Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2016 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
After visiting two dozen red wine estates, it was time to wrap up with a stop in Barsac, home to some of Bordeaux's revered sweet wines.
With the second half of the 2016 vintage marked by a lengthy drought, botrytis—the beneficial mold spurred by humidity late in the season—was not kickstarted as easily as usual. It was a waiting game in 2016, and instead of several waves of botrytis growth, there were just one or two. The result was fewer passes through the vineyard to pick grapes as they became infected with the mold.
"More tries can have benefits," says Lurton, referring to the number of passes through the vineyard. "But more tries can also be the sign of a difficult vintage as well. The number of tries is less important than the length of the harvest and the different levels of maturity that the grapes achieve as you pick."
Nonetheless, Lurton and her team made their passes through the vineyard starting in late September, finishing Oct. 22. As usual, there's a large number of lots here, 12 all told in '16, which have not yet been blended (Lurton doesn't present a final blend during the en primeur season).
The first lot, from fruit picked Sept. 28 and representing 3 percent of the crop, is very fresh, with bright acacia and honeysuckle notes. The second lot, from a picking the next day and totaling 7 percent of the crop, is totally different, richer in feel with more tangerine and white peach flavors.
Moving through the lots, the richness of the wine grows slowly and steadily, but without sacrificing its cut or definition. One lot shows a pronounced bitter orange and bitter almond profile, which Lurton likes.
"That bitterness is a sign of structure and quality," she explains. "The key is making sure each lot is balanced in and of itself so you can build the blend from there. And to do that, you have to react and move quickly during the harvest."
By the 7th lot, picked Oct. 5 and representing 16 percent of the crop, the wine is showing a rich and round feel, with more pear, apricot and orange curd notes, backed by a tense green tea streak. The 11th lot, picked Oct. 20 is creamy and long in feel, with beautiful mirabelle, apricot and green plum fruit again backed by a distinctive zip of green tea.
Lurton earned a lofty spot in our annual Top 100 last year with her 2013 vintage. Still in its unassembled parts, the quality of the 2016 is not quite at that level, but in a year when most of the sweet wines from Barsac and Sauternes are tasty, but lack some complexity, Climens' still leads the pack.
From Climens, it was a 5-minute drive to neighboring Château Coutet, owned by the Baly family. Aline Baly met me in the vineyards. Walking through the vines, we passed side-by-side parcels with very different viticultural approaches. Watch the accompanying video as Aline explains what's happening here.
As for the 2016 from Coutet, it is blended. The wine has the vintage's forward, plump feel, with a mouthful of tangerine, peach and clementine notes laced with a ginger thread. Then it shows more typical Barsac cut, with a twinge of bitter orange on the finish.
After wrapping up my visits, it was time to sit down to a few days of blind tasting barrel samples. I worked through more than 300 wines over the course of a few days, and the results are in. For my full 2016 Bordeaux barrel tasting report, check out the upcoming June 30 issue of Wine Spectator.