BEAR on BORDEAUX 2016 (Part One)

Tasting and Taking Notes at the Offices of Negoçiant Nathaniel Johnston with Christina Walther and Ivanhoe Johnston

2016 is another great Bordeaux vintage. True words. But what kind of great vintage? Greater than 1985 or 1990? Greater than 1995? 2005? Yes to all. Greater than 2009 and 2010? Harder here but but still yes. Greater than 2015? Not sure there yet. How can that be? Read on for answers.

Overview of Another Great Vintage
2014-2015-and-2016 follow the same pattern as 2008-2009-and-2010 and 1988-1989-and-1990 before that. Not quite good-better-best but more like fine-excellent-excellent. There is some debate as to whether 1989 or 1990 is better as there is some debate as to whether 2009 or 2010 was better. There will be debate as to whether 2016 is better than 2015. While opinion seems to lean toward the latest vintage in all cases, the real answer is that they are all great vintages and your preference will depend on the style of wine you prefer and which chateau’s wine you’re tasting. (The caution in all three cases is to not forget about 1988, 2008, and 2014, all of which offered lovely wines at prices well below those charged for the most sought after vintages.

So what happened in 2016? Put simply, the vintage started wet and got dry. Just when it looked like it might be too dry, some September rains freshened things up. When I was in Bordeaux in March and April of 2016, it was wet and even in the Medoc a bit muddy. And mud on my western boots is not a common thing in Bordeaux. May and June continued wet except for a window of better weather around flowering. July and August had virtually no rain which was at first a relief and then a worry as it got too dry. Some of the younger vines were not able to get enough water due to less developed root systems and some of lesser terroirs just didin’t hold enough water. Some very welcome rain came September 13th which was enough to freshen up the established vines on the better terroirs but was sometimes too-little-too-late for the younger vines and lesser terroir.

The result? If a chateau had established vines on the better terroirs, 2016 gave them ripeness and developed phenolics with refreshing acidity – which is to say that they got the raw materials for a great vintage. It was then up to each chateau to harvest at the right times and avoid messing up the process in the winery. More often than not, they succeeded – which is why 2016 is a great vintage.

SPEC’s 2016 BORDEAUX FUTURES OFFER with My Notes and Scores
Below is Spec’s offer for 2016 Bordeaux futures. The prices listed are the lowest at which will sell these wine. We anticipate that they will arrive in Texas in the spring and summer of 2019. The scores on the offer are those of Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate (who has taken over for Robert Parker in covering Bordeaux “en premeur”), Jancis Robinson of JancisRobinson.com and me (Bear Dalton, Spec’s fine wine buyer). Why am I in such august company? I’ve been tasting Bordeaux wines for over 40 years now beginning as a 17 year old college freshman in my fraternity house and progressing as I dove deeper and deeper into Bordeaux and the business of wine. Beginning in 1997, I have been to Bordeaux for the Premiurs for the last 21 years in a row (having spent over a year in Bordeaux over the last 21 years). And I have a Texas palate (born, raised, and lived here) which is to say that I have many of the same vinous and culinary influences and perspectives as Spec’s customers in Texas. The notes accompanying most of the wines are my notes from tasting over a two-week period in March and April of 2016 (En Premiur) with some modifications for wines re-tasted in May of 2016 when I lead a group of 30+ Spec’s customers to Bordeaux to tour and taste.

SPEC’s 2016 BORDEAUX FUTURES OFFER

 

TASTING AND THINKING ABOUT 2016 BORDEAUX
In covering the 2015 vintage last year, I gave y’all a sort of travelogue with a blow-by-blow account of where and what we tasted (for that account, click here). As the itinerary this year was much the same (as it has been in most recent years) except that only one of us got the “mal de Bordeaux” this year (and it wasn’t me), I’m not going that route. Instead, I’d like to welcome you to my stream-of-consciousness on 2016 and Bordeaux. To quote the Grateful Dead – “What a long, strange trip it’s been!”

