An uncertain dawn brought a return to more typical weather for Bordeaux in April—a mix of sun and clouds, cooler temperatures, and near constant wind. Undaunted, we headed for Saint Julien and our first appointment of the day with Lilian Barton-Sartorius at Château Langoa Barton. Conditions for the tasting were ideal, even idyllic, with the room just above cellar temperature and the morning sun casting the perfect light to highlight the incredible depth of color to be found in the 2016 Langoa Barton and the 2016 Léoville Barton. Beyond the color, however, the wines were difficult to assess, reticent and shy. Fortunately, I had the opportunity later in the day to retaste both wines at the UGC Saint Julien tasting at Château Talbot. The Langoa Barton was everything I had hoped it might be: wildly aromatic with bright, sweet red fruits and fine tannins. The Léoville Barton held notes of spice and flowers. Brooding and reserved, it showed a lively acidity and very firm tannins. The experience brought home to me the importance during en primeur week of tasting a wine two or even three times. Results can vary a lot from sample to sample, and even varying weather conditions on different days can affect them. It’s difficult to be definitive, but more samples are better than fewer.
Having visited Léoville Las Cases the day before, we completed our trifecta of Léovilles at Léoville Poyferré. The quality at this château just keeps getting better and better each year and the 2016 did not disappoint. With 60% cabernet sauvignon in the blend the wine was quite firm with plenty of youthful tannins. Yet, perceptibly, there is great concentration and depth here, and certainly plenty of sweet black fruit. Our next appointment, Château Branaire Ducru, was also a bit closed with nearly two-thirds of the blend cabernet sauvignon, but gave an immediate impression of bright, sweet fruit with lovely weight in the mouth. The wine is a model for the vintage, very precise and marked by elegance and complexity.
In anticipation of lunch at Marquis d’Alesme, we left Saint Julien and headed south to Margaux, stopping on the way to visit Jean-Luc Zuger of Chateau Malescot St-Éxupery. The 2016 vintage marks another triumph for the winemaker, whose 2015 effort was one of our best sellers on pre-arrival last year. “Less exuberant,” than the 2015, the wine is “more precise and perfectly balanced,” reflected Jean-Luc. 2016 marked the second vintage completed at the new winery of Marquis d’Alesme. Touring the state of the art facility we looked across the property’s fifteen hectares of vineyards (small by the standards of the Médoc) towards its famous neighbor, Chateau Margaux, where we would taste later in the afternoon. Marquis d’Alesme was purchased by the Perrodo family in 2006, the same family who owns nearby Chateau Labégorce. Both of their 2016 wines are typical of the vintage with lively acidity, fine tannins and ripe, sweet fruit. Labégorce, with a higher percentage of merlot in the blend, offers perhaps just a bit more sweetness of fruit, but without becoming overripe or jammy.
We completed our tasting of the first growths at Château Margaux in the afternoon. 2016 represented a singular vintage at Margaux with a whopping 94% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. A mere 28% of total production went into the grand vin. The wine is powerfully aromatic and very fresh in the mouth with notable acidity and loads of bright, sweet fruit. Not surprising with a mere 13% alcohol. A substantial wine with more than sufficient structure to age beautifully. After Margaux where else could we go but Chateau Palmer, where we met with CEO Thomas Duroux to taste the 2016 vintage. The wine is frankly majestic, breathtaking even, one of the finest Palmers I have ever tasted. “A more intellectual effort than the 2015,” noted Duroux, “but with such purity, such balance, such precision.” An equal blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon with a small percentage of petit verdot, it is a wine of remarkable depth and concentration, rich yet restrained, and quite possibly one of the wines of the vintage.
Our final stop in Margaux was at Château d’Issan. Passing over the ancient moat and into the castle courtyard I felt like one of Arthur’s knights, hoping to be found worthy to catch a glimpse of the Holy Grail. I confess it eluded me, but we did get a chance to taste the 2016 d’Issan, which is perhaps the next best thing. The wine was far too easy to taste for a barrel sample with the fine tannins and lively acidity that have become the hallmarks of the vintage for me. Another high Cabernet blend at 64%, the wine offers plenty of ripe sweet fruit yet remains very fresh and balanced.
We headed next to the UGC Haut-Médoc and Moulis and Listrac tasting at Château Cantemerle. As we exited our van we were met by Philippe Dambrine, who has steered Cantemerle on an increasingly successful path since 1993. The 2016 Cantermerle, Haut-Médoc is a marvel. The grapes, picked very late according to Philippe, yielded a wine of just 12.8% alcohol. Inky-hued, wildly aromatic, with notes of wild blackberries, tart and sweet, picked fresh off the vine. The wine was remarkably easy to taste at this youthful stage with very fine tannins. Other standouts were Chateau Clarke and Fourcas Hosten from Listrac, and from Moulis, Chateau Maucaillou and perennial staff favorite Chateau Poujeaux.
It was a long day but well worth it. We learned two important things today. One: the quality and unique character of the 2016 vintage is not limited to a single appellation. We can say definitively that wines from across the Left Bank in both the Médoc and the Graves proved to be of exceptional character. Two: despite the challenges that the vintage posed, quality is not limited to a handful of first and second growths, but seems to be across the board, with even the humblest of Haut-Médoc properties showing some of the character of the more prestigious estates. We head tonight to Chateau Siuarac in Lalande de Pomerol for a tasting and dinner with owner Paul Goldschmidt. We will spend the next two days working our way through Pomerol and Saint Emilion to see what the 2016 vintage brought to the Right Bank.