Awful Weather in Burgundy, But Some Awesome Wines from 2016

Usually it is perfect weather during the growing season that results in exceptional wines.  Think 2005, 2009 or 2015 in Burgundy.  Those “ideal weather” vintages produced excellent wines almost across the board.  In 2016, the capriciousness of Nature was apparent:  Hail ravaged some vineyards, destroying the entire crop, but leaving a neighboring vineyard untouched.   Unusual wind currents resulted in frost damage to usually frost-averse vineyards, while some frost-prone vineyards did not suffer.  The major problems with the 2016 Burgundies are small quantities and high prices, not the quality, the weather notwithstanding.

The weather during the 2016 growing season sounded like Biblical plagues–frost, more frost, hail, more hail, coulure (shatter), mildew, and, paradoxically, sunburn of the grapes.  You name it, it occurred in Burgundy in 2016.  But despite awful weather that forced some producers, such as Château de Raousset in Beaujolais, to produce no wine at all, other Burgundy producers made some fabulous ones.

Jean-Nicolas Méo, head of one of Burgundy’s finest domains, showed me on a map how Nuits St. Georges and Vosne-Romanée were hit by a heavy frost.  The wind that came from above Chambolle-Musigny, swept down and across the mid-slopes affecting premier and grand cru vineyards, instead of the usual frost-prone lower levels.  He remarked that the demarcation line was so stark it was as though it had been cut by a knife: “The first five rows would be fine, and then below would be devastation.”

Ghislaine Barthod, who normally makes nine premier cru wines from her vineyards in Chambolle-Musigny and is my candidate for Queen of that village because of the precision of her wines, lost 60 percent of her crop in 2016.  The low volumes forced her to have her barrel maker create special-sized barrels instead of the usual 228-liter ones. But even with specially tailored barrels, she couldn’t make enough wine from two of her premier cru vineyards, Châtelots and Aux Combottes, to bottle them separately.  She opted to declassify what little she had into her village wine, which probably explains why her 2016 village Chambolle is so stunning.

The famed grand cru vineyard Le Montrachet was severely affected, forcing six producers, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Guy Amiot et Fils, Domaine Lamy-Pillot and Domaine Fleurot Larose, to pool their grapes and co-vinify them, producing only two 228-liter barrels of wine in total, according to a report from Decanter.

The vagaries of the weather meant that the wines are even more inconsistent than normal for Burgundy.  Frédéric Barnier, the talented winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot summed it up, “You need to taste.”  There are no generalizations for this vintage.  None.  There was inconsistency even in cellars of producers’ whose wines I usually adore across the board.  Natalie Langoureau, from the eponymous superb domain based in St Aubin, echoed Barnier telling me that 2016 was a heterogeneous vintage “that you must taste.”

Barnier explained that Pinot Noir has a narrow window for making top quality wine in terms of yield:  Too high a crop and the wine will be vapid, but, contrary to the popular notion that lower yields are always better, too low a yield results in unbalanced wines.  As Barnier explains it, with very low yields, the ratio of skins to juice is too high, which means that the tannins stand out and result in unbalanced wine.  Indeed, when tasting in cellars in November of 2017, I could almost predict the yield by assessing the suaveness of the tannins.  Very low yields resulted in wines with coarse angular tannins, whereas those plots where the yields were normal produced wines with suaveness and plushness.

Adding to the inconsistency of the wines was the date growers decided to harvest.  Those who picked too early, fearful of losing more of the already diminished crop, captured a low yield of, in many cases, still-unripe grapes, imparting a “green quality” to the wines.  Barnier was particularly proud that Jadot waited until the end of September to harvest, noting that they were the last to harvest in some villages.

My assessment of the 2016 Burgundies is based on tasting barrel samples in Burgundy in November 2017 and then a combination of bottled wines and more barrel (or tank) samples in March 2018. With rare exceptions–Ghislaine Barthod and Méo-Camuzet whose 2016s were brilliant across the board, spring to mind–this is not a vintage in which you buy futures.  Of course, with tiny quantities, you risk not being able to buy the wines you want, but better that than being disappointed with what you bought.  Below is a smattering of suggestions.  More coming in future columns.  But remember Barnier’s advice, “You need to taste.”

Despite widespread frost and dramatic loss of vines in Marsannay, Domaine Bart turned out some superb wines.  Look for their balanced 2016 Marsannay from three vineyards “Longeroies,” “Champ Salomon,” and “Clos du Roy,” in line to be awarded premier cru status.  Since they are still officially village wines and from the least prestigious village in the Côte de Nuits, they should be very well priced.

Stéphane Magnien (no relation to Michel or Frédéric Magnien) is a top grower in Morey-St. Denis, a village spared by the frost in 2016.  His wines, while not inexpensive–this is, after all, the Côte de Nuits–provide more bang for the buck than most. His 2016 Morey-St. Denis 1er Cru ‘Les Façonnières’ delivers firm, but suave tannins supporting deep black cherry-like fruit.  For those with far deeper pockets, his 2016 Clos St. Denis is sensational. Give them five to 10 years of cellaring.

