Every year, we always await the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) tasting with anticipation, but this year, there was some added allure. The Bordelais were scheduled to show their highly acclaimed 2016 vintage. Like the 2009 and 2010 vintages, 2015 and 2016 represent back-to-back blockbuster vintages that have been hailed by critics and wine enthusiasts alike. If you are not familiar with the 2016 vintage, it has been described as a very balanced vintage, with wines made in a more classic style. Whenever a particular Bordeaux vintage described as ‘classic,’ this often means that the vintage is not among the most acclaimed and that the wines may have less appeal to those who enjoy fruit-forward wines. It appears that 2016 may be a vintage that has broad appeal, from Bordeaux fans who prefer a more traditional style and those who enjoy more fruit-forward, modern styles. This is a balance that is not easily achieved, and is one of the reasons that 2016 may be quite a special vintage.
The UGCB does not just represent a tasting for us. Rather, it is also a time to catch up with many good friends from Bordeaux. To taste all of these wines in such a short period (3 hours) is quite difficult to do. We usually have a game plan, depending on the vintage. Whereas at last year’s UGCB tasting, where we focused on the right bank and Pessac-Léognan, this time we spent more time on the left bank. From tasting the 2016 wines in barrel and now in bottle, it does appear that the left bank may hold a slight edge. However, many of the right bank wines did impress and will certainly evolve into excellent wines.
Before discussing some of the specific wines, a few generalizations are in order. First, the alcohol has been held in check in 2016. There was almost no sensation of heat in any of the wines, and the management of the alcohol was superb in this vintage. Second, the tannins are incredibly soft. Yes, after tasting countless young wines at any tasting, the palate begins to dry out a bit; however, the wines themselves showed a very soft structure, more so than even the 2015 wines. Finally, balance is the key in 2016. There was no sense of over-ripeness or over-extraction. The wines were truly a joy to drink, which is commendable for such young wines. In some vintages, it can be fatiguing to taste so many wines, but not so in 2016.
Keeping in mind that there is only a finite period to taste these wines, not all wines were reviewed. We started the tasting wines from the Pauillac appellation. Both Pichons were exceptional. And whereas in 2015 I would give the slight nod to Baron, 2016 is Lalande’s year. With a knockout nose and super-silky palate, this is a wine that demands attention. While made in a bit more classic style, the Lynch-Bages was excellent as well. With its graphite and dark fruit, this was a wine with solid structure, but very soft tannins. I found the same pattern in the Cazes Saint-Estèphe wine, Ormes de Pez. This is clearly one of the best vintages I have tasted of this wine. I saw this same excellence in Château de Pez as well. As has been reported widely, the northern Médoc produced very strong wines in 2016.
This is not to say that excellent wines weren’t produced in the more southerly Saint-Julien. This appellation, which is perhaps the most consistent in the left bank, was nothing short of extraordinary. Like the Pichons, both Léovilles at the tasting were fantastic. I would possibly give the slight nod to the Barton in 2016, but the Poyferré was great as well. I just loved the pure dark fruit that was so clearly the Barton style. But what may turn out to be the best value in Saint-Julien is the 2016 Langoa Barton. Like the Ormes de Pez, I am not sure I can recall a better young vintage of Langoa. We spoke with Jean-Michel Laporte, previously at La Conseillante, who is now at Chateau Talbot. He made us aware of changes being made at Talbot, and discussed their plan to increase their oenotourism, which is a trend that continues throughout Bordeaux. The Talbot and Branaire-Ducru are other excellent value buys in 2016. And not to be overshadowed are the many great wines in the Margaux appellation. One of the jewels of Margaux in 2016 is Brane-Cantenac. This wine definitely impressed, and you could already sense the signature Brane-Cantenac aromas that emerge with bottle age.
The right bank is not to be overshadowed in 2016. The wines are a bit less forward and perhaps more balanced overall than in 2015. It is going to be a question of style as to whether someone prefers 2015 or 2016. The wines from Pomerol were impressive across the board, from Clinet to Gazin. A similar trend was seen in the Pessac-Léognan wines, which were all very drinkable at such a young age, from Haut-Bailly to Larrivet Haut-Brion. The balance was nowhere more evident than in the Pape Clément red, where there has been a style change toward more restraint in 2016.
.We never rush through these tastings, instead spending more time with each wine, at the expense of tasting everything. This year we regrettably did not have time to taste the Sauternes and the dry whites, but we heard great things about the wines from others. A lot of our time was spent talking with the winemakers about their wines. We also discussed the newest 2018 vintage. There was palpable anticipation of this vintage from the winemakers and château owners. Some told us that the quality of their wines could even surpass that of 2016. However, the style is likely going to be much different in 2018. It appears that this is going to be a very ripe vintage, and that management of the alcohol is going to be one of the challenges. Additionally, some properties lost much of their yield due to mold, especially those properties that are organic or biodynamic. You always have to take vintage predictions with a grain of salt, but it is clear that this will, at the very least, be a strong vintage. With the string of 2015, 2016, and even 2017, 2018 will continue an impressive and almost unprecedented run of strong Bordeaux vintages
In other years, we plan to travel to Bordeaux in June for the UGCB to fill in the gaps that we missed at the U.S. tastings. Unfortunately, we are not able to do that this year. But even one afternoon in Miami told us all we needed to know about 2016 Bordeaux: the predictions were correct. 2016 is going to be a long-lived, beautiful vintage that one will enjoy drinking for several decades, with superb wines produced in every appellation.