Southwold: 2016 Bordeaux Blind


Now that the previous decade is in our rearview mirror, it is possible to step back and take a look back the peaks and troughs of Bordeaux vintages. You might argue that high points are almost cyclical, coinciding with the middle of each decade; case in point, the pairs of 1985 and 1986, then 1995 and 1996,  followed by 2005 and most recently 2015 and 2016. The last of these was born with a halo above its head, for it crystallized everything Bordeaux had been progressing toward over the previous ten years. It is an exemplar, a benchmark against which subsequent vintages are compared, not least coevals such as 2015, 2018 and 2019. Yet even those are not anointed with quite the same aura or reverence, despite the 2016 alumnus being in bottle for only a few months. 

The logistics of efficiently pouring over 200 wines into the correct glass have been perfected over the years – the syncopated merry dance around the table.

I customarily follow my in-bottle reviews, conducted in December, with the annual “Southwold” tasting – in quotation marks, since the venue is no longer the namesake Suffolk village, but that is where its heritage lies, and it continues to be held in mid-January with the same coterie of seasoned tasters. Indeed, you can glean as much information from eavesdropping on cross-table conversations as from the wines themselves. Which one gained unanimous praise and which was pilloried? Why did one provoke a sotto voce four-letter expletive? What are the contentious wines that divided opinion quicker than a Brexit referendum?

My debut was back in 2007. Much like the House of Lords, a seat at the table is yours unless you voluntarily vacate it (or misbehave). Southwold is unique insofar as I am unaware of any other organized tasting that comprises so many wines from the highest echelons of the Bordeaux hierarchy that, with only one or two recalcitrant exceptions, are sourced directly from properties. Upon arriving at their destination, they are marshaled into peer groups, assessed and discussed. As usual, I publish my own results, with apologies for the delay. The time pre-allocated for writing this report was unexpectedly consumed by the saga that was 2019 en primeur. And the process takes time, since each note must be cross-referenced with my assessments in barrel and just after bottling in order to note any changes.

The Growing Season

I will not go over the growing season because, funnily enough, it has not changed since 2016. For those who would like their memories refreshed, click here for all the information you need.

The Wines

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Does the 2016 vintage deserve a gilded throne alongside classics such as 1961, 1982, 2005, 2009 and 2010? Has it lost its luster? Did we get overexcited? Or are comparisons to those vintages inappropriate? I will broach that later.

Blind tasting tends to manifest scores that are a little lower than tasting sighted. That’s partly because of youthful obduracy and absence of context; a grumpy old so-and-so might simply be an ultimately great wine going through a dumb phase. Wines take time to come around. Like us, they go through phases. Blind tasting prevents the taster from using their experience to give wines the benefit of doubt when appropriate. Some enjoy a beauty pageant and others abhor it, and part of the challenge is to see through that, because assessing wines is about conjecture, not how these infants show at this primal stage of their evolution.

In my original in-bottle report, cheekily entitled “The DBs,” I frothed: “The 2016 is a fantastic, sublime and at times entrancing vintage.” I have found no reason to alter that view a few months later. As the wines mature in bottle, lined up in regimented peer groups, each has embarked upon its own evolution at a different pace, further skewed by the individual performance of that bottle on that day. (If Southwold proves one thing year after year, it’s that there is always some variation from one bottle to another.)

A trend that now borders on dogma is for contemporary Bordeaux to cater – or, some might pejoratively contend, to kowtow – to consumers no longer predisposed to cellar wines over many years until they reach their drinking plateaus. Various techniques enable a winemaker to render a newborn wine more approachable than in the past, accentuating the aromatics and softening tannins via gentler and/or shorter extractions. The watchword is “infusion,” to the point where I sometimes wonder whether I am reviewing wine or artisan tea.

However, you cannot change the DNA of Bordeaux wines. Their innate propensity to shut down for a period at different phases is one that cannot be completely controlled; no matter how disciplined the parents, a willful child sometimes acts out. If they want to go in the corner and sulk, then child and wine alike will do precisely that. Doubtless to the chagrin of their respective winemakers, this tasting revealed a number of wines that appear to be closing up a few months after bottling. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Time can sculpt wine into a profound entity... if given the chance. It’s as if some of these 2016s slipped their leash, laughing at their architects back in the winery who thought they had crafted a wine that consumers can drink whenever they please. It never quite works out that way. This is why you see plenty of scores with plus signs in this report, signifying those that deserve a good old traditional cellar.

So let us zone in on specific appellations.

