The 2016 vintage: first impressions

Tim Sykes

Tim Sykes summarises news of the 2016 vintage from across the wine world

At the beginning of the year many of our buyers are out on the road visiting key growers to make up blends of some of our most popular wines and snap up the best barrels and vats before others get there! This is often a chance to try the the first of the whites from the new vintage and assess quality and discuss the harvest with the growers.

The following notes are a summary of early feedback from the field mostly gathered shortly after the harvest. There will be more detail in the Buyers Regional Reports which will be updated when we publish our Annual Review later this spring.

If you enjoy reading about our buyers' wine trips, you can keep up with the news from the field in our Travels in Wine™ stories.

Bordeaux: a complicated but promising vintage & excellent Sauternes

A complicated growing season to manage, yet early indications are promising. Winter and spring were mild and damp, with mildew a constant threat; miraculously, flowering was uniform.

Summer was hot and very dry, with virtually no rain falling between early June and mid-September. But thanks to some very welcome rain around 13th September, vines, for the most part, recovered. The sun shone for the rest of September and October with warm days and cool nights ensuring steady ripening and an unhurried harvest.

Dry whites, judging from early tastings, also look promising. Despite high yields, particularly in the Entre-Deux-Mers, the wines have balance and good aromatic expression. Sauternes looks to have produced another very good to excellent vintage with plenty of noble rot. This will be the first decent sized crop in Sauternes for several years, which is very good news for the financially embattled producers of the area.

> Read about Tim Sykes' experiences at harvest time in Bordeaux in his Travels in Wine article

Sauternes landscape

2016 will be the first decent-sized vintage for the embattled Sauternes producers for several years

Burgundy: low yields with prices likely to rise

2016 is low in quantity, about minus 40-50%, because of a severe frost and hard-to-contain mildew. Lovely weather in September and even October appears to have saved the day however, and grapes generally ripened well. Quality appears good where mildew was controlled. Frédéric Burrier in the Mâconnais reported healthy grapes, 12-13.2% alcohol with fresh acidities and good maturity in Beaujolais.

So early views are that 2016 could be very good for reds and good for whites,although we will reserve judgement until after the malolactic fermentations have taken place this spring.

Beaujolais - 2016 produced a large crop in the south but the Chriroubles crop was destroyed by hail and Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent were also badly hit by hail. Quality, however, looks promising.

Rhône: late sunshine saved the day!

The late August heatwave was the most remarkable feature of the 2016 vintage. Quite simply it changed the style and quality potential of the vintage at a stroke.

The 2016 cycle began with a mild winter and warm early spring. At one point the vine was two or three weeks ahead leaving some growers anticipating an early. That changed with much of spring being marked by relatively cool and wet weather. From looking like an early vintage, 2016 was now looking increasingly late. April saw storms of unusual violence hitting many areas. Hermitage for instance was devastated by hail on the 17th.

Poor weather continued into early summer with mildew a common threat, even observed in areas such as the Languedoc where it is rarely a problem. Flowering was generally successful: 2016 was looking bountiful; so now the prospect of ripening a large crop late was looking increasingly doubtful. 2016 is a vigneron's vintage where intervention in the vineyard was essential at all time. Even so, by early summer, pessimism reigned.

In July the weather seemed to normalise. But was it too late? What happened next was quite remarkable. From around the 15th of August there was an extended period of very hot and dry weather that lasted well into September. Conditions changed to one of drought but then that was relieved by rains in September, followed by more fine weather with cool nights and plenty of sunshine and this lasted by and large to the end of the vintage.

Marcel Orford-Williams talks more about the 2016 vintage in the Rhône in his Travels in Wine articles.

2016 vintage at Côtes-du-Rhône suppliers, Domaine Jaume

Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams and a team from The Wine Society witnessed the 2016 vintage first-hand at The Society’s Côtes-du-Rhône suppliers, Domaine Jaume

Southern France: uneven cropping but some really exciting wines

2016 will be a little uneven and that is due to crop levels and to hail damage. Pic Saint Loup had a disastrous vintage as hail hit just a few days before the harvest.

Drought was more marked in the deep south. At Ollieux-Romanis in Corbières, it rained on July 3rd and the next rain was not until October 13th. Lack of rain caused a serious reduction in the size of the crop, though the quality is very good.

Champagne: more weather extremes result in reduced crop

Champagne saw its fair share of extremes of weather in 2016 making it a difficult year for the region with frost, mildew, rain and then heat at harvest bringing the total damage to crop yields to 35%. Nicolas Jaeger (Chef de Cave at Alfred Gratien) summed it up accurately: 'une année bizarre'.

Though pinot noir and meunier yields are low, quality is good. Chardonnay unusually this year ripened later, and benign weather at the end of September resulted in some excellent chardonnay, in particular grand cru.

2016 is likely to produce inconsistencies in quality and therefore we will need to select with care.

