The wines of Bordeaux are widely accepted as being among the world’s finest, most popular and, in some cases, also the most expensive. Last week, I attended the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB) tasting in San Francisco where about 100 of Bordeaux’s finest châteaux, representing all of the appellation’s most prestigious growing areas, poured their treasured wines from the superb 2016 vintage to the trade and press.
Before discussing the highly acclaimed 2016 vintage of Bordeaux, I’d like to take a brief look back at its history, which spans two millennia.
Vines were first planted in Roman times, where for several centuries the wines were mainly for domestic consumption and quenching the soldiers’ thirst. After the Roman Empire fell, the vineyards suffered many set-backs continuing through the 5th Century when things began to stabilize under Frankish rule and remained stable for the next several centuries.
The marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-12th century opened the region to the English market and eventually to the world stage. Trade with England became the foundation of Bordeaux exports until the outbreak of The Hundred Years’ War between France and England in 1337 lasting to 1453, when France reconquered the region and world trade resumed.
Bordeaux is France’s largest wine-producing area, and the city of Bordeaux is second only to Paris as the country’s most visited. Separating its two faces is the Gironde River where soil type, elevation and exposure have over the centuries dictated the preferred varietals to insure optimal quality.
On the Right Bank you’ll find the celebrated areas of St. Emillion and Pomerol where Cabernet Franc and Merlot form the matrix. On the Left Bank lies the Médoc with its several highly esteemed appellations and an emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon.
To the south of the city and still on the Left Bank, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon become more equal partners in the Graves and Pessac-Léognan for the reds with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion for the highly acclaimed whites. And further south the same white varietals find a home for the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
I’ve attended the UGCB tastings for the last several years and observed how the vintages of 2014, 2015 and 2016 have created a trifecta of excellence despite variable growing conditions experienced in each year that are reflected in the finished wines. All three are classic vintages in many ways, with 2014 exhibiting elegance and grace. 2015 was more powerful and structurally complete showing great depth. 2016 took the components of the prior year a notch higher with increased density, precise acid balance and a more complete textural feel.
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The UGCB tastings are always organized by appellation within Bordeaux and feature a broad range of producers participating from each. In this way, the taster is able to appreciate not only the wine from a specific châteaux but also experience the character of the appellation. The individual character of each was clearly on display as I proceeded through the tasting with the exception of just a few wines that leaned more toward ripeness, extract and oak over a sense of place found in the majority.
My notes are filled with descriptors such as bold fruit and tannin, power, balance, structure, density, bright acidity, elegance and length on the finish. I found stars in all appellations along with a few disappointments in each as well.
Based on the more than 60 wines I sampled, those of the Left Bank displayed a somewhat higher level of quality and appeal than those of the Right Bank that had a slight edge in 2015. Pomerol exhibited shear power, as seen with Le Bon Pasteur. While St. Emillion was more on the graceful feminine side and led by La Gaffelière and Pavie Macquin.
In the Left Bank’s Médoc, the wines of Margaux were the stars of the show with examples from Brane-Cantenac (also a standout in 2015), Giscours and Rauzan-Segla leading the way. Once again, Pauillac was just a step behind with exceptional offerings from Lynch-Bages, Pichon Baron and Pichon Lelande. Saint-Estèphe, lead by Phélan-Ségur, displayed its elegant minerality while St. Julien offered promise, but fell a bit short when compared to its 2015 showing.
Pessac-Léognan was outstanding in the 2015 tasting but disappointing for 2016. The reds lacked the depth and complexity seen elsewhere but could improve with time in the bottle. Last year I found the whites of Pessac-Léognan in the top category for 2015 with intense minerality, bright citrus and plush white pitted fruit characteristics. This year, however, I found them somewhat disappointing in comparison and below my expectations.
On the sweet side, the wines of Sauternes and Barsac were stellar. The cooler summer helped maintain bright acidity and lent a fresh complexity to the sensual honeyed notes on the nose and palate. The category showed even better than the exceptional 2015s and are destined for a bright future. On top of my list was the 2016 Lafaurie-Peyraguey that may also have been my favorite of the entire tasting.
Bordeaux 2016 is considered by many at the top of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 trifecta of collectibles and definitely a vintage to appreciate. Three back-to-back-to-back vintages of this quality have not been seen in Bordeaux since the run of 1988, 1989 and 1990. So, seize the moment by enjoying these magnificent wines now and into the future.