On the Trail

Final Thoughts on 2016 Bordeaux En Primeur

Jeff Garneau

It's our last day in Bordeaux before we head home. Clyde shortened the trip from the usual ten days because he feared that the quality of the vintage might be poor given all the rain in the first half of the year.  We therefore managed to condense ten days of tastings into one week, visiting over fifty châteaux, seven major negociants, the main UGC tasting on Monday, and most of the major appellation tastings on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, plus half a dozen dinners and three lunches with various negociants and château owners. Saturday, by comparison, was an easy day. The tradition is for Clyde and Ralph to play golf in an annual tournament at the Golf du Médoc organized by Pierre-Antoine Casteja of Maison Joanne. All the other participants are in the Bordeaux wine trade as well. It’s a chance to have some fun after a long week of en primeur tastings, and perhaps to remind the chateau owners— in a good-natured way—to keep prices reasonable this year. We unfortunate few (meaning us non-golfers) were left to our own devices, so we decided to make the most of our free time and —you guessed it—visit another château to do some wine tasting. We headed south to Barsac and Château Climens to meet with Bérénice Lurton, who had graciously agreed to come in on a Saturday and walk us through the 2016 vintage.

We couldn’t have chosen a more perfect day—clear blue sky with temperatures in the low 60’s, very rare for Bordeaux in April. Taking advantage of the fair weather we began our tour with a brief walk in the vineyards where our host reminded us that the thirty hectares of vineyards at Climens are planted exclusively to Semillon. The soil type is unique to Barsac, a mix of sand and clay barely one meter thick over limestone bedrock full of cracks and fissures into which the oldest vines deeply sink their roots. The vineyards at Climens are situated on the highest and best part of the Barsac terroir with particularly shallow top soils. In fact, the name climens was a term used in the local dialect to describe barren lands, useless for growing food crops but ideal for wine grapes. Since 2010 the estate has been entirely converted to biodynamic cultivation. The loft above the wine cellars, originally for storing hay for the oxen that plowed the vineyards has been repurposed today for the drying of herbs which are used in the preparation of the biodynamic tisanes used to treat the vines.

Bérénice felt that the natural health and vigor of the vines helped them to withstand the mildew pressures caused by the heavy rains in the first half of the year, as well as the intense heat and drought of July and August. Weather was not an issue during September and October, when conditions were ideal for the development of noble rot. Harvest took place from September 28th to October 22th, in two rounds of picking. We tasted from barrel a dozen different lots from both periods, and were shocked by how different in character and style each was. The skill, of course, lies in the blending of these lots to produce a wine that reflects both the unique character of the Climens terroir and the particular expression of the vintage itself. 2016 promises to be a very good to excellent vintage for Climens, with very pure botrytis development. Though with slightly less acidity overall than 2104, the wine nevertheless has a remarkable freshness and no lack of richness.

We had to say our goodbyes quickly to Mme. Lurton, for we were running late for a 12:30 lunch reservation at La Tupina in Bordeaux, Clyde’s recommendation and a reward for all our efforts during the week. The cooking is traditional Bordelaise over an open fire and the wine list entirely Bordeaux. We all started with asperges blanches, white asparagus from Blaye, a local specialty and the last of the season. I had the duck breast while my two colleagues opted for that day’s special, Le Pigeon Grillé. I don’t think I need to translate that. Both dishes were accompanied by generous portions of French fried potatoes cooked in goose fat. From the wine list we selected a bottle of the 2007 Tronquoy-Lalande from Saint Estèphe. We liked it so well that we asked Clyde if we could get some for our customers, and he has promised to see what he can do. We skipped dessert in favor of a walk through the old city of Bordeaux which is experiencing something of a renaissance lately. We had time to visit the nearby Basilica of Saint Michael where we took a moment to offer our thanks for the unseasonably fair weather during our visit and for the unexpectedly good quality of the vintage before we had to meet the rest of our party at Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan for our final tasting and dinner.

We were met at the winery by Florence and Daniel Cathiard, the husband and wife team who have run the property since purchasing it in 1990. Like many producers in the Graves, they make both red and white wines, preferring a house style that emphasizes concentration and richness. The 2016 Smith Haut-Lafitte rouge is a structured wine, with tannin levels technically higher even than 2010, yet much finer, even silky in texture. The wine has very generous, ripe sweet fruit, but like all the best wines of this vintage, maintains great freshness. So too with the white wine—rich, concentrated, lavish even, but very lively and harmonious.

Conveniently, in addition to Smith Haut-Lafitte, the Cathiards also own La Source de Caudalie, which incorporates a spa, luxury hotel, and a two-star Michelin restaurant, just a short distance away by foot, bicycle or car. There were seventeen of us at dinner that night, including our K&L team, the Cathiards, and many of the same negociants and château owners we had seen earlier in the week. I lost count of the number of bottles at the table. The highlights for me were a surprisingly good 2004 Leoville-Poyferré and a 1961 Smith Haut-Lafitte, Pessac-Léognan, only the second wine I have ever tasted from that vintage, both on consecutive nights on this trip.

It was an inspiring trip overall—Ralph called it his best ever of more than fifty such trips to Bordeaux—and a very exciting vintage. A lucky, even miraculous vintage in many ways since things might very well have gone very differently. As to the character of the vintage the word we kept hearing repeatedly was “precision”. These are wines that know their own strength and have no need of overt display—quiet and commanding, with great presence and authority, profound even. We'll have much more information to come in future blog posts and in our online newsletter and vintage report, including our general assessment of the vintage as well as info on specific châteaux. Until then!

-Jeff Garneau