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Bordeaux 2016: vintage overview

Incy Wincy spider climbed up the waterspout
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Out came the sunshine and dried up all the rain
And Incy Wincy spider climbed up the spout again

Anon, 1920

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You know when Google Street View jumps from grey drizzle to brilliant sunshine in one click? That was the 2016 growing season in Bordeaux. A see-saw with one see and one saw. It ricocheted from an extreme of moisture to an extreme of heat. The pivot point was 20th June which, at its most pronounced, saw the temperature rocket from 19˚C to 33˚C.

Overly simplistic? Undoubtedly. A jigsaw puzzle has more than two pieces. There was nuance and regional variation: rain in the latter half and warmth in the first. You could say there was a short third act pre-harvest, of cool, dry, clear weather. But the idea of Bordeaux 2016 as a ‘game of two halves’ (or even as Incy Wincy spider) is not a bad one to hold on to.

The excellent vintage reports of Bill Blatch, Gavin Quinney and Marchal, Lavigne and Gény, among others, give on-the-ground insight into the growing season. The Bordeaux weather station data at infoclimat.fr is both useful and strangely fun to browse. Rather than go into copious detail when others have done so already, here is a short list of must-know points and a month-by-month overview of the season.

What we expect (hope) to find

Generous volumes: Yields were much higher than in recent years, averaging between 45 and 55 hectolitres per hectare – the largest harvest of the past decade. The Merlot crop was bountiful, some variation aside.

Lowish alcohol: Considering this is a ripe, warm vintage, alcohol levels promise to be refreshingly moderate, with the Cabernets averaging around 13% and Merlot 14%.

Flashes of greatness in the reds: Soils with the right mix of water retentiveness and drainage, such as the top Médoc sites, Graves, Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, promise to deliver reds to rival the best of recent vintages.

Full bodies and plentiful fruit: Thanks to the warmth of the second half of the season, we are expecting wines of density and ripeness, to compete with 2015.

Supple tannins and fresh acidity: Tannins look to be ripe, due to the prolonged warmth, with unexpectedly crisp acidity caused by accumulated soil nitrogen during the wet period.

Solid dry whites: The proof will be in the tasting, but early indications are that Sauvignon Blanc’s aromatics became a little flattened by the drought and Sémillon is rather less tropical and more stone-fruited than in some years (which some will prefer).

Sweet whites in the top tier: Late October saw a week of intense botrytis, which will be the making of Sauternes and Barsac this vintage. Whilst they may not be as dense or concentrated as in the very best years, we hope to find exciting sweet wines, of elegance and poise.

An overview of the growing season

Winter 2015-16

♦ A warm winter, marked by the strongest El Niño phenomenon ever
♦ A 100-year heat record in December and 120mm less rain than average
♦ The wettest January since 1920, with 233mm of rain

March 2016

♦ Buds begin to appear – very early, prompting fears of a frost
♦ The waterlogged ground keeps temperatures down, staving off what would have been a dangerously early budburst.

April 2016

♦ Chaotic weather, fluctuating between cold and warm, with frequent rain
♦ Vine growth slows, bringing the previously advanced growing season back to average.
♦ Ominous comparisons are drawn with 2013. However, this proves unwarranted as the abundant water reserves have loaded the soil with a beneficial surplus of nitrogen.
♦ The frost which ravages other regions of France mercifully spares Bordeaux. There are to be only seven instances of sub-zero temperatures during the growing season.

May 2016

♦ Warmer than April and more extreme
♦ Several storms, with a little hail in the Entre-Deux-Mers. Again, however, Bordeaux escapes the pain felt elsewhere in France (Chablis and the Côte d’Or in particular).
♦ The soil moisture brings a risk of mildew and rot however, requiring spraying.
♦ Flowering starts in the final days of May, continuing through to mid-June. The unsettled weather conditions cause some coulure (aborted fruit set) and millerandage (unevenly sized berries), but overall, flowers form remarkably consistently, especially the Merlot. The 2016 crop will still be the biggest in over a decade.
♦ Overall, spring ends slightly cooler than the 30-year average.

June 2016

♦ Summer starts with a bang on 20th June
♦ This coincides with a swing in the Pacific from the El Niño weather system to La Niña (and a seismic shift of a different sort in the UK…)
♦ The beginning of four months of drought
♦ An unexpected grape worm pest appears. These creatures, usually effectively controlled by pheromone capsules in the vineyard, manage to inflict some damage.

July 2016

♦ Warm and dry, but not excessive
♦ Temperatures marginally above normal, with around a fifth less rain than average. The skins thicken, the water pressure builds…
♦ Only four days over 30˚C during July
♦ Some châteaux green harvest at this point, cutting off unwanted bunches to control yields.

August 2016

♦ Very warm and dry, stopping just short of danger
♦ Two extended heatwaves, with sun hours 26% above average, stress some vines, especially the young and those on less water-retentive soils.
♦ Very few vines lose their leaves however – photosynthesis continues.
♦ The days are hot but the nights are cool. Along with the retained moisture in the heavier soils, this translates into some admirably low pH levels.
♦ Véraison (colour change) takes place, aided by just enough rainfall to ease its passage and draw the vines’ focus away from the important business of staying alive.

September 2016

♦ Autumn and finally a respite from the heat
♦ On 13th September, the temperature drops from low-to-mid 30s to low-to-mid 20s. Significant rainfall on the same night allows the moisture to be sponged up by grateful soils. Many appellations have seen a tenth of the 30-year average rainfall over the past 12 weeks.
♦ Grapes swell thanks to the water, ripeness is buoyed, tannins soften and crucially, the thick skins hold drum-tight without splitting.
♦ The dry whites are harvested.

October 2016

♦ Merlot harvest in the first week, then Cabernets from mid-month
♦ The Merlot comes in under clear skies, although amid rapidly dropping temperatures.
♦ The Cabernet harvest starts at a leisurely pace, then rapidly speeds up due to a sudden increase in humidity bringing a risk of rain.
♦ A late end to the year, in contrast to the early start.

We will report back on our findings during and after next week’s tastings. A few thoughts on the market conditions will also follow.

Guy Seddon,
April 2017

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