On the Trail

The Barometer of a Great Vintage

Ralph Sands

We landed on Sunday, April 2nd and headed right to a negociant tasting with Barrier; Sunday tastings are very rare, but we knew these folks well. We tasted twenty-one wines, bought a few nice ones, and got our first sip of a classified 2016 Château Beycheville and I remembering being a bit shocked as it was very good. I’m aware of the fact that Beycheville has undergone a complete renovation, but this might have been the best I’ve ever tasted from the winery. I said to myself: "nice start, but its only one wine."

Monday was the big Union des Grand Cru silent Tasting at the Hanger and we got a two hour slot; nowhere near enough time to taste them all. I headed straight for the Margaux tables; I could not wait to see how the 2016’s stacked up to the greatest Margaux vintage I’ve ever tasted, 2015. As in 2015, every single wine was very good; Cantenac Brown, Giscours, and Malescot were outstanding! I turned away shaking my head—pretty damn impressive.   

I moved to the Pessac-Leognan’s and while they were not quite as perfect across the board the Margaux wines, they were still very impressive with estates like Bouscaut, de France, and Carmes Haut Brion making the best wines I'd ever tasted from those châteaux. The stars of the region—Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape Clement, Malartic-Lagravier, Domaine de Chevalier, and Latour Martillac—performed like the stars they are!

By this point I'd tasted through two classified communes and the wines had displayed plenty of high-toned, great tasting fruit, and for a fleeting moment I started to question myself. I was thinking: "how in the heck can a vintage with such extreme conditions—vines ripe for disease and damn near drowning at the end of June, and then almost shutting down from dehydration by two brutal, searing months of heat in July and August—make a great vintage? 

We were off to a great start, but the real test and best barometer of any great vintage for me are the Haut-Medoc wines, and those tables are by far the least crowded, which is always the case as folks race to taste, mug for pictures, and shoot videos with the more famous communes estates and their proprietors. After tasting some very good wines from Château Coufran, Latour de By, Citron, and Belegrave, followed by outstanding wines from Château Cantemerle, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Fourcas-Hosten, there was no doubt in my mind that we had something very special here. I didn't even need to taste St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estephe to know it because the Haut-Medoc appellation stretches from Cantemerle south of Margaux to Latour-de-By from the far north reaches of St-Estephe. I was absolutely sure that the great historic estates of Bordeaux would be great, and as our week unfolded that was indeed true. 

Another great barometer for me is the wine of Lynch Bages. They make a lot of wine at the Pauillac property and if it’s great, you can bet the other wines of the region are great also. I thought the 2016 had delicious fruit with great concentration and texture, making it my favorite Lynch since the great 2000. I typically grade these barrel samples on a three star system; one star means I like the wine and would buy it for myself and K&L, two stars means an outstanding wine I would love to own and add to my collection, and three stars means I think it is a wine of greatness and could be legendary. 

In my opinion, 2016 is a vintage that produced many great three star wines. The First Growths performed as they usually do in a great vintage; loaded with great fruit, but tightly spun and requiring at least twenty years of aging. Other great long aging three star wines include Las Cases, Leoville Barton, Pichon Longueville, Montrose, Calon Segur La Mission, Palmer, Pichon Lalande, Trotanoy, Petrus, and Haut Bailly. On the lush, plush and hard to stay away side you have Pontet Canet, Ducru Beaucaillou, Malescot, Cantenac Brown, Leoville Poyferre, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape Clement, Clos Eglise, Cos d’ Estournel, Domaine de Chevalier and Le Pin. 

I can’t help thinking that 2014, 2015, and 2016 remind me of 1988, 1989, and 1990 where the vintages were all good, but were better with each vintage. To be honest, knowing the weather conditions before tasting these wines I could have never imagined the wines could be this great, but the wines speak for themselves. To quote Veronique Sanders from Ch. Haut Bailly: “2016 is proof that God loves Bordeaux, as it dodged all the bullets of frost, rain, mildew and drought that ravaged France."

-Ralph Sands