TRIPPIN’
Actually, let’s start there. I have traveled to Bordeaux every year beginning in 1997 (when we tasted the 1996s, 1995s, and some 1994s). Even though 1996 was a great Cabernet vintage, the chateaux and the tastings weren’t crowded, the owners and technical directors were glad to see and talk with us, and it was, in most cases, possible to taste not just the vintage being shown en premiur but usually the preceding vintage and sometimes another vintage. Some chateaux even opened older wines. It was a great learning opportunity and all-in-all more civil than the rush that is Union des Grands Crus (UGC) week or (en premiurs week) now. As more and more wine industry people from around the world come for UGC, the tastings have gotten more crowded and the samples less reliable so we have abandoned the organized tastings where you taste all the UGC member wines from a given area (say St. Emlion or Pessac Leognan) and instead go to taste at as many chateaux as possible with stops at several negociants’ offices for larger tastings there. The result is more information and better samples served at the right temperatures – which results in better evaluations and better notes – except when it doesn’t.

The D2 heading north between the two Pichons

A TALE of TWO PICHONS:
When It Doesn’t All Work Out Like it’s Supposed To
In early April of 2016 (tasting 2015s), we visited Pauillac 2nd growth Ch. Pichon Longueville, Baron de Longueville (aka Ch. Pihon Baron) as our first stop on a cool Thursday morning. (No, I am not writing using the “royal we.” I had three co-workers with me.) We were the first people there but were warmly greeted and poured wines that were too cold to properly evaluate. I did my best but don’t feel like the notes I got did the wines justice. There was no time to wait for them to warm up and our schedule was too bang-bang full to circle back and re-taste them in a better state. Of course, I acknowledged that hic-up in my notes on the 2015s. Note to self: schedule Pichon Baron a bit later in the day – which we did with good results in 2017.

In 2017, we (also traveling with three, albeit different, co-workers) visited Pauillac 2nd growth Ch. Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande (aka Ch. Pichon Lalande), across the D2 from Ch. Pichon Baron, late on Thursday as our second-to-last stop (we were next due at Ch. du Tertre in Margaux where they were staying late to accommodate us). The estate director, Nicolas Glumineau, had already left to attend an event in Bordeaux but we were warmly greeted, escorted to a tasting room, and served two frankly flat samples of Reserve de la Comtesse and Ch. Pichon Lalande. I knew the samples were not representative of the wines made at the property but there was no one to ask for a fresher, better sample. And again, there were time constraints; we had to get to Ch. du Tertre. While we tasted both the Ch. du Tertre wines and the Ch. Giscours wines at du Tertre with estate director Alexander van Beck (husband of Veronique Sanders who is the estate director of Ch. Haut Bailly in Pessac Leognan making them a sort of Bordeaux power-couple), I mentioned the bad samples at Pichon. After we left, Alexander called Nicolas (of Pichon) who arranged for us to taste a fresh sample the next morning during our appointment with Dan Snook at Joanne (a very good Bordeaux Negoçiant). This sample was much better and along with a re-taste of the 2016s at Pichon Lalande during my customer trip in May are the basis of my very favorable notes – so it ended well.

Tasting and taking Notes at Ch. Latour

Ch. LATOUR
On the morning of Friday, March 31st, we started the day at Ch. Latour (not braggin’, just sayin’). Ch. Latour no longer offers their wines en premiur preferring to keep the wines until they are (more) ready to drink. While this makes a certain amount of sense, It kind of screws up the way Bordeaux Inc. does business. Needless to say, the other first growths and a few waannabes are watching to see how it all works out. It won’t surprise me if at some point sooner rather than later, other chateaux follow suit. In fact, I’d make a small wager. Having said that, it also won’t surprise me (too much) if Latour returns to the system.

Nevertheless, we do get to taste the new vintage when we’re there for the premiurs and we get to taste the wines from the current release.
Farming at Ch. Latour is now organic and largely biodynamic (more on that below) but they are not certified. Horses are used in the clos vineyard instead of tractors. The winery is as up-to-date as any in Bordeaux. Everything is in place – including the team – to make the highest quality possible wines from a great terroir.

The 2016s
PAUILLAC de Ch. LATOUR, Pauillac, 2016
54.6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38.9% Merlot, 6.5% Petite Verdot (26.5 of production).   Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics.   Rich and ripe red and darker red fruit with spice, tobacco, black pepper, and gravel dust. Intense. BearScore: 92.

