Updated April 7, 2017. New blogs and notes will be posted regularly throughout the tastings.
WineSpectator.com members: Read James Molesworth's 2016 Bordeaux scores and tasting notes.
As I often say around this time of year, “Here I go again. Again.” Off to Bordeaux for the annual rite of spring, the en primeur tastings. This time around it's the nascent 2016 vintage sitting in barrels and getting its first "Hello" moment with the trade and press. And yes, I'm excited.
Of course, I'm excited for every new vintage. But, frankly, I try never to get too excited—I don't want hype to outstrip reality. Typically I read the weather reports, talk to some growers around harvesttime, and then check back in here and there before en primeur. I want some context for what I am about to taste, but I don't want the picture to have too much detail too soon. The wines are babies and have just been blended. Producers are anxious that the wines show well. The trade is antsy about how the quality and pricing will line up. Consumers are just starting to take a little peek to see what's going on. All in all it's very, very early in the game.
That not withstanding, Bordeaux has reversed its recent trend line. Vintages '11, '12 and '13 took the region down a few pegs after the highs of 2009 and '10. But with a very solid 2014 and potentially even better '15, things are looking up. And here comes 2016, perhaps even better still.
Now in bottle, the 2014s are down-the-middle wines with some real highlights; the Left Bank is generally favored over the Right Bank. The not-yet-released 2015s have a bit more sizzle and flashy fruit, with the Right Bank leading the way. In 2016, the entire region was given a chance by Mother Nature to perform well and yields were normal. The pieces are in place for the best year since 2010, though I am not putting anything right next to that true benchmark just yet.
The 2016 vintage was marked by a very wet start that led to some disease pressures throughout the season, though there were benefits, too. With a replenished water table, the drought conditions that persisted through the second half of the growing season didn't result in significant maturity blockages in those vineyards that retained water (clay and limestone soils). A light rain in early September gave the vines the finishing kick they needed for phenolic maturity to match the accumulated sugars. Harvest then stretched into late October under ideal conditions. The wines look to be marked by ripe fruit, serious tannins and ample energy—in drawing comparisons, producers recall the racy, tannic spines of 2000 and 2005.
As usual, I'll be starting my trip off with a week's worth of visits to top estates, some of which I visit regularly, while mixing in new faces along the way. During these visits, I taste the wines with the producers, while gleaning information on the vintage's quality and style—I do not review the wines tasted at châteaus, however, as they are not tasted blind. During my second week here, I'll sit down to taste over 300 barrel samples. The samples are supplied directly from the châteaus and are reviewed in blind tastings organized by Wine Spectator staff. These tastings will generate the official reviews that we'll post here and in the magazine.
But remember that these wines are still unfinished, sitting in barrel. The samples shown are approximations of the final blend of the wine, but there may be tweaks yet to come. They also still have another six months or more to go before they will be bottled. So why taste them now?
These wines are about to be offered for sale, first to the trade and then to you, the consumer, as futures, for delivery once they are bottled.
But why buy now? Because as a consumer, the initial price offered by the château (with subsequent markups through the négociant system and eventually to retail) will likely represent the best price you'll see if the vintage proves to be outstanding. Additional releases, or tranches, typically increase in price. By the time bottled wines reach retail shelves, the cost could be much higher, and the top wines could be harder to find. Should the vintage turn out to be stellar, those purchasing wine for investment might win in the long run by securing quantities of wine at the earlier pricing.
On the other hand, if it doesn't turn out to be an excellent vintage, then prices likely won't appreciate, and there may be no need to rush.
For some history on en primeur and how it all got started, check out "The Origins of En Primeur," penned by then Château Cos-d'Estournel general director Jean-Guillaume Prats.
As usual, my first week will be spent visiting more than a dozen estates, where I'll meet and taste with some of the region's top producers, as well as with some new faces. You can follow along via my blog for informal impressions on these wines.
Keep in mind that my en primeur tastings are an introduction to the vintage, focusing on wines both widely available and popular in the U.S. market and highlighting sleepers and values, but this report is not a comprehensive overview of the vintage. For that you'll have to wait for my annual report in the magazine in March 2019. You can check out my 2014 Bordeaux tasting report in the March 31 issue.
James Molesworth visits Châteaus Climens and Coutet for a look at Barsac dessert wine quality in the 2016 vintage.
James Molesworth visits with winemaker and consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, whose 80-plus clients include some small-production Bordeaux estates that shouldn't be overlooked.
James Molesworth visits with Christian Moueix, whose Right Bank properties include something for everyone.
James Molesworth visits some of the Right Bank's superstars, including Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc, Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, Canon-La Gaffelière and more.
James Molesworth visits Château Haut-Brion director Jean-Philippe Delmas to taste the 2016 vintages from Haut-Brion, La Mission, Quintus and more.
James Molesworth says it was a roller-coaster growing season, but the results speak for themselves at at Châteaus Palmer, Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Haut-Bailly.
James Molesworth visits new director Philippe Bascaules at first-growth Château Margaux, where the superb red might be outshined by the incredible white.
James Molesworth travels to St.-Julien, where quality is consistently high across the vintage but Châteaus Ducru-Beaucaillou, Branaire-Ducru and Beychevelle show off a range of styles.
James Molesworth returns to Pauillac for more 2016 barrel tastings in Bordeaux at Châteaus Pontet-Canet and Mouton-Rothschild, where director Philippe Dhalluin shows of the latest refinements at the first-growth estate.
James Molesworth continues his 2016 barrel tastings in Bordeaux at Châteaus Calon-Ségur, Cos-d'Estournel and Montrose in St.-Estèphe, where healthy competition is boosting the overall quality of the appellation.
James Molesworth kicks off his 2016 vintage tastings and château visits in Bordeaux at Château Latour in Pauillac, where Frédéric Engerer is now farming fully biodynamically. Molesworth also gets a look at the 2012 and 2005 vintages.