundy matures. Often the wines can be enjoyable early on, as young wines full of fruit. Then they lose that early glow, and it is advisable to wait for a few years

So I might drink a couple of bottles early on to enjoy the fruit, try another one or two at say 8 to 10 years to see how they are developing, then drink several when I think they have hit the sweet spot, while keeping a couple of bottles back to enjoy in their graceful old age. Thus a premier cru from 2016 might have drink dates (2019-2021), 2025-2030, (2032-2040) which is too cumbersome while 2019-2040 would be meaningless and 2025-2030 too stereotypical. However I have given some broad thoughts in the 2016 Overview below.

 

2016 OVERVIEW

The early call of “catastrophe” following the widespread damage of the spring frosts tainted the reputation of 2016 Burgundy throughout the summer, but we now know different. Current thinking is that it is a decent but variable vintage for white wines, but really quite exciting for the reds.

The White Wines

The wines are not massive. The best examples are fine-boned, elegant wines with subtle detail and a fine quality of fruit, good persistence, accessible early and likely to be best in the medium term. Those from terroirs more affected by the frost seem less harmonious and rather shorter, often displaying a slightly clumsy yellow fruit character. Just a few wines, often in Puligny, show an element of dilution: partly attributable to the heavy rain around 14thSeptember and partly because growers were reluctant to limit the crop in the few places where they had plenty of bunches.

I do not see an immediate parallel with any other white wine vintage.

Buying Strategy: there will be plenty of attractive wines for the early to medium term, so where yields are relatively normal it makes sense to follow regular purchases. In general, do not worry about chasing down the micro-cuvees which will be hard to find and may be wrongly priced. Given that the 2016 shortage was already priced into the 2015s, and there are mostly good yields in 2017, there is no reason to pay more this year than last, apart from currency fluctuations.

The Sweet Spots: the premiers crus of Puligny and the three best known wines of Meursault. Good whites too from the Côte Chalonnaise.

Drinking Windows: The generics should be approachable soon after bottling. This is probably not a vintage in which to lay down such wines, but drink them through 2018 and 2019. Village wines will also be accessible early for the most part and I doubt if there will be much to be gained by long term cellaring. Some of the better 1ers crus and grands crus will certainly last, as long as there is no indication of frost induced fragility. Those with good scores should make exciting bottles at between 10 and 15 years old.

The Red Wines

As for the reds, it was not hard to predict that a number of Burgundy lovers, be they vignerons, critics, importers or consumers, were going to propound the view that “while everybody is praising 2015 to the skies, we actually prefer 2016”.

I can certainly say that I found tasting the 2016 reds extremely exciting. It is not a perfect vintage nor an especially consistent one, but I fell in love with a large number of wines and am looking forward to adding to my cellar. My early thinking was that the red wines were much more consistent than the whites in terms of quality, though the range of possible styles in 2016 is surprisingly wide. As I tasted more of the reds, I realised that some wines have been slightly damaged by the frost and do not quite deliver the hoped for length and harmony, but many others – from equally frosted sites – have not.

The fascinating aspect of 2016 is the range of ripeness possible, without it being clear that one end of the scale worked better than the other (though your own palates may dictate a preference of course, at which point my tasting notes will be a much better indicator of where to look than the scores). Some wines came in around 12.5% alcohol, occasionally less, whereas in other cellars over 14% was more normal with similar picking dates. There are some wines verging on rawness, and others with voluptuous black fruit notes (and against expectations I found myself liking quite a few of those!)

There is one clear hallmark to the vintage, the refreshing finish which seems to characterise so many wines. Is this a function of a mix of ripeness in the harvest, with possibly some second generation verjus adding their zest to the whole? Abbé Tainturier liked that in the 18th century – he was all for a mix of fully-ripe, ripe and under-ripe grapes to make the best wine.

As with the whites, there is no direct parallel with another vintage but I have a few ideas nonetheless. One is 2010, more similar in circumstance than in style. The growing season was pretty tricky in 2010 and growers were just happy to have got through to a relatively late harvest with their grapes still healthy. By the following autumn, at the time of the barrel tastings, it was becoming clear that actually the wines were much better than expected, despite being in the shadow of the preceding big beast (2009). Now we really value the purity, charm and texture of 2010. The reputation of 2016 may well be growing in the same way, though the fresh finish of so many wines this time round gives them a style of their own.

I quite wanted to find a parallel with either 1991 or 1993, the former frost affected and the latter attacked by mildew before finishing in good weather, but again the fruit profile of 2016 does not quite fit. Michel Lafarge could not find a definite parallel with any other vintage despite his 65+ years experience, and that is very rare. I am indebted to Jacques Devauges of Clos de Tart that according to a book he has been reading about a 19th century vigneron in Gevrey-Chambertin, 1873 fits the bill nicely: another vintage with an early, warm spring then a horrible frost on 27th April, followed by disease pressure from wet weather, but saved in the end by a beautiful second half to the summer. Sounds familiar.

