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.
"It was a mess come June," says Château Haut-Brion director Jean-Philippe Delmas of the 2016 growing season at this Bordeaux first-growth owned by the United States' Dillon family. "But even still, it would have been too early to do leaf pulling or anything like that. Luckily, summer was very dry, warm but not hot."
"Then the flowering in mid-June came under perfect conditions. The oddity is that after the drought we actually have higher yields than in '15. The veraison was drawn out, and things went very slowly and ran late. But the key was ripening never stopped. There was no maturity blockage, so the alcohols are lower because of that slower process. Soils without clay would be the problem areas because of the drought. But those with clay," Delmas says as he purses his lips to kiss the air. "Just perfect."
"We have concentration plus freshness; tannic but not heavy. It's a special combination. It's not the same concentration of '09 or '10, but for me it's like '98," he says.
For background on Delmas and the wines of Domaine Clarence Dillon, start with my 2015 en primeur blog notes.
As is becoming a pattern, this year is the best year yet for the two wines from the Right Bank estate of Quintus. Delmas laughs, as he knows he's told me that for a few years running now, and he begrudgingly admits that this will be the last time (the estate is renamed and reformed since 2011, and the vintages in general have improved as the team has developed the new estate).
The second wine is the Le Dragon St.-Emilion, which is pure, silky and refined, with pretty plum fruit and a light, chalky persistence at the very end. The grand vin Quintus is racier and longer still, with a more energetic mineral edge and denser flesh to the plum and cassis flavors.
Back in Pessac-Léognan, the La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion delivers intense red currant paste and tar notes with a bright, focused finish. The Le Clarence de Haut-Brion is plump but still a little tight (more typical), with alder and plum skin edges around the core of cassis. There's ample flesh and fine tension through the finish.
Both grand vin reds are compelling here, with the La Mission Haut-Brion remarkably inviting already—the Pessac reds here are often among the most backward of the vintage at this early stage. There's a brambly note, but it's quickly soaked up by loads of cassis and sweet spice notes, with a vivid finish. The Haut-Brion is very, very tight (very typical), bursting with intense plum and red currant fruit. It's held in check in the end by a fierce, tannic edge that keeps the upper hand; juniper and bay accents underscore the finish. As in the Margaux appellation, Pessac in general is hard-pressed to match the heights it hit in the 2015 vintage, though this Haut-Brion is going to give its predecessor a run for its money.
If there is an Achilles heel to the vintage, it might be the whites. The rain that fell across Bordeaux Sept. 13 revitalized the reds and helped lead to this superlative vintage. But that rain was a bit too late to save the whites, which are very good, but lack the vibrancy of the 2015s, or other recent great dry white harvests such as 2013 and '11.
"The Sémillon was low in acidity and without the expression it usually gives," says Delmas.
To that end, the La Mission Haut-Brion White is an oddity in '16, as it is the first vintage for the wine to be dominated by Sauvignon Blanc (63 percent to 37 percent Sémillon). Consequently, it's usual opulence is muted, though it still gives a pretty suave display of white peach and lime pith notes along with a racy quinine edge. It's got admirable length with alluring tarragon and verbena notes through the finish. The Haut-Brion White relies on its usual majority of Sauvignon Blanc (though a bit more than usual, with 70 percent of the blend, the rest Sémillon), to offer white peach, straw, macadamia nut and salted butter notes in a richer overall package than the La Mission White. As for all the Sémillon that was cut from the upper cuvées, it went into the second wine, La Clarté, blending fruit from both estates. There is an ample 1,400 cases of the wine (it's typically under 1,000 cases) and it offers a lovely mix of lime gelée, creamed green apple, tarragon and a kiss of brioche all allied to a creamy, round frame.