Saint-Estèphe is clearly a strong appellation in 2016, probably better than 2015, though do not overlook the stellar 2014s, which would make a better comparison. The headliner was always going to be the 2016 Cos d’Estournel, which shone brilliantly in barrel and just after bottling. I found the wine had clammed up in recent months, which is probably why in the blind tasting it did not show its true colors. Wishing to double-check, the estate sent a bottle that was afforded three hours’ decanting and then monitored over the next 24 hours. This unveiled that perfect wine, one that epitomizes how Bordeaux has changed in recent years. It is no tannic behemoth or high-octane, high-alcohol Cos d’Estournel; rather, its breeding and sophistication derive from ultra-fine tannins, precision and purity of fruit. It needed exposure to air to manifest its velvet texture and the peacock’s tail on the finish. Its rival Montrose is also a stellar wine, presenting a pixelated bouquet that in the blind tasting was more immediate and obvious than that of Cos d’Estournel, displaying awesome persistence and surfeit with charm. Perhaps the one difference with respect to this bottle was the “airy” nature of a bouquet that came across as more floral than I remember.

But this northerly appellation is more than these two titans. Readers of my recent article on Meyney will know that I appreciate how this estate’s wines have improved in recent years, and their 2016 is, frankly, only a couple of steps behind. Likewise, I was hugely impressed with the showing of Lafon-Rochet. Proprietor Basile Tesseron is pushing his wine ever forward and his 2016 is unquestionably one of the best wines the estate has ever produced. Even Cos-Labory, which languishes in the shadow of its neighbor, indicates that finally... finally... they are making wines worthy of their terroir. Calon-Ségur also showed exceptionally well, a concentrated wine with an intoxicating bouquet and a sense of completeness. Chapeau, winemaker Vincent Millet! There are other hidden gems, such as Tronquoy-Lalande, another 2016 that deserves bottle age.

The 2016 First Growths gathered together to see who is fairest of them all. Of course, it might not be one of them.

Moving across the border to Pauillac, predictably there is a strong set of wines where, wishing no disrespect, even the second label of Croizet-Bages has something to offer. The 2016 Mouton-Rothschild came up trumps with a stunning wine that flirts with perfection (and is perhaps destined to be Philippe Dhalluin’s finest achievement, since he announced his retirement at the end of the year; he will be missed). It showed slightly better than the 2016 Latour on this occasion, although that First Growth always requires longer bottle age. Do not ignore the Les Forts de Latour, either, because as usual, intermingling among Grand Vins, it didn’t just hold its own but bettered many. Other wines that performed brilliantly were the fabulous 2016 Lynch-Bages and Grand Puy-Lacoste, which achieve First Growth quality in all but name. Surprises? The 2016 Haut-Batailley is the vintage that fell between the cracks. Born during the handover from the Borie family to the Cazes family, it was never shown in barrel and was finally released a few months after bottling. I don’t know which family to congratulate, as it’s like a baby being passed from one parent to the other. Maybe both? Pontet Canet split opinions, and readers should note that this was one instance where the bottle did not come from the château. My glowing reviews prove how much I loved it both out of barrel and then just after bottling, yet even blind, I could not ignore the savory, almost garrigue-like nose and plush tannins that render it a lavish and accessible Pauillac. It just missed typicité, which is made conspicuous in a peer-group tasting. I see its attraction, for sure, but I wonder where it will go from here and whether there is much bottle variation.

As you would expect, Saint-Julien is as consistent as the current championship-winning Liverpool football team, despite a misfiring Beychevelle that may well have been an errant bottle, since it showed differently than one poured at the property several weeks later. Ducru-Beaucaillou and Léoville–Las Cases are both stellar, and yet again, the tough blind tasting conditions attest to the quality of siblings Saint-Pierre and Gloria, both of which punch well above reputation and price point. Don’t forget Lagrange, either. This consistent performer produces a large quantity of excellent wine that continues to be sold at consumer-friendly prices. What’s not to like? (Readers can expect a comprehensive vertical in the coming weeks.) One wine that did not quite meet my expectations was the 2016 Langoa-Barton, which was very generous and atypically opulent, yet missed the élan of its peers. Talbot is very fine and noble, though it lacks a bit of substance and persistence; both of these shortcomings are being addressed by estate director Jean-Michel Laporte, who was appointed in 2018. That said, it has a sense of classicism that many enjoy. 

The appellation of Margaux is perhaps less consistent than appellations further north, though it is not without gems. Predictably, the 2016 Château Margaux is a testament to the late, great Paul Pontallier, a seamless wine that delivers a subtle bitter edge on the finish. Unfortunately, the Pavillon Rouge was corked (just in case you thought that scourge had gone away). The First Growth is neck and neck with a fabulous 2016 Palmer that winemaker Thomas Duroux fashioned in a comparatively opulent style; it is blessed with extraordinary persistence. Snapping at their heels is an elegant, refined Rauzan-Ségla cloaked in cashmere tannins and beguiling harmony. Margaux is also home to several estates that have really upped their game in recent years. Here I am talking about the likes of Cantenac Brown, d’Issan and Dauzac, the latter of which could legitimately claim to be one of the best values on the Left Bank. Even perennial underachiever Rauzan-Gassies produced a half-decent 2016 with Pauillac-like tendencies. Given its status, it should aspire to greater things, but this was the best example that I have encountered.