Buying Strategy: I can see no reason – bar the rather important one of pricing – not to go large this year, since 2016 offers both quality and character. The same comment made above for whites in short supply applies here too: do not worry about chasing down the micro-cuvees which will be hard to find and may be wrongly priced. Allocations should be back to normal, or indeed more generous, for 2017.

The Sweet spots: are quite numerous. Looked at vertically, the 1ers crus were often less affected by the frost than the grands crus, and look worthy of interest. Horizontally, from north to south, I was particularly impressed by some of the appellations considered to make slightly more tannic wines. This is not a vintage with aggressive tannins and I found myself much taken by wines from Gevrey-Chambertin and Pommard, Corton and Clos Vougeot as well, more than by Chambolle-Musigny. Morey-St-Denis, with the distinction of being almost frost free, came out very well and I would include Bonnes Mares from over the border in Chambolle as an honorary Morey.

Drinking Windows: The generics will actually need a year or two after bottling, and many will keep for quite a bit longer. I think the village wines may well go into their shell because there is not (usually) the juicy, glossy ripeness of 2015 to make them hedonistic pleasures even early in life. With my admittedly English palate, I am envisaging starting in on village wines after about 8 years and leaving the premiers crus until nearer 2030. After all 2002 – a vintage I am very fond of and with similar or perhaps slightly lesser density – really started to get good at around 12 years old. I think there will be a significantly long upside for the best wines, they should make properly old bones.

The Market

One of the reasons for retiring from the commerce of wine was because I do not feel at ease with where the market has gone. There is not enough support for the unfortunate vignerons in minor appellations who have lost a huge proportion of their crop to hail or frost in every vintage from 2012 to 2016 inclusive, barring 2015 when the long-suffering vines were still shy bearers. Conversely, world demand for the tiny production of the great wines has seen prices on the secondary market rocketing, which has also impacted on En Primeur pricing for the most sought after vignerons and vineyards.

Typically, pricing in Burgundy has been more a reflection of available supply rather than perceived quality of the vintage. However it is also true that prices are not decided until after the next vintage has happened, and the shortfall in 2016 has been more or less compensated by the bumper crop of 2017. But it was not as big a crop as all that and the compensations does not take into account the consecutive poor volumes in Burgundy from 2012-2016.

In general, I do not see an attitude in Burgundy that relishes current pricing levels. Certainly, there are one or two producers who follow with glee the pricing of their wines in the global secondary market place. But this is rare. There are many more who are discouraged that their wines, designed to give pleasure at the table, are now sometimes quoted as investment vehicles. But the state of the market is much too complex a subject to be covered in a short paragraph or two here.

My understanding is that many producers have limited their increases or even maintained prices for 2016, but the picture is variable and depends on to what extent the financial pips are really squeaking. If some lesser known names have increased again in price this year, it may just be a question of absolute necessity after so many short harvests. I am not hearing comments from the growers that they think the market will be happy to pay a great deal more.

 

THE 2016 GROWING SEASON

This section is a fairly straightforward summary of how the growing season panned out, which may throw some light as to how the wines are developing, and justify (or otherwise) the decisions made by particular producers.

Unlike in Great Britain, the autumn of 2015 in Burgundy was warm, sunny and extremely beautiful. December and January remained extremely mild, February and March were cooler and frequently damp, but temperatures rarely dropped below freezing, except in Chablis. In short, there was no proper winter so none of the benefits of really cold weather which kills off the bugs in the vineyards. Indeed several vignerons mentioned that when they came to prune their vines, the supposedly dead wood was still green inside, containing sap.

The wind on Palm Sunday was a very gentle north-easterly, giving cool, clear sunny conditions. There was a slight frost risk on Friday 8th April, but no damage. However on Wednesday 13th a hail storm devastated large parts of the Mâconnais, especially Pouilly-Fuissé and St Véran, most notably in the villages of Davayé and Solutré. In all – not just vineyards – over 2,000 hectares were affected. It happened early enough in the season for the spare buds (contre-bourgeons) to activate but at this stage there was no way of knowing what sort of crop they might bear.

All this paled into insignificance in the morning of 27th April. A cloudless night caused temperatures to drop below freezing – not by much, but the effect was more like a winter freeze than a spring frost. Once again, a huge swathe of vineyard was affected. A little in the Côte Chalonnaise, a substantial amount in the Côte de Nuits while once again the Côte de Beaune bore the worst of it. Chablis too was heavily affected although protective measures remain in place in the best vineyards (eg the grands crus) and were apparently effective.

Producers talked of a gelée noire as opposed to a gelée blanche, or of a winter rather than spring frost. Actually I think that there were two types of damage. Some of the cooler sites, especially in the valleys or high up just underneath the forest, locations which are prone to frost damage whenever there is a risk, suffered in a normal way. Cold air flowed down the ‘combes’ which emerge out of St-Aubin into Chassagne-Montrachet, or down from Pernand-Vergelesses towards Aloxe-Corton and Savigny.