Les FORTS de LATOUR (2nd Vin de Ch. Latour), Pauillac, 2016
64.3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35.3% Merlot and 0.4% Cabernet Franc. (37.5% of production). Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics.   Elegance and balance with lovely weightless red fruit. Ethereal, delicious. Pure and focused with red fruit, tobacco and tea leaf and gravel dust. BearScore: 96+.

Ch. LATOUR, Pauillac, 2016
92.9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7.1% Merlot farmed using organic and biodyanamic techniques but not certified as either. (36% of production)red-purple color, and with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium plus phenolics.   Delicious, integrated, complete. Silky texture and feel. Full range red fruit with tobacco and graphite, cedar and spice, black pepper and grvel-mineral-dusty terroir. Most elegant young Latour in memory. Stunning wine. WOW. BearScore: 100.

CURRENT RELEASES (prices are cash bottle on the shelf at Spec’s)
PAUILLAC de Ch. LATOUR, Pauillac, 2012   (coming)
43.9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 54.5% Merlot, 1.5% Cabernet Franc.     Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium-plus phenolics. Great Pauillac. Lovely pure tobacco leaf and red fruit with cedar and graphite. Integrated and complete. BearScore: 94+.

Les FORTS de LATOUR (2nd Vin de Ch. Latour), Pauillac, 2011 ($179.27)
61.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, .5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petite Verdot.   Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, -bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium (resolving) phenolics. Beautiful. Fine power and feel. Stunning range of red fruit with spice and tobacco over clearly defined gravel terroir and integrated oak. Integrated and complete. Layered-Textural-Dimensional. BearScore: 95+.

Ch. LATOUR, Pauillac, 2005 ($980.79)
87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc (44% of the 2005’s production).     Medium-red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium-plus phenolics.   Alive. Supple, juicy, still fresh. Evolved perfume and developed mostly red fruit (with some black fruit notes) with a bouquet that includes tobacco leaf and graphite, tea and spice, dark floral, dusty oak and gravel-mineral terroir. Complete, exotic . . . almost erotic. BearScore: 100.

ORGANIC and BIODYNAMIC Viticulture in Bordeaux
Ch. Latour (and Ch. Pontet Canet and more than a few others) lead me into the question of organics and biodynamics in grape growing in Bordeaux. These ideas caught on earlier in Burgundy and in some areas in California (Quintessa was an early proponent of biodynamics in California). The first Biodynamic Chateau I knew about in Bordeaux was Ch. Falfas in the Cotes de Bourg. Now there are a number of chateau either practicing organic or biodynamic viticulture and more which are beginning to dabble in it.

Why? The short answer is results. Owners and estate managers see the results that others are getting using these techniques and they are at least experimenting to see how Organics and/or biodynamics will work on their properties.

A long time ago, I realized that a lot of the wines I liked the best were made from organically or biodynamically grown grapes. I knew it to be true but didn’t know why. Now I do.

Organics and biodynamics encourage beneficial microbial populations in the vineyards. We now understand that those microbial populations (yeasts, molds, bacteria) are the mechanism by which the specific terroir character of the vineyard gets into the wine. Not through the grapes but through the microbes on the grapes when they are brought into the winery. How cool is that? As more and more wineries transition to organics and biodynamics (and maybe the stricter levels of sustainable farming), better fruit with healthier microbes is being brought into the winery and when that fruit is crushed those microbes are transferring off the skins into the juice and adding their inputs to the mix.

The result is more pure, more focused, more site-specific expression in the wine. This is one area in which the best wines of Bordeaux are better today than they were 20 or even 10 years ago.

Vintage vs. Place
Some vintages are more about the vintage and other vintages are more about the place. Some places speak so clearly that the place is always present and some places seem to strengthen or fade depending on vintage and other factors. In Bordeaux, the so called great vintages (2010, 2009, 2005,1995,1990,1982) often (usually?) mark the wine in a way that show the vintage and the classic (2011, 2008, 2004, 1999) vintages allow fine wine to be made but these wines usually show place more than the character of the vintage. In a great vintage, it is easier to mistake a Margaux for a St. Julien or a St. Estephe for a Pauillac. In a classic vintage, these differences are less pronounced. Is there such a thing as a great-classic vintage? 2015 may be an example but it is too soon to tell. For me 199 came close but many people think the wines from 199 are too pretty or too light to qualify. I guess it depends on what you like. My impression is that wines from great vintages showed more sense of place before ripeness levels and alcohols got as high as they are now. And that wines made before the advent of chemical farming (which is thankfully on the decline) showed more sense of place. Maybe with the advent of more sustainable farming (especially organic and biodynamic farming) and the now declining influence of Robert Parker, a great vintage can also be classic.