Two flights of mainly Pessac-Léognan dry whites kicked off Southwold this year. Many Bordeaux lovers are indifferent to this category, perhaps because you never quite know what to expect when you open a bottle. For every excellent Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc, Gazin-Rocquencourt Blanc or Malartic-Lagravière Blanc, there is a Haut-Bergey Blanc, a Carbonnieux Blanc or even a perplexing Haut-Brion Blanc that leaves you scratching your head – and the latter is not cheap. I must confess that while I enjoy dry white Bordeaux, I rarely buy or serve it. Still, traditional red producers are dabbling in white, not least Cheval Blanc, that recently introduced pure Sauvignon Blanc from adjoining vines labeled under Le Petit Cheval Blanc showed particularly well, though the price tag will surely put off many potential buyers.

Some of the whites’ inconsistency crept into the reds; for example, the 2016 La Louvière continues to display a nagging greenness on the finish. Here is where blind tasting is so useful: vindicating an observation that was noted in sighted bottles. Of course, the greenness might ebb away with time. The 2016 Haut-Brion was another that I felt is closing down a little and, as I mention in the tasting note, I have encountered better examples in the past. Elsewhere, Smith Haut-Lafitte continues its purple patch with an outstanding Grand Vin, while head winemaker Guillaume Pouthier’s revolution at Les Carmes Haut-Brion, not least his unorthodox but undeniably successful introduction of stems, resulted in a brilliant 2016 that, despite innovative approaches, manages to convey a sense of classicism. Could I detect the stems in the wine? Not really. But clearly they add a certain je ne sais quoi, as they can in great Burgundy.

There is always the temptation to take the dregs and concoct a super-cuvée.

Pomerol showed its class with a raft of exquisite 2016s, though again, some of the top wines are closing their shutters, namely La Conseillante, Trotanoy and Petrus. These are naturally long-lived wines and they seem to be saying to the wine lover, “Hold your horses – show some patience.” One of the top performers turned out to be La Violette, owned by the late Catherine Père-Vergé and now run by her son, Henri Parent. I must admit, I used to find the wine garish and overly tailored in the winery; however, this 2016 is exquisite, with its trademark satin texture, otherworldly balance and – in a new development – a sense of tenderness on the finish. It is the best La Violette I have ever tasted. The 2016 Lafleur is another monumental Pomerol. Team Guinaudeau crafted a wine with a profoundly complex, almost Burgundy-inspired nose and a structured palate that is built around their Cabernet Franc, so that I was left guessing whether it might be either Lafleur or Figeac. As always, this Lafleur deserves considerable time in the cellar. On the subject of wines that cost a pretty penny, Jacques Thienpont’s Le Pin was  fresh and lithe, with a little more structure on the finish compared to recent vintages. It appears to be improving in bottle and could turn out to be this icon’s benchmark release. Then there is its “cousin” next door, the astounding Vieux Château Certan, clearly one of the wines of the vintage. Alexandre and Guillaume Thienpont did not put a foot wrong this season. The finish is so pixelated and crystalline that it could bring you to tears, so have a handkerchief handy. 

There were several flights from Saint-Émilion that were studded with exceptional 2016s. There were predictable fabulous showings from Ausone and Cheval Blanc, even if the former needed 10–15 minutes to really open up and reveal its refined tannins and fleshy texture, not unlike Lafleur, and almost Burgundy-like on the finish. These days its price is beyond the means of most of us, but the second wine, Chapelle d’Ausone, is stunning and arguably offers better value for money. Bélair-Monange continues to reinstate itself as one of the appellation’s premier estates, propelled by owners Ets. J-P Moueix. The 2016 Figeac has immense pedigree, though like Canon, it may be starting to close down, so either commit infanticide or (preferably) afford it a decade down in a nice cool cellar. Pavie was powerful, almost decadent on the nose compared to the sophisticated Angélus, and typically fleshy, with a wonderful spiciness coming through toward the finish, thanks to the higher proportion of Cabernet compared to vintages of 15–20 years ago. Valandraud also impressed; Jean-Luc Thunevin’s jewel is enjoying a very strong run in recent years, as precise as a Swiss watch on both nose and palate. Likewise, the second wine, Virginie de Valandraud, could challenge many of the more expensive Grand Crus of the appellation.