Loire: all kinds of everything weather-wise

Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, the Loire was hit with pretty much everything in 2016; a wet early season, early spring frosts and cool temperatures at flowering affecting quantities in places. But luckily a fine end to a challenging season brought huge sighs of relief to growers who managed each new threat with vigilance and patience. Early tastings have shown good, clean fruit in an appealing style which should provide plenty of pleasure in the short to mid term.

Alsace: complicated growing season here too, but volumes look good

As in much of Europe, a complicated growing season, with early heavy rains and mildew pressure. Flowering was cool, damp and protracted followed at last by hot dry, even drought conditions for some, in August. Thankfully a little rain in the second half of September revived the vineyards just in time for the harvest. Careful picking was required and the very dry conditions did have a major impact in some vineyards with up to 20% of production lost. A healthy crop, but one with little noble rot.

Early indications are that 2016 will be a good year for the later ripening varieties: pinot gris, gewurztraminer and riesling, and overall better than 2014. Volumes also look pretty good, which is much needed after three short harvests.

Italy: excellent white, more complicated for the reds, but Barolo possibly outstanding

Harvest picking at Domaine Jaume Selection in the vineyards was essential for many in 2016

2016 in the main had a very good growing season but with some localized extreme weather conditions. Winter was mild with low rainfall, followed by a wet spring; a warm April encouraged good early growth. It was not, however, until mid to late June that the first warm to hot summer days arrived in the peninsula and lasted through most of July and August. However, hail and storms, with dramatic decreases in temperature, have had their effects locally.

Overall picture for whites is very positive with very good to excellent quality and quantity. Weeks of variable weather in September means the situation has been complicated for the reds.

Precocious red varieties such as primitivo should be of excellent quality. As for noble native varieties, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo and aglianico, conditions at the end of September and beginning of October were good with warm sunny days and cool fresh nights, providing excellent ripening conditions for later varieties. In the case of nebbiolo, especially in Barolo, there is great excitement over a potentially outstanding vintage.

Total production in Italy is predicted to be around 49 million hl which is slightly down on the 2015 vintage but generally within the norm, and set to be the world's largest producer in 2016.

Portugal: a mixed picture

The varied regions of Portugal mean there is no single picture at harvest time. As in other parts of Europe, a damp spring led to widespread mildew, cooler flowering than conditions than normal, reducing yield, and summer drought. This delayed ripening and the start of harvest, and meant that September rain was welcomed more warmly than usual. Volumes are down in some cases but not dramatically.

In the Douro the combination of heat and vine stress over the summer meant it was a challenging year for the DOC wines but extremely promising for Ports (see below).

In the Alentejo, harvest started about a fortnight later than usual with the double challenges of uneven ripeness and low acidity (in an area of high summer temperatures where acidity is generally not high anyway).

It will be a while before we can properly assess the reds but early samples of whites look extremely attractive.

Port: 2016 will produce some fine quality Ports

The 2016 viticultural year in the Douro started well with a wet winter, double the rainfall of the previous year. Unexpectedly wet weather carried on through April/May causing the river to be in full spring flood and unnavigable. June and July were normal summer weather, August unusually hot with rain at the month end. Some picking was delayed until late September and finished in the first week of October. Some very fine quality Ports will be produced.

A decision will be made on any declaration of the 2015 vintage at the end of February 2017 after the wine has spent a second winter in cask; but the jury is still out as to whether it will be a general or a single-quinta declaration. Whatever happens it looks like we'll have two good years to come for Late Bottle Vintage wines and Vintage Ports.

Spain: much-needed rain for Rioja

The season in Rioja was kind to the vines - after many years of drought, 2016 had good rainfall in winter, providing water reserves for vines to grow gradually through the dry and warm summer.

For the first time in years, harvest dates were in line with historical averages and grapes were picked ripe and healthy. Yields are quite high, so to maintain quality the best producers green harvested (thinned the crop by removing some bunches from the vine).

The quality and style of Rioja is reliant on blending the key grapes (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano) from different regions, so more than any other red wine, it is still too early to declare with confidence a rating on the vintage. A clearer picture will emerge once the wines have completed malolactic fermentation in spring 2017. Across Spain yields are slightly down on the average.

Rioja Alta Vista

For the first time in years, harvest dates in Rioja were nearer the norm

Germany: summer heatwave saved the day

As in so many areas, pessimism reigned supreme to the extent that we bought more of the outstanding 2015's to tide us over. Not a bad decision anyway. The summer heatwave certainly changed the look of the vintage from something bordering on the catastrophic to something quite good. The wines will be nothing like 2015, of course, but ripeness did come. The wines are on the light side, more Kabinett in style. Very little of the vintage has been tasted yet, but what we have seen seemed light, fruity and refreshing. Temperatures dropped sufficiently towards the end of the harvest for some eiswein to have been made.

Austria: good wines from proactive producers

2016 has been a tricky vintage for Austria, following the near perfect 2015. Frosts in April reduced the possible crop size by 20-30%. However Austrian winemakers are used to trickier harvests and the wines tasted so far are looking better than expected, with both the Exhibition and Society level wines signed off very easily.

