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The 2016 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: Highlights from Pessac and Margaux

A roller-coaster growing season, but fine results at Châteaus Palmer, Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Haut-Bailly
Photo by: Courtesy of Château Palmer
Château Palmer is the rare estate where yields are down in 2016, but quality is high.

Posted: Mar 30, 2017 4:30pm ET

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 bounced around quickly today, heading from Margaux to Pessac-Léognan. Here are some highlights from the estates I visited.

Château Palmer

You can reference background on Château Palmer, a regular stop during my annual en primeur visits, starting with my 2015 coverage.

Director Thomas Duroux continues to work on the puzzle of organic and biodynamic practices, as well as experiments with smaller sulphur additions. This large, prominent classified growth in the Médoc serves as his lab. The estate's shareholders should be given kudos for having the courage to let Duroux take Palmer outside the box. The results speak for themselves.

That notwithstanding, the 2016 vintage was a real test; by early June, things looked dire.

"I was at the point where I had to consider the risk of losing the crop, and I was not willing to do that," says Duroux. "I would have to spray [with conventional treatments] for mildew. It was very close. A chemical prevents, not corrects, so you have to stay ahead of losing control of the vineyard. In the end, I'm glad it didn't go that way, because the thought of going even one step backward to me would have felt like erasing everything we have done for the past several years."

The season's difficulties did have an effect: While 2016 yields in Bordeaux are mostly at or above normal levels, Palmer lost 20 percent of its crop (mostly Merlot, which is more susceptible to mildew pressure). In the end, the 2.1 tons per acre that did come in was of high quality, in part because of the concentration the lower yields brought.

"It was a year with higher yields in general, while still maintaining quality. But we saw the difference between high yields and very good quality—we had a block of Merlot at [3.7 tons per acre]. But it didn't compare to the blocks that came in at lower yields. It makes a big difference," Duroux explains.

The 2016 grand vin is sappy and intense, with the vibrant energy that marks this vintage's reds. Cassis and plum confiture notes sprint along, backed by strident tannins kicking in through the finish with extra drive. Not at all shy on depth, it's mouthwatering in feel, with a great bolt of iron at the end. The finish is as long as the 2015's, but in a more vivid, racy style than its more brooding and burly predecessor.

Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion

This tiny estate has gone through a rather dramatic renovation since it was purchased by Patrice Pichet in 2011. Not only has Guillaume Pouthier (former M. Chapoutier winemaker) turned the wine around with a blizzard of new techniques, but the glistening new Philippe Starck–designed winery is easily one of the coolest pieces of architecture in the region. The building sits like a futuristic battleship amid the small stream that cuts through the property, the cellar room inside is below water level. For more background, reference by 2012 en primeur coverage, when this was one of the sleeper wines of the vintage.

The winery has 24 vats, a mix of concrete, wood and steel, giving Pouthier more than enough wiggle room to vinify the fruit from the tiny 17-acre vineyard, which is situated on a shallow gravel and sand mix over a bed of clay and limestone. The vats are also in both cone and inverse-cone shape, so Pouthier can play with extraction (the larger the cap-to-juice ratio, the more extraction). Pouthier is also using whole bunches with destemmed grapes within each vat. Since Pouthier took over the winemaking in 2012, he's also stretched the élevage out to 20 to 24 months, with a small portion of the Cabernet Franc aged in amphora.

A fairly unique wine to begin with, due to its high Cabernet Franc percentage (45 to 60 percent of the blend), the 2016 is blended with 39 percent Merlot and 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is dark in profile, but pure and rather light on its feet, with a beam of cassis and black cherry fruit while notes of bay, tobacco and warm tar lurk in the background. There's a crunchy energy, but the overall mouthfeel is sleek and polished.

This wine isn't a sleeper anymore.

Château Haut-Bailly

Director Véronique Sanders and maître de chai Gabriel Vialard continue to have this little jewel box property running well. For background on Haut-Bailly, reference my 2014 en primeur notes.

"It's a vintage of extreme and records," says Sanders in describing the 2016 growing season. With the equivalent of a year's worth of rain in the first six months, marked by the driest June to September period on record, '16 was a whiplash for growers. But that early season deluge filled the water table, allowing vines with good, deep roots to drink languidly through the parched summer, rather than gorge and dilute themselves. Haut-Bailly's vines are among the oldest in the Médoc.

The 2016 gave the best showing of a young Haut-Bailly I've seen since the 2010. It's dense but open, rather than its typically backward and sometimes stolid self. It's creamy in feel, but has enough tension to drive through the superlong finish, pulling dark plum, cassis and graphite notes along. While Pessac-Léognan in general will be hard-matched to reach the heights the AOC hit in 2015, this is one estate that may deliver a one-two punch of equally compelling wines in both vintages.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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