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.
"Everybody is happy now, but the beginning was a nightmare," says winemaker and consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt of the 2016 vintage. "Spring was so rainy, every day. Whenever you got a break, you had to run into the vineyard to spray for mildew control. The first real miracle was the flowering, which was under perfect conditions. Just a little coulure, which wasn't a problem, because the looser bunches allowed for ventilation around the grapes and reduced the mildew pressure."
"Then harvest we had three to four weeks of perfect weather, so you could wait and decide easily when you needed to pick," he says. "You picked when you wanted, not when you had too."
"In the end, if you add up the degree days, 2016 was colder than 2013 or 2002, so the freshness and acidity is there," Derenoncourt continues. "Of the great vintages in Bordeaux, '16 has perhaps the highest acidity. It's higher than 2005 and those two vintages are similar, but there is better freshness in '16."
Derenoncourt is a strong proponent of organic and biodynamic farming methods, which he has used at his home estate of Domaine de l'A since he founded it in 1999. "I started with biodynamics when I took my first job at Pavie Macquin in 1982. It was considered crazy at the time, but I didn't know anything else, so to me it was normal."
"Bordeaux is the most energetic region in France when it comes to looking at organic and biodynamic farming. I have 13 clients that started working organically just this year," he says. "But Bordeaux is also the region in France perhaps most set against organic. To be honest, the maritime climate makes it very difficult. But the work and research is being done more and more, and people are starting to become more comfortable with it, and I am doing my best to convince people that the best way to get pure fruit is to work this way."
The 2016 Domaine de l'A Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux is a 75/25 Merlot and Cab Franc blend, with half the Cabernet Franc done with 50 percent whole bunches. This is one of the bigger versions I've tasted from here, with mouthfilling plum, blackberry and boysenberry fruit matched equally with dark graphite and roasted apple wood notes. It has lots of brambly grip and really, really good energy drives the finish. It's still a bit backward even, but the combination of ripeness and freshness is exemplary. It's on the level of the '15 and '10, and may surpass those two vintages here.
Derenoncourt consults for about 85 estates now. I asked how Derenoncourt decides to work with clients—what is it that he looks for, and what does he ask of them? "First I look at the potential, based on terroir. Then, how is the soil, the health of the vines and the depth of the roots. Then we deal with pruning, viticulture and yields. And then, from there, we focus on selecting the parcels within the vineyards, to improve the quality of the grand vin."
A number of Derenoncourt clients' wines are included in my official blind tasting. But while sitting down with him, I taste informally through a different range of wines from some of his smallest clients. These are not included in my formal blind tasting, as they are unlikely to be found in the mainstream en primeur distribution, but are nonetheless worth tracking down. For background, reference my 2015 en primeur notes.
2016 is just the second vintage for Domaine Simone Blanchard, a 3.7-acre estate created by one of Derenoncourt's in-house consultants. Farmed biodynamically, the Montagne St.-Emilion Au Champ de la Fenêtre is all Merlot, offering fun, lush, almost exotic blueberry and plum confiture flavors that are caressing in feel, backed by lots of black tea and warm fruitcake notes. Markedly different is the Montagne St.-Emilion Guitard, from vines on the limestone plateau, blending Merlot with 40 percent Cabernet Franc. It has more oomph and grip, with a streak of baker's chocolate through the core of fig and blackberry fruit, ending with focused, juicy intensity.
Lucia is a 10-acre estate with 6 acres of vines on the limestone plateau near Clos Fourtet which Derenoncourt has worked with since 2001. The St.-Emilion (a 90/10 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend) delivers a seductive core of plum and boysenberry reduction notes, with sweet spice accents on a polished, suave finish.
The Château St.-Georges-Côte-Pavie St.-Emilion is from a new client, with just 16 acres tucked between Pavie and Gaffelière, with a southwest exposure. Derenoncourt first culled 30 percent of the crop out of the grand vin (mostly young vines). The resulting 75/25 Merlot and Cab Franc blend is warm and inviting, with plum and boysenberry fruit backed by a light tug of chalky grip that blossoms through the finish.
Château de Candale St.-Emilion is now owned by the same owner as Clos des Jacobins, where Michel Rolland consults. However, at this property, they kept Derenoncourt on as consultant, as he worked with the previous owner for 10 years. The St.-Emilion is the classic 80/20 Merlot and Cab Franc blend, offering lively raspberry and blueberry notes that have a light, brambly edge for energy.
Château Louis is a late-ripening 17-acre vineyard on clay with north exposure. Derenoncourt has been working here since 2006, and the St.-Emilion shows a fleshy, muscular edge, with plum skin and boysenberry paste notes laced liberally with baker's chocolate and licorice root.
Château Bel-Air Pomerol is a 22-acre vineyard situated on gravel with a bit of clay and sand, near Trotanoy. A client since 2010, this wine delivers flattering, lush boysenberry and raspberry pâte de fruit notes that pick up a strong bolt of licorice through the finish, with a light echo of dark earth.
Château St.-Pierre, a client starting in 2014, is an interesting story. There used to be one wine, made from two disparate sets of vineyards. Derenoncourt divided the vineyards, with the majority of them on sandy soil, for the Pomerol II, which has pretty plum and raspberry fruit with a light anise thread through the slightly dusty finish. It's good, but perhaps lacks some refinement. Meanwhile, the top two parcels on the clay plateau near Petit-Village (totaling just 2 acres) are put into the Pomerol, delivering gorgeous plum cake, black licorice and roasted apple wood notes and lots of gutsy flesh through the finish.