As we travelled over to Burgundy to taste the 2016 vintage from barrel, we were fully aware that the region had been badly hit by frost early in the year. We knew that losses due to frost were significant with the 2016 vintage allegedly representing around 50% of a ‘normal’ harvest. That said, given the run of recent low yielding vintages, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall a ‘normal’ vintage – a fact stressed by many growers with whom we spoke. Romain Taupenot of Domaine Taupenot-Merme in Morey St. Denis, declared that ‘there is no longer an average yield; there is no longer a classical vintage’.
To be clear, spring frosts affect yield, they do not affect quality adversely. Of course, to a grower whose livelihood depends on his production, reduced volumes can lead to financial strain. But in terms of quality, it is more worthwhile to consider the positive impacts of a reduced crop. With the vine’s efforts focused on ripening a lower volume of fruit, there is an easy-won ripeness in many frost-affected vintages.
Think of the conditions that dictated the nature of the 1985 vintage. It was undoubtedly a great year for red Burgundy and one which also commenced with a serious frost during which the temperature in Chablis fell as low as -28 degrees Celsius, at which point the concern shifted from nascent buds to the health of the vine itself. The Côte d’Or in 2016 was not troubled as greatly as Chablis in 1985. A major difference between 2016 and 1985 is that the affected vineyards in 1985 were far lower lying, thus those of Villages and AC Bourgogne level, which was not the case in 2016. In what was described by growers as unprecedented, the frosts in 2016 had their most dramatic impact on vineyards higher up the slopes. The losses are therefore notable in many illustrious vineyards, including leading Premier and Grand Cru. The pattern was completely unpredictable and highly unusual; on one hand, a village like Morey St. Denis came through largely unscathed, whereas Chambolle-Musigny endured heavy losses. The explanation lies in the ‘combes’, the valleys that feed in to the Côte from the top of the slope to the west. Those vineyards on La Combe St. Jacques in Gevrey-Chambertin were hit, while those around Chambolle-Musigny’s La Combe d’Orveaux were devastated. The latter, which is the name of a vineyard that straddles both Premier Cru and Villages appellations, is a notably cool site that leads into the Grand Cru of Musigny itself.
The frost was not the only issue that growers had to contend with. The warm winter coupled with high rainfall that was present until July created conditions that were suited to fungal disease, namely the twin threats of downy mildew and powdery mildew. The growers we spoke to commented that frequent treatments were needed to ensure they held onto the small crop that the vines were able to produce after spring frost. As one particular grower bemoaned, it was not a year to be biodynamic or organic and given the hand that nature had dealt, it is easy to understand his viewpoint. Once again it was a year where constant vigilance was required in the vineyard.
Thereafter fortunes changed; the summer turned dry and fairly hot, with timely rains in August to pep up the vines, before September provided ideal conditions for full ripeness to be achieved. Indeed, the grapes ripened quickly, the Pinot Noir rapidly accumulating sugar and promoting very impressive ripeness of tannins. The speed of ripening reflects both the heat of the summer but also the fact that the vine had a smaller crop to deliver.
The complexities of the vintage had not ended. Growers had a multitude of decisions to make on the back of the small harvest in their worst hit vineyards. Véronique Drouhin told us that they had lost 90% of their Echézeaux crop, while the yield from the Montrachet under the Marquis de Laguiche holding was down by 50% percent on expectation. Some growers opted to declassify wines so that they could work with a more meaningful volume of wine; Christophe Perrot blending the one barrel of Chambolle 1er Cru he did manage to produce with his villages Chambolle. Others had to consider the use of new oak, as when you only have produced one barrique, how can you avoid using 100% new oak or do you opt to use old oak entirely? Equally, given the losses, how many producers were keen to apply their usual strict selection to the fruit that they could harvest? These are all challenges in their own way and added a significant degree of complexity to the winemaking aspects as much as to the commercial decisions.
And what of the results? Well, the Pinot Noir that we tasted up and down the Côte d’Or showed good richness, a marked juiciness with a fresh, balancing acidity. The wines show fine aromatics, but it is the juicy, accessible nature of this vintage that really hooks you. Looking for vintage comparisons is often a completely pointless exercise. The idea that this vintage is better than 2014 and not as good as 2015 is a gross simplification, even if it neatly dispenses with the complexity of Burgundy, but crucially it is also misleading.
It is worth considering the nature of the preceding two vintages to be able to place 2016 in context. Firstly, 2014’s star is in the ascendant; the assessment of the quality of this vintage for reds is changing as the wines show more of their fruit overlaying their linear personalities. It was always considered a hugely successful vintage for whites and certainly one of the finest of the last decade. 2015 is a generous vintage; it shows an uncommon richness in many instances. It is a far bolder vintage, veering towards the exotic end of the spectrum for both whites and reds. The best reds show terrific, well-poised ripeness and finesse; while perhaps not destined to be long distance runners, the best whites reveal generous mouth-filling fruit, attractive intensity and a freshening note of acidity. To be frank, some 2014 reds look set to surpass the heights of the 2015 vintage. And I would wager that in certain instances 2016 will exceed wines from either vintage. This is, after all, the key to our ongoing fascination with Burgundy.
2016 is an enticing vintage. There is an added degree of intensity to the majority of the red 2016s without any loss of classicism. This vintage was a joy to taste from barrel, with vineyard character traits coming through relatively clearly even at this nascent stage. In short there is so much to like about 2016. There is a suggestion of accessibility, a more-ish quality, which the French call ‘gourmand’, to convey the taster’s wish to taste again and again. They have a little more concentration than might be expected and yet still run on classic lines with bright acidities and fine-grained tannins. The whites remind me of 2014’s verve, tension and precision, though undoubtedly they will develop a little sooner than such a classic year. They show fine intensity, with bright, fresh citrus fruit; certainly more citrus than the tropical stone-fruit characters that were evident in 2015. Furthermore, they are true to their origins; comparing Darviot-Perrin’s Meursault Genevrières to their Perrières was a fascinating exercise with the stonier, mineral tautness of Genevrières showing in stark contrast to the bolder, more broad-shouldered intensity of Perrières.
I should add that we are fortunate enough to work with a very strong portfolio of growers, who are incredibly attentive and exacting in the standards in both the vineyard and the cellar. Results will no doubt differ across the region on account of the unusual pressures felt by growers. We fully expect this vintage to easily find a market and we can perceive a clamour for the wines; that clamour will be exacerbated by the lack of volume. In this vintage, it really does seem that what nature has taken away with one hand, fortunately it has given with the other.
Simon Larkin MW
Managing Director of Atlas Fine Wines