Saint-Émilion has a lot to offer away from the banner names. Trotte Vieille is beginning to realize its potential and felt pliant and silky, while Villemaurine is similarly lithe and supple, with a caressing long finish. Other commendable wines include La Gaffelière, Grand-Mayne, Faugères and Clos Fourtet, to name but a few. Troplong-Mondot is an interesting one. This was the last vintage under former owner Xavier Pariente and consultant Jean-Phillipe Fort (for Michel Rolland) before its sale to the SCOR insurance company. I described the 2016 as a bit of a “bruiser” out of barrel and everything tasted a bit “Troplong” 24 hours after. Newly installed estate director Aymeric de Gironde and new consultant Thomas Duclos are molding Troplong-Mondot in a more terroir-driven and less hedonistic fashion. While I prefer their current direction, I still enjoyed the 2016 made in the more bombastic “old style,” even though I observed overripe prune and date aromas on the nose and a rather brutish finish. This wine is a bit like heavy metal, in the sense that I abide it in small doses. The prospect of drinking an entire bottle is less appealing as the high alcohol begins to kick in.

A good rather than great showing of 2016 Sauternes – not enough showstoppers.

Let’s finish with the Sauternes 2016s, since this publication has not reviewed them in bottle yet. Like much of Bordeaux, Sauternes was deluged with rain in the first half of the year, before a dry, hot summer. Of course, the vital ingredient in the formation of pourriture noble is rain. Light showers on  September 13 were a start, but winegrowers had to wait for 40mm on September 29–30 and more showers on October 10 to fire the noble rot starting gun. Hence the so-called “magic week” of picking was between October 17 and 25, though some tries through the vines extended until early November, botrytis formation having been retarded by the cool nights.

Out of barrel, I felt that the 2016 Sauternes were good, although not of the same caliber as either 2014 or 2015 due to the absence of really breathtaking wines. That was borne out by this tasting in bottle, for while there are excellent sweet wines from the likes of Climens, La Tour Blanche, de Fargues and Doisy-Daëne, others were decent enough but not thrilling. The d’Yquem did not stand out from the pack on this occasion, as I mention in my note, possibly because it is a comparatively understated, subtle Sauternes that was outshone by some of the more extrovert wines.

Final Thoughts

The Southwold tasting this year confirmed two things. Firstly, it is a great vintage, an epochal growing season; one that serves as a template for subsequent vintages. You often hear the question, “But is it as good as the 2016?” whenever the new crop of Bordeaux wines are assessed. Although it does belong within the pantheon of revered vintages, 2016 is cut from a different cloth than 2005, 2009 and 2010. The numerous occasions when I have had the opportunity to directly compare 2010 and 2016 highlight the conspicuous stylistic differences between the two. The former is built around a tannic backbone, layers of fruit and comparatively high alcohol, and the latter is much more about purity, pitch-perfect acidity and, especially, a cashmere texture. Perusing my tasting notes, the words “silky” and “harmonious” appear consistently. It’s this texture that renders the wines much more approachable than previous vintages, though it is said that both the 1959 and 1982 could be enjoyed from a young age, and it was the latter’s deceptive longevity that led to the eminence of one Robert Parker.

The mass of empties following two-and-a-bit days of rigorous tasting. 

But it does beg the question: What are the 2016s’ shelf lives? The fact that some appear to be closing down could be interpreted as an omen that, like all bona fide great vintages, they will offer 20 or 30 years’ drinking pleasure and probably more, depending on your patience. I believe we will witness a bifurcation between those that will remain open and others that will close up for a period of time. How long or short that period will be remains to be seen. 

The other takeaway from the tasting was that no vintage is beyond fault. It is never the case that a vintage guarantees the quality of contents inside the bottle. You name it, 1945, 1961 and definitely 1982 are all great years with disappointing wines. Taste, say, d’Issan, Margaux and Pichon-Baron if you don’t believe me. The difference nowadays is that unlike those aforementioned years, practically every estate has modernized and now practices more exacting vineyard husbandry, harvest, vinification and maturation. Whereas previous vintages varied from château to château, subject to the means at their disposal, that is no longer the case. In one sense, restricting the purview to the top 150–200 wines, things have evened up and there is not such a chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It is why many Bordeaux estates love and loathe blind tastings; they can either confirm the pedigree of a wine or question it. The more your label is esteemed, the more you have to lose. The Southwold results go far in securing the reputation of the top names, but also demonstrate that there are plenty of challengers snapping at their heels, wines that punch above their reputation, mocking the 1855 classification and the prices asked for some releases.

The true litmus test for 2016 and any Bordeaux vintage will be at the 10-year stage, but for now this iconic growing season is certainly bejeweled with fabulous wines that intermittently represent a château’s zenith. Does it represent Bordeaux at its peak, or is it a marker that future vintages must surpass in order to continue the momentum? It certainly represents a reconfiguration of Bordeaux‘s aspirations, and a reprioritizing of the virtues that define great wine.

Finally, if it is true that peaks tend toward the middle of the decade, then would anyone like to pay in advance for the 2025s? They are going to be amazing.

(Thanks must go to Bill Blatch for the Herculean task of collecting and transporting samples, and keeping us in order.)

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