Why are today’s great vintages better than great vintages past?
Comparing a wine from 2009 with a wine from 1959 is akin to comparing an NBA great of today with great player who played in the 1960s. It may make for an interesting diversion but today’s better nutrition, better training, and better coaching along with the evolution of the game and a higher level of competition make real comparisons moot. By the same token, wine has changed dramatically over a 50-year period. Better farming, more understanding of the processes, availability of information, and a changing world palate have all contributed to wine that is different and for the most part better than wine from 50 years ago. Looking specifically at Bordeaux, better farming (including sustainable, organics, and biodynamics) means less chemicals in the vineyards with riper (relatively), healthier fruit with healthy microbes coming into the winery. Better winemaking comes from more understanding of process from the decision of when to harvest to the decision of when and how to bottle. A lot of that understanding comes from consultants. Why is a consultant so important? The oenologist or technical director of a chateau see only their own fermentation and their own process every year. The consultant sees the process at a lot of wineries every year and can bring his observations to the all of his clients. Danger of the consultant is that all the wines he consults on can begin to taste similar. The best estate managers know how to harness the consultants knowledge and esperience and apply that to making the best wine that still reflects the place of their estate.

Other Sources
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about wine. The raw material for that thought comes from my observations and experiences over a 40 year career in wine. It also comes from my teachers (Mike Lonsford, Bill Edge, Harold Delhommer, Tony Ciccarelli, Chis Lano, John Rydman) and from the publications and websites that I read and reference.

While there are many (maybe too many) sources for information on Bordeaux. I find that I look at Jancis Robinson (JancisRobinson.com) and the Wine Advocate (Neal Martin), Decanter (and specifically Jane Anson, www.decanter.com/author/janeanson/, http://www.newbordeaux.com) as well as The Wine Doctor (Chris Kissack, thewinedoctor.com), and the Wine Cellar Insider (Jeff Leve, thewinecellarinsider.com) most often. All of them do the same thing I do during the Premiurs, which is to say that they spend up to two weeks in Bordeaux visiting chateau and tasting as many wines as they can, often tasting wines two or even three times in order to form as accurate a picture as they can of the new vintage. Of all of the reviewers, I find that my tastes in young red Bordeaux most closely align with those of Jancis Robinson

The only difficulty I have with Jancis Robinson (who I consider the best wine writer working today) and some others (mostly Brits) is that she uses the 20 point scale rather than the 100 point scale (which is really effectively a 40 point scale as no one really drops below 60 points). To correlate Jancis’ ratings to those of critics rating on a 100 point scale, I multiply her rating by 2 and add 60. So …

(JR Score x 2) + 60 = 100 point equivalent
therefore
(17.5 x 2) + 60 = 95 points (more or less)

Out of respect for her, I don’t make this conversion in writing (or in print or on the web) but I do make it in my head to compare her scores to those who rate on a 100-point scale. Overall, I find her notes, commentary, and sensibility to be very useful.

The Wine Advocate
The Wine Advocate gets its own section because of its long over-sized influence on the world of Bordeaux. Robert Parker really burst onto the wine scene with his reviews of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage and quickly grew to dominate the discussion of Bordeaux. Whether you agreed with his palate or his conclusions (after everything, individual taste does come into play), he was an astute and consistent taster. It is widely felt that Parker’s influence grew so strong that he “forced winemaking in Bordeaux toward a riper, more opulent (some would say “Parker” or “new world”) style. There is much debate as to whether that was a good thing. Due to his success, there is also a fair amount of jealousy coloring that debate. 2012 was Parker’s last vintage to cover Bordeaux en Premiur, Neal Martin now handles that duty for the Wine Advocate which Parker, though still writing, has sold. The Wine Advocate’s influence, while still substantial, has diminished. A lot of Bordelaise quietly say that now that Parker and his (as opposed to the Wine Advocate’s) ratings are out of the mix, they are freer to make the wines they feel best represent their properties and terroirs.

MORE TO COME!