New Zealand: increased yields & a classic Marlborough vintage

Overall, New Zealand's harvest totals were up 20-30% on the very small 2015 vintage, but did not exceed the record sized 2014. However, the additional yield in 2016 will help towards the shortfall created by a growing global demand and the smaller 2015 harvest.

In Marlborough the vintage went reasonably well, without any major climatic issues through spring and summer. Summer was reasonably dry allowing for good concentration and full ripeness, although rain at key times helped maintain vine growth and healthy yields. There was a little rain towards the end of harvest, but the producers that we work with were finished well before the trouble. 2016 is a classic Marlborough vintage, perhaps without the intensity of the 2015, but plenty of charm.

In Central Otago the vintage was warm and dry in comparison to 2015 and 2014. This has led to some excellent fully ripe pinot sites, and expectations are very high for the quality of this vintage. Hawke's Bay has had a successive run of very good vintages, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but 2016 was a little trickier. With slightly cooler than average conditions the best grapes came from the warmer, more protected sites.

> Many of the 2016 wines are already here and are looking good!

Marlborough, New Zealand landscape

2016 was a classic vintage for Marlborough with plenty of charm

Australia: good volumes & generally high quality

Overall 2016 was a positive vintage for Australia with good volumes, and generally high quality wines being produced.

In South Australia total yields were up on 2015, and the quality was good too. It was another dry warm vintage, but with some rain, with the use of irrigation saving the vines from undue stress. A strong vintage for grenache and shiraz, with examples in barrel looking very concentrated and well structured.

It was an early harvest in Victoria, following on from a very early bud break, with even most of the cabernet picked by mid-March. 2016 was warm but with relatively few heat spikes, allowing good fruit concentration to build.

2016 in New South Wales was a little trickier, with hail reducing crop levels and heavy January rain affecting harvest timings. This mostly affected the red varieties, whereas the quality of the semillon picked was very strong.

Tasmania also had a trickier 2016, with low yields and bush fires causing concern. A cool vintage too has highlighted the warmer more protected sites, but also allowed for great quality wines being produced in smaller volumes by more hands-on producers.

Finally in Western Australia, the winemakers had another pretty classic and trouble-free vintage. Yields continue to decrease slightly, and a little January rain may have affected some vineyards, but overall another good vintage.

South Africa: one of the earliest harvests on record

One of the earliest on record - indeed the earliest for many - and earlier even than the 2015 harvest, the 2016 growing season was marked by drought and by heat (especially in January). Indeed, those without access to water for irrigation purposes will have struggled to achieve both ripeness and rewarding yield in 2016, unless their soils were better able to handle the conditions.

Grapes tended to be smaller, which meant careful, gentler extraction of the reds was essential. Sorting was required to remove berries affected by millerandage or sunburn. Winemakers had the additional knock-on effect of naturally low acidity to grapple with too, as well as a rather drawn out (but compacted grape-wise) harvest towards the end. Upsides were the lack of disease pressure, and bush fires limited (albeit sometimes devastatingly) to the Simonsberg in Stellenbosch.

Cooler climate fruit was in greater demand than ever and the Cape South Coast regions were far less affected by the drought. In fact cooler regions look to have had a good to very good vintage.

Argentina: a coolish vintage

Despite a lot of rain at harvest, cool temperatures meant there was less botrytis in 2016 than in 2015. 2016 is one of the coolest years in recent times. The wines are very promising, fresh tasting, lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than in usual years.

Chile: a cool rather wet year; excellent coastal whites and pinots

2016 was a cool year, with quite a lot of cloud. There was significant rain in most of the central areas, Maipo and Colchagua. The north, Limarí and Elqui, and the south, Maule and Itata, were much less affected.

There are really two vintages, one before and one after the rain. Before the rain the cool year saw flavour ripeness develop at low sugar levels with excellent coastal whites and pinots.

After the rain it was the late-ripening varieties cabernet and carmenère in Maipo and Colchagua that got hit. Concha y Toro and Undurraga harvested most of their Maipo cabernets before the rains and these are fresh and fine. There are good wines from Maule as only about 50mm wine fell at this time.

aipo wine region, Chile

Cabernets harvested in Maipo before the rains from our growers are fresh and fine

USA: quality looking good

Following on from a very swift but small 2015 harvest, the 2016 vintage seems to have enjoyed a slower, steadier pattern. With much needed winter and spring rains aiding vines health, and rebalancing the salt and potassium levels of many vineyards, yields are up on 2015, although still below the large 2012 and 2013 harvests. Quality looks good at this early stage with a reasonably easy dry harvest across California and Oregon.

England: late sunshine helped save the day

After a dismal spring and lack of sunshine most growers were concerned about the progress of their fruit. However sunshine in summer and September and early October helped ripen the fruit to the necessary level. A smallish volume but quality should turn out to be good for both still and sparkling.

February 2017

The buyers' Regional Reports will be updated in April, providing further updates and assessments on past vintages.

Read about our buyers' wine-buying trips in our Travels in Wine™ pages

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