2016 Vintage Overview

2016 Vintage Overview

2016

The headline story for 2016 was the catastrophe of the spring frost which so badly damaged the potential for the vintage in volume terms. The first half of the growing season was the most difficult in living memory, the second half as close to perfect as anybody could have hope for. Despondent faces at the end of June displayed relief by the end of September. The old expression ‘juin fait la quantité, septembre fait la qualité’ was never truer. The reds look much more exciting than the whites.

 

The Weather 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, 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.

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 27th which 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. The mildew contributed significantly to the lack of crop in 2016, not just the frost, and many organic producers were forced to abandon their beliefs and use other treatments during this miserable late spring. 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 secondaries, looking less and less likely, would be much later.

The villages which were exceptionally badly hit in terms of yields were Marsannay (down 44%, 46% and 65% respectively for red, white and rosé), Chambolle-Musigny (down by a third for village and premier cru, worse for Le Musigny), Chorey-lès-Beaune, Ladoix, Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune, all of which lost between a third and a half of their crop. Further south, Chassagne-Montrachet showed a combined loss between white and red, village and premier cru of 24%.

In between there were some mixed results. Beaune suffered at village level but came out just about even for premiers crus. Meursault, Volnay and Pommard all actually showed a gain at premier cru level but a loss for their village wines. Some villages even did well overall: Santenay, Maranges, St Aubin and the appellation of Blagny were all in profit, while Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru came out 13% ahead.

In general the Côte Chalonnaise did well, being up overall 5% for red and 7% for whites at village level, Givry doing best with an overall increase of above 16% across colours and classifications. Rully was the only appellation to suffer, the premiers crus declining by 18% in white and 8% in red. Bourgogne Cote Chalonnaise was +11% in red and +23% in white.

The Mâconnais would have enjoyed a bumper crop if it had not been for the vicious hailstorm of 13th April, causing eventual shortfalls in both Pouilly-Fuissé and St-Véran. Yields in Chablis were sadly depleted.

Fortunately, the season was saved by a much better second half. 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.

I toured a number of Côte de Beaune vineyards in early September. The reds were more advanced than the whites, the vines themselves looked in fine condition but there were pitifully few bunches to be seen. Hardly any in, for example, Savigny Peuillets and Pommard Arvelets; a few more in Pernand and Corton, potentially a full crop in some parts of Pommard.

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 some together, and to prevent disease.

The exceptional late summer weather continued through until some heavy rain over the night of 14th/15th September and some showers over the next few days – welcome rain 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.

First Impressions The white 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 14th September and partly because growers were reluctant to limit the crop in the few places where they had plenty of bunches.

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 even an especially consistent one. 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. 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. There is one clear hallmark to the vintage, the refreshing finish which seems to characterise so many wines.

As with the whites, there is no direct parallel with another vintage but I have a few ideas nonetheless. There could be similarities with either 1991 or 1993, the former frost affected and the latter attacked by mildew before finishing in good weather, but 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 of experience, and that is very rare. I am indebted to Jacques Devauges, then 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!

The wines in bottle This is not a classical White Burgundy vintage, though the Burgfest Three Year On tasting yielded several very delicious wines, and we came across few wines that clearly needed avoiding. It should be noted that some which would make very nice glasses to drink had been diverted from their normal path towards the peach and honeysuckle notes of surmaturité and/or botrytis. A few had developed the sweet and sour character arising from the multi-generational grapes as described above. Occasionally the oak effect was a little too pronounced.

The red 2016s at Burgfest had a density of fruit which was compelling. They were easy to taste, with the right levels of tannins, little obvious acidity but no evident lack thereof either. Despite one very wobbly flight, Volnay maintained the encouraging start and the more famous vineyards produced some thrilling wines. A strong entry from Pommard offered a significant volume of fruit surrounding their natural tannic structure. A good bet for laying down for at least the medium term. The Cortons were rather more anonymous, though those on the east-facing flank of the hill had escaped the worst of the frost.

There were some delicious samples from the Premeaux sector of Nuits-St-Georges, despite relatively significant frost damage. The classic central section of Nuits was a little less typically deep, plummy and tannic than in some vintages – but still with some lovely wines, while those towards the border with Vosne-Romanée also fared well.

Chambolle and Morey offered several delights, though typically acidity levels were a little bit lower here. Logically these two villages should not have been comparable, as Morey produced more wine in 2016 than 2015 while Chambolle was 39% in deficit. The grands crus stood up and were counted in positive fashion, even though Musigny itself was amongst the worst frosted vineyards (-55%). I was impressed by Gevrey pretty much all the way through. Curiously it was only Chambertin itself (down by 39%) that really suffered frost damage.

Despite the difficulties of the growing season, the early take on 2016 was that the reds had emerged in a very positive way, with concentrated fruit and greater freshness than the more heralded 2015s. This tasting showed throughout the quality and intensity of fruit that we expected. The crisp energy they showed at the outset is a little bit less to the fore, not in itself a negative, but my inclination is to advance slightly the ready date for this vintage. Village wines could be approachable quite soon (though drink 2017s first) and the premiers crus from five years time.

2016 is a properly exciting vintage for the red wines of burgundy. The only thing missing perhaps was the absence of any absolutely mind-blowing wines at the pinnacle.

 

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