Whilst recent headlines shout that 2017 could be the lowest volume wine harvest in France since 1945, that’s not the case in Burgundy – that’s 2016. The 2016 crop was devastated by frost – a gelée noire or black frost – this is where the vines are frozen overnight and is, of-course, more damaging than the gelée blanche or white frost, which is the frost that forms only at 5 a.m. / dawn.
But not everywhere was devasted. At least 50% was lost, but in that easy to say ‘average’ there were vines that delivered nothing and those that avoided the frost completely so provided a normal yield. Growers will tell you ‘Better frost than hail, because unlike hail, frost won’t affect the quality of what remains.‘ – of-course mildew won’t help either and there was that too!
You have to go back to 2011 or even 2009 for the last decent harvest volume – at least in the Côte d’Or – so young domaines, or those without reserves have had a torrid time in the last years, absolutely dreading a call from their bank managers. I think that Pierre-Yves Colin might help provide some insight into the depths that producers found themselves in, in the days after the frost:
“During the life of a vigneron there are vintages that make you think differently about how you work, how you can motivate people and what you should keep back from your production, to tide you over in hard times – this was that vintage. It wasn’t the end of the world but at times I thought it might be so. We had to work not just incredibly hard in the vines but also to motivate people in the first half of the vintage. In the end we have things that are more than interesting – but that, collectively, came at a price – and I’m not just talking about a catastrophic production volume.”
Pierre-Yves Colin, 06 November 2017.
As always, you can refer back to my commentary about the 2016 growing season, but here we can talk about the wines – so let’s get to it…
The whites of 2016
Some growers and many writers will tell you that the vintage is highly variable, because there are those producers that were frosted and those that were not, and there are those that picked early and those that did not. Because of those things, they will tell you that it is a highly variable vintage. I’m here to tell you that it is much simpler than that:
Frosted or not, picked early or not, the wines show the character of vintage really well. More importantly, I choose to describe 2016 as a ‘classic vintage‘ but in this instance I am hijacking the phrase to simply say that in this case, classic means that the great producers made great wines, and the less good producers made less good wines.
Of-course there is variability on the level of attainment of individual wines, and you can see that in the producer reports. But it’s important to say that the character of the vintage shines through everywhere. Elegant, fresh and delicious – I think that I have certainly overused the word delicious in my tasting notes this year – perhaps to the extent of abuse!
Except for discussing yields with producers, I have had such pleasure working my way through the tastings this year – and that’s because I absolutely love the vintage. To put that into context, 2014 remains my absolute reference point (since the 1996s I tasted in barrel*) but the style of fruit in 2014 has a slightly cold, more mineral and sometimes masochistic side.
I find the vintage style for 2016 is not unlike that of 2014, with just a little less power – if certainly not concentration. The 2016s have fine energy and classically pure fruit – it’s a really engaging purity that is delivered with much more elegance than you will find in the vast majority of wines from 2014 – or of-course 2015 for that matter! But what is the style of the vintage you should rightly ask?
- 2014: Flavour delivered in waves. Fruit in the lime/citrus style, often with mineral and reductive elements. Excellent terroir definition.
- 2015: Flavour was more layered. Fruit was in an agrume style, often with reductive elements, less mineral. Good, not excellent terroir definition
- 2016: Flavour delivered in a more melting style, the flavour much more yellow/lemon/citrus styled, with very much less reduction in wines, minerality between 2014 and 2015. Excellent terroir definition.
- The Mâconnais has done very well, but was badly hailed on its southern border with Beaujolais – so there is much less St.Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé – but at least the hail came before there was any fruit – so there was no effect on quality.
- Chablis also suffered the frost – the volumes are low there too – I plan to taste there, as usual, in January.
- The wines of the Côte de Beaune show a little variability – but much less than many commentators would have you believe.
- Taking 2014 as my benchmark, the 2016 Côte de Beaunes are:
– Possibly more concentrated but with a less overt punch to the flavours
– The acidities are equally good with, in general, a very fine freshness. Relatively rare are the lifeless wines.
– Almost equally pure with great energy, but the style of 2016 is more elegant – the balance can be compelling
– The best 2016s are more accessible than the best 2014s though clearly not from the perspective of volume…
– At their best, the 2016s can be emotional wines, a number of times there were particular wines that stuck in my mind for hours afterwards
– The 2016s show the terroirs just as well as the 2014s with just a little less overt minerality – that’s the ‘cool’ side of the 2014s – a little less salinity in the 2016s.
– Fewer reductive style choices – or simply the vintage in 2016 has less reduction – it was even less chez JM Roulot.
– As many compelling wines in 2016 as in 2014, and many more than in 2015.
– Lack of availability really means that 2016 cannot be considered as a potential new benchmark, and the Bourgognes in 2014 were not just more plentiful, they were often better…
But what to buy?
- There is very much less Bourgogne in 2016, and you will also have a hard time finding Montrachet! The Bourgognes are good but exceptional Bourgognes are rare. In the middle the villages and premier crus offer a varied and rich hunting ground for seriously great wines – refer to the reports of individual producers’ wines.
- The range of Olivier Leflaive is something simply stunning in 2016 – check the report. Olivier’s equals in 2016 are Jean-Philippe Fichet, Paul Pillot and finally Pierre-Yves Colin. Bernard Moreau, Hubert Lamy and Jacques Prieur were all in close contention too!
- Because all our circumstances and viewpoints are different, I leave the ‘value question‘ in the eye of the beholder, but with respect to pricing, about half the domaines told me that they will try to keep their prices the same as in 2015, as they have a good volume 2017 in the cellar. Some others have gone for quite big increases – maybe to reduce the demand for the few bottles they have? That would seem a counter-productive approach if really so – sentiment about pricing counts for much…
- The wine that stays fixed in my consciousness was the Corton-Charlemagne of PY Colin-Morey – not only did I not spit, I took a second sip – I have NEVER done that before – anywhere!
And, of-course for individual recommendations, consult the individual reports and over 400 wines tasted in this month’s Burgundy Report!
*My first whites from barrel were the 1997 vintage. I missed 1998 and 1999, tasted en-primeur samples (London) 2000-2002 and then tasting from barrel every year in Burgundy since the 2003 vintage. Not forgetting triaging the grapes of multiple villages and vineyards every year since the 2004 vintage!