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.
2016 marks the first vintage that this famed Bordeaux first-growth farms all 230 acres of its vineyards biodynamically (222 are in production). It's the culmination of a process that began in 2008 and was given a relatively easy start with the relatively ideal 2009 and '10 vintages. From there, 2011, '12 and '13 tested Latour director Frédéric Engerer's faith in the process, yet he and his team persevered; 2015 was the first vintage where all the fruit in the grand vin had been biodynamically farmed.
Even with the experience gained since starting the conversion process, it hasn't gotten any easier. Following the extremely wet spring season, Engerer had his hands full battling back disease pressures all season long in 2016.
"Our last pass to treat for mildew was in middle August, which is really, really late," says Engerer of the 2016 growing season. "Even though it was dry in the second half, there was so much pressure built up during the first half that we really had to fight it. Just because you don't see it on the surface doesn't mean it isn't there."
It's always interesting to hear a top producer noting the struggles that occurred, even in a year where the hype would leave you to believe it was an easy vintage. Engerer's comments echoed his views on 2015, another seemingly easy vintage that nonetheless required lots of work to succeed. And in '16, that work has paid dividends once again.
All three 2016 reds here crackle with vibrancy, but they are built on tannins rather than acidity, so the racy feel comes from graphite and iron flavors rather than simply a freshness of fruit. Of course, the fruit is plenty fresh too, partly due to a trend toward picking Merlot earlier.
"We went in one direction for a while with the Merlot, picking it when it was quite ripe," says Engerer. "But more recently we are aiming for that freshness with the Merlot. Combine that with being able to let the Cabernet go longer in 2016 and the potential for a great balance is there."
At this early stage, these are among the most seductive, most vibrant reds I've tasted from the estate. The third wine, labelled just Pauillac, has a silky, vibrant beam of violet fruit, with refined structure and a beautiful flash of iron at the end. The second wine, the Forts de Latour, is velvety and darker in profile, offering greater range, with raspberry and cassis notes loaded with graphite and black tea. The grand vin has inviting hints of plum cake, cassis and blackberry purée, along with notes of singed tea and incense, a strong alder spine and a superb bolt of graphite through the finish. As large-scaled as it is, it's invigorating.
You'll have to wait a few years for any of the 2016s to be released, however, because back in 2012, Engerer abandoned the en primeur system for the release of Latour's newest vintage. Today, the château releases older vintages from its stock while all other châteaus are releasing their newest. This time around it is the 2012 Pauillac, showing a gentle mulled edge and pretty aromatics, and the 2011 Forts de Latour, still tight but showing a nicely defined graphite edge. Topping the current release is the 2005 grand vin, a wine brimming with power yet maintaining a streamlined edge, with waves of red and black currant fruit that are on the cusp of entering their secondary phase. Its strident, racy grip is a harbinger of things to come in the 2016, though I feel the fruit in the more recent vintage has a silkier edge and purer feel overall.