The annual Southwold-on-Thames tastings were exceptional this year. Here we all are, hard at work, overlooked by François Mitjavile of Ch Tertre Roteboeuf. A slightly shorter version of this paean of praise is published by the Financial Times. Links to my 250+ tasting notes are in this guide to Bordeaux 2016 coverage.
I have just had the pleasure of wallowing in the best Bordeaux vintage I will probably ever taste: 2016. It’s more consistent than 2015, as tannic as 2010 but with riper tannins, much more precise than 2009, and just more everything than most vintages.
Yes, I tasted the vintage out of barrel during the en primeur campaign back in spring 2017 but that was when the wines were only a few months old. And en primeur samples give only the most approximate idea of what the wines will eventually be like.
I much prefer the annual Southwold-on-Thames assessment of Bordeaux vintages when they are three and a bit years old and have settled down in bottle. The samples are kindly donated by the châteaux and driven across the Channel by veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch, who supervises the three-day blind tasting at fine-wine traders Farr Vintners’ Thames-side offices in Wandsworth. Attended by around 20 media and merchants, it was originally held every January in Southwold. Hence the name.
The group (all male except for me) are usually hyper-critical, with not so sotto voce disparaging comments resonating round the long table at which we taste. But this year the quality of the wine seemed to stun my fellow tasters into admiring silence. Even the most modest St-Émilions, often the butt of deprecation in the past, elicited some surprised enthusiasm.
We spent the first afternoon tasting the whites, which admittedly were not the stars of the 264 wines we assessed. The summer was too hot and dry to produce seriously refreshing dry whites, some (but by no means all) of which seemed decidedly old-fashioned, as though they had been made simply to give proprietors something to serve with the first course. The sweet whites were notably variable: some of the less successful ones simply sugary and sticky; but the best so glorious that it seems shocking how difficult they are to sell. (During the tasting most of us round the table received Farr’s general mailout offering Ch d’Yquem 2005 at a 40% discount.)
After the long, hot summer of 2016, a thundery storm on 13 September kick-started the red wine grape ripening process and seems to have produced the magic, and rare, combination of quality and quantity. The wines are delightfully ripe, which made them a pleasure to taste even at this young stage, but also have an admirable spine of acidity and tannin which should stand them in good stead for the long-term ageing that is the hallmark of top-quality red bordeaux.
If the lesser St-Émilions with which we started our second day of blind tasting had a fault at this stage it was that the acidity was a little too prominent. But the days of over-extraction and formulaic winemaking with an emphasis on oak and alcohol in St-Émilion are well and truly over. The 2016s confirmed the impression given by the 2015s from this, the most extensive appellation on the right bank of the Gironde. And some of the wines of Castillon, effectively an eastern extension of St-Émilion, well withstood comparison with their more famous neighbours when tasted blind.
The Pomerols verged from less famous names slightly marred by underripe, drying tannins to some of the finest, noblest wines of the vintage.
The last day of the tasting started with an array of second wines of Pauillac châteaux, those effectively made from what failed to make the grade for the grand vin. Some were cleverly clearly fashioned deliberately to be drunk relatively young, other blends obviously made up of some of the less ripe lots of fruit. One of the old hands, Sebastian Payne of The Wine Society, muttered about these latter wines, ‘this is how all red bordeaux used to taste’. It is certainly true that, thanks to dramatic improvements in vine-growing and winemaking in Bordeaux, together with much stricter selection, which means that only the finest fruit goes into the grand vin, the better second wines can be some of Bordeaux’s better buys.
We then progressed to the Big Four – St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux, the famous communes of the Médoc on the left bank of the Gironde. And what a joy it was. Some tasters found the tannins of the St-Estèphes a bit much, but I absolutely loved them. These were wines that truly expressed the rigour and stoniness of the appellation but all of it overlaid with fine, fully ripe, subtle fruit. And the array also included one of the most notable bargains of the vintage: Ch Meyney was my favourite as well as the joint group favourite St-Estèphe with the widely admired Ch Calon-Ségur, outscoring the traditional titans of the commune Chx Montrose and Cos d’Estournel.
The St-Juliens, as always well-mannered and well-balanced, formed a bridge between this demanding tasting and the Pauillacs. All three Léovilles shone, as well they might, with Poyferré subtler than it has been in the past. Ch Léoville Barton, often uncompromising in youth, was outscored by its more charming stablemate Ch Langoa Barton. 2016 was an excellent vintage for Ch Léoville Las Cases, which in some years has been just a bit too rigid.
The Pauillacs I found more variable than some other appellations, but perhaps that’s not so surprising when the commune is home to three of Bordeaux’s most expensive wines, three first growths, as well as such underperformers as Ch Croizet-Bages. The two Pichons and Les Forts de Latour, the glamorous second wine of first growth Ch Latour, all earned a topnotch score of 18 out of 20 from me, with Ch Grand Puy Lacoste, the group favourite, just half a point less on my scoreboard. All three of the first growths were superb, with Ch Mouton (just) my favourite in this particular tasting. Although the fact that we opened a second bottle of Ch Lafite because of a very slight perceived tartness on the finish of this first growth shows just how much close scrutiny is involved in the Southwold tasting.
As for the Margaux wines, hardly surprisingly Ch Palmer and Ch Margaux itself, another Médoc first growth, were quite outstanding. How blessed we were.
But perhaps the most thrilling aspect of 2016 for this value-conscious northerner is that, as was clear even at the en primeur stage, the vintage is so consistent that there are many good wines in the lower ranks. I have highlighted some of the better-value options below.
2016 Bordeaux bargains
Pre-tax prices per full 75-cl bottle unless otherwise stated
Ch Bouscaut Blanc, Pessac-Léognan
£25 Fine + Rare
Ch Doisy-Védrines, Sauternes
£12.08 per half Davy’s, £26.67 The Wine Society
Côte de Baleau, St-Émilion
£20.83 The Wine Society
£10.42 BI Wines
La Chenade, Lalande de Pomerol
£20.79 Lea & Sandeman
Cruzelles, Lalande de Pomerol
£18.33 R&B Wines, £210 a dozen Farr Vintners
Ch Olivier, Pessac-Léognan
£32.50 inc tax Tanners
Ch Le Crock, St-Estèphe
Ch Capbern, St-Estèphe
£16.67 Justerini & Brooks, £25 inc tax Sunday Times Wine Club, £180 a dozen Farr Vintners
Ch Meyney, St-Estèphe
£21.75 Grand Vin Wine Merchants, £39 inc tax Cambridge Wine Merchants
Ségla de Rauzan Ségla, Margaux
Not yet released (2015 is about £27 a bottle in bond)