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.
I crossed the border from St.-Estèphe back into Pauillac today, starting my day with Alfred Tesseron at Château Pontet-Canet. Tesseron is now joined by his daughter Justine, 27, at the estate, which has been among the vanguard in organic and biodynamic practices since 2004 (for more background, reference my 2013 en primeur notes). Considering the rain-plagued first-half of 2016, I asked him what vintages during his tenure with biodynamic farming had been the toughest.
"It would have been 2007," he says with a wry smile, as he refers to the year that he broke from biodynamics in the face of heavy rains. He refers to that moment as when his faith was tested, and he never doubted himself again, returning to biodynamics and sticking with it ever since. "But other than that, it would be 2016."
"The difference is, we weren't ready to handle it in 2007. But now, with over a decade of working this way, having that experience, we were ready to handle it in 2016. The yield on the vintage was [2.5 tons per acre], and the 10-year average is [2.4 tons]," says Tesseron. "So you see, the vineyard is now healthy and in balance. It can handle something like 2016."
Of course the early rains were backed up by drought in the second half of the season. While mildew pressures remained and vigilance was needed, the ripening process continued under ideal conditions into mid-October. Picking here ended Oct. 12.
The result is a 2016 Pontet-Canet that is dark and lush in feel, with warm fig and boysenberry fruit flavors underscored by licorice, coffee and menthol notes. It has a lovely feel despite its weight, displaying grace as it flows through the loam-edged finish. There's a thunderhead of tannins in reserve, but it's suave in feel, with wonderful precision and purity. This is easily the best young Pontet-Canet I've had since the 2010.
A stone's throw away (if you're Aaron Rodgers) is the first-growth Mouton-Rothschild, where general director Philippe Dhalluin has been making remarkably pure and powerful wines since he took over from Patrick Léon in 2004. For more on this estate, reference my 2015 en primeur notes here.
"In all the wines the tannins are very high, higher than '10," says Dhalluin as we taste through the lineup. "But it's the impression of freshness that is so special in this vintage."
"Flowering was a miracle, as it came between two storms, during a perfect week of weather in June. But up until that and even after, I was thinking 2016 might be worse than 2013," says Dhalluin. "What was interesting was that the flowering set a lot of berries per bunch, which might have been a problem if the ripening struggled—if [the grapes] grew too large, especially from water, [the crop] could have been very diluted. But then the second half was perfect—very dry, of course, so the berries stayed small. … Merlot doesn't usually like drought, but with the smaller berries that was offset. And Cabernet loves drought, so the combination worked perfectly."
In the 2016 d'Armailhac, the cassis core is very bright and engaging, with a sleek, chalky spine pinning down the finish. It has ample tannins, but also the energy and freshness that Dhalluin noted. I was particularly enthused with the 2016 Clerc Milon, which is rippling with bright acidity and racy tannins while the core of currant and anise notes is almost ebullient in feel. There's a lovely iron note through the finish, with a floral lift too. Dhalluin let me in on a little secret: Of the 1 percent of Carmenère in the blend, half of it was whole-bunch fermented in demi-muids. That's just a small piece of the puzzle, but perhaps another reason why the wine has such an energetic feel.
The 2016 grand vin from Mouton is a prodigious wine in the making, built on a long, iron spine that runs from start to finish, though it's well-embedded in beautifully pure cassis and raspberry reduction notes. Very dense yet mouthwatering, it has a gorgeous floral echo through the finish. This vintage also marks the return of Petit Verdot (1 percent) to the blend, as the parcel of this lightly used blending grape was pulled when Dhalluin arrived; he planted a new parcel in 2011 on a spot he thought ideal for it. The grape lends extra spice and cassis bush aromatics to the wine, along with vibrant structure. A late but fast-ripening variety, it excelled in the 2016 season in general, and more producers have included it in their blends, which should help define the vintage's distinct signature as the wines develop.