In Pommard, Domaine Parent, a superstar in that appellation, succeeded (no surprise) with their 2016s.  Their Pommard Chaponnières, Pommard Epenots and Corton Rénardes have a balance, precision, and suaveness that belies the disastrous weather of the vintage.  These reds will need a decade of bottle age to hit their stride.  Although best known for their reds, don’t overlook the 2016 whites from Domaine Parent.  Their creamy Bourgogne Blanc, with Chardonnay prominently displayed on the label, and lively Monthélie (blanc) are worth a search.  Parent’s 2016 Corton Blanc, which Anne Parent says she could label as Corton-Charlemagne, but opts not to because it is so distinctive, tasted from barrel, was staggeringly good, with a mouth filling complexity coupled with vivacity.

In Santenay, a sleepy village at the southern end of the Côte de Beaune, Maison Jessiaume continues to make enormous strides with their 2016s since the team of Megan McClune, Director, and William Waterkyn, winemaker and vineyard manager, took over the reins in 2013. Their 2016s are extraordinarily graceful, especially for Santenay, where gracefulness is not the commune’s chief attribute.  Their Santenay 1er Cru, La Comme and their 1er Cru, Les Gravières both display a charming rusticity combined with lovely structure, while the latter delivers an unexpected complexity.  The 2016 Les Gravières Blanc has a sophistication rarely seen in white wine from Santenay.  Jessiaume is a good name to remember because the prices have not caught up to the newly found quality.  But they will.

The real values in 2016 come from the extremes of Burgundy–Chablis in the north and the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, two areas that I will save for another article, in the south.  The Chablis in general are a beguiling combination between the fleshy 2015s and the taut 2014s, which makes them a delight to drink now and over the next several years.

Robert Whitley, my colleague here at WineReviewOnline, has already recommended a bevy of 2016 village Chablis.  The village Chablis in 2016 offer some great values, as he points out.  I am also enthusiastic about the premier cru wines from Chablis because the step up in quality usually exceeds the step up in price.

Look for Domaine Pinson’s energetic and penetrating Chablis Mont de Milieu or their graceful Chablis Montmains.  Laurent Pinson describes 2016 as “a classic year” for them.

Domaine de L’Enclos may be a new name in Chablis, but it is owned by Damien Bouchard and family (no relationship to Bouchard Père et Fils or Bouchard Ainé located in Beaune) who made wonderful wines under the name Pascal Bouchard for years.  They recently sold the Pascal Bouchard label, but kept the vineyards–Damien commenting with a laugh, “We’re French, but we’re not stupid”–and are making terrifically energetic and focused Chablis.  Look for their 2016 Beauroy, Vau de Vay or their exceptional Vaudésir.

Also new in Chablis, with the 2015 vintage, is a wine from Domaine Jean-Hugues et Guilhem Goisot, who make absolutely stunning wines from appellations around Chablis, such as Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre and St. Bris, unfamiliar to most.  With the 2015 vintage, they made a village Chablis, labeled Faucertaine, from vines that they acquired upon the death of a family member.  The 2015 version was riveting and I can’t wait to taste the 2016 and beyond.  If you like clean, mineral-y, lively white wines and you see their name on a label–any label, buy it.

Simonnet-Febvre’s racy and cutting style is well suited to the 2016 vintage as their gorgeous Fourchaume shows. Their wines are always well-priced, so this one’s worth tracking down.  Speaking of Fourchaume, the team of Isabelle et Denis Pommier made an energetic and graceful version as well as a laser-focused Côte de Léchet.

Domaine Gerard Tremblay made a wide range of successful wines in 2016 from their racy Côte de Léchet to a refined Montmains and floral and rich Fourchaume that retains marvelous energy.  The star of their line-up is, not surprisingly, a vivacious and powerful, yet balanced, Vaudésir.

Though not yet available in the U.S., the Chablis, especially their Fourchaume, from Domaine Yvon et Laurent Vocoret’s (no relation to Domaine Vocoret, whose wines are available in the U.S.), demands attention.  Laurent reports that they lost half their crop to hail in 2016.  But what remained was splendid.  Their 2016 Fourchaume is more mineral-y and less flowery than many.  With more of a spine, it’s invigorating.  They also produce a special bottling of Fourchaume, called Esquisse, from vines planted in 1979.  The 2013 Esquisse was aptly named given its penetrating angularity and seemingly never-ending finish. With luck, their wines will soon appear on our shores.

I’ll be reviewing more 2016s Burgundies once more of them are in bottle.

*       *       *

E-mail me your thoughts about Burgundy in general or the 2016 vintage in specific at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 28, 2018