The other, arguably more catastrophic, event was the effect of the first rays of sunshine on vines which were weakened by the overnight sub zero temperatures and were effectively burned as much as frosted. The danger zones here were the mid slopes including grands crus which are more or less never frosted: Montrachet, Musigny, Chambertin. Some locations were fortunate enough to have had some early morning light cloud or mist which protected them: Santenay, much of Puligny-Montrachet, and perhaps Morey-St-Denis.

Many local issues came into play. Wherever there was more humidity, which is the case where rows are grassed or alternatively have just been ploughed, the frost did greater damage. The standard guyot method of vine training seemed to suffer more than cordon royat. On the other hand, walls offered protection – to some degree for vines close by vineyard walls, much more where the vineyards are located almost inside the village, such as the Clos du Château des Ducs and Clos de la Cave des Ducs in Volnay.

May followed, cold and wet, and once again the 13th and 27th proved to be deadly dates. On Friday 13th, a massive hailstorm swept through the northern part of Chablis (Maligny, Lignorelles) then worked round through Fleys and Fontenay, lightly touching some premier cru vineyards as well. Even more devastating in its violence was an afternoon hail storm on 27thwhich sabotaged the southern parts of Chablis, especially Préhy, along with Chitry and St-Bris.

Leaving these specific disasters aside, the weather was exceptionally volatile with occasional hot days followed by a dramatic drop in temperature, along with a fair amount of rainfall. The vines couldn’t make sense of it and – traumatised by the frost or hail – refused to grow. Where there were second buds available, their nascent bunches aborted and converted to tendrils, which happens during prolonged cold weather at this stage. Grimmer and grimmer faces all round.

The grisly weather continued through most of June, causing strong mildew pressure for the growers to fight off, with the repeated rains making access into the vineyards difficult. Lower lying vines had to cope with their feet in the water and made easy pickings for mildew if they had already been weakened by the frost.

The original buds which had survived began to flower during the third and fourth weeks of June, suggesting that their grapes would be ready to harvest from the very end of September – but any fruit from secondary buds would be much later.

Finally, on Wednesday 22nd June the weather changed completely, summer at last with bright blue skies and real heat. Normally the sudden access of heat leads to storms, and there was one more savage hail event, hitting the northern part of Beaujolais, especially Moulin à Vent and Fleurie again, on Friday 24th. The weather stayed mixed but largely fine, though cooler, through the last days of June and early July.

From late July, throughout August and into September the weather changed completely, with a succession of golden sunny days as an Atlantic high protected France. Every so often the high gave way long enough to allow a day or two of cooler rainier weather, but in general conditions were hot, clear and sunny without the build up of heavy humidity that often marks the end of a heatwave. Temperatures did not threaten to break any records but nevertheless this was proper sunny weather

Meanwhile the vineyards continued to progress erratically. Veraison began in mid August but not for everybody, not on every vine in a given vineyard, not on every bunch on a particular vine and not even on every grape in a specific bunch. One grower even tweeted his vines in Volnay actually flowering at this moment, which would mean a projected harvest date of 30thNovember!

The August heat had both positive and negative effects. On the downside, the lack of rain kept the berries small and the yield down, while further grapes were lost to the grilling effect of the sun. Some vines, especially high on the hill where the topsoil is thin began to suffer from drought. More positively however the continuous sunshine enabled the grapes to ripen beautifully, for the uneven maturity to begin to come together, and to prevent disease.

The exceptional late summer weather continued through until some heavy rain on 14thSeptember and some showers over the next few days – welcome rain for the reds on the whole to relieve the vines which were starting to suffer from hydric stress and to reinvigorate the ripening process. But at the same time an eye would need to be kept out for rot. Growers noted how quickly fruit purchased in the market or picked in gardens had started to degrade this year.

Many people had talked of starting around 25th September but with the excellent late summer weather picking was advanced – the early brigade began around 14th/15th, many others early the following week with the Côte de Nuits and Chablis chiming in from Monday 27th. When to pick and in what order are always challenging decisions.

Most producers in the Côte de Beaune started with the reds, since by most indices they were more advanced than the whites, but Benjamin Leroux preferred to bring in his whites first, as he was worried that acidity levels were beginning to drop. More than one producer mentioned that they would prefer to chaptalize by a small amount to compensate for not quite adequate sugar levels, and retain the acid balance, than to wait for extra sugar and then need to acidify. It was also not clear that the vineyards lagging furthest behind on sugar count, those which had got stressed the most, were in fact adding any more with the passage of time.

The harvest weather continued fine, with cool nights and warm days, excepting a rainy passage from the evening of Friday 30th September and Saturday 1st October, not enough to do any damage on the remaining grapes.

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