Following 2015, the 2016 growing season has provided Bordeaux with its first excellent back-to-back crops since 2009 and 2010. Yields across the region were also generally higher than those of recent vintages.
The toughest challenges came at the start. After an early budbreak, spring turned cool and very wet, resulting in some notable disease pressures early on. "Producers who decided to go organic for the first time in 2016 probably gave up after the first half of the season," said Stephan von Neipperg, owner of châteaus Canon-La Gaffelière, La Mondotte and d’Aighuile on the Right Bank.
"It was the most rainy spring ever," said Thomas Duroux, director at Château Palmer in Margaux, which farms biodynamically. "The result was a very strong mildew pressure that we tried to fight with biodynamic techniques. Our vineyard being prepared after all those years, we were able to manage it. We lost 15 to 20 percent of our potential crop, but it was a battle with a happy ending."
That good ending came as June brought the start of more than three months when barely a drop of rain fell in the region. Flowering occurred under sunny and dry conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, particularly old vines with deep roots planted on gravel and clay soils with good water retention, relished this stretch of weather, the driest in 25 years.
Younger vines or those on sandy soils struggled. Merlot, with a thinner skin, suffered from sunburn and wrinkled skin in places, particularly where leaf pulling to offset the earlier moisture had been done too aggressively. Those who were more conservative with their canopy management early on were able to adjust later in the season.
"After a first and very light green harvest to eliminate the bunches with a lack of ripeness at the end of veraison, as well as ones overly exposed to the sun, we decided at the end of August not to do a second de-leafing," said Nicolas Audebert, technical director at châteaus Canon in St.-Emilion and Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux. "We purposely left more bunches on each vine to slow the maturity, which could have spread really fast considering the heat. It also allowed us to select out burnt berries at harvesttime."
"Which terroirs were favored? Without a doubt, the fresh ones with heavy clay or those on limestone," said Thierry Valette of Clos Puy Arnaud in Castillon. "On soils with more drainage, it is a difficult year."
The drought was broken with light rains in early September, reinvigorating the vines and helping ripening finish. Indian summer conditions persisted through early October and picking went at a relatively easy pace.
"We had perfect weather conditions during all the harvest. No rain, sunny days, cool nights. So we were able to wait for the perfect phenolic maturity," said Pierre Graffeuille, managing director of Domaines Delon, which includes Léoville Las Cases in St.-Julien and Nenin in Pomerol.
Growers reported excellent yields and grapes with good acidity, an oddity considering drought conditions would normally lead to smaller berries with less juice, as well as lower acidity.
"That is a big surprise," said Jean-Christophe Mau of Château Brown in Pessac-Léognan, which produces both white and red wine. "Complicated to explain the volume with the drought. But the previous winter and the spring were very wet in Bordeaux, so the berries were very big for Sémillon and Merlot. For Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon the berries were smaller but the number of grapes on each bunch was more than usual. As for the acidity, by the time the ripening process started again after the Sept.13 rain, is was too late to destroy all the acidity."
In the sweet wine regions of Barsac and Sauternes in the south, the same weather pattern prevailed, resulting in ripe grapes. Botrytis growth was good, though without the successive waves that spur multiple pickings. Most growers reported just two or three tries in 2016, as opposed to four to six, which is more common.
While at press time most growers had not yet finished vinifying and barreling their wines, regardless of final quality, it appears 2016 will stand alone. "We have had dry vintages and warm vintages before. But we have never had this combination of heat and drought at this level in the same year," said Pascal Chatonnet, owner of four estates on the Right Bank and known for his groundbreaking research on TCA. "Comparing to other vintages, I can say 2016 is only like 2016."